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Parsing the Polls: Likeability vs Electability

Regular Fix readers know that we're fascinated by the opinions voters hold about the 2008 presidential candidates. While head-to-head matchups and favorable/unfavorable ratings are important, the answer to questions like "Which candidate would you most like to have dinner with?" are often more telling.

So, we were more than a little interested when the good folks at Gallup forwarded a poll they had conducted that compared voters' impressions of the three Democratic frontrunners -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). The poll was conducted Jan. 25-28 and tested 504 Democrats and Democratic leaning voters. The poll has a five percent margin of error.

Let's Parse the Poll!

First, the format. Gallup posed a series of 15 statements and asked the sample to decide which best fit Obama, Clinton or Edwards. Trends are obvious. Clinton led on nine issues, Obama on six, Edwards on none.

The statements on which Clinton was the first choice of the sample can be generalized as dealing with competency. On the statement "is most qualified to be president," Clinton took 61 percent to 21 percent for Edwards and just 13 percent for Obama. Fifty seven percent of the sample said Clinton "would perform the best in debate," while 29 percent chose Obama and 10 percent chose Edwards. On the question of which candidate is the strongest leader, Clinton was the choice of nearly six in ten (59 percent), while 22 percent opted for Obama and 15 percent named Edwards.

The statements on which Obama shined measure personal qualities. Forty one percent said Obama "is the most likeable," as compared to 31 percent who chose Clinton and 24 percent who liked Edwards best. Voters also chose Obama as the candidate who would run the most positive campaign (39 percent for Obama, 36 percent for Clinton) and "has the highest ethical standards" (39 percent Obama, 28 percent Clinton) -- suggesting that he is well-positioned to run as a reform-minded outsider.

Of the four statements on which Edwards nudged out either Clinton or Obama for second place, two are rooted in a belief that he may be the most electable. On the question of which candidate has the best chance of winning the Democratic nod in 2008, Edwards took 22 percent -- well behind Clinton's 58 percent but ahead of Obama's 16 percent. Similarly, 27 percent chose Edwards as the Democrat best positioned to win the White House next year, 17 points behind Clinton but six points ahead of Obama.

So what does all of this data really mean? We're simplifying here, but it seems to suggest that the "head" of Democratic voters is with Clinton while the "heart" is on Obama's side. Voters like Obama better but believe Clinton is the stronger candidate due to her deeper -- and broader -- resume.

The head/heart rift is nothing new in American politics. Take the 2004 election when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean energized the grassroots of the party with his appeal to the "Democratic wing of the Democratic party," while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry touted his military credentials as a sign of his electability. In the end head won out over heart as Kerry carried Iowa and Dean imploded.

Will the echoes of 2004 make Democratic primary voters more inclined to vote with their hearts this time around? Maybe. But, it's important to remember that the so-called "heart" vote is not lining up behind a single candidate. The February monthly poll on Daily Kos -- an unscientific survey but nevertheless a useful gauge of energy in the "netroots" -- shows Edwards in the lead with 26 percent (4,642 votes) and Obama trailing narrowly at 25 percent (4,503 votes). (It's worth noting that Clinton takes just four percent in the poll -- the same percentage of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich.)

For the moment, Clinton is the unquestioned "head" candidate and would attract the lion's share of voters who see electability as the most important issue in choosing a nominee. Obama and Edwards are splitting the "heart" vote -- a trend that, if it continues, accrues to the benefit of Clinton.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 8, 2007; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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