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Parsing the Polls: Inside the Post/ABC Iowa Survey

If the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is all about Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has reason to smile this morning.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll -- released last night -- puts Obama at 30 percent in Iowa followed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) at 26 percent and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) at 22 percent.

While pollsters will -- rightly -- warn that Obama's "lead" is within the survey's margin of error, meaning that it is not statistically significant, the symbolic import of the Illinois Senator topping Clinton in Iowa is HUGE. The strongest argument in Clinton's favor is the aura of inevitability that surrounds her; if that is taken away she becomes far more vulnerable.

The top line numbers of the poll are undoubtedly good news for Obama. But what do the internals tell us about the race? The Fix asked Post polling director Jon Cohen for a look at the numbers behind the numbers and he obliged.

Let's parse the polls!

What immediately becomes clear from a look behind the numbers is that the race in Iowa is fundamentally a different one than in New Hampshire or nationally.

In nearly every national poll, Clinton hold strong leads among women, low-income voters, less educated voters and older voters. Not so in Iowa.

Among women in the Post poll, Obama actually leads Clinton 32 percent to 31 percent among women. Voters 45 years of age or older are similarly divided, choosing Clinton by a 27 percent to 26 percent margin over Obama. Ditto for those who earn $50,000 or less a year; 29 percent for Clinton, 29 percent for Obama.

It's not just in the horse race where this trend is apparent either.

Asked which of the candidates better understands the "problems of people like you", 33 percent of women choose Obama while 24 percent opt for Clinton -- a stunning number. On that same question Obama leads Clinton among those who earn less than $50,000 by 11 points, roughly equivalent to the 12 point lead he carries among those who earn more than $50,000.

The results were remarkably similar when the sample was asked which candidate they believed was more "honest and trustworthy." Thirty percent of women chose Obama while just 18 percent went for Clinton. Twenty eight percent of voters over 45 opted for Obama while 17 percent backed Clinton.

Those numbers suggest that the time and money Obama has dedicated in Iowa have altered the dynamics of the race in the state in a way he has been unable to do in other early states or nationally. Obama has found a way -- at least according to this poll -- to appeal to voters outside his most natural base, a key development especially if he is able to replicate it in other early states.

While the poll is undoubtedly good news for Obama, it also offers plenty of data points that suggest it would be a mistake to start writing Clinton's Iowa obituary just yet.

Obama has effectively cut into Clinton's natural support base overall and on some character questions but when it comes to experience and electability, the New York Senator remains formidable.

Asked which candidate possessed the "best experience to be president", Clinton lapped the field -- taking 38 percent as compared to 16 percent for Edwards and just 11 percent for Obama.

Ditto when the sample was asked which candidates "has the best chance of getting elected president in November 2008?" Clinton led with 39 percent followed by Obama at 25 percent and Edwards at 22 percent.

And, in a potentially telling and important question, Clinton received 34 percent of the vote when voters were asked which candidate had campaigned the hardest in Iowa. Obama took 26 percent and Edwards received 25 percent support. Iowa voters like politicians who lavish attention on them and at the moment Clinton is perceived to be working hardest for their votes.

In the final analysis, what the new Post/ABC poll tells us is we are headed for one heck of a final 44 days in Iowa. Obama has cut into several key segments of Clinton's base but she remains a powerful force in the caucus fight. Who wins may come down to how voters prioritize the attributes of the candidates. Do they want someone who they believe understands people like them? Or do they want someone who can win?

It all goes back to the head versus heart conundrum that we have talked about on The Fix for months. What this poll makes clear is that, as of today, Obama is the heart candidate and Clinton is the head candidate. Which organ their body will be more important to Iowa voters on Jan. 3 is anyone's guess.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 20, 2007; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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