Sen. Hillary Clinton's primary victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island have revived her near-dead campaign and brought her into a statistical dead heat with Sen. Barack Obama among registered Democrats and Democratic leaners, according to a new national NEWSWEEK Poll. The survey found that Clinton has erased the once-commanding lead that Obama held in most national polls following his 11 straight victories in February's primaries and caucuses. Obama is the favored nominee among 45 percent of Democrats, compared with 44 percent for Clinton, according to the poll, which was based on telephone interviews with 1,215 registered voters March 5-6.
The poll also found that Democratic voters are ready to rally around the candidate they trust most to improve the economy, amid fears of a recession. But neither candidate has been able to lock up that issue, or many others, and the vast majority (69 percent) of Democratic voters now support the idea of a "dream ticket"--leaving aside the crucial question of who runs on top.
What's striking is that the fundamentals remain largely the same. Obama gets overwhelming support from blacks (80 percent to 10 percent), those under 40 (60 percent to 35 percent) and voters who have graduated from college (50 percent to 41 percent); Hillary wins the majority of whites (53 percent to 35 percent), voters over 60 (51 percent to 33 percent) and those who have a high-school education or less (48 percent to 38 percent). Along gender lines, Obama wins male voters by a 10-point margin (50 percent to 40 percent), while Clinton retains her lead with female voters (46 percent to 40 percent).
Close to half (47 percent) of Democrats and Democratic leanders said that "the economy and jobs" would determine their ballot, but voters are split on which candidate they trust more on this topic (Obama, 43 percent; Clinton, 42 percent). Another quarter of voters cited health care, and 16 percent said the Iraq War. While the ability to bring about change still matters most to Democrats (30 percent of respondents), experience is gaining ground, with 21 percent citing it as the quality they covet most in a candidate. That's up from 15 percent in the last NEWSWEEK Poll in February.
As the candidate running hardest on the platform of experience, Clinton was seen by a wide margin (61 percent to 22 percent) as the candidate possessing that quality. Obama, meanwhile, retained his ironclad aura as an agent of change: he holds an 8-point margin (47 percent to 39 percent) over Clinton as the candidate that Democratic voters believe is most able to "bring about the changes this country needs." On the issue of preparedness for office, more Democratic voters believe Clinton's plan for mending the nation is better than Obama's (45 percent to 37 percent). But by a 41-point margin the same voters laud Obama as the candidate who can inspire the country. Worse for Clinton, 58 percent of Democrats seemed to value aura over argument when they said that the ability to inspire people is more important than having a winning plan of action. And the Illinois senator is seen by most Democrats as the candidate who can bring people together (53 percent to 32 percent for Clinton).
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who clinched the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, may have already benefited from the Democratic infighting. Many Democrats in the NEWSWEEK Poll said that they would back McCain if their favorite candidate were not the nominee. Perhaps as a result, each candidate remains in a statistical tie with the former POW in a mock November matchup. In a test election, there Obama beat McCain 46 percent to 45 percent, and Clinton triumphed 48 percent to 46 percent.
McCain faces obstacles on several fronts. He would be the oldest person to start a first term as president, and three in 10 survey respondents think he is too old for the job. McCain is also in danger of overplaying the endorsement he received this week from President George W. Bush. Campaigning side by side with the unpopular president could hurt McCain's chances; the president's approval rating hovers around 30 percent. Even among Republicans, almost a third (32 percent) of survey respondents said they disapprove of the job Bush is doing. Finally, McCain's support of the Iraq War may backfire. Although a slightly greater number of voters believe that things in Iraq are getting better (29 percent) rather than worse (25 percent) that could swing quickly if U.S. casualties flare.
The rest of the poll results were mixed. They suggested that Clinton's ominous "3 a.m. phone call" ad benefited her campaign. Almost half (45 percent) of Democrats said they would trust Clinton to answer the red phone in the wee hours, while only a third felt that way about Obama. Similarly, on the issue of national security, almost half (47 percent) of the Democratic base said that they trust Clinton to protect the country; only a third feel the same about Obama.
But it's not clear how much these sentiments will matter at the ballot box: just 4 percent of Democrats overall, and 4 percent of Clinton's supporters, name terrorism as their top issue. When all voters were asked which of the three candidates they would most trust to take a 3 a.m. call, the largest number pointed to McCain (45 percent), followed by Clinton (27 percent) and Obama (18 percent). Almost a fifth of Clinton's supporters say that they would trust McCain more to take the call.
Looking ahead, 58 percent of Democratic voters, and 44 percent of Clinton backers, believe she will "go negative" if she wins her party's nomination. In contrast, only 24 percent of Obama supporters expect him to take the low road--which suggests that his backers could penalize him for playing dirty. The poll also shows that Clinton remains a divisive figure: a full 40 percent of registered voters hold an unfavorable opinion of her, compared with 35 percent for McCain and only 28 percent for Obama. On Clinton's contention that the media is harder on her, 42 percent of Democrats agree. Even among Obama supporters, a full third believe their candidate has had an easier time with journalists.
While Clinton has regained support among national Democrats, Obama maintains the lead among pledged delegates to the party's convention, with 1,366 versus Clinton's 1,227, according to the tally by NBC News. Both fall short of the 2,025 delegates required to secure the nomination. But the national sentiment in the lastest NEWSWEEK Poll could reflect shifting attitudes of voters in upcoming primaries, including the next big prize, Pennsylvania.
Should neither Clinton nor Obama secure enough delegates to win the nomination (a scenario that looks increasingly likely), 43 percent of Democrats said they would prefer that the candidate trailing in the delegate count concede the nomination, while 42 percent think superdelegates should choose the nominee. Should the ball end up in the superdelegates' court, most respondents (42 percent) think they should choose the best-qualified nominee in their judgment, while 38 percent believe they should choose the person with the popular vote lead.