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Primary Preview: Surveys in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina

Front-Running Dean has Strong Liberal Base Confident in his Electability

Summary of Findings

Voter opinion is still fluid in the early Democratic primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and especially South Carolina. As with the candidates themselves, there are significant disagreements among likely primary voters in these pivotal states on such key issues as how to deal with the postwar situation in Iraq, gay marriage and tax cuts. Most voters in New Hampshire, and especially Iowa, say the war in Iraq was a mistake. But at the same time, majorities in both states say U.S. troops should remain there until a stable government can be established.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the strongest candidate overall. He is the clear front-runner in New Hampshire, with a 34%-20% lead over Sen. John Kerry. Dean also is running ahead in Iowa, where he leads Rep. Dick Gephardt by a smaller margin (29%-21%). But Dean’s advantage in these states is not insurmountable. The horse race in Iowa between Dean and Gephardt is much closer when only strong support is factored, which is a relevant indicator in Iowa’s caucus format.

A survey of early primary states finds that the Feb. 3 primary in South Carolina is wide open. Compared with Iowa and New Hampshire, the electorate in South Carolina is more conservative. In addition, significantly fewer of those who say they plan to vote there have paid close attention to the race and they have heard far less from the candidates and their campaign organizations. The front-runner, Sen. John Edwards, polls only 16% followed by retired Gen. Wesley Clark (11%), Gephardt (10%), and Sen. Joe Lieberman (9%).

The Pew Research Center’s latest survey was conducted from Nov. 18 to Dec. 4 among 394 voters who intend to vote in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucus, 585 likely voters in New Hampshire’s Jan. 27 primary (open to Democrats and independents), and 566 likely voters in South Carolina (open to all voters). A separate national survey was conducted among 469 Democrats (including independents who lean Democratic) who said they were likely to vote in a primary or caucus in their state.

The surveys in Iowa and New Hampshire show that Dean supporters there do not harbor doubts about former governor’s ability to defeat Bush. Rather, it is emerging as a strong suit. Roughly a third of likely voters in Iowa and New Hampshire say Dean has the best chance of beating Bush next November, far more than say that about any other Democrat. In addition, Dean tends to run stronger among those who place a greater priority on defeating Bush than on nominating a candidate who agrees with them on the issues.

Dean’s vocal opposition to the war in Iraq clearly has helped him build his lead in Iowa and New Hampshire. In both states, Dean draws a disproportionate share of the vote from war opponents and from voters who feel Democratic leaders backed the war because they were afraid to oppose the president. In Iowa, Dean leads Gephardt by roughly than two-to-one (37%-18%) among those who criticize Democratic leaders for not standing up to Bush. In New Hampshire, Dean holds a 42%-17% lead over Kerry among voters who express this view.

Dean’s advantage is bolstered by his strong appeal to the well-educated liberal wing of the party in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nearly half of Dean’s Iowa supporters are college graduates and far more describe themselves as liberals (38%) than conservatives (17%). By contrast, only about three-in-ten Gephardt backers in Iowa are college graduates, and more are conservative than liberal (32% vs. 20%). In New Hampshire, there is a similar demographic divide, with Dean drawing stronger support from more educated, liberal, and secular voters. By contrast, there is no sharply defined constituency backing John Kerry in the state.

The survey shows that on several issues voters in the early primary states generally concur with likely Democratic voters nationally ­ notably, in their support for abortion rights, more generous government assistance to the poor, and support for gun control. Concerns about free trade agreements are also shared across all electorates. Not surprisingly, there also is broad opposition to Bush among Democratic primary voters in these states, as well as nationwide. But a comparatively high percentage of voters in South Carolina (37%) approve of the president’s job performance, reflecting that state’s open primary format and its conservative character.

There are deep differences among likely primary voters on key issues. Iowans who intend to vote in the caucuses are much more opposed to the war in Iraq than are probable voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, with 68% saying it was the wrong decision. At the same time, there is less support among likely primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. Majorities of voters in both states (56% and 57%, respectively) believe U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until a stable government is established there, while voters in South Carolina and national Democratic voters are split over the continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

Recent Pew Center surveys have shown that gay marriage is a divisive issue among Democrats, and there also are major differences across the early primary states. Likely voters in the South Carolina primary oppose gay marriage by more than three-to-one (72%-21%). In New Hampshire, by contrast, a slim majority of probable primary voters favor gay marriage (52%), much more than the percentage of national Democratic voters who support gay marriage (40%).

The survey also finds:

  • Likely voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have been blanketed with appeals by the various campaigns. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Iowa voters, and 55% in New Hampshire say they have been called by one of the campaigns.
  • Sen. Kerry, who trails Dean by a significant margin in New Hampshire, is a solid third-place candidate in Iowa at 18%. But Kerry draws support from just 6% of Democratic voters nationally. Sen. Lieberman, by comparison, continues to show strength nationally (12%), but fails to break double digits in any of the early primaries.
  • Health care is the issue New Hampshire voters most want to hear discussed by the candidates (35%), outpacing the economy and unemployment (25%) or the war in Iraq and terrorism (24%). Health care also rivals the economy and Iraq among likely Iowa caucus participants.
  • In general, voters in the early primary states say it is more important to select a candidate who agrees with them on the issues than one who has the best chance of defeating Bush in November. But national Democratic voters are more divided ­ 49% say issues are more important while 44% believe it is more important to find a candidate who can defeat Bush.

Candidate Standing in Iowa

Howard Dean holds a slight 29% to 21% edge over Richard Gephardt among probable Iowa caucus voters and John Kerry garners the support of another 18%. John Edwards is currently running a distant fourth, receiving the support of 5% of likely caucus participants.

One effect of the caucus process is to concentrate candidate support, as supporters of candidates receiving relatively little support have the opportunity to shift their support to their second choice candidate as the caucus progresses. Based on the current survey, there is little evidence that this reallocation will fundamentally change the dynamics of the race. Dean, Gephardt and Kerry each receive about equal support as a second choice among people who prefer one of the other six candidates.

Dean’s lead is slightly greater when the analysis is limited to Iowans why say they will “definitely” attend the caucuses on Jan. 19. Dean is the first choice of 31% of these most active voters, compared with 19% for Gephardt and 18% for Kerry. But the intensity of support for all three candidates is almost exactly the same.

Just under half who list Dean, Gephardt and Kerry as their first choice say they support each candidate strongly.

Gephardt leads Dean among union voters in Iowa, though he has not sewn up the labor vote. A quarter of union members rank Gephardt as their first choice, while 28% favor Kerry. One-in-five union members say Dean is their preference.

Beyond union membership, there are a number of stark differences in the constituencies of the leading candidates. About half of Dean (47%) and Kerry (52%) supporters are college graduates, compared with 30% of Gephardt supporters. Dean and Kerry supporters also tend to be somewhat younger than voters who prefer Gephardt. Dean supporters are much more satisfied with their finances: 69% rate their personal financial situation as good or excellent, compared with 58% of Kerry supporters and 51% of Gephardt voters.

Dean’s base of support is also clearly the most liberal of the three frontrunners. By a 38% to 17% margin, Dean supporters in Iowa identify themselves as liberal, not conservative. John Kerry’s supporters are also more liberal than conservative (30% vs. 16%) but Gephardt supporters are more conservative (20% liberal, 32% conservative). This carries over into divisions over some policy issues. Dean supporters are much more favorable toward the idea of gay marriage, and are more opposed to the idea of preemptive use of force, than are Iowa voters who name Gephardt as their first choice.

Dean’s backers are more likely than Gephardt’s to say the Iraq war was the wrong decision, and that things are going poorly in Iraq. And Dean supporters are considerably more likely to say Democrats in Washington backed the war because they were afraid to stand up to the president. Most Gephardt supporters say democratic leaders backed the president because they thought it was the right thing to do.

Candidate Standing in New Hampshire

Dean holds a strong 34%-20% lead over Kerry among likely voters in New Hampshire, with Clark and Lieberman each garnering 8%. Dean also has a significant advantage in terms of intensity of support in the Granite State. Half (51%) of primary voters who rank Dean as their first choice consider themselves strong supporters, compared with just 37% of Kerry supporters who say the same. Clark and Lieberman have even softer support in New Hampshire, garnering strong support from only 31% and 18%, respectively, of their supporters. And if turnout becomes a factor, 63% of Dean backers say that they “always vote;” just 49% of Kerry backers say the same.

There is little evidence that Kerry has become the “stop Dean” candidate. A third of Kerry supporters rank Dean as their second choice, while roughly the same percentage of Dean supporters rank Kerry as their second choice. Nor is there evidence that Kerry stands to benefit as the second choice of many other voters. Current supporters of both Clark and Lieberman lean toward Dean over Kerry as their second choice.

More than six-in-ten New Hampshire voters (62%) say it is more important to pick a candidate who comes closest to their views on the issue, while just 32% believe it is more important to choose a candidate who has the best chance to defeat Bush. Yet while issues appear to trump electability, many New Hampshire voters seem comfortable with Dean’s prospects in a showdown with Bush. A third say that Dean is the candidate with the best chance of defeating Bush in November, significantly more than say that about Kerry (18%) or any other candidate in the field.

As in other parts of the country, Dean is drawing the strongest support from more educated and more liberal primary voters. Dean backers in New Hampshire identify themselves as liberal, not conservative, by two-to-one (43% to 21%). By comparison, Kerry backers (21% liberal, 22% conservative), as well as undecided voters (26%, 26%), are evenly split in this regard.

New Hampshire’s Democratic primary electorate is far more secular than the electorates in Iowa and South Carolina, and Dean’s appeal to this group is strong. Fully 40% of Dean backers in New Hampshire say they seldom or never attend church, compared with 28% of Kerry supporters. Kerry’s strength is among Catholics, who make up roughly 40% of likely voters in the state. New Hampshire Catholics are split in their support for the two leading candidates (31% favor Dean, 29% Kerry). Dean leads Kerry among Protestants by two-to-one (36% to 17%). New Hampshire voters who say they have no religious beliefs favor Dean over Kerry by four-to-one (44% to 11%)

Unlike in Iowa, where a wide range of issues divide supporters of the leading candidates, New Hampshire supporters of Dean and Kerry exhibit few issue differences. Views on gay marriage, taxes, trade, and other major issues are largely the same among both Dean and Kerry backers. But opposition to the war in Iraq continues to be a rallying point for Dean supporters, who are much more likely than Kerry backers to say the war was the wrong decision (59% of Dean supporters vs. 47% of Kerry supporters).

Candidate Standing in South Carolina

The race in South Carolina’s Democratic primary is still very fluid. A third of likely voters express no candidate preference at this point, double the rate among undecided voters in Iowa or New Hampshire (17% each). And relatively few express strong support for any candidate (21%), compared with 33% in New Hampshire and 40% in Iowa.

Unlike the other early primary and caucus states, where there are currently two or three clear front-runners, support is spread across many candidates in South Carolina. Edwards is the first choice of 16% of likely voters in South Carolina, while Clark and Gephardt are favored by 11% and 10%, respectively; Lieberman, Al Sharpton and Dean are close behind.

The potential electorate in South Carolina is significantly more conservative than those in Iowa or New Hampshire, reflecting both regional differences among Democrats, as well as open primary rules that allow Republicans to participate in the election. It is unclear how many Republicans will turn out, but currently a third of registered Republicans say they intend to vote. Overall, GOP voters make up slightly less than 20% of the potential electorate.

Interestingly, these crossover voters have roughly the same candidate preferences as Democratic and independent voters in South Carolina. While excluding likely Republican voters from the analysis alters the estimate of the overall ideological makeup of the South Carolina electorate, it does not change projections of the horse race as it currently stands.

In addition to being somewhat more conservative on a range of policy issues, South Carolina has a significant African-American population that is not present in Iowa or New Hampshire. Sharpton is favored by 15% of likely black voters, slightly more than the number who favor Edwards (13%) or Gephardt (11%). Just 2% of white voters favor Sharpton. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun is favored by 4% of black voters.

While the presence of Sharpton and Moseley Braun on the ballot draws a significant amount of black support away from other candidates, there is little to suggest that this fundamentally changes the race. Asked for their second preferences, black voters in South Carolina divide their support in a manner strikingly similar to the way whites divide, with Edwards a slight favorite.

South Carolina Voters More Conservative

Nationally, 30% of likely Democratic participants in the nominating process describe themselves as liberal or very liberal. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire differs in liberalism, though Iowans are less conservative and more moderate than Democrats nationally.

Voters in South Carolina lean further to the right than the average Democrat nationally. Even if South Carolina Republicans who say they are going to vote are removed, the Palmetto State’s voters are somewhat more conservative than are Democrats nationwide.

Divided by Issues, United Against Bush

There is no consensus among voters in the early primary states on a number of key issues, including the war in Iraq, gay marriage, free trade and taxes. But for the most part, these voters are united in their opposition to the president.

Majorities of likely participants in the Democratic nominating process disapprove of President Bush’s performance in office, and ­ with the exception of South Carolina ­ majorities strongly disapprove (even in South Carolina, 45% say this). Iowans who plan on participating in the caucuses stand out for their negative views of the president. Nearly eight-in-ten disapprove of his job performance, with 64% strongly disapproving.

No Dominant Issue

There is no consensus among Democrats likely to participate in their party’s nominating process as to the single issue they would most like to hear the candidates talk about. However, voters nationally and in the three early states are generally concerned about the same mix of problems and issues.

South Carolinians are especially concerned about the economy ­ and specifically jobs and unemployment. Overall, 39% of likely South Carolina voters mention the economy as the top issue, while 18% specifically volunteer jobs and unemployment. Jobs are far less of an issue among primary voters in New Hampshire (5%) and Iowa (7%).

Likely voters in New Hampshire and Iowa are more concerned about health care than are those in South Carolina. More than a third of New Hampshire voters (35%) and 28% of likely caucus participants in Iowa cite health care as the issue they most want the candidates to discuss, compared with 19% in South Carolina.

Similarly, there is no consensus nor a clear pattern to the issues deemed important by supporters of particular candidates. In Iowa for example, 33% of Dean supporters cite war or terrorism as the most important issue, but so do 29% of Gephardt and 28% of Kerry supporters. In New Hampshire, 29% of Dean supporters cite war and terrorism, as do 22% of Kerry’s likely voters.

Many Differences Over Iraq

Likely voters in Iowa stand out for their strong opposition to President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq. Nearly seven-in-ten (68%) feel that was the wrong decision compared with roughly a quarter (26%) who believe it was the right decision. Opinion among Democratic voters nationally is nearly as lopsided; by almost two-to-one (60%-32%) they believe the war was the wrong decision.

Voters in the other early primary states ­ New Hampshire and South Carolina ­ are more divided over the decision to go to war. Roughly four-in-ten likely voters in both of those states say the decision to attack Iraq was the right one (40% New Hampshire, 43% South Carolina).

Likely voters in Iowa also have a more negative view of the current situation in Iraq than do those in other states. Roughly two-thirds of likely Iowa caucus participants (65%) believe things are not going well in Iraq, compared with 57% in New Hampshire and 52% in South Carolina.

Yet in spite of the strong opposition to the war among likely participants in the Iowa caucuses, there is scant support for a quick withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. Nearly six-in-ten likely Democratic caucus participants (56%) say the United States should maintain forces in Iraq until a stable government is established there. The same percentage of likely voters in the New Hampshire primary (57%) believes the U.S. should stay the course in Iraq.

Democratic voters nationally are evenly divided over a quick pullout from Iraq ­ 48% say the troops should be brought home as soon as possible, 47% believe the U.S. should stay until a stable government is formed. There is a similar division of opinion among likely voters in South Carolina (48%-48%).

Among the general public, there is more consistent support for the decision to go to war and to maintain U.S. forces in Iraq. In a mid-October survey by the Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans backed the decision to go to war and 58% said U.S. forces should stay in Iraq until a stable government is established there. (See “The 2004 Political Landscape: Evenly Divided and Increasingly Polarized,” Nov. 5, 2003).

There is more agreement among Democrats nationally and those in early primary states over the reasons why Democratic leaders voted for the war in Iraq. While about half of Democratic voters nationally (47%) say the leaders felt that support for the war was the right thing to do, 36% said they voted this way because they were afraid to stand up to the president. More voters in New Hampshire than elsewhere (57%) think Democratic leaders believed their votes were the right decision.

Preemptive War ­ Iowans Opposed

Overall, half of Democratic voters nationally believe that the use of force can be justified against countries that may threaten the U.S. but have not yet attacked. Among voters in the early Democratic primaries, Iowans are most opposed to this policy: 56% say it is rarely or never justified. South Carolina voters are generally supportive of this policy, with 58% saying it as at least sometimes justified.

As is the case with the war in Iraq, there is considerably more support among the general public for preemptive attacks on enemies than there is among early primary state voters, with the exception of those in South Carolina. Americans support that policy by roughly two-to-one (63%-32%).

More Financial Gloom in South Carolina

Large majorities of voters in all three early primary states ­ and three-quarters of Democratic voters nationally ­ say jobs in their area are difficult to find. Yet there are clear differences in how these voters assess their personal finances.

Majorities of likely voters in Iowa (58%) and New Hampshire (55%) rate their personal finances as good or excellent. But only about four-in-ten likely voters in South Carolina (39%) say the same about their financial status. Probable primary voters in South Carolina and New Hampshire are somewhat more optimistic than those in Iowa in their assessments of future economic developments over the next year.

Primary Voters Negative Toward Trade Deals

Democratic voters nationally and those in the early primary states are broadly skeptical of free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO. Only in Iowa does a clear majority (53%) say such agreements have been a “bad thing” for the country, but pluralities elsewhere views trade pacts negatively.

There is more uncertainty over the personal impact of trade agreements. About four-in-ten voters in Iowa (46%) and New Hampshire (39%) say trade agreements have hurt them and their families. But more than a third of the voters in both states (34% and 37%, respectively) either say that these agreements have not hurt nor helped them, or they are not sure of their effect. South Carolina voters are less ambiguous about the personal impact of free trade agreements: 53% say they and their family have been hurt by trade agreements, including 23% who say they have definitely been hurt.

Trade Not a Big Factor in Iowa

Despite Rep. Gephardt’s highly visible opposition to NAFTA and other trade agreements, his supporters in Iowa do not stand out as especially critical of such agreements. A majority of Gephardt supporters (54%) believe these trade deals hurt the country, but about th e same number of Dean supporters express that view (58%).

Tax Cuts: How Much to Repeal?

The vast majority of likely participants in the Democratic nominating contests favor rolling back some or all of the tax cuts passed under President Bush over the past few years, but voters are divided nationally and in the early primary states over the extent of the rollbacks. Only 11% nationally think all of the tax cuts should remain in place, and no more than 18% in any of the states (South Carolina) favor this approach.

Half of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire ­ and a 42% plurality of national Democratic voters ­ favor the repeal of only the tax cuts for wealthy Americans, leaving other reductions in place. South Carolina voters are more divided, with 38% backing a total repeal of tax cuts and 34% favoring rolling back only the cuts for the wealthy. That is due in part to strong black support for a total repeal, as well as conservative support for keeping all tax reductions in place.

Despite Dean’s call for a repeal of all of Bush’s tax cuts, more of his supporters in New Hampshire favor the narrower option of repealing tax cuts for the wealthy, while his supporters in Iowa are divided on the question.

There is considerably more unity among Democratic likely voters on the subject of government assistance to the poor. Big majorities nationally and in all three of the early primary states favor providing “more generous” help for the poor. There are no significant differences among the primary states or between those states and national Democratic voters.

Social Issues: Gay Marriage and Abortion

While the likely Democratic electorates of the early states are not especially different from Democrats nationally on most domestic issues, New Hampshire is distinctively liberal on the issue of gay marriage and South Carolina is considerably more conservative.

Nationally, only 40% of likely Democratic primary participants support gay marriage, while just over half (52%) oppose it. Opinion on this issue is comparable in Iowa, but a majority of likely voters in New Hampshire ­ 52% ­ support the idea of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, with 18% strongly favoring this. By contrast, a large majority of likely voters in South Carolina are opposed to gay marriage, with nearly half (47%) strongly holding this view, and another quarter (25%) less strongly opposed.

The issue of abortion is less divisive within the Democratic electorate, with majorities nationally and in the three states opposed to making it more difficult for women to obtain an abortion. But New Hampshire voters also hold the most liberal views on this issue, with 43% strongly opposed to further restrictions. In South Carolina, where voters have a higher level of religious commitment, there is somewhat more support for tougher abortion restrictions; even there, however, just three-in-ten support making it more difficult for women to get abortions.

The poll finds a consensus among Democratic voters about gun control. A solid majority of national Democratic voters (65%) and comparable majorities in the early primary states think it is more important to control gun ownership than it is to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

Candidate Images: Terrorism

Most likely voters, both nationally and in early primary and caucus states, either see no real differences in the candidates’ ability to do a good job of protecting the nation from terrorism, or feel they don’t know enough to make an evaluation. Clark is seen as strong on this issue in all parts of the country, but especially in New Hampshire, where 24% say he would do a particularly good job. Kerry also stands out in the minds of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, where 18% and 16%, respectively, say he would do a good job. Dean receives a number of votes of confidence in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has electoral support, and Gephardt is ranked highly in Iowa.

Respondents were also asked if there were any candidates they thought would not do a good job of dealing with terrorism. Most (76%) said none stood out, but 12% said they thought Sharpton would not do a particularly good job of protecting the nation from terrorism.

Traditional Democratic Issues

As with terrorism, a considerable share of voters see no significant differences in the ability of any Democratic candidate to stand up for the party’s long-standing positions on such things as protecting the interests of minorities, helping the poor and needy, and representing working people.

Voters’ ratings on this issue for the most part track the horse race in each state, with Dean, Gephardt and Kerry widely perceived as capable in Iowa, and Dean and Kerry standing out in New Hampshire.

While Dean leads Gephardt by 29% to 21% in the current preferences of Iowa voters, Gephardt rates slightly better than Dean at standing up for the party’s traditional principles (28%-24%). When asked if any would not do a good job in this area, only a small minority cited any names, and no candidate stands out as lacking ability in this area.

Campaigns Matter in Iowa, NH

The likely participants in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primaries are far more engaged in the election than likely voters elsewhere in the country.

More than eight-in-ten voters in Iowa (82%) and 75% in New Hampshire are following news about the race very or fairly closely, compared with just over half of Democratic voters nationwide. Primary voters in South Carolina have yet to be drawn in to the campaign in the same way as these earlier states. Just 57% there say they are following the campaign very or fairly closely, not far from the national average among Democratic voters (52%).

The extensive campaign efforts by the candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire is obvious. Nearly three-quarters of likely caucus participants in Iowa have been called on the telephone by a campaign, and 34% have attended a campaign event. These rates are significantly lower in New Hampshire (55% have been called, and 18% have attended an event), but still very high, especially when the fact that Iowa caucus participants represent a much more active segment of the electorate than primary voters is taken into account. This difference is most visible in the different rates of campaign donations. One-in-five likely Iowa caucus attendees have contributed money to one or more of the Democratic presidential candidates, compared with fewer than fewer than one-in-ten primary voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationwide.

The Internet is also becoming an tool of the primary campaigns in these states. Significant minorities of voters in Iowa (27%) and New Hampshire (22%) have sent or received e-mails about the candidates or campaigns, and more than one-in-five in both states have visited candidate web sites.

Not only are Iowa and New Hampshire voters more interested and engaged in the election, they also are significantly more satisfied with the quality of the field. Three-quarters of Iowa voters say they have a favorable impression of the candidates running for the nomination as a group, while just 21% rate the field as fair or poor in quality. New Hampshire voters are also generally favorable in their assessments (60% excellent/good, 35% fair/poor). Among likely Democratic voters nationwide, as many rate the field favorably as unfavorably (46% to 46%).

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