Summary of Findings
The videos of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s controversial sermons and Barack Obama’s subsequent speech on race and politics have attracted more public attention than any events thus far in the 2008 presidential campaign. A majority of the public (51%) said they heard “a lot” about the videos, and an even larger percentage (54%) said they heard a lot about Obama’s speech, according to the weekly News Interest Index.
Most voters aware of the sermons say they were personally offended by Wright’s comments, and a sizable minority (35%) says that their opinion of Obama has grown less favorable because of Wright’s statements.
However, the Wright controversy does not appear to have undermined support for Obama’s candidacy. The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 19-22 among 1,503 adults, finds that Obama maintains a 49% to 39% advantage over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, which is virtually unchanged from the 49% to 40% lead he held among Democrats in late February. Obama and Clinton continue to enjoy slight advantages over John McCain in general election matchups among all registered voters.
The new polling suggests that the Wright affair has not hurt Obama’s standing, in part because his response to the controversy has been viewed positively by voters who favor him over Clinton. Obama’s handling of the Wright controversy also won a favorable response from a substantial proportion of Clinton supporters and even from a third of Republican voters.
More than eight-in-ten supporters of Obama (84%) who have heard about the controversy over Wright’s sermons say he has done an excellent or good job of dealing with the situation. Reactions from Clinton supporters, and Republicans, are on balance negative; however, 43% of Clinton voters and a third of Republican voters who have heard about the affair express positive opinions about Obama’s handling of the situation.
The survey finds that, in general, Obama has a highly favorable image among Democratic voters, including white Democrats. But while Obama’s personal image is more favorable than Clinton’s, certain social beliefs and attitudes among older, white, working-class Democratic voters are associated with his lower levels of support among this group.
In particular, white Democrats who hold unfavorable views of Obama are much more likely than those who have favorable opinions of him to say that equal rights for minorities have been pushed too far; they also are more likely to disapprove of interracial dating, and are more concerned about the threat that immigrants may pose to American values. In addition, nearly a quarter of white Democrats (23%) who hold a negative view of Obama believe he is a Muslim.
Less educated and older white Democrats, who have not backed Obama in most primary elections, hold these values more commonly than do other Democrats.
These patterns suggest the potential for future reverberations from the Wright controversy if Obama wins the Democratic nomination. More conservative beliefs about equal rights and race are not only related to negative opinions of Obama among Democrats, suggesting the potential for defections among Democratic voters, but also are associated with negative views of him in the electorate at large.
An analysis of the survey finds that holding conservative positions on political and social values is associated with a greater likelihood of supporting McCain over Obama among Republicans, Democrats and independents, and all demographic groups. In contrast, however, this pattern is much less apparent in the Clinton-McCain matchup, excepting views about women in leadership roles.
One of the few negative trends for Obama following the Wright affair is that a larger number of conservative Republicans hold a very unfavorable opinion of him in the new poll than did so in February. The survey also finds that Obama no longer enjoys the favorable image rating advantage over McCain among independents that was apparent in previous polls.
White Democrats and the Candidates
Large majorities of white Democratic voters view Obama as honest, inspiring, patriotic, and down-to-earth. Obama’s personal image surpasses Clinton’s on almost every personal attribute tested in the survey, except patriotism.
In addition, roughly twice as many white Democrats say the word “phony” describes Clinton than say it describes Obama (30% vs. 16%). And the gap is even larger in perceptions of likability; 43% of white Democratic voters say the phrase “hard-to-like” describes Clinton, while just 13% say it describes Obama.
Gender makes a significant difference in personal perceptions of Hillary Clinton. Democratic women voters are much more likely than their male counterparts to view Clinton as honest and down-to-earth, and they more often report that Clinton makes them feel proud and hopeful. However, Democratic women voters are about as likely as Democratic men to say the descriptors hard-to-like and phony apply to Clinton.
Views of Obama More Tied to Voters’ Emotions
White voters’ views of Barack Obama are more influenced by how he makes them feel than by specific characteristics voters attribute to him. Saying that Obama makes them feel hopeful and proud are the strongest predictors of the ratings white Democrats give him. And of the personal traits tested, “inspiring” is more closely linked with views of the Illinois senator than any of the others.
On the other hand, views of Hillary Clinton among white Democratic voters are more influenced by perceptions that she is phony than by any other trait or emotion tested. But saying that Clinton makes them feel proud and hopeful also are significant predictors of how these voters rate her. Interestingly, while sizable minorities of white Democratic voters say Clinton is hard-to-like (43%), this opinion does not have a significant impact on her favorability ratings.
McCain Out of the Spotlight
Opinions about John McCain are mostly unchanged in the current survey. In part, this may be explained by his low level of public visibility. In the current weekly News Interest Index survey, just 3% mentioned McCain, unprompted, as the candidate they had heard most about in the news. That compares with 70% who named Obama and 15% who named Clinton as the candidate they had heard most about.
More positive for McCain, however, is that a growing proportion of Republican voters say that the GOP will solidly unite behind the Arizona senator; 64% express that view currently, up from 58% in late February. Along with this expression of increased partisan unity, the survey finds that by a considerable margin (52%-37%), independent voters say that if McCain is elected, he will take the country in a different direction rather than continuing Bush’s policies.
This comes at an opportune time for the GOP candidate. Bush’s job approval rating has slipped to 28%, the lowest of his presidency. In addition, just 22% express satisfaction with the way things are going in the country. This, too, is about as negative an evaluation of the course of the nation as measured in nearly 20 years of Pew surveys.
It’s the Inflation, Stupid
Americans have grown steadily more negative about the national economy over the past three months. Just 11% of the public rates the economy as excellent or good, down from 17% in early February, and 26% in January. Judgments about the national economy are now as negative as they were during the recession of the early 1990s. In August 1993, 10% of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good in a Gallup survey.
However, deepening concern about the national economy has so far not translated into more dour assessments of personal finances. As has been the case for some time, Americans are roughly divided between those who rate their personal finances as only fair or poor (51%) and those who say they are excellent or good (47%). In December 1993, just 39% rated their personal finances positively, while 60% viewed them negatively.
Rising prices are clearly the public’s top personal concern. Nearly half (49%) say that rising prices are the economic issue that most worries them. In contrast, just 19% name the job situation, 14% cite problems in the financial markets, and 12% cite declining real estate values. Inflation is the primary concern for people at all income levels, although worries about financial markets and declining real estate values register more strongly with Americans with household incomes of $100,000 or more. In contrast, the job situation is a relatively major concern for people with the lowest household incomes.
Other important findings include:
- The Wright controversy has not heightened the public’s impression that Obama’s race will undermine his chance in the general election if he is the nominee. Only 21% say Obama’s race will hurt his chances, compared with 25% who held that view in January.
- One-in-ten voters believe that Barack Obama is Muslim; 14% of Republicans, 10% of Democrats and 8% of independents think he is Muslim.
- Fewer Democratic voters now think that a long primary contest is a good thing for the party. Just 44% think it is a good thing for the party that the nominating contest has not been settled. A month ago 57% expressed that view.
- Most Democratic supporters of Clinton and Obama express favorable opinions of the other candidate. However, the campaign has taken a toll on positive views of both candidates among their rival’s supporters.
- Nearly six-in-ten Democratic voters (57%) believe that Obama is most likely to win the party’s nomination, while 28% expect Clinton to prevail. Last month, 70% said Obama was most likely to win, while 17% expected Clinton to win.
- Pre-recorded campaign calls, or “robo-calls,” have become the leading form of campaign communication in the 2008 primary season. Nationwide, 39% of voters say they have received a pre-recorded call about the campaign, up from 25% in November.