Potential Candidate Weaknesses
Barack Obama’s relative inexperience in national politics is seen by more voters as having a negative effect on his candidacy than his race. Roughly four-in-ten voters (42%) say Obama will be hurt by the fact that he is new to national politics; just 22% believe he will be hurt by the fact that he is African American. As many voters say Obama will be helped by his race as say it will hurt him; 49% say it will not make a difference to voters.
An even greater proportion of voters (51%) say that McCain will be hurt by the fact that he is 71-years-old. Just 5% believe McCain’s age will help him while 42% say it will not make a difference.
African American voters are somewhat more likely than white voters to say that Obama’s race will hurt him (28% vs. 20%). But the demographic and political differences in opinions about the potential impact of Obama’s race are quite modest compared with views about Obama’s lack of experience in national politics.
Fully twice as many white voters as black voters say the fact that Obama is new to national politics will hurt him (46% vs. 23%). A majority of Republicans (56%) see Obama’s lack of experience as a hindrance compared with 38% of independents and 36% of Democrats.
There is greater agreement that McCain’s age will hurt him. Nearly identical percentages of Democrats (52%), Republicans (50%) and independents believe that McCain’s age will hurt him with voters in the fall.
A relatively small minority of voters (21%) say they feel McCain is too old to be president. The proportion saying McCain, who will turn 72 in August, is too old to be president has declined slightly since February (from 26%). About three-quarters of voters (76%) say he is not too old to lead the nation.
Notably, fewer voters ages 65 and older say that they believe McCain is too old to be president. Among these voters, the proportion saying McCain is too old has declined almost by half since February, from 30% to 18%. Views among younger people about whether McCain is too old to be president have been more stable.
Fewer Republican and independent voters also express concern about McCain’s age. Four months ago, 14% of GOP voters said McCain was too old for the presidency; the figure has been cut in half (7%). In late February, 27% of independents said the Arizona senator was too old for the White House; that has dropped to 19%. There has been virtually no change of opinion among Democratic voters; about a third (34%) considers McCain too old to be president, the same as in late February (33%).
Importance of Race to Vote Choice
Exit polls in several Democratic primaries found significant numbers of white voters saying that race was a consideration in their choice between Obama and Clinton, and these voters were less likely to pick Obama. As in the Democratic primaries, most voters (63%) say that the race of the candidates will not be a consideration in their own voting decisions. But about a third (34%) say the candidates’ race will either be the single most important factor in their vote (12%), or one of several important factors (22%).
Nearly half of African Americans (48%) say the race of the candidates will be an important consideration, with 20% saying it will be the single most important factor in their vote. Only about a third of whites (31%) say race will be an important consideration, with 11% saying it will be most important. Among African-Americans, there is little difference in likely vote choice between those who say race will be important and those who say it won’t be. Both groups overwhelmingly favor Obama
Unlike the primaries, white voters who say race will be important are somewhat more likely to say they will vote for Obama than those who say race won’t be important. But here party matters: white Republicans who say race will matter are more likely to vote for Obama than other Republicans. But among white Democrats – especially the older and less educated – those who say race will matter are less likely to support Obama.
On balance, support for Obama is greater among white voters who say that the candidates’ race will be an important factor in their vote than among whites who say it is not important. Obama leads McCain 48% to 42% among white voters who view the race of the candidate as an important factor; he trails McCain 51% to 36% among those who say race will not be a consideration. But this overall result masks a somewhat different pattern when Democratic and Republican voters are examined separately.
Among white Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, large majorities support McCain over Obama regardless of their views on the importance of race. White Republicans and leaners who say race will be an important factor favor McCain over Obama by a margin of 78% to 17%. Among those who say race will not be important, McCain’s advantage is slightly larger, 84% to 7%.
The pattern is reversed among white Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters. Those who say race will be an important factor in their vote are slightly more likely to say they will vote for McCain in the fall; among this group, 74% favor Obama and 17% will vote for McCain. Among Democrats and leaners who say race is not important, 79% will vote for Obama and just 11% will vote for McCain.
The likelihood among Democrats of defecting to McCain is greatest among older and less affluent white voters. Among those ages 50 and older, 24% who say race is important support McCain over Obama. Among those in this age group who say race is not important, just 12% support McCain. For younger white Democrats, the view that race is an important consideration to their vote is unrelated to the choice between candidates.
Similarly, among white Democrats and leaners with family incomes under $50,000 who say race is important, 22% plan to vote for McCain. Among voters in this group who say that race is not important, 12% say they will vote for McCain. Among those with higher incomes, there is little difference in vote preference by answers to the question about whether race will matter.
More Say Obama Shares Blacks’ Values
An increasing proportion of voters believe that Obama shares the values and interests of black people in the United States. Currently, 41% say he shares the interests and values of blacks “a lot,” while 37% say he shares blacks’ interests “some.” In September 2007, 29% said Obama shared African Americans’ interests and values a lot, and 35% said he shared those interests some.
The proportion of African Americans who see Obama as sharing the values and interests of blacks has grown substantially since last fall. Currently, nearly two-thirds (65%) of black voters believe that the presumptive Democratic nominee shares blacks’ values and interests a lot. This reflects an increase of 21 points since September 2007, when fewer than half (44%) of black voters expressed this view. More whites also now see the Democratic candidate as sharing these values, although the change has been more modest (37% now say “a lot” compared with 27% in September).
Among whites, older voters, as well as those who are less educated and those who live in rural areas are more likely than others to say that Obama shares the interests and values of blacks a lot. Notably, more than four-in-ten white voters (42%) over age 50 now see Obama sharing the values of blacks a great deal, up from 28% last September. Among white voters ages 18 to 49, the increase has been smaller (from 26% to 31%). White voters who say Obama shares black values “a lot” are no different in their presidential preferences than those who do not hold this view.
Attitudes about Race and the General Election
In general, the survey finds that white voters who hold racially conservative views are more likely to support McCain. Fully 62% of white voters who agree that “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country” support McCain; in contrast, just 24% of white voters who agree with this statement support Obama.
Similarly, white voters who disagree with the statement “I think it’s all right for blacks and whites to date” support McCain by greater than two-to-one (60% to 26%). McCain and Obama run about even among the much larger group of white voters who agree that interracial dating is acceptable (45% McCain vs. 43% Obama). White voters who see the growing variety of ethnic and racial groups in the United States as bad for the country also support McCain over Obama (by 57% to 28%); white voters who see this trend positively are evenly divided.
There are substantial partisan and ideological differences in attitudes on these issues. Yet there also are differences within the two parties. Obama draws much greater support among white Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters who disagree that equal rights have been pushed too far than among those who agree with this idea (84% vs. 59%). By contrast, McCain runs slightly better among white Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters who agree that equal rights have been pushed too far than among those who disagree (88% vs. 80%).
Multiple regression analyses that take into account demographics confirm these findings: white voters with conservative racial attitudes are considerably less likely to vote for Obama than are those with more liberal attitudes, and the impact of holding these conservative racial attitudes is greater among Democrats and independents than among Republicans. The influence of these attitudes on vote choice currently is somewhat greater than it was during the Democratic primary campaign.
Racial Attitudes: Party and Ideology
Attitudes about race and ethnic diversity differ significantly across the electorate. As has traditionally been the case, these key political values are associated with ideology and partisanship. On the whole, the Democratic electorate is more socially and politically liberal on these issues, while the Republican electorate is more conservative. However, there are ideological differences within the parties, particularly among Democrats.
Among white voters, nearly all (88%) liberal Democrats disagree with the statement that “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country.” On the other end of the spectrum, conservative Republicans are more evenly divided on the question (46% disagree, 49% agree).
Liberal Democrats stand apart from all other white groups on the two other values. Fully 85% completely agree that it’s “all right for whites and blacks to date each other,” and just 4% of this group finds interracial dating unacceptable. By contrast, smaller percentages of white Republicans — 52% of conservative Republicans and 49% of moderate/liberal Republicans — and white conservative and moderate Democrats (54%) completely agree with the statement.
Similarly, opinions on the increasing variety of ethnic and racial groups in the United States differ little among Republicans and conservative/moderate Democrats. Roughly two-thirds of each group believes that growing diversity is a good or very good thing. By contrast, nearly nine-in-ten (89%) white liberal Democrats take the view that growing ethnic and racial variety is good for the country.
While these attitudes are linked to partisanship and ideology, there also are clear generational and educational differences. Younger and more educated white voters hold significantly more racially liberal beliefs than do older whites and those with less education.
On interracial dating, equal rights, and racial and ethnic diversity, younger white voters consistently hold more liberal views than white voters over 50. The same is true of voters who have attended college; more than three-quarters (77%) of whom believe that increasing ethnic variety is good for the country. By contrast, 61% of those who have not attended college hold the same view.
Who Thinks Obama is Muslim?
Overall, 12% of voters say that Obama is Muslim, a proportion virtually unchanged from March (10%). A majority of voters (57%) say, correctly, that Obama is Christian, while a quarter respond that they do not know Obama’s religion.
Six-in-ten Democrats now identify Obama as Christian, up eight-points from March. The gain is most substantial among conservative and moderate Democrats, 55% of whom now say Obama is Christian, up from 42% in March. Yet they still lag behind the proportion of liberal Democrats (74%) who can correctly identify Obama’s religion.
Overall, roughly comparable proportions of Republicans (55%), Democrats (60%) and independents (59%) correctly identify Obama as Christian. At the same time, comparable proportions of Republican voters (12%), Democratic voters (12%) and independent voters (11%) misidentify Obama as Muslim.
Nearly one-in-five white evangelical Protestant voters (19%) believe that Obama is Muslim, which is greater than the proportion of white mainline Protestants (11%) and white Catholics (9%) who believe this.
White voters are more likely to think Obama is Muslim (12%) than are black voters (5%). And white, working-class voters are among the most likely to think Obama is Muslim and among the least likely to think he is Christian. Among white voters with no more than a high school education and a family income of $50,000 or less, 16% say Obama is Muslim, while just 37% say he is Christian.