With only one full day remaining before voters in more than 20 states head to the polls on Super Tuesday, the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations could not be more different, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds.
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are running neck-and-neck among Democratic primary voters, while John McCain appears to have solidified his status as the Republican Party's front-runner, opening up a wide margin over his nearest rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The economy is likely to weigh heavily on the minds of Super Tuesday voters as they head to the polls - more than half of Americans now think the economy is in a recession and they believe overwhelmingly that the worst is yet to come.
The poll found that Clinton and Obama both have the support of 41 percent of Democratic primary voters - a drastic change from early January, when Clinton led Obama by 15 percentage points. While Clinton's overall support has remained steady, Obama has made significant gains among men, particularly white men, and African Americans. White male voters are split nearly evenly between the two Democrats, and Obama holds an 12 percentage point advantage among men overall.
Obama has also seen his support among women rise by 11 percentage points, and he now trails Clinton by only 7 percentage points among that group. He trails Clinton narrowly among Democrats but leads her among independent voters by 13 percentage points.
Clinton's edge on the question of electability has also evaporated as voters have seen Obama win by comfortable margins in Iowa and South Carolina while placing a close second to Clinton in New Hampshire and Nevada. The survey found that 46 percent of Democratic primary voters think Clinton would make the best general election candidate, while 41 percent said that of Obama - as recently as December, only 14 percent believed the Illinois senator made a better general election candidate.
Clinton holds a similar advantage on the question of which Democrat is most likely to win the nomination. Forty-five percent of those surveyed, including nearly one-in-four Obama backers, believes she will eventually prevail in her bid to be the first female presidential nominee of a major party.
The picture in the states voting on Super Tuesday is not nearly as close as the overall picture and offers some good news for Clinton. Among voters in those states, she leads Obama, 49 percent to 31 percent, with 16 percent still undecided.
Clinton also holds a big edge on the issue of most concern to Democratic voters: the economy. Nearly 60 percent say she would do a better job of managing the economy than Obama. However, more than two-thirds of Democratic voters see the policy differences between the two candidates as minor.
There is still some fluidity in the Democratic race, with 14 percent saying they're still undecided between the two candidates. Also, over a third of those favoring Clinton and 42 percent of those leaning toward Obama say their minds could change before they cast their ballot.
The poll was conducted after John Edwards' exit from the race, but neither candidate appears to have gained an edge in the wake of his departure. Many of the undecided voters surveyed said they once backed the former North Carolina senator.
While the national race for the Democratic nomination appears to be a toss-up, John McCain seems on his way to effectively wrapping up the GOP nomination on Feb. 5, if not soon thereafter. He now has the support of 46 percent of Republican primary voters, compared to only 23 percent who support Romney and 12 percent who back former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
McCain's consolidation of nearly half the Republican vote is all the more dramatic considering that his campaign spent much of 2007 on life support after disappointing fund-raising and staff defections. As recently as December, only 7 percent of Republican voters were supporting his campaign. Since then, however, McCain has posted an impressive string of victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
Even those normally viewed as most skeptical of the Arizona senator's record now appear to be coalescing around his candidacy - he now leads among conservatives, as well as with moderates.
Perhaps most surprising is that McCain is also seen as the best Republican candidate to tackle the issue of illegal immigration, according to 38 percent of respondents. During the summer of 2007, McCain's poll numbers took a dive that was mostly attributed to his support for a comprehensive immigration bill that included a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally - a provision derided by critics as an amnesty program for lawbreakers.
McCain also leads his opponents on other key Republican issues, including the economy and lowering taxes. More than 60 percent of Republican voters believe he is most fit to serve as commander in chief and that he is the most electable candidate in the GOP field.
The only good news for McCain's opponents is that the Republican race is still fluid. More than half of those who have not yet voted in a primary or caucus say they haven't made up their minds. Still, the window for other candidates to reach these voters is closing rapidly. Since January, the number of voters who say they could change their mind has fallen 21 percentage points.
Regardless of who wins either party's nomination, it appears likely they will have to make the economy a central part of their pitch to voters. It has replaced the war in Iraq as the top concern of Americans - 53 percent believe the economy is in a recession and 38 percent said it was their most pressing issue, compared to 21 percent who said the same about the war.
Voters' opinion about the economy is plummeting rapidly, the survey found. More than 70 percent believe the economy is in bad shape - the highest percentage recorded in 15 years. Only 28 percent believe the economy is in at least somewhat good shape, representing a drop of 10 percent in only two weeks.
Confidence in the economy is also very low. Only 6 percent believe conditions are improving, while 67 percent expect them to get worse.
The troubles in the economy - highlighted by recent reports showing little growth in the gross domestic product and the first net job losses in four years - are hitting home for many Americans, 46 percent of whom said they are making just enough to pay their bills.
Not surprisingly, Americans' worries about the economy have done nothing to help President Bush's already low approval rating. In the latest survey, only 27 percent of Americans approved of his job performance, matching his all-time low.
This poll was conducted among a random sample of 1232 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone January 30-Feb 2, 2008. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The poll included 491 Democratic primary voters; the margin of error could be plus or minus 5 points. Error for Republican Primary voters could be plus or minus six points. The error for subgroups is higher.
Posted by LS