As the end of the primary season draws near, Barack Obama is the clear favorite of Democratic voters for their party's presidential nomination. He currently holds a wide 54% to 41% lead over Hillary Clinton. But when the Illinois Democrat is tested against John McCain in a general election matchup, he now runs about even against the presumptive Republican nominee. Previously, Obama had led McCain by modest margins in three Pew surveys conducted since late February.
Obama's strong lead over Clinton reflects his more favorable image among voters. The balance of voter opinion about Obama has consistently been more positive than for Clinton. However, the tightening general election matchup between Obama and McCain shows some sullying of Obama's personal image over the past three months, despite his primary victories. Over this period, unfavorable views of McCain have risen as well.
Obama's favorable rating among voters has slipped eight points since late February, from 59% to 51% in the current survey. When those who express an unfavorable opinion are asked what they do not like about Obama, most (54%) cite his political beliefs. But nearly a third (32%) either mention the kind of person Obama is, or say their unfavorable views are influenced both by the kind of person he is and his political beliefs. White working class voters are among the most likely to mention the kind of person Obama is as a reason for their unfavorable opinion of him.
Obama's slipping image is in some measure a negative reaction from frustrated Clinton supporters. Currently, just 46% of those who support Clinton for the nomination say the party will unite behind Obama if he is the nominee. In March, 58% of Clinton supporters said the party would rally behind Obama if he is the nominee.
Recent declines in Obama's image have been pronounced among whites - especially white women. Currently, just 43% of white women express a positive opinion of Obama, down from 56% in late February.
Favorable opinions of Obama among independent voters, who have provided him strong support in several of his primary election victories, also have declined over the course of the campaign. Obama's favorable ratings among this pivotal group have fallen from 62% in late February to just 49% in the current poll.
McCain's personal image among voters also has become more negative since February. Currently, 48% express a favorable view of the Arizona senator while nearly as many (45%) have a negative opinion. In late February, the balance of opinion about McCain was more positive (50% favorable vs. 39% unfavorable). Unlike Obama, however, an overwhelming majority of those who express unfavorable views of McCain cite his political beliefs as the reason they do not like him, rather the kind of person he is. Fully 73% of those with a negative opinion of McCain cite his political beliefs while just 18% cite personal factors.
Most of McCain's image decline is reflective of increasingly partisan opinions of the Arizona Republican. At the beginning of the year, Democrats were evenly split in their opinions of McCain, but now they are overwhelmingly negative (72% unfavorable). Republican views of McCain have improved markedly since the beginning of primary season. Like Obama, McCain also is less popular among independents than he was earlier in the year, though much of the decline in favorable views of McCain occurred between January and February.
These trends mirror shifting patterns of support for the candidates in the general election matchup. Currently, Obama and McCain run even among independents (44% to 44%); in April, Obama enjoyed a 52% to 41% advantage among these pivotal voters. Similarly, Obama now trails McCain among white women (by 49% to 41%), who were more evenly divided in previous surveys.
Read the full report McCain's Negatives Mostly Political, Obama's More Personal on the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press Web site.