WASHINGTON — The stark contrast between the shapes of the Democratic and Republican presidential contests persists, but in the latest surveys, the polling front-runners appear to be expanding their leads.
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A just-completed Cook Political Report/RT Strategies survey, conducted August 2-5 with a margin of error of +/-5.1 percent, shows Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has widened her lead over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to 20 points, 43 percent to 23 percent. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards places third with 10 percent, and Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., comes next with 5 percent. The gap between the leading candidate and the third-place contender is 33 points, and the gap between the first-place and fourth-place candidates is 38 points.
In late June, Clinton's lead was 11 points.
For Republicans, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani moved up 6 points, from 22 percent to 28 percent, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., dropped 4 points, from 21 percent to 17 percent. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson picked up a point to move from 14 percent to 15 percent, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dropped 4 points, from 12 percent to 8 percent.
Previous Cook Political Report/RT Strategies pollinghad shown that Giuliani might be the primary beneficiary if McCain's numbers started dropping; this survey, among others, suggests that has been the case. All other GOP candidates are at 2 percent or less in the most recent survey. The gap between No. 1 and No. 3 is much flatter on the GOP side (13 points) than it is on the Democratic side (33 points), and the gaps between first and fourth places are 20 points and 38 points, respectively. The GOP race is being waged on much flatter terrain, while Democrats have a much more hierarchical contest.
Our "super-sized" compilation of the last five Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national polls taken since the last week of April includes 4,277 interviews among registered voters. In this aggregate, Clinton's lead over Obama among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents is 12 points, 36 percent to 24 percent, with Edwards at 14 percent. In Democratic sub-samples, conducted April 27-29, May 11-13, June 15-17, June 21-23 and August 2-5 by Thom Riehle of RT Strategies for the Cook Political Report (with a margin of error of +/-2.3 percent), Clinton's lead is 6 points among men, 32 percent to 26 percent, with Edwards at 16 percent. But among women, her advantage balloons out to 17 points, 40 percent to 23 percent, while Edwards has 13 percent. Thus Clinton would be in the lead even among men, but it's women that give her the big advantage.
Among those aged 18-34, Clinton has a tiny edge of a point over Obama, 34 percent to 33 percent. Clinton's advantage increases to 11 points among those aged 35-49, to 20 points among those aged 50-64, then back down to 15 points among those 65 years of age or older. Support for Edwards varies very little among age groups, between 12 percent and 15 percent. One of Obama's biggest obstacles so far has been his inability to do well among voters 35 years of age and older.
Obama also does much better among the better-educated voters, but has difficulty getting traction with those who have less than a college degree. The Illinois native has a 1-point lead among college graduates, 29 percent to 28 percent, but Clinton pulls well ahead to a 16-point lead among those with some college, 39 percent to 23 percent, then to a 26-point lead among those with no college education at all, 44 percent to 18 percent. Edwards fluctuates between 11 percent and 16 percent.
On the Republican side, the super-sized sample of 1,549 Republicans and GOP-leaners (margin of error +/-2.5 percent) gives Giuliani a 5-point lead over McCain, 25 percent to 20 percent, with Thompson in third at 13 percent and Romney at 9 percent. Giuliani has a lead over McCain of 3 points among men and 7 points among women. But it is Thompson with the biggest gender gap, showing support of 17 percent among men but just 8 percent among women. Romney shows a negligible difference, with the support of 10 percent among men and 9 percent among women.
Not surprising, Giuliani runs best in the Northeast, with the support of 34 percent, versus 22 percent in the Midwest, 22 percent in the South and 25 percent in the West. McCain shows minimal regional differences; he stands at 19 percent in the Northeast, 20 percent in the Midwest, 22 percent in the South and 19 percent in the West. Another non-surprise: Thompson runs best in the South with 17 percent, worst in the Northeast with 9 percent and in the middle in the Midwest and West, with 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Romney does best in the West with 15 percent, worst in the South with just 5 percent, and splits the difference with 10 percent and 11 percent in the Midwest and Northeast, respectively.
Obviously, national surveys will continue to become less relevant as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries become more relevant, but they do reflect a broad reaction to the candidates. They probably serve as a useful barometer of collective views for the February 5 Super Tuesday primaries, as over half the interviews in national polls are conducted in the 20-odd states that will host primaries on that day. Indeed, the broad diversity of states holding primaries on February 5 reflects what the country looks like pretty well.
The key for Clinton is the preservation of her big lead among women. For Obama, it is significant diversification of his support beyond younger and college-educated voters. McCain's decline has afforded Giuliani an opportunity to stabilize and revitalize support after what had amounted to a three-month dive. Giuliani's fall had threatened to drop him into second place behind Thompson, who has seen his surging support level off of late. Giuliani still has huge obstacles ahead of him, not the least of which are his positions on cultural issues and his personal life. But he now has a chance to right his ship in a way that didn't seem possible when his numbers began to tank.
Though the fight for the Democratic nomination is hardly over, a good bit of the uncertainty has shifted towards the GOP contest, which is looking more problematic than ever to predict.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.