Video: Chuck Todd crunches the numbers

By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 7/23/2008 6:29:46 PM ET 2008-07-23T22:29:46

A majority of Americans think Barack Obama is a riskier choice for the presidency, but he maintains a six-point lead over Republican John McCain, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

With slightly more than 100 days until the election, the survey provides a glimpse of the challenges facing both presidential candidates.

For McCain, it comes amid a toxic political climate for Republicans. Just three in 10 respondents approve of President Bush’s job. Only one in seven McCain voters say they’re excited to vote for him. And the percentage of Americans who believe the country is on the right track is at its lowest mark ever in the poll.

For Obama, it’s that a majority think he’s a risky choice for the presidency; that less than half say the Illinois Democrat shares their background and values; and that there are concerns he’s too inexperienced.

“When it comes to mood, the Republicans face very long odds,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “And when it comes to perceptions of Barack Obama, I think the Democrats and Barack Obama have a job to do.”

After embarking on his highly publicized trip overseas, Obama enjoys a 47-41 percent advantage over McCain, which is unchanged from last month. The survey was conducted of 1,003 registered voters from Friday to Monday, July 18-21, during Obama's overseas trip. It has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

But Obama’s lead over McCain expands to 13 points when third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are added into the mix — with Obama at 48 percent, McCain at 35 percent, Nader at 5 percent and Barr at 2 percent. However, it’s important to note that the pro-Obama vote (48 percent) and anti-Obama vote (adding up to 42 percent) is consistent with the result from the two-way match up.

“This remains Barack Obama’s election to win,” Hart says. “In the end, the election is about reassuring voters and removing doubts.”

Explaining Obama’s overseas trip
That, in large part, explains why Obama is on his overseas tour taking him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Germany, France and England — and it hints at what he could gain from such a trip.

While Obama enjoys significant advantages over McCain when it comes to likeability, projecting hope and optimism, being compassionate, and improving America’s standing the world, McCain easily bests Obama on who would be a better commander-in-chief, as well as on being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency.

What’s more, 55 percent believe that Obama would be the riskier choice for the presidency; just 35 percent say that of McCain.

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Indeed, 51 percent of respondents say they are focusing more on what kind of president Obama would be, compared with just 27 percent who say they’re focusing more on McCain. “This election is more about Barack Obama than it is about John McCain,” says Newhouse, the GOP pollster.

But while the election might not be about McCain, he faces some clear disadvantages heading into this election — including what Newhouse calls the “enthusiasm gap.”

McCain’s disadvantages
According to the poll, 44 percent of Obama voters say they are excited about their candidate, but only 14 percent of McCain voters say that of the Arizona Republican. Forty-two percent say they're satisfied with him, and 43 percent say he’s the lesser of two evils.

In addition, the Republican Party’s brand is in tatters. President Bush’s approval rating is at 30 percent, up two points from last month’s poll. Also, for the 25th consecutive survey, more view the Republican Party negatively (48 percent) than positively (31 percent). By comparison, the Democratic Party has a 43-37 percent positive-negative rating.

Furthermore, just 13 percent in the poll believe that the country is headed in the right direction. That’s the lowest percentage on this question ever in the history of the NBC/Journal poll. In July 1992 — the year that challenger Bill Clinton beat incumbent President George H.W. Bush — 14 percent said the nation was on the right track.

Perhaps more ominous for McCain, by 55-40 percent, voters say they prefer a presidential candidate who will bring greater changes — even if he’s less experienced and tested — to an experienced candidate who would bring fewer changes to existing policies.

“McCain can’t make this election about experience. Re-running Hillary’s campaign isn’t going to be enough,” Newhouse says, referring to Sen. Hillary Clinton, whom Obama edged for his party’s nomination.

The economy is issue No. 1
Also in the poll, the issue of the economy remains the public’s top concern, and it’s an issue that voters want both McCain and Obama to address with their vice-presidential picks. Respondents overwhelmingly think that McCain needs to find a running mate who’s an expert on the economy.

For Obama, meanwhile, they want him to pick an expert in military or foreign affairs — but a close second is an expert on the economy.

The poll also shows that voters don’t have much confidence in either Obama or McCain to get the country’s economy back on track. Twenty-eight percent say they have confidence in Obama, while 17 percent say that of McCain.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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