Days after becoming his party’s presumptive nominee and receiving an endorsement from his chief rival, Hillary Clinton, Democrat Barack Obama has opened the general election campaign with a six-point edge over Republican John McCain, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Obama leads McCain among registered voters, 47 to 41 percent, which is outside the poll’s margin of error. In the previous NBC/Journal survey, released in late April, Obama was ahead by three points, 46-43 percent.
“The poll clearly shows a post-primary bump for Barack Obama,” says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.
But it also shows plenty of challenges for both Obama and McCain, which all add up right now to what may be a close contest this fall.
“We have a very competitive race for president,” Hart says, even though the overall political environment tilts strongly in the Democrats’ favor.
Obama’s strengths and weaknesses
In the head-to-head matchup, Obama leads McCain among African Americans (83-7 percent), Hispanics (62-28), women (52-33), Catholics (47-40), independents (41-36) and even blue-collar workers (47-42). Obama is also ahead among those who said they voted for Clinton in the Democratic primaries (61-19).
Yet among white men — who made up 36 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential election — Obama trails McCain by 20 points, 55-35 percent. “That is the reason why this election is close,” Hart notes.
In addition, McCain leads Obama among white suburban women (44-38), group which makes up about 10 percent of all voters that Hart calls “absolutely critical” for both candidates in the fall.
However, Obama has a seven-point advantage (46-39) among all white women. How important is that lead? Newhouse explains that Republican candidates always expect to win white men by a substantial margin, but it is white women that usually decide the race. “If a Republican wins among white women, we usually win that election,” he says, noting that George W. Bush carried that group in 2000 and 2004.
The 200-pound ball and chain
While Obama appears to be struggling with white men and white suburban women in the poll, McCain has what seem to be even bigger challenges. They include President Bush, whose approval rating stands at 28 percent, as well as an electorate that wants change from the president’s policies.
In the survey, 54 percent say that they’re looking for a new president who would bring greater changes to current policies, even if that person is less experienced and tested. By contrast, 42 percent say they’d rather have a more experienced and tested person become president, even if that means fewer changes to current policies.
Moreover, 59 percent say it's more important to have a president who will focus on progress and moving America forward, versus 37 percent who would rather the president protect what has made America great.
“The 200-pound ball and chain around McCain’s foot is George W. Bush,” Hart says. “Unless he figures out a way to cut it loose, he’s going to be dragging it throughout this election.”
Newhouse adds, “Voters are not convinced that McCain represents the change they want and that he’ll be all that different from Bush.” Indeed, according to the poll, 48 percent say it’s likely that Obama will be real change to the country. Just 21 percent say that of McCain.
Another obstacle for McCain is overall voter enthusiasm. Fifty-four percent of the respondents in the poll — no matter whom they are voting for — believe that Obama will win in November. Only 30 percent think McCain will win.
Adding Hillary to the ticket
While Obama has a six-point advantage over McCain, that lead expands when New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is added as Obama’s running mate, the poll shows. An Obama-Clinton ticket defeats a GOP one of McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by nine points, 51-42 percent.
Twenty-two percent say that adding Clinton as Obama’s vice presidential running mate makes them more likely to vote for Obama in November; 21 percent say it makes them less likely to vote for him; and 55 percent say it makes no difference.
Looking at the issues that will drive the presidential race, respondents in the poll cite job creation/economic growth and the Iraq war as the top priorities for the federal government to address.
The NBC/Journal survey was conducted of 1,000 registered voters from June 6-9; Hillary Clinton officially suspended her campaign and endorsed Obama on June 7. The poll has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.