John McCain is unhappy about the media's supposed love-fest with Barack Obama as he tours the Middle East and Europe this week. But there is a reason all eyes seem to be focused on the presumptive Democratic nominee: Voters are still assessing whether the one-term senator has the necessary credentials to become president.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey [PDF] illustrates that while voters say they know what they would get from a President McCain, they're still trying to figure out what an Obama administration would do at home and on the world stage.
The Illinois senator still drums up more enthusiasm from his supporters than McCain does from his, but he also faces some high hurdles in winning over many voters. Just 47 percent of voters surveyed said they could identify with Obama's background and values, while 43 percent said they could not. McCain registered much higher on this measure, with nearly 6 in 10 voters saying they related to his values. And 8 percent continue to misidentify Obama as Muslim, down from the 13 percent who said so in March.
Fifty-five percent of a half-sample called Obama the riskier choice for president and, in a separate question, a 46 percent plurality of the other half-sample called McCain the safer choice. One-third of all voters surveyed worried that Obama is too inexperienced to lead the country, while 1 in 5 said he "would not be strong and forceful enough in dealing with America's enemies." McCain, on the other hand, seems to have passed the commander-in-chief test, as 53 percent of a half-sample voiced confidence that he has the right kind of experience to handle the presidency.
When it comes to foreign policy, voters had a mixed view of which candidate's approach they support. Half of voters maintained that, when it comes to revamping America's image abroad, the country needs a president who will project strength, while 39 percent disagreed, contending that next commander in chief needs to present an image of openness and willingness to negotiate with both hostile and friendly nations. A 46 percent plurality placed more trust in McCain to deal effectively with the war in Afghanistan. However, 6 in 10 voters now back the establishment of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a position Obama has consistently supported and McCain vehemently opposed.
While there is evidence that the media is devoting more attention to the Obama campaign, the NBC/WSJ survey suggests they're giving viewers what they want. When respondents were asked what they were thinking about when deciding who to vote for, a 51 percent majority reported they were focusing more on what kind of president Obama would make, compared with just 27 percent who said the same of McCain. Obama still leads against McCain in national polling, but voters don't seem sold just yet.
The Silver Lining In The GOP's Cloud
In an attempt to dodge the political fallout of record voter dissatisfaction, lawmakers have been quick to place blame on their colleagues across the aisle. So, the question for voters becomes: Which party really will do a better job handling these issues? NBC/Wall Street Journal pollsters found some trends that may offer fuel to the dwindling GOP fire: On two of the hottest topics right now -- Iraq and energy policy -- the Republicans are gaining ground on the Democrats.
For the first time since September 2006, more respondents said the GOP would be better at handling the Iraq war than the Democratic Party. Republicans are enjoying a narrow 2-percentage-point lead in this area, 39 percent to 37 percent. (The numbers on issue competence are taken from a half-sample, unlike in previous iterations of the poll.) Last January, 20 percent of respondents said both parties could handle Iraq about the same, yet that number has plummeted 10 points since then as the GOP column rose 11 points.
Despite the good news for Republicans on the foreign policy front, Democrats still garner the most support on virtually all domestic issues. The party is leading the GOP on the economy (where Democrats have a 16-point advantage), health care (31 points) and home ownership (19 points). When it comes to "promoting strong moral values," though, more respondents chose the Republican Party -- hardly surprising, given that the GOP has owned the issue in this survey since June 2001.
Democrats also lead on energy policy, but here their advantage looks more precarious. A 42 percent plurality said Democrats can better handle energy issues, compared with 22 percent for the Republicans. In polls conducted in January 2008 and July 2007, 2 in 10 respondents had said both parties would handle energy policy about the same. Now, however, that number has dropped to 15 percent, and most of that change has benefited Republicans: Respondents who support the GOP jumped to 22 percent, from 16 percent in January.
Evidence of polarization among Americans is also apparent in respondents' overall view of both parties. Trend data shows the percentage of people who said their views on both parties are neutral is decreasing, while the percentage of those having either positive or negative perceptions is increasing across both sides of the aisle. The GOP will need to hammer on those issues on which they have an edge in order to avoid trouble this fall: Almost half of respondents from a half-sample said they would rather see a Democratic-controlled Congress next term, with only 36 percent hoping for the Republicans.