Now more than ever, it's the old man against the agent of change.
Ask people to blurt out their first words about the two presidential candidates and one in five say “change” or “outsider” for Barack Obama and “old” for John McCain, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo News poll released on Monday. Those are not only the top responses for each man but the ones used most often since January, when fewer than one in 10 volunteered those descriptions.
Four months from Election Day, the survey underscores that people see quality and question marks in both contenders as they struggle to control their images. Lack of experience is the next most frequently offered view of Obama, 46, the Democrat who came to the Senate from Illinois less than four years ago; for McCain, 71, the Republican senator from Arizona and Vietnam prisoner of war, it's his military service.
“My husband and I are about the same age as McCain, and I don't think we'd be in a position to take this country in the direction it needs to go,” said Rosemary Bates, 65, of Barre, Vermont, an Obama supporter. “We've grown up in a different era. Something is not working and it needs to be changed.”
Obama is seen as warmer and more empathetic, McCain stronger and tougher. When people are asked whether specific words and phrases apply to each man, the Democrat does 12 percentage points better for caring about “people like you” and is 11 points more likable. McCain has a 24-point edge as a military leader and is 9 points more decisive.
The Republican's military service “gives him credibility when it comes to running a war, and to running this country when it's at war,” said Lydia Muri, 52, a McCain backer from San Diego. “If you haven't been in that situation, it takes away from your credibility.”
The image differences even extend to the issues people most trust them to handle. McCain is seen as more capable on hard-edged problems like Iraq, terrorism and guns, while Obama is preferred on domestic matters like the economy, the environment and education. The AP-Yahoo News poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, has surveyed about 2,000 people since November to gauge how individuals' views are changing during the presidential campaign. The repeated interviews show the candidates' images have evolved gradually since the fall, with both getting higher favorable and unfavorable marks as additional people form opinions.
Yet peer down to the person-by-person level and things are more tumultuous. Just four in 10 Obama supporters have the same opinion of him that they had in November, with slightly more of the remainder turning more negative. McCain's backers are divided about evenly among those with the same, better or worse views of him. "In November he was a member of a crowd," said Sam Kemp, 50, of San Francisco, who sees Obama more positively now. “There's more information about his views now.”
Racial differences are clear. While whites are evenly split over which candidate better understands the problems of ordinary people, they are a bit likelier to say McCain shares their values, and prefer him by 2-to-1 for keeping the country safe. Nine in 10 blacks say Obama would do just fine in each of those areas, with only small fractions saying so about McCain.
The survey suggests Obama faces a bigger problem than McCain from growing negative impressions.
Both are seen favorably by about half of those surveyed, and unfavorably by roughly four in 10. But Obama's image has deteriorated with two crucial groups: 52 per cent of whites view him negatively, up 12 points from November. And 48 per cent of independents have an unfavorable view of him, up from 31 per cent last fall.