Gallup Goes Inside the Numbers

Frank Newport reports on a new Gallup poll which tries to get a glimpse into why potential voters prefer a particular candidate, especially so early in the process.

Gallup asked Republicans to choose between the two front-runners for their party’s nomination — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Arizona Sen. John McCain — and then asked respondents to explain the reasons for their choice. Gallup asked Democrats to choose between New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and to explain their choice.

They did this in an open-ended fashion, allowing people to explain their choices without any guidance, and then grouped “similar responses.”

Newport’s bottom line analysis:

  • Giuliani’s strength among Republicans is built on the base of his image coming out of New York and the 9/11 aftermath. He benefits at the moment from a positive comparison to his potential opponent, McCain.
  • McCain’s strength is built on the positive image he has developed among his Republican supporters, including in particular his military background and his general experience. McCain also gains support from those who like his positions on the issues.
  • Clinton’s strength is her knowledge, experience, and her positions on the issues. Her Democratic supporters seem to know her well, and applaud the specifics of her resume and stance on issues, including the fact that her husband was president for eight years. Some Clinton supporters explicitly cite Clinton’s gender as the reason behind their potential vote.
  • Obama at this juncture appears to benefit from Democratic supporters who choose him over Clinton precisely because he is not Clinton and does not have the baggage and negative image she has developed among these Obama-supporting respondents. Obama gains some support because he is a fresh face with new ideas, and because of his positions on the issues.

There’s a lot of detail at the link and I encourage you to read through it. Ultimately, though, this is another data point confirming what most of us probably already suspected: people’s “support” for given candidates at this stage of the game is incredibly vague.

Indeed, even among political junkies that I talk to, few can articulate why they currently favor a given candidate beyond some incredibly vague generalities. We have very impressionistic senses of the candidates and have an image of them as “tough on crime” or “weak on defense” or whatever based on one or two seminal moments. This is especially true for candidates like Obama, who are virtually unknowns on the national scene but have managed to create a “rock star” aura. It should be noted that we’ve yet to elect a rock star president.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. It’s interesting that both Rudy and Obama are getting at least some of their support for not being McCain/Hillary. But Rudy is leading by 14.4% and Obama is trailing by 12%. On the other hand, Hillary’s negative ratings are much higher than McCain.

    I think this makes both Rudy and Obama vulnerable to the white knight / dark horse candidate who may show up. When part of your support is that you aren’t the other guy, you are going to be vulnerable to yet another guy showing up.

  2. bains says:

    Just curious… would you consider my support of Romney because he successfully managed the 2002 Winter Olympics, then governed red in the blueist of states, vague?

  3. James Joyner says:

    would you consider my support of Romney because he successfully managed the 2002 Winter Olympics, then governed red in the blueist of states, vague?

    A little, but no more so than supporting Giuliani because he cleaned up New York and inspired the city and the country after 9/11 or McCain because he held firm to his principles under five years of torture at the hands of a brutal enemy.

    Few people ever get beyond that kind of generality even by election day.

  4. bains says:

    Fair enough on Giuliani, but not on McCain (and I was a fervent McCainiac during the 2000 election cycle). That he was subjected to abysmal treatment for 5 years as a POW does not, in and of itself, catapult McCain to contender status. While I will always admire him for his dedication to opposing pork spending (see Trent Lott’s naval plans circa 1999), his conduct in Congress these past 7 years negates any residual interest I may have had. That is not vague.

    But then, I am an internet junkie, and insofar as polls reflect, am not accounted for. So I’ll cede that at this point, by and large, support for any candidate is… vague.

  5. James Joyner says:

    his conduct in Congress these past 7 years negates any residual interest I may have had

    Sure. And Romney’s constant flip-flopping when the timing is convenient has killed any interest I might otherwise have had. I’m just citing the main “draws” of the top tier candidates. (Although, frankly, I’m not sure Romney really qualifies any more.)

  6. bains says:

    Although, frankly, I’m not sure Romney really qualifies any more.

    That may well be the case. Given the fact that I have supported the winning candidate in three of the past eight election cycles, it bothers me naught whether or not I end up on the “winning team.” Principles, not TV appearances, matter to me. If you want to condemn Romney with the ‘flip-flop’ moniker because he was responding to the electorate of Massachusetts, that’s your cross to tote – doesn’t bother me. However, trying to bring him down while ignoring the similar beams in others eyes strikes me as… well a bit prejudiced.

  7. bains says:

    To add, lest there be any questions, I would support McCain if he were the nominee – without question. He’s a decent man. As with all other candidates, he has made his mistakes, but up until the nomination process is concluded, I find others in the stable more coincident with my views.