In following a presidential race, the most important way to understand what is happening is to follow voter responses to open ended questions. Those are questions which ask "What do you like the most about Barack Obama?" and "What do you like the least about Barack Obama." These questions, which let voters tell pollsters what they think in their own words offer the best way to figure out what is really going on.
Fortunately, the Fox News tracking polling for the election has now included these questions and the results offer an excellent insight into the current state of the race.
Oddly for a race that has been going on for two years and holds the nation rapt in attention, the contest is still in a very, very primitive phase. Voters' level of awareness of the issues or of the candidates is quite limited. Neither campaign has done much to project its issues or its message and the attacks on one another, which increasingly dominate the dialogue, show little resonance among most voters.
Overwhelmingly, the thing voters like the most about Obama is that he is new, a fresh face, for change, intelligent, inspiring, a good speaker, outspoken, and charismatic. 57% of all voters use one of these phrases to describe him, including 48% of Republicans and 55% of Independents. But only 13% of all voters cite any specific position of Obama's including his signature opposition to the war in Iraq. Only 2% mentioned the war in citing what they liked about Obama and only 1% cited the economy and jobs. So Obama is still a personality running for office and the voters have yet to identify him with any policy or proposal. And the one identification he used to have -- opposition to the war -- has faded. But Obama has vast potential appeal. Even though the Fox News poll gave him only a three point lead over McCain, four voters in five cite something they like about Obama in open ended questions (including 66% of Republicans and 78% of Independents).
Opposition to Obama is also centered on fears of his youth, inexperience, and lack of qualifications. 31% of all voters, 33% of Independents, and 29% of Democrats cited this concern in open ended questions. But just as Obama's positive ratings do not include much in the way of specific mentions of his issue positions, so his negatives don't either. Only 19% of all voters said they disliked his liberalism, connection with Rev Wright, radicalism, religious views, elitism or even said they disagreed with him about anything. Another 8% disliked his flip flops on issues. =2 0But the potential for Obama to fall apart is also enormous. 78% of all voters, including two-thirds of all Democrats and four-fifths of all independents cited something about Obama that they did not like.