John McCain and Mike Huckabee are neck and neck heading into Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina, where the outcome could hinge on a bloc of undecided evangelical voters, according to a new McClatchy-MSNBC poll. And a little more than week before South Carolina Democrats vote Jan. 26, Barack Obama led Hillary Clinton by 9 points, with John Edwards far behind in his native state. The poll, by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, was taken Monday through Wednesday and has an error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
As in earlier contests, significant numbers of voters are unsure, and the campaigns remain volatile. Almost 1 in 10 likely Republican voters said they were still undecided, as were 15 percent of likely Democratic voters. And one-third of those Republicans who did express support for candidates said they might change their minds in the final hours, as did 22 percent of Democrats. First, the Republicans: The survey showed a battle between McCain, an Arizona senator, and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, for the lead. It also revealed a close struggle for third between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. The biggest bloc of undecided voters are evangelical Christians.
The numbers: - McCain, 27 percent.
- Huckabee, 25 percent.
- Romney, 15 percent.
- Thompson, 13 percent.
- Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 6 percent.
- Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 5 percent.
- Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, 1 percent.
- Undecided, 8 percent.
McCain draws his strongest support from those older than 50, men, non-evangelicals, non-Republicans and those looking for a leader who can keep the country safe. He's campaigned as a war hero who knows how to lead the country during wartime, appealing to veterans in a pro-military state.
He had a 2-1 advantage over Huckabee among non-Republicans, a nearly 4-1 advantage among non-evangelicals and a 2-1 edge over Huckabee and Romney among voters who say the quality they seek most in a candidate is leadership. Huckabee draws his greatest support from voters looking for a candidate who shares their values, where he had a 2-1 edge over Thompson, a better advantage over Romney and a nearly 3-1 advantage over McCain.
Huckabee had an edge among evangelical voters, but not the lopsided margin he’s had in other states, winning 33 percent of them to McCain's 20 percent, Thompson's 15 percent and Romney's 13 percent. "It's a little more spread around here," said Brad Coker, the managing partner of Mason-Dixon. The poll suggests that evangelicals remain key swing voters heading into the primary. There were more undecided evangelicals, 11 percent, than non-evangelical voters, 4 percent, for a ratio of 3-1. More people in South Carolina call themselves evangelical Christians than in most other states. That’s partly a matter of culture, Coker said, in a Southern state where more people are likely to say they’re born-again Christians. "You get more moderate conservative mainstream Protestants calling themselves evangelicals."
How those remaining evangelicals vote could well determine the outcome.
"It's a tossup," Coker said. "If Huckabee pulls this out, it will be because the rest of the evangelicals went for him. If McCain pulls this out, it will be because they went on other issues like national security."
Now, the Democrats:
- Obama, 40 percent.
- Clinton, 31 percent.
- Edwards, 13 percent.
- Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, 1 percent.
- Undecided, 15 percent.
The poll underscored a racial divide in the state, the first with a large African-American population to vote in this year’s Democratic campaign. It showed Obama, an Illinois senator, leading among African-Americans by a better than 2-1 ratio. Clinton, a New York senator, led among whites by 2-1. Democratic "voters are breaking along racial lines," Coker said. "Racial voting patterns are going to play a major role." Edwards, a white man, was a distant third in his native state.
The poll showed more than half the likely vote coming from African-Americans - 54-43 percent - and a bigger female turnout than male, 59-41 percent.
Two key events could influence Democratic voters before the primary: Democratic caucuses Saturday in Nevada, and a debate Monday in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Also, the candidates will flood into the state after Nevada and spend next week courting South Carolina voters.
They’ll find a state in which Obama has a lead among men, young voters and Democrats. He also has an edge over Clinton among women, 39-34 percent.
His biggest advantage is among those voters who say change is the most important quality they seek, where he leads Clinton by 65-7 percent.
Clinton had an edge among those older than 50. Among those looking for experience she had a whopping 81-7 percent advantage over Obama.
HOW WE POLL:
The McClatchy-MSNBC Poll is a snapshot of voter opinion at the time it was conducted. It isn't a prediction of how people will vote on Election Day.
The Mason-Dixon poll of 400 likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina was conducted by telephone Monday through Wednesday. Those interviewed were selected by a random variation of telephone numbers from a cross-section of telephone exchanges. That means that anyone in the state with a phone line had the same odds of being called as anyone else, except for people who use only cell phones. Cell phone numbers aren't in the exchanges.
The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points. That means that 95 percent of the time, the correct numbers could be as many as 5 percentage points above the poll's findings, or as many as 5 percentage points below them. The remaining 5 percent of the time, the correct numbers could vary even more.
The sampling margin of error doesn't include other variables that could affect results, including the way questions are worded or the order in which they're asked.
Full poll data for South Carolina Republicans: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/static/pdf/poll/0117scgop.pdf
Full poll data for South Carolina Democrats: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/static/pdf/poll/0117scdem.pdf