The poll was conducted for NPR Aug. 12-14, by Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. It consisted of a national telephone survey of 1,124 likely voters. The survey has a margin of error of +/-3 percentage points.
Learn more about the courting of independent voters.
An NPR poll of likely voters in 19 battleground states finds about half consider Illinois Sen. Barack Obama too risky. Those polled rank Arizona Sen. John McCain slightly behind Obama in terms of independence.
The poll results reveal voter doubts about both candidates' presidential qualities that may explain why neither seems to be able to break through a kind of ceiling this summer. In the national head-to-head matchups, Obama can't seem to break 50 percent, and McCain is stuck somewhere in the low to mid-40s.
The poll, conducted Aug. 12-14 by a bipartisan team of pollsters, surveyed voters in 19 states where the polling shows the race is very close or where the candidates have decided to make major investments of time and money, says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
"It's a very different map than what we've looked at in the past. We're looking at states like Alaska and Georgia that are odd places for those of us who have been stuck in the Electoral College map of the polarized American politics," Greenberg says.
It's hard to imagine that some of these historically red states, such as Alaska, Georgia or North Dakota, will still be in play in November. But for now, Obama has managed to make them competitive, says Republican pollster Glen Bolger.
"I think it's pretty clear that Obama has his own set of strengths and his own set of weaknesses that make his candidacy not just historical but also fairly unique," Bolger says.
President Bush won 14 of these 19 states in 2004. The fact that four years later Obama is tied in this select landscape with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona is remarkable for Democrats. But Bolger points out that Obama compared poorly with McCain on a number of presidential attributes in the poll.
Fifty-one percent of the likely voters surveyed thought Obama was too risky, compared with 38 percent for McCain. The Arizona senator had an advantage of 10 percentage points when it came to being seen as a strong leader and having what it takes to be president. When asked which candidate says what people want to hear, rather than what he believes in, 50 percent said Obama; 34 percent said McCain.
"That's why this race is so close nationally, despite the political environment totally going [Obama's] way," Bolger says. "The fact that this is a very close race nationally underscores the perceptual challenges that Obama faces in terms of not being seen as a leader."
But the poll also exposed weaknesses for McCain. Asked which candidate is independent, more voters — 46 percent — said Obama; 42 percent said McCain. That's a blow to what Greenberg says was once McCain's stock in trade.
"His brand was also rooted in being independent," Greenberg says of McCain, adding, "What he had to do to win the nomination has lost him a great deal. On the other hand, Obama does have important advantages: on bringing the right kind of change, restoring our respect in the world. Those are also important presidential attributes."
Walter Eiss, a registered independent from Minnesota, says he originally was leaning toward McCain, but not anymore.
"Toward the beginning of this thing, I was thinking if a Republican was going to win, I wish it was him," Eiss says. "He was probably the best candidate of all the choices that I had. But after I've seen all this other stuff — and his campaigning right now is bothersome, too — I've lost almost all my respect for him."
The ad wars are clearly taking a toll on both Obama and McCain. When asked which candidate has been too negative in his campaign, 51 percent of voters said McCain; 27 percent said Obama. But when asked about flip-flopping, the numbers are virtually reversed: Forty-nine percent said Obama flip-flopped, compared with 27 percent who said McCain.
Mike Lookliss from Algonac, Mich., is a registered Democrat but says he's thinking about voting for McCain.
"When Obama talks, he doesn't really say what he stands for," Lookliss says. When asked whether McCain says what he really thinks, Lookliss replies, "Yes."
Lookliss, who works at a rubber factory, thinks Bush has done a bad job, and he wants to end the war in Iraq. But when it comes to war policy, he says McCain has a better approach than Obama — a sentiment also reflected in the poll, where voters gave McCain the edge by 10 percentage points.