Journalist John C. Freed, writing for the International Herald Tribune, examines the differences in Western European support for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama versus the reasons Americans support Senator Obama for president.
PARIS: While support for Barack Obama is broad and deep among Europeans, their reasons differ substantially from Americans who support him for president, according to a new poll for the International Herald Tribune.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive for the IHT and the news channel France 24, reflects the overwhelming support in Western Europe for Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, over John McCain, the Republican. And the main reason on both sides of the Atlantic is the same: Obama’s capacity for change from the policies of President George W. Bush.
But from there the two continents differ. Respondents in the five European countries surveyed are far more likely to cite Obama’s personality or his youth, while Americans are more likely to cite his approach to health care and the economy.
Among Americans, the single most divisive issue is McCain’s choice of running mate: Sarah Palin, the first-term governor of Alaska, which has fewer than 700,000 residents, making it among the least-populous states. Independent political analysts saw McCain’s primary reason for his vice presidential choice as motivating the Republican base of socially conservative voters.
He seems to have had some success: Among McCain supporters in the United States, the No. 1 reason given to vote for him is his experience, at 61 percent, but 40 percent cite his choice of Palin as well, making it the No. 3 reason.
Still, the choice seems to have energized the Obama camp as well. Among his American supporters, 55 percent cite the Palin choice in saying why they would not like to see McCain elected, making it the No. 1 reason.
A typical comment from an Obama supporter was offered by Anita Ford of Lebanon, Missouri, who agreed to answer follow-up questions by e-mail. “I think the choice of Sarah Palin was the single most stupid thing John McCain did and it made me lose all respect for him,” Ford said. “I had considered voting for him until he chose her as his running mate.”
The most important issues to Europeans and Americans are the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though Americans are far more focused on the economy.
Five Americans in six cite the U.S. economy as one of the three main priorities the next president should address. That number drops to two in six in Western Europe, but many Europeans also cite “the health of the worldwide economy” as an issue, which few Americans list as a concern. Respondents in Italy and Spain are particularly concerned about the global economy.
Addressing the wars is uniformly cited as a top issue by about half of respondents in the United States and the five European countries surveyed: France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Spain.
On the economy, one McCain supporter, JoAnn Feligno of Wake Forest, North Carolina, said the new president would have an effect “only if the people and the Congress will allow and support that.”
“I personally believe the American people will have the biggest effect on the economy,” she said, “especially the entrepreneurs – the people who are not waiting for the government to act, but who have ideas and are willing to move forward with them.”
The only other issue cited by more than one-third of Americans is improving the social situation of the United States. That issue is less important to most Europeans, though the French and the Germans also give it a high priority.
In dealing with all three issues – and indeed, with nearly every issue cited – Obama is seen as the better candidate, both by Americans and Europeans, though Americans uniformly give McCain better marks than Europeans do.
The exceptions are few. In the view of Americans, the two are essentially tied on their approach to the wars and to Russia, and McCain is ahead in dealing with terrorism and global security. Italians rate the two roughly even on terrorism, the sole exception to the pro-Obama norm in Europe.
Obama’s lead in opinion surveys, however, will not necessarily translate into victory, partly because of the complexity of the U.S. electoral system, in which each state votes separately, and partly because surveys in the United States have tended to overestimate a nonwhite candidate’s popularity.
The racial divide is clear between supporters of Obama, son of a white American and a black Kenyan, and those of McCain, who is white. When asked what effect the election of a nonwhite candidate would have on the United States, 71 percent of Obama supporters foresee a positive one, as opposed to 2 percent negative. By contrast, 27 percent of McCain supporters see a negative outcome, as opposed to 13 percent positive.
The view from Europe, as might be expected, is similar to that of Obama supporters in the United States. In Germany, for instance, 71 percent of all those polled expect a positive effect on the United States, with just 3 percent negative.
The numbers change substantially, however, when the question is brought home. When asked to predict the effect of a nonwhite as leader of Germany, just 35 percent of Germans have a positive outlook, while 16 percent have a negative one. In part, this could be because of a lack of nonwhite politicians of national stature. The results are similar across Europe, with the smallest shift being seen in France.
The poll was conducted online from Oct. 1 to 13 by Harris Interactive, in partnership with France 24 and the International Herald Tribune, among 6,276 adults, ages 16 to 64, in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and the United States and adults, ages 18 to 64, in Italy. The data for age, gender, education, region and Internet propensity were weighted when necessary to bring them into line with the current proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was applied to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online.
Harris Interactive relied on the Harris Poll Online panel as the primary sample source for the survey.
The panel consists of potential respondents who have been recruited through online, telephone, mail and in-person approaches. Because the sample is not random but is based on those who agreed to participate, no statistical estimate of sampling error can be calculated.