WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton is stronger than Barack Obama when pitted against John McCain, according to new polls of three major states that tend to swing between Democrats and Republicans in November elections.
A Quinnipiac University survey released Wednesday found that, thanks largely to white voters, Clinton leads presumptive Republican nominee McCain in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, while Obama trails the Arizona senator in Florida and leads him by narrower margins in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"At least for now, Senator Clinton's argument that she is the better general-election candidate in these key battleground states appears to have some validity," said Peter Brown, Quinnipiac poll assistant director. "In this survey," he said, "her strength among white voters is why she runs better against Senator McCain than does Senator Obama."
Clinton leads Obama among white Pennsylvanians by 59-34 percent, while Obama holds a 73-11 percent margin over her among blacks. Overall, Clinton held a 50-41 percent lead over Obama in Pennsylvania, which holds a primary on April 22.
In the three general-election swing states — Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — 23 percent of white Democrats say they'd defect to Republican McCain if Obama were their party's nominee, while only 11 percent would do so if Clinton were.
Clinton's margin over Obama in Pennsylvania appears to be eroding, however. She had a 12-point lead over Obama in Quinnipiac's mid-March poll, and it's now down to nine points. Her 15-point early March margin has shrunk to five points in the Rasmussen Reports surveys, the latest issued Tuesday.
One new Pennsylvania survey by Public Policy Polling, issued Wednesday, even put Obama ahead by 45-43 percent, a lead within the survey's error margin of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
That survey differs from all other recent Pennsylvania polls because it's based on a different methodology — it weights voter responses based on comparable demographic-group turnout in other 2008 primaries rather than in 2004 contests, according to Dean Debnam, the president of the Raleigh, N.C.-based firm. This year many states have seen larger than usual numbers of African-Americans and younger voters turn out, and they've tilted to Obama.
Most polls, though, find Clinton's still the clear Pennsylvania favorite. An average of four surveys issued in the past week, including PPP's, gives her a six-point lead over Obama, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
In the Quinnipiac survey, she led Obama by 17 points among women and by an identical margin among voters over 45. That survey of 1,549 likely Democratic voters had an error margin of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.
"Her strength is her clear advantage among white voters: blue-collar whites, less-educated whites, economically hurting whites," said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
While Clinton remains comfortably ahead, the polls suggest that it's no longer out of the question that Obama could win Pennsylvania, said Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
"Two things have affected the race: his $2 million worth of advertising and the tour," Madonna said, referring to Obama's recent ad blitz, in which he outspent Clinton by an estimated 4 to 1, and his six-day bus tour of the state.
"That tour got huge coverage around the state. It was enormously successful," said Madonna, who also is the director of Pennsylvania's Keystone Poll.
In addition, Clinton was hurt by claiming that she'd dodged sniper fire in Bosnia 12 years ago, which she didn't, and popular Sen. Robert Casey Jr.'s endorsement of Obama.
"I still think he won't win," said Madonna, "but he can."
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Read the Quinnipiac poll.
Read the Rasmussen poll.
Read the Public Policy Polling survey.