Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain enjoys a 16-point lead — 51 percent to 35 percent — among Southern voters over rival Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, a new poll by Winthrop University and ETV shows.
And, the further into the South you go, the larger McCain's lead grows, the poll of likely voters in 11 Southern states shows.
Likely voters in the Deep South — those in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina — preferred McCain by a 25-point margin, 56 percent to 31 percent.
Southern voters said what they want most in a president is honesty, experience and shared values. Southern voters rated McCain ahead of Obama in each of those categories.
McCain's strongest support comes from white working-class Southerners — who favor him by a 34-point margin — and white evangelicals — who favor the Arizonan by 54 percentage points.
The poll, which was conducted Aug. 1-17, has a margin of error of (plus or minus) 2.97 percentage points.
While political pundits have made much of Obama and Democrats trying to win over a Southern state or two from the Republicans in November, the Winthrop/ETV poll shows that will prove difficult.
"It’s about keeping John McCain from sweeping the South. That's the key," said Scott Huffmon, associate professor of political science at Winthrop and director of the Winthrop/ETV Poll.
Rather than attempting to contest the presidential race across the South, a wiser strategy for Obama would be to concentrate on the closely contested Southern states, Huffmon said. "You cannot fight a regional battle anymore."
Individual state-by-state polls have shown Obama within striking distance of McCain in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
On the issues, McCain trumped Obama nearly across the board in the poll.
The economy easily was the most important issue to Southern voters in the upcoming presidential election. McCain bested Obama on which candidate would handle energy and gas prices better, and who would do the better job on taxes.
McCain also far out-distanced Obama on who would do a better job of handling the Iraq war and terrorism.
None of that surprised Jeanette Smith of Chapin, who described McCain as honest and decisive, strong on national security and unlikely to be manipulated by a foreign government.
"The economy and national security are neck-and-neck for me," said Smith, a 54-year-old bookkeeper and mother of four. "In fact, I'm not even sure they are separate issues."
On illegal immigration, sometimes an Achilles' heel for McCain, and moral values, the four-term senior senator from Arizona again stood taller with Southern voters than Obama.
“Illegal immigration needs to be controlled,” said 76-year-old Evelyn Perry of Fort Mill, who was among those surveyed. “I just haven’t really understood what (McCain’s position) is on that — but it needs to be controlled.”
Even without those specifics, Perry said she trusts McCain more. "Overall, I just think McCain understands better."
However, in a glimmer of hope for the Democratic nominee-to-be, more likely Southern voters polled said Obama "understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives" better than McCain does.
However, Deep South and working-class white voters disagreed, saying McCain understands them best.
"Senator Obama has a great deal of work to do if he plans to turn the Southern states in his favor," said Adolphus Belk Jr., who helped design the poll and teaches political science and African-American Studies at Winthrop.
Belk said Obama has to do a better job at defining himself for voters, moving beyond simply being a new face on the national stage. Obama also has to overcome religious and ethnic misinformation that continues to plague his candidacy, Belk said.
That's no short order in the South, either, said Obama supporter John Hines Jr. of Effingham, S.C. "For older Americans, I think color is still an issue," said the 53-year-old paper maker.
Of those polled, 86 percent said race would not be an important factor in how they choose to vote. However, a quarter of all likely Southern voters surveyed said that if a candidate had a Muslim parent, it would impact their votes. Obama, who is a Christian, had a Muslim father.
Hines said he thinks race matters despite the poll results.
"I hate to knock on the color thing, I really do," said Hines, a native South Carolinian. "But I think it’s a factor."
Still, Hines also had kind words for McCain. "I really think whoever is elected, it will be good for America," he said.
Obama supporter Willie Greene, 50, of Patrick, S.C., said the Democrat has to focus on pocketbook issues, and be more assertive and less contemplative in responding to questions.
"Right now, they're seeing color," said Greene, a treatment plant operator. "It's a big hurdle he would have to overcome, and I hate to say it, but he is at a big disadvantage in the South.”