WASHINGTON — In the past two months, Senator Barack Obama has built a commanding coalition among Democratic voters, with especially strong support among men, and is now viewed by most Democrats as the candidate best able to beat Senator John McCain in the general election, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
After 40 Democratic primaries and caucuses, capped by a winning streak in 11 contests over the last two weeks, Mr. Obama has made substantial gains across most major demographic groups in the Democratic Party, including men and women, liberals and moderates, higher and lower income voters, and those with and without college degrees.
But there are signs of vulnerability for Mr. Obama, of Illinois, in this national poll: While he has a strong edge among Democratic voters on his ability to unite and inspire the country, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is still viewed by more Democrats as prepared for the job of president. And while he has made progress among women, he still faces a striking gender gap: Mr. Obama is backed by two-thirds of the Democratic men and 45 percent of the women, who are equally divided in their support between the two candidates. White women remain a Clinton stronghold.
When all voters are asked to look ahead to the general election, Mr. McCain is more likely to be seen as prepared for the presidency, able to handle an international crisis and equipped to serve as commander in chief than either of the Democratic candidates.
Even so, the poll provides a snapshot of Mr. Obama’s strength after this first, frenzied round of primaries and caucuses, which knocked seven of the nine Democratic candidates out of the race. For the first time in a Times/CBS poll, he moved ahead of Mrs. Clinton nationally, with 54 percent of Democratic primary voters saying they wanted to see him nominated, while 38 percent preferred Mrs. Clinton. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday showed a similar result, 51 percent for Mr. Obama to 39 percent for Mrs. Clinton.
These national polls are not predictive of the Democratic candidates’ standings in individual states, notably Ohio and Texas, which hold the next primaries, on March 4. Most recent polls there show a neck-and-neck race in Texas and Mrs. Clinton with a lead in Ohio; her campaign advisers say that if she prevails next Tuesday the race will begin anew.
Mark Penn, the chief strategist for the Clinton campaign, said the polls “reflect momentum from Senator Obama’s recent wins,” and “will snap back if we are successful in Ohio and Texas.” He added that other national polls showed a far closer race. Bill Burton, spokesman for the Obama campaign, said, “As we’ve made our case for change across the country, people have responded.”
The Times/CBS poll shows that Mr. Obama’s coalition — originally derided by critics as confined to upper-income reformers, young people and blacks — has broadened significantly. In December, for example, he had the support of 26 percent of the male Democratic primary voters; in the latest poll, that had climbed to 67 percent.
“He’s from Illinois, and I’m from Illinois, and he reminds me of Abraham Lincoln,” said Dylan Jones, 53, a laborer from Oxford, N.C., who was interviewed in a follow-up to the poll. “I can see him out there splitting rails. I don’t have anything against Hillary Clinton, so I guess it’s because he’s new blood.”
Similarly, Mr. Obama’s support among those with household incomes under $50,000 rose to 48 percent from 35 percent since December. His support among moderates rose to 59 percent from 28 percent. In contrast, Mrs. Clinton’s strength among Democratic men dropped to 28 percent from 42 percent in December; her support among voters in households making under $50,000 held stable.
Even among women, Mr. Obama made strides. He had the support of 19 percent of white women in December and 40 percent in the most recent poll. White women, however, remain Mrs. Clinton’s most loyal base of support — 51 percent backed the senator from New York, statistically unchanged from the 48 percent who backed her in December.
“I like them both,” said Ann Powers, 64, a coordinator for special education programs in Fort Dodge, Iowa. “I just think he is too inexperienced and she’s dealt with more in the last 20 years.” The national telephone poll of 1,115 registered voters was conducted Feb. 20-24. It included 427 Democratic primary voters and 327 Republican primary voters. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for all voters, plus or minus five percentage points for Democratic voters and plus or minus five percentage points for Republican voters.
The poll showed Republicans settling in with their likely nominee. Eight in 10 said they would be satisfied if Mr. McCain won their party’s nomination, although just 3 in 10 said they would be very satisfied. Nearly 9 in 10 said he was prepared for the presidency, and more than 8 in 10 said they had confidence in his ability to deal with an international crisis, while a remarkable 96 percent said he would likely make an effective commander in chief.
But misgivings remain among those who describe themselves as conservative Republicans, with a majority saying his positions on the issues are not conservative enough.
On the Democratic side, primary voters indicated they saw few substantive differences between their candidates on issues like the war in Iraq and health care. Most have confidence in both candidates to handle the economy, the war in Iraq and an international crisis. And large numbers think it is likely that either candidate would make an effective commander in chief.
Mr. Obama’s advantages are more apparent on other measures. Nearly 6 in 10 said he had the best chance of beating Mr. McCain, double the numbers that believed Mrs. Clinton was more electable. He is also viewed by more Democratic voters as someone who can bring about “real change” and is willing to compromise with Republicans “the right amount” to get things done.
Democratic voters are also more likely to say Mr. Obama cares a lot about them, inspires them and can unite the country. Sixty-three percent of Democratic voters said he cared a lot about them, while fewer than half thought Mrs. Clinton did. Nearly seven in 10 said he inspired them about the future of the country; 54 percent said Mrs. Clinton did. Three-quarters said he would be able to unite the country as president; 53 percent said Mrs. Clinton would.
Mrs. Clinton also has her strengths: Her supporters are, in general, more committed; nearly 8 in 10 of Mrs. Clinton’s backers said they strongly favored her, while 6 in 10 of Mr. Obama’s supporters strongly favored him. Only 18 percent of her supporters backed her with reservations; about a third of Mr. Obama’s supporters said they had reservations about their candidate.
Democratic women are also more likely to say that the news media have been harder on Mrs. Clinton than on other candidates: 56 percent felt that way, compared with 39 percent of Democratic men. Both men and women were more likely to think the news media has been harder on Mrs. Clinton than on Mr. Obama.
Not surprisingly, Democratic primary voters had an opinion on the appropriate role of the 795 superdelegates who could determine the party’s nominee. More than half said that these party leaders should vote for the candidate who received the most votes in the primaries and caucuses.