WASHINGTON (AP) — In a dramatic reversal, an Associated Press-Yahoo! News poll found that a clear majority of Democratic voters now say Sen. Barack Obama has a better chance of defeating Republican Sen. John McCain in November than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While Obama and Clinton are both sustaining dents and dings from their lengthy presidential fight, the former first lady is clearly suffering more. Democratic voters no longer see her as the party's strongest contender for the White House.
Voters of all types have gotten a better sense of Obama, who was an obscure Illinois legislator just four years ago. As more people moved from the "I don't know him" category in the AP-Yahoo! News poll, more rated Obama as inexperienced, unethical and dishonest. And 15 percent erroneously think he's a Muslim, thanks in part to disinformation widely spread on the Internet.
But Obama's positive ratings have climbed as well, while Clinton — widely known since the early 1990s — has been less able to change people's views of her. And when those views have shifted, it has hurt her more than helped.
The New York senator's ratings for being honest, likable, ethical and refreshing have fallen since January, and Obama scores higher than she does in all those categories.
In late January, before Obama scored 11 straight primary and caucus victories, 56 percent of Democrats saw Clinton as the stronger nominee, compared to 33 percent for Obama. Now, Obama leads on that question, 56 to 43 percent.
Still, the poll, conducted by Knowledge Networks, contains some worrisome signs for the first-term senator. Those rating him as "not at all honest," for example, jumped from 18 percent last fall to 27 percent in April. It came as he was put on the defensive over incendiary comments by his former pastor. But many holding such views are Republicans or conservative independents, who would be unlikely to vote in a Democratic primary or support a Democrat in the fall, anyway.
The most encouraging sign for Obama is that many Democrats who previously saw Clinton as their party's best hope now give him that role. About one-third of them still prefer Clinton, but they have lost confidence in her electability.
"I would love to vote for Hillary," said Nancy Costello of Bellevue, Ky., one of the more than 1,800 randomly selected adults whose opinions are rechecked every few months. "I'm 67, and I'll probably never get another chance to vote for a woman."
But Obama now appears to be the stronger candidate, she said, and electing a Democrat in November is paramount. If McCain wins and continues many of President Bush's economic and foreign policies, Costello said, "I think I would just sit down and cry."
By tracking the same group throughout the campaign, the AP-Yahoo! News poll can gauge how individual views change. It suggests that Clinton has paid a price for hammering Obama since early February on several issues as she tries to overcome his lead in delegates and the popular vote. Among those Democrats who no longer consider her the more electable of the two, most now see her as less likable, decisive, strong, honest, experienced and ethical than they did in January.
Meanwhile, those same voters are more likely to see Obama as strong, honest and refreshing than before.
Beulah Barton of Leesburg, Fla., said she initially backed Clinton, partly because she liked Bill Clinton's record as president.
"But the more I hear her talk, and the more I hear him talk, the more put off I am," said Barton, 69. "I think she's brash, I think she's rude. I get the feeling that she feels she deserves to be president" and doesn't need "to earn it."
Barton said she likes Obama, and ignores e-mails suggesting that he refuses to salute the flag or is somehow threatening "because of his name."
"People try to make him look like a traitor," she said. "I think he has risen above most of that stuff."
Some misinformation sticks, however. The great majority of the poll's participants said this month they did not know the religious affiliation of Clinton (a Methodist) or Obama (United Church of Christ). But 15 percent ventured that Obama, whose father was Kenyan, is a Muslim.
That group includes more Democrats than Republicans, and it doesn't necessarily worry them.
Randi Estes, a Democrat from Ada, Okla., said she prefers Clinton but feels Obama is likely to win the nomination. "He's gotten very strong media coverage, and Bill Clinton's not helping her a bit," said Estes, 36, who has four children under the age of 6.
Speaking of Obama, she said, "I have a sense he's a Muslim."
If Obama wins the nomination, the poll indicates he will need to mend his image a bit as he battles McCain for independents and soft Republicans. His favorability rating among all voters has declined, with those ranking him as "very unfavorable" growing from 17 percent in January to 25 percent in April. Most of them are Republicans and independents.
In January, 30 percent of Republicans rated Obama very unfavorably. That grew to 43 percent in April. Among the coveted independents, 12 percent had a very unfavorable view of Obama in January. That has nearly doubled to 23 percent.
Obama would be the first black president, and the survey detected some evidence of racial discomfort in voters' minds. It found that about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president. It produced an estimate of about 13 percent of Republicans who would feel that way, but suggested very few if any Democrats would now be uncomfortable. In November, about 5 percent of Democrats indicated discomfort at voting for a black person for president.
For Allen Lovell, a moderate Democrat in Everett, Wash., race is unimportant, but replacing Bush with a Democrat is vital. And lately he has concluded that Obama probably has the better chance of beating McCain.
"I am leaning towards him, not because he's black — because I'm white — but because we definitely need a change," said Lovell, 50.
He said the Democratic campaign has lasted too long, but there is one topic he'd like to hear more about. Lovell, who guessed that Obama is "either Christian or Muslim," said: "I don't think we're getting enough information on religion" from the candidates.
The survey of 1,844 adults was conducted April 2-14 and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 863 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.3 points, and 668 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks. It initially contacted people using traditional telephone polling methods, and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.