Dig beneath the surface of the raucous Republican presidential race and you will find even deeper turmoil: Four in 10 GOP voters have switched candidates in the past month alone, and nearly two-thirds say they may change their minds again.
None of the GOP candidates has reason to feel secure, according to an ongoing national survey conducted for The Associated Press and Yahoo! News.
That includes Mike Huckabee, who has roared to a tie with longtime front-runner Rudy Giuliani. Half of all voters — including four in 10 Republicans — know too little about Huckabee to even say whether they have a favorable impression of him, let alone whether he is conservative, liberal or moderate.
That could give his rivals the opportunity to define him. Witness Mitt Romney’s criticism of the former Arkansas governor on immigration and Fred Thompson’s contention that he raised taxes “like a Democrat.”
The Democratic side is less chaotic, with Hillary Rodham Clinton maintaining a clear lead nationally over Barack Obama, though voters are still doing plenty of shifting. About one in five backs a different contender than in November, and nearly half say they still may settle on someone else, according to the poll conducted by Knowledge Networks.
This ground-level view of the 2008 race is made possible by an AP-Yahoo! News survey that will periodically question the same 2,000 people until Election Day, repeatedly seeking their views about politics, the country and their own lives. That will produce a picture of how the campaign is playing out from the perspective of voters like Matthew Larson, 29, of Mankato, Minn., who since last month has moved from Giuliani to Huckabee.
“I switched due to inconsistencies in Giuliani’s stands” on abortion, said Larson, a security counselor, referring to the former New York mayor’s explanations of his abortion rights views that trouble many who no longer support him. “That’s the big one in our household. Huckabee just seems more firm in what he wants to do.”
Highlighting how restless Republicans are, a fifth who said last month they wouldn’t change candidates did so anyway — along with half who said they might change. Only a third of Democrats who said they might change moved to a different contender.
People’s drifting sentiments even pushed them across party lines, with 14 percent changing their loyalty as Democrats, Republicans or independents in roughly equal proportions. Among them was Anne Marie Pontarelli, who shifted from the GOP to Clinton because she liked her equivocal initial response to the controversy over states granting driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.
“There are many shades of gray” on issues, said Pontarelli, 30, a consultant from Downers Grove, Ill. “The way she responded took a lot of guts.”
No one in the GOP had a rougher ride in the past month than Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who joined the race in September and has slowly fizzled ever since. This month’s poll showed he retained just over half of those who supported him in November, compared with six in 10 by Giuliani, Romney and John McCain and three in four by Huckabee.
While each candidate also picked up fresh supporters, Giuliani and Thompson saw their overall strength droop, with Giuliani losing the most. Huckabee’s support rose, while McCain and Romney stayed about the same.
Millicent Muller of Farmville, N.C., moved from Giuliani’s camp to Romney’s.
“I don’t care if he’s a Mormon,” said Muller, 53, a homemaker, though some voters say that makes them reluctant to support the one-time Massachusetts governor. “The cheap shots at it offended me, and made me take a closer look at him. I don’t see anything wrong with him.”
Religion has played a pivotal role in Huckabee’s rise, though in a more textured way than many polls have shown.
Roughly four in 10 white evangelical Christians have made a change since November, similar to other Republicans who shifted candidates. But 56 percent of evangelicals who found another candidate flocked to Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, giving him 36 percent of the support of one of the GOP’s heavyweight voting blocs, well ahead of his rivals.
The intensely religious were even more restless — and more smitten with Huckabee. Among evangelicals who are conservative and attend church weekly, 54 percent switched candidates last month — and 61 percent of the switchers moved to Huckabee.
“He believes in what I believe in. I’m a Christian,” said truck driver Jerry Steadman, 53, of Inman, S.C.
Yet even Huckabee is not immune to voters’ evolving tastes — 83 percent who moved to him said they were open to changing again.
Though the poll shows little relationship between shifting voters and the issues they consider important, many who left Giuliani put more importance on political corruption than those who still support him. Bernard Kerik, Giuliani’s former police commissioner, has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.
Among Democrats, Clinton’s large lead over Obama and John Edwards changed little, though polls on Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses — the nation’s first voting — show them in a three-way battle there.
Nationally, six in 10 Obama supporters now say they are sure to stay with him, a gain from last month and the same as for Clinton. Edwards’ certain supporters doubled, but only to just more than four in 10.
“She’s kind of harsh,” Linda Beerhorst, 56, a notary from Osceola, Ind., said of Clinton, whom she has abandoned for Obama. “He doesn’t talk like a politician, he talks like your next-door neighbor.”
Among Democrats, men were slightly likelier to switch than women, while middle-aged Republicans changed more often than younger or older ones.
The survey of 1,821 adults was conducted from Dec. 14-20, and had an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points. Included were interviews with 847 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4 points, and 655 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.8 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, which 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.
(AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.)