Today’s Guardian reports an ICM poll from last week that showed that British voters would overwhelmingly prefer to see Barack Obama as the next President of the USA, by 55% to 11% for John McCain.

I’ve seen a couple of polls ask about this (it’s also tracked on the Phi5000 figures on PoliticsHome) and the pattern is pretty consistent. To some extent is will be a result of hostility towards the Republican President Bush, but British people do tend to be considerably less right right than Americans, so it should be no surprise that a majority back the Democrat candidate.

Back in March YouGov did a big parallel study of opinion of people in the UK and the USA, which showed the differences and similarities between public opinion in the two countries. Some of the similarities were actually more surprising than the differences. Despite the USA being a nation of immigrants, there was no particular contrast in attitudes towards immigration – Americans don’t seem to be anymore welcoming to other countries’ tired, poor or huddled masses than British people are: 26% of Brits thought immigration had helped the economy, 25% of Americans did; 70% of Brits thought immigrants had taken jobs that should be being done by British people, 64% of Americans thought similar.

On the environment, the image of the USA as a nation of climate change deniers seems largely unfounded. American respondents were more likely to think that there was no global warming at all (18% compared to 7% of Brits), but British people were more likely to think it was nothing to do with mankind (25% to 19%) so the proportions of people believing in manmade global warming were not vastly different (55% in the UK, 49% in the USA). Asked about environmental policies attitudes toward subsidies for environmentally friendly energy, nuclear power or (amazingly, given the American love of big cars) increased petrol taxes were almost identical – only on airline taxes were the US far more hostile.

The biggest surprise similarity though was the death penalty, which proved only marginally more popular in the USA than the UK. 74% of British people supported the death penalty for some (53%) or all (21%) murders. 76% of Americans supported the death penalty for some (50%) or all (26%) murders.

If those are the similarities, where are we different? Attitudes towards withdrawing troops from Iraq were much the same: 35% of British people wanted troops out this year, 36% of Americans wanted troops out this year. This similarity though masks far more hawkish foriegn policies attitudes in the USA in general. In Afghanistan 42% of Brits wanted withdrawal this year, but only 28% of Americans did. On Iran, 26% of British people would countenance military action to prevent Iran gaining nuclear weapons, 46% of Americans would.

Amongst the public the special relationship between the UK and USA seems rather unrequited. British respondents are equivocal about it – 46% would like it to be fairly close or very close, 46% would like it to be not very close or not close at all. For American respondents 78% would like it to be close, only 9% not very close or not close at all.

There was not a huge contrast in attitudes towards the level of tax and spending (though the US was more polarised) but when asked who any tax cuts should benefit there was against a contrast – US respondents wanted to see then go to the middle classes rather than the poor (35% to 20%), UK respondents would rather they were concentrated on the poor (38% to 21%). On welfare too Americans tended to be more right wing. If people are made redundant British voters think it is the responsiblity of the government (38%) or the company (35%) to look after them, in the US, people tend to think it is the worker’s own responsibility (36%), with only 17% thinking the government should. Another contrast was free trade vs protectionism – British respondents favoured free trade by 52% to 30%, US respondents tended to think free trade was a bad thing, by 55% to 31%.

Some things were less predictable – people in the US seem to be *less* comfortable with big business and successful businessmen, when one might expect it to be the other way round. On the other hand, they were more likely to see the profit motive as a good thing – suggesting is particular businesses and the influence they wield on politics that they have problems with, not capitalism per se.

All the differences above, however, pale into insignificance compared to the biggest difference – attitudes towards religion and moral issues. Only 39% of British respondents believed in God, compared to 80% of American respondents. On top of that, those who are religious are MORE religious – only 21% of that 39% of Brits who believe in God said it was very important to their life, 53% of the 80% of believers in America did.

A paltry 5% of British people think sex outside marriage is a sin, 33% of Americans think so. 54% of Americans believe in hell, only 16% of British people do. 63% of British people accept the theory of evolution, 23% believe in creationism or intelligent design. Only 30% of Americans believe in evolution, 59% believe in creationism or intelligent design. 40% of Americans think homosexuality is a sin, only 26% think it is perfectly acceptable. In the UK the figures are 13% and 46% respectively.

On more political grounds, 76% of British people think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, or with only limited restrictions like a time limit. Only 48% of Americans agree, with 48% thinking it should be totally banned, or banned apart from extreme circumstances such as the life of the mother being in danger.

We shouldn’t be surprised the more left wing of the two candidates in the USA is preferred by British people, since in terms of things like welfare, foreign policy, taxation and, most of all, moral and religious issues, America is far to the right of the UK.


31 Responses to “Brits overwhelmingly back Obama”

  1. There are some very cheering findings from this poll but none more so than the continuing support of the British for free trade. Which of course makes it all the odder for us to be so enthusiastic about a candidate who is awovedly anti-free trade! It seems Obama is headed for victory on the back of his icredible presence and capacity to engage with ‘ordinary americans’ – what I hope is that he achieves as much for his country as the last great communicator Ronald Reagan.

  2. I thought two things other than what you said when reading it:

    1. In something like ‘should gasoline/petrol taxes be higher’, the starting point might have something to do with it. ‘Should they be $4/gallon’ might get less of a cheer from the Americans. Similarlyish, the death penalty when you haven’t got it might be more desirable than when you have (er…that sounds wrong…you know what I mean)
    2. The moral questions, as you noted, saw huge differences, but could the wording have been at fault? The idea of ‘sin’ in the UK is not widespread – is sex before marriage ‘wrong’ might have seen more agreement.

  3. Matt – I concentrated on the extreme of seeing it as a sin, but people were also given the option of saying it wasn’t a sin, but it was “not generally desirable”. On those grounds the contrast was just as stark:

    In the UK
    5% Yes it is a sin 5% 33 Yes, it is a sin
    22% No it is not a sin but it is not generally desirable
    71% No it is perfectly acceptable behaviour

    In the USA
    33% Yes it is a sin 5% 33 Yes, it is a sin
    29% No it is not a sin but it is not generally desirable
    34% No it is perfectly acceptable behaviour

  4. Really interesting findings. I suppose the starkest seem to be the differing grounds on moral and religious issues.

    Presumably if the figures are 55% Obama 11% Maccain we must have a very substantial 34% don’ know. Or perhaps they are Ralph Nader….

  5. My first comments did’nt appear – so here’s a shortened version / talk to any Brit in private away from the PC brigade and the ones who took British free speech away and you will hear a much more right wing version of events and thoughts .

    As for Obama – there is’nt a cat in hells chance of him winning in America – the day of the election will show the racial divide in the country – he will only win a handful of seats – mostly in the black dominated south.

    Have i ever been wrong !!

  6. We will never know the true British opinion on controversial subjects like race etc – we lost those freedoms during the days of Wilson & Callaghan . So POLLS like the one above are only accurate for the USA – not here !!

  7. Would agree with the Oracle – I doubt very much that 76% of the UK really agrees with abortion on demand. Even Gordon Brown has doubts.
    The US won’t vote for Obama – even in a free election.
    Why not have Shimon Peres and buy wholesale?

  8. Conjecture:
    Someone is impersonating The Oracle

    Evidence:
    His posts have become increasingly bizarre, conspiratorial, and extreme.

    Suggestion:
    Check IP ranges for Oracle’s past posts.

    On to the poll, it’s not surprising at all that Obama wins out over McCain. Obama is the younger, taller, aspirational candidate offering change. He’s a Tony Blair, or a David Cameron, only with the added excitement of breaking a coloured-glass ceiling.

  9. Wolf – I really wouldn’t. The argument from personal incredulity – “I don’t believe that so it must be wrong” – is a pretty poor one. 76% of British people don’t believe in abortion on demand – only 15% believe in totally unrestricted abortion, 61% believe in abortion with some restrictions (the numbers in American are 15% and 33%).

    Mike’s argument is rubbish: that secretly people agree with him, but they are all too scared to express their true opinions, even in an anonymous web survey. It’s also, of course, completely unfalsifiable which is why people wheel it out on occassion. Though since this poll showed the large majority of British people supported the death penalty, and polls consistently show very hostile attitudes towards immigration, god alone knows what their deep secret thoughts they dare not speak are.

  10. Wolf – a little less of the mild anti-semitism please

  11. I agree with ZX

  12. I also think that more people know who Obama is than MaCain….
    There must be very few Brits who don’t knoe who Obama is but probably a large number who don’t know Maccain…

  13. One quick thought – while I don’t know the exact question asked, middle class has a very different definition in the USA. It is more akin to what politicans here sometmes call ‘hard working families’ whereas what they call the poor we would probably think of as the most socially excluded.

    The British connetation of the middle-class with suburbs, golf club membership, Terry and June et al doesn’t hold up in the USA.

    ps – good website.

  14. I wonder if the Guardian is going to repeat the mistake they made in 2004 and start telling Americans in crucial swing states how to vote.

  15. For those interested in being further multi-cultural I recommend http://www.pollbludger.com/ being the Australian version of this sort of site.

    Current lead story there -‘Labor maintaining its 55-45 two-party lead from last fortnight. Kevin Rudd has gained a point and Brendan Nelson lost one on the question of preferred leader, Rudd now leading 65 per cent to 14 per cent.’ Yes, the Australian position for anyone who missed the opening has the Labour Leader still in his honeymoon period and the and the current Conservative Laeder looking very ready to lose his job.

    Politics; what comes around goes around…

  16. Yes, this poll feels right. And Obama is clearly on a different level of ability to many recent American political leaders.

    There is something I am not comfortable about. I am old enough to remember hearing the radio reports (I was too young for the papers and my parents idealistically did not have a TV until the mid 60s) on some of the Chicago politics of the 1960s: the 1960 Presidential election and the 1968 Democratic Convention. I am not old enough to remember 1930s Chicago, but I have read about it. I think that we in Britain ought to watch to check that Obama is his own man as we consider how to react in international affairs to the likelihood of his becoming President. But I doubt if the people responding to this poll will have done so.

    Also, do I have an uncomfortable feeling of deja view when thinking about Obama in relation to Blair, the young lawyer politician strong on presentability and verbal fluency? If United States voters do not establish Obama’s principles now I suspect the polls may turn heavily against him at some point during his term of office, if he is elected.

    ZX make a very worthwhile point. We think about prejudice in relation to age, sex, colour etc. However, in a competition between two male individuals psychologists have found that the taller candidate usually wins: it is a big statistical effect compared to many in psychological research.

    I have made these points about Obama, as opposed to McCain, because the poll is about him, and have tried to concentrate on implications for the United Kingdom. I have reservations about polls relating to foregn elections: it is the prerogative of United States voters who they elect.

  17. Simon,

    “Wolf – a little less of the mild anti-semitism please”,

    I hope that’s not a call for more rabid anti-semitism……

    Anthony,

    I am with you 100% on Mikes,

    “Don’t listen to what people say, they really think like me”. line.

    I am sure he believes it but that’s because he seems to have trouble with anyone who sees things differently, even down to the fact that when he is mildly rebuked or even challenged, he proclaims it an attack on free speech.

    On a separate issue have you any thoughts on why the electoral role in Glasgow east should seem to be so inaccurate.

    Peter.

  18. “Wolf – a little less of the mild anti-semitism please”,

    I hope that’s not a call for more rabid anti-semitism……”

    The missus wouldn’t approve of that now – Wolf’s comment was nearly a Jackie Mason joke but you can only tell them if you’re Jewish!

    On the electoral roll in Glasgow the problem lies in sloppy local councils and a difficult, transient and untrusting population. It was reported somewhere that a similar situation exists in parts of inner London (I think it was one of the discoveries during the Boris vs Ken battle).

    Anyone who has done a fair bit of door knocking if different parts will discover just how inaccurate some electoral registers have become – perhaps 20% or so wrong. And, in places like Glasgow East the problem is squared by the nature of the population and the unwillingnes of the City Council to resource the registration process sufficiently.

  19. Looking at all the polls on http://www.realclearpolitics.com, there seems to be an interesting mismatch between the national polls and the state surveys. Most of the state figures show Obama closing the gap quite considerably compared to 2004, yet the national polls show him with only a slender lead, (which equates to only a small swing since 2004 since Bush’s margin of victory then was only 2.46%). The only way both sets of polls could be correct would be if there was a swing to McCain in some of the Democratic states such as New York and California, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case except in one or two states such as Michigan. I wonder if people in the USA are giving slightly different answers to the national poll question compared to the state one, ie. favouring McCain more in the national head-to-head polls.

  20. If Obama said anything interesting, the Democrats would probably win the election.

    As it is, he appears to be fresh, but is policy lite.
    Just “change” and “cha-ange”,
    Therefore it is going to be another very close result, I guess (not that I know the US in detail).

  21. Maybe the situation would be different if the BBC (Brown Broadcasting Corp.) et al. gave Obama and McCain equal airing, people opinions may have been different?

    At the moment I am seeing about 90% Obama, 10% McCain.

  22. Re Obama Mcain airtime I think that reflects Obama had needed to be on air (and was real news) as he was still fighting Clinton; I would not assume political bias. McCain was not news compared to the Democratic battle. I would think we would see a more even spread of ‘news time’, now although the commentators are saying Obama’s ogranisation seems more professional than McCain’s so I would assume a greater amount of airtime (let alone the novelty factor for Obama-McCain as another aging white male is certainly not a ‘new’ image…)

  23. A couple of points above:
    Simon Cooke is right, the most salient point from a British point of view about a US President is actually the degree of protectionism, so the reported level of support for the more pro-free trade McCain is extremely low. I suspect the level of knowledge of US politics in Britain is rather low.
    Second, anyone who thinks Obama will only win ‘seats’ (I presume ‘states’) is meant in the ‘black-dominated’ South rather confirms my last surmise.
    There are in fact no black-majority states anywhere, including the south, and that region is the one area where Obama actually has no chance of winning, as voting is now very racially-dominated. On the other hand he will win states on the west coast such as California, and the north east, New York and most of New England. the key battlegrounds will again be in the industrial rustbelt such as Ohio and Michigan, and in the Mid-west, such as Missouri and Wisconsin. There are also some key Rocky Mountain states which Gore and Kerry did not win, like Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.
    For daily updated polling information, I recommend the Real Clear Politics website.
    My own feeling is that the current lead for Obama, steady at 3 to 7%, is somewhat exaggerated by the ‘Bradley factor’, which suggests respondents are unwilling to adopt a perceived racist line, so it is probably very close. Much will depend on the security situation over the next 3-4 months, and whether there will be an ‘October surprise’.

  24. We really ought to be able to put bias and prejudice to one side and agree that for once the US presidential race is between two extremely good candidates either of whom would grace the White House. That said it would be fantastic for America and her friends abroad if a youngish black man were to become president and much as I personally admire John McCain if Barak Obama proves his equal in the autumn TV debates then I think he would win…and deserve to.
    Unlike some contributors I have not found Americans to be any more racist than the Brits and if the white working class voter decides that Obama is ‘sound’ and a safe pair of hands they will vote for the black man. The polls show the race to be close but in my view its Obama’s to lose…

  25. I’m just happy that for the first time in some years the USA will have a President that actually believes in evolution! Progress indeed. I am also pleased by the relatively small role that the religious right has so far played in this contest….

  26. From a certain website linked to this one –

    The UK-US Special Relationship

    Only around half (49%) … feel that the ‘special relationship’ Britain currently enjoys with the US is positive for the UK, while a third (34%) think it is negative.

    Ahead of a visit to the UK by US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, our … members were asked their views of the UK-US ‘special relationship’ in light of Senator Obama’s recent comments that he would recalibrate the relationship to make the UK a more equal partner.

    56% say that the relationship has helped the UK play a greater role in world affairs than it might have done otherwise but this isn’t necessarily a positive point as 49% thought the relationship creates resentment towards the two countries amongst other nations, however 43% claim it is vital for Britain’s long-term security to remain close to the US. 41% suggest that the UK’s future lies more with Europe than the US.

    The idea of a recalibrated special relationship is slightly more positively received than the current relationship with closer to two thirds (64%) rating the idea positively while just 10% see it negatively. A significant minority think it would allow the UK to push issues such as the environment and world poverty up the US agenda.

    Respondents comments included:

    “The UK-US relationship has been entirely one sided.” …

    “The special relationship has generally been of benefit to both countries and the world, but all this is eclipsed by the mistake of the US in invading Iraq and, even more, the folly of the UK in taking part in that invasion.” …

  27. I wonder when the last time was that Brits favoured a Republican candidate for president?

  28. In addition to http://www.realclearpolitics.com, other informative websites for the American election are http://www.fivethirtyeight.com and http://www.uselectionatlas.org

  29. I see that the current edition of New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com) has a long article addressing the concerns I expressed in my previous post. Recommended reading. As a personal comment, on the whole it makes me much happier about Obama as his own man, although clearly a very ambitious one beyond his undoubted principles.

    I wonder whether in responding to polls on Obama, the British realise just how tough anybody who has come from his political school is going to be. I suspect that if he becomes President he will be fair and reasonable, but other foreign leaders will have to make their case strongly in negotiations with him. Frankly, I doubt whether there are any UK politicans at the moment who will, leaving aside the weaknesses of the UK’s negotiating positions, be able to stand up to Obama in an argument. Brown seems to be too inflexible. Cameron goes to the other extreme (and is possibly just too nice), whilst Clegg has simply never had to meet the political challenges to give him the necessary experience. I wonder how many electors welcoming Obama realise the need to find UK negotiators who will do effective business with an Obama Presidency. Possibly, from the polls, more ordinary people do than politicians and others in the Westminster villlage. The only MPs who might possibly measure up are William Haigh and Vince Cable.

    Most of these comments apply equally to McCain, who is also much tougher and more able than anybody currently on offer in the UK.

    Blair and Brown have failed to cope with Bush, unlike Wilson whose skills with Johnson (another tough US President)look ever more praiseworthy in retrospect. George Bush Junior is underestimated as an international negotiator, but both McCain and Obama are manifestly more battle hardened than any recent US Presidential candidates of either party.

  30. I expect most British people do not follow American politics closely. there is decent in depth covcerage on prgrammes like Newsnight and Channel 4 news but mopst of the population dont watch them. Anecdotally, many people at work who are not uneducated, but nor especially politically aware, seemed a short time ago to believe that the US election was between Obama and Hilary Clinton and would ask which one I would like to be President. They were totally unaware of John Macain and I think that would be a very common position for the non-anorak majority of the population. This poll should therefore be seen in this context.

  31. I suspect there’s quite a lot of fear of a McCain presidency among the UK political intelligensia.His policies (cutting fuel tax / subsidies for the house owner / anti bank rhetoric ) look like they’ve been lifted wholesale from the Daily Mail.