— From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro
With just 24 days to go before Iowa, it appears the race for the Democratic nomination is no longer a tight 1-state contest, but a truly competitive race across the country.
In three new MSNBC/McCLATCHY/Mason-Dixon polls of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the national frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, leads in all three states but her lead is not outside the margin of error in any of those states. Her largest lead is three points, statistically insignificant. Her leading challenger, Barack Obama is nipping at her heels, trailing in Iowa by 2 points and trailing in New Hampshire and South Carolina by just three points.
John Edwards is a major factor in Iowa and South Carolina but trails badly in New Hampshire.
Iowa: Clinton nabbed 27%, followed by Obama at 25% and Edwards at 21%. No other candidate scored double-digits, including Richardson who came in at 9% and Joe Biden who rec'd 5%. As for the all-important second-choice category, all three Dem frontrunners are tied, with 30% picking Obama, 29% naming Clinton and 27% selecting Edwards.
New Hampshire: This is the tightest result for any New Hampshire Dem primary poll this year. Clinton gets 30% to Obama's 27%. Edwards barely cracks double-digits with 10%, with one in five primary voters undecided.
South Carolina: Clinton gets 28% to Obama's 25%. Edwards is a competitive third at 18%. [Note: An earlier version of this post accidentally reprinted the results from N.H.]
A few more macro observations about the surveys:
-- Bill Clinton is still VERY popular among Democrats, in most cases, more popular than all of the actual contenders, though Obama matches the FPOTUS in FAV rating in New Hampshire.
-- Hillary Clinton wins the experience issue by a landslide in all three states, while Obama wins decisively on change.
-- Hillary Clinton's support is what you'd expect: women, folks over 50 and union members.
-- Obama does very well among Democrats under 50. In fact, the biggest demographic gap is generational, not gender.
-- And here's a trend line the Clinton folks might want to worry about, in all three states, she's seen as having run the most negative campaign to date.
Let's get into the weeds of these Dem state polls, all of which were conducted Dec. 3-6. Each survey is of 400 likely caucus or primary voters with a margin of error of 5%.
Don't write off John Edwards. Of the big 3 candidates, the former North Carolina senator has the highest FAV rating, trailing only Bill Clinton in popularity. This could bode well on the second choice front.
Clinton is seen as the least honest and trustworthy and the candidate who least represents change. That's bad news for her because those are the two top things that Iowans are looking for. Her advantage is on issues and experience, a category in which she leads by a whopping 52% to 14% margin over Richardson.
How much progress has Obama made in this state? He's now the Democrat with the highest FAV rating (matching Bill Clinton).
Like Iowa, Hillary leads among women, but a quarter of women are undecided. Can Oprah make a difference for Obama here? Obama's support is overwhelmingly among independents and those under 50.
Also of note, we tested potential 2-way Dem primary matchups between Clinton and Obama and then Clinton v. Edwards. Edwards voters break overwhelmingly for Clinton in New Hampshire, while Obama voters break nearly 3-1 for Edwards. If Clinton and Edwards are sharing some supporters, doesn't that signal that those two may begin going after each other more so than Obama, gambling that the Illinois senator's support is younger and less likely to vote?
Looking at what voters most want in a candidate, Obama leads overwhelmingly on change and is seen as more honest than Clinton. That's good news for him, because those are two of the top three things voters are looking for in a candidate. Issues, though, is No. 1 and Clinton leads that by 12 points.
Obama may have dispelled those doubts among black voters, as he leads Clinton by 16 points among African-Americans. But among whites, Clinton leads by 16.
It's the same story here as the other two states, Hillary is seen as the least honest and trustworthy and doesn't represent change. Obama leads in both of those categories. Clinton leads overwhelmingly again on experience, but as in the other states, experience doesn't appear to be all that important to voters. She is seen as most right on the issues, which is important.