Thursday, August 21, 2008

The state of the race: Polls, projections, and presidential politics

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Poll-wise, the news hasn't been good for Obama in recent weeks -- and it seems to be getting worse. Although he still leads in most national polls, the gap has generally been narrowing. And the media, which love the tension that comes from high electoral drama, have dutifully (and thoughtlessly) been in sensationalization mode.

Consider this headline of a post by my good friend and blogging mentor Joe Gandelman over at The Moderate Voice (where I'm an assistant editor):


The poll with McCain up by five is from Zogby, which means that it's accuracy and credibility are in question. As poll watchers have come to know, Zogby is, in general, highly unreliable. And yet it is true, as Joe points out, that, in general, poll results show a tightening race. It is not necessarily the case, however, that Obama is "weakening." Rather, McCain may actually be strengthening as Republicans (and conservatives who find him suspect) coalesce behind him heading into the conventions and the more earnest campaign to follow. Basically, for whatever reason, the race is now extremely close. As the indispensable Nate Silver finds, it's more or less a tie.

And yet, like John Cole and my friend Skippy, I think there's more ado about this than there ought to be. Things have been doing fairly well for McCain -- even though (or precisely because) he's been running an ugly campaign that revels in ignorance, faux populist pandering, and abject stupidity (consider the tire-inflation brouhaha and the "celebrity" smearing of Obama) -- but, like John, "I am a firm believer that the national polling really does not matter until after the second convention. When both candidates have chosen their VP and held their conventions, then I think we will really get a good idea of how the candidates are stacking up." Plus, as we all know, it's about the Electoral College, not the national popular vote.

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Explaining the current situation, David Gergen offered some astute analysis at CNN yesterday. I think he's pretty much right on the mark:

Say what you will about Republicans making a muddle of governing, but they sure know how to campaign. The turn of events that John McCain and his team have engineered in recent weeks is one of the most significant events of the campaign and now poses a serious threat of an upset this fall.

In just a few short weeks, they have not only thrown Barack Obama on the defensive and made him seem smaller but they have also made McCain seem larger and more commanding. And it has not just been one event but a string of them that they have tied together to propel McCain upward — from the ads (which most of us in the media didn't like) to the way McCain seized upon the drilling and Russian issues to his winsome performance at Saddleback. The capacity to create issues and momentum practically out of the ether is the sign of a strong campaign. Both McCain and his team are impressing voters.

And the results are now showing up in the polls: not only are some key states like Ohio breaking toward McCain but the Reuters/Zogby poll today showed McCain opening up a 5-point national lead — and stunningly, voters said in that survey that he would be better handling the economy than Obama! That is the bread and butter issue for the Democrats, one they should be able to seize upon to capture seats up and down the ticket.

Now, a couple of cautions are in order. This race was always going to tighten as Republican voters came home and McCain is benefiting to a considerable degree because that has been happening of late. In all the polls, there also remains a large bloc of voters who are undecided and many of them look like they are potential Obama voters. Campaigns also have a tendency to ebb and flow, so that the latest McCain tide could easily recede, especially if the Democrats put on a thunderous convention or McCain makes a mistake (not hard to envision). And there remains great, great enthusiasm on the Obama side and a general antipathy to the Bush years. So, it is important not to insert lots of caveats.

Still, this should be a huge wake-up call to Obama and the Democrats. From my perspective, Obama needs to introduce a game changer — and fast — before public opinion starts to gel around the notion that he is a phenom who deserves great respect but is not seasoned enough and would be too much of a risk in the Oval Office.

For Gergen -- and I concur -- a game-changer would be putting Hillary or Gore on the ticket or "Building Team Obama" in advance, that is, naming a few top Cabinet appointments before the election.

But a game-changer would also be going on the offensive and not letting McCain and the Republicans define the terms and the substance of the campaign. Another would be just being Obama again, the inspirational candidate of the primaries, the candidate of hope and change, the candidate with a serious plan to right America's wrongs and to put the country back on track again.

There is a lot more that Obama needs to do -- from taking the issues to McCain, including the economy, health care, and other domestic issues on which McCain is both weak and well to the right, to defining McCain instead of letting both the McCain campaign and the media perpetuate the McCain mythology, to defining himself instead of letting McCain and the Republican Smear Machine do it -- but let's not forget that a few weeks do not make up an entire campaign. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that Obama was on his global tour generating an incredible amount of positive media coverage and basically dominating the campaign. McCain has done well since then, but there is nothing to suggest that he will continue to do as well -- and I mean this in terms of controlling the overall narrative of the campaign -- through the conventions and into the fall. And while Obama has been going through what may be described as a worrying lull, there is nothing to suggest that he won't pick up where he left off upon his return from his overseas trip.

Which is to say, once the campaign gets underway in earnest with the veep picks this week and then, starting on Monday, the conventions, and once Americans start paying attention to the race and the style and substance of the two candidates are put on more prominent public display, I think the advantage will be Obama's once again. Of course, McCain still has his free pass from the media and the Republican Smear Machine is rather effective, but I remain confident that Obama will pull it together and put these last few weeks behind him.

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