Dan Balz's Take
A Survey That Raises Tough Questions
By Dan Balz
Democratic superdelegates watching the competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and wondering what to do ought to take a look at the latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. The survey, out Thursday morning, doesn't provide all the answers they're looking for but does raise all the right questions.
Much attention will no doubt focus on traditional measurements: the Democratic horserace -- Obama and Clinton are now tied at 45 percent each, compared with a Clinton lead of 47-43 percent two weeks ago -- and the general election match-ups showing Obama up 2 points over John McCain and McCain up 2 points over Clinton.
Much attention also will focus on the fallout from the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which shows both that Obama has been damaged at least a bit by his long association with the Chicago pastor and, perhaps more surprisingly to those addicted to cable news coverage of the campaign, that a sizable portion of the country has paid relatively little attention to the whole episode.
Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducts the survey with Republican Bill McInturff, provided a more intimate tour of the findings, while offering the useful reminder to everyone following the race to remain focused on the big questions and the large forces at work, rather than the provocations from the last campaign conference call or brushfire on the campaign trail.
Has Obama weathered the Wright storm? Not entirely, Hart says. Although the initial reactions show now significant falloff in support, Obama will have the Wright controversy still clouding his candidacy, particularly if he becomes the Democratic nominee. As Hart put it, "I still think this is out ahead of the Obama campaign."
Hart described Obama's response to the uproar over Wright, particularly his speech on race delivered a week ago, as a down payment toward solving the problem. "I would not say it's behind him but it's a beginning introduction," Hart said. "He's going to see an awful lot of Jeremiah Wright by 527s throughout the rest of the campaign. For people who don't know, they need to be able to see Obama in a way they can relate to and feel comfortable about."
This may be Obama's single biggest challenge, in Hart's estimation. Obama is not a conventional candidate. He is biracial, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother. He spent some of his early years in Indonesia. This is not the typical biography of presidential candidates.
Other questions in the survey underscore the work ahead for Obama, if he becomes the Democratic nominee. Just 50 percent of those surveyed said the Illinois senator has the background or a set of values they identify with. Hart noted, "That number will have to go up for him to be successful in the presidency."
Those Americans who watched the race speech were divided on their reaction. Thirty percent said they were reassured about Obama's thinking and beliefs about race while 28 percent said they were left with uncertainties. Eleven percent did not have a firm opinion either way. That left 31 percent who said they did not see the speech. "They're going to need more," Hart said.
What that adds up to is a large question mark about Obama's candidacy, which Hart reduces simply to: Is he safe? That is not unlike the question that confronted Ronald Reagan, for an entirely different set of reasons, in 1980. When Reagan successfully answered that question late in the campaign, a tight election became a landslide. Hart's hunch is that if Obama successfully answers that question as the Democratic nominee, what now looks like a close election may not be -- but that depends on what happens between now and then.
The NBC-Wall Street Journal survey raises big questions about Clinton and McCain as well, Hart said. For Clinton it is one that has trailed her throughout the campaign: Is she likable and trustworthy?
Clinton is well liked by Democrats, but among independents, she has considerable work to do. Overall, her positive rating in the new poll is 37 percent, her negative rating 48 percent. Hart said that is the lowest she's recorded in an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll since early 2001, just after the bad publicity over the pardons handed out by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as they were leaving the White House.
Among independents, her ratings are 24 percent positive and 56 percent negative. In contrast, Obama's ratings among independents are 49 percent positive and 29 percent negative. On the question of whether she has the kind of background or values people identify with, 73 percent of Democrats, but just 32 percent of independents, say yes.
Hart said only a small portion of that negative rating stems from the recent publicity given to her exaggerations about a trip to Bosnia during her husband's presidency. She claimed to have dodged sniper fire upon arrival; video from the trip shows her receiving a warm and peaceful greeting.
Instead, Hart's belief is that some of the negativity comes from the focus on her campaign of late -- what he called the "I deserve it" air emanating from those around her -- in contrast to the "fighting Hillary" who won the popular vote in the Ohio and Texas primaries. Her weakness among independents creates big problems for Clinton in a general election against McCain.
McCain's challenge is to demonstrate that his administration would not be an extension of President Bush's. McCain has set out to show that -- as his foreign policy speech in California on Wednesday demonstrated. But the public has not come to a conclusion on that question.
Hart also believes the Clinton-Obama competition already is doing damage to the Democratic Party. Already a quarter of Clinton primary voters say they would back McCain over Obama in a general election and a similar percentage of Clinton voters say they would support McCain against Obama. The longer the race goes on, Hart warned, the more that number will grow. That doesn't mean those voters won't come home in the fall, but it will take some real effort on the part of the eventual nominee.
Between now and the end of the primaries, superdelegates will be watching the two candidates closely, not just to see who wins, but to weigh which one appears more likely to successfully answer the questions voters still have about them. The more Clinton and Obama and their advisers get back to real campaigning, rather than sniping about superdelegates or the latest flap from some distant precinct, the more good they're likely to do themselves and their party.
Posted at 5:50 PM ET on Mar 27, 2008
Dan Balz's Take
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