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The Surprising Closeness of the Contest

Despite a general sentiment that John McCain's campaign has gone through an extremely difficult -- and disorganized -- past month, a series of recent polls suggest that the Arizona senator remains within striking distance of Barack Obama with less than four months remaining until the November election.

The relative closeness of the race between the two men has emboldened some Republicans who believe that as long as McCain can stay a few points back heading into the fall campaign -- when casual voters begin paying serious attention to the race -- he has a chance to pull off a major upset.

"The fact Obama is not ahead by 20 [to] 25 points is because his policies are too far left for the American people," said Republican direct mail consultant Dan Hazelwood. "[Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael] Dukakis would be in an identical position to Obama right now." (Dukakis lost the 1988 presidential election to then Vice President George H.W. Bush 53 percent to 46 percent.)

Take the most recent poll by Newsweek magazine on the presidential race. Obama takes 44 percent of the vote while McCain receives 41 percent, a statistically insignificant margin and a major change from the 15-point bulge for Obama in the same poll less than a month ago.

While each candidate seems to have largely unified his base (McCain take 83 percent of self identifying Republicans, Obama 81 percent of self identifying Democrats), it's among the independent voters where the Arizona senator has gained.

McCain takes 41 percent of the vote among independents to Obama's 34 percent -- a sign that the maverick appeal that McCain demonstrated during the 2000 campaign still resonates with voters who don't closely identify with either party.

"The fact that [McCain is] in range shows the power of the brand he's built, and demonstrates the weakness and uncertainty surrounding Obama's popular but ill-defined change message," said Phil Musser, former executive director of the Republican Governors Association and now a GOP consultant.

McCain's lead among independents may also suggest that Obama's recent moves to the ideological center on the war in Iraq and domestic wiretapping legislation have created some doubts in voters' minds about what he stands for. Asked whether they agreed with the statement that Obama "has changed his positions on key policy issues to try to gain political advantage," 53 percent of Newsweek respondents said they did while 32 percent said they did not.

Another interesting finding from the Newsweek poll is that there seems to be a massive age gap forming around the choice between Obama and McCain. Among voters aged 18 to 39, Obama led McCain 56 percent to 33 percent; voters 40-59 were essentially a wash (44 percent McCain/41 percent Obama) while those 60 years of age or older went for McCain by a 48 percent to 37 percent margin.

And, if you are a Democrat, the poll also included ominous numbers that suggest that past may be prologue in this race. At roughly this point in the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry led President George W. Bush by a 47 percent to 44 percent margin in the Newsweek survey; at this point in 2000, the race was knotted between Bush (41 percent) and then Vice President Al Gore (40 percent).

A look beyond the Newsweek poll suggests that while Obama is ahead, the margin is tenuous enough to give Democrats pause.

The Real Clear Politics poll of polls, which compiles an average of national polls to develop a general sense of where the race stands, puts Obama at 46.6 percent and McCain at 42.6 percent -- a steady but not insurmountable edge.

The fact that McCain trails by only four points in the poll of polls is somewhat remarkable given the developments of the last month or so.

Obama finally vanquished Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primary race, a win that provided him a huge amount of attention in the national media -- coverage that seemed to suggest, albeit it subtly, that the hard part of the race was over for the Illinois senator.

McCain, on the other hand, has weathered a series of stumbles -- his widely panned speech on June 3, an address that will forever be defined in political history by the lime green backdrop behind him, a staff shakeup, former Senator Phil Gramm's "mental recession" comments -- that have hijacked his message for weeks.

And, McCain's campaign flubs have come in perhaps the least friendly environment for the Republican party since 1974. In the Newsweek poll, just 28 percent approved of the job Bush was doing while 63 percent disapproved. A Pew poll in the field late last month showed that just 19 percent of the country is satisfied with the direction of the country while 76 percent is dissatisfied.

Despite all of that, McCain is right on Obama's tail and, depending on which poll you believe, closing the gap a bit.

"Given the weak Republican brand, the negative political environment and President Bush's historic low approval marks, recent polls showing McCain running neck-and-neck with Obama have got to be seen as an encouraging sign for McCain," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "Given the tilt of this electorate, it's fairly surprising that Obama hasn't been able to 'close the deal' with voters."

Polling suggests that while voters are uniquely dissatisfied with the direction of the country and clamoring for a change, they are not yet entirely sold on the idea that Obama, clearly the change agent in the race, is ready to assume the most powerful job in the world.

The task for McCain then over the next few months is to continue to raise doubts about Obama's experience and readiness for office while staying within five or six points of the Illinois senator in most polling.

Frederick Yang, a Democratic pollster with Garin-Hart-Yang Research, pointed out that McCain's numbers in the national surveys combined with state polling showing Obama's strength in traditionally Republican states suggests that Republicans need not get too excited.

"If you subscribe to the theory that this is a quasi-incumbent race (3rd Bush term), then John McCain being 'stuck' in the mid 40s in the national polls doesn't indicate the race is deadlocked, especially since the undecideds will ultimately break to the challenger," explained Yang. "And the recent state polling, which shows a surprisingly competitive race in GOP strongholds like North Dakota and Georgia, are probably more reflective of the dire strait the McCain campaign is actually in."

Given the massive national wind blowing directly in his face, it's hard to imagine McCain ever opening up a major lead in this contest. McCain needs to lay his hopes on the fact that when undecided voters really begin to consider their choices -- typically in the last few weeks of the campaign -- he remains a viable alternative if they decide Obama is too risky.

For the moment, McCain is doing just that. Can he keep it up through the summer?

By Chris Cillizza  |  July 14, 2008; 12:17 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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