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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Grampy McCain's Bouncy Ride

I try to stay away from posts about poll numbers. Polling data is great to make a point -- I used them just yesterday -- but they aren't really a story all on their own, despite the way the media treats them. Current polling shows John McCain slightly ahead of or tied with Barack Obama. But this is not election day. We're constantly being told that it's only X days until the elections, but the truth is that it's two months. There hasn't been a single debate yet, Sarah Palin has yet to give even an interview, let alone a press conference, and people seem to have the idea that Sarah Palin is running for president. For the record, she's not.

Where the media narrative had previously been that Obama "wasn't winning good enough," don't expect anyone to accuse the McCain camp of that. The new media narrative is that Sarah Palin is running for president. I don't have any numbers to back me up, but I think if you broke any media source down story by story, Palin would get more press than McCain. Which, of course, is the way McCain likes it -- being an old Washington insider running against the Washington establishment makes him a ridiculous candidate. He couldn't reinvent himself at this point, he's too well known, so he invented someone else.

I said I don't like to do posts about poll numbers, but they seem to be the big media story. Horse race reporting strikes me as lazy and not especially informative. Who's winning at the moment is a poor substitute for reporting on the issues. This isn't a football game we're talking about here, this is serious business -- the direction of the nation for the next four years. So it pays to set the horse race reporting straight when it's off the mark.

What we're getting with the "McCain's ahead!" story line are the numbers at the top of the polls, go a little deeper and you see trouble for McCain. One of the latest polls, a survey from Washington Post-ABC News, tells us that Obama, not McCain, wins the question of which "better represents your own personal values" -- 48%-44%. This despite the fact that McCain and Obama are basically tied among registered voters -- Obama 47%, McCain 46%. The economy is listed as the top concern and most believe Obama would do a better economic job -- 47%-42%. The religious right's decline seems to continue, as the survey asks which would better handle "Social issues, such as abortion and gay civil unions," a question Obama wins 48%-41%. Those "personal values?" Not the same ones that the "values voters" freak out about.

In other words, McCain's numbers have all the signs of a post-convention bounce. Obama still wins on the issues. McCain kicks Obama's ass on Iraq, 41%-51%, but Bush is in the process of taking that issue away from McCain -- drawing down troop levels and negotiating what they used to call a "cut and run." It'll be much less of an issue in November and McCain's current position on Iraq will no longer be possible. The Bush administration is quietly adopting Obama's position.

The "McCain's winning" polls already seem to be losing. A CNN poll out yesterday shows the candidates tied.

A new national poll taken entirely after the end of the Republican convention suggests the race for the White House between John McCain and Barack Obama is dead even.

McCain and Obama are tied at 48 percent each, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll out Monday afternoon.

Three percent of voters are undecided in the survey, which was conducted Friday through Sunday.

We're back to the "tight race narrative." The narrower the gap in polling, the more likely the poll is to be reported over and over and over. Close races get good ratings, so a close race is what's reported.

But the fact is that Obama's winning on the issues. Not only that, but people perceive Obama as winning on the issues. McCain's lead on the issue of Iraq is -- I think anyway -- probably not all that representative. I think people understand that question as who would prosecute the war better, not who would be most likely to end it. And ending it is the more popular position.

Another sign of a declining post-convention bounce for McCain; the CNN poll shows GOP enthusiasm is lower than dem enthusiasm. This has been the overriding theme of this entire election cycle. Where 71% of Democrats are excited about the election, only 60% of Republicans are. That's still a 17% increase in Republican enthusiasm, but Democrats still hold the advantage in their get out the vote efforts. Voters who lack enthusiasm aren't as likely to volunteer, donate or -- most importantly -- vote. It's hard to win when your voters stay home.

The poll Republicans are most likely to point to is the USA Today/Gallup poll, which shows McCain clearly ahead of Obama -- 49%-44%. Not only is this out of whack with other polling, but even this poll shows problems for McCain; 63% "say they are concerned [McCain] would pursue policies too similar to those of the current president." Gallup gives Bush an approval rating of 33%. Looks pretty bouncy to me. All of these polls show a significant number of people giving their votes to a candidate they think isn't as good.

Finally, when you open it up to a broader and more real world measure, Obama still holds a clear lead. Taking state-by-state polling and assigning electoral votes based on those polls, Obama -- as has been the case throughout this race -- is way ahead. MSNBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro give the electoral college race to Obama with 228 to 200. MyDD/Huffington Post breaks it down as 264 Obama, 227 McCain. Politico puts it much closer, but done. Closer because it's Obama 273, McCain 265 -- done because you need 270 to win. shows it even more finished (if that's not an abuse of the language), with 281 Obama, 230 McCain.

It's still Obama's race to lose and his internal numbers seem to show he's not all that worried. We're not seeing any signs of a candidate who knows he's behind. There's no calling for a million debates, no headline grabbing stunts, no Obama surrogates on every talking head show that will take them, complaining about the unfair press coverage. Obama the unflappable remains unflapped. He's hitting a little harder now, but that's more of a relief to the left than a concern.

To those on the left freaking out, I say settle down. You've got nothing to worry about at this point. To those on the right measuring drapes for the White House, I say don't get too excited. I've been saying something for a few days now that bears repeating here; it's called a bounce for a reason.

It goes up, but it comes down.



timethief said...

I haven't had the time that I'd like to have to research so I really appreciate you laying out the numbers for me. Thank you.

Wisco said...

NP. Thanks for the comment. Marc Ambinder has a quick breakdown of two polls that have come out since I wrote this and they seem to back me up; McCain's running even, but the ground favors Obama.