Ugh. The numbers are terrible. Tied at 43-43 only a little four months from Election Day. Why can't he close the deal? Why with an economy in the crapper aren't more people coming to his campaign? He should be up by at least 20.
43-43. So said a New York Times/CBS Poll from July 8-11 in 1992. Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
That's why I am getting such a huge kick from the media flipping out that Barack Obama isn't leading John McCain by 800 percentage points. Either they really believe it, and have very short-term memories, or they're just trying to create the sense of a nailbiter, with months and months to go to election day, to keep their ratings up.
Here's what's happening, though.
First, John McCain has used his money on an all-out ad blitz in a handful of swing states. Most of the ads are "intro" ads -- who he is, where he's from. You know, the time as a POW that he is so "hesitant" to talk about. I'll admit, though, the ads are very well done. If they didn't have some impact in the polls, then I'd be sure McCain was about to lose all 50 states. But, here's the thing. You only get one chance to introduce yourself to voters, and the dead of a summer that has very late conventions is probably not the best time to do it. You're reaching a lot fewer people during this time. Thus, with this ad onslaught, McCain has made gains, but only enough to bring him to a four-point deficit in the Real Clear Politics average. Probably not the result the McCain campaign was hoping for. I reckon they thought they could take the lead with ads like this, and they probably could have, if they had run them later.
Meanwhile, what is Obama spending his money on? Yes, he is running ads too, but less concentrated, and a much greater percentage of the money he is raising now is going to his fall warchest (a benefit of forgoing public financing). More importantly, though, he is using his resources for on the ground organizing. Field trainings. Voter registration. Network formation. Those will not yield immediate opinion poll results, but by doing these things now (and perfecting them), the Obama campaign will be able to launch a massive voter-to-voter outreach program when he needs it the most.
Secondly, Obama has used the early part of the summer to get any position adjustments out of the way, with the calculation that it would take a toll in the polls. They're no dummies -- they knew the "flip-flopper" charge would get hurled at them and the more liberal part of his base would be upset with his moderate tone. But, the campaign made the correct decision that it was best to do that now, take the hits in the polls and some enthusiasm, and get it out of the way. No better time than the dead of summer, leaving the rest of the year for mostly positive, ratings-building stuff. The trip abroad was just the first move to get back on their footing. Expect a lot more going forward.
Combined, John McCain has used up his opportunity to play the bio card, and has reaped very marginal results. Now, for the rest of the year, he'll be left to try to build his poll numbers based on policy proposals that mirror George W. Bush's. At the same time, Obama still has his chance, closer to the convention, to get a bounce by introducing himself and his values to the nation. He'll then be able to take full advantage of that bounce with a huge warchest for ad saturation, and a massive well-oiled neighbor-to-neighbor program.
Obama's playing the calendar. It's just what Bill Clinton did in 1992. Before the convention, in the dead of summer, Bill Clinton was an unknown, and those who did know him most likely identified him with the Gennifer Flowers scandal. It wasn't until the Democratic Convention, with the help of a tremendous short film by Harry Thomason, that the nation was introduced to "The Man from Hope."
Right after this, the next poll from NYT/CBS in 1992 showed the largest bounce for a candidate in history. Clinton vaulted ahead 55-31. The organization he had built over the summer was put into overdrive, and he never looked back. George H.W. Bush was left to eat his dust.
Will history repeat itself? Who knows... but Obama is playing the calendar perfectly right. Elections aren't won in July, when only political nerds and 24-hour cable commentators are hanging on every word and every survey. You'd think all the talking heads would remember that.