Latest Gallup National Democratic Tracking Poll: Obama-Clinton Now in Dead Heat -- Will the Pundits and Media Analyze Why?

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Lanny Davis Principal, Lanny J. Davis and Associates LLC

In the three-day ongoing Gallup Poll of 1,252 Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters from Thursday-Saturday April 17-19, with a narrow +/- margin of error of 3%, Hillary Clinton has now pulled statistically even with Senator Obama over this time period. As of Friday night, April 18, the 3-day tracking poll showed Senator Clinton also in a statistical dead heat (with Senator Clinton + 1%, 46-45% three dyas of calling (between April 17-19).

Overall, this represents a dramatic drop by Senator Obama among Democrats and independent leaners of about 9% in less than a week -- a drop that Gallup says began just before the recent ABC debate and continued and has leveled off as of Saturday.

This, after Gallup has headlined for weeks that Senator Obama had gained a steady lead over Senator Clinton nationally among Democrats and independents-leaners -- indeed, Gallup says this is the first time since mid-March that Obama has not been in the lead.

("Tracking" polls are generally regarded as the most reliable of polling techniques to describe trends between two candidates, since the technique is to call about the same random sample of voters every night, adding the last three nights and dropping the prior fourth night. In the highly respected Gallup tracking poll, Gallup is calling 1,000 voters each night, out of which about 400 identify themselves as Democrats or independent-leaning Democratic voters, giving a three day relatively high total of 1,200 Democratic voters (and thus, the small =/- variance of 3%.))

When Obama took a lead of +11% in this same tracking poll as recently as a little over a week ago and maintained it, most print journalists in the mainstream media covering the campaign and certainly every cable TV evening news and pundit show made a big deal and headlined this lead as establishing the Senator Obama had just about wrapped up the nomination. This was not coincidentally accompanied by the Obama campaign spreading that message all over, and stirring its surrogates to call upon Senator Clinton to give it up, even before the Pennsylvania primary.

So now my question and challenge is to the national media covering the campaign, and especially to the cable TV shows -- from the Situation Room on CNN to the persistently and unashamedly pro-Obama MSNBC nightly cable TV hosts to the New York Times and other national political reporters: Will you headline the current apparent decline of Barack Obama's national Democratic Party strength and the Hillary Clinton surge within the last week alone -- or not?

Sure I am a partisan of Senator Clinton and I can be accused of using the word "decline" and "surge" motivated to help her make the case to superdelegates that she is the stronger candidate against John McCain. But forget about my admitted bias (I call it conviction) that Senator Clinton is the far stronger Democratic candidate against Senator McCain. And I ask the pro-Obama cable TV talk show hosts -- the most admittedly biased of all, Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball -- will you at least have objective and neutral analysts to analyze what has happened to Barack Obama's standing among Democrats in the last two weeks -- and what has happened to Senator Clinton's? A 9-point drop in such a short period of time by Senator Obama -- or, from Senator Clinton's perspective, an 11 point gain -- in a tracking poll is, by any standard of the polling profession, extremely and unusually large.

It could be an aberration. Senator Obama's slight improvement from Friday night's 3-day results to Saturday night's (from minus 1% to Senator Clinton to +2%) shows that Friday night's calls resulted in his winning that night's calling by a good margin. We will have to wait a few more days to see if Senator Obama resumes his prior substantial lead or whether things have just leveled off between the two. (Other news organizations, for example, such as Newsweek, still have Senator Obama in a substantial double digit lead among Democrats). But the Gallup tracking poll seems to be the most current with the largest total calls and the smallest margin of error.

But it is just possible, just possible, that this is not an aberration. We shall see. It is just possible that those of us who have continually over these many months expressed concerns about Senator Obama's political weakness in the general election, as shown by his inability to win any major industrial state and especially his weakness in the key swing states Democrats must carry to win back the White House, may be right. And if the latter is the case, this is exactly the reason why Senator Clinton should not allow herself to be pushed out of the race prematurely -- and why superdelegates should not feel pushed into an artificial deadline to "decide" their vote.

And rather than pushing Senator Clinton out of the race too soon, the grassroots of the party need to be allowed to express its wishes as to who it wants to be the nominee -- and superdelegates, whether committed or uncommitted, need to keep their eyes on the big prize -- winning back the White House. And to do so, they need to watch the results of the remaining primaries, the popular vote totals, the delegate vote totals -- and -- especially --- on the national and state-by-state poll results before making a final decision.

Clinton Consistently Doing Better Than Obama Against McCain vs. Obama in Battleground States

Take a look at the state-by-state results comparing how Senator Clinton is doing against Senator McCain vs. Senator Obama and the results are even scarier. In the national polls, with all the fearsome talk by the Obama campaign about Senator Clinton's "high negatives" and being a "polarizer" the latest Gallup tracking poll, again as of Saturday night, April 19, shows Senator Clinton to be running dead even with Senator McCain -- actcuall plus 1% or 46%-45% -- as is Senator Obama (who is dead even at 45%-45%). Gallup points out that the trend has been slightly going against Obama, who had led McCain a week ago by a statistically insignificant +3%.

But at the same time he held that lead, state polls in Florida were showing him losing to Senator McCain by a considerable margin while Senator Clinton was slightly ahead; losing in Ohio by a small margin with Senator Clinton ahead by a small margin; and -- this the most shocking and scary of all for Democrats who want to win back the White House -- in a virtual dead heat with Senator McCain in the state of Massachusetts! (Senator Clinton, who defeated Senator Obama in the Massachusetts primary by about 15%, despite the endorsements of Senators Kerry and Kennedy and Governor Patrick, as well as Caroline Kennedy, is ahead of Senator McCain in Massachusetts as well).

So what is my theory as to why Senator Obama has dropped so significantly in the last week or two and Senator Clinton has risen?

To repeat my caveat: polls are snapshots of a moving picture, and these latest Gallup tracking results could be aberrational. And I could be wrong about my assessment of the reasons for Senator Obama's apparent collapse in the last two weeks if it is a collapse at all. But here is my current operating theory:

I am not sure, but I believe the same uneasiness that I have increasingly felt over these last several weeks about Senator Obama as our party's candidate against Senator McCain has been the case among other Democrats across the nation. The issues for me are a mix of things, some specific, some intangible: for example, the continuing uneasy over murky answers by Senator Obama as to why he remained silent for so long in the face of Rev. Wright's hateful sermons; the fact it took Senator Obama so long to understand -- if he does even today -- why he offended so many rural and cultural conservative voters when he said they were "bitter" over the economy, and thus, the "clinged" to guns and religion and anti-immigration sentiments as a result, rather than holding these views independent of frustration over the economy; and most recently, the Obama campaign's over-reaction and criticism of the ABC moderators' tough questions of Senator Obama in the recent debate, and Senator Obama's (to me at least) apparently flippant and, yes I must use the word, arrogant reaction in referring to it in the days after (at one point he actually accusing Senator Clinton of "twisting the knife") -- these and other negative impressions have caused me greater concern about Senator Obama's electability in a contest against Senator McCain. And, it is just possible, I am not alone, and there are so many other Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents out there feeling the same way as I for many of the same reasons that it might explain Senator Obama's dramatic drop of over 10% in a tracking poll in a little more than a week. .

Meanwhile, Senator Clinton remains dignified, virtually unflappable, focused on economic issues and health care, and showing continuing signs of strength in the Democratic Party's core base ever since FDR -- blue collar voters, workers, senior citizens, middle class working women. She has come across as human, vulnerable, likable, and as always, commanding and mature on the issues. Of course, as I readily admit, I am biased: I think she is the best candidate and I think she would make a great president. So feel free to discount those positive impressions.

The Pennsylvania Primary

I don't know whether Senator Obama or Senator Clinton will win Pennsylvania and by what margin. I really don't.

I only know that Senator Obama has been outspending Senator Clinton by as much as 2:1 or by some accounts 3:1 or more on TV ads and radio ads that, I am told, are running round the clock. I don't buy the Obama campaign-created bar, bought by most of the media and pro-Obama punditry, that Senator Clinton has to win Pennsylvania by double digits. Such a bar doesn't reflect the overpowering reality of being outspent on TV and radio (and much more, presumably, in direct mail and GOTV) by this margin -- especially by round-the-clock unasnwered negative attack TV and radio ads that the Obama campaign is running, many of them personal attacks on Senator Clinton's character.

In short: I hope Senator Clinton wins, period, by any margin, and will be happy if she does and disappointed if she doesn't.

But the big news in Pennsylvania, even if Senator Clinton wins by a single digit margin, will be in the exit polls demographic data. That is what everyone -- especially superdelegates who care about winning back the White House -- should focus on. If Senator Obama loses Pennsylvania by whatever margin and, most important, if his demographic base is still the same as before -- virtually all African Americans, upper income liberal activist professionals, and college students -- then the issue of electability should be even more of concern for Democrats.

No artificial deadline for superdelegates to decide is valid other than when they are convinced they have identified the strongest candidate to run against Senator McCain. (Note to Howard Dean: When I wanted you to be public and forceful in mandating that Senator Obama agree to an "re-vote" by mail and by firehouse in Michigan and Florida -- which Senator Clinton ultimately said she would favor -- you were disappointingly unwilling. Now for some reason you are insisting that all superdelegates make up their minds immediately after the last primary. I would suggest, respectfully, that you revert to your previous silence and let each superdelegate, in conscience, decide for themselves who can best defeat Senator McCain -- and look to the national and state polls as one of the many ingredients of that important and complex decision).

So no we shall see: Will CNN, MSNBC, Fox and the ABC, NBC, and CBS network political correspondents headline the dramatic new Gallup tracking poll showing Senator Obama's dramatic drop? At least to the same extent as they headlined the +9% Obama advantage a little more than a week ago? And, more importantly, will they ask themselves, and their guests, why Senator Obama has apparently gone through such a dramatic political decline (that is, assuming it is not aberrational)? And go out to the grassroots and do some hard reporting to figure this question out, rather than interviewing each other?

And if Senator Obama loses Pennsylvania, will they focus on getting an answer to the question: How can Senator Obama win in the more conservative general electorate if he hasn't been able to win in the more liberal electorate of any major large industrial state in the nation -- from Massachusetts to New Jersey to Ohio to California (and, perhaps after Tuesday night, to Pennsylvania)? Why has he lost? Outspending Senator Clinton to such a degree on TV, why has he lost these states Democrats must win to win the presidency?

I may not have the answer right. But now it's time for all the national political media in print and on broadcast and cable TV to start to press for answers -- and not be intimidated by about criticism from the pro-Obama blogosphere because they are asking tough questions.