08/05/2008 01:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Closer Than You Think

John McCain won the earned media battle last week because the predominant political discourse centered on the issues of race and celebrity--not the economy, the war and George W. Bush. Any time the focus of this election is about something other than the aforementioned three issues it is good for John McCain. Team McCain didn't just knock Obama off-message; it sent his entire campaign bus careening down a back road.

Count me as one of the few analysts who actually thinks the celebrity ad with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears was a good one. Sure, the execution was a bit awkward, but the net-net is that the images stick and they resonate with a good number of swing voters who worry that Obama lacks the substance to be President. The images fit the preconceived notion that some voters already have in their heads. Any time you can tap into these stored perceptions it is that much easier to get your point across. The ad works because it rings true.

So Obama spent the week counterpunching instead of talking about gas prices and the housing slump. And remember the substantive attack points in the "Celebrity" spot: Obama isn't ready, he hasn't accomplished anything, he has no energy plan and he'll raise your taxes. Pretty darn good bogeymen if you ask me.

New Survey Results: Presidential Ballot Test

Recently we conducted a national survey of 850 registered voters. If you're in a hurry: Obama is currently ahead 40% to 35% (we didn't push respondents to make a choice between the two, which is why we have a large "undecided" contingent of around 16%). We think this is a more accurate reflection of the electorate given the early stage of the election.

Cutting the sample to only likely voters (n=647), however, reduces the Obama lead to just two points (40%-38%). This confirms some of the public polling data (and conventional wisdom) that McCain does better in polls of likely voters--and, indeed, perhaps at the polls on Election Day--than he does in polls of all registered voters. While right now that discrepancy is not quite close enough to suggest a McCain victory, it seems fair to say that a lead of less than five points for Obama in polls of registered voters--whether national or statewide--may not indicate much of an advantage at all.
Looking at the demographic breakdown of these registered voters, John McCain has a six-point lead among men and Obama has a 14-point advantage among women. The gender gap has widened somewhat since a previous national poll we conducted in May, where McCain was +4 among men and Obama was +10 among women (this reflects a normalization of the race along recent Presidential voting patterns).

Given his struggles to woo older voters away from Hillary Clinton, it is somewhat surprising that Obama is in a statistical dead heat with McCain among voters 65 and older (he actually leads among those ages 55 and older). With Obama continuing to carry all voters under 35 by the wide margin that propelled him to his primary victory, it's natural to wonder where McCain's support comes from.

The answer is middle-aged and older men. The only age/gender categories where McCain leads? Men aged 35-54 (McCain + 10), 55-64 (McCain +7) and 65 and older (McCain +17). Of course in the past these cohorts have been the most likely to make it to the polls on Election Day.

For a couple of weeks now we've been talking about this election as a referendum on Barack Obama (rather than a choice between Obama and McCain). While we'd like to have a few more surveys to confirm this, it appears that--despite the groundswell in Democratic support as measured by party identification--12% of registered voter Democrats remain undecided, compared with 9% of Republicans.

The fact that 12% of Democrats have yet to throw their full support behind their party's most appealing candidate since Bill Clinton is stunning. Furthermore, Republicans have also traditionally had the advantage in turning out their own partisans. For example, VNS exit polls in 2000 show that 91% of Republicans voted for George W. Bush, while "only" 86% of Democrats voted for Al Gore. That five-point edge may seem small, but, as we have seen many times, it can swing an election. Another point of interest that may be a surprise to those who feel swamped by the intensity and persistence of the 2008 election coverage: 28% of independents have yet to make up their minds. This thing is a lot closer than people realize.

Obama's Overseas Trip

While it begins to fade from the news media consciousness, we do have some data to share on the impact of Obama's trip to Europe, Afghanistan and the Middle East. According to our recent survey, 75% of registered voters "definitely read, saw or heard something" about his trip. We then asked those respondents whether "learning about Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries has made you more confident or less confident in his ability to serve as President, or has it had no impact?" The overwhelming majority (56%) claimed that it had had no impact. (A caveat: it sometimes may take days, weeks or even months for voters to "digest" an event like this, and even then they're sometimes reluctant to admit that it had an impact on their attitudes). Twenty-three percent of these voters said Obama's trip made them "more confident" in his ability to serve as President and 18% said that it had made them "less confident." Among likely voters, the impact of the trip was roughly the same. Of course, the majority of those who claimed the trip had instilled greater confidence in Obama were Democrats. Among undecided voters, 66% said the trip had no impact and just six percent said it had made them "more confident."
We also presented respondents with two statements about Obama's trip and asked them which one they agreed with more. The statements were:
  1. Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries is a sincere effort on his part to get a first-hand look at conditions in those areas so that he can make informed foreign policy decisions.
  2. Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries is just a political stunt so that he can have campaign-style photo opportunities with foreign leaders in an effort to look presidential.
Half (49%) thought that his trip was a "sincere effort," approximately one-third (36%) felt that it was a "political stunt," and the rest thought it was either a mix of both or weren't sure. Interestingly, those undecided voters who had an opinion either way were more cynical: slightly more than one-third (36%) felt that it was a "sincere effort," another third (35%) felt it was a political stunt and ten percent felt that it was both (the rest were unsure). So with no apparent bounce in the polls--and most voters claiming to be unmoved--in the end the trip may have been just what it appeared to be: a chance for some photo opportunities.

As we said previously, the trip was a start in the "build up Obama" process. This data suggests that this will need follow-up and reinforcement before it becomes a bankable attribute. At this point, this election is still about Obama and many voters are still unsure about him.

Thanks again to John "Zippy" Zirinsky and Pete Ventimiglia for their efforts on this week's Election Monitor.