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It is often difficult to accurately assess the electoral impact of events during a campaign - especially those that occur more than 3 months prior to Election Day. But in the case of Obama's overseas trip, I think we can mark this down as a substantial tactical and strategic victory.
First, as I have said before - in the words of my friend and colleague, the late Mike Deaver - elections are about impressions. And this trip (and the accompanying coverage and photos) has created an impression of Barack Obama as that of an engaged, serious and strong person. Second, the trip serves to negate the preexisting notion that Obama is not up for the job of President. While it likely has not completely reversed the "inexperienced" impression, the trip has begun the process. Time will tell if other moments can serve Obama in the same way. The campaign will be looking for them to be sure.
From a micro perspective Obama has swamped McCain in terms of positive media coverage, driven largely by this overseas trip. Media reports have, to this point, been almost uniformly glowing. This has been helped along, of course, by comments from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, which seemed to support Obama's plans for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Yes, there has been some criticism that this is a media stunt, but the vast majority of the coverage has been positive, suggesting that this was a sound strategy. Our sense is that when most Americans turn on their televisions, visit their favorite websites or open up their newspapers and see Obama sitting down with foreign leaders and chatting with American soldiers, most of them will say: "Sure, he looks presidential." In the end, that's all that matters.
John McCain has been hammering away at Obama on the stump and in this ad. This, too, is a pretty good strategy: trying to move the conversation away from whether Obama supported the war to whether he supported the surge. Obviously, Obama is vulnerable here. He stated that the surge would be counterproductive, and this line of attack serves to underscore the idea that he is not ready for the job. But this somewhat narrow approach may be obscured by events abroad (Afghanistan, Iran) and at home (gas prices, the economy). Remember that the economy is by far the number one issue in the country right now. Obama only needs to be in the ballpark with McCain on handling Iraq; if he dominates on the issue of the economy, he wins.
As we said in our last Election Monitor, this campaign will be a referendum on Barack Obama. If the American public comes to the conclusion that he can be an effective commander-in-chief - basically, if they become comfortable with the idea of him as President - then he should win the race. But the American public isn't there yet; the one area where Obama still trails McCain is on this key question of leadership and whether he has the "experience" to be president. This is obviously something that the Obama Iraq trip is designed to address. Our sense is that it is working; the question is whether the leadership "bounce" that Obama gets from the trip can be sustained.
Electoral Vote Projection Map
Our electoral vote map has not changed in the last two weeks. To this point, nothing has fundamentally altered the race, either nationally or in any key states. We will have to wait for next week's batch of polling data to see if Obama's overseas trip has any quantifiable impact on the race.
- Michigan (Toss-up). The upper-Midwest is clearly the Obama campaign's center of gravity. With his campaign headquarters and personal and political roots in Chicago, he has taken the sensible strategy of making strong plays for Iowa (which was won by less than 1% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004) and Michigan, a state that went Gore +5.2, Kerry +3.4. Horserace polling in Michigan has consistently shown Obama and McCain within the margin of error. However, the three most recent polls in Michigan (Rasmussen, Quinnipiac/WSJ/WP and PPP) show an average of Obama +8. If this recent bounce continues, we may have to move Michigan into the Obama column.
The Independent Vote
Just one more note before we go. So much has been made of the Independent vote that we decided to take a look at it, both in terms of how Independents are trending in 2008 and how that compares with previous elections. The chart below makes it clear that structural changes and disaffection with the current administration hasn't translated into increased support for Obama--yet. For all the talk of Bush's base-pandering and Obama's popularity among swing voters, the middle is being split between the two candidates, and it's been that way for the last eight years. For historical perspective, the small edge Obama currently enjoys is nothing compared to the huge Independent support garnered by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.