Over a month ago we said that the 2008 presidential race was becoming a referendum on Barack Obama. Now the polling data has confirmed our hypothesis, and national pundits have said much the same thing. Pause for a moment and consider how truly incredible and unlikely this is. We are six years into an unpopular war and smack in the middle of a modest recession. Every environmental voting factor suggests that this election should be about George Bush and his policies, NOT the Democrat. But to this point, this race is almost totally about Obama. The upside is that he is the talk of the nation and McCain is virtually invisible. The downside, though, is that the Democrats appear to have lost--or at least temporarily ceded--their most important weapon: anti-Bush sentiment. If this election is about Bush/McCain, Obama should win; if it's about Obama, McCain has a chance.
From a strategy perspective it is pretty simple. A large segment of the electorate is not comfortable with Obama yet. There are two things team Obama can do: 1) ease those concerns by demonstrating that Obama is a "safe" choice and 2) link McCain to Bush and make that choice unacceptable irrespective of the Democratic candidate. In my mind, they have chosen to focus almost entirely on the first option, and that may be a fatal strategic error. Perhaps they have decided to do both (they are, of course, not mutually exclusive) but the time horizon for blatant political attacks on McCain may fade the closer we get to Labor Day.
Last Week's News Cycle or, the "No-Bounce" Win for Obama
Is it possible for Obama to get little or no "bounce" out of last week yet still have the week be considered a "win" for his campaign? The answer is "yes." Well, it's a "yes" given his weaknesses, at any rate.
Obama has a problem with many likely voters, some of whom are worried that he is not up to the job. So last week needed to tell swing voters that he is a fundamentally sound candidate.
It was a predictable (and scripted) photo opportunity for candidate Obama. But from a campaign perspective, that's not a bad thing at all; in fact, it's exactly what the campaign needed. Pictures of Obama talking to troops (and thereby appearing supportive of said troops)? Check. Images of Obama talking to military commanders (thus appearing "tough" and "knowledgeable" on foreign policy)? Check. Pictures of Obama meeting with foreign leaders (showing that he's "presidential" and can appear confident on the world stage)? Check. This was a trip designed to reassure voters who questioned all of the above, and to make voters more "comfortable" with the idea of Obama as president.
In and of itself the trip should not be expected to give Obama a bounce. Instead, the trip was meant to solidify core support and begin the process of attracting swing voters. It probably started that process, but people should stop looking for the bounce. At this stage--given how little people know about Obama--there will be volatility in the polls.
100 Days Out - What Does History Tell Us?
With little in the way of new polling data--and the milestone of 100 days until Election Day passing--we decided to take a look at where the race stood at this time over the past five election cycles. While this was an unscientific review, we did try and choose the most representative polls (from reputable pollsters) that we could find. The trend from 1988 - 2004 shows that the GOP candidate tends to under-poll in the summer--with the exception, as you can see below, of the 2000 campaign. In each of the other four years, the Republican candidate had been polling significantly behind the Democrat at this point in the race. Each of those times, however, the Republican improved his position, gaining an average of 15 points relative to the Democrat.
That is a staggering number: equivalent to over 18 million votes based on 2004 turnout numbers. So Republicans have come back before--and McCain's campaign narrative does fit with the "comeback kid" storyline--but what this means for 2008 is difficult to say. It could tell us that Republican candidates tend to do better once the electorate is more focused on the issues and the candidates (similar to what we see in registered voter/likely voter screens, where likely voters--those paying more attention--tend to be slightly more inclined to vote for the Republican candidate), or it could simply be a coincidence based on a variety of external factors related to those particular races and polls. Either way, it's interesting to look at:
What is fascinating in the last few cycles is that--with the exception of Clinton in 1996--the Democratic candidate's vote moves very little from July to Election Day. In fact, if history is some guide here (and we know every election is different), Obama's current vote might be about where it will end up...plus or minus two points.
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