The first two weeks of August have not been good for Barack Obama. As we said last week, McCain's "Celebrity" ad--along with his campaign's subsequent attacks on Obama--blunted any momentum Obama may have gotten from his overseas trip and kept this thing close. Given that all of the internals (right direction/wrong track, generic congressional ballot and party ID) and the Illinois senator's huge "intensity gap" support an Obama/Democrat blowout, it is astounding that he is underperforming as much as he is. The electorate, of course, is still in flux, as a large segment of voters is still undecided (or switchable); it is clear, however, that Barack Obama has not come nearly far enough to close the sale on this election.
It is worth repeating what we said last week: the McCain attacks on Obama are working. And when you look at how long it took Obama's team to respond to the "Celebrity" spot (nearly two weeks) you can't help but be reminded of John Kerry in the summer of 2004. Voters don't just look at the candidates and their issue positions, they look at how the candidates run their campaigns and make decisions, and Obama has looked awfully soft in his response to this charge. Combine this with his tepid statements on the Russia-Georgia crisis and you have the makings of a legitimate campaign swoon. Plain and simple, the McCain team has been winning the earned media battle for the last two weeks.
This is a difficult election to classify because there is no incumbent president or vice president in the race, but it might be helpful to look at past elections to give us some guidance. While there are multiple ways to categorize elections, in every presidential election the two sides try to make the election hinge on some mix of referendum and personality (including the policies the candidate stands for). The winning campaign is the one that better succeeds in establishing its frame and making the case for it.
Some elections are more of a referendum and some are more about personality/issues. For example, 1980 and 1992 were clearly referendum elections. In both cases the electorate decided that things were bad and the alternative was acceptable (Reagan in '80 and Clinton in '92). In each case the referendum on the current administration worked for the challenger. In 2004 the direction of the country was poor but voters decided that the alternative (Kerry) was not acceptable. Kerry's referendum on Bush failed.
This year is clearly a referendum on Bush and the direction of the country and, as we have said before, if Obama is viewed as acceptable to a majority of voters he will win this election. Whichever side does a better job of framing the debate will win. Right now McCain is doing a good job of framing the debate as "this guy (Obama) isn't ready to lead." Obama's basic change thematic might be enough on its own because things are seen as so bad, but to improve his "referendum" position he needs to do a better job of tying Bush and McCain together.
So, at its core, this election is about Obama's ability to make this a referendum and him the acceptable alternative to the current course. Therefore, a McCain strategy to make Obama unacceptable is his only winning course of action. Any other strategy would be political malpractice. Contrast ads work. Anyone who says McCain has gone too negative too early has never been involved in a political campaign. In 2004, the Bush team started running attack ads against Kerry in March. Of course, that year there was a Democratic nominee much sooner but it shows that it makes sense to start defining your opponent in July and August.
According to a July Wall Street Journal poll there is both a "generation gap" and an "intensity gap" in the 2008 Presidential race. We have seen this in our own polling and in polling by other media outlets, as well. In this particular WSJ survey Obama leads McCain among 18-34 year olds by 24 points (55% to 31%). Among those 65 years of age and older McCain led Obama by 10 points (51% to 41%). There is also an enthusiasm or intensity gap between Obama's and McCain's vote with almost half (44%) of Obama voters saying they are enthusiastic about their candidate and only 14% of McCain voters saying the same. Inevitably, then, we have some questions that will be answered come November:
- What percentage of the 2008 electorate will be 18-29 year olds? If their raw vote totals are up but their share of the electorate remains the same then the impact is less. According to the VNS and NES exit polls, in 2000 and 2004 they represented approximately 17% of the vote. Yes, the raw vote total for 18-29 year olds increased significantly in 2004 but so did other age cohorts. If the 2008 youth vote share increases (to say 20%) and Obama improves upon the Kerry vote among this cohort (54%) then he will be tough to beat. If, however, the percentage of 18-29 year olds remains at about 17% and Obama does only marginally better than Kerry did with this group (let's say he wins that share of the electorate with around 56-58%) then I don't see the youth vote having as much of an impact. (An aside: according to Pollster.com contributor Charles Franklin, who uses more reliable Census CPS turnout data, the young did actually increase their share of the electorate, but not by an impactful margin. As he says, "Perhaps we will indeed see another rise, as we did in 2004. But unless something truly unprecedented occurs, no one can win on the young alone.")
- How much of the intensity/enthusiasm gap is due to Obama's overwhelming lead among 18-34 year olds? There is no doubt that the enthusiasm level among McCain's core vote needs to improve-and Obama's lead here is an important ingredient for driving likely voters--but I am not sure that the enthusiasm difference isn't being artificially inflated by the youth vote (a cohort that doesn't historically vote in overwhelming numbers). Again, time will tell.
National Horserace Observations
As the below chart indicates, the race remains close. From a macro level, Obama was poised to blow this race open in mid- to late-June when most polls had him up by double-digits. Since that time we have seen the gap close. Also, take a look at the numbers in March when the Reverend Wright story broke. Yes, Obama was still engaged in a primary battle and Clinton voters were not likely in the fold yet, but clearly that news story was a staggering blow and it showed up in his head-to-head numbers with McCain.