Mike Berman’s Washington Watch

August 15, 2008 10:55 AM

2008 Presidential Campaign: Obama vs McCain

Think about the Presidential race as a play in 5 acts.

Act 1 Post-"nomination" to the conventions
Act II The Conventions 8/25-9/4/08
Act III Post-conventions to the 1st Debate 
Act IV The Debates 9/26-10/15
Final Act October 16 - November 4, 2008

Act I

This opening act covers the period from June 4th to August 24th.

While there have been flaps about commercials, and arguments whether racism has been injected into the campaign, the reality is that the campaign has been flat during most of this period.

There is periodic criticism of Gallup's daily tracking polls, but if you look at them as snapshots over time, they can tell a story. In the current case, here is the snapshot which they present.

6/6-9 Obama +7
6/30-7/2 Obama +4  
7/13-15 Obama +3
8/10-12 Obama +6

The RealClearPolitics average has Obama leading McCain +4.6. However, Obama has never gone over 50%. If you look at specific polls outside the average, e.g., NBC/WSJ, CBS, Pew, the range is a 5-6 point spread for Obama.

The potential of a convention bounce for Obama, given that the Republican convention starts 3 days later, is unlikely.

A cautionary note. In general, polls this far ahead of the general election should be considered with a grain of salt as the public is not intensely focused or interested. In particular, no attention should be paid to polls that claim to be able to identify likely voters as opposed to registered voters this far ahead of the election.

This race is static and will not really be joined until ACT IV, the debates. Potential voters will start paying real attention to the election at that time and it will be the first real opportunity for them to judge the two candidates side by side.

  • 1st Presidential debate - 9/26 - U of Mississippi
  • Singular V.P. debate - 10/2 - Washington U in St.Louis
  • 2nd Presidential debate - 10/7 - Belmont U in Nashville
  • 3rd Presidential debate - 10/15 - Hofstra U.

McCain is viewed favorably (31%) and unfavorably (32%) by roughly the same number of people. Obama is thought of more favorably (39%) than unfavorably (31%). However, neither Obama or McCain has been able to bust through the top of the charts. [NYT/CBS 7/08]

Respondents to an NBC/WSJ survey asked whether Obama or McCain was better at a number of specific characteristics.

Obama scored above 50% on "being easy going and likeable" and "offering hope and optimism for the future." McCain scored under 20% on those two items.

McCain scored above 50% on "being a good commander-in-chief" and "being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the Presidency." Obama scored under 25% on each of those items.

Barack Obama Better John McCain Better
Being easygoing and likable 59 15
Offering hope and optimism for the future  54 19
Being compassionate enough to understand avg. people 46 22
Improving America's standing in the world  44 30
Having the strong leadership qualities needed to be Pres. 31 42
Being consistent and standing up for his beliefs 30 38
Being honest and straightforward 29 33
Being a good commander-in-chief 25 53
Being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the Presidency 19 53

[NBC/WSJ 7/08]

The public has created an interesting picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates for President painted in the most recent NBC/WSJ survey. (Respondents could provide up to two answer to each question.)

Asked what concerns them about McCain's candidacy, the largest number, 41% say "he would continue George W, Bush's policies." 22% were concerned that he was too committed to keeping troops in Iraq, and a similar number thought his economic policies would favor the wealthy.

When asked what qualities McCain should look for in his Vice Presidential pick, 60% said "an expert on the economy."

When asked their concerns about Obama's candidacy, the #1 answer by 33% of those asked was "inexperienced and not ready to be President." 20% thought he "would not be forceful enough with America's enemies."

In Obama's Vice Presidential pick, 50% said he should choose an expert in military or foreign affairs. [NBC/WSJ 7/08]

The group of low-wage Americans described in State of the Nation above have made a decision about where their interests lie in the Presidential race. They strongly support Barack Obama over John McCain by 58% to 28%. This includes whites 47% to 37%, blacks 96% to 2%, and Hispanics by 61% to 22%.

59% of this group think that Obama is more concerned with needs of people like themselves. Only 21% have that view of McCain. 56% say Obama better represents their personal values than does McCain. 23% say that about McCain.

[Washington Post/Henry J. Kaiser Foundation/Harvard University, June- July 2008]

Various news organizations maintain electoral vote counts that are periodically reassessed and updated. Each organization has its own formula for deciding which candidate will receive a state's electoral votes. The chart below summarizes a number of those reports as of August 12, 2008: (WW has taken the liberty of lumping together firm and leaning counts to the extent those categories are used by a given organization.)

Obama Toss-Up McCain
CNN 221 128 189
MSNBC 217 132 189
NY Times 268 39 231
Pollster.Com 284 100 154
RCP 238 137 163
USA Today 248 155 135
WSJ 120 244 174

A future Washington Watch "Snapshot" will take a more detailed looked at electoral votes. For now, consider the following - the last 4 Presidential elections. Two of which were won by Bill Clinton and two of which were won by George Bush

  • States won by Democrat in all 4 elections - 248 votes
  • States won by Democrat 3 of last 4 elections -16 votes
  • States split by Democrats and GOP - 75 votes
  • States won by GOP in 3 of last 4 elections - 64 votes
  • States won by GOP in all 4 elections - 135 votes

Will Obama's foreign trip make a difference in this election? Early indicators are that it did not hurt and it actually helped slightly. Gallup surveys taken before and after the trip found that the response was 35% positive, 26% negative, and 39% no opinion. There was little change in Americans' views as to whether Obama can handle the responsibilities of commander in chief. In fact, over half of respondents believe he can handle that part of the job.

However, in the Final Act and beyond, if he is elected, the trip is likely to have been a positive undertaking for Obama.

You'll recall that Obama and John McCain disagree on whether the President should meet with the leaders of foreign countries considered to be enemies of the U.S. The public seems to side with Obama. 67%, including, 79% of Democrats, 70% of Independents, and 48% of Republicans, think it is a good idea. [Gallup 5/08]

Obama has shown he can play on the international stage.

56% of all adults, 78% of African Americans, 59% of Hispanics, and 51% of non-Hispanic whites, think racism is widespread in the U.S. [Gallup 8/04]

Will racism in one form or another affect this race? Yes, it will. The question is how great the impact?

The August 2-3 issue of the Wall Street Journal reports that Peter Hart, who is part of the bipartisan team that conducts the NBC/WSJ survey, estimates that 10% of current Democrats and Independents who say they support presumed Democratic Party nominee Barack Obama may not be giving fully honest answers, based on their response to broader questions about race. He said "This election is exceptionally tricky."

Even if the candidates themselves appear to avoid the issue of race, their supporters directly or indirectly will engage it. And you can count on the media doing everything it can to keep the issue live.

Shades of 2000

Al Gore may well have lost the 2000 election because mid-way through the election he started working at being someone he was not. If John McCain loses in 2008, it may well be that it was because he tried to be someone other thmaverick that so many people had come to know and respect.

"George Bush beat John McCain in 2000, and if McCain loses in 2008, George Bush will have beaten him again." (Ken Duberstein)

To date, the two best known 3rd Party or Independent candidates, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader, are polling less than 2% together in Gallup surveys.

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