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56 Days to Go and Obama Takes a Hit


We don't blame our fellow political observers for succumbing to temptation and declaring that John McCain has vaulted into the lead in the presidential race. It is a compelling story; the problem is that it is probably not true (not yet anyway). Yes, the latest round of polling shows some movement toward McCain. But we will need at least another week of data points to truly determine if the GOP convention signaled a fundamental shift in the race's dynamic.

Having said that, something is happening here...and this is our up-to-the-minute take on the political landscape:

  1. The Obama team has taken the bait and decided to try to take down Sarah Palin--this is a major strategic miscalculation. A focus on McCain-Bush is their key to success and anything else is simply a distraction. It also keeps Palin in the spotlight and not Obama. The Obama campaign has demonstrated a glaring weakness in its message discipline.


  2. The McCain vote is moving because he is peeling off "lean Obama" voters and attracting undecideds. As exposed in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, this movement has come disproportionately from white women. According to the survey, McCain is now leading among white women by 12 points (53% to 41%). This is a big shift from just ten days ago, when an ABC/Post poll had Obama leading 50%-42% among that same cohort. Please note that these were voters who were not solid Obama voters (they were leaners) and we will continue to see some back-and-forth among this group before the election. But it does not take away from the fact that this is a huge problem for Obama. We think this is a pivotal voting block and here is why:

    In 2004 John Kerry received 44% of the vote among white women (according to VNS exit polls). In 2000, Gore got 48% of the same vote. Since Obama will draw both young and black voters in greater raw numbers, he probably doesn't need 48% of white women to win, but it certainly cannot be as low as 42%. Our sense is that Obama needs to get at least 46% of the vote among white women to win this election.


  3. The McCain message pivot to "change" is a gamble but probably a necessary one. Obama has owned this message from day one and any time you play in your opponent's playground you can get into trouble. But in a hostile electoral environment with 80% of the country saying that things are going in the wrong direction...did the McCain campaign have any other choice? We don't think so. Also, one thing that most commentators have overlooked (including us): it became far easier to adopt the change/reformer mantra when Obama picked Biden. The VP pick is mostly important for what it says about the Presidential nominee, and in retrospect the Biden selection--while balancing the ticket with some much-needed experience--damaged Obama's "change" message and signaled to voters that Obama might not be all that much different from other politicians.

  4. The GOP base came home last week and that is why the race is essentially tied. Part of this is Palin and part of this is a GOP convention that (especially on Tuesday and Wednesday) sharply contrasted the two parties. The party became energized by both.

  5. The Palin effect is not about Hillary...it is about cultural conservatism. Palin connected with many Republicans and swing voters on cultural issues. This reinforces something we have been saying for months: presidential elections are about people and "trust," not about issues. Yes, policy positions matter but personae (voter perceptions of the candidates' values) trumps issues every time.

  6. The media coverage of poll questions on voter enthusiasm has been way overblown and, in some circumstances, just plain dumb. Voters are enthusiastic about their candidate/party if they believe it can win. It is as simple as that. Republicans were not very enthusiastic about McCain because they thought he was going to lose. Now, after a month of strong comparative ads, the Palin pick, and a strong and highly-viewed convention, they believe they have a chance. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released yesterday shows that Republican enthusiasm for voting is up 18 points in the last week...and almost equal to Democratic engagement.

sep 9 enthusiasm.png

Where Things Stand Today

The McCain campaign had a very good convention and, therefore, it had a very good week. More importantly, new polling data suggests that there has probably been some movement in voter intentions. In seven polls conducted over the weekend (after the GOP convention) the race is either tied or McCain is in the lead. We believe that McCain is likely 1-2 points ahead at this juncture--a number obviously within the margin of error.


sep 9 poll table.png

However, a glimpse at the Gallup poll (a tracking poll using a three-day moving average) going back three weeks shows both the volatility of the electorate and the impact of each party's convention. Essentially, we are back where we were two weeks ago. Again, this reinforces the idea that we will have to wait at least a week to determine how things will shake out in the aftermath of both conventions.

sep 9 gallup.png

LCG EV Map

sep 9 map.png

Obviously the movement in national polls has caused us to examine the effect on various states. Again, we have limited new polling data within the states but the impact of the possible shift in voter intentions has influenced our placement of some states and solidified our conviction with respect to some previous decisions.

  1. We have moved NH to toss-up
    1. While there have been no new polls conducted since the convention, the only state poll in the past six weeks (conducted by Rasmussen on 8/18) showed the race narrowing to Obama +1
    2. This, coupled with the return and reinvention of the Maverick (in a state that has great affection for McCain) means that NH must be regarded as a true toss-up at this point


  2. We have moved MO to McCain

    1. Here we believe the connection with cultural conservatives--driven by the Palin selection and her convention speech--has really boosted the GOP ticket

    2. There may have already been a trend toward McCain anyway, as the two polls conducted in August showed McCain +10 (PPP) and McCain +6 (Rasmussen)


  3. Georgia is solid McCain

    1. Come on, be serious: Bush beat Kerry 58% to 41% in 2004

    2. According to exit polling Kerry won 88% of the black vote in 2004. African-Americans will represent only 25-30% of voters this November, so even if Obama gets 95-97% of the black vote, it will not be enough.

    3. We never bought into Obama's GA strategy and now he seems to be pulling back


  4. Virginia & Colorado: we continue to keep them in the toss-up category

    1. These are both key states, but, despite their distance, they are much more similar than most people realize...both were red states forever but an influx of younger, urban and more diverse/liberal voters--and the growth of high-skilled jobs (technology in both, also government and consulting in VA)--has added core Obama supporters; this might not be enough to change the Presidential voting history of these two states but for now they remain toss-ups



 

Comments
NeverMetAnHonestLib:

Excellent analysis. I love seeing the map covered in red. People do get it! God bless America!

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Ciccina:

I think your point #4 contradicts your point #2. Surely the race is "essentially tied" because voters moved towards McCain (point #2), not because he solidified the base. He already had the base, but now McCain has upped their enthusiasm. No?

Per the Biden pick - yes, Obama chose the epitome of "same old, same old" but still talked about bringing "change" to Washington. Oy vey. He also chose to set up a Bush/Cheney paradigm, with the brash young guy backed by a grownup in the background to supervise. A lot of people tried to get him to do the smart thing, but The Entourage knew best. Not.

Point 5 undermines Point 3 (and I think Point 3 is better). Clearly the Palin effect is not just about "cultural conservatism." Per Point 3, Palin strengthened McCain's credibility on the change message, likewise on being an independent/maverick because: his choice was a relative unknown from way outside the beltway, because it showed he's not afraid to embrace change by putting a woman on the ticket, and because of Palin's own independent / maverick credibility.

Beyond that, she adds the "cares about people like me" personae to the GOP ticket, undermining the Dems comparative advantage on that issue. The GOP is giving you Daddy *and* Mommy, while the Dems have... "my two dads"?

Also, the Palin's presence signals that McCain takes women seriously and isn't afraid of strong women who can stand up for themselves. (I'm talking image, not reality). Obama.... hmmm.

Palin also solves the problems McCain was having on energy and drilling.

And part of the Palin effect is certainly the way her very existence drew Dems and especially Obama supporters into paroxysms of rage and disgust, which frequently found expression in sexist, snobby terms. She drew out the absolutely worst elements of the party, undermining the Dems message of being inclusive and authentic and creating a new opportunity for them to alienate voters. I have never seen so much bile pour out of the mouths of ostensibly progressive people in so short a time period - it was really remarkable. Thanks to the craziness, Palin was able to successfully position the ticket as ordinary folks vs. the elite pissing down from a great height.

Palin was a brilliant pick because of the multiple chords she struck among a range of segments of the voting population - independent women, blue collar gun owners, those focused on energy-security-drilling, self-styled independent men, MSM haters. Okay, I'm making up some segments but you get the drift.

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ncc81701:

I disagree with Point 1:
"The Obama team has taken the bait and decided to try to take down Sarah Palin--this is a major strategic miscalculation."

Initially it might be a distraction, but if it is unopposed it becomes a key turning point. Palin does bring up some tough talk about the Obama campaign that needs to be answered in order for them to survive. Thinking that the swiftboaters were merely a "distraction" caused the Kerry Campaign to ignore them initially until it was too late to do anything about it.

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PoliticallyGrounded:

Congrats on a well written article. I don't think anyone can disentangle the effect the choice of VP has played in this election. Strategically, Biden didn't do anything, but reinforce the Democratic base that was already solidified around Obama's change message. His selection also mitigates the effectiveness of his change message. Bad moves coupled with seamlessly executed moves by the McCain campaign has tightened the race. However, you must keep the polling in the proper perspective since the data is not even a couple of weeks old. There are plenty of opportunities for both candidates to make points of distinction that can change the outlook of the race.

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Ciccina:

one more thing -

"Since Obama will draw both young and black voters in greater raw numbers, he probably doesn't need 48% of white women to win" -

lol. Its been obvious that this has been one of the campaign's key assumptions for many months now.

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Gary Kilbride:

This is my favorite new feature. Enjoyable again this week.

White women are always the key demographic. I'm astonished there isn't laser focus on that block every cycle. I can't imagine running a political talk show without routinely analyzing the white female vote, and how it's being impacted.

There was no way Obama led among white women by 8%. I'm not a slave to poll numbers that make no sense and I laughed that one off immediately. Detour to 2006, when I looked at that white female margin throughout the midterm. Democrats always had an advantage in that block until the final weeks but in the House exit poll Republicans had an edge by 1%. That was incredibly deflating. That was a second term midterm with massive tilt toward Democrats and Iraq a disaster. I expected a tiny Democratic advantage among white women. When Republicans won that block in an '06 climate it verified there was still 9/11 residue, with white women not fully rebounded from their move toward national security concerns and the Republican party. Gore had the same 1% deficit among white women in 2000. That cycle was dead even in situational pull. In 2006 you had a significant Democratic pull yet white women voted identically to 2000.

I would estimate in an even race in a 2008 atmosphere that McCain leads among white women by 4-6%.

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Dave:

Point one may be wrong because Palin needs to be defined..The media will not do it without a push from Obama. Good stories for Obama about Palin on NBC and ABC tonight. Also Palin may be deminishing McCain. Dave

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slinky:

For various reasons, this is probably a bad analysis. Among these are that Michigan may be moving toward toss up, but it is currently Obama. This is also true in Colorado. It is also true that McCain has lost ground in Virginia, and is toss-up now, but wasn't a few weeks ago. Finally, Ohio remains pivotal, and this poll marks it toss up, but it leans Obama, whereas Pennsylvania is currently Obama, but may trend against.

In short, this is not a very good analysis.

It also doesn't discuss what happens with absentee ballots in such a close race.

Pollsters need to begin to work with that.

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RHD:

Nice map. But your map maker must have flunked geography, since he doesn't know the difference between VT and NH. Let's not even start with state capitals ....

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