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It's Closer Than You Think


John McCain won the earned media battle last week because the predominant political discourse centered on the issues of race and celebrity--not the economy, the war and George W. Bush. Any time the focus of this election is about something other than the aforementioned three issues it is good for John McCain. Team McCain didn't just knock Obama off-message; it sent his entire campaign bus careening down a back road.

Count me as one of the few analysts who actually thinks the celebrity ad with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears was a good one. Sure, the execution was a bit awkward, but the net-net is that the images stick and they resonate with a good number of swing voters who worry that Obama lacks the substance to be President. The images fit the preconceived notion that some voters already have in their heads. Any time you can tap into these stored perceptions it is that much easier to get your point across. The ad works because it rings true.

So Obama spent the week counterpunching instead of talking about gas prices and the housing slump. And remember the substantive attack points in the "Celebrity" spot: Obama isn't ready, he hasn't accomplished anything, he has no energy plan and he'll raise your taxes. Pretty darn good bogeymen if you ask me.

New Survey Results: Presidential Ballot Test

Recently we conducted a national survey of 850 registered voters. If you're in a hurry: Obama is currently ahead 40% to 35% (we didn't push respondents to make a choice between the two, which is why we have a large "undecided" contingent of around 16%). We think this is a more accurate reflection of the electorate given the early stage of the election.

Cutting the sample to only likely voters (n=647), however, reduces the Obama lead to just two points (40%-38%). This confirms some of the public polling data (and conventional wisdom) that McCain does better in polls of likely voters--and, indeed, perhaps at the polls on Election Day--than he does in polls of all registered voters. While right now that discrepancy is not quite close enough to suggest a McCain victory, it seems fair to say that a lead of less than five points for Obama in polls of registered voters--whether national or statewide--may not indicate much of an advantage at all.
Looking at the demographic breakdown of these registered voters, John McCain has a six-point lead among men and Obama has a 14-point advantage among women. The gender gap has widened somewhat since a previous national poll we conducted in May, where McCain was +4 among men and Obama was +10 among women (this reflects a normalization of the race along recent Presidential voting patterns).

Given his struggles to woo older voters away from Hillary Clinton, it is somewhat surprising that Obama is in a statistical dead heat with McCain among voters 65 and older (he actually leads among those ages 55 and older). With Obama continuing to carry all voters under 35 by the wide margin that propelled him to his primary victory, it's natural to wonder where McCain's support comes from.

The answer is middle-aged and older men. The only age/gender categories where McCain leads? Men aged 35-54 (McCain + 10), 55-64 (McCain +7) and 65 and older (McCain +17). Of course in the past these cohorts have been the most likely to make it to the polls on Election Day.

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For a couple of weeks now we've been talking about this election as a referendum on Barack Obama (rather than a choice between Obama and McCain). While we'd like to have a few more surveys to confirm this, it appears that--despite the groundswell in Democratic support as measured by party identification--12% of registered voter Democrats remain undecided, compared with 9% of Republicans.

The fact that 12% of Democrats have yet to throw their full support behind their party's most appealing candidate since Bill Clinton is stunning. Furthermore, Republicans have also traditionally had the advantage in turning out their own partisans. For example, VNS exit polls in 2000 show that 91% of Republicans voted for George W. Bush, while "only" 86% of Democrats voted for Al Gore. That five-point edge may seem small, but, as we have seen many times, it can swing an election. Another point of interest that may be a surprise to those who feel swamped by the intensity and persistence of the 2008 election coverage: 28% of independents have yet to make up their minds. This thing is a lot closer than people realize.

Obama's Overseas Trip

While it begins to fade from the news media consciousness, we do have some data to share on the impact of Obama's trip to Europe, Afghanistan and the Middle East. According to our recent survey, 75% of registered voters "definitely read, saw or heard something" about his trip. We then asked those respondents whether "learning about Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries has made you more confident or less confident in his ability to serve as President, or has it had no impact?" The overwhelming majority (56%) claimed that it had had no impact. (A caveat: it sometimes may take days, weeks or even months for voters to "digest" an event like this, and even then they're sometimes reluctant to admit that it had an impact on their attitudes). Twenty-three percent of these voters said Obama's trip made them "more confident" in his ability to serve as President and 18% said that it had made them "less confident." Among likely voters, the impact of the trip was roughly the same. Of course, the majority of those who claimed the trip had instilled greater confidence in Obama were Democrats. Among undecided voters, 66% said the trip had no impact and just six percent said it had made them "more confident."

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We also presented respondents with two statements about Obama's trip and asked them which one they agreed with more. The statements were:


  1. Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries is a sincere effort on his part to get a first-hand look at conditions in those areas so that he can make informed foreign policy decisions.

  2. Barack Obama's overseas trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries is just a political stunt so that he can have campaign-style photo opportunities with foreign leaders in an effort to look presidential.

Half (49%) thought that his trip was a "sincere effort," approximately one-third (36%) felt that it was a "political stunt," and the rest thought it was either a mix of both or weren't sure. Interestingly, those undecided voters who had an opinion either way were more cynical: slightly more than one-third (36%) felt that it was a "sincere effort," another third (35%) felt it was a political stunt and ten percent felt that it was both (the rest were unsure). So with no apparent bounce in the polls--and most voters claiming to be unmoved--in the end the trip may have been just what it appeared to be: a chance for some photo opportunities.

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As we said previously, the trip was a start in the "build up Obama" process. This data suggests that this will need follow-up and reinforcement before it becomes a bankable attribute. At this point, this election is still about Obama and many voters are still unsure about him.

Thanks again to John "Zippy" Zirinsky and Pete Ventimiglia for their efforts on this week's Election Monitor.

 

Comments
Joseph Marshall:

As with a lot of polling punditry, this is looking at either the wrong numbers or at the wrong places with the right numbers. The usual effect of the Electoral College is to greatly magnify even the slightest overall lead. Give McCain every state which is solidly in his corner, plus every state which is currently a true toss-up, and he still loses convincingly.

To have any chance at all, McCain must win at least one of the following states where Obama now leads: Michigan or Ohio. He also must not lose Florida, Indiana, Colorado, and Virginia. McCain has to have them all. And Obama is well within reach of winning any one of these four states.

For your analysis to be truly meaningful, you must show why those demographics would cause Obama to lose at least five out of six of the states above. I don't think you could convincingly show that.

Moreover, even if Obama trails McCain among all males above 35, according to Gallup he is approximately 6 percentage points higher than John Kerry's numbers for this same group in the final popular vote count. This represents a net loss for the Republican candidate and there equivalent net losses across all the other demographics.

These losses are McCain's mountain to climb,, not Obama's.

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jsh1120:

Mr. Lombardo makes the traditional GOP talking points. He emphasizes the importance and size of the "undecideds" because that, of course, is the McCain campaign's best (indeed only) hope of shifting the overall stability that poll after poll has demonstrated.

He's likely correct that the extremely dispirited state of GOP voters from last spring has begun to heal. That's not surprising given the traditionally greater partisan loyalty demonstrated by Republicans combined with the fact that virtually everyone now sees the Bush administration as irrelevant. Without the President as a constant reminder of the incompetence of a GOP administration, partisan loyalty is a stronger factor in voter choice and (likely) turnout.

Of course, all of Mr. Lombardo's argument turns on the assumption that Senator Obama's campaigning skills are ineffective; Senator McCain's skills are effective; and traditional likely voter turnout models hold in 2008. Suffice to say that none of those assumptions has much empirical support so far.

____________________

Florida Voter:

The article has some good points but I think it's a bit optimistic for the Repubs. With about 90 days til election day, Obama would have to have a total meltdown in order for McCain to make any gains in the states where Obama is ahead. Of course we have not seen the bulk of the swift boat style ads I suspect that will come out after Labor Day when people really get focused. That may sway some people, but it may also energize those that don't like that type of politics, etc.. At least it's an exciting time. It's just nice to see a good amount of toss up states south of Maryland and west of the Mississippi.

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c2farr:

Here is what people don't get. Obama and the
Obama Team are much smarter than McCain and his.

This is like the second round of an Ali fight
where he's doing the rope-a-dope so the crowd
won't feel jipped.

In this case the "crowd" is the media, the
pundits, the bloggers, and the pollsters.

Besides, you just can't do a TKO in politics
until near the end. Jus tisn't done. Chris
Matthews would have a baby.

The Dem Convention is the beginning of the
final round. McCain will never recover from
the surge Obama gets out of that.

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bmcfar01:

If that is the case C2farr, than Obama brings hubris to a level unseen in American politics.

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RS:

Lombardo says men between 35+ are most likely to make it to the polls. Not true - in 2004, women outnumbered men 54-46, up from 2000 (52-48).

Also,
"The fact that 12% of Democrats have yet to throw their full support behind their party's most appealing candidate since Bill Clinton is stunning."
Did Clinton himself carry more than 85% of Democrats? I thought some actually even preferred (less visually appealing?) Perot both times!

[By the way, the TV-anchorman-like visual appeal really did work out for President Romney. Oh wait...]

Still, 3 months out, for Obama to carry 88% of Democrats (granted, RVs) - compared to 89% that Kerry carried and 86% that Gore did - still seems pretty good (and within MOE, I might add). Lombardo's take appears to be typical Republican spin - with his polling background, he should recognize MOE, the importance of polls, and volatility among undecided voters three months out!

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RS:

By the way, my post @11:17 used data from CNN exit polls.

@c2farr: I really doubt that's the case. If anything, Obama would rather have a 10% lead to put to rest doubters among Democrats. I am more inclined to think the closeness of the race is due to people (independents, embittered Clinton Democrats) who still harbor the impression that McCain is a moderate, principled politician (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

Thankfully, there are plenty of sensible Clinton supporters and independents who know the vast differences between McBush and Obama, otherwise we'd be seeing McSame ahead 65-35 or something (if all Clinton supporters were to vote Republican, for instance).

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