Steve Lombardo

Midterms Are an Electoral Hurricane for Democrats

The race is on. No, I'm not referring to the one between Republicans and Democrats; instead, I'm talking about the race between pollsters and media organizations to project this November's GOP margin of victory. There have been some pretty smart analyses produced over the last several weeks, including ones by Cook, Rothenberg, RealClearPolitics, FiveThirtyEight and, most recently, the vaunted NBC political unit with its Voter Confidence Index. However, in the quest to compare this year to other "wave" elections (see 1994, 1982 and 1974) they may have all missed the most important phenomenon of all: the growth rate of this potential electoral hurricane. We have all been so concerned about looking at this as some fixed point in time--by, for example, trying to compare this year to elections that took place 30 and 40 years ago--that we have forgotten to look back just 90 days ago. When one does, the only conclusion that you can have is the following: we are seeing an intensifying political storm that for Democrats is the electoral equivalent of a catastrophic hurricane.

First, here's a quick primer on hurricanes. According to climatologists, hurricanes can release an amount of energy in one day equal to all of the electricity generated across the globe in 200 days. Hurricanes also keep building as long as they keep getting energy from warm water. Hurricanes strengthen via the temperature of the water: the hotter the water, the more strength it gains. But if a hurricane moves over land or colder water, it starts to fizzle out. Just like climatological hurricanes, an electoral hurricane is fed by an energy source. In politics this energy source is usually voter anger and frustration with the status quo. The Tea Party movement is one byproduct of this energy (to further this analogy, wind and rain are by-products of regular hurricanes). So the question is will this political hurricane continue to feed off the warm water of voter anger, or will those waters cool a bit as we get closer to shore (Election Day)? To judge, let's look at how this storm has intensified over the last 200 days.

We examined five key measures of voter anger: the percentage of voters who say the country is on the "wrong track," the President's disapproval rating, Congressional disapproval rating, the Generic Congressional ballot share for the party out of power (GOP) and the Party ID for the out-of-power party (GOP). All of these are negative measures for Democrats; that is, the higher the number the worse for the Democratic Party. (All data is from Pollster.com monthly averages for registered voters.) We then simply calculated the sum of these negative measures, which we will call--trumpets please--the LCG Voter Anger Index.

As you will note from the table below, the Voter Anger Index score in February of this year was 246. In May it rose to 250 and in August it stood at 259. In the last 90 days it has risen 9 points. The lesson here is not just that anger is high, it is that it is increasing with each passing day/week/month. The water temperature is not cooling; instead, it is getting warmer and feeding the storm. If it increases another 20 points by Election Day, the result would be catastrophic for the Democratic Party. We are talking about a 50 - 60 seat loss in the House and loss of the Senate.


When we look at this from a historical perspective, we see that the anger level in February was already equal to 1994. In August of this year the Voter Anger Index was a full 14 points (or 6%) higher than it was in November of 1994. It is also important to note that this index is based on registered voters. Our assumption is that voter anger is even higher among likely voters and the measures we've seen--like the generic ballot--do suggest that.

Hurricanes are named. We all remember Katrina. For really destructive storms, the World Meteorological Organization sometimes takes names off the list. People don't want to see the name again. Democrats might soon want to have this year's election removed from the history books as well.

Current Political Environment

There is no doubt that the White House is now fully engaged in the mid-term elections. The question will be whether this is too little, too late. Real world events have a way of either complementing or distorting/diminishing the President's message as his party tries to hold Congress. We are getting some key month's end economic data this week and it will impact voter attitudes. Here are some observations on the current political milieu:

1. The "pledge" is a winner for the GOP if it does no harm. The pledge is important for Republicans because of the signal it sends to voters, not because of any specific policy agenda item. If voters have a neutral to slightly positive impression of the pledge it will have done its job. The goal of the pledge was to help clarify the GOP brand and toward that end we think it generally works. On the other hand, don't expect any big boost for Republican candidates as a result of the unveiling.

2. The focus on Christine O'Donnell's controversial comments may doom her candidacy in DE but have little effect on the GOP as a whole. This is all about her personally and there will be little residual impact on Republicans elsewhere or the Tea Party.

3. There has been a substantive drop in Obama's approval rating that is reflected in perceptions of his ability to handle issues. The recent Politico/GWU/Battleground poll asked who voters thought would be better in handling certain issues: Obama or Republicans in Congress. On turning around the economy, 49% chose The GOP (and only 41% Obama) and on creating jobs, 51% picked Republicans in Congress while only 40% chose Obama.

4. The economy remains the number one issue but likely voters are being driven by two secondary but potent issues: 1) perceptions that the stimulus (and TARP) was a government handout and a failure and 2) that the healthcare reform law was an example of too much government intrusion and over-reach. While some in Washington still find it difficult to believe, anger over the deficit and spending in general is what is driving the likely midterm voter and it is a powerful and emotional issue.

5. On the economy, the political problem continues to be one of unmet expectations. People expected things to get better more quickly than they have. The country lost 7.6 million jobs since the start of the recession in December of 2007, but we have only recently begun adding jobs over the last few months (and at an awfully slow rate). It will likely take years to add back those jobs. Similarly, household net worth has recovered only four percentage points of the 21% lost according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. The problem was that people expected things to get better much, much faster. That has hurt Obama and Democrats as much as anything.

Thanks again to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.

Democrats' Difficult Summer Stretches Into Fall

The political pendulum has swung far toward the Republicans, and at this point there is almost nothing that Democrats and the President can do to alter the overall course of the midterm elections. Republicans will win the House--and quite possibly the Senate--on November 2nd. Democrats had a politically devastating summer that is now stretching into the fall. Politicos talk about campaigns "winning" the day or the week; well, Democrats have "lost" the last seven months.

Scott Brown's victory on January 19th cemented what Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie started in November of 2009 and signaled the start of this terrible run. A look at the Pew Research Center's polling on the news stories "most closely followed" really tells the story. From February through April the most closely watched news story in the country was health care reform (the economy was in second place). The battle for health care reform represents the first splintering of the Obama coalition, as Independents and swing voters began to move away from Democrats and the President. The issue was divisive and it served to energize the GOP base (and fuel the Tea Party movement), creating the intensity gap that we see today: Republicans are almost twice as energized about the upcoming elections as Democrats. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in August showed that only 43% of Americans had a favorable view of health care reform, while 45% had an unfavorable perspective.

The period from May through July was dominated by the Gulf oil leak story. Political historians may look back at this time as the moment when Democrats lost the midterm election. The oil leak dominated headlines for an incredibly sustained period; it was the dominant news story for nearly three months. From a political perspective it did two things: 1) it signaled to voters that President Obama and the administration were not as competent as previously thought and 2) it took POTUS and the Democrats off-message for 90 days. The White House political apparatus is loath to admit this, but the Gulf oil leak severely damaged the President and his agenda. Every day that the President and Democrats were not talking about the economy was a lost day, and for three months the oil leak ensured that they couldn't address the issue that would be most important to voters in November.

While the oil leak was still the most closely monitored story in America in early August, the capping of the leak changed things instantaneously. In the absence of the leak story, the economy became the most covered and watched story in America in mid- to late-August. According to Pew's latest poll, 43% of Americans said they were "very closely" following stories about the economy (the Iraq troop withdrawal, immigration and Hurricane Earl were other issues being closely observed). Even more importantly, the recent news on the economy has been almost entirely bad. In one of the worst political branding exercises since "Mission Accomplished," the Obama Administration decided to call this the "Recovery Summer." But the economy fizzled and consumer confidence dropped. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 65% of voters say that America is in a state of decline. In September of 2009, 47% of voters thought that during the next 12 months the economy would get better. In the latest poll, only 26% say that.

The following is our up-to-the-minute take on the current political environment:

  • Democrats (and the New York Times) are misreading the electorate again if they think they can make John Boehner into a boogeyman for this election. Most voters have no idea who John Boehner is and it is unlikely that he becomes a factor in this election. The man is simply not a lightning rod. This is not 1996 and Boehner is not Gingrich. Speaking of which...
  • Newt Gingrich's Obama/Kenya comments are an embarrassment for the GOP and exactly what the party does not need at this time. It suggests again that that if the Republicans retake the house it will be because of massive rejection of Democratic policies rather than an attraction to the GOP.
  • Obama's coalition is fractured because Independents have lost faith in the President. In October 2009, the President had a 54% approval rating among Independent voters. Today it stands at 39.2% in Pollster.com's latest average of media polls. That is an astounding 14 point drop in less than a year.
  • Ignore polls showing the President's approval rating in the 45-47% range. In reality, Obama's approval rating with the voters who will be counted is much lower. A look at Gallup's latest poll on the President's approval rating suggests that his rating is artificially bolstered by the 18-29 age segment (he has a 61% approval rating among this group). But the President's rating with 30-49 year olds is 44%, it's at 43% among 50-64 year olds, and among those over 65 years of age it is only 38%. We are not discounting young voters, but when you consider those most likely to vote in a mid-term election (18-29 year olds are far less likely to vote in a non-Presidential year), the President's approval rating effectively drops to 41-42%. This is hugely problematic for Democrats.
  • There is some good news for Democrats: Obama is finally in campaign mode. The White House is now committed to talking jobs and the economy 24/7. Obama's visit yesterday with families in Fairfax, VA was a smart--and necessary--move. The White House had a good week driving its economic message, but the September economic report is its last real chance to make an argument that things are improving, and the report is unlikely to be good enough. Yesterday's front page WSJ story on global uncertainty in the face of a waning economic recovery will further feed voter anxiety.
  • The problem for Democrats is that this isn't just about the economy. The election frame is also about the appropriate size and role of government. There has been a real reaction against this administration's expansion of the size of government in addition to a general concern about its ability to do something to "fix" the economy. To understand the momentum in 2010, you only need to look at these two charts from a recent Gallup poll that compares the importance of this election's key issues and which party is more trusted. Other than a virtual tie on health care and corruption, Republicans are now more trusted by the electorate on every key issue. Contrast this with 2006, when Democrats held every advantage, including core Republican issues like terrorism and "moral standards."
  • Today is the last major primary day of this cycle and the races in Delaware and New Hampshire are the most closely watched. Despite the latest poll showing O'Donnell with a slight lead over Castle in DE, we believe Castle will prevail. A sizable segment of the GOP electorate thinks that O'Donnell is not fit for office and that number has been trending up in the last few days thanks to some Castle attack ads. If O'Donnell does win, she faces a much tougher slog against Democrat Chris Coons. This would make it very unlikely that the GOP retakes the Senate so this race is one to watch.
Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.

Ground Zero, Waters and Wikileaks - The Democrats' Wasted Week

The President made the inexplicable decision to enter the fray on the Ground Zero mosque controversy this weekend and within 24 hours did a walk-back on the issue. The Sunday talk shows were abuzz. Our take this Monday morning is pretty straightforward:

  1. Why would the President make a statement on the mosque at all? You get the sense that this White House and this President feels as though they need to be part of every public dialogue. They seem to have difficulty remaining focused.
  2. The White House is still wasting news cycles on unimportant skirmishes when it should be all about the economy and jobs (and perhaps some defense of the conduct of the war).

Democrats may be shaking their collective heads this morning and for good reason. Let's start by taking time to reflect on last week and the political state of play.

Who would have guessed that a week in which the Gulf oil leak had been finally and officially sealed would be one that Democrats and the White House would view as a complete disaster? Last week began with myriad "double-dip recession" stories on the heels of the August 6th unemployment report. Then Democrat Charlie Rangel took the floor in defense of his ethics charges and by week's end Democrat Maxine Waters did the same. Along the way, Wikileaks announced yet another tranche of released documents: 15,000 of them highlighting problems with the war in Afghanistan, thereby further eroding public confidence in our engagement there. In short, last week was a very bad one for Democrats, and it's unclear whether things are going to look up for them any time soon.

Here is our up-to-the-minute take on the current political environment:

1. The "double-dip" recession has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This has been a "go to" media story for more than a month and the public has finally bought into it. According to a July Democracy Corps survey, only 35% of voters said the economy was improving. This was down from 45% in April. Additionally, 35% said that the economy was "getting worse" and 25% said it had "bottomed out." More economists came out last week arguing that we were indeed in a double dip. Our sense is that the public will be convinced of this by September and consumer confidence (already low) will drop even further, making the double-dip all but inevitable.

2. The economy remains the elephant in the room and will be the defining issue in November. What is especially problematic for Democrats is that there is an increasing body of empirical evidence to suggest that the economy is actually getting worse. This of course seems self evident, but when you see some of the arguments being made on the campaign trail you might think otherwise. The indicators are substantial:

a. Real GDP growth has slowed each of the past two quarters (3.7% in Q1 then 2.4% in Q2) after a seemingly-strong 2009 Q4 (5.0%).
b. Meanwhile, the CPI has been negative for the most recent three months, suggesting the possibility of deflation.
c. The unemployment rate has held in the 9.5 - 10.0% range after peaking at 10.1% last October, registering at 9.5% for both June and July. However, because of seasonal adjustments and a reduction in the labor force--it has been shrinking since mid-2009--the headline unemployment number does not show the underlying contraction in jobs in the past two months. After growing throughout the first four months of 2010, job growth was virtually flat in May and the household survey registered losses measured at 301,000 in June and 159,000 in July.
d. The Consumer Confidence Index also dropped sharply in July (to 50.4), down from 54.3 in June. From the release:

Those claiming jobs are "hard to get" increased to 45.8 percent from 43.5 percent, while those saying jobs are "plentiful" remained unchanged at 4.3 percent. Consumers' short-term outlook also deteriorated further in July. The percentage of consumers expecting an improvement in business conditions over the next six months decreased to 15.9 percent from 17.1 percent, while those anticipating conditions will worsen rose to 15.7 percent from 13.9 percent. Consumers were also more pessimistic about future job prospects. Those expecting more jobs in the months ahead decreased to 14.3 percent from 16.2 percent, while those anticipating fewer jobs increased to 21.1 percent from 20.1 percent. The proportion of consumers expecting an increase in their incomes declined to 10.0 percent from 10.6 percent.

3. President Obama may in fact be losing the confidence of the American people. Surely the economic crisis was a primary driver of this decline, but it is also came from the Gulf oil spill and the perceived execution of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated that "nearly six in ten voters say they lack faith in the president to make the right decisions for the country," and two thirds say they "are disillusioned with or angry about the way the federal government is working." Nearly 6 in 10 said they did not have "confidence" in Obama's decisions.

4. With the exception of a few select races, the Tea Party is largely irrelevant in this upcoming election. Contrary to what Eugene Robinson and other pundits have argued, the elections this November are not going to be a referendum on the "wackiness of the Tea Party." Yes, controversial statements and policy positions will have some impact on individual races (think Sharron Angle in Nevada or Rand Paul in Kentucky) but this election is about the economy, and it will be a referendum on the President and the party in power; it really is that simple. And no amount of pontificating on the zaniness of the Tea Party movement will trump that fact.

5. The fact that there is no real "face" of the GOP may actually be a help in November. While the DNC and Democratic strategists have tried to make the Tea Party and Sarah Palin the face of the party, it simply isn't working. This is not 1996 (post-government shutdown) when Newt Gingrich became an albatross around the neck of the GOP and Bob Dole. Rightly or wrongly, Newt became a negative symbol for the Democrats to hang their hat on. In this economic environment that will not stick.

6. If the country's "wrong track" numbers remain where they are--they have averaged approximately 59% for the year--this will be one of the worst five year periods since Watergate, a debilitating scenario for the President and Democrats this fall. The data is what it is: only three in ten Americans believe the country is going in the right direction. And in many battleground states it is even worse than that.

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As the mosque controversy draws valuable time and energy from the White House, the voters are still focused where they have been for 2 years: on a very weak economy with few hopeful signs. This is the issue for the mid-terms and the President and Democrats need to get a handle on it in the next 30-60 days or there may be catastrophic electoral consequences in November.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.

Fall Strategies Begin to Emerge

As we enter the summer's home stretch and try to relax by the beach and read a book, the headlines over the weekend were relentless: we had Chelsea Clinton's wedding, the apparent over-use of dispersants by BP in the Gulf, more Wikileaks fallout, Rangel's 13 ethics violations and the Netherlands quitting the war in Afghanistan all interrupting our holiday. But under the radar screen, each political party has been carefully calibrating their Fall strategy to keep or capture Congress. While specific tactics are not yet in place, Republicans and Democrats will spend the rest of August trial-ballooning campaign messages to see what sticks. In a year in which the status quo and politicians in general will be anathema to voters, it remains to be seen how receptive they will be to blatant political messages of any kind. Polling data confirms this, and suggests that voters will be extremely skeptical of what they consider to be typical "political" rhetoric. So let's take a look at each party's current message track.

In a nutshell, the following appear to be the main tenets of the Democratic strategy: first, link the GOP to the Tea Party and second, raise the specter of a return to "Bush economics." The first strategy was on full display with a DNC ad released last Wednesday called "The Republican Tea Party Contract On America." To be sure, there are some elements of the Tea Party platform that are considered extreme by the mainstream electorate (swing voters). The goal with this line of attack is to paint all Republicans as extremists. The problem, as illustrated in the latest Pew survey, is that the electorate as a whole is more conservative than it was five years ago; in fact, Independents are much more closely aligned with the Republican Party than with Democrats. Furthermore, only about half of voters have any significant impression of the Tea Party; 48% of voters haven't heard of it or have no opinion about it either way. Unless the backlash against Tea Party movement becomes substantially stronger than it is today, this strategy will not be very successful.

The second core element of the Democrat's strategy, to link the GOP to Bush, was flagged by David Broder two weeks ago in a piece in which he cited a Benenson Strategy Group (one of Obama's pollsters) polling memo suggesting that when voters hear Bush's name associated with the GOP economic plan they prefer Obama's plan by a good margin. When voters are read the broad outline of each plan, however, they tend to support the Republican proposal to shrink government, spend less and lower taxes. There is no doubt that Bush's brand is still tarnished, but it is still surprising to see the Democrats fall into the trap of waging the 2010 battle like it is still 2008. It might work, but since Bush has been privately living his life out of office for almost two years and probably will not even be doing the Sunday talk show circuit anytime before the elections (even though he is releasing his book), it's a stretch.

While Democrats are busy tying the GOP to "Tea Baggers" and Bush, Republicans will focus on linking Democratic congressional candidates to just one person: Barack Obama. The GOP strategy is pretty simple: remind likely voters that things have only gotten worse in the last 18 months since Obama and the Democrats have been running things and get those who are most upset with the current direction of the country to the polls in November. The GOP wants this election to be a referendum on Obama and Democrats in Congress. They have history on their side. Most off-year elections in a President's first term are a referendum on that President. This is especially true if the President's party is in the majority in Congress. The GOP message is very simple and straightforward: "if you are unhappy with the way things are now, vote for change." This approach, of course, has the benefit of being naturally aligned with the electorate's overall mood of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and its politicians and institutions. If Republicans are successful, this will be the third consecutive "change election"--a first.

Of course there are myriad sub-messages that will be built within each party's political message frame, but for the most part these are likely to be the overarching themes. Time will tell us which is more effective.

Now let's take an up-to-the-minute snapshot of the current political and public opinion landscape:

  • The idea that POTUS is over-exposed is flat out wrong. The President's turn on "The View" was a smart PR move and important given that his approval rating with women has dropped 20 points in 12 months (it's hovering just above 50% at last check). Everyone inside the beltway will almost always think that Obama is overexposed, but for the rest of America his level of TV presence probably feels about right. Given the multiplicity of viewing options and news outlets (digital and traditional), it would be awfully hard for any President to be overexposed in this day and age. Having said that, there is something to be said about making sure you have some message discipline. Here, the administration has proven to be inconsistent. We have said for several months now that the President seems hell bent on covering every topic and policy issue out there. This problem is far more real for this administration than the claim that the President is over-exposed.

  • While the environmental impact of the Gulf oil spill may turn out to be less than previously feared, its impact on perceptions of government and the President has been enormous. Yes, to some extent it will be "out of sight, out of mind," and the massive use of dispersants while potentially bad for the environment...helps BP and the government because it takes the problem out of view. But for many voters, the image of a slow government reaction to the crisis from the beginning will linger in their minds and continue to hurt the President's ratings. There may be some improvement in the coming weeks in terms of public perceptions of the spill cleanup, but overall the crisis has hurt the Obama brand because it tarnished one of his key attributes (and one of his key differentiators from the previous administration): competence.

  • Don't buy the recent Democratic push-back spin that things might turn out alright in November. Things are, in fact, every bit as bad as they seem. Every available polling metric suggests a substantial "wave" election in the GOP's favor. The list is extensive:

    1. The GOP lead on the generic congressional ballot is about four points (our average of recent public and private polls);
    2. The President's approval rating is approximately 46% (not quite toxic but low enough to depress Democratic turnout and help put swing districts in the GOP column in November);
    3. Only 31% of voters believe the country is going in the "right direction";
    4. Partisan identification is running even or with Republicans slightly ahead in our national polls of registered voters. This almost never happens. Democrats usually have between a 4-8 point lead. In 2008, their lead was 10 points;
    5. Those most likely to vote this November are far more likely to be Republican than Democrat. Democrats have an intensity issue. Republicans and lean GOP voters are far more interested in the upcoming election than their Democratic counterparts; and,
    6. Voters are far more likely to say that it is "time to elect someone new" to congress than say that they are leaning toward "re-electing" current congressmen. This anti-incumbency sentiment is at its highest level since 1994.
  • The economy may in fact be heading into a double-dip recession and, even more importantly, consumer confidence is shot. Friday's government report on GDP was signaled a major blow to any hope that 2010 would be a turnaround year. The 2.4% GDP growth was weaker than expected, the weakest growth in a year. Additionally, the revised data for 2009 is now saying that it was the weakest annual economic growth for the U.S. since 1946. The economy is by far the number one issue in America today and a majority of voters (52% in the latest CBS News poll) say that Obama has spent "too little time" working on the issue. In the same poll, more than eight in ten believe that Obama's economic programs have either had no effect (63%) or actually hurt them personally (23%). Only 40% approved of the job the President is doing on the economy. Additionally, according to the Conference Board's consumer-confidence index, faith in the economy dropped in June and even further in July. The index is currently at 50.4. Generally consumer confidence is high when the unemployment rate is low (which it is not) and GDP growth is high (which it is not). So, while we have seen some improvement in confidence from its low in 2008, the last two months suggest consumer confidence is in fact dropping again.

  • At the time of this writing it is unclear whether Charlie Rangel will cut a deal and save his party from a trial/hearings in November, but if he does not the scandal is sure to be a drag on Democrats in the fall.

  • We continue to believe that while the political fallout from the Arizona immigration controversy may have long-term implications on perceptions of the political parties in Presidential cycles, the issue will have little impact in 2010. Immigration is the new "third rail" in politics and both parties could get burned. At this point, however, given the demographic growth of Hispanics, the GOP has the most to lose (literally and figuratively).

While the economy is the dominant issue on the minds of most voters, there several national that could emerge front and center in the coming months. Terrorism and national security are powerful issues that have at least temporarily moved lower on the national agenda but could re-emerge quite quickly. July was the deadliest month in the history of the Afghanistan war. While the military expected this, it does suggest that at some point the country may get "war fatigue" much like they did with Iraq. In other words, we are facing a very crowded, volatile issue agenda--so stay tuned.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.

Will Plugging the Gulf Leak Save the Democrat's Ship in November?

As of early this morning, the oil leak in the Gulf appears to have been plugged and the White House is hoping that the President's political hemorrhaging has been simultaneously cauterized.

Make no mistake, the Gulf oil spill has done considerable political damage to the President. As evidenced by the spate of polls this week, President Obama is in a substantially weakened political condition at a time when Congressional Democrats are facing a potential GOP landslide in November. The oil leak has become a symbol of voter's frustrations with government. The spill crystallized the problem for voters - "Government can't do anything right." Since 9/11 Americans have felt increasingly vulnerable. Katrina, the Great Recession, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the bailouts and health care reform have turbo-charged the public's negative attitude toward government.

But it goes further than anti-big government. The public has begun to question whether the federal government is capable of achieving much of anything. The American public has lost faith in government and, as the Washington Post pointed out this week, by extension the public has lost faith in Obama. It's fairly simplistic, but it goes something like this: If the federal government is incapable of plugging a leak in an oil well, how can it possibly fix our economy and create jobs and do all of the other things that this administration has promised since it took office? While that may be unfair, recent polling data--along with developments like the rise of the Tea Party--has shown that this attitude is taking hold and will be a driving force in the 2010 elections. Our sense is that the jobless rate and poor economy are intensifying a long-building voter frustration with government itself. And right now, the government is Obama and the Democrats.

The following is our up to the minute take on the current political landscape:

  1. Plugging the leak gives Obama a chance to take back the political narrative in this country. The fact is that the President has been playing defense for almost 3 months. Nothing that the Administration has done has dented the information flow in the country. It has been the Gulf oil spill and the economy non-stop, 24/7 for nearly 90 days. Now the President has a chance to regain some measure of control over the narrative--hopefully helped by some good economic news. As we said last week, there is no better time to right this ship than over the summer, ideally before Labor Day. Assuming the cap holds, and the cleanup gets fully underway, the public will slowly turn its attention away from the Gulf and back to the economy.
  2. Yesterday the President said that the loss of jobs keeps him up at night and we have no doubt of the veracity of this. The continuing weakness of the economy is potentially fatal to Democrats in the Fall. Voter perceptions of the economy are in the tank, as are voter attitudes toward the administration's efforts to improve the economy and create jobs. (See this CBS poll for some startling numbers: 97% of Americans say the recession will last at least another year; just 13% say Obama's economic programs have helped them personally; and only 23% think the stimulus made the economy better, down from 36% last year.) As a result, President Obama's approval ratings are at all-time lows and more voters now disapprove than approve of the job he is doing.
  3. The latest polling data suggests that there has been an unprecedented swing in support of congressional Republicans - so strong that it now seems more likely than not that the GOP retakes the House in November. The latest generic congressional ballot numbers show Republicans with as much as an eight-point lead, something we've simply never seen before (Gallup has been asking a generic ballot question since 1954 and the previous high water mark for Republicans was +4 in September of 1994). So the news is pretty terrible for Democrats right now. The good news? It's July. As we said in our previous note, the summer is a period when most voters simply aren't all that engaged in politics or policy. And so Democrats have some time--though it isn't much--for things to turn around. And by "turn around," of course, we're talking about the economy. It was just announced that jobless claims last week were at their lowest point in two years and there is no hint of inflation. Of course, the bigger risk at this point may still be stagnant demand and deflation. But what matters politically is all about perception and momentum. A steady stream of good economic news (even if it doesn't immediately result in new jobs) will help Democrats. But it will have to be significant and consistent enough for this Administration--and Democratic candidates--to be able to say "See! It's working!" That might be simply too tall an order in a three- to four-month period.

  4. The passing of financial regulatory reform-or as the White House and MSNBC prefer to call it "sweeping Wall Street reform," along with the $500,000 fine paid by Goldman Sachs yesterday does send a signal that the President and Democrats are working for the people. To some extent, in the absence of a major economic recession, this might be pretty good politics. The problem is that the populist sentiment of 2008 may have been overridden by the anti-government, anti-spending fervor of 2010. We think the passing of this legislation will ultimately be helpful to Obama in 2012, but is likely to have little or no impact in the Congressional elections this Fall.

If there is one common thread to the national polls this week-other than the problems facing Democrats-is that it appears that President Obama has lost the middle of the electorate. Independents have moved away from the President in droves since January of 2009. Yes, some of that support was artificial and bound to move away but the erosion has been substantial and is the main reason the President's approval rating (in some polls) is now underwater--disapproval above his approval. According to the last 5 public polls, the President's approval rating with Independents ranges an abysmal 34-40%.

We fielded a poll the first week of July with 800 registered voters. Those who identify themselves as Independents are a malleable, heterogeneous bunch, shifting with such things as which party is in power and the general faith in government and other institutions. So we thought it might be interesting to give a snapshot of the Independents who we found in a recent survey.

  • Of the 800 respondents, 41% described themselves as political Independents.
  • Of this 41%, one-quarter are pure Independents (i.e. they don't lean toward either of the two major parties), 39% leaned toward the GOP and 30% leaned toward the Democrats.
  • Slightly more than half (54%) of the Independents are men, while the remaining 46% are women. They are similar in age to Republicans and Democrats.
  • Independents are slightly less likely to vote than their counterparts in the Republican and the Democratic Parties: 36% claim that they have voted in "all" recent elections, compared to 43% of Republicans and 42% of Democrats.
  • In the 2008 election, these Independents favored Barack Obama by seven points (39% to 32% among those who voted (10% declined to answer)). Meanwhile, 85% of Republicans voted for John McCain and 85% of Democrats voted for Barack Obama.
  • Looking ahead to the 2010 elections, Independents favor the Republican House candidate in their district by four points (34% to 30%). By comparison, Republicans say they will be voting for the GOP candidate 88% of the time, while just 75% of Democrats say that they will be voting for their own candidate.
  • From a race perspective, Independents (72%) are more likely to be white than Democrats (57%); Republicans (86%), however, are most likely to be white. Democrats are significantly more likely than either Republicans or Independents to be African American or Hispanic.
  • There are no significant differences among Republicans/Democrats/Independents from an education perspective.
  • Like Democrats (24%), Independents (21%) are more likely to be single than their Republican (11%) counterparts.

Independents will be the key in the coming weeks. For Democrats to stave off the GOP in the mid-terms they will need to have the President's approval rating in the mid to high 40's. To get there, the President will need to win back Independent voters.

Thanks again to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their insights and contributions. For real-time reactions to events and more thoughts on the public opinion environment, please follow us on Twitter @lcgpolling.

Obama's Summer Window of Opportunity

The list of crises facing the White House today is lengthy and weighty: the Gulf oil spill, high domestic unemployment combined with an unstable economic situation in Europe, a cultural divide on the issue of immigration, attempts to stabilize Iraq and win Afghanistan, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal's explosive comments--and ultimate dismissal--to name just a few. Tomorrow, we are likely to get a very poor jobs report after five consecutive months of job growth. Will the jobs report be seen as the beginning of a double dip recession?

As we enter the summer of 2010, the Administration faces the most substantive macro issue agenda in decades. Bill Clinton was often described by contemporaries and historians as unhappy with the fact that few "big things" happened during his Presidency. We doubt that President Obama will ever make that complaint.

Obama does have a window of opportunity, however, to right this ship before the fall elections. It is, after all, the summer. This is a time when most voters disconnect from the political and policy debates and processes. Plain and simple, the level of information absorption declines dramatically over the next two months and Obama will benefit from this period of low attentiveness. Two things are likely to happen this summer that will help the President:

  1. The Gulf oil spill coverage has probably reached--pardon the pun--a saturation point. The shock and immediacy of the situation has abated. People are now fully aware of the damage done. The relief wells will be completed in August. If the leak is stopped before Labor Day--and right now that isn't certain--the President will have at least a partial victory. Of course, the spill will remain a political issue in the fall and perhaps 2012, but the worst will have passed for Obama.
  2. News outlets (both old media and new media) recognize the changing pattern in news consumption and act accordingly. Therefore, there is less focus on politics and public policy and this will help the President as well.

We are not saying that all of the President's problems can be solved in July and August, but this period gives the Administration an opportunity to get some traction on a few issues before the fall campaigns begin in earnest. Voters will tune back in after Labor Day and will reassess the President and his policies at that time.

Current Political Environment

Our sense is that today's jobs numbers are going to trigger some significant media coverage and modest political fallout and cause a drop in the stock market, to boot. While voters are pretty much locked-in with respect to their perceptions of the President, we may see his approval numbers start to move from the mid-40's--where they have been consistently over the last 60 days--into the low 40's. If this happens and is not corrected during the summer, the Democrats will be extremely vulnerable in the fall. The difference between an approval rating in the 46-47% range vs. ratings in the 41-42% range may be the difference between Democrats just losing the House and losing both the House and the Senate.

Perceptions that the country is off on the "wrong track" is at the highest point (62%) of the Obama presidency. Not coincidentally, Obama's approval rating is at its lowest point: 46%.

july 1 slide 1.jpg

Note in the above chart that Obama's approval rating actually started falling with little appreciable increase in the "wrong track" numbers. This indicates that voters may have been reacting to the health care reform debate, evolving assessments of the stimulus and other Obama policies. Put simply, Obama was forced to make political decisions that couldn't please everyone, disappointing voters with lofty, impossible expectations. But now he faces a more structural challenge: the combination of 12 months of unemployment at or above 9.4% (as well as the intensifying war in Afghanistan and the Gulf oil spill) have pushed the country's "wrong track" number over the 60% mark. If "wrong track" gets into the mid-60's it's hard to see the President's approval rating reaching much higher than 40-42%.

As we move closer to the fall elections it might make sense to revisit 1994 and compare the key political indices of that time to the current situation. The table below should scare any Democrat reading this post:

july 1 slide 2.jpg

A quick review of the key political metrics suggests that Democrats will most likely lose the House this fall. This, by the way, is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen for a President Obama running for re-election. Gridlock in Congress would provide him with political cover for an extended recession or slow recovery, as well as giving Obama and the Democrats something to run against in two years.

The biggest problem for Democrats might be that among energized/interested voters, the gap on the generic congressional ballot is even higher (in the Republican +6 range). The problems for Democrats nationally are extensive and notable:

  • Voter interest is higher among GOP leaning and Independent voters than Democrats
  • Congressional approval is an historic low
  • The President's approval rating among Independents is only 40%
  • The "re-elect" numbers are at or near historic lows and there are substantially more Democrats than Republicans in office
  • The engaged voters are angry about spending and the stimulus package; this gives the GOP a huge advantage

Now whether the above translates into a thirty or a fifty seat gain for Republicans remains to be seen, but unless Democrats and the President can turn things around a bit this summer, November 2nd will be an unpleasant day.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights. Follow us on Twitter and read our perspectives and others' on Pollster.com or the Daily Caller.

The Gulf Oil Spill Is Not Katrina and Obama Is Not Bush

For myriad reasons, the last 48 hours in the Gulf have dealt a devastating blow to the political fortune of the Obama administration. The impact of recent events in that region will certainly be felt in November and perhaps even in 2012. And while the Israeli raid on ships carrying Palestinian activists is getting some attention, the spill is still the biggest story in America this morning.

Not every event or issue has an electoral effect, but our sense is that the Gulf oil spill will. Here is our up-to-the-minute take on events in the Gulf and our assessment of the political implications. As always, while the Gulf oil spill will have an enormously negative impact on wildlife and peoples' livelihoods, our focus is on the political and public relations elements of the catastrophe.

  1. We're now more than 40 days in, and the White House has finally gone into full crisis mode. Last week the President addressed the spill in a press conference and travelled to the region. He took responsibility for virtually everything under the sun. That seemed like the right strategic move until, of course, "top-kill" failed. Now it may prove to be problematic as voters begin to look for somewhere to place blame.
  2. The administration is doing what every good political campaign does: they are lowering expectations. The front page headline above the fold in dozens of newspapers across the country is: "Oil could flow until August." Now you could say that they are accurately and realistically setting expectations, since the relief wells will not be ready until August. But the statement from White House energy and climate advisor Carol Browner tells us that Team Obama does not want another expectations setback like the failed "top-kill." Better to lay out the worst-case scenario and if they do better, great.
  3. The President and his political team were slow to react to this crisis and it may have a lasting public opinion impact. Let's take a quick snapshot of the timeline of this incident:

    a. April 20th the oil rig Deepwater Horizon explodes.
    b. April 24th oil is found leaking from the well.
    c. April 29th Obama speaks publicly for the first time about the spill in the Rose Garden.
    d. May 2nd Obama visits the Gulf to inspect response operations.
    e. May 28th Obama holds an hour long press conference on the spill.
    f. May 29th Obama visits the Gulf again.

    It was nine days after the explosion--and five days after the world knew that the well was spewing oil--before the President spoke about the issue. And he didn't travel to the Gulf until 12 days after the explosion. It was more than a month before Obama held a full news conference to answer questions on the crisis. There is no doubt that the White House underestimated and underplayed the incident for its first few weeks. The result was the prevailing impression that Obama was disengaged. Of course, it is possible that Obama may be able to correct this impression.

    At this point in time, voter attitudes toward the President's handling of the Gulf oil spill are mixed. The following chart shows voter evaluation of Bush's handling of Katrina thirty days after the hurricane and reactions to Obama's handling of the spill in a comparable time frame.

    june 2 handling crisis.png

    As you can see, the Gallup poll in particular suggests that voters are starting to view the President's handling of the spill in a negative light. The coming days will be critical in terms of cementing or reversing this opinion.

  4. The short-term problem for Democrats is that the Gulf crisis drives down Obama's approval rating, the long-term issue for the President is that it diminishes one of the core reasons people voted for him: competence. There is no shortage of blog posts and op-eds on this point. Obama was supposed to be the "anti-Bush," the competency guy. He may not be emotional but he is smart and will know how to get things done. Well, his reaction to the Gulf oil spill seems to suggest otherwise. Now, for all we know the President had a multitude of discussions with his team about the issue and probably was monitoring and managing it from the start. However, a large segment of the voting public does not have that impression and in the end, that is what counts.

  5. This is not Katrina and Obama is not Bush. Look, it is interesting to compare the two because of the geographic proximity but they are very different Presidents at very different points in their presidencies. Bush was one year into his second term and his approval rating (in the low 40's) had been eroding for more than a year due to Iraq War fatigue. Bush's slow and distant reaction to the human toll in Louisiana suggested that he didn't care, taking away the one attribute some voters still ascribed to him. Katrina was the tipping point and Bush's approval rating fell into the 30's and never recovered. Obama is 18 months into his first term and his approval rating - though not great - is in the high 40's. So while Katrina was a tipping point for Bush, the Gulf oil spill may be a turning point for Obama.

  6. Team Obama has something that Bush never had with Katrina: a villain. A large international oil company. What better villain could you ask for? Team Obama will maximize this to its political advantage over the coming weeks. With Katrina, Bush was the villain.

  7. Remember, it is not usually the event that kills a President's approval rating; it is the reaction. Bush couldn't prevent the hurricane but voters thought the government's reaction was terrible. Time will tell whether the public believes that the Obama administration handled the aftermath to the oil spill well.

  8. At this point in time, there is little evidence that Obama's job rating has suffered substantial erosion because of the spill. While it may emerge over time, so far there is little sign of a negative effect on Obama's overall job approval: over the past month he has been consistently around the 47%-48% mark among registered voters. As we have said before, the economy is still far and away the number one issue for voters, and perceptions of it has far more impact on Obama's approval rating than the Gulf spill - at this point in time. The current unemployment rate is 9.9%. The main economic event this week is the May payrolls report. Most economists are forecasting 500,000 new jobs and the unemployment dropping .01 to 9.8%. Will that be seen as enough improvement? Doubtful.
  9. The saturated media coverage of the oil spill is reaching historic proportions and that means all eyes will be on POTUS. In September of 2005, 58% of the public was watching the Katrina crisis "very closely." According to a Gallup poll taken a week ago, the Gulf oil spill was already up to 47%. The 3-D graphics of the "Top Kill" have dominated cable news shows and the impact on the views of Americans outside the media echo chamber is just beginning to become known. They are certainly aware of it, with The Economist reporting that 73% of adults have heard or read "a lot." And we are in an environment where distrust of government and corporations are both at record highs, so this disaster will become part of the "narrative of failure" of public institutions in the same way that Fannie and Lehman have. But right now, most of the impact appears to be on BP, not the administration. A Pew poll found that 26% of voters feel that the Obama administration has done a "poor" job and 44% think that BP has done poorly.

  10. The spill takes the President "off message" and further diminishes Democratic efforts to forge a winning agenda for the Fall elections. This maybe one of the most significant problems for the President and Democrats. The spill will likely suck the oxygen out of the room for at least the next 30-60 days at a time when Democrats need the focus to be on their legislative agenda.

  11. If nothing else, the Gulf oil spill will be a significant blow to future offshore drilling development along our coasts, much as Three Mile Island affected the domestic nuclear industry. The effect on public opinion is already dramatic; fewer than half of all Americans now support expanded offshore drilling.

    june 2 expanded support.png

  12. The Gulf oil spill is likely to have dramatic political effect in the weeks ahead. And once we are swamped with videos of oil-soaked seabirds and ruined beaches, all bets are off.

A Midterm Super Tuesday

The phrase "angry voters" is a redundant one in 2010, and we will likely see this on full display today in three states. Our sense is that after today there will be a large number of Congressional incumbents who will be wishing that they had chosen to retire in 2010.

Since every newspaper in America has told us that these races are "bellwether predictors," we'll examine several of them. But before we do so, here are some observations on the big picture political environment:

  • As much as anything else, voters are anti-Washington. Yes, voters are "anti-incumbent," but that's because incumbents are associated with Washington. You will also see non-incumbent candidates lose, especially if they're more "connected" to Washington than their opponents. For evidence, look no further than the latest WSJ/NBC poll, which shows that only 25% of voters trust the government in Washington "to do what is right most or all of the time."
  • Mid-term elections are low turnout events and angry voters tend to turn out. Polling is difficult in mid-terms because we are not necessarily sure who is going to vote. The composition of the turnout is the problem for incumbents (or those who are perceived to be Washington insiders) today. That is why Specter and Grayson will lose and Lincoln will be held under 50%.
  • It would be a mistake to read too much into these races. Yes, they are a measure of voter anger with Washington and incumbents, but they will tell us little in terms of projecting how badly Democrats will lose in the fall. Each race has its own unique characters and characteristics that overlay the national mood.

Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate Primary - Sen. Arlen Specter v. Rep. Joe Sestak

Arlen Specter is going to lose today because this is the absolute worst environment for him to be running in. He was either going to lose now or in the fall, so it was only a matter of time. He is the embodiment of Washington, and to top it off he switched parties to keep his seat. His opponent, Representative Joe Sestak, fired off one of the best ads by any candidate this month: it showed Specter talking about the switch to "keep" his seat while picturing him with George W. Bush. Specter is simply the wrong candidate at the wrong time.

Now, Specter has been underestimated before and has been polling almost dead-even with Sestak, so he is far from out of it. However, the trend in polling has clearly not been moving in his favor--he's fallen steadily from a 62%-24% advantage a year ago to his current tie with Sestak (they're deadlocked at 44% each). For an incumbent to be mired in the low forties--and apparently moving backward in polls with just a few days remaining--is very dangerous territory.

At this point, we believe that all signs are pointing to a Sestak victory. Vice President Biden has been raising money and even cut a radio spot for Specter, but it appears that the Obama political operation has thrown Specter under the bus; there have been no Presidential appearances for the Senator in the last several weeks. Of course, after the President was unable to save Corzine, Deeds or Coakley, maybe that's a good thing for Specter.

Kentucky's Republican Senate Primary - Rand Paul v. Trey Grayson (formerly Sen. Jim Bunning's (R) seat)

Now this race is the polar opposite. Rand Paul is the perfect candidate for these times. And his opponent fell into the trap of exhibiting his connections to Washington at a time when doing so is a huge liability.

Sixteen months ago, this looked to be a ho-hum contest to replace the retiring Jim Bunning in a relatively straightforward Republican nomination and victory. Secretary of State Trey Grayson has done and said all the right things and has even gotten what should be the right endorsements, including that of Kentucky's senior senator and the current minority leader, Mitch McConnell. So why is he down about ten points to ophthalmologist and first-time candidate Rand Paul? It's because Paul has successfully positioned himself as an outsider and as someone who takes the concerns of the anti-Washington Tea Party seriously; his endorsements from the Tea Party's "renegade" heroes like Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint have helped, too.

This does represent a chance for Tea Partiers to demonstrate whether they are truly able to help get their own candidates across the finish line. (Sen. Bob Bennett's defeat in the Utah caucus was also a surprising upset by a Tea Party insurgency, but the caucus structure greatly favors underdogs with enthusiastic supports--as the Clinton campaign discovered in 2008.) Grayson has run a competent campaign, but Rand Paul has in one way acted like his father's son, expertly stoking the current anti-Washington, anti-incumbent sentiment. Like the Democratic contest in Pennsylvania, that's what this race is ultimately about. Of course, that's also the Tea Party movement's defining feature--even more so than low taxes or smaller government--so in this way it is very much a chance for the Tea Party to flex its muscles. We're comfortable predicting that he will be the first true "Tea Party" candidate for statewide office in a general election.

Arkansas's Democratic Senate Primary - Sen. Blanche Lincoln v. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter

In the end, poor Blanche Lincoln may end up wishing she had lost the primary outright, because the next several months are probably going to be very painful. She is an establishment candidate who is also in trouble within her own party, making her almost unelectable in the fall.

She is still leading Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in most polls, but as another incumbent stuck in the mid-40s, she's also vulnerable, and the increasingly aggressive tone of her campaign shows that she's clearly worried. Of course, there's also a very good chance we won't have a winner on Tuesday night: per Arkansas election law, she will need to break 50% of the total vote to avoid an early June run-off election.

While she may have been somewhat vulnerable before, Lincoln's turn in the spotlight during the health care reform battle was disastrous. She was criticized from both sides; on the left, for pledging to join a filibuster against the public option, and on the right (in a conservative Southern state) for negotiating with the Administration on the final bill. Ultimately, she did vote for the bill: a major issue in a state where 65% of voters would like to see it repealed.

While all of the candidates we've covered also face tough general election contests, Lincoln (or Halter) is in an even more difficult position than the rest. Currently, Rep. John Boozman leads a very crowded field in the Republican primary. But in a hypothetical general election matchup, he currently leads either Democrat by more than 25 points--no, that's not a typo.

We predict a narrow victory for Lincoln tomorrow (with a runoff to come) but, ultimately, we think this seat is almost certain to swing to the GOP in November.

Pennsylvania's 12th District - Special election to replace the Late Rep. John Murtha (D)

This election is important to both parties for deeply symbolic reasons beyond the chance for Republicans to pick up another House seat. Both parties are clearly aware of the significance: the DCCC has spent $800,000 on advertising, and political rock stars like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Newt Gingrich and Scott Brown are all campaigning in the district. And, as Politico reports, labor and interest groups are pouring money into the race as well.

The reason this race has garnered national attention is that it is the sort of tough-but-winnable race that Republicans will need to carry if they hope to even think about a majority in the next Congress. The Democratic candidate, Mark Critz, is a former aide to the late John Murtha. He's positioned himself as an heir to Murtha's legacy, which might seem an odd choice given the country's immense anti-incumbent sentiment. However, this is a district that was tailor-made for Murtha through gerrymandering, and the popular Murtha has been coasting through elections and bringing home federal dollars for decades. On the other hand, PA-12 does have a Cook PVI of R+1, indicating that it's a swing district in federal elections, and the demographic lean is strongly toward Republicans, with an electorate that is 94% white, 13% military veterans and has a median age of 41.8--all well above the national and statewide averages.

A deeper look at polling in the district points to other potential landmines for any candidate with a "D" next to his or her name in swing districts like this. As PPP observed back in April, only 28% of voters in the district express support for health care reform (59% are opposed). Even Democrats in the district support it by just a 43/39 margin. While Critz has spoken out against the passage of health care reform on the campaign trail, this issue is a key anger point for conservative voters and all Democrats are wedded to the bill, regardless of their stated positions. And another PPP poll over the weekend found that the President and his party are somewhat unpopular, with 55% of voters disapproving of Obama and 63% holding an unfavorable opinion of Nancy Pelosi

But there are some technical factors in this election that seriously help Critz. Because the election will be held on the same day as the Democratic primaries for Senate and Governor, there should be a boost to their turnout, given the interest in the contest between Sestak and Specter we described above. Also, the party primaries are actually being held on Tuesday as well, so voters will be asked to vote for Burns twice (Critz has fewer serious opponents in his primary).

At this point it looks like Critz will gain a very narrow victory today. The Senate race will drive up Democratic turnout.

However, if the interest in the Specter-Sestak battle for the soul of the Democratic Party is overstated and Democratic turnout sags, it's very possible that Burns could pull off an upset. If he does, the sky may in fact be falling for Democrats and anything will be possible for Republicans on Election Day. Either way, expect the media to seize upon the result as a key piece in the narrative leading to November.

Special thanks to John Zirinsky and Peter Ventimiglia for their thoughts and insights.

The Rapidly-Changing Issue Environment and What It Means

It is our hope that this statement will be met with a bit of thankfulness: we are not going to predict the number of seats the Democrats will lose in November, nor are we going to give you the magical formula for making that prediction. We can't because there isn't one. What we can say is that voters are angry and that is usually a bad sign for the party in power.

Before we examine the political situation, here's a quick snapshot of the opinion landscape as of 6 A.M. on Monday, May 3rd:

  • If anyone needed more evidence that the issue environment is shifting rapidly, the last 24 hours has surely provided it. We have seen the gulf oil spill move from a serious issue to a potentially catastrophic event. On Saturday night, Times Square was evacuated in the face of a failed car bomb attempt. On Sunday, Secretary Napolitano said this was a "potential terrorist attack" and would be treated very, very seriously. The implications are clear for 2010: just when you think you have a good handle on the issue environment, you probably don't.
  • The gulf oil spill is a potential "game changer" for this President and the White House knows it. That is why Obama travelled to the region on Sunday. The administration is vulnerable to charges that they underplayed the seriousness of this issue in the first few days. The situation was nearly a week old before they began treating it as a crisis. The Katrina comparison has been overplayed but the implication is clear: move quickly to exert leadership or the perceived lack of action will drive blame.
  • In 1979 the accident at Three Mile Island stopped the construction of new nuclear power plants for 30 years. The question now is whether the gulf leak will do the same with respect to offshore oil drilling. Here the WH has a problem since Obama came out in support of drilling in the state of the union. Yet another hot-button issue for Obama.
  • At this point in time the implications of the Times Square car bomb scare are unclear. But if it is connected to an international terror group, all bets are off as to its impact on the national issue agenda. Two weeks ago, the fall election was going to be all about healthcare reform and the economy (oddly, GOP issues), last week it was about immigration and Wall Street reform (Democrat issues) and now the environment, drilling and terrorism are front and center. As we have seen before, if terrorism rises as a national issue, the President will receive at least short-term political benefit.

As for the November elections, here is what we know. Let's start with the good news for Republicans:

  • We are in one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction in modern history. Except for a few weeks in the spring of 2009, perceptions of the direction of the country have been strongly "wrong track" since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is seven years. The only comparable period is 1973-1983. This helps explain why we are in the middle of a third successive "change" election. Moreover, trust in government to do what is right is at an all-time low. In a Pew Research Center poll last month, less than one fourth (22%) of respondents said they could trust government most of the time. This is one of the lowest percentages in more than 50 years.
  • Republicans are dominating the generic congressional ballot. To start, as Jay Cost observed from a regression analysis back in 2006, the final Gallup poll generic ballot explains about 89% of the variation in the final House results on Election Day. We agree that the generic ballot is a great predictor of the House vote, but we also want to remind readers that Democrats have been "underperforming" on Election Day relative to the generic ballot. Over the past decade, Democrats have consistently led Republicans in both the national House ballot and national party identification questions, even in cycles where they haven't gained control of the chamber, like 2000 and 2004. So when the generic ballot shows Democrats to be tied with Republicans or even down by a couple points, this is pretty much unprecedented territory.
  • Voter enthusiasm is decidedly with Republicans. The latest Gallup poll on voter enthusiasm was a big blow for Democrats. Among voters who are "very enthusiastic" about the upcoming mid-term elections, the GOP was ahead by 20 points (57% to 37%) on the generic congressional ballot.
  • The party identification gap has narrowed ten points in 18 months as the GOP and Democrats are now near parity among registered voters. This is hugely problematic for Democrats. Historically, Democrats have a 5-10 point edge in party ID among registered. They often retain this edge even during GOP up-cycles. Like the generic ballot, we are in uncharted territory.
  • Of course, individual races do matter. But this too has looked ominous for Democrats. As Sean Trende notes, "Every Democratic Senate candidate, except five from very blue states (Pat Leahy (VT), Chuck Schumer (NY), Barbara Mikulski (MD), Dan Inouye (HI) and Richard Blumenthal (CT)), has had at least one poll test placing him or her below 50% this cycle. Similarly... [House] Democrats in [blue] districts who normally receive around 60% of the vote are below 50% as well."
  • Basically, there are too many Democrats sitting in GOP-leaning districts. Howard Dean's efforts as DNC Chairman to "redraw the map" by contesting previously safe Republican districts have put an unusual number of freshman and sophomore Democrats in peril. While the project certainly bore fruit in 2008 and vindicated Dean's controversial strategy, there are now many more seats that will be difficult to defend. Take Virginia's 5th district: in 2008 Tom Perriello defeated six-term incumbent Virgil Goode by a margin of less than 800 votes as part of an unprecedented success for Democrats in Virginia (this was driven by a turnout surge of new Obama voters). However, the district has a Cook PVI of R+5, meaning that historically it has leaned toward Republicans, and in the only public poll, his approval rating is 42% approve/ 46% disapprove. Perhaps most troubling for Perriello, who voted "yea" on healthcare: 52% of his district's voters are against the bill and 50% disapprove of Obama.

On the other hand, there is some good news for Democrats (though not nearly as much):

  • The current issue frame is decidedly negative for Republican candidates. So long as the dialogue in Washington is focused on financial regulation and immigration reform, Republicans will be on the defensive. Add to that a potential terrorist attack and things are aligned for the President to demonstrate leadership. Ultimately, this may only be a short-term situation but, for the time being, the Democrats will benefit.
  • The economy is slowly improving. The economy grew by 3.2% during the first quarter of 2010. That makes three straight positive growth quarters. This pretty much signals that the recession ended in the spring of 2009. However, voter perception has not caught up with reality and until there is meaningful job growth the economy will continue to be a huge problem for Democrats.
  • The WH and the Democrats had an early warning bell this year - unlike 1994 - and they are mounting a counterattack. Just because they have been alerted to the approaching iceberg doesn't mean the current won't steer the Democrats right into it anyway, but the DNC's new campaign shows that they are not going to go down without a fight. Obama's trip to the mid-west this week was a step in the right direction in terms of addressing voter frustrations. We remain skeptical that new voter enlistment efforts will work in a non-Presidential year but it is worth a try.
  • Obama's approval rating is moribund but not toxic (yet). The President's approval rating is somewhere around 48%, depending on whose tally you are looking at. His disapproval is around 47-48%. If his approval gets back to or above 50% it will be a big help to Democrats in the fall.

There are two landmines that Republicans will need to navigate in the months ahead.

  1. First is the anti-incumbent sentiment that has gripped this electorate. Again, this helps Republicans from a big picture perspective because Democrats are in power, but it also suggests that voters aren't happy with either party, setting up a situation where it won't be enough for Republicans to be merely "not Democrats." And, to be honest, it is probably a good thing for both the country and Republicans themselves that they will be forced to articulate an alternative vision and set of policies. Of course, history shows that anti-incumbent sentiments do tend to help the opposition party, as this chart demonstrates:
  2. EM chart may 3 2010.jpg

  3. The second landmine is the Tea Party movement. There has been some interesting research done on the Tea Party movement (see the Winston Group's polling as well as TargetPoint's recent "exit poll" from a rally), but, to a large extent, we're still guessing as to the true identity of this group, especially with respect to its voting behavior (because it's never really voted as a "party" before). This is, after all, a group of people with a disparate collection of ideologies and philosophies, though most seem to be disaffected conservatives. So while most of them have probably never voted for a Democrat, they are clearly not just GOP base voters (and they aren't just former Perot voters, either). They are, in fact, a new, different subset of the electorate, and our sense is that the Tea Party label represents an option for people to either vote for write-ins or stay home. If either of those options occurs on a large scale, Republican gains will fall far short of historic.

The 15 Seat Gap

Make no mistake: this is going to be a very good year for the GOP. But there's a big difference between gaining 25 seats in the House and gaining 40 seats: picking up 40 seats would give the Republicans a narrow majority. Call it the "15 seat gap," and it's almost entirely dependent on a) perceptions of the economy and b) perceptions of the President's performance. It's clear that an electoral wave has been building since last fall. The problem for Republicans is that at some point a wave must crest. And so the question that begs to be asked is this: are we seeing the crest of the wave now or is it still gaining strength and getting bigger? There is conflicting data on this.

On the one hand is data that we are seeing in our national polls showing sustained increases in Republican party identification and voter enthusiasm. This is real. Like most off-year elections, 2010 will be about turnout and, right now, most polls show the GOP with a substantial edge in voter enthusiasm. Republicans have a 3-5 point edge in likely voter models. We are seeing an even split on self-identified voter registration between Democrats and Republicans and a slight GOP advantage on party identification (both a big swing from 2008). The GOP resurgence is real.

This is the same thing we saw in 1994. There was a GOP surge on the generic party ID question that gave us our first clue that Republicans were going to have a big year. As a pollster, at some point you have to stop "weighting" the partisanship data back to historical patterns and start using the new numbers, especially when you see a consistent pattern across multiple national and state surveys.

On the other hand, unemployment data and the President's approval ratings still have time to move around considerably, and it is these two factors that will determine whether the GOP has a good year or a great year. Ultimately, this election will be a referendum on President Obama. Dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and his performance has "nationalized" this election and created the wave we are seeing. Virtually every political commentator has drawn comparisons between 1994 and 2010 in terms of the potential Congressional sea change. While some areas of comparison are apt (the nationalization of the election and an unpopular health care push), we agree with Charlie Cook that the earlier formation of this 2010 "wave" is a crucial difference. And while it isn't perfectly similar either, we believe that the 1982 election might also provide a useful point of comparison.

Here's what happened in 1982: a net loss of 26 seats for Republicans while the country was in the middle of a deep recession. President Reagan's approval rating had dropped consistently during the year. But one look at the chart below also tells another story: the election occurred at the height of unemployment and during the deepest part of the recession (at least as perceived by voters).

march 9 2010 reagan.jpg

Note the correlating trends: Reagan's approval rating declined in step with the rising unemployment rate. The trend was the problem for Republicans, not the specific unemployment level. By the time of the election Reagan's approval rating was at 42%, a debilitating level for the President's party.

That's why 2010 might be different than 1994. There is the potential, at least, for the unemployment rate to be declining as we move closer to November. We are not economists--and there is no doubt that job growth will be very slow indeed--but there is a pretty good chance that the rate of unemployment will be trending down for the three or four months prior to the 2010 elections. And, as has been noted before, Obama's approval rating has leveled off around 50%. That's not good, but it's also not in the toxic zone like Reagan's in '82 (42%) or Clinton's in '94 (46%).

march 9 2010 obama.jpg

Go ahead and project your own lines out to November. It's anyone's guess, but our sense is that the "15 seat gap" will depend on the trend of a) unemployment and b) perceptions of the President's job performance. If unemployment shows no discernable downward trend and remains at or near 10%, then our feeling is that Obama's approval rating slips into the mid 40's: a danger zone for Democrats, giving the GOP a chance at regaining the House. On the other hand, if unemployment inches downward over the next six months and is at or below nine percent--and the President's approval rating is around 50%--then a net gain of 20-25 seats is about the most that Republicans can expect.

If that happens, the GOP will look back with fondness at March of 2010 as the time when the wave probably did crest.

Why Brown Won

Topics: Martha Coakley , Massachusetts , Scott Brown

Yesterday, Scott Brown became the first Massachusetts Republican elected to the U.S. Senate since Ed Brooke in 1972. Here is what happened:

  • This was not all about healthcare reform. Celinda Lake (Coakley's pollster) was right--to a certain extent--about healthcare reform's effect on the race. The bottom started falling out for Coakley when the Senate passed its healthcare bill in mid-December. But that isn't the sole explanation for Coakley's collapse or even the primary reason. A strong candidate with a better message could have withstood the national climate--especially in Massachusetts.
  • Candidates matter. Coakley was an awful candidate. As one KSDK reporter in Boston said: "She looked like she would rather eat broken glass than shake hands with a voter." Her "Rose Garden strategy" was a complete failure since it prevented her from engaging an angry electorate.
  • Coakley seemed disconnected. The cumulative effect of her gaffes (Schilling, no terrorists in Afghanistan) suggested to voters that she really didn't "get it."
  • But that doesn't mean that Democrats shouldn't be worried. Yes, she was a bad candidate and the country is in an anti-incumbent state of mind. That said, we're still talking about Massachusetts here. Obama was elected to bring about change, but voters--starting with the stimulus and continuing with healthcare reform--are anxious and frustrated about the policies that the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress have pursued. It started in NJ and VA: this is the continuation of that trend, and it points to huge problems for Democrats in 2010, especially if they misread the tea leaves and try and push through a healthcare bill that the public has decided it doesn't want.
  • The country is still center-right. This election, along with results from New Jersey and Virginia, confirms what we--and plenty of others--said after the 2008 election: this remains a center-right country. Democrats should recognize this as they consider how to move forward on healthcare reform and other controversial issues (cap and trade, etc.).
  • The Coakley team completely misread the environment. They ran Coakley as the "heir apparent" to Kennedy. This was an anti-establishment/anti-incumbent election. It was like watching Mark Penn run the failed Hillary Clinton campaign all over again.
  • Going negative in the final three-day weekend was a huge tactical mistake by the Coakley campaign. The ads were too harsh and it seemed to have a galvanizing effect for Brown and his campaign. The Coakley team probably looked at internal polling last week and deemed it necessary - but it was still a mistake. Look, it is sometimes acceptable to go negative (use comparative spots) and paint your opponent early in the race, but only after you have laid out a positive foundation for yourself. Coakley never did that, so the ads seemed desperate.
  • Which brings us to the biggest problem: the Coakley campaign was asleep at the wheel. They never defined their candidate--or her opponent--in a meaningful and relevant way. They never framed the election in their favor. They never engaged the electorate on issues that mattered. Brown did all of the above. That's why he won.
  • Brown was the right candidate at the right time. If this election had taken place in early December or early February, we might have seen a very different result.
  • Deval Patrick was also a millstone around Coakley's neck. The Governor is in trouble with Massachusetts voters and it hurt Coakley.
  • State Democrats should not have rigged the succession system--twice. We wouldn't even be analyzing why Coakley lost if Democrats hadn't twice changed the Massachusetts rules for filling an empty Senate seat.
  • Independents carried the day for Brown. There are simply not enough Republicans in the state to give Brown a 100,000-vote victory. Turnout was high (50%), as 2.25 million voters went to the polls. Without exit polls it is hard to know for sure, but Brown had to win independent voters by a 2 to 1 margin. Chuck Todd is right: Brown, like McDonnell in VA and Obama in 2008, won by winning the middle.
  • Obama probably helped keep it closer than it would have been. Our sense is that because this thing really caught fire last Friday and Saturday, the media attention and Obama's visit actually helped stem the Brown surge by energizing some lethargic Democrats. Without it, Brown was trending toward a 9-point victory. That is why on Monday we tweeted a projection of 52% to 47%. Late votes went to Coakley. But there weren't enough of them.
  • This should not have been a complete shock. Coakley's highest vote share in pre-election polls was 58% in November. In Massachusetts, she should have started out with 63-65%. She was NEVER in a strong position and was ripe to be picked off if the national mood soured. And it did.
  • Massachusetts has never elected a woman as U.S. Senator or Governor. Gender was probably not a major factor but some of Brown's internal polling suggest that voters thought Coakley would be weak on national defense/terror issues. Part of this is due to the administration's poor reaction to the Christmas Day bomber and broader concerns about Obama's performance on national security issues, but gender may also have had a role.

Thanks to Pete Ventimiglia and John Zirinsky for their insights and analysis. Please follow us on Twitter for up-to-the-minute analysis.

The Pendulum Swings Back

Topics: 2010 , Approval Ratings , Democrats , Harry Reid , Obama , Turnout

While we hate to interrupt the feeding frenzy over Harry Reid and Game Change, we thought the time was right for a quick, unvarnished snapshot of the current political environment and look at where we think voter turnout might be heading this fall.

Current Political Environment:

  1. The GOP is finally winning on the issues and Reid is a distraction. While Republicans must be salivating over the Harry Reid comments and backlash, we think that some consideration should be given to letting this go. Yes, it further tarnishes Congress and may further suppress Democrat turnout in November, but the rise of the GOP over the last several months has been largely due to the condition of the economy and opposition to some of the administration's policies. Take, for example, the erosion POTUS has had in his perceived handling of these three issue areas:

    Handling of Economy: 42% approve, down 14 points from a year ago.
    Foreign Policy: 47% approve, down 8 points from a year ago.
    Health Care: 41% approve, down 15 points from a year ago.

    Voters are very issue-centric these days. The Obama team and Democrats in Congress would much rather be talking about race than jobs, spending and national security.

  2. The Obama agenda and message has been spread so thin, it is almost meaningless. There is a fine line between demonstrating an aggressive, action-oriented agenda and trying to do so much that people really don't know what you've done or what you're doing. The administration appears to have tipped into the latter. Team Obama wanted to be the "anti-Bush" administration, but in doing so they may have lost a lot of momentum and meaning to any change they have generated. We will know more about public reaction in the coming months, but for the time being it appears that Obama would have been better off picking one or two signature initiatives in year one.

  3. The GOP is benefiting from the anti-incumbent sentiment, but it remains a largely hollow brand. Until the Republican party can paint a picture of its new brand image in a clear and compelling way - it remains a default party rather than a movement. Voters are being repelled from the Democrats and are only moving over to the GOP column by default. The only way to lock them in is to present a clear and compelling agenda--and that has not happened to date.

Observations on Voter Turnout for 2010:

The overall trend to the national voter turnout rate has been upward since 1980. However, there is a very obvious, consistent up-down pattern to voter turnout in presidential versus midterm elections. For example, when we separate the two types of elections and look at the trend, we see that the increase in turnout has been driven entirely by increases in turnout for Presidential-year elections. In off-years, turnout is actually down very slightly over the past 30 years. So the gap between Presidential and midterm turnout is also increasing. This is not unexpected, given the increased exposure and attention received by Presidential races over this period.

  • From 1980 - 2006, there were four Presidential elections where turnout exceeded the expected rate. In three of the four following midterm elections, turnout was again higher than expected. There were also three Presidential elections where turnout fell below the trend line. In all three of those cases, turnout was lower than the expected rate given the overall trend. Accordingly, it appears that higher turnout in a Presidential race generally leads to higher turnout in the following midterm, and vice-versa.

    o In the famous Gingrich-led "wave" election of 1994, overall turnout was indeed higher than both the predicted value and either the 1990 or 1998 midterms. However, this famous increase in turnout might have been predicted just by the turnout surge for Clinton's victory in 1992.

  • What does this tell us for 2010? Looking just at the trend line, the data would predict a 39.4% national turnout rate. However, knowing that turnout did exceed expectations in 2008, we'd wager that in 2010 turnout will exceed the trend and fall somewhere in 41.5%-42.5% range.


  • Of course, in looking all elections, it's not just about how many people vote but who they vote for. And while this data says nothing about the composition of the electorate in the lower-turnout midterm years, an examination of the less-than-reliable exit polls can provide some color to these results.
  • The first thing that jumps out is that there is a strong relationship between midterm turnout and the composition of the electorate. When midterm turnout is high, it is generally because of an increase in the turnout of the base of the party that does not hold the White House.

    o This relationship was especially strong in 2002 and 2006, where Democrats turned out in unprecedented numbers for the midterm elections. Of course, the outcomes in those years could not be more different, with the Republicans actually picking up 8 House seats in 2002 but losing 31 in 2006. And in 1994, when Republicans picked up 54 seats, they were only 36% of voters. Other factors such as the geographic distribution of a party's turnout and the independent vote--which swung strongly against Democrats in 1994 and Republicans in 2006--are also significant factors in election outcomes.

Our conclusion is that after one party rides a higher-turnout election into the White House, they can usually expect a corresponding wave--this time, in favor of their opponents--at the polls the following year. And the size of the midterm turnout "wave" is generally proportionate to the increase in the previous cycle's overall turnout. However, just getting the national boost to turnout in the base is not enough by itself for gains and losses in Congress: the geographic distribution of the turnout and the split among independents is also vital.

So we shouldn't be surprised when a major story after the 2010 election is the surge in Republican turnout. And as we've noted before, perhaps Obama and the Democrat's turnout spike last year was not the precursor to a sustained Democratic shift in the electorate, but rather part of the same back-and-forth pattern that caught Clinton in 1994 and Bush in 2006. The current electoral environment certainly feels similarly anti-incumbent as well--not to mention recent horserace polls.

Thanks to John Zirinsky and Pete Ventimiglia for their analysis and insight on turnout.

Obama: Worst First Year Ratings Ever?

Topics: Health Care Reform , independents , job approval , Obama

The merits of this weekend's health care reform legislation can be debated elsewhere; our focus here is on its potential political impact. And while the process was more protracted and contentious than many predicted, there is little doubt that this was a tremendous political achievement for President Obama and the Democrats. Our assumption is that the White House's political apparatus hopes that this will stop the President's job approval rating erosion. We aren't sure that it will.

Our sense is that passing the Senate health care reform bill is better for President Obama and the Democrats than not passing anything. Obama's overall job approval (48% approve) and health care approval (51% disapprove) numbers have both fallen in step with declining public support for the health care plan (currently at 36% favor, 49% oppose). The generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party's candidate they plan to vote for in the 2010 House races, has actually favored the Republican candidate in nine of 14 publicly-released polls since the beginning of November (the current average is 44% Republican, 42% Democrat).

The generic ballot and presidential approval rating are the two best general predictors of mid-term shifts in control of Congress, so this should trouble Democratic leaders who touted a permanent, Democratic realignment of the electorate 12 months ago.

Let's tackle one of these and provide some historical context for the President's current approval ratings.

Obama's First Year: The Worst Ever?

Karl Rove's latest WSJ editorial points out that Obama's overall job approval has fallen to "the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year." This is true, but only to a point: Obama's current approval is within a cluster that has Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all within the margin of error at the same point in their first terms. In 1994, President Clinton and the Democrats lost a net of 54 seats in the House and eight in the Senate in the "Contract with America" tsunami. In 1982, President Reagan and the GOP lost a net of 27 seats in the House and one in the Senate. Of course, both Clinton and Reagan then went on to win re-election.

The below table shows the approval ratings for Obama and the previous six presidents at the same point in their presidency, approximately 325 days after their inauguration to their first term. (All approval numbers are from the Gallup Poll except for George H.W. Bush's approval among independents, which was taken from a CBS News poll that November.)

dec 22 chart 1.jpg

The most striking thing here is Obama's diapproval number. While Ford, Reagan and Clinton had similar approval ratings, only Obama has a nearly one-to-one ratio of approval to disapproval. This might be a testament to the polarization of the contemporary electorate, or it just might be that Obama's policies have engendered greater disapproval at a faster rate than his predecessors'.

For a pretty cool experience (or at least as cool as polling trend data can be), click the graphic below for a link to the interactive USA Today chart that allows you to compare Gallup's historic presidential approval data.

usa today.jpg


While Democrats are still quite supportive of Obama, he is really struggling with independent voters. In January, approximately 70% of independents approved of Obama's job performance. It would have been unrealistic for him to keep approval among independents at that level, but a 25-point drop is significant.

Below is a table that compares overall Presidential approval ratings with approval ratings among Independents for the last six Presidents. As you'd expect, the two figures usually move closely together. The spread between Obama's overall and independent approval ratings is currently on the high side of the typical range. Keep a close watch on Obama's job approval number with independents: if it drops into the low 40's that would suggest a catastrophic collapse of support that could be a precursor to a major swing toward the GOP in 2010.

dec 22 chart 2.jpg

Obama's Approval Rating: What Happens Now?

This is the big question. Any assessment of the current situation would suggest that Obama is due for at least a slight ratings bump with the passage of health care reform. It is our belief, however, that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the bill; this is why support for comprehensive health care reform has plummeted in recent months. While many voters oppose the bill because they disike it from a policy perspective, many others oppose it because they simply don't understand it.

Therefore, for Obama to realize some kind of January bump from health care reform's eventual passage, he will need to explain to the American public a) what the bill does and b) why it will be a good thing for them personally. Perhaps then, as is typical after these protracted legislative battles are won by a President and his party, Obama might get a modest (three-to-five point) bounce in his approval rating. But that is far from a certainty. Today, Quinnipiac University released another poll that showed a majority of voters disapprove of the Senate's health care plan. It is going to take some work to convince voters that this bill is a good thing. Not impossible, but increasingly difficult.

After that, to predict the direction of Obama's approval it would be best to watch the topline unemployment number, which has recently been a good leading indicator of Obama's approval rating.

Obama Doesn't Own Change

We re-learned something important last Tuesday: President Obama doesn't have proprietary rights to "change." Change is a non-partisan electoral phenomenon, and last week the forces of change bit the Democratic hand that fed them in 2008. Change didn't end when Obama was elected, and this anti-Washington, pro-reform sentiment will likely shape the political environment for the next several months.

To some extent, of course, results in VA and NJ were about key segments of the electorate (such as suburban voters and white women) returning to their ideological comfort zones, but the results there were more about a general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country; that was the key driver in the defeats of two Democratic governors.

While passing some type of health care reform will almost certainly provide a boost to Democrats, we believe that the prolonged focus on health care reform--by Congress and the media--is frustrating voters who continue to be more concerned about the economy. This is why we saw the President announce a "Jobs Summit" this morning. Where has the White House political team been since January? Under a rock?

A lot can--and will--happen in the next 12 months that will impact the 2010 midterms. The generic congressional ballot, however, is one of the better predictors of future election outcomes and the trend is undeniably positive for Republicans. Below is a regression trend going back a little over one year. Just for fun, if we project this out to Election Day 2010 we're looking at a GOP landslide. That, of course, is unlikely, but it does show that Democrats should be concerned with the overall trend.


Some additional notes on the current environment, informed by last week's exit polls:

1. The GOP swept VA and won the Governor's race in NJ by flipping the Obama coalition on its head. Yes, turnout was lower (normal for off-year elections and unsurprising considering turnout for the 2008 Presidential election) but independents, suburban voters and even young voters (in VA) went for the Republicans. Obama won VA by 7 points and NJ by 20! These two maps really tell the story (click for the larger originals):

NJ1112.png va1112.png

2. The economy was a key driver of anti-incumbency sentiment last week and this will continue unless perceptions of economic performance improve. While the Dow is soaring again, unemployment has hit 10.2%. Despite the growing talk about a recovery, it has yet to hit Main Street. A recent Ipsos/McClatchy poll shows that only seven percent of Americans believe that the U.S. economy has "turned the corner." From most voter perspectives, the economy is still a mess and they are unsatisfied with the Democrats' response. This is confirmed by the exit polls:

• 89% of NJ voters were worried about the economy and Christie won 51% of the vote among them (Corzine 43%, Daggett 5%).
• 85% of VA voters were worried about economy and McDonnell won 63% - 36% among that group.

In short, voter attitudes regarding the direction of the country are really hurting the President and Democrats right now.


3. All politics is local, but the perception is that local economic woes are due to national, systemic problems. The storyline is that the recession was the result of insufficient regulation and excessive speculation on Wall Street, and it's clear that voters now believe that these type of things fall under the purview of the federal government. This skepticism toward the federal government's ability to deal with these problems was further reinforced by reactions to the stimulus.

4. The exit polls confirm that we're still in a "change" mindset. Republicans also won handily among independents (66-33% in Virginia and 60% - 30% - 9% in New Jeresey).

• Thirty-nine percent of NJ voters said "change" was the most important quality, not "honesty," "experience," or "values," and "change" voters broke 67% - 26% - 7% for Christie.
• McDonnell also won the youth vote 54% - 44%. While this group represented just 10% of the turnout, it is a surprising result for a socially conservative Republican.

5. The stage may be set for another wave election. Suburban voters and white women favored both Christie and McDonnell after breaking for Obama in 2008. These groups were key to both Clinton's victory in 1992 and the subsequent swing back to the GOP in the 1994 midterms. While the economy was not front-and-center at that time, the failure of a transformative liberal agenda to properly address issues sounds familiar. Again, we must stress that we are a long way away from Election Day 2010 and this is just one scenario--if an increasingly plausible one.

Maybe the Off-Year Election is Meaningful?

Although everyone from Charlie Cook to the short order cook at Denny's has told us not to "over-interpret" the results of the three off-year elections, our sense is that the opposite may be true: that is, many may be under-interpreting the meaning of a GOP sweep tomorrow. Yes, a lot can and will happen between now and Election Day 2010, but make no mistake: Republicans are likely to sweep all three races tomorrow and that does say something about the direction of the country and voter perceptions of the economy.

Our assessment of the polls suggests that McDonnell will win decisively in Virginia (easy pick), Christie will narrowly take New Jersey (hard pick) and Hoffman will take NY-23rd. While each of these races has its own unique political environment, the collective sweep does tell us a few things from a macro perspective.

  1. Obama is personally popular but voters remain unsure of the effectiveness of his policies. That is why his personal popularity does not necessarily translate into help for either Corzine or Deeds. Poll after poll shows that the President is well-liked but voters are not yet convinced that his policies are moving the country in the right direction.
  2. It's still all about the economy and, to some extent, Democrats are being punished for it. This, of course, can change in the next six months but for now voters are willing to look to Republicans for answers (even with a weak candidate like Christie).
  3. This is what happens when a change election environment comes back to bite you. Democrats were all about change in 2008 but the shoe doesn't fit as well in 2009. Voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and they still want some sort of remedy. This was a difficult case for Corzine to make given the fiscal mess in New Jersey but Deeds simply blew it on this measure.

However, things are not all rosy for the GOP. Here are four reasons why Republicans should still worry:

  1. The Republican Party image is in disrepair and this will continue to cast a negative shadow on all of its candidates.
  2. The Democrats own the WH and Congress, so the Party will be the beneficiary of the eventual economic recovery.
  3. The person most identified with the GOP today is Sarah Palin and, given her current image attribute ratings among voters, she is probably unelectable in a general election scenario. The latest WSJ poll had her at favorability rates at 46% negative and just 27% positive.
  4. At this time, there are no tangible brand benefits to voting for a Republican. Certainly there are opportunities (e.g. tough on spending, economic growth without increased taxes and a hard line on terrorism), but until the GOP attaches itself to meaningful solutions to important issues, it will not regain dominance.

New Jersey Governor

Tomorrow will likely validate one of the best truisms in politics: an incumbent will get what s/he polls. In virtually every poll taken, Corzine has been hovering around 40%. It is highly unlikely that his vote share will exceed this number. Voters already know him, and they either like him or they don't like him; there are few, if any, voters who remain undecided on Governor Corzine. The wild card, of course, is third party candidate Chris Daggett. If he gets to 15% then Corzine has a chance. Our analysis of public and private polls has Christie winning narrowly while falling well short of 50% of the vote. We believe Daggett will finish with about 10%, a remarkable showing for a relatively unknown independent candidate. What has kept the race close is the failure of the Christie campaign to define its candidate in a positive way. As Tom Jensen of PPP points out, Corzine will need to win 12% of the vote among voters who have a negative opinion of him. It is probably not going to happen.


Virginia Governor

Last year at this time, pundits were heralding a new era of politics. In their view, Democrats--led by Barack Obama--had reshaped the political map and turned red states into blue states (or, at the very least, purple states). Well that was yesterday. Look! Virginia is red again. Republicans had the better candidate and an aligned electorate. Deeds' campaign has been flailing and unfocused since its hysterical swings at McDonnell over his thesis. Message discipline is key in politics and the Deeds campaign had very little of it.



There isn't much heavy lifting to be done with the polling for this race. We can start by tossing out any polls that began fielding prior to Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava's withdrawal from the race on Saturday. That leaves just two results from the past few hours: Hoffman +17 and Hoffman +5. While Scozzafava has endorsed her Democratic opponent Bill Owens, the lion's share of her votes seem to have found their way to Conservative Doug Hoffman, whose insurgent candidacy from the right has been surprisingly effective. Scozzafava's flame-out is especially interesting in light of the fact that incumbent John McHugh, a relatively moderate Republican, won handily with 63% and 65% of the vote in (respectively) 2006 and 2008. This, in a district Obama won 52% - 47%.

Evaluating the Post-Presidential Campaign

Next week we will be 10 months into the Obama post-presidential political campaign and we thought it would be a good time to inventory its positives and negatives. The administration is bringing a political campaign approach to its policy agenda; as such, it is probably best to view its strategies and tactics through the same prism.


  1. The President's activist agenda is in strong contrast to Bush and perceptions of the last years of the Bush presidency. Few voters are likely to say that Obama is not trying to do something. While some pundits will argue that Obama is overexposed, we disagree. His offensive on healthcare the last 45 days has been a plus. There are simply too many diversions in our digital, 24/7 media world that keep people from paying attention. His improved approval rating is a reflection of this. One possible negative implication is the growing perception that his activity is a sign of big government intrusion. A must-read on this topic is a piece filed yesterday by Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press.
  2. Sotomayor. The handling of the Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court was terrific and helped steady the ship in early August. While there was some grumbling from Republicans about the choice of a "Wise Latina" the end result was that Obama was able to replace Souter with someone who is just 55 years young and certainly tilts the court further to the left. This is not just a victory for progressive jurisprudence, however, but also from a PR standpoint: while expending minimal political capital, Obama was able to make history by naming the first Hispanic and third female to the SCOTUS.
  3. Despite early PR blunders on health care, the President's reform campaign over the last 30 days has stopped the public opinion bleeding. Two things have happened: first, the public is more likely now to believe that health care reform is a top priority than back in July; and second, voters are less apprehensive that the plan would not harm them. This tells you one thing: the President never should have outsourced the first phase of healthcare reform to Congress. Team Obama said they were doing that because of lessons learned from Clinton's healthcare push in 1993. If so, they learned the wrong lesson.


  1. The President and his team appear to have misinterpreted their 2008 victory as a mandate for social change. Uncharacteristically, this appears to have been done with little regard to actual public opinion. Voters last November were looking for change, but it was almost all about the economy/jobs (and, to a much lesser extent, Iraq). Obama's approval rating drop is tied to the rising unemployment rate and a belief that he is not solving the nation's economic problems. As long as consumer confidence lags, so will the President's numbers.
  2. The "stimulus package" was a PR bust. In a recent WSJ poll, less than half of voters (46%) thought the stimulus prevented a greater downturn. According to a CBS poll from last week, while a plurality (47%) see the stimulus as making the economy better in the long run, nearly as many see it as either making the economy worse (21%) or having no impact (24%). The bottom line is that the focus should have been on jobs. A late September survey conducted by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin for the Economic Policy Institute showed that more than 8 in 10 registered voters (81%) thought that the Obama administration needs to do more about unemployment and disappearing jobs. Only 13% thought the president had done enough. Again, polls showed support for a targeted jobs package with a combination of some infrastructure investment and tax cuts. All of which would have been tough to argue against and may have even garnered bipartisan support.
  3. Team Obama misplayed healthcare from the get-go. They aimed big, which isn't a bad thing, but they aimed so big that it has come crashing down on them. Then, to make matters worse, they learned the wrong "lesson" from 1994 ("don't give them an actual plan to pick apart") and came across as indecisive and unprepared due to their lack of specificity. Public opinion polls show that there is support for substantive change to our healthcare system, but there are a lot of items they should have and could have accomplished with bipartisan support (electronic medical records, health insurance reform vis-à-vis pre-existing conditions, etc.) that would have allowed them to claim health reform "victory" while setting them up for more substantive change down the road. The key lesson from 1994 was "don't bite off more than you can chew (in other words, more than the people want and are ready for)" and they whiffed on that. The public decided that covering more people but allowing everyone who currently has coverage to keep the same coverage without spending more money was probably impossible. We may still see bills pass the floor of both the House and Senate in the coming weeks which would cause the public's perception of Obama's handling to rebound; however, it is undeniable that a good measure of damage has already been done.
  4. The White House miscalculated the seriousness and intensity of the Town Hall meetings and then added insult to injury by saying that the town hall participants were not legitimate, which only served to make voters angrier. The tactic backfired in a big way.
  5. Obama ran as the "anti-politician" but his job now is inherently political, which diminishes his biggest attribute. This partially explains Obama's rapid approval rating drop. It is not necessarily because of his policies (although some of it assuredly is); it is because of the fact that he is doing anything at all. Before he was above the fray, now he is in it.


  1. The Nobel Peace Prize. It is obvious how the prize feeds the negative perception that Obama is overly lauded despite having a thin record of actual accomplishments. However, it was completely beyond the White House's control that a group of six inscrutable Norwegians decided to bestow the Nobel Peace Prize on Obama. Furthermore, by donating away the monetary prize and treating the honor as a "Call to Action" Obama largely was able to defuse the blowback.

An Up-to-the-Minute Review of the Public Opinion Landscape as of Noon Today:

  • The fact that the storyline this morning is about the insurance industry launching a multi-state ad campaign attacking the health care plan - is a positive for the President. A CBS News poll in August had the insurance industry's unfavorable rating at 46%. Although we must say that the attack line -- warning that seniors in private Medicare plans could lose benefits under the legislation - is a pretty good one.
  • Obama's approval rating is slowly trending back up. The latest Gallup tracking poll result (released yesterday) now shows Obama at 56% approval and 36% disapproval. Our synthesis of the most recent public and private polls has his approval rating at 53% and disapproval at 41%. This is a marked improvement over 30 days ago. At that time his disapproval rating was at 45% according to our average of all polls at that time). Remember that his approval rating drop from the mid-60's was with all major demographic and political groups. It fell 11 points among women and nine points among men; and by 12 points among Republicans, 10 points among Democrats and nine points among independents from April to September. Look for polls to show improvement among these groups in the coming days and weeks.

    obama approval oct 14.jpg

  • The New Jersey Governor's race will go to the wire but Virginia is almost certainly over. A new Quinnipiac poll has NJ in a statistical tie with the Democrat incumbent Corzine at 40%, Republican Christie at 41% and Independent Chris Daggett at 14%. McDonnell has been up between 8-15% for almost two months. While there was some tightening in VA in mid-September due to the "Thesis" story (especially in northern Virginia), McDonnell appears to have regained his solid lead--due in large part with ads aimed at Independents and women. Enthusiasm for McDonnell is twice that for Deeds according to the Washington Post. In an off year election this is critical. Barring some sort of surprise, Virginia will elect a Republican Governor in 3 weeks.
  • While stocks are surging this morning, unemployment is still the key driver of public opinion and it remains abysmal. The unemployment rate when Barrack Obama took office was 7.6% and 11.6 million Americans were unemployed. The current rate of unemployment (as of September) is 9.8% and the number of jobless Americans is 15.1 million. Below are the number of payroll jobs the country has lost month-by-month since January. (August and September data is still "provisional.")

    job losses.jpg

  • The 2010 elections will be almost exclusively about the economy and jobs. While it is speculation at best to estimate the magnitude of losses Democrats might endure it is instructive to look at what happened during the 1981-1982 recession. In January of 1981 when Reagan took office unemployment was at 7.5%. In November of 1982 unemployment had risen to 10.8%. Reagan's approval rating at the time of the election had dropped to 43% (47% disapproval). Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House and one in the Senate. Of course this election will have its own set of variables (including retirements, candidate recruitment, generic ballot, partisan identification) but we do tend to think that two numbers will be hugely important a year from now: the President's approval rating and unemployment. Even if the recession "ends" tomorrow, unemployment is a lagging indicator and that number will almost definitely be higher on Election Day 2010 than it was when Obama took office--representing a substantial drag on Democrats in 2010.

The First 100 Days

What do we make of President Obama's first 100 days? The answer is that he falls within the norm. His favorability rating--which is certainly high, but not historic--puts him about where George W. Bush was at this time in 2001. In fact, his rating is similar to Jimmy Carter's in April of 1977 and Richard Nixon's in April of 1969. President Obama's approval rating is typical of a "change" election President. The only "outlier" is Bill Clinton, and that is most likely due to his low vote share (43%) in the election. So forget the 100 day hype. Obama is where he should be.

approval table 2009-4-30.jpg
Some observations on the political environment and marketplace:

1. Watch Independent voters when trying to assess how well the President is doing. While Independents gave the President strong job approval ratings in the early days of his administration, their disapproval grew rapidly so that by mid-March those Independents disapproving of the President's job rose to nearly 40%. Since that time, this number has dropped to around 30%. Our sense is that the President needs to keep his disapproval rating among Independent voters either at or below 40% to successfully sell his policies.

ind approval 2009-4-30.jpg
2. If the current trend continues, within the next 60-90 days a majority of the country will think things are going in the "right direction" for the first time in nearly six years. Not since the first quarter of 2003 (just prior to the start of the Iraq war) has a majority of Americans believed that things were going in the right direction. National polling suggests that there has been substantive improvement in the perception of the direction of the country in the last several months. Since the election, the percentage of Americans who think the country is off on the wrong track has declined by more than 20 points. In fact, the biggest drop was the period between the election and the President's inauguration, and there has been a steady wrong track reduction since that time. Today, the country is almost evenly-split between people believing that things are going in the "right direction" and those who think that the country is "off on the wrong track."

rtwd 2009-4-30.jpg

3. It's almost all about the stock market. We should really start calling it the political-economy. If you are trying to figure out whether Americans are feeling better or worse about the President or the economy, just check the stock market. Since March 9th, when the Dow hit bottom at 6547 it has improved nearly 25% to 8254 (at the time of this writing).

DOW Jones Industrial Average in 2009

Dow 2009-4-30.jpg

Now look at public opinion polling on the state of the economy. For nearly one month after passage of the stimulus bill and its signing by the President on February 17th, there was very little movement on the measure. Approximately 70% of voters thought the country was getting worse for that period of time. It wasn't until the market uptick that started in the middle of March that you began to see fewer people saying that the economy was worsening and more saying that it was getting better. Of course, the media echo chamber is a contributor, as were some of the data (economic indicators) we began seeing the last month. During the same period, we also saw the President's job approval improve. While they will never say it, the White House political operatives are paying close attention to the stock market because for the immediate future, their success is intrinsically tied to it.

Dispatches: "Politics of Purpose" vs. "Tactics?"

Topics: Dispatches from the War Room , Pollsters , Stan Greenberg

This post is part of Pollster.com's week-long series on Stan Greenberg's new book, Dispatches from the War Room.

I find the whole debate between the "politics of purpose" versus "tactics" to be a pretty silly one. There are several strategic factors that will drive a campaign to be about either big or small things, including the overall mood of the public, the ideological perspective of the candidate (or lack thereof), the distinctions between the two parities on key issues (or lack thereof) and the political skills of the candidate. Ideally, you want to have an election over big philosophical differences in which you can highlight your candidate in a favorable light. I applaud Stan for wanting to be involved with politicians and campaigns that are about watershed issues and seminal ideas but the reality is that most are not.

The fact that pollsters like Dick Morris (and many, many others) moved to tactics during a time when there were few big issues is not only unsurprising but probably the right thing to do. During much of the 1990s there were few perceptible ideological or issue differences between the two parties and pollsters had to look "micro." This, of course, changed around 2005 and had become a chasm by 2008, and just about everyone--with the possible exception of Mark Penn--realized it.

Update: Greenberg responds here. Follow the complete series here.

Bush: A Tale of Two Presidencies

As political pundits put their spin on the Bush legacy and begin their analysis of the Obama Presidency, we wanted to take a quick moment to debunk two myths: first, that Bush's Presidency was largely viewed as an unfavorable one by the electorate and second, that Bush presided over an abnormally long period of voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country. Neither is true and here is why.

Bush's Favorability

This is truly a tale of two Presidencies. Bush's first term is markedly different from his second. Of course, the Iraq war dominated public discourse during both terms and its duration--along with the perception that the war was both poorly conducted and possibly unnecessary--led to an erosion in Bush's favorability. While his rating dropped significantly from 9/11 onward, it was at or above 60% for two years and then hovered around 50% for the balance of his first term (his numbers dropped into the high 40's at the end of 2004 but rebounded after his re-election into the low to mid 50s). His average favorability rating for the first 4 and ½ years of his Presidency--from January of 2001 through August of 2005--was a remarkably high 60%.

Then came Katrina. As we have said before, Katrina was debilitating for Bush's image, his ability to persuade the electorate and, ultimately, his ability to govern. It cut the political legs right out from under him. The chart below tells the whole story.

gwb approval.png

Bush never recovered from Katrina. Of course the war and other factors contributed to his increasing unfavorable numbers but it was voter perceptions of his performance regarding Katrina that sealed his image in his second term. Up until that point, while voters may have disapproved of his policies and the execution of the war, a majority still thought he was a caring President trying to do the right thing. That leg of the stool collapsed after Katrina.

Of course the financial and economic crisis has put an exclamation point on the period since Katrina but it really did not increase Bush's unfavorable rating. In a sense, he had hit bottom long before that. Bush's favorability rating during the post-Katrina period (September of 2005 through January of 2009) was 35%. The difference between the two periods is -25, an astounding drop from one time frame to another. Bush's Presidency can be broken into two distinct periods: one in which he was largely viewed in a favorable light and one in which he was seen unfavorably.

The Direction of the Country and Voter Dissatisfaction

The last five years have been one of the most protracted periods of voter dissatisfaction since Watergate. That much is true. However, long periods of voter dissatisfaction are the norm. When we looked at results to the "right direction/wrong track" question since 1972 we see that those 36 years have been marked roughly by three extended periods of "wrong track" attitudes: 1972-1983, 1987-1997 and 2003-2008. During those periods there were times when right direction approached or reached 50% (1989 in particular) but the prevailing sentiment during these periods was that the country was off on the wrong track.


Note that in only eight of the last 36 years has the public believed that the country was going in the "right direction." These included the years from 1984-1986 which marked Reagan's landslide re-election through the start of his second term to the mid-term elections, and the heart of the recent economic boom from 1997 through 2002. Stunningly, the average of the annual average over the last 36 years is 36% right direction and 52% wrong track.

Voter dissatisfaction with the direction of the country has become the norm. When "right direction" exceeds "wrong track" - it will be truly unusual.

Why Obama Won

One week ago today Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States by taking advantage of the economic issues facing the country and outperforming John Kerry's 2004 vote share with key demographic groups. Forget all the nonsense that has been written about this being a revolutionary, web-based, text messaging, new generation campaign. Those things were certainly helpful, but their import has been exaggerated. Rather, the Obama team won this election the old fashioned way: they defined themselves and their opponent, they made few mistakes and they got out their vote.
Seven days gives us a bit of perspective on some of the often misguided and extreme ideas that have been bandied about in the last week. The following are some observations on these first impressions:

  • The Obama win was neither as big as some Democrats and members of the media have made it out to be nor as small as some of the GOP faithful would like to think. The problem is that the last two elections were fairly close, so Obama's win seems like a landslide...when in reality it was not. It was however, decisive. History is helpful here. Obama's popular vote percentage is approximately 52.6% as of today. This represents the first time a Democrat has reached the 50% mark since Carter in 1976 (50%), and the highest for a Democrat since Johnson in 1964 (61%). While it is a point and a half more than George W. Bush received in 2004, it is below George H. W. Bush in 1988 (53%) and far below Reagan in 1984 (59%) and Nixon in 1968 (61%). Reagan, Nixon and Johnson were blowouts; this was not.
    • The electoral vote victory was not a blowout either. Assuming Obama wins NE's 2nd Congressional district, he will finish with 365 electoral votes. This is far better than Bush received in 2004 (286) but below Clinton in 1996 (379) and far below Bush in 1988 (426), Reagan in 1984 (525), Reagan in 1980 (489), Nixon in 1972 (520) and Johnson in 1964 (486). Again, it was a strong electoral win for Obama but not a crushing defeat for the GOP.
  • The Obama campaign team was neither as brilliant as the news analysis articles have made them out to be nor was the McCain campaign team as inept as some stories have portrayed them. During the coming weeks, months and years, thousands of pages will be written about this election. It almost goes without saying that virtually every post-mortem will speak glowingly of the Obama effort (sometimes deservedly so) and disparagingly of the McCain campaign (ditto). However, winning campaigns always look like they were smarter than losing campaigns, whether it's true or not. Team McCain had several shining moments including the stretch in late August and early September when several ads (including the much discussed "Celebrity" ad) ran and had Obama playing defense. We are certain that these spots threw the Obama campaign off stride. However, the financial meltdown came and the 2008 electoral environment hugely favored the Democrats. Obama took advantage of that environment and ran a good, virtually mistake-free campaign (and make no mistake: this is rare). They should have won and they did.
Here is our take on what happened last Tuesday and how the results should be interpreted. This is based on an analysis of both the actual results and the exit polls.

First, let's look at the actual results. Obama won by flipping nine Bush 2004 states in three different regions of the country. He flipped three in the West (Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico), three in the Midwest/rust-belt (Iowa, Indiana and Ohio) and three in the mid-Atlantic/Southeast (Virginia, North Carolina and Florida). Demographic changes are part of the reason. All of these states have gotten younger, more urban and more diverse in the last ten years. Of course to flip those states the Obama campaign had to flip counties first. Some notable ones include Wake County (Raleigh) in NC (57% Obama), Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties in CO, Pinellas County in FL (54% Obama) and Loudoun County in VA. And of course Obama also expanded on Kerry's margins in hundreds of other key counties across the country.

Having said that, McCain still won 22 states and lost 5 others (totaling 86 electoral votes) by four points or less: Indiana (-1), Ohio (-4), Virginia (-4), North Carolina (-1) and Florida (-2). Of the states he won, 18 were by 8 points or more.

Second, let's take a quick look at turnout. According to Curtis Gans at American University, turnout was approximately 127 million - way below what was predicted. Perhaps the biggest underreported story of this election is that the reason turnout was essentially flat (up approximately 1-2 points from 2004) is that some of the evangelicals/GOP base stayed home and there was a corresponding increase in the black/youth vote. Some key data points to focus on are that self-described evangelical turnout was down three points. Conversely, the African American vote was up two points and 18-29 year olds were up approximately one point. This is, of course, imprecise because not all evangelicals vote Republican and not all blacks and youth vote Democratic, but if one goes down three points and the other two groups go up three points, the net is a six point change. It is not a coincidence that Obama won by about six points.

Third, let's take a look at the exit polls. We take the exit polls with a grain of salt but it is the best we have for understanding how segments of the electorate voted (and why). While it is true that McCain underperformed Bush among a number of different subgroups it is more instructive to focus on the groups where Obama over-performed John Kerry's numbers. The following stand out:

  • Men (+5)
  • Women (+5, and Obama beat McCain by 13 points)
  • Blacks (+5)
  • Latinos (+14, and Obama beat McCain by 36 points)
  • Asians (+6)
  • Whites (+2)
  • All income groups (+5 to +8)
  • Independents (+3)
  • Conservatives (+5, this represented a 20% defection of conservatives to the Democratic candidate compared to 15% in 2004)
  • All religious groups (+4 to +8)
  • Married and unmarried voters (+5)

The fact is that the Obama victory was pervasive and cut across almost all demographic subgroups. However, there are some prominent groups that warrant examination. A glance at the below chart comparing the 2004 results by race with those same results from 2008 shows how the Obama victory was a balance of winning more white voters than John Kerry and doing substantially better with African Americans and Hispanics.

exit poll race.png

Given the demographic trends in the country, the GOP is unlikely to win any future Presidential elections if it is losing 95% of the black vote and 67% of the Hispanic vote

It is also worth noting that Obama did something unique in this election by winning men. There has been a structural gender gap in place since the early 1980's, when men gravitated to the GOP primarily because of Reagan and never left (until now, at least temporarily). Women tend to find the GOP less appealing - driven largely by GOP positions on education, health care and the environment - and tend to have more allegiance to the Democrats. People always talk about the gender gap in terms of women preferring Democrats, but it is really more about men and the GOP. Note that in 2004 John Kerry beat Bush among women by three points but it was the Bush win among men (nine points) that was stunning. In essence, Obama flipped men in this election, winning them by one point; that, combined with his overwhelming lead with women, helped him secure the Presidency.

exit poll gender.png

The following is our assessment of the 2008 campaign with an eye to why Obama won:

  1. It was simply the right time. This election took place during a financial meltdown and one of the longest sustained periods of voter dissatisfaction ("wrong track" at 85%, the President's approval at 27%) in modern history. For McCain, this was not the right time to be running for the third term of the incumbent party.
  2. Obama had a singular, consistent theme from day one and he ran on it for two years: "Change." He was in the right place at the right time. One of those times in history when the person and the idea are in alignment with the attitudes of the country. Obama was about change - and what that meant was never ambiguous. It was the opposite of George W. Bush and the Republicans. It was clear and simple...and that is how you win elections.
  3. By contrast, John McCain never settled on an agenda-setting national theme or message. Go ahead, ask yourself what McCain stood for. Sure, during the last week it was for cutting taxes and in opposition to a socialist governing philosophy (this was the only period over the final two months that the McCain campaign exhibited air-tight message discipline). But before that they ran through a dozen campaign themes. In fact, at times it seemed that the candidate himself evolved during the campaign. There was McCain the fighter, the "surge" McCain, McCain the reformer, McCain the maverick, McCain the earmark guy. Yes, by virtue of the position they were in (i.e. the hostile environment and running behind in the polls) they had to try some different things to break through, but that is not an excuse for failing to settle on a campaign narrative in April and sticking to it. There was never a consistent theme and they paid the price for it.
  4. The ultimate irony is that Obama defined McCain rather than the other way around. We all thought it was the Republican who would define Obama. But the Obama campaign defined McCain as "erratic" and "confused" at various points during the campaign. Of course, McCain contributed to this impression by suspending his campaign during the financial crisis/bailout negotiations and seeking to cancel the debate (and then failing to negotiate a deal and attending the debate). Once the word "erratic" entered the public lexicon the media latched on to it. Whether it was Obama focus group research that unearthed it or not is moot: the Obama campaign discovered that the impression of McCain as "erratic" stuck and that was all they needed.
  5. Without Hillary Clinton, there probably would not be a President Obama. The primary battle with Hillary Clinton helped Obama in three specific ways: it vetted (and probably took of the table) the biggest political skeleton in his closet, it gave him a chance to blunder and learn from it and, finally, it made him and his campaign better.
    1. Jeremiah Wright. It was hugely helpful for Obama that the Wright tape was released in the spring of last year. It was a big political issue and his numbers went down. His denouncement of Wright and his major speech on race was a defining moment in the primary campaign. It also, to some extent, took the issue off the table for Republicans in the fall because to raise the issue - without the newsworthiness - may have seemed racist (or desperate). Certainly one can argue whether McCain could have engaged on the issue given the state of the economy, but the best thing for Obama was when it happened. It took the surprise out of it and inoculated him against its future use.
    2. Bitter-gate. Obama's comments in early April 2007 at a San Francisco fundraiser were a major tactical error and halted much of his momentum at that point. Again, the campaign team was able to right the ship and the candidate learned from the mistake. From that point forward his performance on the campaign trail was nearly flawless.
    3. Preparation. The primary battle with Clinton honed the Obama message and campaign apparatus and emboldened the Obama team to stick to their campaign strategy. The fight with Clinton did not weaken them, it made them stronger.
  6. Palin did not make a difference one way or another. The Palin pick was purely tactical and not based on any specific strategy. Sometimes a good tactic can have a short-term benefit but little long term effect. Such was the Palin choice. She energized the base and became a fundraising generator but the choice diffused the McCain argument that Obama was unprepared for the Presidency. Our sense is that Palin was a net positive because of her impact on GOP fundraising and its volunteer apparatus. For those who say that she took away the experience argument - and we agree-- we are doubtful that this election would have turned on "experience." Otherwise, the Newsweek and Time magazine covers this week would have Hillary Clinton's picture on them.
  7. Obama won the middle. Elections are about 50.1%; it is about putting together a minimum winning coalition. Obama's coalition was clear: win almost all the black vote and two-thirds of Hispanics, win young voters 2 to 1 and hold down your losses with white voters to less than 15 points (it was -12 points, but far better than Kerry in 2004, who lost white voters by 17 points). They put enough pieces of their coalition together to get to 50.1%...and then some.
  8. McCain had three shots to change the trajectory of this election and he failed in two out of the three. Presidential candidates who are behind in the polls really have only a few chances to get a game-changer: the selection of the running-mate, the convention speech and the debates. The selection of Sarah Palin gave McCain a short-term bump and a temporary lead. While her interview performances caused a drop in her favorability, it was the financial crisis that drove down the McCain vote in mid-September. McCain's speech at the convention was neither memorable nor persuasive. Finally, as we have said before, Obama flat out won the debates on both style and content. Obama's debate performances (especially in the first debate) allowed him to cross the acceptability threshold for many voters.
  9. Obama won the big moments. Perhaps the biggest moment of all was the financial bailout debate. The financial crisis created a Presidential moment for the candidates and Obama appeared sober, thoughtful and smart. His behavior during this period seemed presidential. On the other hand, McCain's suspension of his campaign, his dash to Washington and his failure to get Congressional action was a major campaign blunder and, more importantly, cemented the notion that McCain was "erratic."
  10. Obama had a lot more money and used it. The decision by the Obama team to go outside of the public-financing system may have been a no-brainer but it was also the single most important one the campaign made. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, through October 15th John McCain raised $360 million (including $84 million in federal funds) and spent $239 million while Barack Obama raised a staggering $639 million and spent $537 million. President-elect Obama raised and spent 75% more money than Senator McCain.

    Financial data on the political parties for the entire election cycle is available. The Democrat Party raised $749 million and spent $669 million, while the Republican Party raised $720 million and spent $619 million. While it is unknown precisely how much of that money was spent assisting the presidential candidates, it is clear that Obama and the Democrats possessed a tremendous financial edge and, given the minimal political fallout, Obama's decision to forego public financing was prescient.

    This forced McCain to put money and personnel into previously solid GOP states like Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. In October, Obama was up on the air with 3,500 rating points a week (according to an Obama campaign official). This means the average voter saw an Obama ad approximately 35 times a week (and that doesn't include what the DNC was doing). The GOP was able to come close to that spend level in the campaign's last two weeks but was still probably outspent 2 to 1 in key states. Obama was running 2,000 points a week in Montana and, although they narrowly lost the state, it forced McCain to spend resources in a state where he shouldn't have needed to.

  11. McCain's defense of the economy was the beginning of the end. We said it back then: the campaign turned on a single turn of phrase. When McCain said that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong" it told voters that he was out of touch. Obama pounced and McCain's vote share dropped.

  12. McCain's support of the bailout was the end of the end. This is not an indictment of the policy decision, but rather the political effect. When McCain announced his support for the bailout it robbed him of any chance to differentiate himself from Obama.

  13. The battlefield favored Obama overwhelmingly. However, if the issue landscape had been foreign policy and terrorism instead of the economy, McCain could have won. The economy was overwhelmingly the most important issue to voters but if this election had been fought on different terrain the results might have been different. Among those worried about terrorism McCain was almost even, losing by only 2 points.

exit poll terrorism2.png

One Day to Go and McCain Is Between Barack and a Hard Place

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will become the first Democratic Presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to win an outright majority of the votes cast on Election Day -- and with it a sizeable majority of electoral votes -- making him the next President of the United States.

We make this projection knowing that the gap is closing both nationally and in key states; it is our sense, however, that this trend would have to continue for another 10 days for the election to swing back to McCain.

The following is our rationale for going with Obama:

  • The economic recession/financial meltdown dominated the headlines from mid-September to mid-October. The war in Iraq remains enormously unpopular. Bush's approval ratings are near an all-time low for modern Presidents. And the GOP brand is weak and fractured. As a result of these factors, a majority of this hugely dissatisfied electorate will be voting Democratic to change the direction of the last eight years.
  • October was the worst month for the stock market in 21 years. Yes, last week was an improvement, but the month of October was unkind to John McCain and the GOP. Last Thursday, the government reported that the economy contracted from July through September - the first time consumer spending had decreased in 17 years.
  • With this environment as a backdrop, Obama will pick the GOP lock on the electoral college by winning six states George W. Bush won in 2004--Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia--en route to an electoral vote rout.
  • This election was always about Obama and McCain was never able to paint him as either "unfit" or "unprepared." Nor was McCain able to give people a clear reason to vote for him.
  • In an ironic twist, it was Obama who defined McCain in a negative light rather than the other way around. They started by claiming that he was "confused" four months ago and then painting him as "erratic" in the last 60 days. Of course, team McCain and the candidate himself contributed to this. It will be interesting to count the gross rating points that went behind contrast ads on both sides. My guess is that the Obama campaign might win that count as well.
  • Terrorism and national security virtually disappeared as election issues. These two issues dominated a large part of the national dialogue in 2004 and helped give Bush his re-election victory.
  • New registrants, young voters and black voters are going to break with historical pattern and vote in disproportionately high numbers, giving Obama huge margins in certain states and propelling him to victory over an exhausted and disengaged GOP base.
  • The Democratic ground game will prove to be vastly superior to the Republican operation (money can do that).
  • The turnout will be between 58%-60%, which would be its highest level since 1960. If the total number of voters exceeds 130 million (meaning more than 61% of eligible voters will have voted) then the Obama win could be an electoral landslide because the Democrats have a built-in six-eight point advantage in terms of party identification.

The LCG regression vote model projects that Obama will win by six percentage points tomorrow. We project the following popular vote distribution:

Obama 52.5%
McCain 46.5%
Other 1.0%

Below is our regression projection line. Today's analysis produced the usual curve, which shows McCain losing by 8.6 points. However, if you look at only the last 40 days--which roughly corresponds to the first week that voters digested the impact of the financial crisis (the week of September 25th)--you begin to see more clearly the McCain descent and recent uptick. When we built a separate model for that period, it produced the green line, showing McCain losing by just 6.5 points. McCain pollster Bill McInturff is correct: there has been some movement in the last 10 days. However, it is too little and way too late.

regression nov 3.png

We project that Obama will decisively win the electoral vote:

Obama 311 EVs
McCain 227 EVs

He will accomplish the above by winning the previously-mentioned Bush 2004 states as well as Pennsylvania. The following is our last updated EV projection map and some commentary on specific states:

map nov 3.png

  1. Obama will carry three western Bush states - Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. However, it is important to note that all three were very close in 2004. Bush only won Nevada by two points and he won New Mexico by just a single point (6,000 votes). The Latino population in Nevada will tilt toward Obama and that will deliver the state. New Mexico nearly went Democrat in 2004 and it will do so this time around due to huge Obama margins in Santa Fe. The demographic shifts in Colorado made it vulnerable for the GOP even without the ideological symmetry with Obama. Colorado has been in the Obama column for a month.

    CO nov 3.png

    NV nov 3.png

  2. McCain lost Iowa the moment he secured the GOP nomination because of his past opposition to ethanol subsidies. Bush only won the state by 10,000 votes in 2004 so it was a toss-up to begin with.

  3. Obama will win Pennsylvania by a sizable margin. Yes, the rural vote will go to McCain, but it will not be nearly enough to compensate for the margins Obama will rack up in the Philadelphia suburbs. In 2004 Kerry won PA 51%-48%, carrying 53% of the Philadelphia suburbs. Obama will perform even better than that tomorrow.

  4. Obama will win Virginia by four points by swamping McCain in northern VA, particularly Loudon County. He will be the first Democrat to win the state since Lyndon Johnson.

    VA nov 3.png

  5. McCain is going to win Indiana. Bush won by 21 points but its proximity to Illinois and the economy have made it a toss-up. However, the GOP base has come home in the final days.

  6. The two candidates will split the mega-battleground states of Ohio and Florida, with Obama taking the former and McCain the latter. Ohio has been hard hit by the economy and Bush only carried the state by two points in 2004. It will be close but should end up in the Obama column. Florida could really go either way but our sense is that McCain - with the help of Governor Crist and votes in the I-4 corridor - will pull out a very narrow victory.

  7. Missouri and North Carolina will be the closest states to call but both should end up in McCain's column. Both are tough calls with several polls showing it dead even, but our sense is to go with history. In North Carolina Dole will lose but McCain should win. Missouri will give McCain a narrow win and some redemption.
  8. MO nov 3.png

Finally, here is how we see the Senate and House races:

Democrats will increase their majority status in the Senate by 8 seats to 59. We are projecting that incumbent GOP incumbent senators Smith, Stevens, Coleman, Dole and Sununu will all lose. In the House we project a 31 seat gain for Democrats.

Eight Days to Go and McCain Can't Seem to Break Through

Obama "won" the week again (that makes six in a row) for three reasons:

  1. This remains a single-issue election, and the economy (and perceptions of the economy) has worsened in the last seven days. McCain lost his voice on the economy (and voter perceptions of his ability to handle the economy deteriorated) and has never recovered.
  2. Even in a week in which Obama took two days off to visit his ailing grandmother, McCain was a virtual afterthought, garnering very little media attention when he needs it most. And when the media spotlight shifted to the GOP it was about the cost of Sarah Palin's wardrobe.
  3. As the comfort level with Obama improves so has the perception that he will win. Stories about discord and finger-pointing within the GOP and the McCain campaign are magnifying this perception.

The Economic Eclipse

Sometimes it is difficult to truly comprehend the impact of events while you are still experiencing them. That is likely what is happening today. We are in the middle of a global financial and economic crisis, the impact of which we probably will not know for several months. But one thing is clear today: the economic crisis has almost completely eclipsed this election as a national news story. Who would have thought that in a year in which we are eight days away from potentially electing the first black President of the United States of America that it would be only the second-most important news event?

With a week and a day to go before the election, as the economic crisis deepens Obama's electoral outlook improves:

  • Global stocks are plummeting because of renewed recession fears. The Hong Kong Hang Seng Index was down 13% today. South Korea announced a record interest rate cut in an effort to stem the tide. Japan's Nikkei Index is down 6.5%. European shares are now at a 5 ½ year low.
  • The S&P 500 is down 25% this month, which makes October (so far) its worst month since 1938. The financial crisis is having a trickle-down effect. News reports say that General Motors and Chrysler may not make it through the end of the year.
  • Unemployment rates rose in 47 out of 50 states in the month of September (compared with last year's rates). According to the Labor Department the average jobless rate in the U.S. is 6.1%. States above six percent include the following battleground states: Nevada, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida.
  • A new Washington Post poll shows Obama up eight points in Virginia. President Bush won Virginia by nine points in 2004 and eight points in 2000. Sure, the demographics of the state have changed...but not by that much. While Virginia has not voted for a Democrat for President since 1964, we are now moving Virginia into the Obama column.
  • A new Boston Globe poll has Obama ahead 54% to 39% in New Hampshire. NH has been in Obama's column for a long time, but the apparent size of his lead is staggering and the poll's internals suggest that McCain's unfavorable rating has skyrocketed since the onset of the financial crisis. More importantly, Obama is viewed as better able to handle the financial system and the economy by more than 20 points.
Presidential Election Analysis

Here is our up-to-the-minute assessment of the state of the Presidential campaign:

  1. While McCain has stopped most of his downward slide, he still lags Obama nationally and in key states. The LCG regression analysis shows McCain behind by 7.6 points. If the current trend holds, McCain will lose the election by 8.7 points. To give you an idea of the hole McCain finds himself in, we have not seen a single reputable national poll showing McCain at or above 50% in more than a month.

    regression oct 27.png

  2. However, the gap will close because late-deciders will largely move toward McCain in the final days before the election. It is our sense that Team McCain has finally settled on a single message strategy (taxes and socialism) that will appeal to a large segment of undecided voters. An analysis of our own surveys--as well as three recent national polls--suggests that current undecided voters lean a little more male, and tend to be older and less-educated white voters from the rural Midwest. They tend to have voted for Bush in 2004. It is important to note that we do not believe that these late-deciders are going to go with McCain because of some kind of "Bradley Effect." Many of them will vote for McCain because they are ideologically aligned with him, not because of race. Finally, even if McCain wins late deciders by a 2 to 1 margin he still falls short by several points. He would have to win 80-90% of the late deciders to even have a chance at victory, and that is (obviously) extraordinarily unlikely.

  3. Obama has solidified his position on the electoral map. We now have 286 electoral votes that are either solid or lean Obama. At this point McCain not only needs to win all of the toss-up states but he also has to win some lean-Obama states like Virginia, Colorado, Pennsylvania or New Mexico. This too is extraordinarily unlikely.

    map oct 27.png

  4. While clearly Obama's "ground game" was a factor this year in his primary victory, we feel the importance of grassroots and organizing activities in Presidential general elections is often overstated. Furthermore, because they can't be quantified in a poll, such effects are unknowable until after the election. Having said that, it appears that Obama is absolutely killing McCain on the ground. His advantage in terms of money, staff, volunteers and outreach all points to between a 3-1 and 4-1 advantage in the battleground states.

  5. McCain's increasing unfavorable rating is a problem for him and correlates with the drop in his share of the vote. Our average of several recent national polls shows McCain with an unfavorable rating of 44%. This is nearly ten points higher than both Obama's current rating and his own average of 35% in August.

  6. Team Obama has their foot on the pedal and isn't letting up. Obama is running contrast radio and television spots in many states--including Virginia--with eight days to go. It will be interesting to tally up the number of contrast spots and rating points (negative ads) for each side when all is said and done, but it is our sense is that Obama will have painted a starker contrast with McCain (i.e. he has been more negative) and it will be part of the reason he will win.

  7. Virginia is turning out to be the paradigm battleground for both sides. In a sense, it is a microcosm of this campaign.

    Here is what McCain has going for him in VA:

    • He is using thousands of microtargeted daily robocalls and direct mail pieces that attack Obama
    • Palin has attracted huge crowds at rallies here
    • VA has been a red state for 44 years (since LBJ in 1964)

    Obama, on the other hand, has the following:

    • 49 offices--plus 23 party offices coordinating with the campaign--and 40 GOTV offices also supporting him
    • A 3-1 advantage on total spending in the state
    • 438,000 new voters registered this cycle
    • Tim Kaine and Jim Webb are very popular; additionally, the latest polling shows Mark Warner is leading his Republican opponent Jim Gilmore by approximately 30 points

      virginia oct 27.png

  8. Missouri and Ohio are close and will go down to the wire. While Obama holds slight leads in both states, McCain is within striking distance. We should expect to see both candidates in these two states in the final weekSome thoughts on these two key states:


    • Like MO, it's a bellwether--OH has picked the winner every year since 1960
    • Obama has a volunteer dedicated to each of 1,231 designated "neighborhoods" in the state (conversely, John Kerry completely ignored the rural parts of the state)
    • If this ends up being close, the key could be the 200,000 newly registered voters facing a legal challenge from the GOP

      ohio oct 27.png


    • Obama recently had 100,000 show up at rally in St. Louis
    • This was followed with 80,000 in Kansas City
    • McCain has been using micro-targeted mailings here (as in VA)
    • In perhaps most controversial mailing, the RNC sent a flier to voters in Virginia and Missouri that depicts the nose of an airplane inched next to the glass exterior of a building, warning: "Terrorists don't care who they hurt," but "Barack Obama think terrorists just need a good talking to" (when a reporter asked McCain about the ad last week, he said he "absolutely" supports it and thinks it revealed one of his opponent's shortcomings)
    • Obama has 40 offices open, at least 150 paid staffers and 2,500 neighborhood volunteers
    • Senator Claire McCaskill is popular, and also shows how Obama can obtain victory--run up the score in Kansas City and St. Louis and hold down losses in rural areas
    • The McCain campaign is virtually invisible on the ground

    missouri oct 27.png

14 Days to Go and No Change in the Trajectory of This Election

Two weeks from Election Day and this much is clear: Barack Obama has owned the last 30 days. This has propelled him into the lead and provided him with considerable momentum heading into the final stretch. The deteriorating economy continues to be the driving factor in this race; it is the fuel in the Obama engine and it seems unlikely that it will run out. The LCG regression model projects that if the election were held today John McCain would lose by 7.7 points. If the current trend is projected to Election Day he loses by double digits.

However, this election-more than ever before-is about the 24-hour news cycle, tactical maneuvers and rapid response, some of which may impact the general trajectory of the campaign. Accordingly, here is our real-time assessment of the campaign as it stands at 9:00 am today:

  • Anytime this campaign is not about the economy is good for McCain and yesterday Joe Biden may have done just that. Biden stated that in the first six months of an Obama Presidency, "Mark my words, we are going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis to test the mettle of this guy (Obama)...and he is going to need help." We just finished watching Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs on Morning Joe explain what Biden meant by the statement. This has the potential to occupy the attention of the Obama campaign for 24-36 hours. McCain is already using the statement to his advantage in his stump speech.

  • The above has shortened the impact of the Powell endorsement. Powell helped Obama because his endorsement sends a signal to many older voters who are unsure about Obama's ability to lead in wartime. The endorsement was in the works for months and was perfectly timed. This was a perfectly executed tactical maneuver. Too bad Biden didn't get the memo.

  • Obama will suspend his campaign on Thursday and Friday to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. There should be minimal effect for team Obama because of this (the campaign will use surrogates at events). However, markets and states visited by the candidates in the closing days of a campaign have proven to be far more effective than campaign advertising.

Some quick thoughts on the current status of the Presidential campaign:

  1. Obama "won" the last 30 days in part because he flat out beat McCain in the debates. Obama was perceived as the more serious and stable candidate. He connected with voters. Importantly, he reassured many swing voters who were unsure about him (both personally and with respect to his ability to be President). Gallup conducted national polls after each debate among uncommitted voters and we decided to average those polls. The outcome based on all three debates: Obama 53%/ McCain 29%. McCain performed best in the last debate and he still lost that one (according to the post-debate Gallup poll) by 12 points. Below is the Gallup question wording and a table with the results.

    "Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the better job in last night's debate: John McCain or Barack Obama?"

    debate poll table oct 21.png
  2. McCain is losing in part because he mishandled the economic crisis. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll released today, 55% of voters say they trust Obama more on handling the economy while only 39% trust McCain more. The gambit to return to Washington failed (when the bailout failed) and with it, McCain's chances to demonstrate he was a superior leader. While the fact is that much of this was out of McCain's hands (his party killed him here), the perception was that McCain couldn't get it done. Team Obama demonstrated a sound strategic sense when they latched on to this and portrayed McCain as erratic.

  3. Team Obama is putting the pedal to the metal and staying on offense. In stunning moves Obama went up with advertising in West Virginia and continued strong pushes in North Carolina and Missouri. They are playing in red states and forcing team McCain to spend resources in places that they should not have to.

  4. Obama is rewriting the record books on election fundraising and spending. McCain is doing better than topline fundraising reports may indicate because of matching funds from the RNC, but it still isn't close. Take October 12th: Obama spent $6.5 million during the Sunday shows and NFL games. That same day, McCain spent just $1 million. Or look ahead to October 29th: Obama has purchased a half hour of airtime on NBC, CBS and Fox, immediately prior to the start of Game Six of the World Series. Meanwhile, McCain is no longer buying ad time on national networks or national cable. With September FEC reports just announced, here are some additional notes (culled from the AP):

    • Senator McCain took the $84 million in public funding, so he is prohibited from raising additional money in September and October.

    • However, the RNC appears to be matching much of his ad spending. The RNC raised $66 million in September and has $77.5 million in cash on-hand. While not all of this is being spent to help McCain, the RNC can continue to raise money this month and is likely to bring in an additional $40 - $50 million. (The RNC also has a $17 million independent expenditure account designated for running ads to help McCain that can't be directly coordinated with the campaign.)

    • McCain's campaign spent $37 million in September, ending the month with $47 million in the bank. With the RNC matching funds, McCain effectively has $95 million left for October.

    • Obama announced on Sunday that he had raised $150 million in September, or $5 million a day. He has 3.1 million total donors this cycle--including 600,000 new donors in September alone--and has raised $605 million since his campaign began. These are all record fundraising numbers. 

    • Sometime this week, he will break the $188 million spending record set by President Bush in 2004. This is double what McCain has spent. With $135 million in the bank after September, and additional money continuing to pour in, Obama already has more money available than McCain and the RNC combined.

    • Because he refused public money, the DNC can spend freely to assist Obama. The DNC raised $50 million in September--and will continue to fundraise this month--to add to its $28 million in cash on-hand. By a conservative estimate, Obama has at least $200 million at his disposal in the final month. Depending on the course of the race, his actual outlays might be lower. On the other hand, if his campaign and the DNC choose, he might spend over $300 million.

  5. The Democratic edge on party identification is a huge built-in advantage. We averaged the party ID for several national polls over the last several months and found that on average 36% of registered voters claim to be Democrats while only 28% say they align with the Republican party. We conduct dozens of national polls each year and, while our numbers have varied 2-4 points from the above, they have consistently showed a 6-9 point advantage for Democrats. Obama has also closed the long-standing partisan vote gap. National tracking polls show both candidates holding 85-87% of their party's vote, where in recent years Republicans have enjoyed a 3-5 point advantage. Combine the two, and this is a very difficult hurdle for McCain to overcome. He will need to win independents by at least 15 - 20 points to overcome the party ID deficit. The below graph was developed based on Harris polls conducted since 1969. Note the drop in Republican party identification in the last four years.

party id oct 21.png


There are no changes to this week's presidential electoral count. We considered moving Ohio into the lean McCain column but decided to wait a week. Additionally, recent polling data suggests that Virginia is trending toward Obama but we are hesitant to move it at this time.

map oct 21.png

With all of this in his favor, Obama may just want to lock away Joe Biden for the next two weeks.

14 Days to Go and No Change in the Trajectory of This Election

Two weeks from Election Day and this much is clear: Barack Obama has owned the last 30 days. This has propelled him into the lead and provided him with considerable momentum heading into the final stretch. The deteriorating economy continues to be the driving factor in this race; it is the fuel in the Obama engine and it seems unlikely that it will run out. The LCG regression model projects that if the election were held today John McCain would lose by 7.7 points. If the current trend is projected to Election Day he loses by double digits.

However, this election-more than ever before-is about the 24-hour news cycle, tactical maneuvers and rapid response, some of which may impact the general trajectory of the campaign. Accordingly, here is our real-time assessment of the campaign as it stands at 9:00 am today:

  • Anytime this campaign is not about the economy is good for McCain and yesterday Joe Biden may have done just that. Biden stated that in the first six months of an Obama Presidency, "Mark my words, we are going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis to test the mettle of this guy (Obama)...and he is going to need help." We just finished watching Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs on Morning Joe explain what Biden meant by the statement. This has the potential to occupy the attention of the Obama campaign for 24-36 hours. McCain is already using the statement to his advantage in his stump speech.

  • The above has shortened the impact of the Powell endorsement. Powell helped Obama because his endorsement sends a signal to many older voters who are unsure about Obama's ability to lead in wartime. The endorsement was in the works for months and was perfectly timed. This was a perfectly executed tactical maneuver. Too bad Biden didn't get the memo.

  • Obama will suspend his campaign on Thursday and Friday to visit his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. There should be minimal effect for team Obama because of this (the campaign will use surrogates at events). However, markets and states visited by the candidates in the closing days of a campaign have proven to be far more effective than campaign advertising.

Some quick thoughts on the current status of the Presidential campaign:

  1. Obama "won" the last 30 days in part because he flat out beat McCain in the debates. Obama was perceived as the more serious and stable candidate. He connected with voters. Importantly, he reassured many swing voters who were unsure about him (both personally and with respect to his ability to be President). Gallup conducted national polls after each debate among uncommitted voters and we decided to average those polls. The outcome based on all three debates: Obama 53%/ McCain 29%. McCain performed best in the last debate and he still lost that one (according to the post-debate Gallup poll) by 12 points. Below is the Gallup question wording and a table with the results.

    "Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the better job in last night's debate: John McCain or Barack Obama?"

    debate poll table oct 21.png
  2. McCain is losing in part because he mishandled the economic crisis. According to a new Washington Post/ABC News poll released today, 55% of voters say they trust Obama more on handling the economy while only 39% trust McCain more. The gambit to return to Washington failed (when the bailout failed) and with it, McCain's chances to demonstrate he was a superior leader. While the fact is that much of this was out of McCain's hands (his party killed him here), the perception was that McCain couldn't get it done. Team Obama demonstrated a sound strategic sense when they latched on to this and portrayed McCain as erratic.

  3. Team Obama is putting the pedal to the metal and staying on offense. In stunning moves Obama went up with advertising in West Virginia and continued strong pushes in North Carolina and Missouri. They are playing in red states and forcing team McCain to spend resources in places that they should not have to.

  4. Obama is rewriting the record books on election fundraising and spending. McCain is doing better than topline fundraising reports may indicate because of matching funds from the RNC, but it still isn't close. Take October 12th: Obama spent $6.5 million during the Sunday shows and NFL games. That same day, McCain spent just $1 million. Or look ahead to October 29th: Obama has purchased a half hour of airtime on NBC, CBS and Fox, immediately prior to the start of Game Six of the World Series. Meanwhile, McCain is no longer buying ad time on national networks or national cable. With September FEC reports just announced, here are some additional notes (culled from the AP):

    • Senator McCain took the $84 million in public funding, so he is prohibited from raising additional money in September and October.

    • However, the RNC appears to be matching much of his ad spending. The RNC raised $66 million in September and has $77.5 million in cash on-hand. While not all of this is being spent to help McCain, the RNC can continue to raise money this month and is likely to bring in an additional $40 - $50 million. (The RNC also has a $17 million independent expenditure account designated for running ads to help McCain that can't be directly coordinated with the campaign.)

    • McCain's campaign spent $37 million in September, ending the month with $47 million in the bank. With the RNC matching funds, McCain effectively has $95 million left for October.

    • Obama announced on Sunday that he had raised $150 million in September, or $5 million a day. He has 3.1 million total donors this cycle--including 600,000 new donors in September alone--and has raised $605 million since his campaign began. These are all record fundraising numbers. 

    • Sometime this week, he will break the $188 million spending record set by President Bush in 2004. This is double what McCain has spent. With $135 million in the bank after September, and additional money continuing to pour in, Obama already has more money available than McCain and the RNC combined.

    • Because he refused public money, the DNC can spend freely to assist Obama. The DNC raised $50 million in September--and will continue to fundraise this month--to add to its $28 million in cash on-hand. By a conservative estimate, Obama has at least $200 million at his disposal in the final month. Depending on the course of the race, his actual outlays might be lower. On the other hand, if his campaign and the DNC choose, he might spend over $300 million.

  5. The Democratic edge on party identification is a huge built-in advantage. We averaged the party ID for several national polls over the last several months and found that on average 36% of registered voters claim to be Democrats while only 28% say they align with the Republican party. We conduct dozens of national polls each year and, while our numbers have varied 2-4 points from the above, they have consistently showed a 6-9 point advantage for Democrats. Obama has also closed the long-standing partisan vote gap. National tracking polls show both candidates holding 85-87% of their party's vote, where in recent years Republicans have enjoyed a 3-5 point advantage. Combine the two, and this is a very difficult hurdle for McCain to overcome. He will need to win independents by at least 15 - 20 points to overcome the party ID deficit. The below graph was developed based on Harris polls conducted since 1969. Note the drop in Republican party identification in the last four years.

party id oct 21.png


There are no changes to this week's presidential electoral count. We considered moving Ohio into the lean McCain column but decided to wait a week. Additionally, recent polling data suggests that Virginia is trending toward Obama but we are hesitant to move it at this time.

map oct 21.png

With all of this in his favor, Obama may just want to lock away Joe Biden for the next two weeks.

21 Days to Go and McCain's Slide Continues

The last eight days have been devastating for the McCain campaign. The deepening economic crisis (yesterday's historic market surge notwithstanding) is giving Obama an electoral surge that in the current environment may prove to be insurmountable. While three weeks is the equivalent of three lifetimes in politics, time is running out for McCain to turn this thing around.

To fully understand the impact of the economic situation on this race, take a look at the trajectory of our regression analysis vote projection of all public polls. The current regression estimate has McCain down -7.9 points.

regression oct 14.png

The McCain decline since his peak following the convention is startling. While it is unlikely that this trend will hold over the final three weeks (there will probably be some tightening - more on that later), if it did hold McCain would lose by double-digits. Again, the important point is that the McCain descent is real.

Sometimes really smart ideas come from young people and one such example is an analysis that came from a high school student named Arjun Modi, who graphed the trend of the S&P 500 with McCain's vote according to the Gallup Daily Tracker of registered voters. It shows how McCain's drop in vote share accelerated during the stock market crash of the last two weeks.

markets oct 14.png
Note the high degree of correlation between the two lines. The question, of course, is whether days like yesterday (when the market surged) will translate into a vote increase for McCain. Time will tell. But we tend to think that the underlying economic turmoil (job losses, slowing of retail and a weak housing market) will mitigate the upside for McCain. However any improvement that moves the economy to a page two story will be a help for the Republican.

Here is our up-to-the-minute assessment of the political landscape:

  1. The President just spoke (8:05 am) and announced that the Federal Government would take an equity stake in the nation's largest banks. This will help free up the credit market and it will keep the financial situation on the front pages for at least another two days.

  2. Yesterday's market surge (936 points for the Dow) was the largest point gain ever and the largest percentage gain since 1933. As of this writing, Japan's Nikkei index was up 14% and the U.S. market looks to open higher. This will not erase the memory of last week. The Dow Jones industrials lost 18% last week - their worst week in history. Regardless of what happens this week, the country experienced a stock market crash and there has been saturation media coverage. Its effect on this political campaign cannot be overstated.

  3. Last night General Motors announced that it is closing two plants: one in Grand Rapids, MI and the other in Janesville, WI, eliminating 2,700 jobs. The trickle-down effect of the economic crisis is just beginning; this is yet another blow for Team McCain.

  4. Obama and McCain meet for their final debate tomorrow night in NY and this is the last face-to- face between the two candidates. Obama will try not to lose and McCain has to go for the political jugular. If this is another non-event, Obama will have won all three debates.

  5. According to the Washington Post, Barack Obama is outspending John McCain by nearly a three-to-one margin on television time in the final weeks of the election. Team Obama's advantage in several battleground states may be even greater. Voters in key states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin and Ohio are seeing four Obama spots for every one McCain television commercial.

Current Political Situation and Issue Handling Measures

Without sounding like a broken record, it bears repeating that we are in one of the longest and deepest periods of voter discontent in modern U.S. history. This compares to 1992, 1979 and 1974. Below is a chart using multiple sources of public and private data over a 25 year period.

historical direction.png

Currently more than 80% of the country believes that things are going in the wrong direction. This is an obvious change election environment and it will pervade down-ballot elections, too.

Obama benefits from this but there is more to his lead than the perceived state of the union. In the last three weeks he has taken a large lead over McCain on voter perceptions of his ability to handle issues. According to a recent NBC/WSJ poll, Obama leads McCain by 17 points on which candidate would better handle the economy. In that poll, Obama was perceived as better able to handle the mortgage and housing crisis (a 15-point advantage) and the issue of energy and the cost of gas (six points).

And there's more. According to a CNN/ORC poll done seven days ago, Obama led McCain by 21 points on his ability to handle the economy. In the same poll, Obama is also seen as better able to handle the current financial crisis (21 points) and-get this-the war in Iraq (three points). On virtually every issue (with the exception of terrorism, which McCain wins narrowly) Obama leads McCain. And remember, the economy is far and away the number one issue in the country.

EV Map and Key States

map oct 14.png

Trends in critical states are all moving toward Obama. In Colorado, a state we've followed closely as a key battleground, the tide has decidedly shifted for Obama in the past two weeks. We are now placing it in the Obama column, giving him 273 relatively safe electoral votes. If he is capable of holding serve in the states he currently leads, he will win the election handily.

CO oct 14.png

Looking at other battleground states, Missouri in particular has to be worrisome for Team McCain. Not only is it the Presidential bellwether, this year it is critical to McCain's electoral math given his slides in Nevada and New Mexico. McCain should be winning in Missouri, and it's unlikely that he can win the Presidency without it.

MO oct 14.png

The only positive--or, at least, the least negative--news for McCain is that Florida and Ohio, worth a whopping 47 electoral votes between them, remain within reach.

OH oct 14.png

FL oct 14.png

This seems like a massive hill for McCain to climb. And it is. We do believe, however, that the gap between the two candidates will close somewhat over the next 14 days. For the most part it will happen naturally (because that is the nature of the electorate in these modern times), though some of it will be driven by McCain attacks on Obama and the continued latent insecurity that many voters have with the Democratic nominee--and to a certain extent the media will latch on to the comeback narrative as well. This week will go a long way toward telling us if that swing back is going to be big enough.

29 Days to Go and a Transformed Election

The past 14 days have transformed this election. The financial crisis has catapulted Obama into the lead both nationally and in key states. We have been saying for six months that the political environment has favored the Democrats significantly, but it took a near global financial meltdown for things to finally reach the tipping point. The economic situation has virtually ended John McCain's presidential aspirations and no amount of tactical maneuvering in the final 29 days is likely to change that equation.

Here is our up-to-the-minute take on the campaign:

  1. The economy is going to get worse before it gets better, and that will drive the election dynamic for at least another 7-10 days.

    • Last week U.S. stocks suffered their largest drop since 9/11. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index dropped 9.4% last week to almost a four-year low.
    • Employers slashed 159,000 jobs last month - the largest number in five years.
    • Factory orders fell 4% in August...the biggest setback in 2 years.
    • As of 8 a.m. today, European and Asian markets are tanking and the NYSE is almost certain to open down.

  2. We believe that when the history of this election is written, September 15th will be seen as the day Obama won (or perhaps the day McCain lost the election). The previous Friday morning it was announced that Lehman was filing for bankruptcy. As the markets prepared to open it looked like we were headed for a downturn. In an apparent effort to bring some stability to the markets, at approximately 9:00 in the morning - during a stump speech in Jacksonville - McCain said "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." That marked the beginning of the end for his campaign. By 2:00 p.m., at his next stop in Orlando, he was backtracking, saying, "The economic crisis is not the fault of the American people. Our workers are the most innovative, the hardest-working, the best-skilled, most productive, most competitive in the world, that's the American worker. My opponents may disagree, but those fundamentals, the American worker and their innovation, their entrepreneurship, the small business, those are the fundamentals of America and I think they're strong." The stock market dropped 505 points that day.

  3. The window for challenging Obama's character may have closed. Media reports indicate that Team McCain is going to take the gloves off (they have begun by launching attacks on Obama's connection with Bill Ayers). However, it is our sense that this should have been done in August and September, and that at this point it will likely fall on deaf ears. We are not saying that this is not a solid campaign tactic, but in light of the serious (and potentially catastrophic) issues facing the country it seems off-key at best. At worst it seems desperate. Voter opinions of Obama started to shift and harden (in his favor) after that first debate. He became substantially more acceptable. Since that time, the economic situation has made Obama a more acceptable alternative. Character attacks are part of politics and often work, but not when the country is at war and mired in an economic recession.

  4. At noon today, the Obama team will respond to Team McCain by launching its own attack: a 13-minute "documentary" on McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal in 1989. The S&L crisis of 20 years ago may resonate with voters given the current economic situation.

  5. Palin did well on Thursday but it was simply a sideshow. The debate drew 73 million viewers (20 million more than McCain-Obama--what does that say about the country?). However, it is almost meaningless. Absent a major gaffe from either VP candidate (certainly a possibility considering the two participants) it was a non-event from a campaign standpoint. Presidential elections are about the top of the ticket.

Latest Polling and the LCG EV Map

The latest Gallup tracking poll shows Obama with a 7-point lead (50% to 43%), his largest since he was nominated at the Democratic Convention. Internals suggest that McCain is hemorrhaging with Independents, women (a group that temporarily moved toward him in late August and early September) and younger voters. Additionally, there is a body of evidence growing that suggests that McCain's unfavorable rating has picked up dramatically in the last 14 days. As perceptions of him have diminished, perceptions of Obama have improved.

As the race has shifted so dramatically in the past two weeks, we have seen the largest swing in our electoral vote count this election. Some of these--like North Carolina and Missouri--are the result of steady improvement in the polls by Obama, both states where his heavy investment in the ground game appears to be paying dividends. Others--like Minnesota and New Hampshire--are the result of polls we hold in high regard showing a large swing toward Obama.

As of today we have Obama sitting comfortably with 264 electoral votes. McCain has only 163. It is very unlikely that any of the states we have put in the Obama column will switch to McCain in the coming weeks. Therefore, McCain has to win nearly all of the remaining toss-up states to win in November.

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Here are the latest changes as we see it:

  1. New Hampshire from toss-up to Obama

    Kerry won New Hampshire by just 9,000 votes, the first time the state was won by a Democrat since 1996. It appears that McCain's love affair with New Hampshire's independent-minded voters may not be enough to offset the shifting demography of a state that is becoming more and more like its neighbor to the South. A Rasmussen survey released on Friday shows Obama jumping up to a 10-point lead, powered by an 18-point advantage among Independents.

  2. North Carolina from McCain to toss-up

    Bush won North Carolina by at least 10 points both times and yet the Tarheel State is closer than we ever would have thought. Demographically it has moved closer to Virginia and further from the deep red South. It is also a state where Obama has made a heavy investment in both campaign offices and TV advertising. For two weeks Obama has been ahead or within three points of McCain, and a Rasmussen Survey last week was the first to show Obama breaking the 50% mark in North Carolina all year, so this state will definitely be one to watch in the final four weeks.

  3. Michigan from toss-up to Obama

    Michigan was another state won by Kerry (3 points) and Gore (5 points) that Republicans have had their eyes on. While it has been close all summer, the rising Obama tide nationally has gradually increased his lead in this state. In a state that is one of the hardest-hit by the current economic woes--it has a 9% unemployment rate, up nearly two points from this quarter last year--recently Obama has consistently been exceeding the 50% mark. If we adjust for the Palin/convention bounce, it seems that Obama has been steadily gaining for months and is now comfortably ahead.

  4. Missouri from McCain to toss-up

    Missouri--the "Presidential bellwether," to borrow Michael Barone's phrase--was a Bush state in both 2000 and 2004. It was essentially tied heading into the conventions and was another state that evidenced a significant bounce for McCain following the Republican convention. However, the race has tightened and every poll since "Black Monday" shows the candidates within the margin of error--a statistical dead heat and the very definition of a toss-up.

  5. Minnesota REMAINS Obama

    Both Kerry and Gore carried the state, Kerry by 3 points, Gore by 2, but it was targeted early on by Republicans (as evidenced by their choice of convention site). McCain enjoyed a huge bounce in Minnesota after the Republican convention in Minneapolis and his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, a choice that played well enough with the many hockey moms here that we debated moving it to the toss-up column. However, two polls in the last week show an enormous Obama advantage: a CNN/Time poll had Obama +11, and the usually-reliable Star Tribune poll showed a jaw-dropping 18-point Obama advantage.

The McCain campaign made several missteps last week including campaigning in Iowa (a sure Obama state) and allowing the Palin-Couric interview to be edited and dribbled out over a 7 day period, but the overwhelming force is the deteriorating economy and not even a perfect campaign could weather that storm.

There are more turns to come in this election and it is not over yet but it sure seems like it is.

Nails in McCain's Coffin?

Normally electoral vote tides take weeks and months to form and impact a campaign. Ten days ago the financial crisis wave rose quickly and swamped this presidential campaign. It is the only thing anyone is talking about; it has received saturation media coverage (and, as we write this, the Asian and European markets are down significantly). And it may be the final nail in the coffin for John McCain.

Up until the financial crisis, the McCain campaign had been doing a remarkable job of staying close (and even, briefly, pulling ahead) in a campaign that it has no real business winning when you consider the environment. But with a sinking economy piled on top of everything else, even a perfect campaign might not be enough.

Which brings us to the debate. Both men were terrific (kudos, too, to Jim Lehrer for staying out of the way and basically letting the two candidates go at it), so we'll call it a draw. But in many respects it doesn't matter what McCain does or says during these debates; all eyes are on Obama. We've said it many times: if Obama can prove himself to be a credible commander-in-chief (not an easy task, mind you), he'll win. And he did that on Friday night. He was poised and direct, much better than he was during his primary debates or during the two recent forums at Saddleback and Columbia University. His performance, combined with the financial crisis, makes it likely that he will win this election.

Today, the LCG regression vote model projects McCain losing by 2.2 points in November. He currently trails by 2.3 points. In many of those national and key state polls, Obama has taken a three-eight point lead; he obviously has momentum. McCain's recent vote strength is still checking the more recent bounce that Obama got from the fiscal crisis (and we haven't seen an impact from his debate performance yet), which is preventing the model from giving Obama any momentum beyond his current advantage. Put another way, because McCain has (recently) proven himself to be a strong and credible candidate, the model needs more evidence that Obama's "fiscal crisis"/debate bounce is genuine before it projects him as a bigger winner.

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What the regression does show is that the financial crisis has all but eliminated the GOP Convention/Palin pick bounce that McCain enjoyed. We have reverted to the early-August Obama lead. Undecided and "soft" voters have drifted back into the Obama column. And as many other pollsters have noted, Obama has re-taken a solid lead with Independents. There is a direct relationship between this and the collapse of the Palin/Maverick narrative--and this began way before the Couric interview. Thursday's debate will be an opportunity for the McCain campaign to re-engage with some of those voters, but Palin will have to have a strong night (see #4 below). Having said all of the above, there are still five weeks to go (a lifetime in political campaigns), so anything can happen. But the next few weeks (and debates) will be critical for the McCain campaign as it works to change the current narrative.

Up-to-the-Minute Analysis of the Environment

  1. McCain's gambit last week may yet pay off. The President spoke at 7:30 a.m. this morning. It is likely that the House will vote today to pass the amended version of the Administration's $700 billion plan. As it stands at 9:30 a.m. this morning, it appears that taxpayer protections have been built into the plan. It remains to be seen if McCain's interventionist actions taken last week will be seen as a political asset or a liability, but this morning's activities have improved his odds.

  2. There is every indication that this week may be just as financially painful as the last. This will be the only political conversation for the next 72 hours. If the economy is in crisis and it remains the dominant news story it continues to help Obama. And as of this writing the markets are experiencing big drops. So long as the financial crisis is front-and-center, McCain's ability to move the needle (i.e. improve his standing in the polls) will be at the margins.

  3. As we said above, Friday's debate was a draw and that translates into a win for Obama. We have said this several times before but it bears repeating: this election is really almost all about Obama. If the public decides he is an acceptable alternative--and a credible commander-in- chief--then he wins. Friday night was another step in that direction. Simply put, he passed the credibility test. Obama seemed reasonable, responsible and rational. The debate likely served to allay fears that some voters have with Obama. Other debate thoughts:

    • McCain was about as good as he can be. Our sense is that this might have been the best debate performance of the year for both candidates. McCain in particular seemed to steer the debate to talking points that best supported his candidacy (spending, earmarks, troop surge in Iraq).

    • Obama talked to McCain (and the camera) and McCain talked to the Ole Miss audience. It made Obama seem more natural while McCain came across as a bit awkward.

    • Obama telling his own bracelet story was awkward at best. Any time a candidate tries to one up another on their turf it almost always backfires. Obama should have let that one go.

  4. Thursday is the VP debate and it is time to let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin. Our sense is that you have to let her sink or swim, so let her do a dozen interviews a day and just let it fly. We agree with Bill Kristol: it was a mistake to put her into this cocoon because it turns every interview into a white-knuckler. In doing so, you make her afraid to make a mistake, and her interviews get worse because of it.

  5. The financial crisis will move up the timetable on harsh comparative attack spots. They will wait until the financial crisis bill passes and the VP debate is over, but it is our sense that the McCain team will not let this thing drift too far before unleashing whatever "A" material they have in reserve. Hold on to your hat...because things are going to get wild.

LCG Electoral Vote Map

Below is our updated map. Obama's lead is widening basically everywhere, except PA and FL. He continues to maintain a lead in solid electoral votes.

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Based on recent state polling we have moved the following states:

  • New Mexico from toss-up to Obama

New Mexico is extremely problematic for Team McCain. While McCain appeared to have closed the gap in late July and early August, it now appears that Obama has opened up a seven-point lead based on an average of the last three state-wide polls. While it is unlikely that New Mexico will be decisive on November 4th, peeling away states like New Mexico could allow Obama to get to 270 electoral votes while winning only two of the heavyweight toss-ups of Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Florida. The trend has to be disconcerting.

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43 Days to Go and the Pendulum Swings Back

Obama won the earned media battle last week for the first time in more than a month and he did it without any particular tactical or strategic gambit. Instead, the political environment swamped the McCain campaign - another reminder that this is a Democratic year and this election remains Obama's to lose.

That is not to say that the McCain camp didn't make any tactical mistakes last week - they did. The candidate continues to search for its voice on economic issues (saying the economy's fundamentals remained strong was perhaps McCain's worst moment of the campaign) and his surrogates hurt him (see Carly Fiorina). The economic crisis also put President Bush back in the news, a development that doesn't help McCain. After a few weeks on offense, the McCain campaign is back on defense and playing on Obama's turf.

Poll numbers began moving toward Obama last week and we are sure to see some additional movement this week. Our sense is that Obama is ahead nationally by approximately 2-3 points. Note how easy it was for Obama to erase a small McCain lead (note, too, that it had taken McCain months of attack ads and a successful GOP convention to build up even a small lead). All of this reinforces the notion that the environment favors Obama decidedly and his campaign will benefit when the spotlight is on the current economic situation.

We want to caution everyone, however, that this is movement at the margins (primarily among swing and true undecided voters). This is, of course, where this race will be won or lost, and we will see this micro-pendulum swing back and forth several times in the next few weeks. The week ahead has some potential for some swing-inducing events, as well:

  • While the financial crisis will dominate the early part of this week, it may not be front-and-center by the week's end. In fact, we are taking a somewhat contrarian view that perhaps the timing of this financial meltdown is good for the McCain team (though obviously it would better for McCain if this hadn't happened at all). If today was October 22nd, our sense is that the election would be over. Instead, there are five weeks until the election and anything can (and will) happen between now and then. Chris Dodd said this morning that Congress will move quickly to pass the $700 billion package. Assuming this happens and the economy and financial sector stabilize a bit, the issue could move off of the front pages and the campaign could pivot on other issues. Until then, however, it is all about the economy.
  • There will be a debate on Friday night. This one is on foreign policy. If you are McCain, could there be a better time to change the subject? To this point, Obama hasn't been a very good debater. He was just adequate during his myriad of primary debates and not much better at the recent forums at Saddleback and Columbia University. Most voters haven't seen him in this type of format before; if Obama can avoid his professorial tendencies this is a real chance for him to show voters that he is capable of serving as commander-in-chief. For McCain, a "draw" won't cut it: he needs to win this first debate.

Current Issue Environment and Obama's Underperformance

It is all about the economy and jobs. The below snapshot from a recent CBS/NYT survey shows that the economy dominates as the most important issue when considering who voters would like to see as the next President. The below chart is startling for three reasons:

  1. This Presidential contest is on the verge of becoming a single- issue election. Nearly 50% of voters say the economy is the most important issue.
  2. We are engaged in a war that has gone on for five years, drained the treasury, cost the lives of more than 4,000 soldiers and has been at the center of our national dialogue for years...and yet only eight percent of voters in this poll say that Iraq is the most important issue when thinking about the next President. Think about it: the war in Iraq is the 5th-most important issue in the country right now - that is stunning.
  3. Obama has failed to convert the nation's deep economic anxiety into an electoral advantage (yet). The same CBS-NYT poll gave Obama a five-point lead (48% to 43%). While this is a modest lead it is surprisingly shallow given the Democratic lead in party identification and on the generic ballot. It certainly means (without benefit of the cross-tabs) that a large chunk of voters who think the economy is the most important issue are voting for McCain.
issue importance 9 22.png Historical Perspective

We decided to take a quick look back at Gallup polls conducted among registered voters in 2000 and 2004 so that we could compare them to today.

Sept 16 - 18 2008: Obama 48%, McCain 44%

Sept 13 - 15 2004: Bush 52%, Kerry 44%

Sept 16 - 18 2000: Gore 49%, Bush 41%

In 2000 the debates and intervening campaign events turned the tide; in 2004 they did not. McCain needs to do well in the debates or it will be very difficult to buck the current environment.

LCG EV Map: Colorado is the New Florida?

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In 2004 Bush beat Kerry in Colorado by 52% to 47%. He beat Gore by ten points in 2000 (Nader had a sizable impact, garnering five percent of the vote in the state).
There has been a lot of talk about Colorado being the new Florida. Several smart political commentators have suggested that the race may come down to this one state. It is an interesting analysis. Certainly the state has moved from a "safe red" to a toss-up. Here are some demographics to consider:

  • Only 41% native to the state, so the electorate is shifting with new arrivals
  • 75% white, 4% black, 17% Hispanic
  • 14% military vets is high, not to mention lots on active duty, especially in Colorado Springs
  • Thought of as a rural state, but population is actually 85% urban, mostly in Denver and its suburbs
  • Colorado Springs is the state's second-largest city
  • 33% of state is college graduates, a bit below the national average
  • 21% blue collar, 65% white collar, 15% gray collar, so, again, it defies traditional perception as blue-collar/rural

Note below that our LCG average of the most recent polls shows that Obama's lead increased slightly last week, to 47% - 44%.

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Yes, Colorado is important and is truly a toss-up in this election. But it is no more important than Ohio, Virginia or Florida. Given the recent historical presidential voter pattern, our sense is that if this state moves into Obama's column it will mean an electoral blowout for the Illinois Senator. Virginia is more likely to be the state that settles this race.

50 Days to Go and Obama Hits Back (Softly)

It is noon on Monday, September 15th and things are operating so quickly in the political world that major tactical--and sometimes strategic--campaign changes are happening in minutes (in previous campaigns they used to happen in hours or days). Welcome to politics in 2008. In accordance with the new world order here is our real-time read on what is happening:

  1. Obama is hitting back, and the mere act of doing so says volumes. Voters often view the candidate through the prism of the campaign he or she is running. By this measure, the last two Obama spots--an ad that attacks McCain for being tied to lobbyists and one that says he is running a negative campaign--suggest that Obama is not going to be a Michael Dukakis; it tells voters that he will punch back. It also says that Team Obama is reading the same polling we are and believes that it has to change the dynamic or this thing is lost.

  2. But this Obama punch seems like a fairly weak body blow. While we think that going after McCain's strength is a good idea, we are not sure what kind of traction this lobbyist charge will get. This is, as they say, pretty "inside baseball." Also, the lobbyist attack may have a hard time sticking to McCain because it is not part of the perception package that people have of him. The bottom line is that a lot of things can be said about McCain, but being beholden to lobbyists doesn't seem to be one of them. And if you say you're going to respond to McCain's attacks with "ferocity" and that you're going to "take the gloves off," and then your first few "attack" ads are recycled messages about lobbyists and nonsense about McCain not being able to use a computer...oh boy.

  3. We are in a financial meltdown (as of right now the Dow is down 250 points) and Obama is focusing on lobbyists and McCain's inability to email--this is political malpractice. There is a massive financial crisis in this country: Lehman is in bankruptcy, Merrill has been sold and AIG needs a bailout of some sort. And, to this point, we're getting nothing but "statements" from the Obama campaign. The first line of today's WSJ front page article says, "The American financial system was shaken to its core on Sunday..." Team Obama should have torn up its playbook at 5 A.M. and come out swinging with earned and paid media. One look at the results from a recent CNN poll on the most important issue facing the country, coupled with a look at the trend in consumer confidence (as reported by ABC), and an 8-year-old would be able to tell the Obama campaign where it should focus its energies.

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  4. Negative political messages must tap into a pre-existing belief. In politics, attacks only work if they ring true. It's why the McCain "Paris Hilton" ads worked so well against Obama; there was (more than) a ring of truth to them. And so they struck a nerve. We have said that the surest path to victory for Obama is to attack on the economy and the failings of the Bush administration. However, tying McCain to Bush is falling flat because it just doesn't feel right. And that's because it isn't right: everybody knows that John McCain and George W. Bush don't much like each other and haven't seen eye-to-eye on much of anything, including the Iraq War. So tying the two together isn't working all that well. The same holds for Obama's attack on McCain as beholden to lobbyists. It just doesn't fit the frame. If you're going to run ads that don't fit the frame, you need to launch them VERY EARLY and keep them up for months and months to try and generate some traction. So just starting with these new "hard-hitting" attacks against McCain won't work with only 50+ days left in the campaign...unless Team Obama can hit him with something that feels true.

  5. The Obama campaign has been seriously off-stride. Let us count the ways:

    1. Obama's body language is off. He is on the defensive and it shows.

    2. Lawyerly explanations lose Presidential elections. The more Obama responds to questions the way a law professor would (see the Saddleback Forum and the Forum on Service) the more he will slide.

    3. A headline from a recent Time magazine article is that Obama is banking on the ground game, which is, perhaps, the surest sign of despair.

    4. The McCain camp's relentless, timely and pointed attacks on Obama are having an effect. The movement to McCain is not just the result of a good convention and the Palin pick. The fact is, they have been hammering Obama senseless. Exhibit A: on Tuesday of last week Obama tries to change the course of the debate by making a major speech on education and attacking McCain on his record in that area. That afternoon, the McCain campaign releases a spot hammering Obama on education and saying that his only accomplishment on education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarten students." While the veracity of the attack was derided, the spot got a lot of play and fit the perception of Obama.

    5. The irony of this campaign is that an Obama team that was so adept at using the Internet to harness the online community for fundraising has been outmaneuvered by the McCain campaign in using viral videos to get its message out and win news cycles.

    6. The early, vitriolic and often personal attacks on Palin may have inoculated her (to some extent) from the recent (and reasonable) examinations of her record. In a sense, the liberal bloggers may have done Obama more harm than good on the Palin front.

  6. Obama needs to forget Palin and get back to the economy. Team Obama needs to stop going after Palin (it makes him look small, it makes him look like he's beating up on a woman, and it draws unfavorable comparisons to his own lack of experience), hammer McCain on the economy (and be very clear about what his policies will do for voters), and hammer McCain as someone who can't change a Washington culture that he's been a part of for so long (this way you're attacking McCain on his greatest strength--his "maverick-ness").

Current Election Environment

This is getting to be a broken record but nearly all election metrics (other than the Presidential head-to-head) continue to point to a Democrat victory this Fall. Currently, approximately 15% of the country (it was 13% in the latest NBC News/WSJ tracking survey) believes things are going in the "right direction." Who they are is anyone's guess but it is truly astounding when you look at this question trended over the last ten years.

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We have been a "wrong track" country for more than four years. And we have been signficantly "wrong track" (more than 60% of the country) for over two years. Perhaps the body politic has absorbed this sentiment and it has passed from anger to apathy. That is one possible explanation for the lack of impact on the Presidential trial heat.

Bush's approval rating is still below 35%.

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This is, of course, bad news for the GOP. We and everyone else have been saying this for 18 months. However, it may be that--unlike in 2006--the Bush impact may not be as severe because some segments of the electorate have written him out of the equation. In some respects, it feels like Bush is already gone, and that feeling may mitigate his negative impact on Republicans this Fall. It is only a hypothesis, but my sense is that the President may not be as important in this election than he was in 2006.

LCG Regression Analysis - Vote Projection

As we said last week, each candidate got some bounce out of his convention. However, as our regression model shows, McCain's bounce was greater.
There are too few cases in either convention bounce period to compute a line that captures each candidate's convention swing; there just aren't enough polls for a model like that to be significant. What the below line is basically saying is this: Obama had his bounce, McCain has had his bounce, and the two bounces counterbalanced each other but momentum is on McCain's side coming out of the convention period. If this trend continues he wins by +2.3 on Election Day.

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As of today McCain is -.89. However, he wins by 2.3 points if you project his current momentum out to Election Day. Of course, things will change and so will the projection.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Convention Observations and the LCG Vote Projection Model

Boy, you take two weeks off and the whole political world turns upside down. The following are some quick observations on the current political landscape. Let's start with Obama and the Democrats:

  1. Obama and his team made a tactical error by vacationing in early August. Our sense is that he lost a lot of momentum that his campaign had built up in the Spring and early Summer.
  2. This--combined with his lackluster performance at Saddleback and the campaign's uninspiring television advertising--resulted in his limping into the convention. Several national polls released just prior to the convention showed Obama up by just a couple of points or dead-even with McCain.
  3. However, the convention was a success by the only important measure: it successfully introduced Obama to millions of people who did not know him. Additionally, it matched the historical average for convention bounces (3-5%) by giving Obama a four-point bump in our post-convention poll analysis.
  4. The Obama team won the expectations game regarding the Clinton speeches. For days the media wondered aloud how strong the Clinton(s) endorsement of Obama would be and acted stunned by the strength of their vocal support.
  5. Bill Clinton's speech was a home run. The former President showed again why he is such an effective politician (even if you disagree with what he is saying). He gave the best comparison between the two candidates in explaining why the Democrats are the better choice this year.
  6. The image of Obama's convention speech will stick with voters. Simply put, the production was a show-stopper. Getting 84,000 people in a stadium to see a political speech was impressive enough, but combining that with the Greek columns, the fireworks, confetti shot from a cannon and grand orchestral music made this seem like a Hollywood blockbuster. Nearly twice as many people watched his speech on television compared to John Kerry's in 2004 (38 million viewers compared to 20 million four years ago). Those images will stick with people.
  7. Picking Joe Biden for VP was smart...announcing it on Friday at 1 a.m. was not so smart. The selection added much-needed experience to the ticket. Perception is everything, and the takeaway from most voters was that Obama had the good sense to pick a grown-up. However, we are stunned by the timing of the announcement. It was a major communications misfire and a wasted opportunity.
  8. While the Obama adverstising has been lackluster, some recent spots are beginning to tie McCain to Bush (a strategy which we argued weeks ago they should have been pursuing since June). These are pretty effective.

On the McCain/Republican side:

  1. The Palin pick is neither a game-changer nor a disaster. On the plus side, she has and will continue to invigorate the base, and she is the ONLY thing being talked about both on the convention floor and in newsrooms across the country. In 24 hours, the McCain campaign went from no buzz to being the political version of the iPhone 3G. She is a base pick who will have a cultural connection with alarge swath of the nation's voters. She also brings a reformer edge that compliments McCain. On the other hand, as hundreds of commentators have pointed out, she undercuts the experience argument against Obama. A few comments on the selection:
    1. Vice Presidential nominees do not matter. With the exception of Johnson in 1960 this is the truest thing you can say about Presidential elections. In the end, the only thing they can do is hurt you. This race has always been about Obama and (to a lesser extent) McCain...and it still is.

    2. She is a base pick, pure and simple. This is not about attracting Clinton voters. Her job is to energize a flagging Republican base.

    3. We think this pick will make Biden's job quite a bit harder. If Palin holds her own in the debates and exceeds expectations it is a victory for McCain.

    4. Finally, unlike the Biden roll-out, this one was done beautifully and blunted the Obama post-convention bounce.

  2. McCain's advertising has been vastly better than Obama's. As we pointed out in mid-August the McCain attacks on Obama in July and August kept this thing close. For the most part, the McCain ads have worked because:

    1. They usually make their point clearly and simply
    2. They contrast the two candidates in sharp and relatable terms
    3. They use third party validators (often Obama's primary opponents or his own words) They employ viscerally engaging video that help tell the story
    4. They tell a story that people are already pre-disposed to believe (that Obama is not ready to lead)
    5. Here is a quick sampling of the most recent McCain contrast spots that we think have made a difference:

  3. Yes, they tried to make lemonade out of lemons, but make no mistake: losing a day of free convention advertising was a major blow to the Republicans. They had no choice in delaying/curtailing the opening night, but that doesn't mean it was good for them. In fact, it means 25% less time for defining Obama and laying out McCain's agenda. They get some points for putting the country first but that may be long forgotten in a few days.

  4. With Labor Day in our rear-view mirror, the fundamentals of this campaign (a bad economy, very negative impressions of the incumbent and his party, a dissatisfied electorate) are locked in and they overwhelmingly favor Obama. Every recent national poll (released over the last three days) has Obama up by anywhere from four to eight points. It is still Obama's election to lose.

LCG Regression-Based Vote Projection

Beginning today, we unveil our regression analysis/vote projection. To completely bore (most of) you, we have developed a single line projecting the net McCain vote. We have included all reputable publicly available registered voter polls since June 9th of this year (there are 56 polls in total). The most recent poll includes interviews conducted on Sept 1st. We used SPSS to develop a curvilinear polynomial regression model.
If you project the trend out to Election day, our analysis shows McCain losing by 3.1 percentage points.

Hats off to Chris Blunt who helped develop the model. Truth be told, there really hasn't been much of a trend. It's just a cloud of data points. The regression suggests that there has been some tightening but not enough to close the gap by November 4th. Of course, this assumes no change in the political environment and there will be hundreds of meaningful changes.

horserace regression 2008-9-2.png

Things to watch in the coming days:

  • If the Palin narrative becomes a "process" story. This would be devastating for McCain. The focus on Palin needs to be about her...and not how she was selected or vetted.
  • How much of the GOP convention focus is on Obama. Team McCain will try to bloody Obama with surrogates over the next 48 hours.
  • Whether tropical storm/hurricane "Hanna" is impacting Florida on Thursday evening enough to impact what McCain and the GOP say and do.

Thanks again to Pete Ventimiglia, John Zirinsky and Chris Blunt for their contributions to this Election Monitor.

Obama's Dog Days of Summer?

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.

Gaps Galore

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:

  1. 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.")
  2. 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.

horserace aug 13.png

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.


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."


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.


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.

The "No-Bounce" Win and a Bit of History

Topics: 2004 , 2008 , Barack Obama , Bush , John McCain

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.

Obama's Overseas Screen Test

Topics: 2008 , Likely Voters , Obama , Steve Lombardo

Note: We are pleased to add Republican pollster Steve Lombardo, the president and CEO of Lombardo Consulting, as a regular contributor. His weekly email update, the LCG Election Monitor, is well known to political journalists and insiders as a source of straight-shooting analysis of political poll trends. Starting today, the LCG monitor will also be published every week right here on Pollster.com.

It is often difficult to accurately assess the electoral impact of events during a campaign - especially those that occur more than 3 months prior to Election Day. But in the case of Obama's overseas trip, I think we can mark this down as a substantial tactical and strategic victory.

First, as I have said before - in the words of my friend and colleague, the late Mike Deaver - elections are about impressions. And this trip (and the accompanying coverage and photos) has created an impression of Barack Obama as that of an engaged, serious and strong person. Second, the trip serves to negate the preexisting notion that Obama is not up for the job of President. While it likely has not completely reversed the "inexperienced" impression, the trip has begun the process. Time will tell if other moments can serve Obama in the same way. The campaign will be looking for them to be sure.

From a micro perspective Obama has swamped McCain in terms of positive media coverage, driven largely by this overseas trip. Media reports have, to this point, been almost uniformly glowing. This has been helped along, of course, by comments from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, which seemed to support Obama's plans for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Yes, there has been some criticism that this is a media stunt, but the vast majority of the coverage has been positive, suggesting that this was a sound strategy. Our sense is that when most Americans turn on their televisions, visit their favorite websites or open up their newspapers and see Obama sitting down with foreign leaders and chatting with American soldiers, most of them will say: "Sure, he looks presidential." In the end, that's all that matters.

John McCain has been hammering away at Obama on the stump and in this ad. This, too, is a pretty good strategy: trying to move the conversation away from whether Obama supported the war to whether he supported the surge. Obviously, Obama is vulnerable here. He stated that the surge would be counterproductive, and this line of attack serves to underscore the idea that he is not ready for the job. But this somewhat narrow approach may be obscured by events abroad (Afghanistan, Iran) and at home (gas prices, the economy). Remember that the economy is by far the number one issue in the country right now. Obama only needs to be in the ballpark with McCain on handling Iraq; if he dominates on the issue of the economy, he wins.

As we said in our last Election Monitor, this campaign will be a referendum on Barack Obama. If the American public comes to the conclusion that he can be an effective commander-in-chief - basically, if they become comfortable with the idea of him as President - then he should win the race. But the American public isn't there yet; the one area where Obama still trails McCain is on this key question of leadership and whether he has the "experience" to be president. This is obviously something that the Obama Iraq trip is designed to address. Our sense is that it is working; the question is whether the leadership "bounce" that Obama gets from the trip can be sustained.

Electoral Vote Projection Map

Our electoral vote map has not changed in the last two weeks. To this point, nothing has fundamentally altered the race, either nationally or in any key states. We will have to wait for next week's batch of polling data to see if Obama's overseas trip has any quantifiable impact on the race.

LCG electoral vote map 2008-7-22.png

However, there is some new polling data that does confirm a couple of our earlier predictions, as well as hint at one of the LCG Big Ten moving into the Obama column:

  1. Michigan (Toss-up). The upper-Midwest is clearly the Obama campaign's center of gravity. With his campaign headquarters and personal and political roots in Chicago, he has taken the sensible strategy of making strong plays for Iowa (which was won by less than 1% of the vote in both 2000 and 2004) and Michigan, a state that went Gore +5.2, Kerry +3.4. Horserace polling in Michigan has consistently shown Obama and McCain within the margin of error. However, the three most recent polls in Michigan (Rasmussen, Quinnipiac/WSJ/WP and PPP) show an average of Obama +8. If this recent bounce continues, we may have to move Michigan into the Obama column.
  2. michigan 7-22.PNG

  3. Iowa (Obama). We debated putting Iowa--a state that Bush won in 2004--in the Obama column so early, but every publically-released poll conducted in Iowa since the end of 2006 has shown Obama leading McCain, and now a new poll confirms a significant Obama advantage. A Rasmussen survey of 500 likely voters has Obama at a comfortable +10.
  4. North Carolina (Toss-up). As we mentioned in our initial comments on this electoral map, the fact that a state Bush won by at least 12 points in both 2000 and 2004 is a toss-up underlines the enormous structural advantage the Democratic Party has this year. We still think that McCain is likely to win this state, nevertheless, three new surveys (Rasmussen, SurveyUSA and PPP) show an average of just a 3-4 point lead for McCain and we will continue to treat this as a toss-up until something changes.
  5. NC 7-22.PNG

The Independent Vote

Just one more note before we go. So much has been made of the Independent vote that we decided to take a look at it, both in terms of how Independents are trending in 2008 and how that compares with previous elections. The chart below makes it clear that structural changes and disaffection with the current administration hasn't translated into increased support for Obama--yet. For all the talk of Bush's base-pandering and Obama's popularity among swing voters, the middle is being split between the two candidates, and it's been that way for the last eight years. For historical perspective, the small edge Obama currently enjoys is nothing compared to the huge Independent support garnered by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Ind 7-22.PNG

However, our sense is that McCain is doing better with likely voters and therefore, to win, Obama will need to open up a 4-7 point lead with Independents (think Clinton in '92 and '96).

We will be back again next week. Thanks to Pete Ventimiglia and John Zirinsky for their insights.