Articles and Analysis


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.



Steve, that 2004 statement is just false. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/Presidential_04/chart3way.html

Using Gallup only there just increases unnecessary variance into our data. Using your engagement point, which I think has some validity, I think there is a lot more attention being paid this summer than in summers past.

One final point, which I know has been made elsewhere, is that Obama is already viewed as incredibly liberal, and is still winning. Here we go: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/06/why-obama-isnt-like-dukakis.html

I say this simply to point out that the historical comparisons to this year seem particularly weak, and the polling we have now is so much more robust than we once had. 100 days out doesn't mean what it once did, there's just more information everywhere, more news, internet, etc. People know more than they did in 1988 and 1992 about the candidates already.


we've seen these comparisons before. even so, what seems obvious is the trendless-ness of this so called trend. each cycle has its own quirks which do not follow through as reliable predictors for the next one.

if the percentage lead of obama's remains static as the only worthwhile take away observation here, the reason is different.

it is the hillary factor that presents the statistical quagmire out from which obama and company have little way of exiting and hints at his inevitable un-doing.

i think a more insightful polling stat would be to compare the undecideds at this point and in the final tally across the last six elections, bearing in mind that there has never been any primary contest as close, as prolonged or as emotional.

the stubborn undecideds will tell the tale and this number needs more vetting, more polling comparisons.

obama is damned if he picks kaine and damned if he picks hillary. he's tried every coy hint, every return to hillary speculation to shore up the slipsliding. he's tried every photo blitzkrieg every high concept speech every darn media event he can muster to knock down this stubborn number.

either way there are approximately 15-20% who are holding back. if you have not become excited over obama by now, in all likelihood you never will and that vote or at least aportion is headed over to mccain.

and if you harbor animosity over the DNC machinations and pelosi wedge driven into the phalanx of hillary's campaign, chances are you will foam at the mouth at obama's selecting a man after all: an old one like biden who will only vindicate mccain's age, or a new one like kaine who will re-inforce the questions of experience hounding obama.

but you will certainly bolt from undecided if obama picks a woman who is not 'the hillary'.

this hillary factor is unique to THIS campaign alone among many. it is as diabolic to the obama campaign as perot was to bush but far far more. and if obama capitulates to the numbers and does choose hillary? that will just rub salt in the wound.

so redo those comps and tell us more about the numbers who made up their minds at the last minute.



It is always difficult to compare one election to another. However, I think this election will either look like 1988 (with Obama=Dukakis and McCain=Bush) or 1980 (with Obama=Reagan and McCain=Carter). As long as Obama weathers the storm and is considered a reasonably likable new face, he won't collapse like Governor Dukakis.

I think he stands a much better chance of being the Democrats answer to Ronald Reagan. In that election, people were very worried about Reagan being too extreme (even in his own party). However, he was able to convince people that he could handle the job and wouldn't be too radical. Once that happened (late in the race) his poll numbers soared and he easily won the election (with help from Anderson). Of course, other folks have simultaneously made this comparison: http://pundits.thehill.com/2008/07/23/obama-mccain-reagan-carter/
Although I disagree with Keene and agree more with Lombardo about his assessment of the last couple weeks: Obama has done well to lay the groundwork for a strong finish (even if it hasn't shown in the poll numbers yet). I don't expect it to show in the poll numbers until after the convention (if not later).


I've noticed the "referendum on Obama" line, too. Framing the election on whether or not Obama is acceptable is actually a very clever strategy by the McCain campaign and his surrogates (both actual and in the media) since the insinuation is that McCain is acceptable and Obama is not.



I tend to agree that this election can be compared both to 1988 and to 1980. If Obama becomes the issue, he will lose, and this election will be a repeat, more or less, of 1988.

On the other hand, if Bush becomes the issue, and McCain is tied to Bush, then Obama becomes the Democratic version of Reagan.

One thing that seemingly has been left out of the debate is the historical trend. Certain factors, like the economy, an unpopular war, a major scandal, and so on, combine to yield a particular score. That "score" functions as a forecast of the election outcome, and has been shown to be accurate for most, if not all, elections of the last hundred years or so. This year, the historical "score" favors the Democratic nominee, regardless of who it is. Ergo, this election "may" be more comparable to 1980 than to 1988.




Very good point Lechuguilla. The general trends favor Obama. His campaign style favors him as well. If both camps run a clean, positive campaign, then Obama will probably win. In other words, if people think Obama is acceptable, then he'll win. For the first time in a long time, we may have an election where both candidates are viewed favorably. I think McCain knows this and wants this to be a typical election, where most people would rather pick "none of the above". If people dislike both candidates, then McCain can become the lesser of two evils (better the devil you know...).



Steve, interesting analysis and good article. I do think though that you may be overstating how unusual it is for an election during an unpopular presidency to focus on the acceptableness of the rival party’s candidate. This is in fact the usual state of affairs, and it’s completely understandable.

We see this in everyday life all the time. You’ve been insured by State Farm for years, you’re sick of the way they handle your claims. You get a similar quote from Progressive or whomever, and all you want to check on is to make sure that they’re not some fly-by-night amateur operation. If they’re a legitimate contender, then you’ve already decided you’re going to make the switch, because you’ve already had ample opportunity to judge the incumbent. That’s why the focus is usually on the newcomer.

The 1980 example cited by several is indeed a good example of this. It was never going to be a referendum on Carter come election time. Carter was already unpopular and voters had made up their minds about him. The question they had was whether Reagan was an acceptable alternative. If so, he’d get the nod almost by default. 1976 was another instance. It wasn’t about Ford. The voters were outraged by Watergate and wanted to throw the GOP out; all they wanted to know was if Carter was a feasible presidential choice. 1968 is yet another example. At the height of the Vietnam War’s unpopularity the issue wasn’t incumbent VP Humphrey, it was whether Nixon was acceptable enough to replace the Dems.

This is good news for Obama. Although the focus may be on him, the onus is on his doubters to actively show that he's unacceptable. If they can't achieve that, he wins.



Regarding the counterexample of 2000, I think there are two things overlaid there. The first is a modest but significant move in Bush’s direction between July and very early November – that was then completely reversed following the November 2 revelation of Bush’s old DUI. In five days, he lost all the ground he had gained in three months. So I don’t think 2000 is the best comparison to today, unless we think we can safely anticipate another significant November/October surprise – which of course we can’t or it wouldn’t be a surprise.


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