Gallup's "Quick Read on the Election" provides a presidential campaign overview as we approach the unprecedented "back-to-back" party conventions. After the two week hiatus provided by the IOC, the roller-coaster is about to begin. How do the "experts" see the general election shaping up?
Not surprisingly, the Gallup Gate Keepers reinforce the traditional media's prevailing narrative. Despite the Democrats' "structural" election advantage (Democrats are viewed much more favorably than the GOP and more Americans are identifying as Democrats), Obama is underperforming in national polls. His average lead of three points throughout the summer indicates a third straight close election. While both nominees-in-waiting have solidified their partisan coalitions (despite the coverage some outlets have provided to the PUMAs), neither McCain nor Obama has exhibited either partisan cross-over appeal or the ability to build a significant lead among independent voters necessary to alter this "50/50 Nation" dynamic.
Pattern of candidate support is similar to 2000 and 2004 elections. Obama's strengths: non-white race and ethnic groups, including blacks and Hispanics; 18-29; those with postgraduate educations; women; those with very low incomes; those who have no religious identification/for whom religion is not important/do not attend church; those who are unmarried. McCain's strengths: non-Hispanic whites; 65 and older; those who are married; white Protestants and non-Catholic Christians; whites who attend church frequently/for whom religion is important.
Ever-helpful, the pollsters also raise a couple of red flags for the Obama campaign, reinforcing the nervous hand-wringing among nervous Democrats watching national and state polls tightening.
Current position of the candidates predicts little. In previous two elections, both candidates who lead polls in summer, pre-convention (Bush in 2000, Kerry in 2004), ended up losing the popular vote.
History predicts modest bounces for candidates when they make their vice presidential announcements and after their conventions. This year, all of this will be compressed in a short two-week period in late August/early September. Back-to-back conventions are unprecedented. Voters will have a steady stream of election input. Bounce will likely follow bounce. This could be one of most fascinating times in presidential election history. Standings after conventions will be critical.
Earlier this summer, Gallup reminded political junkies that the July polling leader has lost six of the last nine close presidential elections. History clearly isn't on Obama's side, the chattering class warns. The failure to close the deal (despite leading McCain in national polling since February, which is VERY different from the polling swings witnessed in both 2000 and 2004) means Obama's candidacy could be following Gore and Kerry to electoral defeat. As if on cue, a chorus of "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" has risen from Chicken Little Democrats who fear yet another defeat in the wake of what was once deemed near-certain victory.
And don't overlook the 2008 convention calendar quirk. The back-to-back conventions – particularly during this era of the 24/7 never-ending news cycle – may negate the Mile High Convention/VP selection bounce many Democratic activists and media talking heads anticipate. The electorate's short attention span and the media's rapid transition from Denver to St. Paul may lessen (or even erase) the Democratic bounce. If this happens, expect the chattering class to start more clucking about Barack's "failure to seal the deal." The fate of his candidacy will come down to the debates. The punditocracy will fretfully ask, "Will Obama lose the election with a "Gore sigh"? And Democratic partisans will sweat it out, fearful of history repeating itself.
But, wait. Not so fast.
Gallup provides Obama a lifeline. And it's one Team Obama has been aware of all along.
Turnout will be a key factor. Obama would benefit from unusual (and unprecedented) enthusiasm among young voters and minority voters. McCain would benefit from a more typical higher turnout among Republicans, highly religious white voters. Results of likely voter modeling this summer so far have been mixed.
Note what they're saying here. It is young voters (who until this past primary season had historically been one of the least engaged voting blocs) who hold the key to an Obama victory. The Democrats' unprecedented investment in field offices, grassroots organizing, voter registration and Election Day GOTV efforts is critical and unpredictable. If the pollsters can't confidently identify which voters will actually show up at the polls, it is difficult to provide accurate polling numbers. If the Democrats are successful in increasing the youth vote (combined with even a slight uptick in minority participation), the polls may be irrelevant – and horrifically inaccurate. This is without considering the underrepresentation of voters under 35, whose reliance on cell phones places them beyond the reach of traditional polling.
At the same time, McCain is forced to rely on an unmotivated (and shrinking) Republican base. Nothing indicates the enthusiasm gap the Democrats have enjoyed (in fundraising, voter id and voter interest) over the past year and a half has closed. On the eve of the Mile High convention, Pew tells us the electorate is much more interested in the Democratic shindig than the Republican pow-wow. Unless the conventions and VP picks dramatically alter the dynamics, Obama's investment in grassroots infrastructure may be the difference-maker this November.
Finally, Gallup's last point moves beyond the horse race and to the issues which may determine how the electorate will decide:
Top voter issues this year skew towards the domestic, in particular economy and energy. Iraq, healthcare, and terrorism remain important. Obama's perceived strengths: domestic issues, compassion, empathy, bringing about change. McCain's perceived strengths: experience, international issues, terrorism, viewed as capable commander in chief. A continuing uptick in consumer confidence and increase in perceived success in Iraq could benefit McCain.
I don't agree with Gallup's conclusion. Following months of an economy mired in a severe stall, it's rather late in the game for an "uptick in consumer confidence" to make a difference in how Americans feel about the general direction of the country. If Team Obama succeeds in tying McCain to the Bush economic policies, it's difficult to see how the Republican can overtake the Democrat on these domestic concerns.
The electorate's feelings about Iraq also seem firmly set. McCain will continue and elevate the fearmongering. The Islamofascist threat, memories of 9-11, a new Cold War with the Russians on the march – every fear card the Republicans have in their ghoulish deck will be played as they hope to divert the public's attention from the pocketbook issues. Foreign policy remains a wild card, but Joe Biden as a VP pick minimizes McCain's advantage, at least at first glance. Essentially, the last eight weeks of the general election campaign is going to come down to whether Americans want change or the status quo.