Electability debate continues, as Obama recovers pre-Wright numbers

New day, new polls -- and a new leader in the Rasmussen and Gallup tracking polls. The two institutes have rarely shown similar trends but, in a rare show of unity, both have found Barack Obama (narrowly) overtaking John McCain over the past two days after trailing him in both tracking polls for about a month:

  • Gallup shows Obama inching ahead of McCain 46% to 44% while Clinton is tied with the Republican at 46%. Obama first took a narrow lead yesterday.
  • Rasmussen, meanwhile, comes out with Obama barely edging out McCain 46% to 45% (for the first time since March 9th). Clinton is led 47% to 44%.
The Democrats' decline and of McCain's rise in March had initiated around the time of the Wright controversy -- is there a better way for Obama to demonstrate that it has managed to put Wright behind than finally overtaking McCain in the tracking polls? The Obama campaign knows that the electability question is Clinton's main hope at clinching the nomination: A concern about Obama's chances in November is one of the only worries that could possibly lead to superdelegates voting against the pledged delegate leader.

For that to happen would require not just that Obama weakens but that he suffers a meltdown to such an extent that his chances look extinguished by August. The Clinton campaign must have hoped that the Wright episode would spark such a meltdown, but that has clearly not happened. The Illinois Senator has mostly recovered his pre-Wright numbers in most state and national polls.

I have argued multiple times that the electability debate misses the mark, and that both Clinton and Obama have glaring weaknesses among different crucial groups that they will have to resolve. Yet, the debate has been continuing for months, if anything gaining increasing intensity now that Clinton's nomination directly depends on Obama's inability to win certain groups of voters; there are plenty of signs that Obama is struggling among blue-collar voters and registered Democrats, as well in the type of states in which Democrats need downscale Democrats to stick with the party to win the general. Consider Strategic Vision's latest poll from Pennsylvania released this morning:

  • It shows Clinton leading McCain 45% to 42% (down from 47% to 41% last week).
  • Obama trails 48% to 41%, declining since his already poor 47-42 last week.
Sensing that they need to press this issue, Clinton supporters are increasingly mentioning the Wright episode. After staying away from it for most of the first few weeks of the controversy, an increasing number of Hillary's aides and counsels have evoked the issue now that it has faded in the media. The latest to do so is Lanny Davis, a longtime adviser to the Clintons, who penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today attacking Obama for his ties to Wright:

I have tried to get over my unease surrounding Barack Obama's response to the sermons and writings of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. But the unanswered questions remain. ...

Why did he stay a member of the congregation? Why didn't he speak up earlier? And why did he reward Rev. Wright with a campaign position even after knowing of his comments?

Davis then goes through all the criticisms we have been hearing against Obama on this issue -- why did he stay in the church, how could he compare a reverend with a family member, his refusal to disavow the pastor entirely. He recycles the list of attacks that are being voiced from the Right and presents them as his own criticism. But he also defends himself from the charge of doing the GOP's dirty job (he explicitly denies that he is "playing the race card or taking the 'low' road") by invoking the electability question:

Attacking the motives of those who feel this discomfort about Senator Obama's response or nonresponse to Reverend Wright's comments is not just unfair and wrong. It also misses the important electoral point about winning the general election in November: This issue is not going away. If many loyal, progressive Democrats remain troubled by this issue, then there must be even more unease among key swing voters – soft "Reagan Democrats," independents and moderate Republicans – who will decide the 2008 election.

One thing is for sure: If Mr. Obama doesn't show a willingness to try to answer all the questions now, John McCain and the Republican attack machine will not waste a minute pressuring him to do so if he is the Democratic Party's choice in the fall.

The glaring problem of the Davis article is that it is possible (and necessary) to divorce the debate over electability from the discussion of the case's merits. It is one thing for a Clinton supporter to say that the GOP will use unfair talking points on Wright throughout the fall and ensure that Obama is too damaged to win against McCain; the question of what impact Wright will have on the general election campaign is, after all, a legitimate one. But it is quite different to agree with those talking points as Davis does and to voice them in high-profile publications months before Republicans get to them.

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  • Taniel - you say "Yet, there are also plenty of signs that Obama is struggling among blue-collar voters and registered Democrats, as well in the type of states in which Democrats need downscale Democrats to stick with the party to win the general." If Obama has weakness with these groups how come he is tied or ahead of McCain and does better than Clinton in such head to head comparisons? Also Obama is ahead when Dems and Independents are asked "Obama or Clinton" - so is he really that weak?
    And if so why does it matter if he makes up the lost votes elsewhere which the polls suggest.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 09 April, 2008 19:01  

  • Taniel, please be fair and cover the GOP and not 100% the Dems. McCain will defeat Obama or Clinton in November. barack HUSSEIN obama should not be allowed ballot access!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 09 April, 2008 19:29  

  • Taniel, your last point is well-taken and critical to the discussion. To look at another facet, it's one thing for a Republican to pursue this line of attack. It's expected and dsicounted accordingly but when another Democrat does so, it lends a measure of validity to the attack and makes it much harder to dispute. ("Even Hillary Clinton and her liberal supporters can't stomach his racist sermons, etc., etc."

    Never mind the mock concern from Davis. These people are engaged in the nastiest kind of behavior. There's no excuse for this sort of thing, but if that's the way they want to play it, I don't want to hear any more whining from Hillary when Obama supporters begin talking about her accidental interactions with the truth.

    By Anonymous zoot, At 09 April, 2008 20:04  

  • Zoot you miss the mark when it comes to these highlights of Obama's weaknesses. When a Democrat attacks another, it lessens the impact of a republican doing so. Beating this dead horse will in effect, desensitize people like yourself from it's effects later. We need to air every possible weakness of our candidates to insulate them from future attacks. A pre-emptive swiftboating if you will. As for Hill's "accidental interactions with the truth" I think Barack has plenty of experience with that to make your criticism pretty weak. The nastiness and broken wing whining was the Obama camp's routine just a few weeks ago. What's good for the goose...19:29-We own this election cycle. John better come up with a dancing partner or he'll be just that crazy old coot in the corner that 20% of the electorate support. It's a Hillary/Barack show to the end. Maybe John could shoot one of his jewish relatives in SC for some coverage.( And I thought the evangelists were just being stand-offish because he was catholic!)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 09 April, 2008 20:26  

  • While you're digging up old jews in SC, don't forget to check out the Bighams. They may or may not have a blood connection but they're certainly some wild charactors from the old 'hood. The picture of Edmund on the cover of "The Last of the Bighams" bears a striking resemblence to John. That kind of ancestral background really puts McCain in fresh new light.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 09 April, 2008 20:48  

  • Anonymous (20:26), we'll just have to agree to disagree. Your position is a clone of Hillary's: I'm immune to further attack and can't be dragged down any more because everything bad that could be said about me has been said. Rather perverse even if true, since her biggest problem is that the old stuff did stick, and she's mired in the high forty's negative that have barely budged over this cycle. So, her only hope is to so undermine Barack as to destroy his viability. If that's a back-handed favor as you seem to think, the mind boggles at what she'd do if she really got out of sorts. Interesting way to campaign, if you have a taste for that sort of thing.....

    As for the comment about 'John's Jewish relatives in SC', I don't understand the allusion. Want to explain?

    By Anonymous zoot, At 09 April, 2008 22:26  

  • John McCain's roots run deep in SC but you won't hear him talking them up. Let's just say they're not helpful to his base's support. As for your assumption that a bitter rivalry hurts either candidate, it's just not true. The popularity of the party is at an all time high. This nomination is a hard fought one for a reason. Fortunately Barack is more insightful than his supporters and would be the first one to call Hillary to prevent her from dropping out. If either dropped out it would destroy the game. The money would cease flowing and this year's election would be taken for granted. So let's keep this going for as long as possible to ensure a Democrat gets elected. It could even be someone with no delegates. It's happened before.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 07:49  

  • Barack HUSSEIN Obama? Then John HYMAN McCain! We'll see which party is more tolerant.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10 April, 2008 08:21  

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