NBC's much-discussed general election poll and the likely dynamics of the 2008 campaign

NBC released its national poll last night and it has become the talk of the town ever since. Why? Itis the first (non-tracking) national poll to have been conducted after Obama won the nomination, though it went on the field on June 6th, a full day before Clinton's unity speech.

  • The poll shows Barack Obama to be ahead 47% to 41%.
  • The gender gap is large: Obama wins women by 19%, McCain wins men by 20%. Obama is also leading among Hispanics (62% to 28%, which is a very important lead given talk that McCain might be stronger than other Republicans among Latinos) and independents by 5%.
  • In case of a Clinton-McCain match-up, the Democrat takes the lead 49% to 40%. In a match-up between Obama/Clinton and McCain/Romney, the Dem ticket is ahead 51% to 42%.
  • Today, the new Hotline poll shows Obama ahead 44% to 42% ina poll taken from the 5th to the 8th. This is actually a decline since his 4% lead in May.
  • In a disappointing sign for Obama, voters trust McCain more when it comes the war 49% to 41% despite trusting the Democratic Party by 12% more. Similarly, Obama has a 6% edge over the economy despite a 26% edge for his party.
Republicans are expressing part-relief that the bounce is not larger (though, as I noted, the poll was only partly taken after Clinton's concession) and part-worry that Obama might never look back now that he has the lead. There is also a fair amount of talk about the fact that this is a very significant margin because Bush or Kerry supposedly never had leads like this. I just want to debunk this argument. It is true, as First Read points out, that Bush never trailed in NBC polls in 2004 and never had a lead of 6%. But most of us remember that (1) Kerry had opened up a lead in July/early August and (2) Bush had opened up a big lead in September in many polls, up to the first debate in which Kerry bounced back. A CNN/Gallup poll had Bush leading by 14% in September (check their history) and by 7-8% at other points in the month. Other pollsters released survey at the same time (including CBS) that had Bush leading by 8% and 9%. So talk that 2004 never saw a lead by either candidate isn't correct.

Also, the 2004 election was largely defined by Bush, a very clearly defined incumbent about whom opinions were crystallized. It is thus not surprising that numbers remained relatively stable throughout the election and that there were just 2-3 big swings (one in mid-August towards Bush, one end of September towards Kerry). 2008 is not 2004. McCain and Obama are both largely undefined and their numbers will evolve through the cycle. This is certainly not to say that Obama will lose. In fact, he is favored to win. Perhaps he will indeed never trail in national polls again. But that certainly won't be because of any similarity with what happened in 2004.

The national environement is very favorable to Obama and Democrats have been favored to win this election for months -- even years -- now. There have been countless reports that the Democratic Party has gained a huge advantage in partisan breakdown over the past four years. The make-up of SUSA's polls shows a double-digit gain by the party compared to 2004 exit polls, numbers that will be accentuated by the registration drives of the past few months (Gallup just released an analysis with the same finding). As long as Obama holds on to his base and does not fall too much behind among independents, the election should be his. The only reason Republicans are not trailing by double-digits is because McCain is the strongest candidate they could have nominated.

The GOP is very well aware of this fact and it knows that its only chance is to define Barack Obama in very negative terms to make him an unacceptable choice among a significant portion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (given how excited conservative blogs are getting about Obama's birth certificate, we know where some Republicans plan to take this). And the Hotline poll I referred to above does point some major vulnerability areas for Obama as he significantly underperforms a "generic Democrat" and the trust in the Democratic Party. Until the GOP launches a full-scale effort and until Obama weathers it, it is foolish to confidently assert that the Democratic nominee will never look back. Dukakis, after all, led by 19% in the summer of 1988 until a nasty (and racially driven) campaign derailed him.

The Democrats' advantage this year is that they can do the same thing to McCain and have plenty of money to redefine him. McCain enjoys a loosely defined "maverick image" but it is not firmy anchored and his opponents believe they can undermine by showing his ties with Bush, emphasizing his pro-life record and playing on his hawkish sound bites. The discipline with which the Obama campaign has been conducting this offensive confirms that McCain should expect no mercy.

All of this is a recipe for volatility, in either direction, but with the clear understanding that Obama is favored. Depending on who defines the other camp the best, the election could swing anywhere between an Obama blow-out and a narrow McCain victory.

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  • A big Obama victory is definitely the most likely outcome, not particularly because of Obama but just cause Republicans are screwed this year. Project 2006 on 2008 and you'll get an idea of what's coming.

    By Anonymous Ron, At 12 June, 2008 18:00  

  • That Hotline poll conducted just prior to Hillary Clinton's withdrawal from the race, which also happened to be right at the height of the Obama/Clinton polarization within the Democratic party. Polls show that the divide only grew intensity from May to June.

    It's only striking to me that McCain wasn't actually ahead in this particular poll. That was clearly McCain's salad days.

    Personally, I wouldn't worry so much about the Hotline poll if I were the Obama camp. Their numbers were clearly being depressed at that time. It could however become a nice baseline for them to contrast their July numbers.

    By Anonymous dannity, At 12 June, 2008 20:56  

  • By all rights, terminating the Clintons should have lead to at least a 10 point bounce, if not 15, in the polls. It hasn't, and that is why McCain has a good chance of winning.

    The Town Hall today was McCain at his best, and Obama would be well served to step up to the challenge instead of declining based on procedural issues. The American people want to see Obama v. McCain as much as possible - not just 3 times by the news media.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 June, 2008 21:28  

  • The polling makes me feel better about Obama, but not good about him. The more I learned about him and got to know him, the less I liked. I paid really close attention to this primary. I hope the same sentiments aren't growing in the general population the way they grew in me. I liked Obama before I listened to him or read his proposals (blueprint). Now I feel reluctant to vote for him. He might just do better to hide out until November.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 12 June, 2008 21:53  

  • anonymous(21:18), where do those numbers come from? I can't imagine why anyone thought Obama would have that kind of a bounce, given the bitterness that has gripped the party. But maybe that's your point, that the party is so divided that he didn't experience the bounce you'd see in a less contentious year, and that this bodes ill for his prospects. If so, I suggest we hold our fire till we have a little more experience to look to, and in particular, how the general public reacts to McCain.

    He has yet to perform under the kind of public scrutiny that Obama and Clinton experienced.
    My personal belief is that the public likes the perception of McCain far more than they'll like the reality - ill-tempered, anti-choice, aggressively neo-con in his foreign policy and clueless on economics and health care. Others won't agree, but we'll know better in 60 days or so.

    By Anonymous zoot, At 12 June, 2008 23:08  

  • "anonymous(21:18), where do those numbers come from? I can't imagine why anyone thought Obama would have that kind of a bounce, given the bitterness that has gripped the party."

    That's what I was about to say. A 15-point bounce is a pipe dream. I was thinking 5 points would be on target.

    "Others won't agree, but we'll know better in 60 days or so."

    I've seen a number of polls that suggest the more people know McCain, the less they like him. He will have a hard time keeping his record out of the campaign for next 4+ months.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 13 June, 2008 02:48  

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