Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who is winning?

It is three and a half months until election day. Who is ahead? Obama is consistently ahead in the polls but in most polls he is only ahead by a few points, often within the margin of error. Two polls have placed Obama way ahead but these have been so anomalous that most observers feel that there must be problems with their methodology. One of them, last month's Newsweek poll which placed Obama ahead by 15 points closed to a statistical dead heat in the July poll. Regardless, Obama still enjoys a consistent if slight lead in the polls.

So, is Obama winning? In my opinion he is performing well below where he should be. Consider:

  • He has gotten a lot more publicity and a higher percentage of favorable publicity. Typically the only way that McCain can get any press is when he is asked for a response to Obama.
  • He is a Democrat running at a time when the Republican brand name is damaged.
  • Early polls usually favor the fresh face and he is a lot fresher than McCain.
  • Obama continues to be much better at giving speeches than McCain.
Adding all of this together, Obama should be 20 points ahead of McCain. This implies a weakness in the Obama campaign. I've pointed out before that he is a much weaker candidate than his press coverage would indicate. There are reasons for this:

  • A lot of Obama's support in the primaries came from his anti-war message. This is not as important to the general electorate.
  • People are worried about his inexperience.
  • The biggest worries now are the economy and energy prices. Obama's policies on these have not resonated with the public. McCain is also weak but favors off-shore drilling which the public supports by a wide margin.
Another worry for the Democrats - fresh faces and challengers usually do much better in the early polls then fade in late Summer.

Worse, Obama might not be doing as well as the polls indicate for several reasons. Democrats tend to do better in polls than on election day. When talking with a live pollster, people sometimes feel ashamed to admit that they vote Republican. This is even more true when being asked about Obama. Some people are going to worry about being labeled a racist if they don't say that they will vote for Obama. Then there are the real racists - people who will never vote for a black man but don't want to admit it. There were primaries where Obama did much worse on election day than in the polls. That is bound to be happening again, now.

Usually there are two ways to predict which candidate will win the presidency. The candidate who has the least trouble securing the nomination usually wins. McCain effectively wrapped up the nomination on Super Tuesday. In contrast, Obama didn't even become the front-runner until Super Tuesday.

The other indicator is which candidate's campaign seems to be flailing. This one is harder to call. McCain has some good ads running but, as I said before, he has a lot of trouble getting any coverage. He doesn't have any sharp attack ads like Bush 41 nor does he have a strong platform like Reagan.

Obama assembled a better campaign structure during the primaries but he doesn't seem to be going anywhere with it. One major sign of trouble is the number of times he has had to make major addresses on various issues. These always seem to be reactive. He made an address on patriotism in response to internet rumors. He made an address on Iraq after his own supporters accused him of changing positions.These are the actions of a losing candidate, not the front-runner. On balance, I would give McCain a slight advantage here.

There are still several events that could tip the election either way. The choice of a running-mate can make a difference. A bad choice can doom a campaign.

Obama's big chance is the Democratic convention. He has already hurt himself there by moving his acceptance speech to a larger stadium. The networks are cutting back coverage of the convention in order to cover the speech. A really good speech could give him a big enough lead that McCain can never catch him. This could be a trap, though. Expectations are high. If his speech isn't as good as his 2004 keynote address it will hurt him.

McCain's biggest hope is debates. Obama is at his best behind a teleprompter and at his worst in an unscripted debate. This is where McCain's experience shows. Both candidates know this. Most of the public is unaware of this which leads to hightened expectations that Obama cannot live up to. The big question is how many debates McCain can pressure Obama into.

The final factor is McCain's sense of decency. So far he has treated Obama far more fairly than Obama has treated him. Veterans of G. H. W. Bush's campaign in 1992 say that he lost because he was convinced that a sitting president didn't need to campaign hard. He didn't see the need for a strong campaign until mid-October - far too late to save his presidency. MoveOn has no such scruples. Will McCain concent to do whatever it takes to win?

The same question holds true for Obama. Rumor is that his campaign has gotten arrogant. They are not helping Congressional candidates. They have alienated the netroots. Are they willing to work with others or will they repeat Hillary's mistakes?

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