What is this presidential election about? According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, it's about Barack Obama, not John McCain or really even a choice between the two men. As pollster Peter Hart, the Democratic half of the duo who conducted the survey, puts it, "Obama will be the 'point person' in this election."
When the 1,003 registered voters interviewed July 18-21 were asked, "As you think about the presidential race and how you are going to vote, do you find yourself focusing more on what kind of president you think Barack Obama would be or more on what kind of president John McCain would be?" 51 percent said Obama, just 27 percent said McCain, and 16 percent volunteered "both."
Results of another question in the same poll showed Obama leading McCain, 47 percent to 41 percent. Conducted during the first stage of Obama's trip abroad, the survey also asked, "When it comes to your vote for [your chosen candidate], would you say that you are excited to be voting for him, you are satisfied to be voting for him, or you are voting for him as the lesser of two evils?" Among Obama voters, 44 percent were "excited," 33 percent were "satisfied," and 22 percent viewed him as the "lesser of two evils." But among McCain supporters, 43 percent said they plan to vote for him because he is the "lesser of two evils," while 42 percent were "satisfied" with him, and just 14 percent were "excited."
These findings dovetail with Hart's conclusion after conducting focus groups in Albemarle County, Va., and York, Pa., over the past three months: Obama is the defining candidate in the race. Whether voters support Obama or McCain, it is their opinion of Obama that drives their decision.
That explains why Obama has only a 6-point lead even though Republicans are trying to hold the White House for a third consecutive term (something that has been done but once since World War II), while just 13 percent of voters say that the country is headed in the right direction and just 30 percent approve of President Bush's performance.
The current political climate makes this election look like it should be a gimme putt for Democrats, yet with Obama seen as the only golfer on the green sizing up the shot, Democrats can't be certain that they will nail it.
One can sense a chorus of "I told you so" about to be shouted from Whitehaven Street NW, where Chez Clinton sits. For a year, Hillary Rodham Clinton warned fellow Democrats that an Obama nomination would distract from the larger sentiment for change and the anger at Bush and the Republican Party.
Ironically, at the race's outset, many expected a controversial and polarizing Clinton to be the pivot point in this election. Instead, she simply became the alternative to Obama and the beneficiary of the resistance to his overtures and seductions.
And now the general election appears likely to come down to how Obama wears with voters over time. As Republican pollster Neil Newhouse puts it, "In order to win this election, Obama's challenge seems less that he needs to overcome John McCain; rather, he needs to overcome doubts voters have about himself. This election is clearly more about Barack Obama than it is either about John McCain or even President Bush."
It's pretty clear that Obama's strength among African-Americans is very durable: He could pull more than 90 percent of the African-American vote and pump up that bloc's turnout to perhaps a quarter higher than in 2004. Similarly, despite predictions that rivalries between African-American and Hispanic leaders and voters and McCain's strengths might allow the GOP to eat into Democratic support among Hispanics, polling shows that Obama is well above the 60 percent that John Kerry received in 2004. And Obama is also doing well with white voters younger than 50.
The real question is about the "gray whites"--that is, white voters who are 50 or older. If they embrace Obama in meaningful numbers, perhaps one-third or a bit more, he will become the next president. If they decide against him, he will lose.
The bottom line: It's about Obama.
This article appears in the Aug. 2, 2008, edition of National Journal.