If you believe the Intrade betting odds, Barack Obama has a 65 percent chance of beating John McCain in November. Similarly, in the Iowa Electronic Markets, Obama has a 64 per-cent chance of winning. Indeed, a look at much of the polling data might lead one to conclude that Obama does in fact have a 2-1 chance of becoming the next president. And yet most trial heats show the presumptive Democratic nominee with an advantage of just 4 to 6 percentage points--a fairly insignificant edge and certainly not one to warrant such favorable odds.
So let's examine the data that seem to forecast a big Democratic win. In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted June 6-9 by Democratic pollster Peter Hart and Republican Neil Newhouse, 16 percent of respondents said that the country is headed in the right direction, and 71 percent said that it is off on the wrong track. Just 28 percent approved of the job that President Bush is doing, while 66 percent disapproved. Only 28 percent viewed the Republican Party positively, 47 percent viewed it negatively, and 24 percent were neutral. In comparison, the Democratic Party was seen positively by 43 percent, negatively by 32 percent, and neutrally by 24 percent. By 51 percent to 35 percent, voters preferred Democrats to control the White House. And Democrats held a 10-point lead on party identification, 44 percent to 34 percent. By 19 points, voters preferred Democrats to control Congress, 52 percent to 33 percent. Yet, despite all of those seemingly insurmountable advantages, Obama had just a 6-point lead, 47 percent to 41 percent, in that NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
In a separate Gallup/USA Today poll conducted June 15-19, plenty of factors suggested a possible Obama blowout. Respondents were read a list of characteristics and asked which presidential candidate they fit better. On "Understands the problems Americans face in their daily lives," Obama had a 25-point advantage, 54 percent to 29 percent. On "Cares about the needs of people like you," Obama had a 22-point lead, 52 percent to 30 percent. On "Is independent in his thoughts and actions," Obama has a 16-point advantage, 52 percent to 36 percent. Interestingly, on "Would work well with both parties to get things done in Washington," Obama is ahead 13 points, 48 percent to 35 percent.
Things started getting a bit closer on "Has a clear plan for solving the country's problems." Obama was up by 10 points, 41 percent to 31 percent. His edge was 8 points on "Shares your values," 47 percent to 39 percent. It was only 4 points on "Is honest and trustworthy," 39 percent to 35 percent.
Obama and McCain were tied on "Can manage the government effectively." The presumptive Republican nominee's one advantage was his 6-point edge on "Is a strong and decisive leader."
In that same Gallup/USA Today poll, voters were asked which candidate would do a better job of handling each of eight issues. On health care, Obama had a 25-point lead, 51 percent to 26 percent. On "energy, including gas prices," Obama had a 19-point advantage, 47 percent to 28 percent. On the economy, he had a 16-point lead, 48 percent to 32 percent. Even on taxes Obama was ahead--by 9 points, 44 percent to 35 percent. He had a statistically insignificant lead on moral values, 40 percent to 39 percent.
McCain had his own insignificant edge on dealing with illegal immigration, 36 percent to 34 percent. The only issue on which McCain had a meaningful advantage--and at 19 points, it was a big one--was terrorism, 52 percent to 33 percent.
In that Gallup/USA Today poll, what was Obama's advantage in the overall general election trial heat? Just 6 points, 48 percent to 42 percent--not the landslide that much of the survey's other results might suggest.
The point of all of this is that the Democrats should be beating the daylights out of the GOP in this election. And yet general election trial heats match the private expectations of most pros on both sides: This will be another very close election. Most analysts probably give Obama a bit of an edge, but nowhere near as big as betting pools predict.
This article appears in the July 5, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine.