In much the same way that people questioned whether conservatives would coalesce behind John McCain once he locked up the GOP presidential nomination, others are now asking whether Democrats (particularly Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters) will truly rally around Barack Obama. The first poll numbers of this general election campaign
suggest that just as McCain's skeptics seem to have been wrong about Republicans' willingness to get behind their presumptive nominee, Obama's critics may be wrong about how his fellow Democrats will behave.
There was only one day between May 5 and June 7 that the Gallup Organization's daily tracking poll didn't show McCain and Obama each with percentages between 44 and 47 percent. (McCain dipped to 43 percent on May 11.) These numbers reflect an amazing degree of stability and parity in the race. Of the polls taken between May 5 and June 7, the margin between Obama and McCain was 1 percentage point or less 21 of 32 times. In fact, a compilation of Gallup's surveys during the month of May, totaling 25,512 interviews, shows Obama ahead by two-tenths of a percentage point, 45.6 to 45.4 percent. McCain pulled 85 percent of the vote of self-described Republicans, while Obama garnered 76 percent of Democrats.
After Clinton dropped out, Gallup polled another three days and found that "voting preferences have been fairly stable." Obama is holding a steady 7-point lead, his largest since Gallup began tracking in March.
During an intraparty fight, that party's candidates usually underperform in hypothetical general election matchups. Once its nomination is settled, a party tends to unite. And that appears to be what the Democrats have quickly done.
Democrats now routinely hold a 6-to-8-point advantage on party identification. So Obama will have a distinct edge if he is as popular among Democrats as McCain is among Republicans.
But what is likely to determine this race's outcome? On one level, the contest is about change versus risk. With nearly 75 percent of Americans believing that the country is on the wrong track, voters clearly want change. Does McCain, who will turn 72 in August and who was first elected to Congress in 1982, represent enough change? Conversely, does Obama represent more change than most Americans feel comfortable making? On a second level, this contest is about whether voters see McCain as seasoned, experienced, and ready to be president, or as someone who is too old and out of touch to lead.
Finally, how will the electorate perceive each nominee? A fascinating report about a focus group of independent voters from Albemarle County, Va., found that independents know little about either candidate. They knew three things about McCain, according to the report last month by Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center: his military service and stint as a Vietnam POW, his long service in Congress, and his party. McCain's military record is a plus. The congressional service means "experienced" but also means "part of the status quo." And his being a Republican is, at least among independents this year, a minus.
Obama represents the embodiment of change, which is an advantage in this political climate. In describing him, voters use terms like "hopeful," "exciting," and "young." When Hart asked independents to imagine that they were on a jury and Obama was their foreman, they responded that he would be "likable," "persuasive," "effective," "humorous," and a "uniter, not a divider." However, when asked for their impressions if Obama were their new boss, the independents were "less certain of his leadership." They wondered if he would be "soft-minded" or perhaps even "gullible," or if he would be tough enough. Negatives surrounding Obama's candidacy also were a factor. When asked to supply two memories of his campaign, seven of the 12 focus-group members volunteered the controversy over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And seven of 12 raised their hands to signify that they (incorrectly) thought that Obama was Muslim. One even suggested, also inaccurately, that he took his Senate oath with his hand on the Koran. In short, Hart concludes that "Obama's narrative is harder for most Americans to relate to."
Nevertheless, we have an eventful campaign ahead of us that will dictate the course of the election. Anyone has a 50-50 chance of picking the winner today. This race has a long way to go before it plays out.
This article appears in the June 14, 2008, edition of National Journal.