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The parties' national conventions did exactly what they were supposed to do.

The presidential race remains a dead heat. And it's getting hotter, as both tickets solidify their support.

Four polls taken the weekend after the two major parties' national conventions all show results within the statistical margin of error:

 

* The CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research has the race dead even: 48 percent for Barack Obama, 48 percent for John McCain among registered voters nationwide.

* The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama with a 1-point lead, 47 percent to 46 percent, among registered voters.

* The CBS News poll has McCain 2 points up, 46 percent to 44 percent.

 

* The biggest gap is McCain's 4-point lead in the Gallup/USA Today poll, 50 percent to 46 percent. But given that survey's 3-point margin of error, that's still a statistical tie.

What happened? The conventions did exactly what they were supposed to do. They rallied partisans on both sides. Before the conventions, Obama voters were more enthusiastic about voting than McCain voters (by 2-to-1 in the CBS poll, 48 percent to 24 percent). The conventions revved up enthusiasm among both candidates' supporters. Obama voters are still more enthusiastic, but his edge is smaller (53 percent to 42 percent).

Change is the overriding theme of this campaign. That is a natural issue for Obama. He leads the opposition party. "It's time for [the Republicans] to own their failure," Obama declared at the Democratic convention. "It's time for us to change America."

Before the conventions, Obama had an 18-point edge in the CNN poll as the candidate more likely to bring about change. McCain used his convention to try to claim the change issue, in part by putting a Washington outsider on his ticket. "Let me offer an advance warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd," McCain declared in St. Paul. "Change is coming!" That sounds like a warning to his own party, which was undoubtedly McCain's intention. After the conventions, Obama retained the lead as the candidate who "can bring the kind of change the country needs," but by a narrower margin: 8 points.

 

President Bush has a dismal 28 percent job-approval rating in the latest CNN poll. Imagine what the race would look like if Bush were running again, or if Vice President Cheney were running to succeed him. But they're not. McCain is. And that makes a huge difference.

Before the conventions, voters were almost evenly divided on whether McCain's policies would be mostly the same as Bush's (50 percent in the CNN poll) or mostly different (48 percent). Obama used his convention to argue that "McCain equals Bush." He told the Democratic convention, "In this election, the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result." That argument worked -- temporarily. After the Democratic convention, more voters thought McCain's policies would be the same as Bush's (54 percent).

Then McCain used the Republican convention to convey the message, "I'm not Bush." And, lo and behold, we're back where we started. Voters are once again split down the middle on whether McCain would be the same as Bush (50 percent yes, 49 percent no).

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Here's why that's important. Right now, a whopping 70 percent of voters disapprove of Bush. But nearly a third of them support McCain because they believe McCain is not like Bush. Obama has to persuade them otherwise.

Obama does retain one clear advantage: his image as a unifier. It may be enhanced, surprisingly, by McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. Palin excites the Republican base, but at a cost: She is polarizing. In the CNN poll, 32 percent called Palin an excellent choice for vice president and 26 percent called her a poor choice. The comparable figures for Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden: 22 percent and 16 percent.

McCain's image as a uniter was not helped by the Republican convention or by his selection of Palin. Both played to the Republican base. Before the conventions, voters polled by CNN were more likely to see Obama than McCain as someone who "can unite the country," 52 percent to 37 percent. After the conventions, Obama's lead as a uniter was virtually unchanged, 53 percent to 37 percent.

This article appears in the September 13, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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