There’s just a few weeks to go until the US Presidential election, and Barack Obama is moving into a clear lead in the polls. And yet ….. some of you are still nervous, aren’t you? Don’t deny it, I can tell. You think it’s all somehow going to go wrong at the last minute; that the world’s going to be lumbered with another White House stuffed with half-wits and dogmatists who never saw a war they didn’t like.
Well you need to pull yourselves together. Snap out of it. Its not 2000 and its not 2004. Its 2008, things are different, and as it happens, I may just have some good news for you.
Obviously no one can rule out a McCain/Palin victory. A lot can happen in a month. But its becoming increasingly clear that this election is now Obama’s to lose. In fact there is now a serious possibility, if not a probability, that he could win by a big margin.
Not convinced? Then let me explain what I’m basing that on.
About a month ago, when Obama and John McCain were neck and neck and many were beginning to seriously panic about a Republican victory, I said that (a) Obama was still better placed to win, and (b) we should not discount the possibility, however small, of his winning by a landslide. Amongst other reasons I gave for saying this, I noted:
First, that McCain would have problems mobilising his lukewarm Republican support to come out and vote for him in numbers, and the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate may not make much difference to that; and
Second, that McCain's perceived strength, Iraq, will do him little good as Americans made their mind up about that issue a long time ago. Now they're more worried about the economy, which favours Obama.
Recent polls appear to bear out and even reinforce what I was saying a month ago. Obama has now broken clear of McCain, with his lead outside the margin of statistical error. But what's more important is that when we drill down into the detail we see much going well for Obama and next to nothing going right for McCain. Obama is building on his strengths while McCain's are shrinking or being nullified. In other words, there are many reasons to think that Obama's lead still has room to grow and few reasons to think that McCain could make a comeback.
There are a million polls flying about at the moment. I’ve concentrated on two from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I go through the poll findings in detail in a separate post. Read that to see just how bad things are for McCain. Here, I’ll cover the most important points.
Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried either to talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters’ confidence in Obama. That puts Obama on far stronger ground than McCain, according to these figures.
Voters are much, much more concerned by the economy than they are by Iraq and national security, and Obama is strong on the economy, whereas McCain has a serious image problem on this topic.
61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.
So, on the absolute number one election issue Obama is seen positively and McCain is seen negatively. On polling day, this could well be the bottom line.
McCain’s strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy. Indeed, he polls better than his rival in terms of who understands these issues and who is more ready to be commander in chief of the US military. But voters also have confidence in Obama in this area, albeit less than for McCain. Obama does not score negative here, as McCain does on the economy. He scores positive.
Moreover, voters are (quite rightly) not convinced by McCain’s big foreign policy line that the “surge” of additional US troops into Iraq is bringing “victory”. Nor do they share McCain’s hawkish views on diplomacy, Iran, and the “war on terror”. And they view McCain as having lost the first presidential debate – whose topic was foreign policy – to Obama. McCain actually lost supporters over that. If this is McCain’s strong area, then he doesn’t have a great deal to go on.
Then there’s George Bush. The sheer depth of Bush’s unpopularity is historic, and the financial crisis has made this even worse. The Democrats can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds by saying that McCain has voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time, and Biden and Obama have been hammering away at this theme. This could be electoral poison for McCain, who effectively has no answer to the charge.
How does all this translate into the voters’ view of the candidates? The latest CBS poll gives Obama a 9 point advantage, but to get the true picture we have to look at the nature and strength as well as the level of support.
Obama's supporters are far more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means that on the day they're more likely to make the effort to go out and vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain. His supporters are stuck in a state of ambivalence, while Obama’s are getting more and more enthusiastic.
Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 per cent of voters said yes and 28 per cent said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good for the Republican in a national economic crisis.
Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's a couple of weeks ago; by last Friday it was 19 per cent better. McCain, whose rating is minus 3, is not in a good position to personally attack Obama, whose rating is plus 16. Yet this is the tactic the Republicans are now starting to accentuate, apparently in desperation.
The choice of Sarah Palin was a gamble on McCain’s part, an attempt at pulling a dramatic game-changer. It hasn’t paid off. Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two and a half weeks ago. By the time of the vice-Presidential debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval dipped over the same period, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two and a half weeks ago, and by Friday just gone it was plus 15.
What about the vice-Presidential debate? As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that was the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden by a distance. Its fair to say that Palin hasn’t recovered that early excitement around her, and probably isn’t going to.
Now of course, polls can never be exact. But nor are they a licked finger in the breeze; not if they are done properly. These polls look pretty professional, and in serious polling, a lot of careful work is done to get the numbers right.
But will the issues even matter? Won’t they be shunted aside in favour of trivialities (which of the candidates you’d prefer to have a beer with; whether one of the candidates “looks French”) thus favouring the Republicans? That’s the view of Noam Chomsky, the political commentator I have most respect for, but here I personally think he’s wrong. Yes the Republicans are desperate to avoid the issues, for reasons that are obvious. But there are limits to how successful that tactic can be. Can you convince Americans who are losing their homes and jobs that they should care instead about the personalities and trivia? Michael Tomasky argues very persuasively here that this election is just too big for people to be distracted. I think he's right, and the polling figures seem to support him, at least for now.
Another important note of caution would be that there is still a month to go before polling day and a lot can happen in that time. Obama could make a mistake or gaffe, or have something he says convincingly portrayed as such in the media. There could be a major terrorist attack, which might shift the debate onto McCain’s marginally stronger suit.
But McCain doesn’t want to be left hoping for a bolt from the blue at this stage. He needs a tangible chance of getting back in the game, and its hard to see where that comes from based on these numbers. The fact that McCain has abandoned campaigning in Michigan, a key swing state, speaks volumes, as does the fact that Obama is now competitive even in North Carolina and Virginia. There has been a seismic shift over the last two weeks, due in part to the collapse of the investment banking industry and McCain’s gimmicky and erratic response to the crisis. That was a test of Presidential character which he failed and Obama passed. He probably won’t get another chance like it.
I’ve criticised Obama in the past – strongly - and I’ll certainly do so again. But it cannot be claimed that there is no difference between these two candidates. Its right to hope for an Obama victory and now legitimate to believe, albeit still with caution, that that’s what we’re about to witness.
Labels: Barack Obama, Economics, Iraq, John McCain, US Imperialism, US Presidential Election 2008