Polling Disconnect

Gallup recently released a new poll measuring head-to-head matchups between Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama and John McCain. In both instances, the Democrats were either tied with or marginally ahead of John McCain. These results fly in the face of other polls which overwhelmingly show that the majority of Americans think the nation is on the wrong track, that Iraq was a mistake, and that the percentage of voters who consider themselves Democrats is rising while the percentage of voters who consider themselves Republicans is falling.

Given these data and the advantages that Democrats enjoy on healthcare, the economy, the environment, education, and the generic ballot, why is John McCain performing so strongly against his likely Democratic challengers? Or is it more appropriate to ask why Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are performing so poorly against McCain despite all the advantages they have in the polls and with the electorate's sour mood?

I offer these five possibilities:

1. "Purity" on Iraq is overrated because it matters only to liberal Democrats. Barack Obama's trump card in the Democratic race thus far has been his superior "judgment" regarding the Iraq War. He argues that he got Iraq right from the beginning, whereas Hillary Clinton got it wrong. That is fine, but opposing the war from the very beginning does not bring a single soldier home, nor does it end the fighting in Baghdad. Obama may have displayed his superior "judgment" on Iraq by opposing it initially, but the problem is that it ignores the reality on the ground right now. We don't have the luxury of going back in time and having a revote on the issue. The next president, be it Obama, Clinton, or McCain, is going to inherit a messy, volatile, and urgent situation in Iraq. Americans want to know what the plan is from here on out, not what the plan should have been three or four years ago. There are not enough antiwar liberals in the general electorate to make Obama's position a winner on his Iraq "judgment" alone.

2. John McCain is seen as sufficiently bipartisan. His halo may have dimmed a bit, but the fact remains that McCain benefits from not being seen as a fire-breathing partisan Republican. To be sure, he is a Republican and votes like a Republican. But he has bucked his party and even confronted the President on a few important issues even if they were politically unpopular. Democrats, moderates, and independents probably view his support for "comprehensive immigration reform" as refreshingly pragmatic, rather than predictably dogmatic. His participation in the "Gang of 14" gave Republican partisans fits, but the broader electorate was more likely to view his bipartisan gestures as meaningful attempts to inject a bit of sanity into our political dialogue. He was one of the few Republicans to openly criticize the war's management even though Republicans were clearly circling the wagons (to their own political detriment, as the 2006 election results suggest). This is not token opposition in the eyes of many middle-of-the-road voters. This is not a bunch of protesting when the cameras are running only to vote with your party base in private. McCain has had some substantial disagreements with his party and the White House on several key issues. To Republicans, this may make McCain suspicious. But to the broader electorate, this may make him sufficiently bipartisan. McCain's independence provides an effective foil to Obama's "new politics."

3. Diehard Obamaniacs and Clintonistas are serious about their dislike for their preferred candidate's rival. Last month I argued that nothing but hot air was responsible for the polls that showed a significant portion of Obama and Clinton supporters willing to vote for McCain instead of the Democratic nominee if their preferred candidate did not win the nomination. But what if such polls are true? Unfortunately, the Gallup poll I cited at the beginning of this post does not provide any crosstabs that would reveal how the politicians' support broke down along political lines. While it is true that Clinton and Obama are beating up on each other significantly right now in advance of the Pennsylvania primary, one would think that these Democratic voters consider themselves Democrats before they consider themselves Obama supporters or Clinton supporters. But given the closeness of the Gallup general election polls, polls suggesting irreparable damage to the Democratic Party cannot be dismissed.

4. McCain is getting a free pass by the media and his Democratic rivals. With the Republican race all sewn up, there simply isn't much news for the media to cover. Instead, the cable news networks are focusing more on the sparring between Obama and Clinton. This fighting renders both candidates less attractive and makes McCain look more appealing and more statesmanlike by comparison. McCain may have his warts, but as long as the media focus on turmoil in the Clinton campaign or the specter of Jeremiah Wright, nobody will know. And how can the Democrats attack McCain when they are too busy attacking each other? This would suggest that the Democratic nomination needs to end sooner rather than later. They can't drain their huge warchest and focus solely on defining and wounding McCain otherwise.

5. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are overrated candidates while John McCain has been underrated. The media have focused a lot on Barack Obama's unusual life story which takes him to multiple continents. However, he has been dogged by questions of his experience and is sometimes regarded as all fluff with no substance. Those criticisms are not new. However, the problem is that while Democrats may have decided that his political resume is sufficient (based on his strong performance in the primaries and caucuses thus far), the broader electorate is still not sold on the first-term senator. Throw in controversies like Jeremiah Wright and that further repulses Republicans and independents. So could Obama's ceiling be lower than was originally thought?

In the case of Hillary Clinton, many loyal Democrats revere her because they loved her husband's presidency. Clinton has shaken hands with the right people, given the right speeches, met with the right community leaders, and built up the right relationships with the right people. She represents the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. And despite Bill Clinton's muddying the waters by injecting race into the campaign, he still remains at the head of the party and is still generally liked. Hillary Clinton commonly argues that "she's beaten them (the Republican attack machine) before and she knows how to beat them again." Based on her defeat of Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race and the fact that her husband had won two presidential elections, she has a point. However, could she be overstating her electoral strength?

Ross Perot was clearly responsible for clearing the path to the White House for Bill Clinton in 1992, as he likely siphoned off more votes from George H.W. Bush than the self-described Comeback Kid because of his focus on economic issues. In the 1996 election, a fairly popular Bill Clinton was only able to win 49% of the vote against a very weak Bob Dole. And Clinton's coattails were not long enough to bring Al Gore to the White House in 2000. When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in overwhelmingly Democratic New York in 2000, she beat her opponent Rick Lazio by 12% even though Al Gore won the state by 25%. Her reelection in 2006 was a rout, although the Democratic wave that year certainly helped pad her margin of victory. The point of these four issues is that even though the Clintons have not lost an election since 1992 (not including the proxy election of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore), their victories are arguably unimpressive. The fact remains that Republicans despise Hillary Clinton and her appeal to independents is limited. So it would seem that even though Hillary Clinton could win, she would not win convincingly. That would explain why she fails to crack 48-50% in the head-to-head polls.

John McCain had been savaged relentlessly by Republicans during the primary season for not being strong enough in his conservatism. But ironically, Republican voters ended up serendipitously selecting their strongest general election candidate. So it would make sense for him to be performing so strongly in the polls.

But this is all conjecture. Regardless of which of these five scenarios is true, one fact seems abundantly clear: despite all the Democrats' apparent structural advantages, the November election is likely to be more competitive than Republicans and Democrats think.

11 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Great post. I struggled to get through the first part but I continued and I felt better. I think when it comes down to it, republicans and democrats are both part of a current governing body that are suffering from very low approval ratings. Even today Joe Lieberman stated that the Iraqi government has gotten more done than the US government in the last year. Though when things go wrong the current administration is always blamed, but the white horse democrats never made it to save the day as promised. Blame it on the President for blocking legislation, but he has played that game and it got him bashed by his own party and ingratitude from the other one. Really, who would want that job?? :)N

The Blue South said...

Palmer great analysis, but I disagree with you on one point: it's not "which" of those scenarios is true, because all of them exist simultaneously. I abhor the cliche "a perfect storm" (the movie wasn't that good either), but that's what it looks like for the dems if they don't settle the nomination sooner, rather than later.

The fact is that McCain is viewed as an acceptable alternative for many moderates, the Clinton/Obama bloodbath is hurting both their chances to win the general election, and the supposed strength of the democrats, the Iraq issue, is not playing out as the central issue in this campaign as it was once thought.

We are facing an economic crisis on a global level that reaches far beyond Wall Street (see, e.g., food shortages in the third world that are quickly creating further instability), a looming climate crisis, energy resource shortages, and a healthcare crisis. Many Americans (about 81%, last I heard) see our way of life rapidly descending into the abyss. Until the dems confront these issues with more veracity, their electability against McCain will continue to waffle.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

its the technology now that makes the real difference

Brett said...

Both of the Democratic candidates are definitely overrated (and I say this as a loyal Democrat). I've heard that Clinton more or less cherry-picked New York as a state to win Senatordom since it was one that she determined she could solidly win in (she didn't run for Senator in Arkansas, for example).

Obama is not entirely fluff without substance (the fact that he's run a highly competent campaign and picked the right advisors is proof of that), but it is really up in the air as to his capabilities once in office. Moreover, he could never quite drive out Clinton from the primary race; she still took in a lot of support from the major Democratic bastions (which, since they vote Democratic anyways in the General Election, won't be important then, but will be important for any Democratic President after the election.)

There's a lot of uncertainty about these two candidates for the nomination, and that can be damaging. McCain has more or less defined himself over the years as the "maverick" who is also a good conservative, and new revelations don't really seem to damage him that much (he didn't have a lot of support among conservatives in his 2000 Presidential campaign, even before McCain-Feingold and the Gang of 14).

Anonymous said...

The problem with a lot of polls is that they are being conducted by landline telephones... most people of the younger generation use cell phones and many do not even have a landline.

Thereby, my belief is that they are being excluded in a lot of these "polls."

My 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

Here's the issue that cost the Dems the election in 2004, and will cost them percentage pts. again: gay marriage. Sheesh, civil unions is about what Peoria can listen to, then here's the gay brigade saying "We want it all - now."

Well, for the Christian center, that's anathema, and a reason to vote for John - whereas otherwise they probably would've voted Dem.

Brett said...

McCain's not exactly the kind to bring up the gay marriage issue, plus we don't have a major stick-in-anthill to provoke the issue like Massachusett's Supreme Court Decision back in 2004 allowing gay marriage in Massachusetts.

On top of that, the power of the evangelical organizations is in another downswing.

As for polling, keep in mind that a lot of these guys now use Random Area Digital Dialing machines, with which you actually can get cell phones.

Anthony Palmer said...

Good comments, everyone.


Regarding polls and blame, people usually ascribe blame to whoever is at the top of whatever organization or group is involved. When the passport scenario was going on at the State Department, that embarrassed Condoleeza Rice. When a child does something stupid at school, that embarrasses the parents. So whenever a government underling underperforms or screws up, it would follow that Bush is the one who is embarrassed. Since he talks so much about personal accountability, he should not be surprised that when the buck stops at his desk--for better or for worse. Remember, Bush was a highly popular president between 2001 and 2003.

A second point--presidents, regardless of their party, should be smarter, tougher, more prescient, more cunning, more virtuous, and more perceptive than us average people. So when people say "stop bashing the president--he's doing the best he can; who would want the job?" they are basically ignoring the possibility that some presidents are just really lousy at their jobs. For a lot of people, that was the case with Jimmy Carter. And that appears to be the case with Bush now. Politicians get bashed all the time. I don't think Bush should be treated with kid gloves by the media or by voters just because he's the most powerful politician of all. Governance and issues matter too.



Yes, it's probably some combination of those five scenarios. I didn't think it was possible, but it really looks like the Dems are just throwing this election away. I mean, I originally looked at the political landscape and said "even a Democrat could win in 2008," but now I'm not so sure anymore. I'll tell you this much though--if the Democrats lose again this fall, the party will have to do some serious soul-searching.

Regarding food shortages, I was reading about the problems in Haiti a few days ago. Combine that with rising food prices because of rising oil/gas prices and you have a recipe (no pun intended) for disaster. Our three presidential candidates are going to have to get serious at some point and talk about the issues that really matter to people's lives for a change and get off of this "change vs. experience" meme.



You are right that Obama has run a pretty good campaign--one that defies his "inexperience." But the claims of his "inexperience" stem from his thin political resume, not his actual political/campaigning skills. So I'm not sure if they cancel each other out. To be sure, he has run a brilliant campaign and took advantage of the fact that he invested in the later states while Clinton was focused entirely on the early ones. Because she didn't blow him out in Iowa and SC, Obama lived to fight another day and in states that he was ready to compete in. His campaign strategy alone has made it much more difficult for Republicans running for the House and Senate because of the increased Democratic voter registration and grassroots organization in these often forgotten states.



Yes, a lot of younger voters do use only cell phones. But younger voters historically haven't turned out much in presidential elections either. They are turning out for Obama now, so maybe 2008 will be the year this point about cell phones is true.



You are right. Gay marriage is what killed the Democrats in Ohio in 2004. But I don't think it will be as effective this time because most of these ballot initiatives have already passed. And if the GOP is looking for another group to vilify, that will run counter to Obama's message of "unity." The GOP base is not enthused about McCain and James Dobson still isn't on board. I think the main issues the GOP have left are "surrender in Iraq" and Jeremiah Wright. The Wright issue is the one I can't really put my finger on yet...

McCain has more of a libertarian view concerning gay marriage. And remember, Arizona was the first state to actually defeat the constitutional ban initiative on gay marriage. If McCain were to pander to the religious right in this regard, I wonder if the fiercely independent voters of Arizona would turn on him?

DB said...

"Clinton's coattails were not long enough to bring Al Gore to the White House in 2000."

It is easy to remember how Perot "paved the way" for a Clinton Whitehouse, but in 2000 there was the Nader variable that had more to do with Gore's loss than Clinton's short coattails. That statement underestimate's the Clinton machine. A third party was just as responsible for the 2000 election as it was in the 1992 election. Mentioning one without the other neglects the power of the alternative, which in the past has been strong enough to matter.

But the conclusion is the same, the Clinton machine has not stood up to the hype of the past and is now running on fumes (which doesn't say much for Obama who is struggling to beat her still).

Nikki said...

Anthony, my reference of blame was regarding the perception of Congress not getting anything done, it is also blamed on the President. I also think it is arrogant to say that most Americans think they can out-think the current President. It is an argument that in my mind is pretty easy to do sitting where we sit. On the couch. Call me a Bush apologist, but keep in mind most people "monday morning quarterback" the President. I don't think we should go easy on him, I do think we should be accurate. :)N

Freadom said...

Great post. As history has shown, we really can't rely on national polling to help us decide who will be the next president. If we did that, we definitely would not have predicted that McCain would be the eventual republican nominee, it would be Guliani. On the Democratic side we'd have Hillary Clinton. The same was true of Howard Dean in 2004. Instead of having national popularity polls, I think the media should focus more on state by state polls, which are better indicators of who will be the next president.