March 5, 2008

Obviously, it’s early March. We’re nowhere near knowing who the Democratic nominee is going to be, and the candidates have barely begun trying to destroy one another. The Republican Attack Machine is still sharpening its fangs. The Republican nominee is just now starting to consolidate his party’s various factions.

But with all of those caveats in mind, John McCain nevertheless starts the general election phase of the campaign at a decided disadvantage.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) kicks off his general-election campaign trailing both potential Democratic nominees in hypothetical matchups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) leads McCain, who captured the delegates needed to claim the Republican nomination Tuesday night, by 12 percentage points among all adults in the poll; Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) holds a six-point lead over the GOP nominee. Both Democrats are buoyed by moderates and independents when going head to head with McCain and benefit from sustained negative public assessments of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

A lot can and will change over the next eight months, but this national poll points to a landscape that isn’t favorable to McCain at all. Americans are deeply unsatisfied with the war in Iraq and a faltering economy — and the GOP candidate is on the wrong side of both.

And then there’s the awkward subject of McCain’s age.

It hasn’t really drawn too much interest in the campaign, at least not yet, but McCain, at age 72, would be the oldest president ever elected. Americans don’t seem to love the idea. For example, poll respondents were told that Hillary Clinton would be the first female president. 20% said that makes them more enthusiastic about her candidacy, while 11% said less. They were told that Barack Obama would be the first African-American president. 16% said that makes them more enthusiastic about his candidacy, while 11% said less. And when told about McCain’s age, 4% said that makes them more enthusiastic about his candidacy, while 27% said less.

Certain fundamentals in this campaign can shift in the coming months, but McCain isn’t going to get any younger.

McCain also appears to have an ideological problem: “McCain is losing three in 10 conservatives to either Obama or Clinton, far more than he likely could stand to see slip away. Democratic presidential candidates since 1988 have won 15 to 20 percent of conservatives, not 30 percent.”

On a related note, 56% of Americans said Obama is “about right” ideologically, while only 41% said the same of McCain.

As for the Dems, the fight over electability will surely continue unabated. In general, most recent polling shows Clinton and Obama leading McCain in general-election match-ups, and in nearly every instance, Obama enjoys a stronger margin. The WaPo/ABC poll is no exception — Clinton beats McCain by six; Obama beats McCain by 12. Make of this what you will.

Bottom line: assuming Dems play it smart in the coming months, the party has to be considered the favorite to win the White House. Of course, the likelihood of these guys playing it smart is remote, so I’ll keep my optimism in check.

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