The conventional wisdom held that the recent controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright would help drag one Democratic presidential hopeful down, at leas
March 26, 2008

The conventional wisdom held that the recent controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright would help drag one Democratic presidential hopeful down, at least a little while helping push the other up. As it turns out, according to a new poll from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, that’s exactly what happened — though the candidate that was supposed to go down went up.

The racially charged debate over Barack Obama’s relationship with his longtime pastor hasn’t much changed his close contest against Hillary Clinton, or hurt him against Republican nominee-in-waiting John McCain, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducts the Journal/NBC polls with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, called the latest poll a “myth-buster” that showed the pastor controversy is “not the beginning of the end for the Obama campaign.”

But both Democrats, and especially New York’s Sen. Clinton, are showing wounds from their prolonged and increasingly bitter nomination contest, which could weaken the ultimate nominee for the general-election showdown against Sen. McCain of Arizona. Even among women, who are the base of Sen. Clinton’s support, she now is viewed negatively by more voters than positively for the first time in a Journal/NBC poll.

Indeed, the poll results aren’t encouraging for the Clinton camp. While she had a four-point lead over Obama among Dems two weeks ago, she and Obama are now tied at 45%. In hypothetical general-election match-ups, Obama now leads McCain by two (44% to 42%), while McCain leads Clinton by two (46% to 44%). The Wright controversy was supposed to drive white Dems to Clinton in larger numbers, but her margin actually shrank in recent weeks, from 12 points to eight.

But it’s the personal impressions of Clinton that should be of the greatest concern. It appears, based on the data, that the tone of the nominating fight is taking its toll.

The negativity of the Obama-Clinton contest seems to be hurting Sen. Clinton more, the poll shows. A 52% majority of all voters says she doesn’t have the background or values they identify with. By comparison, 39% say that of Sen. Obama, and 32% of Sen. McCain.

Also, fewer voters hold positive views of Sen. Clinton than did so just two weeks ago in the Journal/NBC poll. Among all voters, 48% have negative feelings toward her and 37% positive, a decline from a net positive 45% to 43% rating in early March. While 51% of African-American voters have positive views, that is down 12 points from earlier this month, before the Wright controversy.

More ominous for Sen. Clinton is the net-negative rating she drew for the first time from women, one of the groups where she has drawn most support. In this latest poll, women voters with negative views narrowly outstrip those with positive ones, 44% to 42%. That compares with her positive rating from 51% of women in the earlier March poll.

Both she and Sen. Obama showed five-point declines in positive ratings from white voters. But where she is viewed mostly negatively, by 51% to 34% of whites, Sen. Obama’s gets a net positive rating, by 42% to 37%. Among all voters, he maintained a significant positive-to-negative score of 49% to 32% — similar to Sen. McCain’s 45% to 25%.

This isn’t entirely unexpected. As a rule, when one candidate is perceived as going negative, invariably that candidate’s favorable ratings decline. The trick of it is, that person’s target is supposed to go down, too. Otherwise, there’d never be any point to going negative in the first place.

Except, if the NBC/WSJ numbers are accurate, it appears Clinton’s criticisms of Obama aren’t having the desired effect at all.

What’s more, Chuck Todd noted, “[A]mong Obama voters, Clinton has a net-negative personal rating (35-43) while Clinton voters have a net-positive view of Obama (50-29). Taken together, this appears to be evidence that Obama, initially, should have the easier time uniting the party than Clinton.” I suspect those are numbers that will be of interest to superdelegates.

The poll wasn’t all good news for Obama. In the wake of the Wright controversy, Obama’s numbers among Republicans have fallen off, but he’s making up for it with support from independents.

Post Script: Just as an aside, there’s been talk that the poll intentionally “oversampled African-Americans,” which in turn makes the results less reliable. In this case, that interpretation appears mistaken: “What I think he means is this: In order to get a statistically reliable subset of African-American voters, they over-sampled this category. (Remember, African-Americans account for only about 13% of the US population. So that subset of a regular poll doesn’t really have a large enough sample to ensure a low margin of error.) They then re-weighted these results to come up with topline (everybody put together) numbers that adjusted for that oversampling.”

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