May 12, 2008

Two weeks ago, an NBC/WSJ poll found an interesting trend in American public opinion: after hearing about Jeremiah Wright’s controversial sermons in a constant loop for months, voters were more concerned with John McCain’s association with Bush than Obama’s association with his former pastor. (Specifically, 43% of respondents were worried about McCain and Bush; 32% about Obama and Wright.)

Today, a new Gallup poll points to a similar public sentiment.

George W. Bush may do as much damage to John McCain’s chances of being elected as Jeremiah Wright does to Barack Obama’s, according to results of a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.

The May 1-3 poll finds 38% of likely voters saying McCain’s association with Bush makes them less likely to vote for McCain, while 33% say Obama’s association with Wright diminishes their likelihood of voting for Obama.

A strong majority of Americans (64%), including a near majority of Republicans (47%) said the Wright issue will not have any effect on their vote.

I’m a little torn as to whether this is good news for the likely Democratic nominee or not.

On the one hand, I’m delighted Americans are more concerned about McCain and Bush than Obama and Wright. That’s how it should be. On the other hand, shouldn’t the margin be considerably more dramatic than 38%-33%?

On the prior, Bush has become a political pariah. I’m occasionally attempted to describe him as “divisive,” but that’s clearly wrong — “divisive” would imply that critics and supporters are relatively even in numbers. They’re not; Americans have made up their minds about Bush and they really don’t like him. In this sense, it’s hardly surprising that voters are concerned about McCain’s ties to a wildly unpopular president.

But on the prior, Wright shouldn’t be anywhere near as controversial. That Wright is even close suggests the media’s efforts to make him a scandalous national personality and key campaign figure have been largely successful.

For what it’s worth, I’m inclined to look at the glass as half-full on this one. After several weeks of bombardment about Wright, during which time very little attention was paid to McCain’s connection to Bush, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the public had gone the other way and expressed more concern with Obama for his ties to his former pastor. We now have two recent national polls showing this isn’t the case.

The Wright issue, as far as I can tell, is the most serious weight on Obama’s shoulders, but it’s likely to fade a bit as the campaign shifts into general election mode, in part because the story has run its course. There’s just not much more to say — we’ve seen the clips, we’ve heard the sermons, and we know Obama’s response.

In contrast, Americans have barely heard a word about the similarities and connections between McCain and Bush, which leads me to think 38% is just a starting point, whereas 33% is the ceiling for the Wright number.

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