June 11, 2008

All of the usual caveats apply — we’re still five months away from the general election, and the landscape will change; national polls offer minimal predictive value this far out; and a presidential race is a state-by-state contest. With all of that in mind, though, it’s nevertheless helpful to consider national polls for their general trends, and to offer some sense of voters’ attitudes, especially now that we’re down to a one-on-one campaign.

And right now, it looks like Barack Obama is in reasonably good shape. From the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:

Obama leads McCain among registered voters, 47 to 41 percent, which is outside the poll’s margin of error. In the previous NBC/Journal survey, released in late April, Obama was ahead by three points, 46-43 percent.

In the head-to-head matchup, Obama leads McCain among African Americans (83-7 percent), Hispanics (62-28), women (52-33), Catholics (47-40), independents (41-36) and even blue-collar workers (47-42). Obama is also ahead among those who said they voted for Clinton in the Democratic primaries (61-19).

Obama leads by seven among white women (46-39), a key swing demographic. What’s more, Americans say they prefer change to experience by a wide margin, and as one of the pollsters behind the survey noted, people just don’t see McCain as an agent of change: “Voters are not convinced that McCain represents the change they want and that he’ll be all that different from Bush.”

For that matter, Americans actually seem to expect an Obama presidency. Putting aside preferences, poll respondents were asked which candidate they thought would win. It wasn’t even close — 54% predict an Obama win, while only 30% said the same of McCain.

So, if all of these factors are leaning in Obama’s favor, why is he only up by six? Because McCain is doing extremely well with white men, leading Obama by 20 points (55-35). White men make up 40% of the electorate, so this makes a big difference. And while Obama leads among women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, McCain enjoys an edge among white suburban women (44-38).

Nevertheless, one of the numbers that jumped out at me was an “enthusiasm gap.”

The WSJ reported:

Another Obama advantage: his supporters’ satisfaction and excitement with his candidacy. While half of pro-Obama voters say they are motivated mainly by support for him, rather than opposition to Sen. McCain and Republicans, fewer than 40% of McCain voters are motivated by support for him personally. That is a measure of voter energy that could translate into greater turnout for Sen. Obama in November.

If that energy gap persists, Mr. Hart says, “it is going to be a huge problem for Republicans this fall.” Mr. Newhouse agreed: “It is not that these voters aren’t for McCain,” he says. What’s lacking is “the enthusiasm, the passion, the energy” of the other side.

“I think the real story is the shadow that George Bush is casting over this election,” Mr. Newhouse adds. What’s hurting Sen. McCain is voters’ sense that “he will pattern his policies after George W.”

Mr. Hart called the president “a 200-pound ball and chain” around McCain’s ankle, a linkage Sen. Obama and the Democratic National Committee are trying to reinforce daily in voters’ minds. “Unless he finds some way to cut it loose,” Mr. Hart adds, “he’s going to be dragging it right through the election.”

The anti-Bush evidence is overwhelming. The latest poll findings add to the stretch of more than three years in which majorities have expressed disapproval of Mr. Bush’s job performance. And increasingly, voters don’t like him personally. By 60% to 30%, they have negative views of him, his worst showing ever.

With regards to parties, 43% of Americans have a favorable view of the Democratic Party, while only 28% say the same about the GOP. Removing Obama’s and McCain’s name from the equation, 51% of voters want a Democratic president, while 35% want a Republican president.

Yes, that means McCain is running ahead of the generic preference for his party. But as Jonathan Chait noted, “[Y[ou wonder how much better McCain can do…. How much room for growth can there be?”

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