Is the Election All About Obama?

Lydia Saad, Gallup Poll Senior Editor

A new Charlie Cook column (I'm a fan) highlights some recent poll evidence that The Election is All About Obama. This theory, now popping up elsewhere, has, like Angry Voters, Soccer Moms and Security Moms, become The Thing We Will Hear Over and Over between now and November. It makes me wonder.

The idea is that voters are essentially choosing between Obama and John McCain based on whether they think Obama would be a good president. They want to vote for change, and they like Obama, but they are uncertain about his values and if he has the experience to lead. If they decide Obama can be a good president, they are voting for him; if they don't, they are voting for McCain. It's all a referendum on Obama. Relatively few voters -- so the story line goes -- are enthusiastic about voting for McCain or supporting him for his own sake.

The evidence Cook cites from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is compelling, if not persuasive. Quoting from Cook's column:

When the 1,003 registered voters interviewed July 18-21 were asked, 'As you think about the presidential race and how you are going to vote, do you find yourself focusing more on what kind of president you think Barack Obama would be or more on what kind of president John McCain would be?' 51 percent said Obama, just 27 percent said McCain, and 16 percent volunteered 'both.'

Additionally, the same poll finds only 22% of Obama voters, compared with 43% of McCain voters, say they are voting for their candidate as "the lesser of two evils." The flip side of this is that 78% of Obama voters are proactively voting for their candidate, compared with only 57% of McCain voters.

Case closed?

My mind goes immediately to a different set of facts. Obama performed little differently from Hillary Clinton in Gallup tracking polls this spring, which pitted each candidate against McCain. Across the entire period from March 7 through June 3 that Gallup tracked Obama vs. McCain and Clinton vs. McCain matchups, Clinton led McCain by an average 0.8 percentage points. Obama trailed McCain by an average 0.4 points. But, essentially both candidates were nearly tied with McCain. There didn't appear to be anything unique about an Obama candidacy at that point.

Maybe this theory only applies amidst Obamamania, or, in other words, more recently. Looking at Gallup tracking from May to early June, Clinton led McCain by an average of 3.2 points. Obama led McCain by 0.4 points -- somewhat less. Why the difference? Possibly because some voters who might otherwise vote Democratic had reservations about Obama. But the difference was still minor and didn't change the basic structure of the race as a highly competitive contest between McCain and the Democrats.

Note that Cook is not talking about a marginal factor in the race on the order of a three-point difference between how Obama versus other Democrats might fare against the Republican presidential candidate. He's looking, as all of us are, for a rational explanation for why -- with public ratings of President Bush, the Republican Party, and the economy all on life support -- McCain is holding his own with Obama. (Gallup tracking in June and July has had Obama up by an average of only three to four points.).

Cook's apparent conclusion is that many voters are just not comfortable with Obama. That leads me to think about the undecideds.

Presumably, voters who have completely ruled out voting for Obama would unequivocally say they are voting for McCain. But wouldn't those who are still assessing Obama -- and who, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll are not generally excited about the prospect of voting for McCain -- have a higher than "normal" chance of camping out in the "I don't know" category at this stage? Shouldn't we find an elevated level of undecided voters in our overall registered voter samples as a result?

In fact, we don't. Gallup Poll Daily tracking in July shows an average 11% of voters either undecided, not telling, or favoring a third-party candidate. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll, from late July, showed 9% of registered voters undecided. Those figures are on the high end of the range for "undecideds" Gallup has seen at this point in the race in previous election years, but not extraordinarily high. The undecideds tend to be lower in races involving incumbent presidents (1984, 1996, and 2004). But the percentages in recent open elections were 11%, 8%, and 6% in three polls in July 2000; 10%, and 8% in two polls in July 1992; and 12% and 9% in two polls in July 1988.

Given that voters have a choice between two generally well-liked candidates, and it's a non-incumbent year, the level of undecideds today seems perfectly reasonable. Certainly, it's not of a magnitude to suggest there is tremendous ambivalence or indecision out there -- people who want to vote for a change in direction, and are still giving Obama a hard look, but aren't excited about the prospect of McCain as the main alternative.

Additionally, the percentage of national registered voters who were undecided in Gallup Poll Daily tracking of Obama vs. McCain trial heats from May through early June (averaging 9%) was nearly identical to the percentage of undecideds in Clinton vs. McCain trial heats over the same period (8%). This is just another indication that the Obama vs. McCain race may no more be a referendum on one candidate than the Clinton vs. McCain race would have been.

Here's another set of facts to consider. Gallup Poll trial heats early on in the campaign (polls from December 2007 and January 2008) that matched Obama against other Republican candidates, including Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee, all showed Obama winning handily. (So did Clinton, for that matter, against everyone but Giuliani.) Yet, at the same time, McCain beat Obama 50% to 44% among registered voters. If, at that point, the election was essentially about Obama, and voters were willing to support him over Romney and Huckabee, why didn't they also support him over McCain? Doesn't that suggest the Obama vs. McCain decision was more about McCain than about Obama?

Of course, those polls were a long time ago. We don't know how Obama would be doing today had someone other than McCain become the presumptive Republican nominee. But the available evidence suggests McCain is potentially the only one of the 2008 GOP field able to give the Democrats a real fight in an otherwise awful Republican year.

Let's go back and look at that NBC News/Wall Street Journal data again. About half of voters (51%) say they find themselves focusing only on Obama when thinking about their vote. But a combined 43% -- nearly as many -- say they focus on either just McCain or on both candidates. Does the eight-point difference justify saying The Election is All About Obama? It could merely reflect the disproportionate amount of news coverage Obama has been getting compared with McCain. (According to, 79% of the election news stories from June through July 27 featured Obama; just 55% featured McCain).

Yet, what does the Wall Street Journal draw from these data? "Midway through the election year, the presidential campaign looks less like a race between two candidates than a referendum on one of them -- Sen. Barack Obama."

There are two big problems with advancing the perhaps imperfect idea that The Election is All About Obama.

1) If Obama continues to struggle to establish a strong lead over McCain, it will nourish the argument that Clinton was right in saying Obama couldn't win. In fact, Cook foreshadows this:

One can sense a chorus of 'I told you so' about to be shouted from Whitehaven Street NW, where Chez Clinton sits. For a year, Hillary Rodham Clinton warned fellow Democrats that an Obama nomination would distract from the larger sentiment for change and the anger at Bush and the Republican Party.

Obama may encounter or even blunder into problems that sidetrack his campaign -- whether it has to do with his age, race, experience or something else -- but no problem is inevitable. He has to run a disciplined, smart campaign that responds effectively to his opponents attacks. If he does, then he could find himself among the ranks of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush (in 1988), and Ronald Reagan. If he doesn't, then he will be aligned in the history books with John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis. But would it have been inevitable? I don't think so.

2) The Election is All About Obama narrative minimizes the impressive performance of John McCain against major political odds. This calls for some careful examination that won't happen if we write McCain off as irrelevant.

Is the election all about Obama? I don't know. But I do know that a faulty story line in the way the election is covered for the next three months won't help either of the candidates run a better campaign, or voters understand what's really happening. Is it too late to change the script?

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