A month after emerging victorious from the bruising Democratic nominating contest, some of Barack Obama's glow may be fading. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, the Illinois senator leads Republican nominee John McCain by just 3 percentage points, 44 percent to 41 percent. The statistical dead heat is a marked change from last month's NEWSWEEK Poll, where Obama led McCain by 15 points, 51 percent to 36 percent.
Obama's rapid drop comes at a strategically challenging moment for the Democratic candidate. Having vanquished Hillary Clinton in early June, Obama quickly went about repositioning himself for a general-election audience--an unpleasant task for any nominee emerging from the pander-heavy primary contests and particularly for a candidate who'd slogged through a vigorous primary challenge in most every contest from January until June. Obama's reversal on FISA legislation, his support of faith-based initiatives and his decision to opt out of the campaign public-financing system left him open to charges he was a flip-flopper. In the new poll, 53 percent of voters (and 50 percent of former Hillary Clinton supporters) believe that Obama has changed his position on key issues in order to gain political advantage.
More seriously, some Obama supporters worry that the spectacle of their candidate eagerly embracing his old rival, Hillary Clinton, and traveling the country courting big donors at lavish fund-raisers, may have done lasting damage to his image as an arbiter of a new kind of politics. This is a major concern since Obama's outsider credentials, have, in the past, played a large part in his appeal to moderate, swing voters. In the new poll, McCain leads Obama among independents 41 percent to 34 percent, with 25 percent favoring neither candidate. In June's NEWSWEEK Poll, Obama bested McCain among independent voters, 48 percent to 36 percent.
Obama's overall decline from the last NEWSWEEK Poll, published June 20, is hard to explain. Many critics questioned whether the Democrat's advantage over McCain was actually as great as the poll suggested, even though a survey taken during a similar time frame by the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg showed a similarly large margin. Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the poll for NEWSWEEK, says some of the discrepancy between the two most recent polls may be explained by sampling error.
At the time of the last poll, pundits also noted that a large lead in the polls doesn't always guarantee a general-election victory. Many warned that Democrat Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush by as much as 16 points in some 1988 polls and then went on to lose that year's presidential contest.
But perhaps most puzzling is how McCain could have gained traction in the past month. To date, direct engagement with Obama has not seemed to favor the GOP nominee. McCain has announced major initiatives on energy and the economy but failed to dominate the conversation on those issues. Last week's shake-up of the campaign's senior management did little to halt calls from Republicans for a major overhaul in McCain's message. Nor did it quell the lingering suspicion among Republicans that 2008 is simply destined to be a Democratic year. (Only 28 percent of voters in the new NEWSWEEK Poll approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president.) McCain's biography still appears to be his greatest asset, with 55 percent of voters saying they have a favorable opinion of the Arizona senator, compared to 32 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. (Obama's favorable/unfavorable gap is virtually identical at 56 to 32.)
And despite Obama's precipitous decline, the poll suggests underlying strengths for the Dem. Concerns that he would be unable to unite the Democratic Party after the bruising fight against Clinton appear to be unfounded. Only 17 percent of former Clinton supporters say they will vote for McCain in the general election, and 13 percent of undecided voters are former supporters of the New York senator. But 61 percent of registered voters who support Obama say they support him strongly, compared to just 39 percent who say they strongly support McCain. At a similar point in the 2004 presidential race, only 53 percent of supporters of Democratic nominee John Kerry said they supported him strongly.
The new poll suggests white voters continue to be a challenge for Obama, with McCain leading the Democrat in that category 48 to 36 percent. Some of Obama's lag in white support may be explained by continual confusion over his religious identity. Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true. Finally cracking the code with less-educated whites could have a big payoff for Obama: 85 percent of undecided voters are non-Hispanic whites and only 22 percent of those undecideds have a four-year college degree.