Polls Show Obama Damaged by Reverend Wright

Since Wright's remarks, Clinton has gained ground in the primary race.

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Corrected on 3/25/2008: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed poll results and the date of a poll. On March 13, it was a 44 percent to 44 percent race in both McCain-Clinton and McCain-Obama. On March 18, McCain led both Obama and Clinton 48 percent to 42 percent.

Has Barack Obama been hurt by his association, now revealed to most American voters, with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Has the pope been hurt by his association, among people who don't like Catholics, with the Roman Catholic Church? The numbers from Rasmussen Reports supply some answers—mostly in the direction of yes.

The key dates here are March 13, when ABC News ran its report of Wright's rantings, and March 18, when Obama made his speech in Philadelphia in which he condemned some of Wright's remarks but refused to renounce him. Keep in mind that Rasmussen's numbers represent those on, typically, the last three nights (or the last night) before the date of the release.

Before the Wright revelations, Rasmussen in its nightly tracking showed Obama ahead of Clinton nationally 48 percent to 41 percent, a statistically significant 7 percentage point lead. On March 18, the day of Obama's Philadelphia speech, that was reduced to a 45 percent to 44 percent lead. The most recent results, reported March 24, showed Clinton ahead 46 percent to 44 percent. In other words, over two weeks, Obama was down 4 percentage points, Clinton up 5 percentage points—major movement, given the usually glacially show movement in Rasmussen numbers.

You can see something similar in Rasmussen's favorable and unfavorable numbers for the three surviving candidates. The table below shows the appropriate numbers for favorable and unfavorable:

  Obama Clinton McCain
March 13 51%-46% 48%-50% 51%-45%
March 18 52%-44% 47%-50% 53%-43%
March 24 46%-52% 42%-55% 55%-42%

Clinton's numbers have become somewhat more unfavorable. But the major difference is that McCain's fav/unfavs have become marginally more favorable, while Obama's have become significantly less favorable.

The results on pairings are even more striking. On March 13, it was a 44 percent to 44 percent race in both McCain-Clinton and McCain-Obama. On March 18, McCain led both Obama and Clinton 48 percent to 42 percent. On March 24, McCain led Obama 50 percent to 41 percent and Clinton 49 percent to 42 percent. While there's not very much difference between McCain's performance over Obama versus Clinton in the March 24 results, comparing the McCain-Obama numbers between March 13 and 24—only 11 days—shows Obama down 3 percentage points and McCain up 6 percentage points. That's a pretty big turnaround by Rasmussen standards.

Let's look at the general election pairings that Rasmussen has been providing us in great profusion. And specifically at how Obama is doing against McCain in those numbers. Rasmussen's electoral college update projects 168 votes as safely Republican, and the results in the few states (Georgia, South Dakota) in this category he has surveyed provide no basis for doubt that they are rightly categorized. Then let's look at the McCain and Obama percentages in the next categories:

Likely Republican

AR 59%-30%
NC 51%-42%

Another 21 electoral votes for McCain.

Leans Republican

FL 47%-43%
VA 49%-44%

Not huge leads for McCain, but he's running as far ahead in Florida as Bush did in 2004 and less so in Virginia, another 38 electoral votes: 168 + 21 + 38 = 227.


CO 9 46%-46%
MI 15 44%-41%
MO 11 42%-40%
NV 5 41%-45%
OH 20 46%-40%

Leans Democratic

IA 7 41%-44%
MN 10 43%-47%
NH 4 46%-43%
NM 5 43%-43%
PA 21 44%-43%

Likely Democratic

NJ 15 45%-43%
OR 7 40%-49%
WA 11 45%-44%
WI 10 43%-44%

Awarding McCain the electoral votes where he is ahead, even by statistically insignificant margins (admittedly, a dicey proposition), he ends up with 324 electoral votes, with an additional 14 tied.

Not a commanding position, to be sure (too many statistically insignificant results). But one which, I think, tends to undercut the arguments of the Obama campaign that he would be a substantially stronger candidate in the general election than Clinton. And evidence that the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has taken the luster off Obama and made him a weaker candidate against McCain than he was two week ago. The Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is officially neutral in the race, has argued that it's impossible to know which Democrat would be stronger in November against McCain. I think Mellman is quite right on this. But if the argument for Obama has been that he has a larger upside potential than Clinton, these numbers tend to suggest that upside potential is not so great; and if the argument against Obama is that he has a larger downside potential than Clinton, these numbers suggest that negative potential is more likely to be realized. And of course if you're a Democratic candidate, or a party official, in states where Obama is running dangerously behind Clinton (West Virginia, for example) or where Obama's possibility of running way ahead of Clinton seems endangered (in the Pacific Northwest), you may want to respond to local conditions.

Bottom line: These numbers make the Democratic superdelegates' decisions tougher than ever.