Barack Obama and the Curious Incident of the Stubborn Polls

Why hasn't Obama won the election yet? Is it because he's fatally flawed? Ummm, not so much.


With Republicans so far behind in generic polls, why hasn't John McCain been tarred and feathered in the streets as a lead-up to Barack Obama's being acclaimed King Barry I? It must be a sign of Obama's fatal political weakness, right?

Not so much.

There are various—at times contradictory—explanations for Obama's and McCain's relative standing in the presidential preference polls (as of Monday morning, Real Clear Politics's average of polls had Obama up a mere 3.2 percent over McCain).

Take, for example, Sunday's New York Times, which gave voice to Nervous Nelly Democrats worrying that Obama is too much about hope and not enough about policy specifics because the American people don't know Obama well enough. Democrats are big on policy specifics. Recall Al Gore's and John Kerry's ability to go deep—painfully deep, hypnotically deep—into every point in their agenda.

( Bonnie approvingly cites the Times story as evidence that Obama is too wildly liberal for the electorate, but this is counterintuitive: The American people cannot be repelled by Obama liberalism about which they do not know.)

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, quoted in the Times, gives a more concise, and perhaps more accurate summation of Obama's problem: "Instead of giving big speeches at big stadiums, he needs to give straight-up 10-word answers to people at Wal-Mart about how he would improve their lives." It's hard to get deep into specifics in a 10-word answer, but the point here is that closing the deal involves Obama's need to finish introducing himself to the American people. Fine.

But how much of a problem is it that Obama has not yet finished that job? Not so much. Here are a couple of problems with the worry about the Obama-McCain horse race matchup.

First, polls don't yet matter. If you worry about poll numbers at this point, you're probably paying more attention to the election than are many Americans. People will start to tune in next week, and especially a week from Thursday when Obama gives his acceptance speech (at a big stadium, happily, not in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart). Start to check the polls in mid-September or even October. Until then, take a deep breath.

Second, John McCain is not a typical Republican. Sunday's Times had part of the answer to its front-page story on its Op-Ed page, in Frank Rich's column:

It seems almost churlish to look at some actual facts. No presidential candidate was breaking the 50 percent mark in mid-August polls in 2004 or 2000. Obama's average lead of three to four points is marginally larger than both John Kerry's and Al Gore's leads then (each was winning by one point in Gallup surveys). Obama is also ahead of Ronald Reagan in mid-August 1980 (40 percent to Jimmy Carter's 46). At, which aggregates polls and gauges the electoral count, Obama as of Friday stood at 284 electoral votes, McCain at 169. That means McCain could win all 85 electoral votes in current toss-up states and still lose the election.

Rich goes on.

What is widely known is the skin-deep, out-of-date McCain image. As this fairy tale has it, the hero who survived the Hanoi Hilton has stood up as rebelliously in Washington as he did to his Vietnamese captors. He strenuously opposed the execution of the Iraq war; he slammed the president's response to Katrina; he fought the "agents of intolerance" of the religious right; he crusaded against the G.O.P. House leader Tom DeLay, the criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their coterie of influence-peddlers.

With the exception of McCain's imprisonment in Vietnam, every aspect of this profile in courage is inaccurate or defunct.

The only people who disliked the 2000-era version of John McCain (McCain 2.000) were, well, Republicans. McCain 2.008 has worked assiduously to earn their acceptance and they've given it, grudgingly. But just as Obama is still largely unknown, so is the current iteration of John McCain.