He’s moved ahead of the two Democrats by consolidating support among Republicans, but also by retaining his backing among a wide swath of independents and picking up a small chunk of cross-party support.
Among independents, McCain leads Obama 48 percent to 39 percent and Clinton 54 percent to 34 percent. Among Democrats, he picks up 20 percent in a race against Obama and leads Barack Obama 48 percent to 39 percent and Senator Clinton 54 percent to 34 percent.
More recent public polls portray a much more competitive race between McCain and either Democrat, with Obama leading in some surveys.
But Republican pollster Ed Goeas said the contrast between the standing of the Republican Party and its actual nominee was reassuring.
“You do have to look at the generic presidential ballot, which is continuing to show a Democrat lead,” said Goeas. “But the fact that McCain is running ahead of both Obama and Clinton, and in terms of net advantage, is running 16-17 poitns ahead of that deficit is a good thing.”
Providing hope to Goeas and other Republican operatives are two key elements that appear to be shaping the race: McCain’s untraditional appeal and the protracted Democratic primary.
“What is most instructive is how McCain is running 10 points ahead among Democrats, compared to what the Democrats are getting from Republicans,” Goeas said.
According to the survey, Obama would take 11 percent of Republican votes and Clinton 6 percent.
“The more intense, more nasty [their race is] the more you’re going to solidify a certain group of Democrats that will vote for McCain over whoever gets nomination on the Democratic side.”
But Democrats, while concerned about the ultimate impact of their continuing primary, say McCain’s support is soft and much about him remains unknown.
Democratic National Committee officials provided Politico with their own internal polling data, done late last month in 17 swing states, that shows far more voters volunteered knowing “just some” and “very little” about the Republican than those saying they “knew a lot” or even “a fair amount.”
“People don’t have a well-formed image about him,” said DNC chairman Howard Dean. “There is very little McCain brand.”
Moreover, Dean continued, while voters respect McCain’s war service they are concerned about his policy views.
So, note DNC aides, he draws strong numbers in their survey on matters of character but does far worse on issues.
According to DNC polling, when asked to pick among a group of phrases to characterize McCain, the most popular choice for the former POW was: “Is honest and a man of integrity.”
By contrast, he fared the worst on: “Is in step with your priorities and puts his focus on the right issues.”
And issues, Dean said, will matter more in this election than in past presidential contests that have mostly been dominated by character or likeability.
“We’re in a really unpopular war and the economy is getting worse. And he’s indifferent to both.”
But just as Dean and the DNC make the case that McCain is undefined and thus vulnerable, Goeas contends that the Democratic frontrunner’s appeal among unaffiliated voters will fade with the scrutiny and attacks that will come.
“The independents’ view of Obama today is probably going to b different than their view of him in September,” Goeas predicted, noting that “there is a lot they don’t know about Obama.”
Reminded that Democrats will be equally focused on defining McCain, Goeas replied, “Here’s the difference: John McCain can begin that definition now.”
“Every day that goes by is a day lost by Obama to feed his definition.”
Yet even Goeas conceded that, once Obama or even Clinton secures the nomination and their own consolidation begins, McCain’s numbers will slip.
“I think there is going to be a little bit of movement back to the Democrats,” he acknowledged. “Historical trends and the political environment currently have the playing field tilted against us. With the Democratic race still going, that playing field has been evened out. Is the unevenness going to come back? It could. The extent of which depends on how long the Democratic race goes on.”
Steve Lombardo, another GOP pollster, was even more blunt.
“We believe that once the Democratic race is settled, Clinton voters will move to Obama (or vice-versa) and independents will split 2-to-1 in favor of the Democrat,” Lombardo wrote on behalf of his consulting firm in a memo he circulated this week. “This will give the Democratic nominee an immediate 10-12 point lead.”
“This is not to suggest that John McCain cannot win. We believe he still can. However, GOP strategists should be prepared for the inevitable swing to the Democrat. The question will be whether it swings back.”
Dean also predicted a similarly “big bounce.”
“I’ve always thought national numbers are complete nonsense until after September.”
But Dean acknowledged that there was a path to a McCain victory.
“I agree we’ve got to settle on a candidate on our side,” he said. “If there is a big blow up at the convention, we could lose.”