John McCain’s surge in the polls comes even as Barack Obama has inherited the most favorable Democratic environment since the Watergate era—an unpopular Republican president, an unpopular war and a flagging economy.
Suddenly, though, Democrats have found themselves in a world turned upside down, where Republicans have the momentum from running on change—and the latest wunderkind of presidential politics.
Below are five trends showing up in polling that help explain the change.
1. McCain as a ‘change agent’
Eight in ten Americans say they believe the country is on the wrong track. Obama has built his campaign on the perception that he is both the personification of change and the man to enact it.
Despite a member of his party in the White House and his decades in D.C., recent polling shows that McCain has managed to successfully portray himself as a change agent, and erode Obama’s brand in the process.
The Democratic firm Democracy Corps found that the public prefers Obama to bring “the right kind of change” as president by a 50 to 44 percent margin—down nearly two-thirds from his 16-point edge in mid August.
This week’s ABC News/Washington Post poll asked “who can bring about needed change to Washington” The public favored Obama by 12 points—down from 32 points in June.
CBS News polling this week found that 46 percent of voters believe McCain can change Washington—up from 28 percent in July.
The Obama campaign has taken notice. His stump speech now rips McCain as a phony reformer, and yesterday he launched a TV ad campaign and Web site highlighting McCain’s ties to lobbyists.
2. The center shifts: Independents move to McCain
Independent voters, and particularly white independent men, have leaned Republican in presidential races since 1980. But before the Republican convention, Galllup polling showed just 40 percent of independents favoring McCain.
Post convention, that rose to 52 percent—and the increase in support was slightly greater among men than among women, which appears to undercut the idea that Palin has benefited the ticket by drawing women to it.
Before the Democratic Convention, white women favored McCain by 7 points. After it, they favored him by 6. Following the Republican convention, McCain was winning white women by 11 points—a 4-point gain.
Before the Democratic Convention, white men favored McCain by 20 points. After it, that margin shrunk to 13 points. Following Denver, white men favored McCain by 25 points—a 5-point gain.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 62 percent of men have a favorable view of Palin while just 53 percent of women view her favorably.
Though no Democrat has won a majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Obama cannot win unless he pulls back some of these white independent voters.
3. The economic gap narrows
James Carville, who coined the catchphrase “the economy, stupid” in 1992 while working as a strategist for Bill Clinton, frets that Obama is losing his ownership of the issue that has become voters’ foremost concern in recent months.
“I noticed the tightening on the economy,” Carville said. “And if it stays that way, I would be damn worried.”
When Democracy Corps asked voters last week which candidate would “do a better job” with the economy,” Obama had a 50 to 44 percent advantage—down from a 16-point edge in mid August.
Gallup this week shows a 3-point edge for Obama on the question of which candidate “can better handle the economy”—down from 16 points in August.
A recent internal Republican poll found that 30 percent of likely voters shop at Wal-Mart at least once a week. Obama retained a slim 45-42 edge with Wal-Mart women—but 64 percent of men in the group favored McCain against just 29 percent who peferred Obama.
4. Palin narrows the enthusiasm gap
The Republican base, once disenchanted, has returned with a vengeance since McCain’s surprise pick of the first-term Alaska governor as his running mate.
This week’s CBS News poll found that 53 percent of Obama voters said they were “enthusiastic” about Obama, up five points since before his party’s convention, and still better than the 42 percent of McCain supports who feel the same way. McCain’s support though is up 18 points since selecting Palin.
The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that only 12 percent of McCain’s supporters were “excited to be voting” for him in early August. This week 34 percent said they were excited—nearly a three-fold increase.
Palin has played no small part in this GOP awakening. CBS found that fully 85 percent of McCain backers were “pleased” with the selection of Palin, compared to 65 percent of Obama supporters who said the same about Delaware Senator Joe Biden.
And among independents, 46 percent have a favorable view of Palin while only 31 percent say the same of Biden.
While Democrats have continued to hit at Palin’s inexperience, only 36 percent of likely voters believe Palin lacks the proper experience while 47 percent said the same of Obama.
5. Democrats voter ID edge dulls
Democrats have been relying on their newfound advantage in party identification all year. Party ID remains the best single indicator of voter support.
Republicans began losing voters prior to the 2006-midterm elections that gave Democrats a functional majority in the Senate. But those voters straying from the fold were mostly becoming independents, not Democrats.
Democratic voter enrollment began to grow in 2007, even as the drop in Republican enrollment leveled off. Now, though, the dynamic appears to have shifted.
The week before the Republican convention, just 39 percent of voters said they leaned toward or identified themselves as Republicans. Following the convention, that number rose dramatically to 47 percent, Meanwhile the percentage of voters leaning toward or identifying themselves as Democrats dropped from 53 to 47 percent. Gallup notes that party ID shifts are not unusual after a convention.
Gallup also now reports that the double-digit Democratic lead among voters asked which party they’d generically prefer to control Congress has disappeared, and the two parties are now effectively tied.