Instead, his supporters are now suffering a pre-Denver panic attack, watching as John McCain draws incrementally closer in state and national polls – with Rasmussen’s most recent daily national tracker showing a statistical dead heat.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been privately enumerating her doubts about Obama to supporters, according to people who have spoken with her. Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn recently unveiled a PowerPoint presentation red-flagging Obama’s lukewarm leads among white female voters and Hispanics – while predicting a five-point swing could turn a presumed Obama win into a McCain landslide.
“It’s not that people think McCain will win – it’s that they are realizing that McCain could win,” says Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown, whose surveys show tight races in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. “This election is about Barack Obama — not John McCain — it's about whether Barack Obama passes muster. Every poll shows that people want a Democratic president, the problem is they’re not sure they want Barack Obama.”
Obama’s aides point to the stability of his small national lead, say they aren’t worried about his summer stall and think his numbers will improve when voters begin tuning in to the conventions.
“This is a country that is looking for a fundamentally different direction and John McCain offers nothing but the status quo,” said spokesman Bill Burton, adding that he wasn’t “losing any sleep” over his boss’s rough patch.
The campaign’s confidence may turn out to be justified but two weeks prior to the national convention there are more than a few worrisome signs for Obama. Here are seven:
1. Race. “The idea that Obama was going to win in a blowout was always preposterous,” says former Nebraska senator and onetime presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey, an Obama backer. “A big piece of this, of course, is whether white people are going to support a black guy… If [Obama] is a tall, skinny white guy named Paul Jones it's a different story.”
Obama is running nearly neck-and-neck with McCain among white voters in most polls, a major cause for optimism considering that John Kerry and Al Gore lost the white vote by 17 and 12 points respectively. Among whites, he does well with women, the affluent and college grads but fares poorly among low-income earners and Catholics – key swing groups that handed Hillary Clinton stunning blowouts in West Virginia and Kentucky.
How much does his race factor into tightening contests in Missouri, Wisconsin, Florida, Minnesota and Ohio? Nobody knows – and that’s the problem.
A huge challenge for Obama, insiders say, is simply determining how much skin color will matter in November. Race is nearly impossible to poll – no one ever says “I’m a racist” – and no campaign wants it revealed they are even asking questions on the issue.
“It’s the uncertainty that kills me – we know it’s going to be factor, but how big a factor?” asks a Democratic operative with ties to the Obama camp. “How do you even measure such a thing?
Adding to the jitters: GOP surrogates like New York Rep. Pete King have vowed to make Obama’s relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wrigh a centerpiece during the homestretch.
2. Obama’s strength in Virginia may be overhyped. His chances of ending the Democrats 44-year losing streak in the commonwealth are pretty good – thanks to the explosive growth of the liberal D.C. suburbs, and a 147,000 spike in voter registration sure to benefit Democrats. But Obama’s aides privately concede his odds in Virginia are probably no better than 50-50 and that the state is far from a lock-solid hedge if he loses Ohio and Florida.
3. Michigan’s in play for McCain. In the year of the downturn, the hard-hit upper Midwest should be prime Obama country. Instead it’s a potential minefield. Obama is still ahead by two to five points here – similar to margins of victory enjoyed by Gore and Kerry in the last two presidential contests– but McCain has quietly crept up over the past month and could vault ahead if he anoints ex-Gov. Mitt Romney. Simmering tensions between predominantly-black Detroit and its white suburbs could hurt Obama. And McCain’s surrogates were handed a gift in the jailing of Obama supporter Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s mayor.
“Watch Michigan -- the Democrats think they've got it but they don't,” says Quinnipiac’s Peter Brown, a longtime Michigan observer. “Obama should be killing [McCain] there, but there's a lot more racial tension in Michigan than in other states.”
Obama also hasn’t pulled away in other Democrat-friendly neighboring states, watching leads in Wisconsin and Minnesota erode over the last month.
4. Bad times could be good for McCain. If anger helps Democrats, fear advantages Republicans. A growing number of Democratic strategists worry that some swing state voters may opt for McCain if the economy veers from merely awful to downright terrifying. The typical political calculus – that bad economic times will deliver the White House to Democrats – may not hold if people start viewing the downturn as, essentially, a national security crisis that can’t be entrusted to a novice. And that was McCain’s underlying message in his Paris Hilton ad: Bank failures, soaring gas prices and plummeting house values are forms of economic terrorism and he’s an all-purpose anti-terror warrior.
“John McCain is a known quantity,” says Bob Kerrey, who thinks Obama will ultimately prevail. “You don't look at John and say, ‘Who the heck is he?’ he's a veteran, he's a guy who got pretty banged up in Vietnam. He can deal with crisis. There's some uncertainty about Senator Obama.”
The good news for Obama, of course, is that McCain – who infamously admitted he “never understood” economics – is loathed by unions, was somnambulant at the dawn of the housing meltdown and still gropes for a coherent economic policy that doesn’t include the words “offshore drilling.” But he doesn’t have to win the argument, just reinforce doubts about Obama with wavering swing state voters. The Illinois senator still enjoys a major edge on the economic issues, but his 20-point June lead on the who-can-best-fix-the-economy question slipped to a 17-point edge in July, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Obama wins on the economy,” said Guy Cecil, Hillary Clinton’s field director during the primaries. “But it will be interesting to see if McCain’s able to close the economic gap.”
5. Where have you gone, Ross Perot? Bill Clinton, the lone two-term Democratic president since FDR, wouldn’t have been elected if independent Ross Perot hadn’t siphoned 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, staging an indie bid from McCain’s right, has little cash and doesn’t seem to be a factor in competitive states.
6. The Legacy of LBJ, Jimmy and Bubba. Barack Obama would have been a trailblazer no matter what &ndsh; but the Democrats’ trail to the White House has been remarkably narrow since 1960, accommodating only southern whites with border-state strength: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (Add Al Gore if you’re counting the popular vote.)
7. Americans may want divided government. Some Democratic operatives think a possible landslide for their party in congressional races could backfire on Obama.
“Fairly or not, folks think he’s pretty liberal and nobody wants a pair of Pelosi’s running things,” says a New York-based Democratic consultant.
Adds Bob Kerrey: “The country's still pretty divided… people may want a divided government. They want change but I'm not sure that the Democratic agenda has the support of a majority of Americans.”