What an an unexpected twist! Not only were we waiting for signs of an Obama bounce, but the signs had actually come over the week-end, as Obama jumped up to his biggest lead ever in Gallup’s tracking poll. Who would have expected that this would be the moment McCain would be able to break a long losing streak and grab his first lead in national poll since an early May survey that had him ahead by 1%? (How big a streak McCain just interrupted is evident with a quick look at RCP’s list of all national polls.)
The icing on the cake for the McCain campaign is that this poll was conducted by Gallup, as reputable a name among American pollsters as any. (Note: This poll was conducted for USA Today and is not today’s edition of Gallup’s tracking poll.) However, McCain only leads among likely voters:
- From a 6% deficit last month, McCain is now leading 49% to 45% among likely voters. Among registered voters, Obama leads 47% to 44% - down from a 6% lead last month.
- The poll was taken over the week-end.
That said, a number of other national polls released today found Obama staying clearly ahead, suggesting that the USA Today poll is more the exception to the consistent but narrow Obama lead we have been seeing for weeks:
- First, Gallup’s tracking poll finds Obama leading 48% to 40%, a one point decline since yesterday but the biggest lead Obama has had in the tracking poll since March except for yesterday.
- Rasmussen’s tracking poll, on the other hand, finds Obama leading only 48% to 45%, down from 6% two days ago and 5% yesterday.
- The fourth poll taken over the week-end is Research 2000’s first national poll: It finds Obama leading 51% to 39% with 3% to Bob Barr and 2% to Ralph Nader. The poll tested likely voters. An interesting finding is that the biggest regional swing in the past 4 years is the Midwest, where Obama now leads 53% to 37%, a 17% swing. Given the high concentration of battlegrounds in this region, Obama would surely win the election if he were to gain more in the Midwest than in the rest of the country.
- Two other national polls were released today but were taken early last week, making them a bit less valuable at a time in which the timeliness of surveys seems more important than usual. First, a Democracy Corps poll taken from the 21st to the 24th finds Obama leading 50% to 45%, 48% to 42% if Barr and Nader are included.
- A YouGov poll for The Economist finds Obama leading 41% to 38%. This one was taken from the 22nd to the 24th.
So what should we make of the USA Today/Gallup poll if 5 other polls today found Obama with a lead ranging from 3% to 12%? Gallup’s results itself are not what is interesting here: McCain’s lead is within the margin of error, it is only one isolated poll among many and the lead is limited to the likely voter model. (Gallup’s editor says “registered voters are much more important at the moment,” though the poll does go against the conventional wisdom that Democrats are much more enthusiastic this year).
But the psychological effect of a poll like this cannot be overstated: For McCain to come out with this lead in what is perhaps the most important national poll at the height of Obama’s media coverage must be a huge relief for Republicans, and it kills any building media narrative of an Obama bounce out of the international trip, whatever other polls find in the coming days. The GOP desperately needs to get energized to have a chance at keeping the White House, and for that it first and foremost needs to believe that it can win.
Furthermore, that McCain is performing much stronger than he ought to on paper and that he is holding on in battleground states like Ohio and Michigan despite slipping among his base states has long been documented, including on this blog. This USA Today/Gallup’s poll might find that phenomenon to be much larger than in other polls, but it does feed the storyline of Obama not breaking through no matter how strong his weeks are. That the numbers appear to be tightening once more in the tracking polls strengthen that narrative further.