McCain grabs national lead for the first time in three months

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.

15 Responses to “McCain grabs national lead for the first time in three months”


  1. 1 Joe from NC

    This poll seems like an outlier, like that newsweek poll that had Obama so far ahead.

  2. 2 Jim W

    I’m not sure if this poll is an outlier or not. I think Obama has a lead of about 3%, which is really good at this point. Wait until the conventions. I think the GOP convention will be a disaster. Unless the GOP can get a worthwhile VP, their convention will be a fight between the moderates and the conservatives of the party. The moderate wing of the GOP really doesn’t like the conservative rhetoric coming from McCain, and the conservatives don’t like him because he’s not a crazy whack like so much of them are. Also, McCain doesn’t mind snubbing their noses into the fire.

  3. 3 Joe from NC

    Jim,
    There is a potential for a problem at the RNC, but the DNC could have problems too. I heard that the PUMA crowd is planning on protesting Obama’s nomination.

    Also, I meant to say this about the poll, it could have to do with Obama’s not visiting the veterans in Germany, but I doubt it. However, the issue can play into McCain’s plan to cast doubts on Obama’s patriotism.
    Obama needs to make a counterattack ad.

  4. 4 Jim W

    Joe from NC,

    Great point. The Dems may have problems too. I think the Dems are more motivated at this point to take over the White House.

    What part of NC do you live in? I live in Orange County.

  5. 5 Guy

    McCain has the lead in one poll out of over a 100 taken - wow. Statistical noise!

    The general public are not paying much attention. September onwards is when you will get worthwhile polls. Also by that point Obabam will have done three of the four major events - 1) his foreign trip, 2) pick a VP, 3) the convention and the fourth are the debates. So by early September we will have a much more accurate picture of where the candidates stand with unknowns like the convention and VP picks out of the way and the general public paying more attention.

    FYI - I also live in Orange County, NC. Small world!

  6. 6 Jim W

    The national polls is really just a barometer for the candidates. Until we have a direct election, these polls don’t really mean anything.

    I live in Hillsborough, but I went to school at UNC. When I graduated, I couldn’t afford Chapel Hill, so my choices were Durham, Northern Chatham, and Hillsborough. Hillsborough lost.

  7. 7 Guy

    Jim - very small world as I live 4 miles north of Hillsborough.

    One interesting thing has been Obama regularly leading in polls within the margin of error. You would have expected some more bounce and yet McCain has only been in the lead once (so far).

    I am also suprised by the lack of GOP ‘527 negative campaigns - nothing like the swift boat veterans (yet).

  8. 8 Jim W

    Is it “Guy” from “Schley”? LOL.

  9. 9 Taniel

    I have long been amazed at the high concentration of North Carolina readers on this blog, and here’s further proof: all 3 commenters on this post.

  10. 10 Joe from NC

    I’ve noticed the large number of north carolinians here too.
    By the way I live in Raleigh.

  11. 11 Jaxx Raxor

    I don’t think that the Gallup poll is exactly an outlier, although I do agree that registered voters are more important 3 or so months from election day than likely voters at this point, as many voters who are currently unlikely to vote right now could become more likely to in October when people start paying more attention to the upcoming election. I also think its strange that Obama would be losing among likely voters but winning among all registered, as this means that people who like Obama are not motivated enough to vote, and this does go against the conventional wisdom that Democrats are more excited over the election than Republicans. So that part of the poll is probably an outlier or meaningless. If McCain gets a lead in terms of registered voters then it will mean much more but it is likely to not be statistically significant because Obama has generally hovered within the margin of error for polls.

  12. 12 Jim W

    Taniel,

    We have nothing else to do except play golf and ride horses.

  13. 13 Joe from NC

    Or get killed shopping at the mall

  14. 14 Joe from NC

    (google triangle town center)

  15. 15 Guy

    Having three North Carolinian’s certainly attests to the changing demographics of the state since I am originally from the UK and my wife is from Ohio. NC is becoming much more Democratic.

    I notice that the 3 day rolling average Gallup oll for today shows a 6% Obama lead, still above where he started the overseas trip (2% lead then). Of course the news reports his lead dropping from the 9% but that was to be expected. He will be happy with 6%.

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