Right now, there can be little doubt that Obama has moved into a slight lead on John McCain. Pollster.com, Real Clear Politics, Electoral-Vote.com, Fivethirtyeight.com, and my own Presidential Forecast all confirm this.
However, while Obama now leads, even casual election watchers will also make two key observations. First, Obama's lead is not very large, as it never reaches more than 5.0% nationally and never surpasses 307 electoral votes (270 are need for victory). Second, didn't John Kerry hold a similar lead over George Bush Jr. back in 2004, before the swiftboating kicked in during August and put Bush ahead for good? So, sure, Obama is ahead, but not by much and we have seen this before.
I will entirely grant the first proposition. Yes, it is true that Obama's lead is not very large, and so it is no time to rest on our laurels. However, the second proposition, that Kerry had the same size lead over Bush at this point in 2004, actually isn't quite true. Here is a chart of the Bush v. Kerry margin during the entire 2004 general election:
Four years ago, Bush actually held a slight lead at the start of the general election, not Kerry. Also, starting in mid-June 2004, Bush erased a lead Kerry held starting in mid-May. So, in both comparative measures of the 2004 campaign to the current stage of the 2008 campaign, Obama's current lead actually puts him in a better position than Kerry.
Second, Kerry's lead never reached 4% nationally, and actually peaked at around 3.0-3.5% in mid-May (post-Abu Ghraib and when he started running ads), and again from mid-July through mid-August (from the selection of Edwards through the start of swiftboating). In other words, Kerry's peaks in the 2004 election were never as large as Obama's current lead. Right now, Obama leads by about 1% more than Kerry did even at high moments for Kerry, such as the aftermath of putting John Edwards on the ticket.
So, in these two ways, Obama's current lead is actually superior to any lead that Kerry ever held during the 2004 campaign. When one considers the very different political climate, and that Obama will have the ability to out-resource McCain (in 2004, Kerry was out-resourced), Obama's situation looks significantly better than Kerry's. While there are some similarities, overall, the analogy, like so many historical analogy, does not quite hold up under closer scrutiny. Obama is doing better than Kerry.
This is not to say, of course, that Obama somehow has the campaign in the bag. Yes, Obama is doing better than Kerry at this point in time, but not that much better. Yes, Obama has a larger lead than Kerry ever had, but not that much larger. Yes, Obama has a superior resource position relative his opponent than Kerry ever did, but not that much superior. And even though Obama has all of these advantages, it is important to remember that Kerry lost by 2.5%, meaning that we have to improve just to draw even. Obama is doing well, better than Kerry ever did, but we obviously had to improve on Kerry's performance and there is a long way to go. We should be looking forward, instead of backward, for clues on how to best bring this one home.