Barack Obama, Superstar? Yes And No--UPDATED w/ 2 Charts

by: Paul Rosenberg

Sat Oct 04, 2008 at 14:28

Barack Obama's strong rise in the polls has pretty much everyone happy, and even--dare I say it?--excited.  As someone who's been writing about a realigning election this year since October 2006, and who's been writing about a 10-20% landslide, I am definitely no exception.  But when folks talk about Obama as leading the way, in a pure numbers sense among voters, I just have to step in and say, "Wait a minute!"

For example, yesterday, fwiffo wrote:


A rising tide raises all Democratic boats. In this metaphor, Barack Obama is the fucking moon.

When it comes to mobilizing volunteers, or raising funds, I have no quarrel with this.  But when it comes to attracting voters, Obama is much more like a surfer on the wave--who has very skillfully avoided some very treacherous obstacles, than he is like the moon.

It's hardly surprising, really.  John McCain was the ultimate media darling, possessed of a totally bogus, superhero-style image in the press, which yielded him high levels of personal approval even among liberal Democrats.  And Barack Obama, of course, is black.  This is a doubly stacked deck, so it's entirely to be expected that Obama would be underperforming the Dem/Rep partisan split.  So this is by no means an attack on Obama, depsite the subtantial substantive criticism I have of him.  It is, rather, yet another attempt to remind folks that we're in the midst of a broad and historic period of transformation that overshadows every one of us as individuals, even our candidate for President, our country's first black President to be.

Numbers to prove it on the flip.

Paul Rosenberg :: Barack Obama, Superstar? Yes And No--UPDATED w/ 2 Charts
The most straight-forward comparison to see how strong Obama is, as opposed to the underlying shift of voter sentiment away from the GOP is to compare how he does compared to the generic Congressional ballot.  Rasmussen has been polling both for some time, so I begin with their polls from this year:

As can be seen, the Democratic margin has alway exceeded Obama's margin over McCain, sometimes only barely, by 1%, sometimes up into the double digits.  The margin has been shrinking since early September, and as the campaign focuses increasingly on him in the closing weeks, it could well flip-flop in the end, but it's taken a long, long time to do so.

Now let's take a more microscopic look at daily tracking polls over the last few weeks.  First, here's Diageo/Hotline:

On a more fine-tuned level, this tells basically the same story as Rasmussen for recent weeks: Obama's lead over McCain is inching upwards to match the generic Dem/Rep lead.

Finally, another tracker, DKos/Research 2000, shows Obama at his strongest, but still not consistently ahead of the generic ballot:

The pattern here is generally similar to the two previous ones: Obama has been gaining strength compared to the generic ballot for the last several weeks.  The difference is not the trend, but the level and magnitude, which shows Obama inching ahead of the generic ballot.  In the long run, this does not surprise me.  Looking forward to a 10-20% landslide means I've been rooting for this to happen, and I'm glad to see it.  But the long, long time that Obama has been trailing the generic Congressional ballot is, I believe, a sure sign that Obama is riding a long wave of political realignment, not causing it.

It's entirely fitting that he should rise to his highest level, like a surfer gaining perfect balance atop a cresting wave.  Nothing would make me happier than a 20% blowout margin of victory.  But the reason for that is the profound need for change, the hunger for a new direction, that manifests itself only once in every 9 or so presidential elections.  And it's up to us--not just Obama, but all of us--to make the most of it.

UPDATE:  Here are two charts, showing the margins for Obama and generic Dems in the two tracking polls, and the differences between them.

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Now, this would explain all those moonbats! (4.00 / 2)
Only joking, folks!

Thanks Paul (4.00 / 4)
You made the case as far as I'm concerned. A case that would do us all well to be aware of. I too have been hoping for a blowout since the beginning of this campaign. Not just because that's what I wanted to see, but because that was the possibility I saw based on the two candidates along with the combination of the state of the nation.

I was reminded this morning about those letters way back in 2006 that McCain wrote in reply to a perfectly reasonable series of letters that Obama had written to McCain. Those letters told the story of each candidate. The two people we are now seeing are the same people one can see in those letters. McCain comes off like a pithy asshole, pure and simple. Obama came off as a reasoned and hard to ruffle human being as well as a reasoned and hard to ruffle politician.

I was also struck (4.00 / 1)
whne I read them again last night (they're posted at TPM) McCain was mad because Obama did not fall for a "bipartisan" scam.  McCain was looking for Obama to become a Lieberman, and Obama said McCain should vote for the Democratic bill if he really wanted reform.

It's an interesting (if minor) counter-example to some of the fears around here.

New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

[ Parent ]
presentation (0.00 / 0)
Paul, I agree with everything you said and I think this is a great post.

I would just point out that these numbers would be much more persuasive if you presented them graphically.  

The truth about Saxby Chambliss

doesn't an actual democrat almost always trail a generic Democrat? (4.00 / 5)
I remember similar patterns with Kerry and Gore, though I could be mistaken.  This is the reason why the Republicans rely on personality-based attacks as much as they do--they know that they can't win on the issues, when the public favors Democrats' positions so much more.

Usually, Yes. But Not Always (4.00 / 3)
Which, to me, simply shows that Democrats these days don't usually run on the strengths of the brand name.  They run away from them.

The generic measure, as well as party identification, are the best measures of latent hegemonic strength.  Actualizing that latent strength is a whole 'nother can of worms.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
But for a specific Democrat (4.00 / 4)
I'm not convinced by this argument. I think there are lots of folks out there who would gladly agree to vote for the perfect Democrat, if one were to come along. But take any specific Democrat and give him or her one flaw, one blemish on the record or on the image, and those same folks will fall back on the status quo Republican. And of course, there are no perfect Democrats. So for an actual candidate (Obama) to even approach the generic numbers is IMO an amazing accomplishment and a tribute to his appeal.

Not So Much (0.00 / 0)
Actual Dems usually run a few points behind the generic, but not always.  And I would attribute this to the fact that they don't generally play to the strengths of the brand idea, instead they play defensively to the GOP attacks.

It's this sort of approach that's the precondition for the sort of dynamic that you're describing.  If you don't challenge the status-quo Rep, then of course you've got to be "perfect".  But if you do challenge them, then you gain the support of those who give the Dem a generic advantage.  This is hard to tease out, because we've had 20 years of Dem consultants who run away from the Dem brand.  But when you do find the exceptions, those who proudly embrace the Dem tradition, they often outperform other Dems by a substantial margin, and thus show that the generic measure is not a mythic illusion, but instead a very real, though unrealized potential.

In 1988, for example, Howard Metzenbaum for Senate registered a 25% swing vs. Dukakis for President in Ohio.  The difference?  Metzenbaum didn't run on "competence, not ideology."  He ran as a proud, full-throated Democrat.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
DeFazio, Wellstone, Dorgan, Feingold, Tester, Hackett (4.00 / 2)
all overperformed the standard Democratic performance of their constituencies significantly, by being "ultraDemocrats", rather than "barelyDemocrats."

Again, they didn't just match the predicted Democratic performance, something many other Democratic candidates fail to do; they exceeded it.  

Not that you're surprised by that, but I wanted to call it out anyway.

[ Parent ]
Kucinich, Too (0.00 / 0)
As you can see in the election section of the Wikipedia entry on his district.

He just barely beat a two-term Rep who'd previously won by 25K. In his first re-election run, he won 2-1, by 55K.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Chicken v. Egg (4.00 / 4)
Good points, but OTOH Obama's massive infrastructure has undoubtably helped shift the overall perception of Democrats nationwide.  Remember, a lot of his offices have been open for nearly a year, often in places that didn't have strong democratic party presences.  

The relationship between Obama's numbers and the generic Dem numbers is probably more of a feedback loop than an "A caused B" situation.

To A Certain Extent, Yes (0.00 / 0)
There's always feedback. Always. But the Democratic gains began almost immediately after the 2004 election, and were very well established by 2006, so there's really no way that Obama can take credit for causing them.  Facilitating them?  Absolutely!  But in this instance, we definitely know where it began, and the patterns here show that it's only toward the end that Obama starts performing close to the generic Dem standard.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Lot's of good work here (0.00 / 0)
But I think what is missed is the fact that in McCain the Repugs have a candidate who is as far removed from the GOP brand as realistically possible.

I will have more to say about this Monday - but as I noted in June the models that use economic indicators to predict election results suggested an Obama win of between 10 and 14 points.

I think they are going to be pretty close to right.  

Quite True (0.00 / 0)
This is what I was getting at with what I said about McCain in the diary.  He was much less the GOP's candidate and much more the media's candidate, which gave him much more Dem and Ind support than any other GOP candidate would have had, and made it that much harder for Obama to perform to the generic standards early on.

If you'll recall, the Poly Sci models, which generally include a fairly significant economic component, predicted a Gore win in 2000.  I don't think the models were flawed.  I just think that the were measuring past patterns, and a new one was emerging, which was the consolidaiton of the GOP's hegemonic infrastructure, and the media's absorbtion into it (they really hated Gore).  By this point, I think the GOP infrastructure has decomposed back to where it was in 1996, at least, and so I think that the more traditional models are likely to be far more accurate this time out.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Don't the Poli Sci models (0.00 / 0)
predict the popular vote? In that case, they were right about Gore.

[ Parent ]
But wouldn't you expect to see a convergence (0.00 / 0)
post convention?  Doesn't the generic become less an abstract and more the specific standard bearer? Doesn't the meaning of Democrat become more Obamaish and the meaning of Obama become more democratish? I expect that the cares about me and issue cross tabs would show this convergence.

Obama is a drag on the overall Democratic brand (0.00 / 0)
If Tester was the nominee we'd be looking at 538 electoral votes and Constitution altering supermajorities.

Candidates' campaigns are necessary but not sufficient causes of the poll numbers (4.00 / 3)
The poll numbers reflect macro events rather than the impact of the campaigns of the presidential candidates.

The major macro events are:

a) 8 years of Bush administration catastrophes, particularly the Iraq debacle and its failed response to the damage caused by the hurricane that hit New Orleans.

b) the recent flameout of the financial system caused by greed and Congressional deregulation, coupled with popular fear that it is taking down what is left of the domestic real economy with it.

The Obama and McCain campaigns are incidental factors compared to the impact of these macro events.

What is most notable about Obama's campaign is its total lack of anything notable.

He has not originated one major policy breakthrough that I can think of.

On the other hand, he has been so bland and non-controversial, deliberately, I suspect, that he has failed to raise the hackles of any major voting bloc.

Consequently, he appears to be positioned to ride the tide of popular revulsion vis-a-vis the macro events into the White House, particularly the financial flameout and its fortuitous timing.

Seen in this light, Obama's campaign appears to be a necessary but not sufficient cause of the poll numbers that are breaking out in his favor.

As for McCain, his campaign has been such a disaster, particularly his choice of a blatantly unqualified candidate for the VP slot, that he has failed to capitalize on the distaste that certain voting blocs have for his opponent.

Compared to the macro events listed above, the candidates' campaigns are necessary but hardly sufficient causes of the poll numbers.

Very Well Put (4.00 / 1)
There's a great deal of political skill in Obama's operation, but nothing in the way of a big idea.

The times are thundering and the candidate are whispering.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]
Obama may be riding the wave (4.00 / 1)
but he had the wisdow to see that wave coming, grab his board and wade out to meet the waves. He knew that change was coming and was smart enough to be prepared to ride that wave to it's greatest heights.

Yup, that's a rare talent (0.00 / 0)
and even as an Edwards and Clinton supporter, I have to say, I respect Obama for that. Great instincts.

[ Parent ]
Maybe, maybe not (4.00 / 2)
What I think drives Obama is not his wisdom or foresight but his ambition and conviction that he has a unique mediational role to play at this juncture in American history.

I doubt that he foresaw or viewed the financial/economic meltdown as the wave he has grabbed onto, because if he had he would have had time to develop a more in-depth statesmanlike response to it, in contrast to his superficial and rather conservative reaction.

BTW, I attribute his unique mediational role, if I am correct that he sees himself in this light, to his experience as a person of mixed racial background who learned very early the skills of seeing all sides to divisive issues.

If he is elected, I predict that he is not so much going to chart new ground as to find common ground among conflicting parties.

[ Parent ]
Since I posted the original comment (0.00 / 0)
Mostly I was trying to make a joke. But to defend it, I would point at the number of down-ticket races, senate races like the one in NC that have improved apparently in response to Barack Obama's improvement.

Conduct your own interview of Sarah Palin!

There's No Doubt (4.00 / 1)
That higher-visibility candidates tend to help those down-ticket.

But the most powerful way this works is when they all align with what the party already stands for in people's minds, and when that alignment is most salient with respect to the problems people are dealing with.

Hence, if Obama had continued in the populist vein he adopted during his Rust Belt primary battles with Clinton, this effect would almost certainly be far more powerful and effective than it is rigt now.

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

[ Parent ]

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