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!"
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.
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.