Barack's Bounce
By Michael Hirsh | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Jun 20, 2008 | Updated: 3:37 p.m. ET Jun 20, 2008

Barack finally has his bounce. For weeks many political experts and pollsters have been wondering why the race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain had stayed so tight, even after the Illinois senator wrested the nomination from Hillary Clinton. With numbers consistently showing rock-bottom approval ratings for President Bush and a large majority of Americans unhappy with the country's direction, the opposing-party candidate should, in the normal course, have attracted more disaffected voters. Now it looks as if Obama is doing just that. A new NEWSWEEK Poll shows that he has a substantial double-digit lead, 51 percent to 36 percent, over McCain among registered voters nationwide.

In the previous NEWSWEEK Poll, completed in late May when Clinton was still fighting him hard for the Democratic nomination, Obama managed no better than a 46 percent tie with McCain. But as pollster Larry Hugick points out, that may have had a lot to do with all the mutual mudslinging going on between the two Democrats. By contrast, in recent weeks Clinton has not only endorsed Obama but has made plans to campaign with him. "They were in a pitched battle, and that's going to impact things. Now that we've gotten away from that period, this is the kind of bounce they've been talking about," said Hugick.

The latest numbers on voter dissatisfaction suggest that Obama may enjoy more than one bounce. The new poll finds that only 14 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the direction of the country. That matches the previous low point on this measure recorded in June 1992, when a brief recession contributed to Bill Clinton's victory over Bush's father, incumbent George H.W. Bush. Overall, voters see Obama as the preferred agent of "change" by a margin of 51 percent to 27 percent. Younger voters, in particular, are more likely to see Obama that way: those 18 to 39 favor the Illinois senator by 66 percent to 27 percent. The two candidates are statistically tied among older voters.

Obama's current lead also reflects the large party-identification advantage the Democrats now enjoy—55 percent of all voters call themselves Democrats or say they lean toward the party while just 36 percent call themselves Republicans or lean that way. Even as McCain seeks to gain voters by distancing himself from the unpopular Bush and emphasizing his maverick image, he is suffering from the GOP's poor reputation among many voters. Still, history provides hope for the GOP. Hugick points out that in May 1988 when the primaries ended, Democrat Michael Dukakis enjoyed a 54 percent to 38 percent lead over George H.W. Bush. But Bush wound up winning handily. "Those results should give people pause," Hugick says, saying that a substantial number of voters, about 5 percent, have also moved into the undecided column. A significant improvement in the economy, or continued advances in Iraq—an issue McCain has identified with strongly as the senator who championed the "surge" first—could alter the Republican's fortunes.

For now, however, Obama is running much stronger at this point in the race than his two most recent Democratic predecessors, Sen. John Kerry and Vice President Al Gore, who both failed in their bids to win the White House. In a July 2004 NEWSWEEK Poll, Kerry led Bush by only 6 points (51 percent to 45 percent). In June 2000, Gore was in a dead heat with Bush (45 percent to 45 percent)—which is essentially where he ended up when that razor-thin election was finally decided.

Most other national polls have shown Obama with a 4 to 5 point lead over McCain so far. Random statistical error can explain some of the difference in poll results. The NEWSWEEK survey of 1,010 adults nationwide on June 18 and 19, 2008, has a margin of error of 4 points. But the latest evidence of his gaining ground goes well beyond that margin.

Obama seems to have built his margin in part by picking up a key slice of Clinton's support, including women. Women voters in the new poll prefer him over McCain by 21 points (54 percent versus 33 percent). Defections to McCain by Hillary Clinton supporters are also down significantly since she dropped out of the race and endorsed the Obama. In the new poll, registered Democrats and Democratic leaners who supported Clinton during the primaries now favor Obama over McCain by 69 percent to 18 percent. In last month's survey, Clinton supporters backed the Illinois senator by a significantly smaller margin, 53 percent to 34 percent. Registered independents have also moved toward Obama, backing him by a 48 percent to 36 percent margin after splitting about evenly in last month's poll.

Obama's personal ratings have improved, as well: 62 percent of voters overall say they have a favorable opinion of him compared to only 26 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. By comparison, McCain's ratings are 49 percent favorable to 37 percent unfavorable, representing a drop from his previous 54 percent favorable rating. In the previous poll, coming at a time when Clinton's attacks on him were still fresh in Democrats' minds, Obama's favorability ratings were just 55 percent favorable versus 40 percent unfavorable. In the new survey, Clinton supporters' view of Obama have turned solidly positive (70 percent favorable versus 18 percent unfavorable).

Obama is trusted more to handle what may prove the biggest issue of the 2008 election--the economy and jobs—by a wide margin (54 percent to 29 percent). He also has a sizable advantage on energy policy, 48 percent to 34 percent, despite McCain's attempts this week to turn voters his way by supporting some new oil drilling and renewing his call for a gas-tax holiday. Voters do not lean as strongly to Obama on the issue of the Iraq War, but he is still preferred over McCain by 46 percent to 40 percent.

© 2008

Original Text