Explaining the McCain/Palin surge

Since Sept. 2, when Obama led McCain in the RCP average of polls by almost 7%, 49.2 to 42.8 (his biggest margin since late June) the polling dynamics of this race have undergone a sharp turnabout.  The last RCP average of polls showed McCain up by 2.3%, 47.4 to 45.1.  So in a span of 9 days Obama lost 4 points, McCain gained almost 5 for a net turnaround of almost 9% in RCP’s poll of the polls. Of the 11 most recent national surveys conducted, McCain leads in 7, they are tied in 2, and Obama holds 1% leads in the remaining two.  In the various Electoral College scenarios available at various websites (I’ll look at these in a later post) McCain has drawn even, or in some cases ahead, of Obama.   Even the “futures markets” are now placing most of their money on McCain winning the election. All in all, it has been a good stretch for the McCain/Palin ticket since the Republican convention.

I have avoided commenting on this shift until today in order to give time for the Republican convention bounce to peak and to see whether it will recede, but now seems like an appropriate time to answer two questions: what accounts for the McCain/Palin surge, and will it last?

First, the dynamics behind the surge are pretty clear, and can be captured in two words:  Sarah Palin.  (I’m tempted here to remind readers of my earlier posts on this topic but that would be quite unseemly.  However you are free to go back and read them!)  There are two underlying factors driving the Palin dynamics – her impact on Republicans, women and independent voters, and the ineptness with which Democratic strategists, abetted by Obama’s off the cuff  lipstick remark, have responded to her selection.  Let’s look first at the survey numbers.

To begin, Palin has very favorable polling numbers – Rasmussen reports as of Sept. 10 that Palin was viewed favorably by 56% of voters, including 41% with a Very Favorable opinion.  (Compare this to Biden’s numbers: 53% favorable, with 25% Very Favorable).  Her selection, as I discussed earlier, has energized the Republican base, particularly evangelicals.  According to one survey of evangelicals (unfortunately this polling outfit doesn’t provide sampling data or crosstabs, so use with caution), McCain held 73 percent of the evangelical vote before the Republican convention. Just one week after announcing Palin as his running mate, that percentage jumped to 80 percent and the number of undecided evangelicals dropped by half.  As I discussed earlier, support among evangelicals was not affected by the news that Palin’s unwed daughter was pregnant.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the Palin pick has shown signs of moving independents and women into McCain’s column. Among unaffiliated voters, 54% have a favorable opinion of Palin (49% say the same about Biden). What must be particularly worrisome to Obama supporters is that among independents, a slight plurality now views the McCain/Palin ticket as more likely to bring change than the Obama/Biden ticket. (Diego/Hotline poll from Sept. 5-7 -for actual data go to: http://diageohotlinepoll.com/documents/diageohotlinepoll/Diageo%20Hotline%20Tracker%20release%20-%2009%2008%2008%20data.pdf). )  More worrisome still, independents are now evenly divided between McCain and Obama on who is more likely to bring effective health care reform.  McCain also now leads Obama among independents on dealing with the economy (37-33), and the energy (40-32).  This is a big turnaround from before the conventions, when independent thought Obama was the agent of change and better able to handle all these issues.  In short, among independents, it is the McCain/Palin ticket, and not Obama/Biden, that is now viewed as the reform/change vote.  By choosing Palin, McCain has repositioned himself among the crucial independents, and made it harder for Obama to link him to the Bush/Cheney administration.  Conversely, by choosing Biden, Obama undercut his own image as a reformer.

Now let’s look at women.  Remember, this was probably the single most important demographic to contribute to Bush’s victory in 2004 – although Kerry won the overall women’s vote, Bush gained roughly 3-5% among all groups of women (black, white, latino) from his support among these groups in 2000.  That pushed him from 48 to 51% of the popular vote.  So, where do women stand now, after Obama (apparently) brushed Clinton aside and McCain responded by putting Palin on the ticket?  (All data are from the ABC News/Washington Post survey released Sept. 8 – go to:


Most noticeably, ABC reports (but does not show the crosstabs, unfortunately!) a 20% shift among white women toward McCain in the period between before the conventions, when they supported Obama 50-42, to after the convention, where they now support McCain 53-41. This same poll has McCain up among independents – who number about 18% of those surveyed – 50-43%, and it also shows McCain closing the gap or pulling ahead on the various policies discussed above (“better able to handle”): the economy, security, and energy.  (However, in this poll Obama stills lead McCain among all voters by 51-39 on most likely to bring change to Washington.)  So, those disaffected Clinton voters are, right now, deserting Obama in huge numbers. According to the Rasmussen tracking poll, Obama led McCain among women voters by 14% at the height of the Democratic convention bounce – since that it has been reduced to 7% as of Sept. 12.  If this trend continues, McCain will win the election. Women are the most important voting bloc in this country and given his clear support among men, McCain needs only to draw within a couple of percentage points to Obama among women and the election is his. In a clear effort to achieve this goal, Palin – no fool – took time to praise Hillary Clinton in her ABC interview, and went so far as to say Obama probably regrets not putting Clinton on the ticket.  (I wonder…)

So, what are we to make of this shift in survey dynamics? I have indicated that in past elections, the vice presidential selection rarely influences the final vote decision, and I persist in believing that the Palin effect will recede somewhat, a function of increased media scrutiny of her candidacy (notice the flap over her cautious response to Charlie Gibson’s question about the “Bush Doctrine”), possible fallout from Troopergate, and the inevitable shift in voter attention to more fundamental issues.   Still, this has been an election that has broke with previous precedents, and it is worth noting that 68% of voters (Rasmussen poll) say that the presidential candidates’ running mates are more important this year than in previous election cycles.  It’s hard to tell how much of that is simply the halo effect of the Palin choice.  But it may be that the choice of a vice president, for the first time, will have a demonstrable and enduring impact on the election results.  If so, it will reinforce my claim that Obama simply missed the call on Clinton VP pick, thus opening the window for McCain to choose Palin.  If Obama loses this campaign – and the underlying fundamentals, as I’ll discuss in a post to come, favor him – the most direct cause will be his failure to choose Clinton as his running mate. Candidates have very few opportunities to control their own destiny in a presidential campaign; election outcomes, for the most part, are determined by factors outside their immediate influence. One of the few exceptions is their choice of the vice presidential candidate.  McCain seized the opening provided by Obama, and is now reaping the benefits. As one of my audience members put it last night, in considering the vice presidency, Obama was playing checkers and McCain chess.

But the outcome of this election game – whether chess or checkers – is not in my view likely to be determined by the vice presidential choices (although I am less confident of this than I once was). And, in fact, there are underlying reasons to believe that the electoral situation in many ways is still quite favorable to Obama, and that survey data may be understating his support. I’ll look at that more closely in my next post.

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