Susan Estrich: Gauging the Polls

The bump that counts in politics right now is not the one Michelle and Barack Obama exchanged on what already seems like a long-ago Tuesday, but the one that presumptive Democratic nominee Obama is getting right now.

Two major polls out this week, one from Newsweek and the other from the L.A. Times/Bloomberg, have Obama leading McCain by 15 points and 12 points, respectively. A selection of state polls out this week from various sources has Obama holding leads in California, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington, Oregon and even Indiana, and McCain ahead in Utah.

The next major occasion for a bump is the Democratic Convention in August; the danger for McCain, looking ahead, is that unless something unexpected happens between now and then, he could head into the Republican Convention two major bumps behind.

None of this is really surprising; indeed, it would have been surprising, and certainly troubling, if Obama did not get a bump out of Hillary Clinton’s exit from the race and her endorsement of Obama.

McCain got his own bump when he locked up the Republican nomination. For those of us who have been claiming that the winner of the Democratic nomination process, flawed though it certainly is, would be better for the fight and that the divisions were not too deep to heal, the last 10 days Obama has spent hitting the economy as he streaks across America has been the time to prove us right by pushing up the poll numbers.

If Obama didn’t go up, we’d have been nervous.

The real question, of course, is just how much these poll numbers portend for the actual voting still months away. Polls are at best a photograph of where things stand today, not a basis for predicting where they will be in an uncertain future.

With Obama’s candidacy, every poll includes a question mark as to the continued existence and measure of what many call the "Bradley effect," named for former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who led in every single poll for governor of California, including the exit polls taken on election day, but lost in the actual balloting.

Just how much do people lie and claim they are voting for the African-American candidate when they aren’t?

Clearly, it happens. It happened in New Hampshire, where the Clinton "spin" on election day, based on the polls of the night before, was that keeping Obama to a single-digit victory would itself be a win.

It kept happening, to varying degrees, in all the big primaries, where the Drudge Report of exit polls at 5 p.m. would headline races that were supposed to be too close to call and ended up, in fact, as comfortable Clinton victories because the polls overstated Obama’s strength and understated hers.

Is Obama really ahead by double digits, or are people just saying that because they think they’re supposed to?

No one really knows. How could they? But the process of addressing the conscious and unconscious effects of race has a better chance of success if a majority of voters are at least claiming they are for Obama, whether that means they would vote for him (if the election were held today) or not.

What polls measure at this point in the race is heavily predisposition: Based on what you think you know about the candidates, who do you "like"? Or, at least, who do you think you should like or are willing to own up to liking?

Even though more people have paid more attention to politics this year than they usually do, Obama is still, relative to McCain, a newcomer to the national stage. That’s usually a dangerous thing in a presidential race, the danger being that the other side gets to define you in critical respects before you’ve had the chance to define yourself (and in the process, immunize yourself against their attacks).

But for Barack Obama, newcomer though he may be, the risk calculation is different. It’s not just that he has received more favorable attention from the media than any candidate I have ever observed, although he certainly has. He may be new, but for the last six months, you couldn’t avoid him.

But another factor is even more important. This is where the rubber hits the road. Money. The challenge for Obama, if the polls are even half right, is not to convince those who don’t like him to change their minds, but to now provide enough information to those who are at least publicly predisposed to his side to stay there.

That’s why, if you live in a key state, you’ll be seeing more ads than you would expect sooner than you would probably prefer "re-introducing" Barack Obama to you, providing the sort of biographical information backers hope will convince you that this is a man who understands the problems of people like you.

And it’s why Republicans are going to have to figure out, sooner rather than later, an approach that will at least convince the Republican financial base that they should invest, heavily, in the race against the Illinois senator.

Politics is full of self-fulfilling prophecies. Whatever the polls really mean, they are a great selling document for the Obama campaign to feed the fires, and the coffers, of the campaign. And they provide a lens to focus on McCain that highlights the failings and missteps of his campaign, a lens that makes it more difficult, in turn, for the campaign to do its job.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for