July polls don’t tell you who’s going to win in November. Just ask President Dukakis or President Gore, both of whom were well ahead in July and went on to lose in the fall (although Mr. Gore still doesn’t quite see it that way). Or ask President Clinton, who was running third in some polls after clinching his party’s nomination, and won comfortably in the fall. Polls are, at best, snapshots of the present, not predictors of the future.
But that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. There’s a reason that news organizations, and campaigns themselves, spend time and money to try to get the picture right, even if that’s all it is. Polls give you an insight into the dynamic of the race ahead; they highlight the problems, or the challenges, facing the candidates, their strengths and weaknesses.
So here’s the bottom line. The polls make me nervous. Not desperate, not hopeless, not resigned, but nervous. Barack Obama should be ahead right now. Way ahead. Not even close is how it should look, even though I wouldn’t for a minute tell you that if it were that would seal the deal. But the fact that my old candidate Mike Dukakis was running better 20 years ago against George Bush than Obama is today against John McCain makes me nervous. It should be a sign to some of the whiners on my side, still worried about whether Obama is liberal enough or whether he’s doing enough to help Hillary, that it’s time to stop whining and start working. Otherwise, it will be hello President McCain.
It’s not that McCain is doing so well. He isn’t. AT best, the race is even (if you believe Newsweek), or Obama is six (the New York Times) or even eight (the Washington Post) points ahead. So why worry?
First, because the experience of the primaries, not to mention that of other African-American candidates, suggests that polls tend to overstate, not understate, support for black candidates. With the exception of Indiana, every pre-primary poll in a major state showed the race between Obama and Clinton to be closer than it turned out to be. It became a sort of running joke on election to see the DrudgeReport with the red siren on the top announcing that contests that Hillary would end up winning handily were, according to the exit polls that very day, too close to call.
Now, not to insult anyone, but if Democratic primary voters are playing both sides to the middle, as it were, why should general election voters be any different? The “Bradley effect,” as we in California refer to it (Tom Bradley, the popular black Los Angeles mayor who handily won the exit polls for Ggvernor, but lost the actual vote), has always been considered a general election phenomenon, and recent polls showing America to be as racially polarized as ever don’t exacty give comfort to those who would dismiss the concern that some voters may be telling pollsters one thing and then doing something very different when they actually mark their ballots.
Second, because this should be a Democratic year. A landslide Democratic year. The best Democratic year imaginable. Twenty years ago, when Michael Dukakis was leading around now, the incumbent Republican, Ronald Reagan, was actually popular. A majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track. Gas cost $1.08 a gallon. Jihadists were “freedom fighters.” The Republicans were the party of peace and prosperity; their “brand,” as marketers call it, was worth something.
To say Republicans have fallen on hard times doesn’t begin to describe it. George Bush’s approval ratings are down to the immediate family; even die-hard Republicans are wringing their hands. Party identification has plummeted. The wrong-trackers outnumber the right-trackers by more than two -to-one. The generic Democrat beats the generic Republican in the generic House contest (if only such things existed) by fifteen points. Even in the real (not generic) world, where the Congress that is controlled by actual Democrats is almost as unpopular as the White House that is controlled by actual Republicans, the numbers crunchers on both sides expect Democrats to increase their majorities in both Houses. Significantly. In the special elections to date, the Democrats are up 3-0, winning seats in places Democrats don’t win.
Third, John McCain is hardly the dream candidate for a tough Republican year. He’s old. He’s had cancer twice. He has a temper. His sense of humor on occasion takes him to the edge, or over it. The circumstances surrounding the break-up of his first marriage were such that the Ronald Reagans basically dropped him from their list (and hired his ex-wife). The circumstances surrounding his second marriage have led to published gossip about his relationship with a blonde lobbyist. He’s a Washington insider at a time when Washington insiders are much reviled.
To say that he is not a favorite of the conservative base of his own party is an understatement of major proportion, and while Republicans may understand the need to be “good soldiers” in political battles better than some of my liberal friends do, the fact that McCain has to spend considerable time and energy appealing to and reassuring his conservative base gets in the way of his efforts to assure swing voters who tend to decide elections that he really is the independent maverick who lost to George Bush in 2000 and not his twin separated at birth.
And then there’s the matter of his campaign, which has not exactly been the model of a well-oiled machine. Senator McCain has had months to put together a general election effort and to fine tune his message, while we Democrats were still playing out the Hillary v. Obama saga. But until last week, when Mike Murphy announced that he would be spending the campaign on MSNBC’s payroll and not McCain’s, the wires were burning about whether McCain would turn to his old friend Murphy for help and advice (he was calling), and whether Murphy would take the job (only if he was the sole chief and not the co-captain) and whether McCain would throw current chief strategist (and former mega-lobbyist) Charlie Black overboard to get Murphy on board.
Murphy’s deal with MSNBC may not be the last act in this drama, particularly if McCain continues to have weeks like last one, which found his campaign co-chair Phil Gramm telling hard-pressed Americans emptying their wallets to pay for a tank of gas and losing their homes because of bank loans that never should have been written that the recession was in their heads and that they should I stop whining. Did I mention that this was the same Phil Gramm who, as a Senator, championed the banking deregulation that most people blame for the subprime mess and the latest round of bank failures? To be fair, you can’t entirely blame the candidate or the campaign when a former senator shoots off; keeping such big shots, even (maybe especially) those with fancy titles on message is not an easy job. But the fact that the campaign’s first reaction was to stand by Senator Gramm and not send him overboard (or to Belarus, as Senator McCain later suggested) was a mistake, plain and simple. And it points to a larger problem with the McCain campaign: the message thing. Just what is Senator McCain’s message? You know there will be a major effort on the Republican side to destroy Obama. But will there be anything else? And if so, exactly what will that be?
So how can Newsweek have the race at a dead heat? How come, even in the polls where Obama is leading, his lead is in single digits? Is it that people still don’t know enough about him? No candidate in my lifetime has ever gotten better press coverage, more adoration from the media. Being attacked by Jesse Jackson is a gift of major proportions. Maybe it just hasn’t showed up yet in the numbers. Maybe race is a bigger factor than people want to admit. Maybe people just need to be convinced on the experience front. But whatever it is, Democrats should take note. It should be a Democratic year, but that is no guarantee that it will be one.
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 FOXNews.com.