Poll Dancing

Speculation on Obama's poll numbers says more about commentators than about Obama

The 2008 presidential race has reached a turning point—or at least the pundit chatter has. Judging by the flood of columns with which we’re being deluged this week, the race is now defined by the question, “Why doesn’t Obama have a clear lead in the polls?” Obsession with this puzzle is so intense, petulantly complains the Washington Post’s AndrĂ©s Martinez, that he couldn’t get anyone to focus on his favorite news story of the day, the “Mockefeller” kidnapping in Boston.

Martinez’s suggestion that a bizarre family kidnapping deserves some of the attention going to the 2008 presidential race is clearly tongue-in-cheek, but it raises a serious point. It is certainly curious that the race has gotten tighter, and the campaigns are undoubtedly polling their brains out to find an explanation. But while we’re approaching the real sprint to the finish line, we’re not there yet. The conventions have yet to happen, and Americans tune into political races notoriously late. These poll shifts show that the race is still volatile, but efforts to offer definite explanations as to why these changes are happening are more parlor game than journalism. Many of those spilling ink are politically aligned, and sometimes appear more interested in shaping the story line than describing it.

Perhaps the silliest example is David Brooks’s column in today’s New York Times. Based on detailed scrutiny of Obama’s autobiographies, his personal relationships in the Senate and University of Chicago Law School, and Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article on the candidate’s experiences in Chicago’s political scene, Brooks concludes that “the root” of Obama’s declining lead “is probably this: Obama has been a sojourner… Obama lives apart. He put one foot in the institutions he rose through on his journey but never fully engaged. As a result, voters have trouble placing him in his context, understanding the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.”

There’s no doubt that Obama continues to struggle to define himself, and his unusual background is certainly a challenge in that regard. But voters need not have such an extremely detailed grasp of Obama’s temperament to be perplexed by his background. His name, his ancestry, and years growing up abroad likely give pause to many who have no inkling of the commitment issues Brooks highlights. In light of Brooks’ conservative leanings, his column reads like an effort to fan the flames of these anxieties in a way genteel enough not to outrage the Times readership.

Mark Penn is a Democratic strategist, not a journalist, and, in a column for Politico, he diagnoses Obama’s stagnation in the manner of a doctor prescribing a cure. “In many recent presidential elections, Americans have had a choice: pick the candidate they think is a stronger leader or pick the candidate they believe is right on the issues,” he writes. Though Americans overwhelmingly favor Democratic policies, says Penn, Obama lacks a ten- to fifteen-point lead because “of the same [leadership] concerns that the public had about past Democratic presidential nominees Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John F. Kerry.” Penn’s solution is to lay out more aggressive policy proposals that will make it clear that “this election is not about who is strong or weak, but about who is right or wrong.”

Other explanations abound: Former McCain communications director Dan Schnur suggests on the New York Times’s Web site that the race is freezing into a contest between “Angry Old Geezer and “Callow Young Egotist.” (Though this dynamic poses more hazards for McCain, Schnur argues, it’s also easier for him to fix: it’s “less complicated for Mr. McCain to move beyond charges of nastiness than it will be for Mr. Obama to get past the appearance of arrogance.”) Former Reagan economic advisor Lawrence Kudlow concludes that, with a “drill, drill, drill message, the Republican party might conceivably be riding a summer political rally.” A nice explanation, because presumably Kudlow thinks they should keep it up.

Any and all of these explanations may be true, and they may even persist into the real political season that begins after Labor Day. But that seems doubtful—the conventions will shake up the campaign story lines, which seem to only have a week-long shelf life this cycle. And tracking polls are not fine-grained enough to really give us an idea of what’s happening in voters minds. Much like the endless speculation about the vice-presidential picks, the interpretations of these polls are little more than a political Rorschach test. We’re learning a lot about writers’ wish-fulfillment fantasizes, but not so much about what’s actually at work.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.