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Ayers Attacks Piquing Curiosity, But Perhaps Little Else

Bill Ayers’ Wikipedia entry has been accessed between 49,500 and 96,000 times over each of the past five days, as the McCain campaign has sought to stress the linkages between Barack Obama and the former Weather Underground frontman. This is a high figure; Jeremiah Wright, at his peak, was getting about 38,500 hits per day; Obama and McCain themselves are generally in the high five figures or very low six figures. The Obama campaign, for its part, got “Keating Five” up to 84,800 hits on Monday, although those numbers have since leveled off.

It is less clear, however, whether these attacks are having any tangible effects on perceptions of the candidates. Three of the daily tracking polls — Rasmussen, Hotline, and Research 2000 — chart the candidates’ favorability scores on a daily basis. Let’s compare the candidates’ ratings on 10/3 — before the Ayers attacks began — with those from yesterday, 10/8. (Why yesterday rather than today? Because we don’t want to conflate the Ayers impact with that of the presidential debate, which began to be reflected in today’s figures).

First, Barack Obama:

Pollster             Favorable      Unfavorable
Rasmussen 10/3 57 42
Rasmussen 10/8 56 (-1) 42 (n/c)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Research 2K 10/3 59 32
Research 2K 10/8 57 (-2) 33 (+1)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Hotline 10/3 58 36
Hotline 10/8 56 (-2) 39 (+3)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Average 10/3 58.0 36.7
Average 10/8 56.3 (-1.7) 38.0 (+1.3)

Between the three pollsters, Obama’s favorables decreased by an average of 1.7 points over this window, while his unfavorables increased by 1.3 points. These numbers suggest pehraps some incremental gains for McCain, but are well within the margins of error of the respective polls (the poll with the largest sample size — Rasmussen — showed the least effect). By comparison, when the Jeremiah Wright story first broke on March 13, Barack Obama’s favorables decreased by about 5 points within the span of a week, and his unfavorables increased by the same margin.

Here is what happened to McCain’s own ratings over the same window:

Pollster             Favorable   Unfavorable
Rasmussen 10/3 52 45
Rasmussen 10/8 52 (n/c) 46 (+1)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Research 2K 10/3 41 45
Research 2K 10/8 44 (+3) 49 (+4)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Hotline 10/3 53 40
Hotline 10/8 53 (n/c) 41 (+1)

Pollster Favorable Unfavorable
Average 10/3 48.7 43.3
Average 10/8 49.7 (+1.0) 45.3 (+2.0)

McCain’s unfavorables increased slightly over this window, by an average of 2 points, although only the Research 2000 result is outside the margin of error. McCain’s favorables also increased by an average of 1 point.

What we also don’t know is which types of voters, if any, were swayed by this stuff. When comparing the 10/8 and 10/3 releases of the various tracking polls, Obama lost a net of 5 points in the Hotline poll over this window, and a net of 1 point in Research 2000 and Rasmussen, but gained a net of 4 points in Gallup and a net of 1 point in the Battleground poll, producing an ambiguous overall trend.

If the McCain campaign wants to make any traction here, it will probably need to press the attack continuously, as it has little tangible news value and as interest in these things tends to fade rather quickly.

Obama’s best strategy may simply be to appear before a national audience as frequently as possible, as voters have always almost reacted favorably to Obama when he has had such opportunities. Obama’s favorables ticked upward in all three trackers in today’s release, suggesting that his strong performance in Tuesday night’s debate may cancel out or exceed any traction that McCain had been able to make on Ayers. This may also be the impetus behind Obama’s decision today to make a 30-minute, prime time ad buy in the week before the election, as candidates have few opportunities to reach a mass audience once the final debate has come and gone. If it so desired, the Obama campaign could probably also drive a decent amount of attention to the Keating Five, as the traffic metrics on the story essentially matched that of Ayers for the 48 hours or so that Chicago was pushing it.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.