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Damage Done?

Putting on my Obama hat for a second and at the risk of being accused of spin, I would tend to take a positive view of today’s Gallup tracking poll, which shows Barack Obama having fallen two points behind Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination (it’s 47 Clinton, 45 Obama).

This particular Gallup tracking poll is significant in that it’s the first one to consist entirely of post-Wright interviewing, assuming that one uses Friday to demarcate the proliferation of the Wright story into the public consciousness (and I do use Friday, because that’s the day on which it got wall-to-wall coverage on Morning Joe — as good a leading indicator of the state of the news cycle as any).

Remember, tracking polls are lagging indicators. All polls are lagging indicators, in fact. But tracking polls are particularly prone to misinterpretation, because which day is dropped from the tracking poll matters as much as which day is added. If, for example, Obama had finished 16 points ahead of Hillary on Thursday — the day that got dropped from the tracking poll today — he could have beaten her by 1 point in Sunday interviewing and the poll would have shown the same 5-point downward movement.

That is not to say that the Wright story hasn’t done any damage. Clearly, there has been some downward movement, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to cover their ears and scream: “IT’S JUST RANDOM NOISE!”

But over the very worst three days of the campaign that Obama has had since he announced his candidacy last February, he still only trailed Hillary by 2 points in the Gallup tracker — within the margin of error.

Any sort of bounce or “anti-bounce” in the polling numbers can be described with two parameters: its depth (how large the bounce is at its apex), and its depth (how long it lasts). On the depth front, the Wright story was a Bad Thing for Obama — but not fatal, nor on the brink of being fatal, nor on the brink of the brink of being fatal. (On the brink of the brink of the brink of being fatal, perhaps? OK, you got me). On the breadth front, we will find out soon enough, though Obama’s big speech tomorrow gives the chance for the media to give this issue some closure (at least until the general election cycle begins in earnest).

In the meantime, the Democrats’ main concern should be with their declining numbers against John McCain; what’s interesting is that both Democrats seem to have suffered in the Rasmussen national tracker since the story broke. McCain getting face time in Iraq while the Democrats squabble and work to put out fires — it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that is not a good visual. And ironically, by the way, I think Obama’s speech tomorrow has the potential to be helpful to Hillary’s head-to-head numbers too. This is a pretty good excuse for the Democrats to stand down, at least until we get closer to the Pennsylvania primary.

EDIT: FWIW, there is at least one other poll showing Obama with a comfortable lead over Hillary over the same interview period. But I am actually more inclined to “believe” the Gallup Tracker. You’ll hear me say it time and time again, but polling numbers in the primaries are inherently very soft, and something as major as the Wright controversy “should” have an impact on the numbers. Precisely because the support is soft, however, is also why the opportunity is there for a quick recovery.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.