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Has Obama Won the Center? [UPDATED]

Whether or not you agree with the characterization of Barack Obama as a rootin’ tootin’, no good flip-flopper, bear the following in mind: all else being equal, a politician can expect to be punished if he changes his positions. Therefore, a politician will only change positions if the benefits outweigh the consequences.

Rasmussen has some new numbers out that suggest that Obama may indeed be reaping the benefits. In June, 26 percent of likely voters viewed McCain as a moderate versus 22 percent for Obama. But now, those numbers have — flip-flopped. Obama is now seen as a moderate by 27 percent of voters, versus 23 percent for McCain.

The salient fact here is not necessarily that Obama is perceived as more moderate than he once was; that’s pretty much what you’d expect. Rather, it’s that he’s somehow managed to make McCain seem more conservative. Presently, 28 percent of voters describe McCain as Very Conservative, whereas only 19 percent did a month ago. It may be the case that the McCain campaign’s inability to define their candidate has left him relatively unable to carve out his own ground; voters are defining him solely in relation to Barack Obama.

What makes these numbers especially tricky for McCain is that he had shifted rightward during the primaries — and has continued to do so to a certain extent in the general election campaign, with positions like his call for offshore drilling. If he were to attempt to move to the center now, that would not merely be a flip-flop; it would be a flip-flop squared.

There are still a few other cards the Republicans have left to play; their 527’s, for instance, will do everything in their power to see that Obama is not able to maintain a perception as a moderate. Even so, having ceded the center ground, McCain might not find it easy to get it back. What I’d find particularly exasperating about all of this if I were a Republican donor is that McCain had the first-mover advantage, having finished his primary months ahead of Barack Obama’s. Instead of using that time to preempt an Obama move to the center, he failed to do much of anything in particular. Nor, it seems, has his maverick brand been as rainproof as it was made out to be.

UPDATE: It’s rare that I find myself in disagreement with Chris Bowers, but very briefly:

(i) I’m not sure that Obama’s numbers aren’t improving. It’s hard to tell exactly because we’ve gone three or four days without much polling, and before that we were getting a weird mix of polls from the South and the Northeast that might not tell us much about what the rest of the country is thinking. But our tracking chart does show Obama having gained another point or two after what had looked to be a plateau.

(ii) I’d think the downside of a change in positions will tend to be frontloaded relative to the upside. Obama has gotten some very harsh media narrative out of this, but it hasn’t cost him anything in the polls and he may actually be gaining [see (i)]. I’m prepared to be wrong — maybe the flip-flop label sticks and the moderate label doesn’t. But that’s not my gut reaction. We’ll see.

(iii) Finally, as I argued last week, I don’t think this is necessarily a strategy designed to maximize one’s number of electoral votes, but rather one’s chances of winning the majority of them. This is a risk-averse maneuver, designed to blockade McCain from certain tactical options that he might have wished to take later on.

I also think that in some ways, this has ricocheted a bit on McCain, not precisely in recalling his own flip-flops but revealing a candidate who had yet to stake out any ground of his own. Imagine if McCain hadn’t pandered away from some of his more moderate positions during the primaries — then Obama might be in trouble. But also, in that universe, I’m not sure that Obama would have played his hand this way.

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

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