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Ebb and Flow

Remember what I said the other day about how the McCain campaign should have embraced the results in the Newsweek and LA Times polls so that everything else would look good by comparison?

McCain never really did that, but some on the right side of the blogosphere have gotten the memo. This is Ed Morrissey, whom I usually find pretty fair-minded and reasonable:

Those Newsweek and LA Times polls look more and more like outliers or worse. With both Gallup and Rasmussen showing either outright or virtual ties in their presidential tracking polls, Time offers even more evidence that Barack Obama has failed to pull away from John McCain after clinching the nomination.


The results should raise eyebrows anyway. Obama has actually lost ground since February, which dovetails with his collapse in the final months of the Democratic primary. This tends to underscore the shakiness of the Obama phenomenon; it hasn’t translated into general-election enthusiasm, and the trends are going in the wrong direction. Among the wider and less-predictive sample of registered voters, that has to cause a great deal of concern among Democrats who thought Obama would sail to victory on the puffery of “hope and change”.

Well, I don’t know how you define “pull away”, but Obama’s lead is roughly 5 points larger than it was before the primaries ended. We have dozens and dozens of points of evidence to back that up.

Has there been a bounce since February — the last time that Time conducted a national poll? You shouldn’t really expect one. If you look at our Super Tracker graph, you’ll find that February was the other time in this election that Obama was polling extremely well. If you held the election on February 12th, Obama would probably have won about 33 states. Same thing if you held the election today.

Some will say that the voters haven’t paid much attention to the race, and that Obama has plenty of time to put distance between himself and McCain. However, that ignores the attention Obama has received all throughout this campaign, especially in 2008. He has graced magazine covers across a wide spectrum of interests and the significance of his candidac has been widely discussed for months, while McCain has had relatively little time in the spotlight. Obama will receive more scrutiny and less celebration in the coming four months, while McCain’s profile will rise rapidly. Obama needed to have a big lead before then, a head start to ride out the coming storm.

The more people see of Obama, the less they seem to like him.

Well, I’d agree that Obama has been the focal point for media attention ever since he won the Iowa caucus. But it isn’t as though the attention has universally been positive. On the contrary, Obama’s media narrative was pretty brutal for substantial periods of March, April and May.

His polling did suffer during this time frame, and he’ll have other cycles like this too; in fact, I sense one starting fairly soon. But with the exception of the couple of weeks surrounding Jeremiah Wright’s debut onto the scene, McCain wasn’t really able to overtake him. And including the Jeremiah Wright thing, Obama has been a very resilient and media-savvy politician. It’s not clear which point on the Brooks-o-Meter represents the steady state.

That’s been the ebb and flow of the race in a nutshell. At his high tide — when his media narrative is good — Obama should win a relatively convincing victory, which might be more impressive in the Electoral College than in the popular vote because of the way the states are aligned this year. At Obama’s low tide, we’ll have another 2000, where we’re all staying up late on Election Night — or maybe even until Alaska’s results are counted the next morning.

But McCain has never been in control of this election. Even now, one has the sense that he’s playing for a tie.

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