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Why Obama isn’t like Dukakis

As several observers have noted recently, including yours truly, June polling has not been a particularly good predictor of November results. In four out of the last five elections, the candidate leading in the polls in June went on to lose the popular vote. The largest discrepancy was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis, 8.2 points ahead in June, would eventually lose the election by 7.8 points — a catastrophic 16-point swing against the Massachusetts governor.

This election too could move in any number of different directions. While Obama can presently be regarded as the healthy favorite, think of what a 16-point swing would mean in this year’s election. If that swing were in Obama’s direction (giving him a 21-point victory when added to his current lead of about 5 points) we would project Obama to win all states except Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah. If it were in John McCain’s direction instead, giving him an 11-point win nationwide, we would have him winning 42 out of 50 states.

The way that the Republicans achieved that big swing in 1988, assisted by a couple of significant gaffes from the Dukakis campaign, was to portray Dukakis as too liberal for the American mainstream. The same basic strategic template was employed against John Kerry in 2004. However, this strategy is unlikely to work in 2008. How come? Barack Obama is already perceived as being very liberal.

In a Rasmussen Reports poll conducted last week, 67 percent of likely voters described Obama as liberal, including 36 percent who described him as very liberal. By contrast, only 45 percent of voters described John Kerry as liberal in May of 2004, and 53 percent by November, 2004.

This shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Obama is best known not so much as a candidate for the Presidency, but as one for the Democratic nomination. In contrast to Dukakis, who had both Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart flanking him to the left, and Kerry, who was perceived as the more centrist, electable alternative to Howard Dean, Obama had emerged by the end of the primary campaign as running to Hillary Clinton’s left (Clinton being no conservative herself). Indeed, Obama is already perceived as substantially more liberal than Kerry was even after the Swift Boat ads, months’ worth of framing the narrative, and tens of millions of dollars in attack advertising had gotten done with him.

But Obama is winning.

It may be that the primary fault line in this election is not liberal versus conservative, but change versus experience. Voters might think that Barack Obama is slightly further from them ideologically than is John McCain — but they might also think that the country has been governed for eight years by a conservative, and that this governance has failed.

It may also be that voters are more conservative in theory than in practice. According to Rasmussen, 36 percent of voters describe themselves as conservative as opposed to 25 percent who say that they are liberal. This figure is not all that different from 2004, when 34 percent of voters said they were conservative and 21 percent liberal in exit polling. But if you look at the specific issues that loom largest in this campaign, the liberal position on things like pulling out from Iraq, implementing some kind of national health care policy, and increasing environmental regulation each poll at roughly 70/30 majorities.

There is also a school of thought that voters in Presidential elections tend to base their decisions less on the ideological attributes of a candidate and more on the personal ones. Obama’s favorability rating presently stands at a +25. By contrast, John Kerry rarely did much better than even on this metric, depending on the specific wording of the question.

Either way, this is a significant problem for the Republicans. If their strategy is to say “Hey! Hey! Barack Obama is a liberal!”, the American public’s reaction is likely to be “Well, no shit! We’re voting for him anyway.”

This is not to say that McCain can gain no traction at all by trying to seize the political center. In fact, in an election in which the Democrats have something like a 4:3 edge in party identification, McCain absolutely has to find some way to win a majority of independent voters, and perhaps a fairly substantial one. Moreover, while the voters appear to be ready to elect a President they perceive as liberal, they surely won’t be ready to elect one they perceive as radical, and so we can expect the Republicans to continue to play up Obama’s associations with figures like Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. This remains relatively dangerous territory for Obama.

However, if the Republicans attempt to recycle the 1988 or 2004 playbooks, they will probably not find the results to their liking. And if McCain at any point refers to Obama as a “Card-carrying member of the ACLU”, you can be pretty sure that this election is over.

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