Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and his partner, James Carville, say this election is Barack Obama’s to lose. But voters indicate it’s a tossup.
If the country really is in the shape Democrats said it was during their convention, a tossup is bad news for the former social-welfare activist and now freshman senator from Chicago.
One week before the Democrats gathered in Denver to declare Mr. Obama their candidate, Mr. Greenberg was polling 1,348 likely voters in 18 battleground states - places like Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia that probably will decide the 2008 presidential race. The results were tighter than Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Carville expected: When leaners were factored in, Mr. Obama drew 46 percent and John McCain 44 percent - a statistical dead heat - which suggests a doubting electorate that is still not comfortable with the rookie senator who has spent little time in the Senate during the last 3.5 years.
“I can see a way we can lose this election,” Mr. Carville cautiously told reporters at a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s more likely he wins than loses, but that’s not certain,” the veteran Clinton strategist quickly added.
Democrats and Mr. Obama’s high command were looking to accomplish three things at their convention. They wanted Hillary Clinton to unite a still-fractured party. She did what was needed, but a week of interviews in various delegations showed that the party’s open primary wounds had still not fully healed. Many die-hard Hillary supporters and fund-raisers left embittered, feeling they had been treated badly.
Party officials wanted the country to get to know Barack Obama better, too. Astonishingly, many Democratic leaders came here saying Mr. Obama was still not well-known in their state. A parade of speakers, from Michelle Obama to running mate Joe Biden, told his personal story.
But we’ll have to wait for this week’s Republican Convention to tell the rest of Mr. Obama’s story - specifically, that Mr. Obama has one of the most liberal voting records in the U.S. Senate and Illinois legislature.
Some huge exaggerations about Mr. Obama’s record also need correcting - like Mr. Biden’s claim that Mr. Obama was responsible for the successful welfare-to-work reforms, when that landmark program was passed by the Republican Congress in the late 1990s.
The Democrats’ final task was to attack John McCain’s record. While the Obama campaign was playing rope-a-dope, the McCain camp was hitting him daily with a raft of TV and Internet attack ads over the last month. Democrats were complaining early last week that Mr. Obama had to start hitting back. Bill Clinton and Mr. Biden counterattacked with gusto, but it remained to be seen whether that - and Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech - would give him a significant bounce in the polls.
Heading into his convention, those polls were falling. Mr. McCain was edging ahead in Ohio and Michigan, and even Pennsylvania was tightening. Michigan, in particular, was emerging as a potential setback for Mr. Obama.
A case study of what’s happening there was detailed in an analysis by Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Carville titled, “Back to Macomb: Reagan Democrats and Barack Obama.” Ronald Reagan swept Democratic Macomb County with 66 percent of the vote in 1984. Bill Clinton carried it in 1996. Al Gore took it by 2 points, and John Kerry lost it by 1. But Mr. Greenberg’s poll last month found Mr. Obama trailing Mr. McCain by 7 points (46 percent to 39 percent).
“He is underperforming with Democrats, getting 71 percent of their support here compared to 85 percent nationally,” according to the report. “Why are these voters in Macomb holding back from Obama? They are not sure they really know him well enough to trust him, and race is a consideration that rises to the level of a threshold issue, with voters wanting to be sure he will represent everyone,” the authors wrote.
Just 33 percent of Macomb voters and 40 percent of Democratic defectors think he’ll put the interests of blacks ahead of other Americans. But they can’t fathom how he could sit in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s pews for 20 years and not hear his radical, hateful rhetoric. “Macomb voters are watching Obama closely, and they are not sure his political passions are theirs,” according to “Back to Macomb.”