- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Barack Obama leads in the polls, but every pollster understands the butterflies in the bellies of sober Democrats. With everything going for him, why hasn’t Barack Obama put a little daylight between himself and John McCain? Querulous minds want to know.

Where, asks Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company, is “the Barack bump?” Where, indeed.

Many of the reporters traveling with Mr. Obama on his Magical Mystery Tour of the Middle East (and certain European beachheads of Islam) and the giddy pundits have been treating him as if he were, in Mzz Conway‘s description, “the fifth Beatle.”

Gallup found a tiny weekend bump — perhaps a pimple or a zit — over the weekend, and on Sunday put his advantage at 9 points. This is getting close to something significant, but Gallup cautions that “the key question remains as to whether this ‘bounce’ is short-term (as happens to bounces … following intense publicity surrounding a convention) or if his lead will persist — the answer to which will become evident in the next several days.”

We didn’t have to wait that long. Rasmussen Reports, which has been the hottest polling firm over the eternity that politics makes of a year or two, reported yesterday that its daily tracking poll shows that “Barack Obama’s Berlin bounce is fading.” Rasmussen said its weekend polling showed Mr. Obama with a 3-point lead, well within the margin of error (and deep within the so-called “Bradley effect,” the phenomenon of black candidates to register significantly better in public-opinion polls than on Election Day).

“Unless and until Obama breaks 50 percent and remains there for a few weeks, or he leads McCain by double digits for the same number of days,” says Mzz Conway, “the race is a fight to the finish.”

Poll numbers at this early stage of a race are always the stuff of wishes and dreams; every pol will tell you that. Michael Dukakis came out of the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988 leading George H.W. Bush by 16 to 20 points, and three months later he could take consolation only in the fact that he wouldn’t have to beg money from exhausted friends to build a presidential library. Al Gore and John Kerry led George W. through much of the ‘00 and ‘04 campaigns. Thomas E. Dewey was so far ahead of Harry Truman that by mid-October the pollsters sent their agents home and closed the books.

Nevertheless, early polls are fun, almost as much fun as deriding and mocking them. They’re useful, too, but more as ammunition for barroom argument and dinner-party speculation than for what they tell about what to expect in November. The candidates and their handlers know this better than anyone.

But the questions about the Obama phenomenon persist. Why hasn’t he pulled away? With adoring press coverage that Elvis would envy, with an opponent derided as an old man well beyond his sell-by date, with Republicans fractured and fractious in a way few living men can recall as precedent, and with a media obsessed with airhead celebrity having crowned him as the permanent American Idol, Barack Obama looks vulnerable, vincible and almost as inevitable as Hillary Clinton.

A look beyond the pollsters’ exciting horse-race number yields clues. The Conway polling finds Mr. Obama with higher negatives than John McCain, and Mr. McCain is regarded as superior in “strong leadership qualities” (by 11 points), “more consistent in standing up for his beliefs” (by 8 points) and “more experienced” (by a remarkable 34 points). These are just the measures that voters, particularly the independent voters on whom this election turns, will employ in the final days and hours before Nov. 4.

One Rasmussen finding to make Democrats fretful is that more than half of the voters now think we’re winning the war against the Islamist terrorists. This is the most optimistic poll finding on terror in more than four years. His handlers and his acolytes in the media insist that Mr. Obama will break decisively ahead once voters learn more about the freshman senator with the unfortunate and misleading Muslim name who sprang 99 and 44/100 percent pure from the cesspool of Chicago’s racist politics. But others, some of them fervent Obama men, concede that the more voters learn, the more uneasy they seem to be. He has yet to break 50 percent in the polls in what the media is telling us is a slam-dunk year for the Democrat. He’s still the odds-on favorite, but this looks like a very odd year.

* Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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