In the two months since Barack Obama captured the Democratic nomination, he has hit a ceiling in public opinion polling, proving unable to make significant gains with any segment of the national electorate.
While Obama still leads in most matchups with John McCain, the Illinois senator’s apparent stall in the polls is a sobering reminder to Democrats intoxicated with his campaign’s promises to expand the electoral map beyond the boundaries that have constrained other recent party nominees.
That gap between expectations and reality comes as Democrats enjoy the most favorable political winds since at least 1976. At least eight in ten Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track. The Republican president is historically unpopular. From stunning Democratic gains in party registration to the high levels of economic anxiety, Obama should have a healthy lead by almost every measure. Yet, in poll after poll, Obama conspicuously fails to cross the 50 percent threshold.
ABC News Polling Director Gary Langer asked, “If everything is so good for Barack Obama, why isn’t everything so good for Barack Obama?”
Obama remains ahead, depending on the national poll, by low to high single digits. The Gallup Poll Daily tracking survey, which randomly interviews at least 1,000 voters each day, has recently found that Obama leads by 3 to 4 percentage points.
In the first full week of the general election, June 9-15, Obama led by between 2 and 7 percentage points. Just short of two months later, registered voters have not significantly shifted their views, as Gallup finds public opinion still fluctuating between roughly the same margins.
“What’s remarkable this summer is the stability of this race,” Gallup’s director Frank Newport said. “In a broad sense, it is similar to previous elections.”
In Gallup’s last national poll prior to the 2004 party conventions, for example, John F. Kerry led President Bush 47 percent to 43 percent. In 2000, also in Gallup’s last national poll prior to the party conventions, Bush led former Vice President Al Gore 46 percent to 41 percent.
Three demographic groups have generally kept Obama ahead in the past two months: African-Americans, youth and Hispanics. But a lead based on those groups is a tenuous one. The youth vote, notorious for not meeting expectations, must turn out in significantly higher numbers than in past elections. Obama must continue to win the black vote nearly unanimously and still turn out new African-American voters. McCain must continue to underperform with Hispanics by about 10 percentage points compared to Bush in the summer of 2004.
McCain might also be said to have hit a ceiling himself. At best, he has statistically tied Obama for fleeting periods this summer.
Yet in this Democratic year, the subject that dominates chatter among pollsters is Obama’s stubbornly slim lead.
If there is a primary explanation as to why the race has remained close this summer, it is that Obama has failed to make gains overall with white voters, who still cast about three in four ballots on Election Day.
As Gore did in 2000, Obama nearly splits white women and loses white men by a large margin, according to an aggregate of polling in June and July 2008 and polling in 2000 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Depending upon the week in June or July, by Gallup’s measure, Obama has roughly fluctuated between splitting or, at worst, trailing by about 5 percentage points with white women. In that same period, Obama has won only between 34 percent and 37 percent of white men.
In general — and with men in particular — Pew's data shows that Obama's gains with young whites compared to Gore in 2000 are offset by a weakness with older whites.
Obama also seems to have hit a ceiling with Hispanics. Latino support fluctuates between 57 percent, by the latest weekly measure, to 68 percent the week before — roughly the margin of Hispanic support that has marked the entire summer, by Gallup's measure.
What all this suggests is a general election that is much tighter than many analysts predicted and defined by far more stubborn levels of support.
As it stands, on Aug. 3 the RealClearPolitics average of national polling had 46.6 percent of the public supporting Obama, putting him narrowly ahead of McCain. Exactly two months earlier, on June 3, that same average had Obama at the exact same level of support — 46.6 percent.