That Newsweek possesses a penchant for wry understatement was strikingly apparent when the magazine observed Friday: "Obama's overall decline from the last Newsweek Poll ... is hard to explain."
As it turned out, Barack Obama's decline -- a bellyflopping swan dive from a 15 point to merely three point lead over John McCain in only three weeks -- was actually quite impossible to explain, although speculation abounds.
It could be, of course, that Newsweek's latest poll is pure bunk. Or, it could be that Newsweek's previous poll was pure bunk. Such methodological matters are not unlike an ad exec trying to determine which half of his advertising isn't working. It's nigh impossible to say.
Notwithstanding what cable network analysts have been saying over the weekend, however, Newsweek's June poll -- the one showing a 15 point Obama advantage -- did not stand alone. For indeed there was another poll at the time, the LA Times/Bloomberg poll, that showed a similar Obama lead; in fact, an identical lead when Ralph Nader and Bob Barr were factored.
So who knows? Only one thing is certain: Princeton Survey Research Associates isn't. Because as Newsweek noted of its own poll's designer, PSRA "says some of the discrepancy between the two most recent polls may be explained by sampling error." Well, that's why they put erasers on pencils.
For the fainthearted I would add another finding as solace, however.
As everyone knows (admittedly a risky introduction to any sentence in such a "low-information" democracy), national polling numbers in head-to-head matchups don't mean much; rather, predicting a presidential election is all about the state-by-state electoral count.
And there, according to Real Clear Politics' latest averages of state-by-state polling, if one eliminates all those fussy "leaning" margins and just goes with the hard numbers as of today, then Obama wins the electoral college vote, 304 to 234.
Hey, work with me here. It's something, and that something is abundantly better than an actual 15-to-three point dive in merely three weeks. Naturally, it could be that both Newsweek polls were incorrect in their extremes, and a simple averaging of the two brings them into line with most other national polling.
Still, one marvels at the seeming flat-lining of Obama's numbers, whatever their vicissitudinous peaks and valleys. As Newsweek put it rather austerely: "Perhaps most puzzling is how McCain could have gained traction in the past month."
In every issue-by-issue polling analysis done by virtually every polling organization, Obama crushes McCain across the board, except on the "protect us from terrorism" bugaboo. But in this election terrorism is rarely even among the top three national concerns, so "puzzling" indeed is Obama's issue dominance vis-à-vis his relative parity with McCain in a head-to-head matchup.
Unless, that is, one ponders the old bugaboos of race and religion in America, and their steadfast companion of staggering ignorance. I'll let Newsweek present the grisly details:
The new poll suggests white voters continue to be a challenge for Obama, with McCain leading the Democrat in that category 48 to 36 percent. Some of Obama's lag in white support may be explained by continual confusion over his religious identity.
Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended an Islamic school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true. Finally cracking the code with less-educated whites could have a big payoff for Obama: 85 percent of undecided voters are non-Hispanic whites and only 22 percent of those undecideds have a four-year college degree.
OK, so the problem isn't disagreement with Obama on domestic issues, and it isn't national security concerns, and it isn't any severe fracture within the Democratic Party ("only 17 percent of former Clinton supporters say they will vote for McCain in the general election," and even that statistic, given empirical data, is slated for continuing decline), and it is scarcely any burgeoning enthusiasm for another Republican president of Gothic disposition.
So let us think hard. What could the problem be; whatever could it be?
Senator Obama, of late you've done a nice job -- I'd go so far as to say an admirable job -- of cynically shifting to the political center, which is where, of course, the immutably cynical game of politics is won. But from now till the convention, it should be a game of little more than personal introduction and reintroduction -- of your biracial, Christian biography. For this election, like nearly all others, it appears, will be decided by the reliably ignorant.
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THE FIFTH COLUMNIST by P.M. Carpenter
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The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.