/ 9 August 2008

Democrats on edge as Obama fails to deliver poll lead

Before flying with his family for a week’s holiday in Hawaii on Friday, Barack Obama expressed concern about taking a break in election year. ”During the middle of a campaign you’re always worried about taking some time off,” he said.

He may have good reason to worry. He leaves behind a Democratic party that over the past fortnight has been showing signs for the first time of nervousness about the November 4 election.

For them, this is supposed to be the Democrats’ year, an inevitable march towards the White House after the catastrophic defeats of 2000 and 2004. Almost everything seems to be going their way: unpopular president, disenchantment with the Iraq war, a faltering economy and an inspirational Democratic candidate.

What is worrying the Democrats, in spite of all these pluses, is that Obama’s poll lead has remained stubbornly small. A tracking poll by RealClearPolitics published on Friday has Obama on 46,9% compared with John McCain’s 43,3%.

”I think there are a lot of Democrats who are nervous,” said Tad Devine, chief strategist for the Kerry White House bid in 2004. ”I think they thought this election would fall into their laps.”

Devine stressed that he was not among the pessimists and cautioned against what he described as ”an artificial expectation that he needs to be way ahead at this time”.

But the concern among Democrats is not just over the size of the poll lead but over the impact of negative ads from McCain over the last two weeks that have reawakened bitter memories of Republican tactics in 2000 and 2004.

Since the heady days of Obama’s address in Berlin in front of an adoring crowd of 200 000 last month, the Democrat has been on the receiving end of ads from McCain portraying him as a celebrity-driven egotist and an elitist out of touch with the American public.

”Obama’s bubble has not burst but it is leaking,” said Peter Brown, assistant director at one of the country’s leading pollsters, the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. He found it significant that when those surveyed were asked whether they want Democrats or Republicans to win, Democrats emerged with a double-digit lead, but when asked about Obama or McCain, Obama’s lead was only in single figures.

Brown said that while the expectation is that Obama would win, ”history is replete with northern liberals who end up losing”.

McCain, who has struggled since the spring to win media attention, has finally achieved media parity with Obama over the last fortnight because of his negative campaign. Race has been raised as an issue, though McCain accuses Obama of bringing it up first.

But the central theme is to portray Obama — shown repeatedly against the backdrop of the Berlin crowds- as messianic, with an ad comparing him to Moses, and too fond of celebrity status, with his image placed alongside Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

A quiz on a Republican website invites readers to guess whether quotes were from Obama, the actors Cameron Diaz and Matt Damon, David Beckham or some other celebrity. The quotes include: ”Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula [rocket]?” The answer is Obama.

McCain, in spite of being richer than Obama and with a taste for expensive living, such as $520 Ferragamo shoes, presents himself as closer to the grittier world of working-class America. He told a rally of bikers in South Dakota this week: ”Not long ago, a couple of hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I’ll take the roar of 50 000 Harleys any day.”

The decision to go for the individual rather than policy is a big decision for any politician but especially for McCain, who suffered badly from negative tactics in the 2000 Republican primary contests at the hands of George Bush and his strategist, Karl Rove. The night he lost, McCain was bouncing around his hotel room in a rage, with his wife Cindy weeping, over his treatment.

Lack of impact
McCain promised to fight an honourable, positive and respectful campaign against Obama but, unable to make an impact, he put aside his resentment over what happened in 2000 and called in a Rove protege, Steve Schmidt.

In an interview with the Washington Post last week, McCain defended the change of personnel and tactics . ”If I win this campaign,” he said, ”historians will say, ‘He was a genius.”’

A media backlash against Obama was inevitable and a poll this week by the Pew research organisation suggested the public too were growing weary of the high media exposure and would like to see less of him. Two anti-Obama biographies published this week, the first such books, shot to the top of bestseller lists.

The Obama team remains outwardly calm. As they did during the fight for the Democratic nomination, even when trailing Clinton by 30%, they are quietly sticking to their game plan, filling in gaps in Obama’s narrative, focusing on domestic issues and raising the millions needed to outspend the Republicans.

Professor Michael McDonald, who has built a reputation for number-crunching poll figures at Virginia’s George Mason University, acknowledged the negative campaigning had energised Republicans. But there was a downside for the Republicans, he said, such as negative ads feeding into an image of McCain, who turns 72 on August 29, as ”a grumpy old man”.

Another plus for Obama is that the negative campaigns encourage Democrats to donate more to his campaign, with McDonald having heard hints that he could have raised a staggering $100-million in July, double his previous best.

McDonald said the swing voters would not make up their minds until closer to the election, after the party conventions and presidential debates.

Devine, who agreed, saw lots of signs for optimism buried in the polling data. These undecideds, when pressed, express a more favourable opinion of Obama than McCain and a dislike of Bush. ”I predict that will be translate into a vote for Obama,” Devine said, adding: ”All the arrows point to him.”

A media and public backlash in the US against Barack Obama was almost inevitable given the media exposure he has enjoyed so far.

In spite of the favourable coverage he received for his trip last month to the Middle East and Europe, there has been no ”bounce” for him in the polls.

Obama enjoys a lead over McCain of only about 3% to 4%, which is worrying Democrats.

A Pew Research poll released on Wednesday found 48% of respondents felt they had been hearing too much about Obama, compared with only 26% for McCain.

A recent analysis suggests McCain gained parity of media exposure with Obama in the last fortnight, for the first time in months.

McCain has enjoyed some success with a negative campaign portraying Obama as celebrity driven.

Two new anti-Obama books were among the bestsellers on Amazon.com’s top 20 list on Tuesday. – guardian.co.uk