As I look at the poll numbers and the never-ending stream of stories about the Democratic presidential race, I feel like my head is ready to explode. At first glance, nothing seems to add up.
Consider the following:
In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, 81 percent of respondents said that the country is on the "wrong track." That same poll also revealed that 78 percent of those asked think they are worse off than they were five years ago, which represents the highest total since CBS started asking that question in 1986. The poll also found that 21 percent thought the economy was in good shape (the lowest number since 1992), and that the economy is the number one concern of voters, far outdistancing the second-place finisher (the war in Iraq).
President Bush's approval rating in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll was 28 percent, with 69 percent of respondents disapproving of his performance. And a Congressional Quarterly voting study revealed that John McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time in 2007 (and 89 percent of the time since Bush took office). The alleged maverick McCain managed to vote with his fellow Republicans on 98 percent of his votes (43 of 44) in 2007, up from a still-high 76 percent in 2006.
And, in a recent AP-Yahoo! News poll, people chose a generic Democrat over a generic Republican for president by 13 points.
With that body of evidence, you would think that it is the Democrats' race to lose, and with the right candidate and a good campaign, the party should have no trouble securing the White House in November.
And yet, here is where we stand: The same CBS/New York Times poll has Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both only five points ahead of McCain. In fact, compared to many other polls, that's a positive result for the Democrats. Gallup has McCain beating Obama by two points and trailing Clinton by only two points. Obama's margin over McCain is merely two points according to Rasmussen and three points according to Newsweek, while Clinton's advantage over McCain is only one point in Rasmussen and three points in Newsweek.
How do you explain such a huge disconnect between the mood of the electorate in general and its views on Obama, Clinton and McCain specifically?
I see three main factors in play.
First, as I have been writing since last year, the Democrats seem to actively ignore the history of past elections in choosing its candidates. As I laid out in great detail in my July 31, 2007 piece on why Clinton is not electable, since 1964, the U.S. has not elected a U.S. senator to the presidency (that will change this year, of course), and, as importantly, no Democrat from a blue state has won the Oval Office during that time. The only Democrats to win were Lyndon Johnson (Texas), Jimmy Carter (Georgia) and Bill Clinton (Arkansas).
So who are the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination now? Two blue state U.S. senators. This fact, while not dispositive on its own, is symbolic of the failed approach of the party in selecting the types of candidates Americans tend to elect to the presidency.
The second factor is the challenges facing the two Democratic front runners that could be a fatal impediment to winning in November. As I noted in that July 31, 2007 column, Clinton's history of staggeringly high disapproval ratings would make it very hard for her to prevail in a general election. And her decision to "throw the kitchen sink" at Obama in Pennsylvania, while successful in the short run, only damaged her already sketchy public perception further. As I noted on April 22, Clinton's numbers have plummeted recently, with a Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that only 39 percent found her to be "honest and trustworthy," only 63 percent of Democrats found her trustworthy, and only 37 percent of independents said they trusted her.
Obama's albatross seems to be his lack of appeal with white working class voters. While there are a load of factors that have played into this challenge of his (from hot-button issues like race to more subtle perceptions of personality), the real threat facing Obama's candidacy now is how the Republicans, Clinton and the media have teamed up to fan his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright into a huge issue with voters. Obama is finding his sheen of being above the fray greatly tarnished. He is sounding more and more like a typical candidate, agreeing to go on Fox News for an interview after a two-year embargo and strongly denouncing Wright's most recent remarks at a press conference today. Not surprisingly, the increasingly bitter campaign is affecting how Democrats view their own candidates. Obama's appeal has always been his message of hope and how his campaign would not be politics as usual. That line of argument has taken a major hit in recent weeks.
Finally, The media has bought whole-heartedly into McCain's fairy tale that he is a "maverick" who is not a traditional Republican. That narrative has given voters leeway to support him even though they do not want to continue the policies of the Bush administration. McCain's successful poll numbers have come at a time when he is not being challenged by anyone, since the Democrats have been busy training their fire on each other. The Democrats have to show the American people that McCain has faithfully supported Bush's presidency at virtually every turn, but that's a hard thing to do when the media is more interested in perpetuating the myth. And it's especially hard when the two Democratic contenders are ripping each other to shreds.
So, despite everything pointing to a Democratic success in November, the party finds itself in a dog fight it could easily lose. I am sick and tired of the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot time and time again. It's too late to find a more ideal candidate, but it's not too late for the candidates themselves to start taking smarter steps. For Obama that means remembering what got him this far and conducting a more hopeful, forward thinking campaign, and for Clinton that means dropping out. (I wrote on April 1 and April 22 about why that is the appropriate course of action for her.)
Most of all, the party has to unify and show the country not only what it stands for, but also that McCain's record demonstrates that his presidency would essentially continue the failed policies of the Bush administration.
It's all sitting there for the Democrats. Let's hope they don't blow it. Again.