Obama's finally gotten the post-primary bounce that pundits have been looking for. A recent national poll by Newsweek shows Senator Obama opening a 15-point lead over Senator McCain.
McCain's numbers have dropped from a high of 46% to only 36% - falling below 40% for the first time this cycle – while Obama increased his numbers from 46% to 51%. Additionally, he has widened his lead among blacks, youth, women and independents. While McCain's approval rating has dropped to 49%, Obama's has increased to 62%. Obama is also trusted by more voters to handle the economy, the energy crisis and the Iraq War. Only 5% of voters are undecided.
Republicans have been quick to dismiss the results, tacking the lead up to a post-primary bounce and pointing out that Governor Dukakis enjoyed an 18-point lead over Vice President Bush in 1988, only to lose the election in an Electoral College landslide. A closer examination of the facts reveals that this is a hasty generalization, because there are too many significant differences between 1988 and now for this to be a valid comparison.
Dukakis didn't get a large bounce from winning the primary, he opened up his lead after the Democratic convention in July; in contrast this years Democratic Convention is still to be held at which time a post-convention bounce is expected for Obama. Dukakis also only enjoyed a 28% positive approval rating coming out of the convention and through July a whopping 50% of voters were still undecided. Dukakis' lead fizzled within two weeks, because instead of campaigning after the convention he returned to Massachusetts to govern for several weeks. In fact, he would campaign only part-time for much of the primary and general election – splitting his week between governing during the early part of the week and campaigning towards the end of the week. With the exception of a few key votes, Obama has been a fulltime campaigner. It wasn't until the end of September that Dukakis began campaigning full time.
This allowed Bush to effectively define him with unrelenting attacks throughout the summer and the early fall. Despite a years worth of campaigning time, going into the debates Dukakis was still unknown by 54% of the electorate. Bush's attacks went unanswered until the end of October – just days before the election – when Dukakis gave a 90-minute TV interview and his campaign began countering Bush's negative ads with a set of their own. Throughout the campaign Dukakis made several PR blunders and, like Kerry in 2004, had them used against him by the Republicans. "Dukakis Driving a Tank" is slang in PR circles for a faux pas. Unlike Dukakis (or Gore or Kerry for that matter), Obama has been quick to address attacks from the right and his team has been exceptional with staging PR events.
Lloyd Bentsen, Dukakis' running mate, wasn't any more helpful during the campaign. He chose to simultaneously campaign for re-election to his Senate seat in Texas. The Texas Republican Party's message was "vote no for Bentsen twice," and it effectively eliminated the advantage that Democrats hoped to obtain in Texas by choosing Bentsen as VP. From the list of major contenders announced so far for Obama's VP slot, none are running for re-election.
Moreover, Dukakis' lead in the national polls wasn't reflected in the state polling at the time. He was doing poorly in the South and the North, and the Electoral College breakdown from the state polls showed Dukakis at only 227 with Bush closely behind at 214. Dukakis' strength was in the West and the Midwest. However, state polls this year have Obama up by nearly 150 Electoral Votes, at 347 for Obama to 191 for McCain. With a few exceptions Obama is running strong in every section of the country.
Another important difference is that this year only 12% of Americans say that they are satisfied with the direction of the country and the President has the lowest approval rating in history; but, in 1988 there was a general satisfaction with the status quo and President Reagan enjoyed a positive approval rating. Bush also enjoyed a significant fund raising advantage over his rival, in contrast Obama has more cash on hand than McCain and won't be limited by the amount of money that he can spend because he opted out of public financing. In politics cash is the fifth estate and those that have it usually win.
Finally, in 1988 America wasn't bogged down in a war opposed by 65% of the population and the average price of gas was only $1.08 per gallon. Justified or not, many Americans are drawing their own connections between the Iraq War and high oil prices, which doesn't bode well for McCain since he's branded himself the stay-the-course candidate. We also can't discount the fact that in 1988 there was no major third party challenger from the right, whereas this year Bob Barr is running as the Libertarian nominee and should present problems for McCain throughout the South – especially in Georgia (Barr's home state).
Unless a major scandal surrounding Obama pops-up, McCain will be lucky to see 44% again.