Video: Obama heads to Europe, Mideast

updated 7/17/2008 11:28:06 AM ET 2008-07-17T15:28:06
Mystery Pollster

Back in January, I argued that the outcome of the Democratic nomination hinged on one question: To what extent can Barack Obama reassure primary and caucus voters that he is ready to be their president? Now, nearly five months later, the answer may determine the outcome of the general election.

This week, several national polls have served up data on a narrower version of the question: Is Obama ready to be commander in chief? The reason for this tighter focus is the discrepancy between the overall political environment and the relatively close presidential contest.

As my colleague Charlie Cook reported earlier this month, national survey results on the direction of the country, as well as perceptions of President Bush and the major political parties, all point to a "big Democratic win." Democratic pollster Mark Mellman wrote this week, "Never before in modern times have those fundamentals more clearly favored one party as they favor Democrats today."

Yet the polls don't show a blowout. Obama leads John McCain by single-digit margins in most national surveys.

The Washington Post's front-page poll story Wednesday was probably right to conclude that "lingering concerns" about Obama's readiness are a big factor in "keeping the race competitive." The Post story, like similar analysis elsewhere, leans heavily on comparisons between Obama and McCain. For example, it reports that 48 percent of adults believe Obama would be a "good commander in chief," compared to 72 percent who say the same of McCain.

But how do Obama's numbers compare to other candidates in previous elections?

Eight years ago, the Post/ABC News poll asked the same questions about Bush and Al Gore. In February 2000, 58 percent of registered voters said Bush would make a good commander in chief, a number that rose to 65 percent by early September. On the other hand, the same surveys showed that only 45 percent said the same of Gore, a number that rose to 54 percent in September.

So throughout 2000, voters gave a two-term governor with no foreign policy experience higher ratings on the "commander in chief" question than the sitting vice president. Perhaps, in answering this question, voters are drawing on their perceptions of the two parties as much as what they know of the candidates.

Video: Obama’s patriotism deficit The Post/ABC poll asked another question in 2000 and 2008: Do voters believe the candidate "knows enough about world affairs to serve effectively as president?" Last week, McCain scored higher on this question among all adults (73 percent "yes") than Obama (56 percent).

However, Obama's number was slightly higher than the percentage Bush received in 2000. In February, Bush trailed Gore 69 percent to 52 percent among all adults, and in September he trailed 73 percent to 54 percent among registered voters.

A more intriguing comparison to this year's race is the 1980 campaign between President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

In October 1980, 46 percent of Americans told the CBS/New York Times survey that the economy was "getting worse," a number that grew to 58 percent in November. Right now, the same survey shows 67 percent saying that the economy is "getting worse."

According to the University of Connecticut's Roper Center iPoll database, none of the polls of 1980 asked experience or commander-in-chief questions exactly the way the ABC/Post poll did this week. However, on a Time/Yankelovich poll conducted in March 1980, 46 percent of Americans agreed that Reagan "doesn't have enough experience in foreign affairs to be president." Another Time/Yanekolovich survey in August of that year found only 20 percent of Americans willing to give Reagan a positive rating "as far as experience in foreign affairs is concerned."

Video: Obama – the new Bush? Reagan had one trump card that Obama lacks: his presidential rival didn't score much better. In a March survey by Gallup/Newsweek, 41 percent of registered voters said they had either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in Reagan's ability to deal with foreign policy, compared to 46 percent for Carter. Meanwhile, 51 percent said they had not very much confidence or none in Carter, compared to 44 percent for Reagan.

In his fall campaign, Reagan repeatedly emphasized his experience as governor of California to help shore up doubts about his readiness. In their late October debate, Reagan held his ground against Carter's attacks and memorably framed the election around the economy, asking, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" Reagan started rising sharply in the final week's polling and ultimately turned Carter out of office.

No analogy is perfect. Carter was an incumbent who was unpopular for his handling of the hostage situation with Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. McCain is not an incumbent, and voters trust his foreign policy credentials more than they did Carter's, but his fellow Republican Bush has been under years of fire for his handling of the war in Iraq.

Still, Americans are now as unhappy with the direction of the country as they were 28 years ago. The fundamentals of nearly every survey make that clear.

In 1980, voters were ready to "fire" Carter, but they were uncertain whether Reagan was a worthy alternative. The campaign, and especially the final debate, helped convince voters that Reagan was ready, or at least, ready enough.

Obama's task this year, as it was for Reagan in '80, is to convince voters he is up to the job.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments