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Minimal difference between Obama, Clinton

/ Source: National Journal

For all of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s supporters who argue that she is more electable in the November presidential election and all of Sen. Barack Obama's backers who claim their guy has the best chance, it's amazing to look at the numbers and find that there isn't a dime's worth of difference between how each fares against Sen. John McCain.

In a Newsweek poll conducted March 5-6 by Princeton Survey Research among 1,215 registered voters (margin of error +/-3.5), Clinton leads McCain by two points, 48 percent to 46 percent, while Obama leads by one point, 46 percent to 45 percent. The next survey [PDF], conducted by RT Strategies for the Cook Political Report among 802 registered voters March 6-9 (margin of error +/-3.5 percent), showed McCain leading both Democrats by two percentage points, running ahead of Clinton 47 percent to 45 percent and beating Obama 45 percent to 43 percent. The next, for NBC News/Wall Street Journal, taken by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff March 7-10 among 1,012 registered voters (margin of error +/-3.1 percent), put Clinton ahead of McCain by 2 points, 47 percent to 45 percent, and Obama up by 3 points, 47 percent to 44 percent. Finally, the most recent, the Gallup's national tracking polls of 4,393 registered voters conducted March 11-15, showed McCain and Clinton tied at 46 percent each, and McCain leading Obama by 3 percentage points, 47 percent to 44 percent.

Average all four polls together and Clinton edges half a percentage point ahead of McCain, 46.5 percent to 46 percent, while McCain runs a quarter of a percentage point above Obama, 45.25 percent to 45 percent. In short, there's no significant difference between how the two would fare in November.

What seems to be left out of many of these arguments is that party is the biggest driver in all of this. McCain holds 86 percent of Republican voters against Obama in the Cook/RT Strategies poll and wins 83 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll [PDF], averaging 84.5 percent. Against Clinton, McCain wins 91 percent of the GOP vote in the Cook/RT poll and 89 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll, yielding an average of 90 percent.

Among Democratic voters, Clinton holds on to 80 percent in both the Cook/RT and NBC/WSJ polls, while Obama pulls 78 percent in the Cook/RT poll and 77 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll.

Among voters who call themselves independents, McCain leads Obama by 8 points, 46 percent to 38 percent, in the Cook/RT poll, but Obama leads McCain by 3 points in the NBC/WSJ poll, 43 percent to 40 percent. Split the difference and call it McCain up by 2.5 percentage points.

McCain bests Clinton by 7 points among independents in both polls -- 49 percent to 42 percent in the Cook/RT poll and 46 percent to 39 percent in the NBC/WSJ poll.

The bottom line is that Obama outperforms Clinton among both independents and Republicans, but Clinton fares better than Obama among Democrats, the most numerous of the three groups, hence offsetting strengths.

Most interesting may be that for a long time, Obama seemed to consistently fare a bit better against McCain than Clinton did, but now that gap is gone and there is minimal difference between the two; McCain is doing better against each one. To a certain extent, it may be that McCain got a bounce from nailing down his party's nomination, but he has also brought his party together. While conservative talk-show hosts and columnists may not have rallied behind McCain, Republican voters certainly have; he runs better among his party members in general election trial heats than either Obama or Clinton do among theirs.

But it may also be that now, as Obama finds himself on the receiving end of more critical press coverage than at any point in this campaign -- or one might say, his entire political career -- his numbers have been brought down to earth. He is now competing as a mortal candidate, not some form of deity.

The one thing to keep in mind is that at this point, over seven months before the election, it's silly to try to screen for likely voters -- most polls are using a universe of registered voters, which allows for apples-to-apples comparison of poll numbers. That's fine, as no two pollsters screen for likely voters in an identical manner. But on Election Day, will we see the same disparity in turnout levels that we saw in the earlier primaries when both parties' nominations were equally contested? It's not that Republican primary turnout levels were low -- in some cases they actually set record-high levels -- but they were dwarfed by Democratic primary levels.

This disparity is also evident in polling. For example, in that NBC/WSJ poll, when asked to gauge how interested they were in the November elections on a scale of one (not interested) to 10 (very interested), 62 percent of self-identified Republicans responded with 10, compared with 73 percent of Democrats who said the same. Among independents, 64 percent said 10. When asked which party they would rather see win the presidency in November, Democrats led by 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent. Among those who preferred Democrats to win, 75 percent were 10s; among those who wanted a Republican to win, 63 percent were 10s.

In short, the good news for McCain is that he has successfully pulled his party together and competes very well among independents. My guess is that he has a good chance of replicating the number of votes won by President Bush in 2004, on both a national and state-by-state level. The $64,000 question is whether the greater enthusiasm levels that we are seeing among Democrats this year will give either Obama or Clinton vote totals that run substantially higher than John Kerry received in 2004.