Although Democratic insiders continue their hand-wringing over the prolonged primary fight (prodded by breathless media coverage), there's little empirical evidence that shows Democrats are suffering or John McCain is benefiting.
First, the polls. Sure, the 5-point spike in Hillary Rodham Clinton's disapproval rating from early March to late March in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll [PDF] doesn't do much to help make her case as the more "electable" Democrat. Still, it's also important to note that her current 48-percent disapproval rating is basically at the same point it was in December 2007. And, in December, her "very negative" rating was 5 points higher than it is today. Fundamentally, Clinton has a very narrow "trading range" when it comes to voters' perceptions of her. Even if she had a cakewalk of a primary contest, it's more than likely that we'd see her favorable/unfavorable ratings head back to a 1-to-1 ratio by the time she started to engage with McCain. She's never going to get her approval ratings much higher than 50 percent or her disapprovals much below 45 percent.
Barack Obama, meanwhile, has seen a slight bump in his disapproval rating since early March (it went up 4 points to 32 percent). And in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright scandal, Obama's disapproval rating among whites has gone up 6 points to 37 percent.
Compared with McCain, whose disapproval rating is just 25 percent, it looks as if the primary battle has taken a toll on Democrats. But it's also important to note that McCain's favorable ratings today are the same as they were in January. So while he hasn't been bruised by the primary process, he hasn't seen a surge in his approval ratings either. A full quarter of voters say they are "neutral" toward him.
McCain is also no better positioned in head-to-head matchups with his potential Democratic opponent than he was three months ago. Back in January, he was leading Clinton by 4 points in NBC/WSJ polling. Today, it's 2 points. Versus Obama, it was McCain up by two in January -- now it's Obama who's up by 2 points.
Democratic donors are showing no signs of tightening the grip on their purse strings. Meanwhile, GOP donors have yet to open their wallets very wide for McCain. To be fair, GOP donors aren't really giving to anyone (just ask the NRCC and NRSC chairmen); this is more about a lack of enthusiasm for the party's chances as a whole than a repudiation of McCain.
And if Democrats continue to turn out in record numbers for the upcoming contests in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana, how is that bad for the party?
It's been fashionable to pounce on polling data showing that a bigger percentage of Clinton supporters won't vote for Obama if he's the nominee than the other way around. Asking Clinton supporters whether they'd pick Obama in the fall is like asking a couple in the middle of a divorce whether they think they'll be friends next week. This question will be much more relevant after the summer is over and everyone's had a chance to, as Bill Clinton would say, "chill out." Plus, Obama's success has been thanks to his appeal outside of the traditional Democratic voting base, not because of it. If he doesn't win among independents this fall, that's the bigger problem.
Finally, if insiders are so concerned about McCain getting a free ride until the fall, why don't they urge the interest groups now backing a Democratic candidate in the primaries to focus on the Republican senator instead? Many individual labor groups are spending heavily for their favorite candidates in the primaries. What if, instead, they invested that money into getting an earlier start on the general election?