Chicago Sun-Times

Column: Why polls aren't worrying Obama's Team

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Finally, for John McCain, a week to smile about. "Obama fatigue," a virus that's afflicted the GOP presidential candidate for sometime now, was discovered in a new Pew survey to have spread to 48 percent of the populace.

And recent national polls now place McCain and Barack Obama in a statistical dead heat. Gallup's numbers have Obama 46, McCain 43.

RealClearPolitics' national average is about the same, Obama 46.9 to McCain 43.3.

What does it mean? Next to nothing. And Obama's team not only knows it, it thrives on it.

They think "horse race" in the classic Seabiscuit sense.

Out of the gate, the thoroughbred who leads too early and by too great a margin is more often than not the vulnerable one, the one in danger of losing it all to the horse who strategically holds back, waits, and then thunders in the final furlongs to finish first.

Obama's political guru, David Axelrod, and his Chicago-based firm, AKP&D lay it out on their Web site. "We win tough races. . . . campaigns no one thought could be won," it states. "The governor who came from 20 points behind" . . . (Iowa's Tom Vilsack). "The incumbent mayor who came back from 20 points down in only 20 days" . . . (Deedee Corradini in Salt Lake City)

"The congresswoman who won Dan Quayle's old seat in an upset" . . . (Indiana's Jill Long).

Axelrod & Co. can now include in its victory list the skinny unknown from Chicago who in one short year went from a mere 26 percent in the polls to toppling front-runner Hillary Clinton who was a full 22 points ahead of him last August.

"The national numbers mean nothing," said John Kupper, the "K" in AKP&D, last week by phone. "These are not national elections but state by state elections. We have vote goals. We know prior performance models."

In other words, this is now and always has been the sum of political component parts for the Obama operation, not a national popular election but a sophisticated, incremental accumulation of delegates in the primary, and electoral votes come November.

It isn't that Axelrod's team has had no experience losing. Their most recent defeat came in 2006 and it stung. The candidate, Tammy Duckworth, was a charismatic Iraq war veteran, a pilot who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down. Though Duckworth and AKP&D had a corner on charisma and a lot of cash, they failed to wrest U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde's former seat from Republican control.

Obama can certainly lose this race. But McCain's going to have to find a better way to win it than by invoking Paris Hilton or by sniping in his most recent ad how "life in the spotlight must be grand but for the rest of us, times are tough."

What's tough for McCain is that despite having had a practice run at the presidency once before, it didn't limber him up, cause him to realize that even the elderly now skillfully navigate the Internet or help him craft a "vision thing."

In the short run, jealous jabs at Obama for having too much face time on the covers of Rolling Stone and GQ may appear to close the gap in national polls. But the aggregation of images -- Obama in Germany, Obama with his cute girls and beautiful wife, Obama visiting his grandmother in Hawaii -- is by dribs and drabs helping America feel familiar with him, visualize him on foreign soil, and see him, perhaps, as both human and presidential.

In some ways the tightening numbers work for Obama, not against him.

"No cause for panic," said Kupper. No, indeed, Obama is off to splash in the Pacific surf with his family.

It's the horse race play. Or, as the Axelrod game goes, you always play the come from behind, even when you're ahead.

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This page contains a single entry by Carol Marin published on August 10, 2008 3:20 PM.

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