Poll watching

Gallup/USA Today has a poll that shows John McCain leading Barack Obama by 10 percentage points — 54 to 44. The weight of that poll is enough to put McCain ahead in the RCP average.

Unless and until we see other results like it, I discount the Gallup/USA Today poll. More probative, I think, are the two tracking polls I’ve been following all season — Gallup and Rasmussen. Gallup has McCain leading by 3 points. Just prior to the Democratic convention, this poll had the race dead even. Rasmussen has McCain up by 1 point, a swing of 4 points from where the race was before the conventions.

So the best evidence right now is that the Republicans obtained a 3 to 4 point net bounce during the convention season.

Republicans often get this result or better when they hold the White House (1988 and 2004 are the best examples). The reason is that conventions are one of the rare times when the public gets to evaluate the two parties largely without the filter of the media. The media bashes Republicans so relentlessly when they are in power that the party has only one way to go in the public’s estimation when it actually puts itself on display.

However, I was not confident that we would see this effect in 2008. For this time, the Republicans did not have a facially attractive record to defend, nor was there much enthusiasm within the rank-and-file. Indeed, three months ago I feared that Obama would emerge from the convention season with a double digit lead. The tightening of the race, I thought, would occur in October.

In the absence of an attractive record, the Republicans made do with an attractive ticket — a presidential candidate with appeal to moderates and running mate who excites the party faithful while intriguing many other voters — and a seriously over-hyped opponent. For now, at least, that seems to have been enough.

JOHN adds: The ten-point Gallup edge is among what Gallup calls “those seen as most likely to vote.” I’m not sure whether this just means “likely voters,” or whether it is some more restrictive category. Among registered voters, the Gallup/USA Today poll has McCain up by four. My guess is that McCain’s current edge will evaporate as the media keep pounding away over the next few weeks.

Beyond that, one issue I haven’t seen much focus on is how to assess likely voters. Currently, McCain is doing well even in registered voter surveys, but Republicans generally can expect to do better with “likely voters” and with those who actually show up at the polls. The Democrats are registering a large number of new voters this year, and they have endless money to try to get them to the polls. A big question is whether the “registered voter” numbers turn out to be any closer to reality this year than in most elections.

PAUL adds: Then there’s the question of whether Obama, as an African-American, will fail to meet his poll numbers. For years, it’s been said that some respondents tell pollsters they will vote for the African-American candidate, perhaps so they won’t appear prejudiced, but then decline to do so in the privacy of the voting booth. Whether this will happen in 2008 is quite unclear, but Obama did “under-perform” in some important primaries.

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