Obama's favorable ratings are better than either John Kerry's (56 percent) or Al Gore's (52 percent, in Gallup polls) before their conventions in 2004 and 2000, respectively, or Bush's 54 percent in 2004. Bush had a 64 percent favorable rating, much like Obama's today, in 2000.
Again, though, Obama might be expected to have a greater advantage against McCain, given his party's current popularity: Fifty-eight percent of registered voters express a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, compared with 47 percent who see the Republican Party favorably. And the Democrats now lead by 36-26 percent among registered voters in partisan-self-identification, with the rest independents.
These reflect the impact of Bush's unpopularity on his party; just 30 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, while 66 percent disapprove. That creates a challenge for McCain, who needs to weave a path between the core Republicans who still support Bush and the sizable majority of Americans who don't. Among registered voters who think McCain will continue in Bush's direction, just 17 percent support him.
Both candidates, even with their favorable ratings, also face a deeply disgruntled public. Given the struggling economy and the unpopular Iraq war, 78 percent of Americans say the country's headed off on the wrong track, the highest pre-convention reading since its 83 percent in 1992, the year Bush's father was voted out of office. The question today is the extent to which dissatisfaction with the president, the economy, the war and the country's direction sticks to McCain. Obama, doubtless, will be wielding a roll of tape.
Tensions with Russia are significant, with 63 percent saying they are concerned about the possibility of a new cold war and 53 percent calling it an unfriendly country. McCain may seek to turn that to his advantage; last month he and Obama were rated about evenly in trust to handle international affairs; today it's a 51-43 percent McCain edge.
But it's a closer 46-41 percent on handling Russia itself, and the two are even in trust to handle Iraq, meaning McCain's general advantage in international experience doesn't necessarily translate into preference on some specific issues.
But Obama might be expected to do better on Iraq, since he's clearly the more anti-war candidate, and 63 percent of Americans continue to say the war was not worth fighting. Fifty percent, in another measure, say the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, the most since the capture of Saddam Hussein but hardly a full-throated endorsement of McCain's positive assessment.
Nonetheless, McCain still leads, by 52-38 percent, in trust to handle the U.S. campaign against terrorism more broadly, and by 52-41 percent in trust to handle an "unexpected major crisis" -- both again underscoring the extent to which he is likely to promote himself as a steady hand in a dangerous world.
Indeed a key differentiator is whether voters are more focused on "strength and experience" or a "new direction and new ideas." Registered voters divide closely, 47-44 percent, between the two, the former heavily for McCain, the latter even more heavily for Obama.