Opinion by Matthew Dowd, ABC News Political Contributor
So, the general election campaign has been going on about 45 days, and where do things stand?
Interestingly, almost exactly where it did when the two person race started nearly two months ago.
Barack Obama is up about five points over John McCain, and that number really hasn’t changed at all. And this despite a very positive, widely covered trip overseas by Obama, in conjunction with some mistakes made along the way by John McCain and his surrogates, as well as lots of ads aired and released by each campaign.
If all you did was add up the media reports on the race, you would think this race holds an overwhelming lead by Obama. But voters have not yet made that decision.
What does this tell us?
First, both candidates are underperforming where they should be based on two indicators: 1) the incumbent President has a job approval rating in the high 20s, the worst position ever for a president in the midst of a presidential election, and 2) Democrats have at least a ten-point advantage on the generic ballot and partisan voter affiliation.
Obama’s biggest advantage today is not his historic candidacy or his ability to give a speech or this efficient campaign organization, but the fact he has a D on his back. My guess is any other Democrat running this year would have at least a five point lead if not larger.
I noted the other day that the Democratic Governor of Kansas said that Obama had long coattails in her state. I think actually the reverse is true; he is benefiting from the coattails of Democrats generally.
In fact, as of right now, Democrats are a bit better off running separately from Obama, and Republicans are better off associating as closely as they can with McCain.
And on McCain’s underperformance, we take a look at his favorability among Independents and you would think he would have the lead. He is in one of the best positions among Independents as any candidate running for president in last thirty years. Yet he is behind.
So why is this happening? Probably a few reasons.
Does race play some role in Obama’s underperformance –- probably a little bit. Does the anchor of an unpopular President weigh McCain down –- sure a bit.
But I think what is preventing either candidate to do as well as they should, is that the dominant issue in this race is the economy (jobs, cost of health care, gas prices), and neither candidate has found their voice to talk about it, to address voter concerns, and to present a compelling vision for the 21st century.
And not only has each candidate not found their voice, but each candidate seems to look for an opportunity to talk about anything else but this issue. If you add up the first 45 days of this general election, the majority of time has been spent on something other than the economy. Quite unbelievable when pocketbook issues are driving American’s votes.
There is now less than 100 days until election day, and the candidates don’t have a lot of time to fix this situation. (I note this week Obama and McCain are trying to address the economy.) And the longer this goes on, the more this race will settle into historic factors which has nothing to do with the candidate’s and their campaign’s performance.
I believe that the first candidate to find their voice on the economy and speak to voters fears and hopes related to that issue will be the candidate most likely to take the oath of office in 2009.