Barack Obama’s chief challenges tonight are to persuade voters he’s sufficiently seasoned for the presidency, better define his theme of “change” and cement his advantages on key domestic issues, chiefly the economy.
There’s more: Obama needs also to expand his support among older, more reliable voters; maintain his lead on personal attributes such as empathy; protect himself on consistency; and capitalize on his advantages in enthusiasm and an aura of optimism.
And, as much as any other, to tie John McCain to the unpopular George W. Bush.
Not a short order for a night’s work, but potentially a crucial one. The contest has been close; 49-45 percent Obama-McCain among likely voters in our pre-convention poll. Arguably that’s closer than it should be, given the flight from the Republican Party and the broad public discontent that’s accompanied the faltering economy, the unpopular war in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the incumbent president.
Conventions can matter: Candidates usually get a 10- to 12-point convention bounce on the margin. But the size and durability of the bounce can vary, and it’s complicated this year by the back-to-back conventions (a first since 1956) with Labor Day weekend sandwiched in between.
Here are some of the data points that inform the shape of the race and the content of Obama’s laundry list. (For more see our full election poll analysis from Sunday a.m. and subsequent analyses this week.)
-Obama addresses a disgruntled public. Seventy-eight percent of Americans say the country’s seriously off on the wrong track, the most heading into a convention since 1992. Sixty-three percent say the Iraq war was not worth fighting. Consumer confidence is a point from its record low in 22 years of weekly polls. Sixty-six percent disapprove of Bush’s job performance.
-On average across our polling this year, 37 percent of Americans have identified themselves as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans, the rest independents – a dramatic reversal from 2003, when, for the first time in a generation, the parties had reached parity (31-31). Add independents who lean toward either party, and this year it’s been an average 52-37 percent Democratic advantage.
Remember nonetheless that Republicans long have overcome Democratic advantages in partisanship to win presidential elections – a matter of differential turnout (generally higher among Republicans) and their ability to appeal to independents, the quintessential swing voters.
-Obama’s support among blacks is overwhelming but customary for Democratic presidential candidates. He’s competitive among whites – a 45-49 percent race among white likely voters, better than usual for a Democrat.
-Obama has a 2-1 lead among voters under 30, his best group by far. But while under 30s account for 22 percent of the adult population, they’ve made up only 17 percent of voters in each of the last three elections. Obama’s looking not only to boost their turnout, but to broaden his appeal to older, higher-turnout voters.
-Doing so means defining change. In our July poll 50 percent of registered voters said Obama has not done enough to define what he means by change; 46 percent said he had. Voters 50 and over especially wanted to hear more.
-Obama’s support is considerably more enthusiastic than McCain’s. Fifty-two percent of his supporters are “very enthusiastic” about his candidacy, vs. just 28 percent of McCain’s. The number of registered voters who have a “strongly favorable” overall opinion of Obama is 12 points higher than it is for McCain (37 percent vs. 25 percent, though they’re similar in overall favorability, 62 percent vs. 59 percent).
-Obama leads McCain in empathy – understanding the problems of average Americans – by 49-36 percent, and particularly in being seen as the more optimistic candidate, by 64-28 percent. Registered voters think he’d do more than McCain to stand up to lobbyists and special interest groups, by 53-32 percent, and work in a bipartisan way, 49-37 percent – all advantages for Obama to stress, against his weaknesses (described yesterday and previously) in experience, foreign affairs and readiness to serve as commander-in-chief. And McCain's inched ahead in being seen as more consistent in his positions – a flank for Obama to cover, in an already full list of opportunities and challenges alike.