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Ignore the polls — trust fundamentals

Analysts of the latest ABC/Washington Post poll note ominously that Barack Obama’s current lead is identical to John Kerry’s in June 2004.

True, but the context, and thus the meaning, of those results could not be more different. Taken in the immediate aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the 2004 poll found Bush at his weakest point (the only ABC/Post poll in which he did worse was just after the Democratic convention). No similar event is influencing this week’s poll.

More important, the underlying fundamentals — which are much better predictors of presidential election results at this point than any poll — pointed to a Bush victory in 2004, while in 2008 they augur well for a Democratic win.

Difficult as it is for a pollster to say, put the polls off to the side of your desk — lest you repeat the mistake of those who were misled by Kerry’s lead, or Hubert Humphrey’s advantage over Richard Nixon at this point in 1968, or Jimmy Carter’s lead over Ronald Reagan, or Mike Dukakis’s margin over the previous George Bush, or the latter’s lead over Bill Clinton — and focus instead on the fundamentals.

A quick review of those fundamentals and a comparison to years past, particularly 2004, suggest the tremendous assets Barack Obama enjoys heading into November.

Incumbent fatigue. Only once in modern times has a candidate running for a second party term been defeated — Carter in 1980 (Bush the father was seeking a fourth party term when he was defeated). Over two terms, though, voters tire of incumbent parties, which tend to exhaust themselves intellectually (witness today’s GOP). On average, the result is a five-point penalty for a party attempting to win a third or fourth party term. Just take five points off the younger Bush’s showing in 2000 and 2004 to gauge the impact.

Presidential popularity. While George Bush will not appear on the ballot, the popularity of an outgoing president directly affects his party’s standard-bearer, and with Bush now the most unpopular president in the history of polling, that bodes poorly for his anointed successor. Bush’s approval rating is 19 points lower today than it was at this point in 2004, and 10 points below where Jimmy Carter was in June 1980, before his massive defeat.

The economy. Economics plays a role in every presidential election, and this time it is bound to damage John McCain. The number of Americans who give the economy a negative rating today is twice what it was in 2004, and while four years ago people thought the economy was getting better rather than worse by a two-point margin, today they see it worsening by nearly an 80-point margin.

War. War also matters in presidential politics, and McCain is tightly lashed to Bush’s Iraq policy, supporting what is now the most unpopular war in American history. At this point in 2004, Americans thought the invasion was the right thing to do by a 10-point margin. Today, we call it a mistake by a 27-point margin. The number labeling Iraq a mistake has risen by nearly 20 points since the last presidential election.

Partisanship. The partisan composition of the electorate is another key fundamental. While Republicans enjoyed a two-point advantage in party identification at this point in 2004, today Democrats benefit from a nine-point margin on the same indicator.

By every measure, on every single indicator, Democrats have a much greater advantage on the fundamentals today than we did in 2004, and, in most all respects, Democrats are in a stronger position today than we have ever been.

Overconfidence is never justified, but the fundamentals strongly point to an Obama victory, even when polls seem uncertain.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.