The race shifts back

A few weeks ago, I was lamenting the confusion created by all the contradictory polls and urging readers to ignore them in favor of a focus on the fundamentals. Those fundamentals haven’t changed, but the polls have and it is time to start paying attention to them.

As I have noted in previous columns, the fundamentals really drive presidential campaigns, and those fundamentals clearly forecast an Obama win — by a large margin if it is public perception that matters most and by a smaller margin if the hard economic and Iraq casualty data is ultimately more influential.

While many commentators seem to revel in the “unpredictability” of the race, it is actually unfolding in a mostly predictable way, despite a few curveballs.

Through most of the summer, Obama had a lead consistent with the fundamentals. McCain got a mostly predictable convention bounce, which is now dissipating as we return to the fairly consistent Obama leads we saw in the weeks leading up to both conventions.

Going into the conventions, Obama maintained a two-to-four-point lead across a variety of polls.

Not surprisingly, both candidates got a convention bump, though Obama’s was short-lived, running smack into the Republican convention before Democrats had time to luxuriate in it, or Republicans had the opportunity to demand another McCain staff shake-up. Obama led in all six of the polls taken at or near the end of the Democratic convention, by margins ranging from one to nine points — yielding an average margin of about 6.5 points.

By the next week, with the Palin pick and the GOP convention in full swing, McCain enjoyed his big bounce, averaging just over a two-point margin in the 12 polls taken between the close of his convention and Sept. 11.

Thus, McCain seems to have enjoyed a bounce of about eight or nine points from the combination of his vice presidential announcement and his convention — larger than Obama’s, but only a bit bigger than the historical average of six points.

McCain’s bounce is also dissipating more quickly than most. While such bounces typically start fading within a few days, the effects are usually felt for weeks.

In this case — just two weeks after the Republican convention — Obama is about where he was before the two conventions commenced.

Ten national polls have been completed since Sept. 16 and all but one show Obama ahead, by an average of just over three points.

Moreover, all the polls reveal a clear trend toward Obama. The one survey showing McCain ahead, the Battleground Tracking Poll, puts his lead at just one point — which represents a three-point decline in McCain’s margin compared to their poll just after the Republican convention. Gallup was giving McCain a six-point lead at his high-water mark, but now has Obama four points ahead.

Some will suggest the turn is a reaction to the Wall Street meltdown. While that is certainly possible, in reality the trend toward Obama was firmly in place even before talk of bailouts dominated the headlines.

If you can tune out all the noise, the patterns are pretty clear. The fundamentals forecast an Obama lead, which was increased by his convention, while McCain’s vice presidential pick and convention gave him a bounce too. As the effects of both extravaganzas fade, the race is back to where the basics suggest it should be.

Despite all the talk of Palin reshuffling the deck, despite breathless headlines about one segment or other dramatically shifting its loyalty, the race has returned to its status shortly before the two conventions, and it followed a rather predicable track in between.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.