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Is the Obama Glass Half-Full or Half Empty?

By Lanny Davis

In my judgment, as an ex-pollster, the most reliable of all polls -- at the very least, the best poll worth watching to catch weekly, if not daily, trends in the presidential race -- is the daily Gallup tracking poll. Gallup polls over 2,600 random sampled registered voters over three usually consecutive nights, with a small margin of error of +/- 2%. Gallup actually calls over 1000 voters per night -- a completely different sample every night -- to pare down to 2600+ registered voters over three to four nights. The random sample also include cell phone numbers in the universe of potential interviewees.

In last night's latest tracking poll results, reflecting 2650 calls made on June 26, 28-29, Gallup now had Sen. Obama with a small but still statistically significant lead over Sen. McCain, 47%-42%.

This is the first time in nine nights of calling that Senator Obama has a lead over Senator McCain beyond the margin of error of +/- 2%. The biggest margin he has enjoyed was recently in the first week of June, where he went up +7%, which was right after Senator Clinton endorsed him.

It is apparent to me that last week's Newsweek +15% Obama margin and the LA Times/Bloomberg +12% margin were so-called "outliers" in polling jargon. They were inconsistent not only with Gallup but several other national polls conducted the same time period, which had Obama's margin in the 4%-6% range. This means their samples (Newsweek at 900 nationwide and LAT's at 1,200, with larger margins of error) might be aberrational and unrepresentative (each, for example, had larger percentages of Democrats, by a few points, than Gallup's); and the order of questions might have introduced a subtle pro-Obama bias -- for example, I believe the Newsweek poll asks a "right direction-wrong direction" question before the head-to-head question; thus, a "wrong direction" respondent may already be prompted to vote against the Republican candidate). Who knows? It's only speculation.

What is pretty clear, however, is that Sen. Obama leads Sen. McCain as of now nationally by a relatively small margin -- and about the same margin that John Kerry led George Bush in June of 2004.

That is the good news.

The reason for continuing concern for the Obama campaign, with which I am sure they would agree, is that the Gallup tracking polls (and virtually every other mainstream national general election poll) continue to show that the the two are still so close - even with all the bad news on the McCain side of the political equation, from Bush's below-30% approval ratings, more than two-to-one wrong direction-right direction ratios, self-identified Democrats and leaners are at the highest gap over Republican identifiers in decades, fuel prices skyrocketing, and McCain himself conveying neither coherent themes nor projecting positively in the daily TV sound bites.

Yet, over the last six months, really ever since Iowa and up to the present, Sen. Obama has rarely, if ever, won more than 47% or 48% of the general electorate. That apparent ceiling, at least so far, should be worrisome to the Obama senior strategists and probably has been noted. It is reminiscent of both John Kerry and Al Gore's polling numbers vs. George Bush. The historic pattern in 2000 and 2004, and even back to 1980 and 1988, has been that in the closing days, often literally the last weekend, Republican moderate conservative undecideds leaners and Democratic social conservatives (the "Reagan Democrats") who up to then have been soft for the Democratic candidate or undecided break disproportionately for the more conservative Republican candidate. While they are not great in number, they can swing a close election, especially in the battleground states (as they did in Ohio and Florida in 2000 and 2004).

The fact is -- and forgive my fully disclosed bias and admiration of Senator Hillary Clinton -- the only time that Barack has been over 50% in ANY poll since the nomination was decided some weeks ago was when he was paired with Hillary Clinton as his Vice President. Significantly, two entirely different samples, taken two weeks or so ago within days of each other by Fox News and Peter Hart polling for the Wall Street Journal and NBC, found Sen. Obama received a +3% bump and got to 51% when paired with Senator Clinton against a McCain-Romney ticket.

Of course the decision on VP must be Senator Obama's alone -- and his comfort level is very important with whomever he picks as well as that person's qualifications. But clearly -- indisputably -- the data shows that, as of now (and of course things can change), Hillary Clinton would help his total break 50% and no other Democratic possibility does that.

It must be added that most VP candidates historically have little or no effect on the final result (Lyndon Johnson carrying Texas for JFK is the one clear exception over a half-century).

So the Obama campaign should continue to see this as a close contest which is likely to get closer, especially if Sen. McCain can find his former "straight talk express" voice and sense of humor that won him so many Democratic and independent converts in 2000, instead of the too-often negative, even grouchy curmudgeon image he has been projecting as of late.

Stay tuned.

Lanny Davis is a lawyer and former Special Counsel to the President for Bill Clinton.

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