More than a year ago, John McCain told me, while visiting the Bay Area, that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war, and so he was stubbornly calling for a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq - sending even more soldiers to fight a war that most Americans no longer supported, at a time when one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Barack Obama, was calling for the exact opposite - a timely withdrawal.
Just as stubbornly, Obama continued to oppose the surge even after violence in Iraq began to diminish - though that's not entirely attributable to the increase in American forces there. Obama still says the surge wasn't a good idea, and won't admit it's worked, something that infuriates McCain, who thinks he doesn't get enough credit from the media or voters for his lonely insistence that we send more troops to Iraq, not pull out the ones who were already there.
Today, the economy, not the war, is the overriding issue as we enter the home stretch of the longest, costliest presidential campaign in American history. And today, we can report a surge of a different sort, one that Obama can endorse, because he may ride it all the way to the Oval Office.
Many polls have been showing Obama pulling away from McCain, but our new CBS News-New York Times survey shows Obama rolling toward a victory of landslide dimensions.
Our survey unit polled 1070 adults, 972 of whom are registered voters, from last Friday through yesterday (Monday). Fifty-three percent of them say they will vote for the Obama-Biden ticket; 39% say they'll vote for McCain-Palin. Six percent still aren't sure. That gives Obama a whopping 14% lead. Just one week ago, our poll taken the day before the second presidential debate had Obama winning by just three points, 48-45.
What's happened since then? Well, the second presidential debate swung a lot of independent voters from McCain to Obama. People who were leaning toward McCain but weren't quite sure, have changed their minds, and now say they support the Democrat. Last week, McCain led Obama among independents, 49 to 39%. Now, Obama is winning the independent vote, 51-33. And more than 80% now say they've made up their minds for good, and won't change it again. That doesn't mean they won't, of course, especially if something dramatic happens in tomorrow night's third and final debate, but it bodes well for Obama and ill for McCain.
Digging a little deeper into the voter Q and A, we find that people are really turned off by McCain's and Palin's personal attacks on Obama. Twenty-one percent say they think less of John McCain now than they did a few weeks ago, citing his negative campaign and his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. And McCain's criticism of Obama's relationships with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers and controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright don't seem to be having the desired impact. Eleven percent of those surveyed say they're bothered by Obama's association with Wright, nine percent are troubled by the Ayers connection, and four percent say they don't like that Obama is a Muslim (he's not; he's a Christian). But 56% say they're not bothered at all by anything in Obama's past.
Obama also holds commanding leads on questions about temperament and personality, ability to handle the economy, and understanding voters' problems - the very character and style issues that tend to decide modern American presidential elections. Fifty percent have a favorable opinion of Obama, and 32% don't. But only 36% like John McCain, while 41% look at him with disfavor. Only 32% have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin.
A few more numbers: 82% of Hillary Clinton supporters now say they will vote for Obama; Obama is beating McCain handily among men, women, moderates, and all ethnic groups except whites. But here's a wrinkle for you: McCain had been enjoying a significant lead among white voters - it was 15% just one week ago - but that margin is gone. In this latest poll, 46% of whites say they'll vote for McCain, and 45% will vote for Obama.
If McCain can't win the suburban, moderate white vote - and right now he's not - he simply can't win this election.
Obama is also gaining in the state-by-state battleground polls, building big leads now in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania and pulling ahead in New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico and even Ohio, Nevada and Florida. If I haven't buried you in numbers yet and you want more, remember that I update the latest polling information every day, complete with brief analysis, from the national polls and the swing states, on our website at this link. It's like a mini-blog for junkies and wonks.
But these are just polls, you say. They're notoriously wrong. They don't mean a thing.
Ah, but they do. The science of polling is still not exact, especially when one of the presidential nominees is half-black. But it's been refined quite a bit since my Sociology 101 seminar back in college (not to mention since I did a remarkably unscientific survey of CBGB's patrons in 1978 for my high school sociology class). Just as an example, I point you to Gallup's Daily Tracking Poll, a survey we feature prominently every day on the Sovern Nation polling page. At this point in 2004, many polls had John Kerry leading, by between two and four points. The tracking poll had Bush winning, by five, and its final survey the day before the election showed Bush beating Kerry by two points.
Bush beat Kerry, by two and a half points.
Today, that poll has Obama up by nine over McCain. Not quite the margin CBS News has for Obama, but still reflecting a surge of support for the Democrat, a surge that Obama can enthusiastically embrace. With three weeks until the election, John McCain must fear he may just get his wish.