How to interpret a dead-even horse race

McCain is tied with his Democratic rivals, but is that good or bad?


Steve Benen
April 17, 2008 8:59PM (UTC)

The AP notes one of its own polls today, to explain, "Republicans are no longer underdogs in the race for the White House." John McCain, the AP noted, has pulled about even with Dems thanks to support from disgruntled Republicans (who had been reluctant to close ranks), independents, and some disaffected Democratic voters.

It's reminds me of a point that I've been pondering lately: is the fact that McCain is tied with his Democratic rivals encouraging or discouraging?

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My initial instinct has been to assume the worst. McCain has been treated as a campaign after-thought for over a month, by virtue of media attention on the Democratic race. He's not running a lot of ads, conservative 527s haven't begun helping him, and his policy ideas (such as they are) haven't gained any traction at all. Worse, about the most noteworthy thing McCain has done lately is make a bunch of foreign policy, military, and national security gaffes. And he's still tied with two Democratic powerhouses.

Complicating matters, he's running on a fairly ridiculous platform which most Americans should find reflexively revolting. John Heilemann recently noted:

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[F]or all the hosannas being sung to him these days, and for all the waves of fear and trembling rippling through the Democratic masses, the truth is that McCain is a candidate of pronounced and glaring weaknesses..... Whose cadre of confidantes contains so many lobbyists that the Straight Talk Express often has the vibe of a rolling K Street clubhouse. Whose awkward positioning issues-wise was captured brilliantly by Pat Buchanan: "The jobs are never coming back, the illegals are never going home, but we're going to have a lot more wars."

But the polls show McCain has "pulled even." Shouldn't Dems be crushing this guy and his four-more-years platform?

And yet, there's an important flip-side. In fact, I can almost persuade myself that, given the current landscape, McCain should be cruising to huge leads over Obama and Clinton right now.

No one's laid a glove on McCain in months. He started off with high name recognition and strong favorable numbers, then won the Republican nomination fairly easily over a month ago. All the while, McCain's enjoyed a startling, often embarrassing, advantage with the political media establishment, which has been practically sycophantic towards him.

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Clinton and Obama have been engaged in a contentious primary fight, in which they've not only hammered away at each other's negatives, but have also been focusing far more of their energies on each other than McCain. There's one independent attack ad running against McCain (Progressive Media USA's spot), but it just started, and its initial ad buy was modest.

In other words, McCain, who most Americans liked to begin with, is running around unscathed, laughing it up with his reporter buddies on the plane. He's running on a four-more-years platform, but most of the country has no idea about this, because no one's told them yet.

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So, either Dems should be dejected that this conservative Republican running on a Bush-like agenda is tied with two great candidates, or Dems should be thrilled that this media darling who has it easy isn't beating the Democratic candidates by double digits.

It's a tough call. What say you?


Steve Benen

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