Did bad polling news make McCain jumpy?

The campaign's momentum has been shifting to Obama, as polls show a nearly universal lack of faith in the economy, and support for Obama as the man to fix it.

Published September 24, 2008 10:04PM (EDT)

Wednesday afternoon provides us with a perfect opportunity to debate that old question: correlation or causation? Is it a coincidence that John McCain is suspending his campaign and calling for Friday's debate with Barack Obama to be postponed so he can help work on a plan for a bailout just as the polls shift in Obama's favor, or was McCain's move a political ploy to try to take back some ground?

Polls conducted over the weekend painted a grim picture of Americans' concerns about the economy, and contained some bad news for the McCain camp. The L.A. Times/Bloomberg News poll found that 79 percent of respondents describe the economy as "on the wrong track," while the ABC News/Washington Post poll pegged the number of voters describing the economy as "not so good" or "poor" at an astonishing 91 percent. And Obama enjoys solid double-digit leads across the board as the candidate Americans prefer to handle the country's economic crisis.

The joint ABC News/Washington Post poll, which shows Obama with a gaping 53 to 44 percent lead, led to the day's first sign that the McCain camp was nervous about the latest round of public polling. No campaign ever wants to let a narrative that it's down in the polls take hold, especially not when approaching the final stretch of a tight race. The first time a poll appears to show that things are turning seriously sour, you can count on a campaign operative to show up promptly to explain why the poll is bunk. That's what McCain pollster Bill McInturff did Wednesday morning.

Now, McCain may not actually be as far behind as that survey showed. That poll surveyed an unusually high percentage of Democrats, and is an outlier -- a new Fox News poll shows Obama up by 6 percentage points, but NBC News and the Wall Street Journal have just released the latest numbers from their joint poll, and they have Obama up by just 2 points. Suffice it to say, though, that the Republicans still seem a little spooked.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz. Polling U.s. Economy