Making Sense of Voters

As significant events pile up—from the Russia-Georgia war to the financial crisis—it’s harder to get a grasp on which candidate voters want in the White House.

The McCain campaign seemed to have found a poll-bouncing celebritician in Sarah Palin just a couple of weeks ago, before the financial crisis upstaged the Georgia-Russia conflict and the troubles in Pakistan. The GOP brand name appeared to have been successfully reinvented. Apparent villains on the world stage were singled out and denounced. Mortgage-backed securities were unraveling much more discreetly. Taxpayers were not being urged to foot a $700- billion bailout for financial institutions.

That was then. Obama is the beneficiary of the most recent shift in the electoral balance, with voters now favoring change and becoming somewhat less risk averse. All the same, McCain's convention/Palin-propelled resurgence cannot be dismissed as a bygone, pre-financial-crisis, era. If anything, the variability in voter preferences, as demonstrated by a series of polls, shows how arbitrary and volatile public perceptions will be in this tight race, right up to November. A variety of circumstances could shift the balance in McCain's favor. For instance, the upcoming debates, if they serve to either strongly consolidate or distort the candidates' images, could enduringly tip the scales. But if the debates are less consequential, poll numbers could continue to swing right up to election day. Given the tightness of the race, any shift would be significant.

A Zogby poll conducted from Sept. 11-13 (released on September 17) found that likely voters gave McCain a 47 to 45 percent edge over Obama as the candidate that they believed could best manage the economy. As a result, it may have seemed logical to conclude that he would thereby be the candidate to benefit from economic troubles. But that seemingly logical conclusion would be erroneous, as has been made clear by more recent polls.

In a Zogby poll released on Saturday, 46 percent now said Obama was the best-equipped to deal with the financial crisis, while 41 percent said McCain was best suited. Other polls show even more dramatic results in Obama's favor. A Washington Post/ABC poll released Wednesday found that, among likely voters, Obama now leads McCain by 52 percent to 43 percent, mainly because of a perception that he is better suited to deal with the crisis.

There are a number of reasons why financial instability would undercut the McCain campaign. The American public is blaming the near-meltdown on the current administration (although banking regulations were relaxed under President Bill Clinton) for allowing the crisis to escalate under its watch. Indeed, the administration seemed to have gone from publicly downplaying the risks that the bundled housing loans posed to the economy to calling for an emergency, multi-billion dollar bailout with no apparent strings attached. At least some of that blame is being transferred to the candidate from the incumbent political party. And Republicans generally favor less control of financial institutions while Democrats tend to support more regulation. Further, McCain faces credibility problems in denouncing CEOs who exit with multi-million dollar parachutes, since he has Carly Fiorina (whose termination packaged from Hewlett Packard was worth more than $40 million) on his team.

But all these factors would have been known when the first Zogby poll was conducted and the economy was already showing signs of distress. In addition, Obama and McCain have called for almost identical changes to the president's bailout proposal. Before the recent dip in McCain's poll numbers, the senator appeared to have successfully distanced himself from the Bush administration and managed to restore respect for the Republican Party. A Pew Research poll conducted between Sept. 9-14 found that "McCain may also have improved the GOP ‘brand,' which had steadily eroded during Bush's second term. Half of registered voters now express a favorable opinion of the Republican Party-the party's highest rating in three years." That poll would seem to suggest that voters viewed McCain as a different kind of Republican, but given the drop in his support in the wake of the economic turmoil, that no longer appears to be the case.

What seems equally perplexing is that the Washington Post/ABC poll found that McCain's previous advantages in other areas completely unrelated to the economy have weakened. McCain's lead in national security issues has disappeared and his once-sizable advantage in dealing with the battle against terrorism has also diminished. Obama has gained favor on his potential handling of Iraq and international affairs in general. But voters still demonstrated skepticism regarding Obama's ability to lead the military, with 48 percent saying he would be effective in that role while nearly three-quarters maintaining McCain would manage such authority well.

Just why Obama is making headway in foreign-policy and national-security issues when his progress is being linked to the economy is unclear. Equally perplexing is why McCain ever prevailed over Obama in these areas or why he would still be favored to lead the military. Although McCain has consistently called for investing American blood and treasure in Iraq, he has demonstrated a noteworthy lack of understanding of the conflict and the nature of the sectarian divisions driving it.

In March, during a visit to the Middle East, McCain said several times that Iran, a predominately Shiite country, was supplying al-Qaeda, which is mostly Sunni. When asked to elaborate, McCain mistakenly said it was "common knowledge" that al-Qaeda was entering Iran to receive training and coming back into Iraq from Iran. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, standing just behind McCain whispered in McCain's ear and McCain later said, "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda." Voters' preference for McCain on military matters, therefore, does not seem altogether logical.