Cold Feet About Front-Runner Obama?

There have been about a hundred polls conducted since Barack Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination on June 3 and there’ll be about a thousand more between now and Election Day. So the results from two of the most recent should be taken with the customary grain of salt.

That said, the most recent Newsweek and Rasmussen surveys suggest at least the possibility that a phenomenon that shaped previous elections might be at work again this year.

The background: Newsweek’s numbers, released late last week, found Barack Obama ahead by just three points over John McCain, a near-evaporation of what had been a 15-point advantage when the magazine last commissioned a poll three weeks ago. At the same time, Rasmussen’s daily tracking poll, which showed Obama between six and eight points ahead of McCain for almost all of June and early July, suddenly tightened late last week, with McCain actually drawing even on both Saturday and Sunday.

Newsweek’s 15-point poll was viewed skeptically when it was released last month, so the idea of a dozen-point hemorrhage in Obama’s support is probably an exaggeration (although an L.A. Times poll around the same time had the race at 12 points). And the bad press that Obama received last week for (supposedly) tacking to the center could account for the change in Rasmussen’s numbers–which are just as likely to move in the other direction the next time McCain hits a rough patch. Plus, other polls–most notably Gallup’s daily track–have shown little movement, with Obama maintaining a slight but consistent edge.

Still, the new numbers are somewhat jarring, since they come just after Obama had seemed–statistically and psychologically–to have put some distance between himself and his G.O.P. rival. After finally fending off Hillary Clinton and securing her glowing endorsement, Obama moved into a clear lead in national polls (even if the numbers weren’t as encouraging as that old Newsweek poll) and the press began to note that all of the dire primary season predictions about Obama’s general election performance–that he would struggle with women, Hispanics, and working-class whites in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania–weren’t coming true.

While Obama endured his share of headaches in June, one of the dominant themes that emerged in the media was the strength of his general election outlook. Not only was he performing better than expected with traditional Democratic constituencies, but the burden of McCain’s party association only hardened: Polls showing fewer than 20 percent of voters believing that the country is on the right track, and a staggering advantage for Democrats in House and Senate contests (even more dramatic than in 2006).

What this produced in much of the press coverage of the presidential race was an undercurrent of Obama inevitability. Pundits talked about Obama’s rosy prospects, McCain’s numerous and potentially insurmountable challenges, and the possibility that November wouldn’t produce merely a Democratic victory but a realigning landslide. The average voter didn’t digest any of the details of these forecasts, but the sheer volume was loud enough for the masses to receive the message that Obama had emerged as the clear favorite.

And that raises the possibility that what we’re seeing is the result of some soft Obama supporters backing away as the idea of an Obama victory has become more real. In effect, a small but significant slice of the electorate may be saying, “Hold on a second here–are we sure about this?”

There is a precedent for this kind of thinking in presidential politics. The most famous example came in the fall of 1976, when Gerald Ford battled his way back from a mammoth 33-point deficit against Jimmy Carter. Ford capped his methodical comeback the weekend before the election when polls showed him – for the first time in the entire campaign–pulling ahead of Carter. The prospect of Ford actually winning the election sparked some widespread second-guessing among his softest supporters. Hang on, they seemed to say, are we really going to give four more years to the guy who pardoned Nixon? After two months of steady gains, Ford’s support dropped that final weekend and Carter won the race by two points.

Something similar happened in 1980 with Ronald Reagan. Given his iconic status now, it’s hard to appreciate just how grave the public’s reservations were about Reagan’s ideology, temperament, and age, but Reagan couldn’t create and sustain a substantial lead in the polls against Carter for almost the entire fall of ’80–even though the political climate was absolutely poisonous for Carter. When Reagan would seem to pull ahead, the polls would quickly tighten, a pattern that prevailed until the final week of the campaign, when Reagan’s convincing and reassuring debate performance vaulted him into a clear lead that he didn’t relinquish.

Obviously, it’s too early to tell whether something similar is at work this year. On paper, the Democratic candidate in 2008 should be running comfortably ahead of the Republican nominee. And maybe the next wave of polls will show Obama returning to the clear lead he enjoyed in June and early July and that will be that.

But it could also be that Obama, given his newness to the national scene and the doubts about his preparation and seasoning that his opponents have hammered away at, faces an extra burden when it comes to reassuring his softest supporters. The more real the possibility of an Obama presidency seems, the more these soft supporters will question their own instincts–and the more prone they’ll be prone to reconsider their allegiance when Obama faces the kind of press scrutiny he faced last week.

Trying to understand what truly motivates voters can be maddening, mainly because voters themselves don’t often attribute their choices to the emotional forces that shape and manipulate their reactions to candidates and events. But it’s not unheard of for the prospect of a candidate’s victory to cause a measurable chunk of voters to get cold feet. It happened to Gerald Ford and to Ronald Reagan and it’s happened in numerous state-level contests through the years. It looks like it’s something that Barack Obama has to deal with too.

Cold Feet About Front-Runner Obama?