Prevailing political winds are blowing in a direction that is not helpful for the Republican Party. But when voters are asked to choose between John McCain and either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, Senator McCain is competitive.
That is the bottom-line finding of the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted March 7-10 among 1,012 voters. The codirectors of the poll, Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Bill McInturff, met with reporters Thursday at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast to discuss their latest findings.
Mr. Hart, chairman of Hart Research Associates, and Mr. McInturff, cofounder and partner at Public Opinion Strategies, are two of the most respected political pollsters in the country. Their presentations are tailored to give off light, not heat.
"Elections are about fundamentals," Hart said. "This is clearly one that points in a certain direction of change.... Only 20 percent of Americans think things are headed in the right direction; only a third of the voters approve of the president's performance."
It is usually bad news for the party that holds the White House when voters are focused on change. "Every election that has been about change – 1960, 1968, 1980, 1992 – essentially when we have had something pointing in one direction, we have always gone with the change direction and the out party," Hart said. "The sole exception to this would be 1948, in which essentially Roosevelt got another term with Harry Truman [being elected]."
McInturff, who did polling work for McCain for many years, shares Hart's sense of the prevailing political atmosphere.
"I agree with Peter that the data presents a pretty stark challenge to the McCain campaign to demonstrate what would be different with a John McCain administration compared to George Bush. But that is the point about McCain. I think he has a plausible answer."
In the matchups in the NBC/Journal poll, Senator Obama comes in ahead of McCain by 47 to 44 percent. Senator Clinton edges McCain by 47 to 45 percent. Both races fall within the poll's margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Part of the challenge facing the McCain campaign is that Democrats have raised more money than Republicans in the current presidential campaign. "What is of interest to me this cycle is ... the Democrat funding advantage," McInturff said. "I just felt as a Republican we had a God-given right to more money.... Republicans, if they look a little bewildered, it is because they are not used to being outfunded. I think that is a huge story this cycle."
Not all the trends Hart and McInturff unearthed in the poll benefit Democrats. "The betting odds in this race should be 3 to 2 Democratic. They are not, and they are not for two reasons," Hart said. First, voters feel the long primary fight between Clinton and Obama "is bad for the party," Hart said.
The ongoing Democratic Party debate about what role superdelegates should play and how to deal with the controversy over potentially redoing the Florida and Michigan primaries raise the issue, "Is the nominee going to be legitimate?" Hart said.
The economy is the issue voters say they care about the most. But the war in Iraq is also a major concern. A majority still want to begin withdrawing troops in 2009, the NBC/Journal poll found. And voter concerns about the war will probably affect the next occupant of the Oval Office.
"Whoever is the next president, the level of proof required to have American support to use our combat troops somewhere else in the world will be extraordinarily high," McInturff said.