Monday, March 3, 2008

Ringing Phone Ad Reflects Democratic Voter Concerns Over Obama's Inexperience

Lanny Davis in "Several days ago I posted a blog citing Gallup and USA Today data showing that Senator Obama and Senator Clinton are virtually tied in a race against Senator McCain -- despite huge misimpressions that Senator Obama is far stronger in the general election held by most primary voting Democrats and the media covering the campaign. Now comes the most recent national all-voters poll (February 20-24) from the highly-regarded, non-partisan Pew Research Center confirming that the two lead with about the same narrow margin over Senator McCain.
The Pew data also provides additional data showing the serious weaknesses of Senator Obama, as compared to Senator Clinton, in winning a general election against Republican Arizona Senator John McCain. And it shows that Hillary Clinton's ad about who is best positioned to answer a "telephone ringing late at night in the White House" rather than being "fear mongering," as Senator Obama has said, in fact reflects genuine and serious concerns of many voters, including many Democrats, about whether Senator Obama is experienced enough to be ready to be president.
Gap Between Media-Fed Perception and the Facts

Remarkably, the gap between Democratic voter perception on which candidate is better positioned to defeat Senator McCain and the factual data grows even larger. Pew shows 70% of Democratic voters believe Senator Obama is "more likely" to defeat Senator McCain in the general election than Senator Clinton, its recent data flat out contradicts that perception. Yet the Pew polling data -- again, repeating the results of virtually all other polls -- directly contradicts that data. Both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton defeat Senator McCain by the same margin (within the margin of error): Senator Obama wins 50%-43% and Senator Clinton wins 50%-45%, a statistically insignificant difference in margin.

In other words, 70% of all primary Democrats a perception contradicted by recent polling data on the electability issue - which most surveys show to be a key determinant as to whether they are voting for Senator Obama or Senator Clinton. Does the media have a responsibility here for this huge gap between perception and reality?

The latest Pew data shows significant defection rates among Democratic voters to Senator McCain (so-called "McCainocrats") if Senator Obama were the nominee as compared to lower defection rates if Senator Clinton were the nominee.

According to Pew:

One in five white Democrats (20%) would defect to Senator McCain if Senator Obama were the nominee -twice as many as would defect if Senator Clinton is the nominee (10%). (Among all Democrats, including non-whites, the defection rate to Senator McCain is still nearly twice as high for Senator Obama compared to Senator Clinton -- 14% defectors from Senator Obama to Senator McCain, vs. 8% from Senator Clinton.)
The defection rate among Democratic women is 14% (i.e., 93% of Democratic women would support Senator Clinton over Senator McCain but that number drops to 79% supporting Senator Obama over Senator McCain.)
The defection rate to McCain among senior citizen Democrats (over 65), lower income, and less educated Democrats to Senator McCain is relatively higher if Senator Obama were the nominee than if Senator Clinton were. (For example, for workers earning under $35,000 per year, Obama does 17% worse against Senator McCain than Senator Clinton). Thus the early pattern of exit polls remains true, despite press reports to the contrary: The FDR/blue collar/senior citizens historic base of the Democratic Party is less favorable to Senator Obama than to Senator Clinton. Another reminder that the "Reagan Democrats" of the 1980s might well reappear in significant numbers as "McCainocrats" of the 2008 election.
Significantly, 25% of Democrats who are supporting Senator Clinton say they will vote for Senator McCain, whereas 10% of Senator Obama's voters say they would vote for the Republican candidate.

Why these Democratic defections from Senator Obama -- which, presumably, would be a reason also applicable to many "independent"/"decline" voters?

The reason is clear -- not only from the recent Pew data but, as indicated in my last blog, from virtually every poll taken in the last two months, even in the midst of Senator Obama's media hurricane of favorable coverage and primary/caucus victories: Most voters, including a high percentage of primary/caucus voting Democrats, are concerned about Senator Obama's lack of experience and record to be ready to serve as president.

For example, according to the Pew data:

the first word volunteered when Democrats are asked to name an impression of Senator Obama to Pew is the word "inexperienced."
Conversely, the first word associated with Senator Cliton is "experienced." Twenty-five percent of all Democrats say that Senator Obama is "not tough enough in his approach to foreign policy issues."

The Ringing Telephone Ad and Senator Obama's "Change the Subject" Response

Senator Clinton raised the same question about whether Senator Obama was ready to be president in a recently televised TV ad involving a ringing telephone at the White House in the middle of the night, asking who you wanted to be there to answer the phone.

To those who have been critical of this ad and have accused Senator Clinton of using unfair "scare tactics" through this ad, there are two good answers, at least to the intellectually consistent:

First, Vice President Walter Mondale ran a similar "ringing phone" ad during his 1984 campaign against the inexperienced Colorado Senator Gary Hart and for the same reason. And I don't recall significant political or media criticism of his using "scare tactics" since most recognized the issue as a legitimate one.

Second, it appears these critics and indeed Senator Obama are ignoring the data that this is a genuine issue out there among voters, Democrats and non-Democrats, and they would be much better off addressing the issue and persuading voters that Senator Obama is ready to be president rather than attacking the messenger and the message.

Third, Senator Obama 's response to the ad reinforces, not addresses, the concern about his readiness. His ad replies that the person answering the White House phone should be the one who showed the good judgment to oppose the October 2002 Iraq war resolution. But his ad omits the fact that when Senator Obama was asked in 2004 how he "would" have voted had he actually been in the U.S. Senate at the time of the war resolution vote, his published answer was: "I don't know." (In 2007, as reported by the New York Times, he refused to explain that answer "eight times.")

The "I don't know" may remind people of a pattern of indecisiveness in Senator Obama's record that reinforces the "answering the phone" concern. For example, as reported by David Ignatius in Sunday's Washington Post, Senator Obama missed a" key gun control" vote in December 1999 while he was in the Illinois State Senate, because he was vacationing in Hawaii. The Chicago Tribune, reported Ignatius, "blasted him and several other vote-skippers as 'gutless.' One Chicago poll says that 'the myth developed that when there was a tough vote, he was gone.'" (He also missed the September 2007 vote on a non-binding Senate Resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to be a "foreign terrorist organization" while criticizing Senator Clinton's vote in favor -- omitting to mention he had co-sponsored a Senate resolution with identical designation language concerning the IRG five months before).

The "I don't know" answer to how he would have actually voted on the Iraq war resolution is also reminiscent of the fact that on 129 occasions Senator Obama chose to vote "present" -- not yes or no -- on the floor of the Illinois State Senate. His excuse that this was a customary option doesn't wash. He was one of the few Democrats not to support bills supporting pro-choice positions, barring guns used near schools, and protecting privacy rights of sex offender victims, choosing to vote "present" instead.

So: When the phone rings in the middle of the night at the White House, isn't it valid for voters to ask whether Senator Obama tends towards indecisiveness, given his past record of ducking votes, voting "present," or saying "I don't know" when asked how he would have voted on the war -- all the while criticizing Senator Clinton's "judgment" for voting for the resolution at the time?

Senator Obama's Questionable Strength Among "Independents" or "Declines"

In the head-to-head general electorate poll against Senator McCain, Senator Obama is currently able to overcome his relative weakness among core Democratic FDR/coalition voters shown by Pew by his relative strength among so-called "independents" (who more accurately, are voters who "decline" to register as either a Democrat or Republican and are usually called "declines" not "independents" in many states.

Among declines, Senator Obama defeats Senator McCain 49%-43%, while Senator Clinton loses to Senator McCain by 44%-50%. That's a significant plus/minus advantage for Senator Obama relative to Senator Clinton among "independents" of +12% in a race against Senator McCain. But there is room to seriously doubt the sustainability of Senator Obama's relative strength among "independents" or "declines" for the reasons expressed in my last blog -- the undeniable historical fact that such "declines" have a record of more volatility in maintaining candidate preferences.

Adding to the volatility potential is the fact, as Pew data shows, that most people have little information about Senator Obama's record.

The numbers are shocking for someone who has received such saturated and overwhelmingly positive media attention in the last several months.

Only 36% of all voters believe they have sufficient information about Senator Obama, compared to 56% of voters who say they do not.
Meanwhile, the numbers on Senator Clinton are lopsided in reverse--67% of all voters say they have sufficient information vs. 28% who say they do not. (Senator McCain's data is 51% sufficient, 37% not).

The following inference from these facts is certainly reasonable, if not undisputable:

Senator Obama's support among "declines" is soft and his low negatives have a potential to get higher over time once the Republican attack machine fills in the blanks on his mostly liberal voting record and other negative aspects of his record become better known, such as the 129 "present" votes.

But here is a fact, not an inference, that should not be debatable:

Hillary Clinton has sustained all the negative attacks available to the Republican attack machine and her negatives can't go any higher; whereas clearly Senator Obama's can.

So to all Democrats who support Senator Obama an inspirational speaker and political leader: I respect that greatly. But if you are most concerned about winning back the White House for the Democratic Party's progressive agenda, my request, again, is:

Look at the hard data on electability in the recent February 20-24 Pew Survey data and all the recent polls. Then think with your head, not with your heart, as to what the hard data infers as to who will ultimately be stronger against Senator McCain in the general electorate voting in November. "