WASHINGTON – It is a question that has hovered over Barack Obama even as he has passed milestone after milestone in his race for the White House: Why is he not doing better? It shadowed him as he struggled against Senator Hillary Clinton in many states through the primaries, results that sometimes stood at odds with the huge, enthusiastic crowds that turned out to see him. It was there in the exit polls that suggested that many Democrats were uncomfortable with Obama, putting an asterisk next to some of his biggest primary victories.
And it is back again as he returns from an overseas trip that even Republicans have described as politically triumphant. In this case, the question is why – given how sour Americans feel about President Bush and the Republican party, and the perception that Obama is running a better campaign than Senator John McCain – the senator from Illinois is not scoring even higher in national opinion polls.
Most surveys now show Obama with a lead of about 6 or 7 percentage points over McCain nationally, and Obama rarely breaks the 50 percent threshold. Those are statistics that have given Republicans, who are not exactly feeling joyful these days, a line to grab, and they have fed some underlying anxiety among some Democrats.
“They’ve known John McCain for years,” Bill McInturff, a pollster for McCain, said of survey participants. “But people say in focus groups, Who the heck is Barack Obama? Had you heard of him before six months ago? And he’s 46 years old. He’s somebody nobody knows about.”
McCain is “running ahead of where he should be based on the environment,” McInturff said.
Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, said the statistics are a reminder of the particular obstacles that Obama faces. “Here’s a 46-year-old African American with a narrative that is very unusual and that few other Americans can relate to,” he said. “Add to that the fact that he has had four years in the U. S. Senate and very little international experience. That’s a large leap for the American public to make.”
Beyond that, Obama faces an opponent in McCain who has a history of appealing to independent voters and occasionally defying his own party. McCain’s advocates said during the primaries that he was the strongest candidate for the general-election contest for just these reasons.
“I believe, had Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney been our nominee, they’d be 10 or 12 points behind right now – they’d be much closer to the generic vote,” McInturff said, referring to the number of people who say they would vote for any Republican over any Democrat. Yet for all that, is Obama really struggling? Are these summer polls truly evidence of underperformance or fundamental weaknesses in his campaign?
Given the history of open presidential elections over the past 50 years – not to mention the recent polarization that has marked politics in this country – a seven-point victory by either candidate in November would have to be considered a substantial one. “If you look at this historically, presidential elections are close,” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager.
In the elections of 2000, 1968 and 1960, each without an incumbent president on the ballot, the two candidates’ vote totals were separated by less than one percentage point. In 1988, George H. W. Bush defeated Michael S. Dukakis by seven points, and suffice it to say that Obama is no Dukakis. Bill Clinton defeated the first President Bush four years later by a margin of six points; and that was in a three-way race that also included H. Ross Perot.
Some analysts said that Obama could be like Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan was up against an unpopular incumbent, President Jimmy Carter, who for all his weaknesses was a known quantity. Only after Reagan persuaded voters that he was credible as a president did the polls break in his direction.
“It took a long while for the American public to test and look at Ronald Reagan before they were willing to go with him,” Hart said. “And then, when the dam broke open, it broke open very, very wide.”
Even Obama’s advisers say they are uneasy about his difficulty so far in breaking the 50 percent barrier – a reminder, in poll after poll, that there many Americans who are not yet ready to cast their lot with him, and may never be.
Yet in a race with more than two candidates, as this one is (though so far, Bob Barr and Ralph Nader are having minimal effects), victory can be claimed with less than 50 percent of the vote. Though Bush in 1988 and Eisenhower in 1952 won handily, a great many recent presidents have started their tenures in the Oval Office without having won a majority of the votes cast (or having barely won one: Reagan drew just under 51 percent in his three-way race with Carter).
And finally, this is July. There are two conventions and three debates to go; many Americans will not even begin really paying attention to this election until early September. Voters may be holding back because they have all kinds of apprehensions about Obama. Or they might just not be ready to make a decision quite this early.
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