Poll talk … and the winner is?

Everyone is talking about polls. Fair enough. We are finally in the season when, to some minor extent, polls can be consulted for a sense about where this seemingly very tight race for the presidency is headed. So let’s get clear about some basics:

1. John McCain got a traditional post-convention “bump,” which brought the Republican into serious competition with Democrat Barack Obama.
But McCain, who seemed last week to be opening up a lead, is now slipping back toward a tie. If we average the most recent national polls, the Republican is only ever-so-slightly ahead of Obama. That is deep within the margin of error for every survey conducted, so we end up with what can honestly be called a dead heat. When we remember that McCain is riding a wave of enthusiasm created by a.) his unexpected choice of a woman, Sarah Palin, b.) that woman’s edgily dynamic acceptance speech at the convention and c.) the generally favorable — yes, favorable — media coverage she’s gotten since the convention, this should be neither surprising nor unsettling for Democrats.

2. What should unsettle Democrats, at least a little, is evidence of a lingering Palimania among Republican diehards and some Republican-leaning independents.
Palin has moved from “Sarah Who?” to more than 90 percent name recognition in two weeks. She is the political “rock star” of this first stage of the fall campaign. And she is connecting with voters in a meaningful way. How well? Consider the “gets it” question in the latest Fox New/Opinion Dynamics survey:

“Q. Which one of the following four candidates do you think best understands the problems of every day life in America?” Answer: Sarah Palin 33 percent, Barack Obama 32 percent, John McCain 17 percent, Joe Biden 10 percent.

McCain’s greatest challenge in the 2008 race was a general sense that he did not have any sense of what voters were going through. Palin boosts the GOP ticket by humanizing it, and that provides a tangible and legitimate benefit for McCain and the Republicans. By the same token, Republican propects become wedded to her: If Palin slips — as there is some evidence that she is beginning to do — the ticket slips.

3. There is no question that Palin has boosted Republican enthusiasm and solidarity.
More Americans are comfortable identifying as Republicans now than at any time in months, perhaps years. Before the GOP convention, Democrats enjoyed a remarkable 11 point advantage when it came to party identification. That’s narrowed to 5 percent or less in recent surveys. And Republicans, who never cared that much for McCain, are excited about the McCain-Palin ticket: 90 percent of self-identified Republicans surveyed in the latest Rasmussen national poll said they would vote for their party’s ticket, while just 82 percent of self-identified Democrats said they would back their party’s ticket.

4. The Republican surge of last week narrowed the gap between Democrats and Republicans in generic polling of congressional races.
Democrats had enjoyed a huge, frequently double-digit advantage earlier this year. Now, it averages between 4 and 5 points. That’s still significant, but the shift troubled Democratic congressional leaders and candidates enough to make them the loudest advocates for the tougher approach Obama adopted at the end of last week. The biggest worriers are southern Democrats, several of whom have won their seats in recent special elections. Their fear is that, as the McCain-Palin ticket opens up wide leads in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, they may be vulnerable to a previously unexpected Republican coattail effect.

5. The presidential race is not, of course, a national popularity contest.
It is a state-by-state race for a total of 270 electoral votes. But the national polls are reasonably relevant. That’s because they tend to roughly parallel numbers in competitive “battleground” states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico. In all those states, fresh polls have the race within the same margin of error range that we see in the national contest. What’s significant is that the numbers err a little more toward Obama. McCain has taken leads in some states, such as Missouri and Montana, which had been competitive, and the race has tightened in other states, such as Wisconsin, where Obama was thought to have a clear advantage. But
in many other states, the Democratic has held its lead through a challenging time. A fresh Des Moines Register poll of Iowans, for instance, shows a state that went narrowly for George Bush in 2004 now giving Obama a 12 point lead.

If the polls are right, and if election were held today, Obama would win 22 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin) and the District of Columbia to secure 273 electoral votes.

McCain would take the rest (including the battleground states of Florida, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia) for 265 electoral votes.

My sense is that Ohio is very much in play, however, so I think that giving it to McCain at this point is silly. The same may be true for Nevada, where a strong Democratic registration advantage ought not be discounted.

Where does this leave us? The race is closer now. Republicans who had been dispirited are suddenly enthusiastic. But the Republican convention “bump” has not given the McCain-Palin ticket a wide lead nationally, and it still trails in the electoral-vote race that matters most.

The fall campaign begins as the competitive one that most serious observers always expected.

That is cause for excitement among Republicans who had experienced something akin to depression during a long, Obama-centric summer.

Palin has given fellow partisans some of the commodity that the Democratic nominee had previously dealt in: hope.

But the polls ought not be cause for despondency on the part of Democrats.

Rather, the numbers offer a dose of reality that was needed by grassroots Democrats — and perhaps even by an Obama campaign team — who had grown too confident as McCain seemed to wander in the political wilderness.

A vice-presidential nominee from the frontier state of Alaska has, indeed, led Republicans out of the wilderness. But she has not taken them to the promised land of another presidential term.

Palin has made the Republicans competitive. But they will only remain the case for so long as she continues to shine. If the Alaskan governor’s reputation is tarnished — as the McCain camp fears it will be by the “Troopergate” scandal — or if the Republican ticket is simply identified with the current Republican leadership in Washington, the Democratic advantage will likely be restored.

Indeed, if conservative and laissez faire economic policies get their appropriate share of the blame for the current economic crisis, the Republican are finished.

Bottom line: Approval ratings for both John McCain and Sarah Palin have surged. But they are not particularly higher than those for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. All the contenders are in the 50 percent to 55 percent favorable zone. In contrast, George Bush’s favorable ratings have dipped to around 30 percent.

To the extent that McCain and Palin succeed in running away from Bush, they will remain competitive. To the extent that McCain and Palin are linked to Bush, all of the progress the Republicans have made since their convention will be undermined.

For Obama and Biden, George Bush and Dick Cheney — and their economy — continue to form the silver lining amid the clouds that have appeared over the political map.

John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, where this commentary first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.