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First thoughts: The great '08 paradox

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro
*** The great '08 paradox: Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the latest NBC/WSJ poll is the poor shape the GOP finds itself in today: The party's fav/unfav has increased (34%-49%); Bush's approval rating remains in the 30s; a whopping 76% say they want a president who takes a different approach from Bush; and Democrats lead by double digits in generic presidential and congressional contests. On top of it all, for the first time since 1992, a plurality of registered voters (43%) believe they're worse off than they were four years ago -- hardly a good sign for a party trying to hold onto the presidency. And yet … McCain seems like he'll be more than competitive come November. He trails Obama by just three points (44%-47%) and Clinton two points (45%-47%). Also, while a surprising 52% of Republicans say they would have preferred a different GOP nominee, the crosstabs show Republican voters siding with him in general election match ups. And get this: Just 44% of Democrats have a negative view of him.

*** Style vs. substance: Clinton leads Obama on almost every individual issue the poll measured, but she trails him on electability (48% think Obama would have the better chance of beating McCain, versus 38% who think this of Clinton), favorability, and who is seen as the more "acceptable" candidate. Why the disconnect? Because style is often more important than substance in presidential politics. Kerry and Gore both led Bush on the issues, but how far did that get them? Indeed, this latest NBC/WSJ poll shows that more voters think a candidate's leadership style and trustworthiness (48%) is more important than ideas and policies (32%) when asked to pick between the two. But that is hardly the only thing going on here. Obama has improved on eight of 10 attributes, including the commander-in-chief question (he trails Clinton here by just five points among Democrats). Clinton, on the other hand, has stagnated on nine out of 10 attributes and has dropped in the other: being likeable. Overall, Clinton leads Obama in the Dem horserace, 47%-43%, the closest it has ever been in the poll.

*** Compare and contrast: It's also noteworthy that, according to the poll, Clinton's and McCain's top attributes among all voters are similar: being knowledgeable of the presidency, having strong leadership qualities, and being a good commander-in-chief. Yet McCain has higher scores on these attributes than Clinton does. On the flip side, McCain's strengths are Obama's weaknesses and vice versa. McCain's worst attributes -- being likeable, being inspirational and exciting, and bringing real change -- are among Obama's top categories. His worst categories: commander-in-chief, positions on the issues, and knowledge of the presidency. Do Democrats go for a nominee that covers a flank against McCain? Or capitalizes on one?

*** Legacy watch: Bill Clinton's legacy has taken a real hit in the last year. In March 2007, his fav/unfav was 49%-35%. Now it's a net negative: 42%-45%. His numbers have gradually gotten worse as the campaign has gone on. In November, it was 47%-40%; in January, it was 44%-41%, and now it's 42%-45%. The reason? His support among African Americans and Obama voters has greatly eroded. Similarly, the poll shows that Obama voters have a more negative impression of Clinton than Clinton voters do of Obama.

*** Uniting the Dems: Nearly four in 10 Democrats believe the protracted primary is bad for the party, and just one in four think the long process is good. So this begs the question: Which of the two Democrats will have an easier time uniting the party? Well, according to the NBC/WSJ survey, Obama voters have a lower opinion of Clinton than Clinton voters have of Obama. Clinton's fav/unfav among Obama voters was 69%-17%; now it has decreased to 45%-33%. Meanwhile, Obama's fav/unfav among Clinton voters was 55%-20%; now it's pretty much the same at 53%-24%. Does this mean Obama voters have taken this campaign a lot more personally than Clinton's supporters? Or does this mean Obama's voters are more intensely loyal to their candidate than Clinton's? These are questions the superdelegates may end up debating amongst themselves at some point. 

*** Other interesting numbers in the poll: The percentage of respondents who correctly identified Obama as a Christian increased from 18% to 37%. But those identifying him as a Muslim also increased five points (from 8% to 13%). Fifty-eight percent said globalization has been bad for the country; just 25% said it has been good. Congress' approval rating is at 19%. And just 14% view Nader in a positive light; 37% have a negative impression of him. The poll was conducted March 7-10 among 1,012 registered voters, and it has a 3.1% margin of error. 

*** Getting closer to a re-vote? According to the Washington Post, the Florida Democratic Party has set June 3 as the date for a possible mail-in do-over election. The party confirms the date to First Read, but cautions that nothing is set in stone, due to the fact that Florida Democrats are disagreeing about the particulars. But there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the election will be conducted, including if it passes muster with the Justice Department since Florida is a state that has to get pre-clearance for their elections, even party-run ones. South Carolina Democrats and Republicans have faced this issue in the past. By the way, Michigan also appears closer to coming up with some sort of re-vote compromise.

*** The Limbaugh effect: Want more proof that the liberal blogosphere has turned into a big-time ally for the Obama campaign? It has really begun to push the "Limbaugh Effect" story to explain why Republicans, per exit polls, have begun to break for Clinton in Ohio, Texas, and Mississippi. But let's not get carried away on this issue since all three states have Southern tendencies (yes, you Southern Ohio), meaning identity politics is more likely to trump everything else. Until there's an actual swing of Republicans voting for Clinton in a state without culturally Southern tendencies, then assume this so-called "Limbaugh effect" is nothing more than an urban myth.

*** The delegate count: Obama leads, 1,614-1,497. The NBC pledged number has Obama leading, 1,398-1,244. Clinton leads in superdelegates, 253-216.

*** On the trail: Clinton, McCain, and Obama are all in DC for Senate business today, although McCain later travels to Philly for a fundraiser there. Also, Bill Clinton holds fundraisers in New York and Michelle Obama campaigns in Pennsylvania.

Countdown to Pennsylvania: 40 days
Countdown to North Carolina, Indiana: 54 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 236 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 313 days

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