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Why McCain Likes Obama’s New ‘Lead’

The latest national polls show the presidential race settling back to its pre-convention rhythm, with Obama holding what is often reported as a “small lead,” or a lead of about five points. The new CBS headline blares “Obama Retakes Lead Over McCain,” for example, with a sub-header about his “5 Point Advantage.” Now for your reality check:

This entire lead is within the margin of error, so by the poll’s own (flimsy) standard, the candidates are statistically tied. **

Don’t expect that basic fact to ruin a breathless headline, though. Even when they do reflect statistically significant gaps, national polls are often misleading, because they trump up shifts in the electorate that have little impact on the election. A huge spike in Obama’s support in California, for example, does nothing for him in November.

There is, however, one potentially significant trend in this new poll. After all the delegation breakfasts and convention speeches ended, it appears that McCain shored up his party base more than Obama. That’s not surprising. McCain defined his convention by letting the base override his own preferences for a running mate. Ditching Gov. Ridge for Gov. Palin unleashed a multi-day abortion-bashing, media-sniping puritan political orgy. Let There Be Palin, he said, and The Base said it was good.

Since then, McCain’s support among Republicans jumped 8 points, according to the CBS/NYT poll. In the same period, Obama only gained four points among Democrats.

So while both nominees held exactly 79 percent support among their respective parties before the conventions, McCain has now consolidated his base a bit more.

All the national poll caveats still apply, but this has more electoral impact because battleground states with a Republican edge are more likely to firm up for McCain. See Florida, for example, which is now slipping away even though Obama is spending more there, and despite his campaign’s attempt to woo older voters there with trips by both Clintons.

The larger race is still clearly trending Obama’s way. The economy hurts McCain in Ohio, while mortgages hurt him in the Southwest swing states that he must hold for victory, especially Nevada, which led the country in foreclosures this fall. So while the “fundamentals” of his base constituency are strong, the rest of the electorate is still eyeing change.

Update: Commenter “Total” writes: “That’s not what margin of error means. First off, Obama’s up 5 and the margin of error is 3, so it’s not within the margin of error.” Wrong. The margin of error is plus or minus 3, for a spread of six. Thus The Times reports that Obama’s apparent lead is “a difference within the poll’s margin of sampling error.” Total also recommends an analysis by Kevin Drum that stresses how these figures essentially turn on probability, so the “bigger the lead, the more likely that someone is ahead” — even if they are technically within the margin of error. We agree on that one.

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