Hillary Clinton's candidacy lives to see another day. And, I'm guessing, Barack Obama's supporters are depressed. They think Obama is all but certain to win the nomination anyway. The longer this campaign continues, they figure, the more damaged for the fall election he will be.


Why the dash of optimism? Two graphs from the Gallup poll explain it.

Here's the first, showing national opinion in a hypothetical matchup between Obama and John McCain:


Now here's the second, showing Clinton versus McCain: 


 

The polls you see depicted here stretch back more than a month--a period during which the Reverend Wright controvery broke, Obama gave his race speech, Clinton's Bosnia flap exploded, Obama made his remarks about "bitter" voters, and the Dems had their scandal-centric debate. If you look at Clinton and Obama head-to-head, you'll see their support bounced up and down quite a bit.

And yet, despite all of this volatility, Clinton and Obama's respective standings versus McCain barely budged.

In fact, both Clinton and Obama performed almost exactly the same against McCain throughout--polling virtually even with him, at around 45 percent--no matter how popular or unpopular either was within the Democratic primary electorate.

But shouldn't McCain actually be doing badly, given the state of the economy and the war? And doesn't that just prove how damaging this campaign has been? As long as Clinton and Obama are fighting each other, the eventual nominee can't attack McCain effectively. He's getting a free ride.

Well, maybe. But look at those graphs again. If McCain is getting a free ride, it doesn't seem to be doing much good. He's running no stronger against either candidate than he was before the Wright story, Bittergate, or the Bosnia controversy. 

It's possible McCain's numbers are stagnant simply because Clinton and Obama soaking up all of the media attention. But there may be another explanation, one I know I've read elsewhere (maybe in a Gallup analysis, though I can't find it now): That 45 percent figure represents a ceiling of his support. 

After all, barring some outside shock to the political system, there is no reason to think McCain's numbers will go up. People already have overwhelmingly positive feelings about him--stronger than about either of the Democratic candidates. They see him as a likeable, principled war hero whom they trust on national security. Very few realize that he has supported privatizing Social Security, that he opposes universal health insurance, that he supports free trade without qualification, and so on. Once the voters learn these things, at least some of them are likely to abandon him. 

If anything, McCain has the look of an Internet stock circa 1999: Great numbers, lousy fundamentals.

Admittedly, to educate the voters about McCain the Democrats need some time. If, for example, the Democrats wait until their convention in late August to pick a nominee, then it may really be too late to change public perceptions in time for the general election.

But late August is a long time away. Another few weeks may not be all that debilitating. Howard Dean and Harry Reid have all but said the party elders are prepared to shut this down, via superdelegate acclamation, once the last states have voted. That'd still leave most of the summer and the entire fall to run against McCain.

Don't take my word for it, though. A little while ago, I asked a bona fide public opinion expert, Ruy Teixeira, what he thought. "It will not be that hard nor take an arduous labor of months to bring him down to where he's eminently beatable. Why people think McC can plausibly overcome all his liabilities is beyond me--sure, it's possible he could; it's just not very likely."

Just to be perfectly clear, I'm not arguing that the long race is good for the Democrats. At this point, it clearly isn't.

But--unless I'm missing something in these numbers--I see no reason to panic, either. At least not yet.

(If McCain ends up winning big in November, feel free to say "I told you so.")

Update: Over at the Atlantic, Ross Douthat is thinking along the same lines. 

--Jonathan Cohn