Three recent polls show Barack Obama in the lead. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, he leads John McCain by 47 to 41 percent.
According to Gallup, he leads him by 48 to 42 percent. And Rasmussen has Obama ahead by 49 to 44 percent. From Obama's standpoint, that's certainly better than polls showing him trailing McCain. Presidential races aren't like horse races. It's not better to hang back until the stretch. But it's also not reason to declare victory.
Before September, when the campaign begins in earnest, and voters begin to pay close attention, presidential polls are heavily influenced by overall party preferences. If one party is ahead in generic party polls, its presidential candidate is likely to be ahead. And that's the case here. According to the Rasmussen poll, Democrats lead Republicans among likely voters by 47 to 34 percent. So some of Obama's edge has nothing to do with him. It could increase or could also decrease in the fall.
You can look at two past elections where the Democratic candidate and generic Democrats led in June, but where the candidate's and the party's lead faded in November. In June 2004, John Kerry led George Bush by 51 to 44 percent in Los Angeles Times poll. He led by three percentage points in the Time poll and by two in Fox's poll. A month later, the polls showed the race a dead heat.
In June 1988, Gallup had Democrat Michael Dukakis leading George H. W. Bush by 52 to 38 percent; the Washington Post had the lead as 51 to 39 percent. In this case, Dukakis didn't surrended his lead in the polls until the fall. But that's also when most voters became familiar with him. So it's important not to draw firm conclusions from these early polls.
One notable figure in these polls is Obama's lead among Latino voters--by 62 to 38 percent in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll by 62 to 29 percent in the Gallup May poll. During the primary, Obama got little support among Latino voters against Hillary Clinton, but these voters may be prepared to back Obama--or they may simply be registering at this point their preference for a Democrat over a Republican.
There is one polling result from which it is possible to draw some conlcusions. California's well-regarded Field Poll found last month that California Democrats, who backed Hillary Clinton in the Feb. 5 primary, now preferred Obama. Latino voters retained their support for Clinton, but Asian voters - also thought be a problem for Obama in California--threw their support to him. Asian voters backed Clinton over Obama by 71 to 25 percent in the primary. In the May Field poll, they back Obama by 56 to 33 percent. It's a small sample, but it may indicate that a significant part of the California electorate is going to vote for Obama, and that the state itself will not be in play in November.
--John B. Judis