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More On Obama's Lead

I wrote a blog post last night analyzing the state of the race, and arguing not only that Barack Obama is in a strong position to win, but that the foreseeable big events of the campaign are likely to favor him. John Judis, not for the first time, is skeptical, pointing to a June 2004 poll showing John Kerry leading George W. Bush. "It's important not to draw firm conclusions from these early polls," he writes.

But the partisan landscape is vastly more favorable to the Democrats right now than 2004. A recent Pew Research Center survey found:

So, yes, Kerry was up for a part of June 2004, but he was overperforming the partisan fundamentals, which were very closely-balanced. Perhaps Kerry was overperfoming because he emerged virtually unscathed from a very quick primary, without the themes that would be used against him the the general election (flip-flopper, effeminate snob) having been disseminated to the public. Obama is in a very different situation, and his fundamentals today are far more favorable. 

Gallup has an analysis today that shows in more detail how strong Obama's position is. Right now, 37% of the public self-identifies as Democrats, while just 28% self-identifies as Republicans. But that actual understates Obama's advantage. Many self-identified "independents" are actually quite partisan. When asked which party they lean toward, another 15% volunteered Democratic, while 11% said Republican. As Gallup found, "These 'leaners' are essentially as loyal to their party's candidate as are those who initially identified with a party without being prompted."

So, if you add partisan identifiers and leaners, you've got Democrats with 52% of the public, and Republicans with just 39%. That 52% is almost identical to the percentage of voters who told the NBC News/WSJ poll that they want a Democrat to win the White House. It's also nearly identical to the percentage that strongly disapproves of President Bush's job performance. (Which is to say, even if McCain wins all the voters who strongly approve, somewhat approve, and somewhat disapprove of Bush, he'll still fall a bit short if Obama gets all the strong Bush disapprovers.)

Obviously, it won't shake out exactly that way, but it's an indication of where things stand. It's virtually impossible terrain for McCain. He can't win without massive defections from the Democratic base. Unfortunately for him, campaigns usually increase partisanship -- as voters learn more about the candidates, they sort themselves into their partisan categories.

The spin on some of the coverage is that McCain is overperforming, and Obama underperforming, relative to the political landscape. That's true, and will probably be true in November. But the important point is that Obama has a big cushion. He can lose a fair number of Democrats, and lose among true swing voters, and still win anyway.

--Jonathan Chait