Economy Factors Into New Poll Numbers

A few weeks ago, Republican John McCain was riding high in the polls. His campaign was on the upsurge after he named Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. But as Wall Street's fortunes took a turn for the worse, the economy has taken center stage. Democrat Barack Obama has seen his poll numbers rise again. NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin and Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving talk with Steve Inskeep about the latest polls.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We should mention that Troopergate has almost disappeared from the presidential campaign because of the financial news. We're going to get an update on the presidential race now from some of our political brain trust, NPR political editor Ken Rudin. Good morning, Ken.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: And our senior Washington editor Ron Elving, good morning to you as well.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, I know we're not supposed to pay attention to little changes in the presidential polls, but we do anyway, and it's hard not to notice that there are several polls that showed McCain ahead a week ago, and now they've got Obama slightly ahead. Has something actually changed here?

ELVING: Something has changed. The financial news has taken over the world. It's gotten serious. When people see two major investment banks disappear over the weekend and the largest insurance company in the world taken over, essentially, by the federal government, it gets serious. And a lot of the ephemera that we were talking about in this campaign are shrinking the insignificance. People are suddenly looking at the candidates with fresh eyes. There are going to be a lot of shifts, I think, in the weeks ahead.

INSKEEP: Does that mean people rely on Barack Obama more, or just they're paying less attention to Sarah Palin?

RUDIN: Well, it's probably both. I mean, the fact is you've had eight years of a Republican administration. And if the financial news is bad, if the economy is the conversation and it's more about the economy and less about moose meat, then obviously the Democrats fare better. And we've seen that now...

INSKEEP: Not that there's anything wrong with moose meat, now.

RUDIN: No, you're not going to hear it from me.

INSKEEP: Yeah, exactly.

RUDIN: Because there's no place like Nome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RUDIN: But I think if you're looking at national polls, you're looking - you'll see a return to where the things were prior to both national conventions, Obama with a three-point - three- or four-point lead in CNN polls, New York Times polls, which is exactly where it was before Denver. But, I think the thing to really look at is the state polls, which are very, very close. Pennsylvania, which Barack Obama has to win, is even. Ohio, which John McCain has to win, is even. Wisconsin is even. Iowa is even. New Jersey, the latest Quinnipiac Poll showed Obama up by only three points. Things could change. Obviously, the debates will change things here, but right now very uncertainty, very, very close.

INSKEEP: I guess that means we have to remember that you could get less than 50 percent of the national vote and you could still win this election. It's all about the Electoral College, Ron Elving.

ELVING: It is, and there are scenarios right now in few - a portion of the states between the two candidates either on the basis of polls or on the basis of other, more subjective criteria, by which you could divide the Electoral College perfectly evenly, 269 votes for each candidate. That, right now, is a real possibility.

INSKEEP: Mm-hm. Still, you have to look at these surveys and ask about this 50-percent mark, that majority mark. You've got a Democratic candidate Barack Obama. He's in what's assumed to be a huge Democratic year. You've got a hugely unpopular Republican president. He's got huge amounts of money, huge amounts of Democratic excitement, and he doesn't have 50 percent, and he hasn't had 50 percent.

ELVING: Not except for maybe a few polls back in June when he first clinched the nomination. He's never been able to sustain any kind of a run-up over 50 percent, and that's a real problem for him. A lot of people have commented on that. A lot of people have felt that that shows an underlying weakness in the Obama candidacy. But at the same time, John McCain has never really been able to sustain a run against Barack Obama. He doesn't look like a candidate the country has really did - really ready to turn to either. And when you ask people in polls, do you think this guy or that guy is a risky choice? You get about 50 percent of the country in each case saying, yes, I think he's a risky choice.

INSKEEP: Gentlemen, if we're trying to sort out some of the noise of this week's campaign, there's been a lot of argument about the financial mess. Each candidate has tried to position himself. Each candidate has criticized the other. What substantive blows have been landed? Or what's substantively have we learned about either of these gentlemen?

RUDIN: Well, we have learned that John McCain, who has always been a deregulator, is suddenly standing up to Wall Street. He talked about Wall Street greed. It's part of his change mantra. Now, whether the voters buy it or not, given the fact that he has a record of - the Phil Gramm kind of record, of supporting - to keeping government...

INSKEEP: The freest possible markets.

RUDIN: Exactly - keeping government away from our market is - as close as possible. So, if the American people see that he is representative more of change, he could win this thing. But again, as I said earlier, if it's about Democrats, if it's about the economy, if it's about the previous - the fall of the markets, things like that, you'd think that Obama, the Democrats, could win it.

INSKEEP: Although we've noticed that the Republicans have gone back to their theme of saying Obama is not ready to lead, not an experienced leader. Has he done anything to disabuse people of that concern in recent days, Ron Elving?

ELVING: He has not put forward a plan, as, indeed, no one has put forward a plan up to now, for actually dealing with the underlying problem of loss of value in real estate. No one has a plan yet. We're waiting to see if Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke have a plan. And what only one would say Obama has done is to land a few blows in putting forward a more forceful description of the situation.

INSKEEP: Ron Elving is our senior Washington editor. Ken Rudin is our political editor. Thank you to the both - thank you to you both, gentlemen. And we'll continue covering this story. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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