What a difference a week can make. Seven days ago, Democrats were in a state of political panic after Sarah Palin's selection as running mate had helped push John McCain ahead in the polls. Now it may be the Republicans' turn.
Relentless media criticism of Palin seems to have succeeded, at least temporarily, in turning Palin from an asset to a debit for the GOP ticket. Barack Obama's campaign has unleashed a heavy wave of attack ads. Most of all, daily headlines about the financial crisis have shaken voters' confidence in the economic status quo, increasing the appeal of Obama's theme of "Change."
As with the previous panic among Democrats, last week's Republican panic was driven by slumping poll numbers. McCain had boomed to a 5-point lead over Obama in the Gallup daily tracking poll released Sept. 8, and maintained that edge for three consecutive days.
The Palin pick and the post-convention bounce so enhanced the Republican Party's image that by Sept. 12, Gallup was reporting that the GOP had narrowed the gap on the so-called "generic" congressional ballot question -- where Democrats had enjoyed a 15-point advantage earlier this year -- to a slender three-point margin.
Even as these polls prompted one reporter to note a "growing sense of doom among Democrats," however, the Republican momentum was slipping away. On Wednesday, Gallup reported Obama had moved slightly ahead, and by Saturday, Gallup had the Democrat ahead by 6 points, 50-44 percent.
Other polls reported different numbers, but the overall trend was clear -- McCain, who had led nearly every survey taken Sept. 5-11, trailed in nearly every poll taken thereafter, resulting in a net 5-point shift toward Obama in the Real Clear Politics average.
WHAT HAPPENED? The timing of the McCain slump (or Obama surge, as the case may be) makes it difficult to distinguish the causes.
It was on Sept. 10 that ABC began airing the first network exclusive interview with Palin, with Charlie Gibson professorially peering over his glasses playing "stump the governor" by asking her about the Bush doctrine. Afterwards, at least according to a Research 2000 poll commissioned by the liberal DailyKos site, Palin's approval numbers took a nosedive, going from 52% positive to 41% positive in the space of eight days, while her negatives ratings rose from 35% to 46%.
However, it was during the same time frame that the slow-brewing financial crisis hit the meltdown stage. The takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was announced Sept. 6. Lehman Brothers stock began a death spiral Sept. 8. A week later came Black Monday, as stocks plummeted, Bank of America took over a collapsing Merrill Lynch, and the insurance giant AIG hit coffin corner.
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign unleashed a series of fierce attacks, including a TV ad that debuted Sept. 14 featuring headlines accusing McCain of "lies" and "deception."
If nothing else, those headlines accurately captured the overwhelmingly negative coverage the Republican has endured in recent weeks. As during the primary campaign -- when, as a Media Research Center analysis found, the major networks provided Obama's "margin of victory" over Hillary Clinton -- the media are clearly in the Illinois Democrat's corner.
Despite all the woes afflicting the GOP ticket in recent days, however, it may be too soon for Republicans to hit the panic button.
Granted, the dire economic situation could be expected to hurt Republicans, not only because of the two-term Republican in the White House, but also because the GOP is closely identified with big business in the minds of voters. Yet Obama appears poorly positioned to take advantage of the current crisis.
Obama raked in lots of campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, placed disgraced former Fannie Mae CEO Jim Johnson in charge of his running-mate search committee, and reportedly solicited advice from another former Fannie Mae CEO, Franklin Raines.
The McCain campaign has already run ads highlighting Obama's connections to Fannie Mae, and has also emphasized that the Republican candidate had pushed reforms for the mortgage giants -- reforms that Democrats blocked. A recent Rasmussen poll showed Obama has no clear advantage on economic issues, and the Democrat has yet to offer any plan to resolve the current crisis.
"We're at the point now where voters are looking to see a specific plan, and Obama's not winning there," one veteran conservative operative told me yesterday. "Joe Biden didn't help him any by saying it's 'patriotic' to pay more taxes."
THE MEDIA'S RELENTLESS attacks may have hurt Palin's poll standing, but more than three weeks after she was announced as McCain's running mate, the Alaska governor has at least survived, despite Democratic efforts to "Eagletonize" her. Palin continues to draw huge, enthusiastic crowds, and she will have a chance to cut through the media filter in her Oct. 2 debate with Joe Biden.
Media bias can only carry Obama so far. This Friday, the Democrat will square off against McCain in the first of their three debates. At the Obama campaign's insistence, Friday's topic will be foreign policy, which might end up being a pitch into the Republican's wheelhouse, giving McCain an opportunity to hammer Obama for his opposition to the surge in Iraq.
No poll numbers or headlines between now and Friday are as likely to influence the final outcome of election as much as this first debate. Obama has avoided debates since his poor showing in April against Clinton in Philadelphia, and also did poorly in a Sept. 16 forum at California's Saddleback Church.
If Obama doesn't turn in a solid performance Friday, his recent poll advantage could fade quickly. A week from now, Democrats may find themselves pushing the panic button again.