Republican campaign pros and pollsters have for weeks been bracing for a post-clinch "bump" for Barack Obama, and something resembling one came in a new Wall Street Journal NBC poll on Friday.
Obama now leads John McCain by six points nationwide, the new poll said, about twice the margin reported in May. Most of the internal findings were predictable: Obama leads among women, blacks, Catholics, and independents. McCain is tops among whites, males, white suburban women and evangelicals. That means the White House, even with the new margin, is up for grabs. The most intriguing piece of news in the poll, however, suggests how the end of the primaries and the start of the general election are already reshaping the race.
According to the poll, Hispanic voters are backing Obama by a margin of 62 to 28 percent. This is not an unprecedented gap for a generic Democrat, but much had been written during the spring about whether Hispanics would vote for an African-American. Perhaps those analysts believed primary exit polls were a reliable prologue for the fall: Hillary Clinton had run ahead of Obama by a two-to-one margin among Hispanics in the states where exit polls were taken. Note the spread: Clinton usually won between 60 and 65 percent of Hispanics in those contests; Obama captured between 30 and 35 percent.
Now, with Clinton out of the race, Obama has an identical edge with these voters against McCain. One Hispanic voting expert working for Obama said the new poll findings suggests two possibilities: 1) at least some of Clinton's supporters are having no trouble transferring their affections to Obama; and, 2) Hispanic voters are among those moving fastest.
It had long been a dream of George W. Bush just as it had been for his father to move a big block of Hispanics from the Democratic to the Republican fold. The former Texas governor had tried during his first year in office to get his party to ease the path of immigrants from Latin America into the U.S., but quickly dropped the effort after 9/11. When he returned to it in his second term, he never put his back into it and found his own party downright hostile to the idea.
Ron Brownstein, in his exceptionally lucid book about the state of our politics, The Second Civil War, noted that Bush's presidency relied so narrowly on its conservative base that he lost the ability to do any deals with Democrats when his base refused to support him. The "base-first" strategy got him narrowly reelected in 2004, but shut down his legislative agenda when his second term began. The short-sighted strategy is what killed his Social Security plan in 2005 and, Brownstein points out, doomed his second effort to reform immigration in 2006.
"Comprehensive immigration reform was the centerpiece of his effort to court the Latino voters whom strategists like [Karl] Rove and [Matthew] Dowd considered crucial to the party's future fortunes," Brownstein wrote. "It was also Bush's best chance for an important second-term legislative achievement after the collapse of his Social Security plan, not to mention an opportunity to make substantive progress against an entrenched problem. But Bush's overriding priority on unifying Republicans prevented him from achieving any of those goals. Instead, he was left with an immigration policy built solely around enforcement and symbolized by an exclusionary fence, an approach many Latinos saw as punitive and even racist." Brownstein goes on to note that Latino support for G.O.P. candidates fell from 44% in 2004 to 29% in 2006.
And there, at 29 percent, it seems to sit today, for McCain to try and budge.
McCain, it should be noted, was for years an immigration moderate who, coming from Arizona, understood that the U.S. must do something about the 13 million illegal immigrants already inside the border. He was by far his party's strongest and longest backer of Bush's approach to immigration until, under pressure in a crowded G.O.P. presidential primary race, he joined the fence-'em-out-first crowd.
One more thing: that 29% number in the new WSJ/NBC poll isn't shrink-proof. Only 23% of Hispanics think of themselves as Republicans, a Pew study found last year. And Obama will have one enormous advantage in wooing Hispanics that McCain lacks money. It was reported this week that Obama may come close to raising close to $100 million in June, a political fund-raising threshold virtually without precedent. If Obama's donors can maintain that pace, they may be able to raise as much as $300 million for the fall campaign, a tally that would swamp McCain's more limited campaign treasury of $75 million. In past elections, Hispanics have not voted in numbers equal to their proportion of the population. But in places where Hispanic votes are found and can make a difference, $300 million could go a very long way toward encouraging them to do so.