In following a presidential race, the most important way to understand what is happening is to follow voter responses to open-ended questions. Those are questions which ask, What do you like the most about Barack Obama? and What do you like the least about Barack Obama? These questions, which let voters tell pollsters what they think in their own words, offer the best way to figure out what is really going on.
Fortunately, the Fox News tracking polling for the election has now included these questions and the results offer an excellent insight into the current state of the race.
Oddly for a race that has been going on for two years and holds the nation rapt in attention, the contest is still in a very, very primitive phase. Voters' awareness level of the issues or of the candidates is quite limited. Neither campaign has done much to project its issues or its message and the attacks on one another, which increasingly dominate the dialogue, show little resonance among most voters.
Overwhelmingly, the thing voters like the most about Obama is that he is new, a fresh face, for change: intelligent, inspiring, a good speaker, outspoken, and charismatic. A full 57 percent of all voters use one of these phrases to describe him, including 48 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents. But only 13 percent of all voters cite any specific position of Obama's including his signature opposition to the war in Iraq.
Only 2 percent mentioned the war in citing what they liked about Obama and only 1 percent cited the economy and jobs. So Obama is still a personality running for office and the voters have yet to identify him with any policy or proposal. And the one identification he used to have — opposition to the war — has faded. But Obama has vast potential appeal.
Even though the Fox News poll gave him only a three point lead over McCain, 4 voters in 5 cite something they like about Obama in open ended questions (including 66 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independents).
Opposition to Obama is also centered on fears of his youth, inexperience, and lack of qualifications. Some 31 percent of all voters, 33 percent of independents, and 29 percent of Democrats, cited this concern in open-ended questions. But just as Obama's positive ratings do not include much in the way of specific mentions of his issue positions, so his negatives don't either.
Only 19 percent of all voters said they disliked his liberalism, connection with the Rev Wright, radicalism, religious views, elitism or even said they disagreed with him about anything. Another 8 percent disliked his flip-flops on issues. But the potential for Obama to fall apart is also enormous. A full 78 percent of all voters, including two-thirds of all Democrats and four-fifths of all independents cited something about Obama that they did not like.
So everybody basically agrees that Obama is a new fresh face who advocates change but is too inexperienced and lacks some or all of the qualifications needed for the job. The question of which part of this statement outweighs the other is the issue on which the election hinges.
But just as Obama has not succeeded in identifying himself with any specific issue, idea, or proposal (and voters might be asking, as they did of Gary Hart, "where's the beef?") so McCain and the Republicans have failed to link him to extreme liberalism, radicalism, Wright or any of the identifications they have been trying to pin on the Democrat.
Both campaigns have almost totally failed to move past square one on Obama.
For McCain, it's pretty much the same story: 33 percent of all voters see him as experienced and qualified (including 26 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Independents). On his military experience, 10 percent like his military record. A smaller percentage praise his honesty: 7 percent. And 9 percent say they approve of how he would handle foreign policy.
But McCain's negatives are the flip side of his positives: 24 percent of all voters and 26 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of independents say he is too old. And another 23 percent feel he is too conservative, too close to Bush, or too supportive of the war. Just 4 percent criticize his flip-flops.
So Americans of all parties have reached a consensus that Obama is young, charismatic, intelligent, articulate, and in favor of change, but also that he is too inexperienced, possibly too liberal, and less qualified than they would like. And they also have come to a common agreement, also cutting across party lines, that McCain is experienced, able, an heroic veteran, and honest but also that he is too old, possibly too conservative, and perhaps too pro-war.
Just as 80 percent of all voters find something to praise in Obama and 78 percent find something to criticize, so 80 percent have something good to say about McCain and 82 percent have some criticism to make.
This broad agreement on the pros and cons of each candidate and the willingness of even their partisans to consider their negatives and of their enemies to concede their positives is highly unusual and underscores why the race is so close.
But it also suggests that it is very volatile. Either campaign can paint the other with issue negatives if they start going about it effectively.
It is a glaring omission that only 1 percent cite Obama's tax positions as a negative and that nobody mentioned his opposition to offshore oil drilling.
Likewise, how odd that only 15 percent cited specifically McCain's support for the war and his connection with Bush as a negative.
On the other hand, neither Obama's healthcare nor McCain's energy proposals have registered with the voters and few can name any specific issue position for either man of which they approve.
For a campaign that has been going on for two years, how odd that voter opinions of the candidates are still so unformed and general.