Dominic Lawson: Can Obama hope to win if he lacks the common touch?

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If fear had a smell, the westerly breezes would be bearing a rank odour from the other side of the Atlantic: it would be emanating from the pores of the Democratic Party establishment as it contemplates the dwindling of Barack Obama's previously impressive opinion poll lead over John McCain.

This really was not meant to happen. The intensity and discipline of Obama's campaigning has been unremitting, while that on behalf of McCain has seemed incoherent, not helped by the 71-year old Arizona Senator's occasional senior moment. So how on earth could Gallup last week have found that those it claims to be "likely voters" are currently 49 per cent in favour of McCain and only 45 per cent for Obama?

Some in the Obama camp complain that it has come as the McCain campaign has switched to "negative advertising". This seems to be largely based on a Republican ad called "The One", which splices images of Obama with Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. Actually, since Obama had declared of his victory in the Democratic primaries that "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and the planet began to heal", he was almost asking to be satirised.

You might think that the Democrats would be grateful to their opponents for comparing Barack Obama with a Biblical miracle-worker but, of course, they understood the unspoken sub-text – that Obama is man of unbelievable pretentiousness. The implicit contrast is with John McCain, the down-to-earth guy who tells it like it is in plain language – "the straight-talk express".

There is also a painful awareness in the Democrat camp that their candidate does not always help himself to appear more representative of "ordinary Americans". They still shudder over his unguarded comments to wealthy San Franciscan party donors about the industrial working classes who bitterly "cling to guns or religion", or his remarking in Iowa, apropos of rising food prices: "Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?"

So McCain was spot on – at least in domestic American political terms – to contrast his attendance at a motorcycle convention in South Dakota with Obama's grandiose quasi-presidential tour of Europe's capitals: "As you may know... a couple hundred thousand Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent. I'll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day!" The bikers loved that one – and they were almost certainly not the only ones.

Obama's supporters will protest, reasonably enough, that their man, of mixed race and brought up with a father absent, had to fight against social adversity to reach his current elevated status, while McCain comes from what might be described as America's military aristocracy. The point, however, is not where you come from – although Obama has manufactured his own personal history into an astonishing political narrative – but how you come across.

We see the same phenomenon, or something like it, in this country. When William Hague was leader of the Conservatives, the optimists in the party (of which there were admittedly very few at the time) thought his Yorkshire accent and comprehensive education would make him seem more like a man of the people than the privately educated barrister, Tony Blair. Yet the New Labour leader was eerily brilliant at making himself seem more, well, normal – and not like a politician at all.

In his Labour Party conference speech of 1999, Blair made use of this, referring to leading frontbench Tories of the day such as Hague, John Redwood and Ann Widdecombe, and describing them as "weird, weird, weird". When I remarked to Hague at the time that I thought this was rather cruel, he said, with a mixture of ruefulness and characteristic honesty: "Yes, but he's right."

In a newspaper interview a few days ago, Hague suggested that David Cameron, in this sense at least, was the heir to Blair: "Normally, there is something peculiar about us politicians ... we all have our foibles. David Cameron is remarkably free of such flaws. He does very normal things like go down to Tesco and having his bike stolen."

Thus, although Cameron's own back story is one that you would not have thought would appeal to the demotic age – son of a rich stockbroker, prep school, Eton, Oxford (and the Bullingdon Club), financial PR executive – the Tory leader manages with ineffable ease to come across as "in touch with ordinary people". Gordon Brown, however ...

Barack Obama, obviously, does not have Gordon Brown's problem, or indeed that of his immediate predecessors as Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry and Al Gore. Obama actually does well in polls designed to assess the candidates' "likeability". How could he not, with a smile like that? In this sense, he is a great improvement on the grim self-righteousness of Gore and Kerry. Gore is now a movie star – and is even spoken of as "charismatic" – but the fact is that George W Bush's victory over him in 2000 owed as much to the belief that the Republican presidential candidate was less of a stiff-necked wooden-top than his rival as to any intervention by the Supreme Court.

Obama's undoubted star quality – what Republican advertisements now attempt to disparage as the "Paris Hilton effect" – should give some cheer to nervous Democrat supporters; but the more experienced among them also mutter that Gore was supposed to wipe the electoral floor with goofy George W, while at this stage of the last electoral cycle, John Kerry was so far ahead in the polls that his wife must have been mentally measuring up for the White House curtains. So, no wonder that the recent slight hiccup in their latest candidate's poll ratings is causing conniptions in the Democrat camp.

To steady their nerves – and their bowel movements – they should probably consult, not a psychiatrist, but a psephologist: Professor Alan Abramowitz of Emory University. Abramowitz has long argued that head-to-head public opinion polls – especially in the summer – are of little real value in forecasting which of the two candidates will win the November presidential election. Instead, he has a ready-reckoner which consists of the growth rate of the economy, the approval ratings of the incumbent President and how long that man's party has controlled the White House.

That political barometer successfully predicted the outcome of all but one of the last 15 presidential elections – and it makes Obama a shoo-in for the White House. For good measure, Abramowitz wrote on The Huffington Post website last week that the Gallup poll which had McCain ahead by four points among so-called "likely voters" was methodologically flawed and therefore "not to be believed". All of this may very well be so – and it is certainly the case that the Republicans remain the electoral underdogs in the race for the White House. But they were the last time. And the time before that. No wonder there's a funny smell in the air.

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