Archive for October 4th, 2008

Can McCain Win?

Yesterday a reader of this blog asked me if I really thought Obama had the election all but won, or if it was just my bias coloring my interpretation.  That’s a very good question.  Bias colors how we see everything; that’s why people on the right might watch a debate and see something very different than I see.  Different words touch emotions in different ways, and people tend to over-estimate how much others will experience something like themselves.  In Political Science we try to be as objective as possible, but in something like this, bias is unavoidable.

So, short of something dramatic — a huge scandal or a major game changer — has Obama out maneuvered McCain, and become almost certain to win?  Probably.   Consider the “electral map” from Real Clear Politics.  (That link is constantly updated, so depending on when you click it, it may not have the same information I cite below).

Obama and Biden have 264 electoral votes in which they are either solidly ahead according to polls (171) or leaning (93).  The leaning states look pretty safe for Obama: Washington, New Mexico, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New Jersey.  McCain and Palin have 163 (158 solid, 5 leaning), with only West Virginia leaning.  IF things remain this way, McCain would have to win every toss up state to win the election:  Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri and Virginia.  Given that in all these states except Indiana most polls show Obama with a slight lead (and up to a 4% lead in an average of polls in Colorado, 3% in Florida), the task is huge.

If  McCain wins all but Nevada we’d have a 269-269 tie, which would send the election to the House of Representatives.   A less likely scenario is McCain could lose an electoral vote in Nebraska if he loses the district around Omaha, while Obama might lose a vote in Maine if he loses the northern district.  Still, this all points to a very steep task for McCain to undertake.  These are also states where McCain is focusing his energy, pulling out of Michigan and apparently Pennsylvania to put his resources in states he needs to win.

On the plus side, McCain can still try to pull a state like Minnesota, where some polls still show a pretty close race, into the toss up column.  With more “leaning” states, Obama’s overwhelming lead isn’t as firm as it might appear.  Yet historically those are pretty likely Democratic states, so McCain has to be wary of putting resources there that could go to the current toss up states.  After all, if he needs to win them all to win the election, he has no choice but to try to win them all.

On the other hand, there is also the real possibility of an Obama landslide.  It won’t be a landslide of epic proportions, but the chance of Obama carrying most if not all the toss up states is a  bit more credible than the hope of McCain taking them.  First is the dynamics of the election.  We’re in the midst of an economic crisis, blamed on the Republicans, who are still associated with an unpopular war.  It’s a country desiring change, and these conditions strongly favor the Democrats.   Second it’s the fact that Obama’s task, like Reagan’s in 1980, is to show he isn’t too risky.  He seems to be making the sale.

More interesting for me is the potential for Obama’s “ground game” to lead to real surprises on election night.  Some claim that the media and even McCain is underestimating the extent to which the Obama camp is using its resources to register new voters, get voters to the polls, and increase dramatically turn out among youth and minorities.  Most polls use historic averages to balance their poll; if Obama upsets the balance, that could swing the vote in Obama’s favor.  On the other hand, there is the concern by some that voters might say “Obama” to pollsters so as not to appear racist, but then really vote McCain.   The latter is happening, the idea of McCain running the table and winning all the tossups becomes more believable.  If the Obama ground game either cancels or surpasses the race effect, even states now looked at as solid McCain might offer a surprise on election night.

If the Obama ground game is truly revolutionary (it has been in terms of fund raising and taking on the supposedly invincible Hillary Clinton juggernaught), this will show itself in Senate and House elections, perhaps bringing significantly greater gains to the Democrats than expected.  The Democrats in their fantasies hope for this.  No one knows what to make of Obama’s ground game for sure, so we’ll have to wait until election day to see the impact.

There is, of course, also the issue of an “October surprise” (though the financial collapse seems to be the big surprise of the campaign season).  John McCain has a hankering for bold and dramatic moves.  His attempt to suspend his campaign was one.  It exploded in his face, but as the election nears, don’t be surprised if he tries new ways to keep Obama off balance and potentially change the race.  Finally, there is the race factor.  Barack Hussein Obama is black, with a weird name that contains bits reminiscient of America’s foes — Hussein, and Osama.   The secret Democratic nightmare is that some minor scandal might cause people to question if Obama is really fit, and shift the electorate enough to give McCain a victory.

Bottom line: Unless there is a major event — a debate gaffe, a new scandal, or some kind of game changer — all signs point to an Obama victory in November.   But McCain can win, either by benefiting from such a game changer, or somehow taking all the tossups remaining.  Given Obama’s discipline and the professional competence of his campaign team, I find it increasingly unlikely that something will derail his fight for the Presidency.