Archive for October 22nd, 2008

McCain’s Pennsylvania Gamble

John McCain appears to be defying conventional wisdom that Pennsylvania is pretty much tied up for Obama, who enjoys double digit leads in most polls.  The McCain camp is pouring a lot of time and money into trying to flip the state to the their side.  Why?

First, McCain’s pollsters are no doubt polling whether or not support for the candidates is soft or firm.  Presumably they are making decisions based not on raw totals, but on whether they think it’s possible to flip enough voters in a state to their side.  In Pennsylvania they are no doubt detecting a large amount of “soft” Obama support.  These are the Hillary Clinton voters in western Pennsylvania, called “bitter” early in the campaign by Obama, and “racist” and “redneck” more recently by Jack Murtha.   Moreover, since the state doesn’t have early voting, the advantage Obama has in other states to have more time to make the ground game work isn’t true here.

So what does McCain gain if he wins Pennsylvania?  It makes winning the election slightly easier, but still a long shot.  In addition to states he currently leads, he’d need Ohio, North Dakota, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia.  Then he’d need to keep either Indiana or Missouri.   There are other variations (e.g., lose Virginia but get Nevada), but it’s an uphill climb.  On the plus side for McCain, these are all states he should win.  These are states that have traditionally gone to the Republican, and if one predicted earlier in the race that McCain would win that list of seven states it would have seemed a safe bet.  So if he can flip Pennsylvania and if the electorate in states friendly to Republicans comes back around to the GOP, McCain could eek out a narrow victory.  And, as George W. Bush proved in 2000, a narrow victory is as good as a landslide.

If this were an election like that in 2000 and 2004, I’d expect the polls to tighten and likely predict that McCain would be able to pull this off.  However, he has obstacles today that seem overwhelming.  First, Obama is ahead in most of those states McCain would need to win.  Even stalwart North Dakota is a battleground state.   Second, there is intense early voting in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio.  Obama has placed a focus on Florida, a state McCain absolutely needs in order to have a chance.  Third, Virginia seems to be slipping from McCain’s grasp, especially as his campaign has needlessly insulted northern Virginia at least twice.  Finally, Obama has resources.

Boy, does he have resources!   He is outspending McCain in television ads by 4 to 1, and building strong organizations in every one of the states McCain needs to win.  He still has a longshot chance to take some states McCain currently leads.  McCain’s Pennsylvania strategy relies on him holding the other states with minimal resource investment.  Time and money spent in Pennsylvania the last two weeks of the campaign is time not spent in those other states.  Only if there is a real nation-wide shift towards McCain, which would pull those states along with it, does it seem possible for him to overcome that disadvantage.

Is it a smart strategy?  In a word, yes.  I don’t have access to McCain’s internal polling, but no doubt Pennsylvania’s support is softer than other states he’d have to focus upon, such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico.  Moreover, Pennsylvania borders Ohio, meaning that he’s essentially battling for that 41 electoral vote region.  As they look over their polls and see gloomy scenario after gloomy scenario, McCain’s strategists probably realized that the only real shot they have is if they flip Pennsylvania.

One other thing working against McCain is that with limited funds and a lot of ground to make up he has to focus on the negative.  Negative ads work, but their value is limited.  Without a corresponding positive message a campaign looks shrill and desperate.  Ronald Reagan’s campaign was certainly negative on Jimmy Carter, but he won because he exuded optimism and gave a positive vision for the future of America.  Obama is just as negative as McCain, but has the resources to devote a lot of money and time to a positive, hopeful message.    It will be hard for McCain to break through that.

And that leads to the other scenario: by gambling on Pennsylvania and losing resources that could be devoted to Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Missouri and Virginia, McCain could be making an Obama landslide more likely.   This could also hurt the GOP in the Senate and House if the campaign doesn’t work to strengthen it’s appeal in states where there are tough races that need an injection of enthusiasm.   If Obama runs the table instead of McCain, he’d end up with 378 electoral votes.  He could reach 400 if he ran the table and flipped states with softer McCain support, like Georgia, Montana and West Virginia.  The highest imaginable level of support one can see McCain getting is 286 if everything went his way.

Clearly, the odds are heavy against McCain at this point.

The national polls all show Obama pulling towards double digit leads, even the ‘traditional likely’ voter at Gallup, the most reliable of the polls, has gone from having Obama up by 2 to up by 7.  Only one poll is an outlier, the GWU/Battleground poll.  It has the race at one point, and McCain closing fast.  However, it collects only 200 interviews a night (Gallup does 1000), and has been prone to wide swings.  If it somehow is the only correct poll, then McCain’s chances are much better than they seem.  But the odds are against that as well.  And, while some McCain supporters recall Truman’s comeback against a young Tom Dewey in 1948, Dewey didn’t fight hard to the end and didn’t have the resource advantage Obama does.  That was a different political age.

So that’s where the race stands.  McCain isn’t out of it, and has probably chosen the strategy with the best shot and turning the race around.  I’d put Obama at a 90% likelihood of victory, barring something unforeseen (and, of course, the anti-Obama folk are rife with rumors which look more like wishful thinking).  Some are worried about Obama taking time off from the campaign to visit his ailing Grandmother in Hawaii.   At this point, pictures of a caring grandson with his elderly (and white) Grandmother will probably do Obama more good than two days of rallies.

So, given my read of the race, if I had to make a prediction at this point it would be Obama 355 McCain 183.  But let’s see how McCain’s Pennsylvania gamble pays off.