Republicans have been cheered by the news this week that John McCain has been inching closer to Barack Obama in the daily tracking polls run by Rasmussen, Gallup, and Zogby.
This is true — but only when one cherry picks the results. Professional pollster Mark Blumenthal took a look at all six of the daily tracking polls for Sunday and came to a very different conclusion.
We now have all six of today’s national daily tracking results, and the trend since Thursday (the last day in which virtually all interviews were completed before Wednesday night’s debate) remains mixed. If we treat the Gallup “extended” likely voter model as their number of record, we have four surveys showing slight gains for McCain (Gallup, Daily Kos/Research2000, Diageo/Hotline and Reuters/Zogby), and two showing slight gains for Obama (Rasmussen and IBD/TIPP). The pattern is even less consistent if you choose to Gallup’s registered voter model (one-point Obama gain), their “traditional” likely voter model (no change), or focus on all three. Either way, if the debates have caused a significant shift in vote preference, it is not yet big enough to be detected consistently by these tracking surveys.
Considering that the slight narrowing of the race this past week meant that John McCain was trailing nationally by an average of 7 points compared to 9 or 10, it is unclear just what Republicans might be celebrating. History shows only one candidate trailing by 7 points this late in the campaign who came back to win it: Ronald Reagan.
And the uncertainty associated with the turnout models those numbers are based on makes most polls showing this a close race suspect. The fact is, early voting in some states might indicate a larger than normal turnout of African Americans and young voters — two groups where Obama has a sizable advantage. Since pollsters can really only model based on history, any trends outside of their historical experience become very difficult to decipher.
On October 26, 1980, Ronald Reagan trailed President Jimmy Carter 46-39%. This was two days before their one and only debate. In that debate, the avuncular Reagan proved himself a suitable alternative to Carter by not appearing to be someone who would blow up the world, as Carter was slyly intimating throughout the fall campaign.
A unique poll conducted by the New York Times and CBS News for every election since 1976 — voters are interviewed a few days before and after the election to determine switches in support — found that fully 20% of the electorate switched their planned vote in the final days of the 1980 campaign by either changing their minds about the candidate they would support or ending up not voting at all.
While this news might cheer McCain supporters, the fact is that the candidate who suffered as a result of these switches has always been the underdog. And judging by state polls that continue to show Obama leading in several key races despite the narrowing of the contest nationally, there is no doubt McCain has his work cut out for him these final two weeks.
For in truth, watching the national polls is a fun but relatively meaningless exercise. A presidential race is actually fifty separate races — or more accurately, fifteen different battlegrounds where the candidates slug it out on the airwaves and in local media. Obama has been trying to expand that playing field by forcing John McCain to defend states that Republicans ordinarily would have wrapped up at this point in the race. He is doing it by spending money like a drunken sailor in states like North Carolina, Georgia, and Indiana. (The drunken sailor analogy may be inapt. Most sailors, drunk or sober, don’t have half a billion dollars to throw around.) The GOP campaign is having to throw precious resources into shoring up their electoral base — an unmistakable sign that McCain is in deep trouble.
Historical analogies can be fraught with inconsistencies when using them to overlay an election scenario in our present situation. But allow me to employ a gut feeling and posit the notion that, the way this race is shaping up, it feels like a repeat of 1980, when one party was roundly rejected and the presidential candidate defeated the incumbent in a landslide.
I wouldn’t be breaking any new ground, of course. Many pollsters have been predicting this kind of outcome for months. The trends have been going the Democrats’ way for a year. Not only have their issues — the economy and health care — been rising in importance over that time, but the gap between the two parties in voters’ perceptions on who can best deal with these issues has been gradually widening to where the Democrats now have a decisive advantage.
And with an astonishing 91% of Americans being dissatisfied with the way things are going in America, one begins to wonder how John McCain has been able to stay in the race at all.
The answer to that echoes a similar question asked in 1980: is the challenger an acceptable alternative to the status quo? It wasn’t until after the debate that voters answered the question to their own satisfaction and began to break for Ronald Reagan.
Obama is so unknown and so unfamiliar to Americans that, until the debates, it is likely a majority of voters really had little idea of his agenda for America. Despite Republican efforts to paint him as an extremist, the picture voters got of a calm, cool, fairly well-spoken Democrat with center-left ideas probably advanced the idea in their minds that Obama is an acceptable alternative to continued Republican possession of the White House.
Many will argue that this is a false picture of Obama and that he is indeed a closet radical who will change America by bringing socialism to our shores — or perhaps more accurately, even more socialism, given the efforts by George Bush’s government to nationalize the financial industry. But the voters appear to be unconvinced. Such a picture flies in the face of their own judgment of Obama formed by watching him during the debates.
This is why I believe over the next week the race may remain close but that Obama will begin to extend his lead, gradually pulling away until the last weekend when voters may switch decisively in his direction. There are still many things that could happen that would make me look like an idiot for making such a prediction. But as we get closer to the election, and as more voters concentrate on the choice before them, I believe Obama will be seen as a the candidate who will best be able to deliver a change of direction — something that voters in every survey have expressed a strong desire to see.
To add insult to injury, the bleak outlook for the GOP in both the Senate and the House makes it possible for this election to be a truly transformative event — a significant lurch to the left in domestic and foreign policy the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Democratic landslide of 1965.
That would be “change” indeed.