First, I will repeat a point I have made before. While the presidential election ultimately comes down to the electoral count, and the electoral count can vary from the popular vote if the popular vote is close, if the popular vote isn’t close, the electoral count will tend to follow the popular vote. So the national polls are a good means of tracking the trends as we get closer to the election. We saw that dynamic with McCain’s big post-Republican convention bounce. There was a period of a week or so when the trends in the state polls, following the national polls, gave McCain the advantage in the electoral count. My authoritative site – fivethirtyeight.com – projected a McCain electoral win for a few days. That has now swung back to an Obama lead. In fact, Obama now has the biggest lead he has had at any time in this race. Fivethirtyeight.com today projects his likelihood of winning at an astonishing 85.4% with a projected electoral count of 336 (270 is needed to win).
Just to give you an idea of the state of play, look at today’s results for the four major daily tracking polls. These are three-day tracking polls, which means today’s polls reflect Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. And they show solid Obama leads, outside the margins of error:
• Gallup: Obama 48%, McCain 44% (±2% margin of error)
• Rasmussen: Obama 51%, McCain 45% (±2% margin of error)
• Hotline/Diageo: Obama 47%, McCain 42% (±3.2% margin of error)
• Research 2000: Obama 51%, McCain 41% (±3% margin of error)
Adding these polls together and weighting them by sample sizes, Obama is ahead 49.4%-43.7% (+5.7%).
There were a couple of other major national polls out today that tell the same story:
Pew has Obama ahead 49% to 42%.
TIME has Obama ahead 50% to 43%.
There are also a lot of GREAT polls out in key battleground states today. Just a few examples: Quinnipiac has Obama ahead 50% to 42% in Ohio; 51% to 43% in Florida; and 54% to 39% in Pennsylvania (Franklin & Marshall has Obama ahead by 48% to 43% in that state). CNN has Obama ahead 51% to 47% in Florida and 53% to 44% in Virginia.
This reflects HUGE movement in the past couple of weeks. With both VP picks, both conventions and one of three presidential debates out of the way, and less than five weeks until election day, these numbers start to take on real meaning. Obama had a four or five point lead in June and McCain was able to slowly take it away over the course of July and August. But that was a fairly inactive time, most people weren’t paying much attention and numbers were still relatively soft. (And McCain may have paid a price to his political “brand” with his negativity and lies during that time – and since.) A lead like the one Obama has now, this late in the race, starts to become harder to turn around. There is, of course, still time for a “game-changing” event but the small stuff is going to have less impact. The underlying dynamic clearly favors Obama (and the professionalism of his campaign makes it unlikely he will commit any unforced errors).
There are probably four major factors at play at the moment:
1/ The Big Picture. At the highest level of abstraction, this is a “change” election. Bush’s approval numbers are the lowest they’ve been in his presidency. (An ABC/Washington poll yesterday had Bush at 26% approval/70% disapproval – the highest disapproval number EVER for any US president in the history of polling. The real question is … who are those 26%??!!) Over 80% of the American people think the country is headed in the wrong direction. Party identification, which was about equal in 2004, now favors the Democrats by double digits. New voter registration has massively favored the Democrats. Basically, the Republican brand sucks, which is why even McCain is trying to adopt the mantle of “change”. According to polls, the voters aren’t buying it – Obama is still seen as the candidate of change (by 61% to 33% in the ABC/Washington Post poll, to take just one example).
2/ The financial crisis. While the poor state of the economy is obviously a big element of overall voter dissatisfaction, the current financial crisis constitutes its own category in the state of the race.
The biggest impact of the financial crisis – and it can’t be underestimated – is that it has completely disrupted Republican plans to turn this campaign into a culture war, about small things, and a referendum on Obama. Faced with a national crisis, it is hard to run a campaign based on things like sex education and the Bridge to Nowhere. A relentlessly negative campaign is also less likely to be received well by voters who are looking for solutions and leadership at a time of crisis. And voters are much more likely to take a risk on change. Obama may seem less scary than four more years of Republican policies.
Polls show voters blame Wall Street, Bush and the Republicans more than they do Democrats for the financial crisis (and for the poor state of the economy overall). And over the past week Republicans – and McCain, in particular – have played this matter in a stunningly inept manner, precisely because they have transparently tried to play it for political advantage.
McCain has been running around frantically trying to position himself to claim credit for his HEROIC LEADERSHIP in “solving” the financial crisis while also trying to avoid any responsibility for anything bad that might happen. It has been an almost comical performance. His spin changes, with changes in events, from moment to moment. Last Thursday, when it looked like a bipartisan deal was imminent, he “suspended” his campaign (while not actually suspending it) and insisted on a White House photo-op with all the key players so he would be in the camera shot when everyone shook hands and congratulated each other. Instead, by interjecting presidential politics into negotiations, he emboldened recalcitrant House Republicans and raised the profile of their opposition. When McCain met with House dissenters and raised their objections in the White House meeting, things rapidly unraveled. After saying he would suspend his campaign until the crisis was over, McCain “un-suspended” his campaign and beat it out of town as things fell apart. His Hamlet schtick on whether or not he would attend the debate was almost juvenile.
Then, on Monday, when it again looked like a deal had been reached (including the Republican leadership in the House), McCain and his surrogates were all over the place trying to assign all credit to his HEROIC LEADERSHIP (even though he was never actually involved in the negotiations – apart from the disastrous White House meeting – never put forth any positions and never fully invested his personal credibility in the deal). After spending all morning trying to claim credit, when the deal actually fell apart, he immediately blamed Obama and Democrats (while calling for “bipartisanship”, of course).
House Democrats voted 60:40 for the bailout plan (140 for, 95 against); House Republicans voted 2-to-1 against the plan (65 for, 133 against). So, of course, the McCain campaign blamed Democrats for its failure to pass. McCain’s top economic advisor said, “This bill failed because Barack Obama and the Democrats put politics ahead of country.” Huh? It was an unpopular plan proposed by an unpopular Republican president and his Treasury secretary. Nonetheless, Democrats in good faith negotiated a deal, supported by the leadership of both parties in both Houses of Congress. And 60% of House Democrats voted for it. But when 2/3rds of House Republicans voted it down … it was the fault of Obama and the Democrats? McCain outdid himself with this one: “Sen. Obama and his allies infused unnecessary partisanship into the process. Now is not the time to fix the blame.” I blame Democrats, but now is not the time for blame.
Meanwhile, Obama – again exhibiting the steady and cool demeanor he has shown throughout the crisis – said:
“It’s important for the American public and the markets to stay calm – because things are never smooth in Congress – and to understand that it will get done. We are going to make sure that an emergency package is put together, because it is required for us to stabilize the markets.”
The attempt by McCain and House Republicans to turn the financial crisis to their political advantage seems to have backfired. Last week, Republicans were calling the bailout the “Bush-Pelosi” plan. Newt Gringrich (who seems to be laying the groundwork for a 2012 presidential run) was calling it the “Obama-Bush” plan. The idea was for House Republicans to vote against it but not kill it. Let the Democrats carry the political baggage. Then House Republicans could distance themselves from Bush and blame Democrats for the unpopular plan all at the same time – all with no accountability. It was a great scheme – but the bailout plan was supposed to pass. But by killing it, House Republicans now bear responsibility for the consequences. It’s the “Pottery Barn Rule” that we failed to heed in Iraq: You break it, you own it. Similarly, by working assiduously to put his HEROIC LEADERSHIP at the center of events, McCain now finds himself in the middle of a mess. I suspect some face-saving changes will be made to the deal (like an increase in the amount of bank deposits covered by FDIC insurance) to allow House Republicans to walk themselves back from the brink. Then McCain can, once again, go back to “bipartisan” mode and try to claim vindication for his HEROIC LEADERSHIP.
It has all been rather transparent. McCain is used to this kind of camera-hogging maneuvering as a Senator. But it doesn’t work as well under the bright lights of a presidential campaign in the midst of a true national crisis. McCain has come out looking erratic and overly partisan.
Even Republicans have taken note of McCain’s unsteady performance during this crisis. As George Will wrote: “Under the pressure of the financial crisis, one presidential candidate is behaving like a flustered rookie playing in a league too high. It is not Barack Obama.” By contrast, Obama accepted the fact that he was not yet president and therefore was not in control of events. He provided public support for the effort to craft a bailout plan while generally avoiding explicitly politicizing the process. By avoiding grandstanding he has actually come across as more “presidential”. (The ABC/Washington Post poll cited about found Obama to have the more presidential temperament by 57% to 34% and better able to handle the financial crisis by 50% to 40%. Obama is also now viewed as the more “safe” candidate – 55% of voters view him as “safe” while only 51% feel that way about McCain, a big turnaround from earlier polls.)
The longer this crisis drags out, and the more serious it becomes, the more it commands center stage in the campaign, crowding out the Republican culture war and putting the focus on the economy. And that is good for Obama.
3/ The debate. As incredible as it may seem, a lot of people haven’t been paying a lot of attention to the campaign until recently. For many of them, Obama still remains somewhat of an enigma. Obama’s task in the debates is not necessarily to win on points, but rather to reassure undecided voters who favor change but are unsure if Obama is “ready to lead.” He doesn’t have to “win” the debates to win the presidency. With voters wanting change, he just has to satisfy enough voters that he meets the minimum threshold to do the job.
In last Friday’s debate he more than passed that test. Regardless of how one “scores” the debate, he held his own and looked every bit the equal of McCain on stage. I found his performance amazing. He had a extremely challenging task to perform: As a young black man, he couldn’t appear angry, overly-aggressive or disrespectful to the old white war hero. At the same time, he had to appear confident, tough and strong. It’s an extraordinarily difficult line to finesse, but Obama made it look easy. He came across as relaxed and confident, while McCain seemed tense and angry.
And while Obama didn’t have to “win” to pass the test – he won.
The ABC/Washington Post poll cited above found that 38% of voters though Obama “won” while only 24% thought McCain won. A CNN poll conducted immediately after the debate found that Obama won 51% to 38%:
More than two-thirds of debate watchers agreed that both McCain and Obama would be able to handle the job of president if elected. …
Debate watchers gave [Obama] a 21 percentage point edge -- 58 to 37 percent -- on the question of which candidate would do a better job handling the economy.
By a similar margin, those polled said Obama would be better able to deal with the current financial crisis facing the nation.
CBS conducted a poll of uncommitted voters and the result favored Obama 39% to 24%:
Forty-six percent of uncommitted voters said their opinion of Obama got better tonight. Thirty-two percent said their opinion of McCain got better. Sixty-six percent of uncommitted voters think Obama would make the right decisions about the economy. Forty-two percent think McCain would.
A similar Democracy Corps poll of uncommitted voters found that Obama won by a margin of 38% to 27%:
Before the debate, just 40 percent viewed Obama positively, but this skyrocketed to 69 percent after the debate - a remarkable 29-point gain that left him more personally popular than McCain despite this group's conservative leanings. He also made large strides on being seen as independent, from 44 percent to 65 percent. And in head-to-head matchups against McCain, Obama made significant gains on who "shares your values" and is "on your side."
There are lot more of these polls. And the more you dig into them, the more they reveal gains for Obama on just about every metric. Scoring it as a debate, it might have been close. But in terms of accomplishing the things Obama had to do, it was a HUGE win.
James Fallow summarizes it well:
When the details of this encounter fade, as they soon will, I think the debate as a whole will be seen as of a piece with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Reagan-Carter in 1980, and Clinton-Bush in 1992.
In each of those cases, a fresh, new candidate (although chronologically older in Reagan's case) had been gathering momentum at a time of general dissatisfaction with the "four more years" option of sticking with the incumbent party. The question was whether the challenger could stand as an equal with the more experienced,
tested, and familiar figure. In each of those cases, the challenger passed the test -- not necessarily by "winning" the debate, either on logical points or in immediate audience or polling reactions, but by subtly reassuring doubters on the basic issue of whether he was a plausible occupant of the White House and commander in chief.
I think that's how this debate will be seen. Neither Obama nor McCain made any serious mistakes (except, perhaps, for McCain's churlish on-stage personal bearing); neither had any moments of surprising brilliance or rhetorical flash. McCain performed closer to the top of his debating range than Obama did.
But something similar could be said of the three previous encounters I mentioned. The challengers didn't necessarily "win," but they achieved something significant simply by debating as equals -- especially on national security issues. I think in the long run people will say that this is what happened tonight.
If Obama does as well in the two remaining debate, he will almost certainly be our next president.
4/ Palin. The last major factor is Sarah Palin. She has proven to be a disaster. I think there is no doubt that she is and will continue to be a major drag on the ticket. (I can cite all manner of polls that show that the original excitement over her pick has faded and she is now a big net negative for McCain. Just take my word for it.) The only question is how big a drag. She probably can’t do worse in tomorrow night’s debate than she did in her Couric interview. (Is it even possible for someone on a national ticket to do worse than that?) So by that standard she will probably “exceed expectations”. By how much probably depends on how much Biden talks. He doesn’t have anything to prove, so the less he says the better. Everyone will be tuning in to watch Palin. Biden should just get out of the way and let her talk. She has no doubt memorized the talking points her handlers have given her. She was a sportscaster, so she can read her lines. (It reminds me of the line in Waiting for Guffman when the Catherine O’Hara character recounts the acting advise she is receiving from husband, the Fred Willard character: “He's teaching me to change my instincts... or at least ignore them.”) But the more Biden lets her talk, the more time she has to really screw up (and the less time he has to put his foot in his mouth).
But the Palin Factor goes beyond tomorrow’s debate. She is so manifestly unqualified to be vice president that there will be some voters – the question is how many – who will not be able to vote for McCain because of the risk Palin presents. Rarely has a vice presidential nominee had much of an impact on the race. Usually, the VP nominee has no effect. On a few occasions the VP nominee has helped deliver a key state (Johnson delivered Texas to Kennedy) or bolstered the presidential nominee with regard to some perceived weakness (Cheney probably helped provide “experience” and “gravitas” to the young, untested Bush). But I can’t think of any VP nominee having a significant negative impact on the ticket (Quayle probably hurt the first Bush a bit, but it didn’t call into question the entire ticket the way Palin does).
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker (originally a big Palin fan) wrote in the National Review what a lot of Republicans are thinking:
As we’ve seen and heard more from John McCain’s running mate, it is increasingly clear that Palin is a problem. Quick study or not, she doesn’t know enough about economics and foreign policy to make Americans comfortable with a President Palin should conditions warrant her promotion. ...
It was fun while it lasted.
Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity, and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.
No one hates saying that more than I do. Like so many women, I’ve been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I’ve also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.
... If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself.
If Palin were a man, we’d all be guffawing ... But because she’s a woman — and the first ever on a Republican presidential ticket — we are reluctant to say what is painfully true.
What to do?
McCain can’t repudiate his choice for running mate. He not only risks the wrath of the GOP’s unforgiving base, but he invites others to second-guess his executive decision-making ability. ...
Only Palin can save McCain, her party, and the country she loves. She can bow out for personal reasons, perhaps because she wants to spend more time with her newborn. No one would criticize a mother who puts her family first.
Do it for your country.
Palin has been largely hidden away since the Republican convention. Her few unscripted appearances have been genuine train wrecks. It will be interesting to see if Republicans can contain the damage for another five weeks. She doesn’t have much further to fall without bringing down McCain, too. She still has the potential to be a “game-changer” – and not in the way McCain hoped when he threw that Hail Mary pass.
Given the current trajectory of the campaign, Obama should win. Given that, the last few weeks of the campaign will probably get VERY VERY ugly. I can’t imagine McCain and the Rove junior varsity running his campaign going down graciously. It will be interesting to see just how ruthless those thugs can get when they have nothing left to lose.
Hold on to your hats.