Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The State of the Presidential Race

1. A new WSJ poll shows Obama up by 10 points. Tucked away on p. 26 (Question 28a) of this report is a significant finding: when asked which two factors most bothered poll respondents about John McCain's candidacy, 34% thought that "his vice presidential running mate is not qualified to be president" and 23% thought that "he would continue George W. Bush's policies." Unbelievably, Palin has turned out to be a heavier mill stone on McCain's neck than George Bush. If Palin Effect > Bradley Effect, McCain shall be hoisted by his own petard.

(Palin is also a comedian's Nirvana. When asked by a third-grader today what the role of the VP was, she said: "They're in charge of the United States Senate." Priceless.)

2. CO + VA = FL or OH

It has come to that. A luxurious electoral map with many avenues to 270 for Obama, and a shrinking map for McCain. It has been a long time that a Democrat candidate has dared comtemplate electoral victory without FL or OH. Even as Obama is slightly ahead in both states, it now appears that he does not need them.

McCain on the other hand is trying to persuade Plumber Joes in PA to stick with him. Things are so dire that McCain is fighting for his political life in a must-win "battleground" state that has Obama up 11 points.

McCain is too focussed on a Karl Rovian state-by-state strategy. Granted the way to the White House is through the electoral college, but this conventional wisdom is really only relevant in close races such as in 2000 and 2004. McCain needs to narrow the national poll numbers so that he can regain competitive status in a a number of states (WV, MN, MT and ND - all of which have Obama up by at least 5 points now). That means move away from the pander-to-Plumber-Joe strategy. McCain is being blind-sighted by a piecemeal state-by-state strategy when Obama has wisely played (and been fortunate enough to be able to play) a 50 state strategy and a national message. Focused on the tree, McCain has lost sight of the forest.

3. If this will turn out to be a landslide electon (at least in terms of the electoral college), it will emerge because of the incredible voter registration effort and the ground turn-out operation of the Obama campaign. In the caucus states, in the West, and in the South, Team Obama is welcoming millions of people into political action. This is how he has established leads in places like NM, CO, and VA - not merely by changing the minds of existing voters, but the big gains are really coming from drawing unregistered or disaffected voters back into the public sphere.

For years scholars have debated the relative importance of high turnout and a maximally participatory democracy, with Bruce Ackerman at Yale arguing that low turnout during routine years are OK, as long as "We the People" turn out in huge numbers in critical moments in American history to fulfill their civic duty and to redefine the direction of national politics. 2008 may be one such year.

(Obama's lead is in the 18-34 age group, where he is outpolling McCain by over 30 points. None of these people were alive during the Vietnam war, when McCain earned his credentials as a patriotic war veteran. The Democratic party, in picking Obama over Clinton, representing the old Democratic parry, has registered its desire to move on from the debilitating debates over Vietnam, race, and labor relations. That is why McCain's war record isn't affecting Obama's lead, it is why the Ayers connection as well as the socialism charge have remained politically stillborn. These are old attacks tangential to the new direction of liberalism in our time.)

Tragically, McCain's best chance of turning all this around is to focus on voter supression.

4. There is also a darker tale to be told if Obama wins. The truth is much that is going on now would not have been possible without the formidable coffers of the Obama campaign and the emerging techniques of fundraising via the internet. If picking Palin was McCain's biggest mis-step this campaign season, watch out for an emerging conventional wisdom in a few weeks that a future presidential candidate who does not opt out of public financing will do so at his/her own peril.

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