Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the contest for President has become a real horse race, close to a tossup (Obama maintains a 1-2 point lead in the tracking polls). The 17 days of the Olympics and the exploits of Michael Phelps have driven most political stories off the front burner, other than Russia's aggression against Georgia. The Russia-Georgia story played into John McCain's hands, with McCain quickly and forcefully condemning Russia's actions, and Barack Obama, vacationing in Hawaii, seeming to offer little in response but a call for a Security Council meeting and a ceasefire. Obama, a believer in the effectiveness of international organizations, may have forgotten that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and was unlikely to agree to anything counter to its interests. It is not from lack of effort that the US has been unable to move China and Russia to endorse tougher sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.
So too, Americans seem to always rally around our athletes during the Olympics. By a 3 to 1 margin, Americans now approve of President Bush attending the games, a much higher percentage for this than before the games began. It is hard to remember the last time there was such an endorsement of any action by President Bush. So too, as the candidate perceived as the soldier/warrior, McCain stands to benefit more from any burst of patriotic fervor associated with the Olympic Games than Obama.
Senator McCain and the GOP also got out in front on high oil prices with their call for opening more areas in the country and some offshore areas to drilling for oil. Americans seem to have caught on that we will grow ever more dependent on some of the most thuggish regimes in the world, if we continue to send hundreds of billions of dollars overseas each year for imported oil (as much as $700 billion in 2008 at current prices). Despite years of incessant preaching by the media and educational system at all levels on the catastrophe awaiting us all from global warming fifty or a hundred years from now, the price of oil and the need to increase domestic supply (and alternatives) has for now clearly trumped this more distant and unproven threat.
Finally, there was Rick Warren's very well-run debate at his Saddleback Church Saturday night, at which Senator Obama was, as usual, calm, dispassionate, and verbally agile, but McCain was more direct and passionate on issues that mattered to the crowd. The performance at this debate cannot but help solidify McCain's standing among evangelicals, and attract some of the volunteers needed to counter Obama's unprecedented ground game in many states.
Both candidates stumbled on some questions: Obama refused to say when life began, suggesting the answer to that one was above his pay grade. If he does not have an answer to this question, why is he so willing to deal with the uncertainty by approving of abortion, and alone among US Senators, appearing to also favor infanticide when an abortion "fails" and a baby is delivered alive? Pro-choice advocates are usually more consistent; if you believe life begins at fetal viability or delivery, then you can argue for abortion rights before that. McCain gave a poor answer on what defines a rich person. When McCain talks too long, he gets in trouble at times.
But the most significant contrast in the debate was between McCain's anecdotal references to his life experiences, particularly those in North Vietnamese captivity, which offered a far clearer view of what shaped McCain and created his passion for country and national service than anything that can be gleaned from Obama's background.
The race this year is very difficult to forecast. Will young people, for the first time, turn out in great numbers? Will Obama's registration effort produce a few million more African American voters? Will Obama's huge investment in field organizing prove the difference (turning registered voters into actual voters)? Most pollsters do not reach cell phone only users, who are a high percentage of both young Americans and African Americans. Will the polls overstate Obama's likely performance? (the Bradley effect) Nate Silver has studied this issue and argued that Obama underperformed compared to exit polls, which are not a random sample, and are often unreliable predictors, but actually exceeded his pre-poll averages in many states. However, a close look at the results by state suggests Obama exceeded poll results in caucus states, where estimating turnout is very difficult, and where there may be psychological factors in play related to the public nature of one's vote (a reverse Bradley effect, in essence), and in primary states in the South, with very high African American populations, where pollsters seem to have systematically underestimated black turnout.
In many of the large state primaries, on the other hand, Obama underperformed the last polls in those states before the primary (e.g. Ohio, Pennsylvania). Pollster Peter Hart believes as many as 10% of those who say they back Obama, may not, or be undecided. If 10% of Obama's presumed supporters turn out to vote for McCain, McCain would win in a landslide, regardless of Obama's ground game and heavier participation by young voters and African Americans. I am less convinced that voters are lying to pollsters when they say they are for Obama, but think the reason that the number who say they are undecided is double what it was in 2004 may be because this is a more acceptable way of hiding one's preference without lying.
I look most closely at Rasmussen's 's numbers, because Rasmussen not only has a daily tracking poll, but conducts polling in many states (for some odd reason, Indiana has not been polled for months, though it is a state targeted by Senator Obama). By and large, Rasmussen's state numbers tie to his national tracking numbers. There are exceptions: Rasmussen has a recent poll with McCain ahead by 10% in Ohio, which seems out of line with a small Obama lead nationally. In 2004, Ohio almost exactly tracked Bush's national margin of just over 2%, so for Ohio to be 12% stronger for McCain than his national numbers is unlikely.
In pretty much all of the tossup states McCain has gained ground this month. He now leads, sometimes by very narrow margins, in Rasmussen's most recent surveys in Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada, and has opened up a 6 point lead in North Carolina, another state targeted by Obama. McCain has come from far behind to significantly narrow the gap with Obama in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Michigan, New Mexico, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Rasmussen's most recent poll had Obama up by 2% in Florida, but most other polls of the state have given McCain a 3 or 4 point lead. Florida has been more Republican in its voting pattern than the national average in 13 of the last 14 Presidential elections, all but 1976. With McCain likely to do better with Jewish voters in the state this year than Bush did in 2004 (about 6% of the state's electorate), the state is an uphill climb for Obama.
As of this point, a week before the Democratic convention, there are only 2 red states where Obama leads: New Mexico (5) and Iowa (7), each by about 5 points. If those were Obama's only pickups, McCain would win 274-264 in the Electoral College. Obama's advantage is that there are plenty of red states in which he is competitive: Virginia (13), Ohio (20), Florida (27), Colorado (9), Nevada (5), perhaps Montana (3), and even Indiana (11), if Evan Bayh is the VP pick. But Obama's odds of winning each of these states have declined in the last month according to Nate Silver's latest 538 Battlegrounds survey.
Realistically, McCain seems to have a real shot at only two blue states: Michigan (17) and New Hampshire (4). In Michigan, the state with the nation's worst economy, the Democratic Party is in big trouble, with the Mayor of Detroit on trial, and a Governor with lower approval ratings than President Bush. If McCain can win Michigan and New Hampshire and hold Ohio and Florida, he is likely to win. Obama would have to sweep Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa to then win 270-268, an unlikely possibility I think.
The good news for McCain is that the contests in Minnesota (10) and Wisconsin (10) have tightened, and the race has gotten a bit closer in Pennsylvania (21) as well. McCain needs to have Obama forced to play defense in blue states, not just be free to go after red states. If McCain picks Tim Pawlenty for VP at a convention in his home state, could that move Minnesota to a real battleground? Possible, though I would not make a wager on McCain winning the state (I was burned in 2004, as this was the only state I missed) . Would Mitt Romney deliver Michigan to McCain, perhaps a wiser bet if the VP pick is to used primarily to secure one state? Jay Cost thinks so.
If I were in the McCain camp, I would be breathing a sigh of relief if Obama follows what is now the conventional wisdom and selects Joe Biden as his VP pick. Biden does not help in any particular state, supported the Iraq war, and while he is respected by some within the Beltway, is also regarded by many as someone who talks too much. I am not convinced he would do much to shore up Obama in the national security area. Selecting Biden gives McCain a free pick -- in essence he does not have to respond to Obama's pick.
Because of his financial and organizational advantage, Obama remains a slight favorite to be elected. But the recent trend line favors McCain. Obama's campaign, which exudes optimism, has to be concerned about why they have not closed the deal with so many voters, despite all the favorable free media attention and almost $300 hundred million in campaign spending on ads and organizational efforts to date. There may be a saturation level that is reached with advertising and voter contact efforts. Obama outspent Hillary Clinton by 3 to 1 and 4 to 1 in some late primary states, and still lost. After a while, voters may just tune out, as they do with most solicitations.
The McCain camp, which has been nervous about the three fall debates, has to feel better about things after the Saddleback event, where McCain certainly held his own. McCain and the RNC will have enough money to get their message out the next 11 weeks. The late dates for both party conventions, means that both candidates have to spend all their money in just two months, and the saturation issue becomes real.
The GOP convention follows the Democratic convention by just one week, which is very unusual. Will this enable McCain to blunt Obama's post-convention surge, or will Obama's surge continue into the following week, and weaken any McCain convention bounce? Nate Silver has looked at this too, and says it is very hard to figure.
I am a betting man, and if I could get 2 to 1 odds on McCain winning at this point, I would take them.