Obama-Biden 338, McCain-Palin 200
These are not good times for John McCain. Having peddled his soul piece by piece for the mere opportunity to become President of the United States, the self-styled Straight Talker is beginning to grapple publicly with the prospect of defeat. It's not a pretty sight, as a man who not so long ago commanded genuine bipartisan respect - in 2004, Democratic Presidential nominee John Kerry tried to recruit McCain as his running mate on a "unity" ticket against Bush-Cheney - descends inexorably into a Rovian cesspool of fear-mongering, race-baiting and character assassination.
The McCain campaign's decision to abandon all pretense of competing on the issues - the economy, Iraq, the economy, terrorism, the economy, jobs and health care and, last but not least, the economy - and go all-negative, all the time came as a flotilla of polls show swing voters in key electoral battleground states and elsewhere moving in droves toward Democrat Barack Obama. McCain has roughly a week to start turning those numbers around, or else he could be facing a landslide; short some unforeseen drama that causes voters to reconsider McCain in a positive light, the only tactic left to the Republicans is convincing white voters that Obama is somehow a dangerous radical - and finding ways to remind them that he is black.
It's an uphill fight, and if polls over the next seven to ten days don't reflect movement back toward McCain, or at the very least a stalling of Obama's upward momentum, the clock begins to run out very quickly. Meanwhile, the current numbers bear out the increasing desperation on the Republican side and the cautious optimism beginning to pervade the Democratic ranks (this last after a lot of typical handwringing and hysterics among Democrats - with the exception of the even-tempered soul at the head of ticket - while McCain rode a wave of momentum through most of August and September and within sight of the lead in the Presidential race).
With his lead on the Weekly's big board now at its highest point in over two months - and its second-highest since I began tracking poll averages in April - Obama enjoyed a week in which his poll numbers increased in 31 states, after going up in 32 the prior week. To be sure, McCain's numbers did improve in 16 states, though those are mostly places he either is going to win anyway or in which he has no chance of catching Obama. To put it another way, McCain's share of the vote increased in only three states that are "in play," representing a total of 25 electoral votes, while Obama either added to leads, moved ahead or significantly closed gaps in 12 key states with a total of 156 electoral votes. Highlights of this week's analysis of our rolling poll averages:
- The logjam of 12-14 tossup states - those where the lead of one candidate or the other falls within the cumulative margin of error of the polls used in our analysis - that has prevailed since the Weekly initiated this column three-and-half months ago is breaking decidedly, if not yet decisively, in Obama's favor. Over the past week, Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes), Minnesota (10), Wisconsin (10) and Maine (4) have moved from tossup to leaning Obama; in the nine remaining tossup states, the Democrat has surged ahead of McCain in Florida (27), Ohio (20) and Nevada (5), while padding his own leads in Michigan (17), Virginia (13) and New Hampshire (4). Obama also has seen New Jersey (15) and Washington (11), the latter a tossup just two weeks ago, move from leaning to probable in his favor.
- Of the three tossup states where McCain maintained leads this week, only in Indiana (11 votes) did his lead increase; in North Carolina (15) and Missouri (11), meanwhile, our poll averages have Obama within 0.3 points and 0.4 points, respectively. Note that these states have in common the fact that they have been solidly Republican in at least the past two Presidential elections (much longer for Indiana and North Carolina, which collectively have gone Democratic three times in the past 11 elections, stretching back nearly half a century).
- Just as ominously for McCain, Obama suddenly is catching up in several states that, while they almost certainly will end up in the Republican column, individually or collectively could become problematic if the trends continue. Most notably, Obama has gained enough ground in Texas (34), Georgia (15), Mississippi (6) and North Dakota (3) to downgrade those states from strong to probable McCain, and is inching closer in Kentucky (8), Arkansas (6) and Montana (3).
- On the positive side, McCain shored up his lead in West Virginia (5), which continues to lean his way after moving briefly to tossup status two weeks ago - and which has become one of a number of must-win states in the dwindling set of scenarios for pulling out a victory over Obama. In addition, McCain's home state of Arizona (10), along with Louisiana (9), has moved from probable to strong McCain. Finally, the Republican has managed to tighten races in Colorado (9), which remains a tossup, and New Mexico (5), which despite McCain's gains stays in the probable Obama column this week.
- In our two key measures of the status of the race, this week finds electoral vote totals from strong and probable states running 198-158 in Obama's favor - up from 172-158 last week - while the totals when tossup states are eliminated are Obama 260, McCain 163, compared to 215-163 last week. In this week's simulated election - projections of the final totals based on current polling trends and other statistical factors - Obama wins 318-220.
The numbers above point up the magnitude of the task facing McCain in the final month of the campaign. Given that Obama currently leads in states with a total of 260 electoral votes, McCain's "easiest" path to victory is to win the tossup states of Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia - all of which were carried by George W. Bush four years ago; the problem is that he currently trails Obama in four of those seven states, and the only other alternative is to try and "steal" one or more states (e.g., Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) that now are trending away from him. Complicating matters further, as mentioned above, is the potential for having to expend precious resources shoring up West Virginia, or even Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi or North Dakota. In short, McCain has a lot of work to do, very little time in which to begin making a dent in it, and absolutely no margin for error.
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