Friday, September 19, 2008

How Much Trouble is McCain in?

A very compelling article appeared yesterday in the pages of, in which it was argued that Mr. McCain may be in a little trouble, right now, or he may be in a lot.

Most of the polls as of this moment suggest that he's in a little trouble. He's between zero and five points behind in the national tracking poll, depending on which pollster you believe--which is certainly not where he and Steve Schmidt would have wanted to be at the end of the second full week after their convention. That's trouble, for sure. But a little?

As political analysts are wont to do, of course, the kids at fivethirtyeight are hedging their bets for the moment about how much trouble Mr. McCain is in--supported in their hedge by what seem to be tight races in many of the biggest and most important states in this, or any, electoral vote contest. Pennsylvania is supposedly very tight right now. The other kids, the ones at, are actually calling it tied. They also have Obama a mere four points up in Washington State, three points up in Michigan, and clinging to an improbably small single-point lead in Minnesota. If any of these states fail to hold, we are reminded in dour language by an assortment of media outlets, it is unlikely that Mr. Obama can become President. Indeed, though fivethirtyeight is currently projecting a slim cushion of electoral votes in excess of 270 for Obama, at the moment doesn't even have him reaching the 270 milestone (though, to be fair, that site doesn't have Mr. McCain reaching it, either).

All of this stimulus, we are led to believe, is to be filed under the general heading of proof that the race is still completely up for grabs--certainly this is what the conservative commentators on the various non-partisan political blogs would strongly and perhaps even desperately suggest. But there are also numerous problems with using these state-by-state polls to take the temperature of the two candidates' chances--most of them having to do with timing.

To begin with, not every state polls every day. The bulk of the data for the aforementioned must-win states was published on Wednesday, September 17th, less than forty-eight hours after McCain's "fundamentals of our economy are strong" gaffe. Since most state polls are conducted over a three-day rolling average, it seems vanishingly unlikely that many of the questioned respondents had even heard about this incident, much less taken the time and energy to absorb it into their heuristic of support--the latter of which is widely agreed to take between two and seven additional days after new information is received. In other words, the closeness of these states reflects not a desperate call for redeployment of resources by Obama, but rather a predictable if slim lead at a time in peoples' psychological chronologies when the Rove/Cheney/Palin/McCain ticket was still riding high on its convention bounce. After the week they've had since, it seems unlikely that these polls will get anything but worse for the team already trailing in those states. Indeed in one of them it already has.

The second source of timing difficulty for assessing this supposedly close race is the extent to which it has deviated from the well-established pattern of past Republican victories. By having their convention last, the Republicans generally manage to engineer a much more durable bounce, changing the agenda for the conversation away from blue-friendly topics like education and health care, and toward more red-friendly topics like whether or not John Kerry deserves his purple hearts or Michael Dukakis should have worn a battle helmet for his ride in a tank. Once the agenda for the discussion is changed in this way, so sayeth the Lee Atwater playbook, the Democrat will look weak and indecisive no matter how he responds: be it with rapid response, in which case he can be dismissed as thin-skinned and vulnerable, or with stoic non-engagement, in which case he can be dismissed as weak.

As the media begins to circle the story back onto itself with headlines like "Democratic Leaders Urge Kerry Campaign Changes," the supposed second-convention bounce becomes solidified as the de facto state of the race, and then the Democrat finds himself needing to go for broke in the debates--after which he can be dismissed as mean-spirited and shameless. Then the Republican dribbles out the clock, disenfranchises a few hundred thousand voters here and there, and more-or-less cruises to victory. None of this works if you're behind.

If you're behind, even by a little, your entire strategy must be improvised using far fewer (recent) historical data points and almost no preexisting contingencies. A John McCain who trails in national tracking polls can't press the media into stories about a rift within the other guy's inner circle about how to regroup, because the other guy's inner circle doesn't need to regroup. A Republican with a track-record as a lousy debater can't dismiss a trouncing by the other, smarter guy on the stage on the basis of desperation, because the other guy doesn't have to act desperate. In short, if the race is only three or four points different than it was in the first few days after Sarah Palin's lie-fest on the Upper Mississippi, then they are the biggest three or four points of difference in the history of three- or four-point differences.

The third timing problem for Bush and Rove and Palin and Schmidt and Fiorina, and McCain, is one that requires more of a micro-level focus on what has just happened. The fact that McCain had a terrible week is, in the end, something that McCain supporters wouldn't need all that much back-pedaling to explain away, under normal circumstances. Every candidate has a bad week, and sometimes they're even bad enough to blip the polls, without actually meaning anything over the slightly longer haul. We could make such arguments about the week McCain just had, too, but for the unfortunate coincidence of the types of stories that went into making it such a bad week--indeed the coincidence of their arrangement within that week.

Personally I would argue that it isn't so much that McCain had a bad week and now the polls are coming to reflect it, or even that McCain fumbled away his bounce and the polls are coming to reflect that, so much as that the terrible week McCain had, which fumbled away his bounce, was laid out in such a way as to inflict maximum damage on his chances of becoming President, specifically with undecided voters. I would argue that in modern election dynamics there is a moment in every campaign where the eventual winner must show the persuadable low-information voters in the middle exactly who they'd be getting if they picked the other guy to be their President, and that this play will either work or not depending on how the suddenly questioned other guy responds with his own news.

Dukakis rode in a tank, Bush Senior and his surrogates made hay on it, but what most people don't remember is that very shortly thereafter Dukakis took the stage in the firt debate and behaved in a way that was wooden, affectless, seemingly phony--precisely the ways in which the persuadable voters had been subconsciously worried that he might act, after watching footage of him riding in a tank. Mr. Atwater himself referred to this as "stripping the bark off the little fucker"--a two-stage strategy by which a wobbly performance by an opponent must take place on a visceral level, first, before the campaign can move in with a more substantive argument to close the deal.

If this vision of how such things works is indeed accurate then Mr. McCain is in far bigger trouble than the current crop of polling data would suggest, precisely because this very two-step of bad campaigning befell him with improbably little input into the matter by Senator Obama: We had the macabre spectacle of McCain being publicly eviscerated on The View--which may not have been seen by every persuadable voter in the country but was certainly heard about, after the fact, by every persuadable voter in the country with a television. And then almost immediately thereafter we had the even more macabre image of McCain, standing on a stage in Jacksonville, acting just as confused and indecisive when speaking (without interruption from Barbara Walters) about the fate of the economy.

The effect of this Texas two-step of misfortune was to paint McCain as being exactly like George Bush Junior--something the Obama campaign had been trying to do for months, and which McCain ultimately proved far more successful at doing to himself. That the polls have quickly moved to reflect this is a grim sign for McCain because it represents people locking-in on a decision not to support him.

Of course, to accept that the state of this race is unfolding in such a stealthy manner at the expense of Mr. McCain, we would need more than idle theorization from an avowed Obama supporter who started blogging less than thirty days ago. We would need some hard evidence. And this afternoon, buried deep amid the stories of McCain being blasted in the Op/Ed pages of none other than the Wall Street Journal, buried deep amid the stories of the breathless speed of Palin's fall from polling graces with the undecided middle, buried deep amid the stories of McCain's willful lie about Obama's connections to Fannie Mae, buried deep amid all the documented cases of mistruth and bungled message, The Key Grip notes the release of a sleepy little poll from Colorado, showing Mr. Obama with an astonishing ten point lead, there.

As this column has been arguing for weeks, it seems vanishingly unlikely that Mr. McCain can win the White House without holding Virginia, Ohio, Nevada, and, most notably Colorado, where until this week the race has ebbed and flowed with just the sort of drama that gives Bill Schneider and Mark Halprin very, very pleasant dreams at night. Were Colorado to remain cracked wide open like this, it is all but inconceivable that the larger country will not ultimately be called the same way. What's worse for McCain, this is the first in the major battleground polls whose entire data sample was conducted in the aftermath of his "fundamentals are strong" / Gerry-Ford-moment, thus sowing in this single page of data the seeds of some very earnest doubt that any of the other aforementioned states will be polling anything like as close as we're seeing them right now, after the next round of updates.

With this much apparently settled, October surprises may now become the chief threat to Obama's victory--be they complete surprises or cynically engineered ones. We are still hearing, for example, that there is some magic bombshell of damaging information about Obama, floating around un-leaked from the dustiest files of the Republican dirt-machine, but to this author the notion seems increasingly implausible, especially since the Republican playbook is so solid on using such information the day after the Democrat accepts his nomination. A bigger worry is that the Bush Administration might know exactly where Osama Bin Laden is, at this very moment, and could be waiting until October 29th to apprehend him. There is nothing Mr. Obama could do about this, other than to coolly and methodically consolidate his before-the-fact cushion, by consistently hammering McCain for his economic ham-fistedness--which in case you haven't noticed is exactly what he is doing, right now.

On balance, it seems fair to say that the dynamic of this race has shifted in a structural way that will put Mr. McCain squarely on the defensive, even if there are no further meltdowns in the financial sector, as have been ominously suggested could be in the offing. McCain can still win this election, of course, but to do so he will need to "shake up the race" once more--and it seems to this author at least that the once unflappable Republican victory-machine is quickly running out of shakes.

Have a great weekend.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


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Dave O'Gorman said...

GREAT! I'm very interested and will contact you off-site.

A. Gordon said...


One or two points on your October surprise comment:

If OBL were magically captured on 29 OCT, I suspect there would be more than one or two people who would be skeptical of the timing of said information.

Additionally, as pointed out by various sites today, early voting begins soon and while I don't know the projections for 2008, 25% of the country voted early in 2006. And in my state of CO, they're predicting around 60% of people voting early (I think they said it was %50 in 2006). NM is really high as well compared to the national average. OR has no polling places, rather all ballots are mail-in and must be received (not post-marked) by election day.

So, the real news in all this is that an October surprise may become increasingly irrelevant as, obviously, once one drops off or mails in one's vote, one can't change it.

Louisville, CO

Dave O'Gorman said...

Boy is that a terrific thought -- I'd been planning on doing a column about early voting, but it might be O-B-E before the influx of juicy one-day news can quiet down enough to accommodate the space. I'll say this much right now: if 60% of Colorado votes early, and a similar number does so in New Mexico, the matter will be all but settled right there.

Anonymous said...

Who benefits disproportionally from a new Republican Administration? The military industrial complex would be one. The "old" oil/coal conglomerates and counties may be another. And countries/individuals that would prefer a right wing administration in ours, so as to perpetuate the "demon" that allows them to continue in power and status.

All that is to ask if the October surprise could be another invasion/episode that showcases McCain's military experience? I daresay the McCain camp wishes the Republic of Georgia's leadership had waited a few weeks before posting troops in South Ossetia.

Dave O'Gorman said...

If there's an underhanded trick left in the Rove/Schmidt playbook, they'll certainly play it -- the question is whether it will resonate with the middle, or if they'll see it for what it is. And that's a tough thing to call before the fact.