Update (8/13): Then again, maybe my skills at prediction aren’t as good as I’d like to believe. This time in 2004, Kerry had a solid and pretty stable lead over Bush in the electoral college polls that became increasingly erratic as November closed in.
Much has been said about national polls that purportedly show a close contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, which is causing some Obama fans anxiety. Why, given all his party’s natural advantages this year, hasn’t Obama pulled away yet?
With a splintered party and relatively uninspiring presidential candidate, the Republicans are beginning to look like their Democratic counterparts of late. Add to that eight years of Bush fatigue, an environment overwhelmingly favorable to Democrats, and a presidential candidate awe-inspiring enough to induce Beatlesesque fainting spells and draw comparisons to the Antichrist and it’s not looking too sunny for McCain. So why are the national polls as close as they are?
A better question, perhaps, is why any attention is paid to them at all. When you look at the state-by-state electoral map projections — the truly relevant polls — Obama leads by anywhere from 50 to 100 of the 538 electoral votes, if not more, and he has done so consistently (270 are needed to win).
The site I pay the most attention to, FiveThirtyEight.com, has Obama ahead 299.2 to 238.8, tracking daily averages from a number of prominent polls. Some other sites, like RealClearPolitics, use poll averages also but assign the hypothetical votes by each state’s numbers. RealClearPolitics has it at 238 to 163, with 137 toss-ups (or 309 to 229 with all states included). Pollster.com is even more generous, giving Obama a 284-to-154 victory with 100 votes left over.
I have read and heard a lot of concern, also, about how Obama has let the election focus on him too much and hasn’t attacked McCain hard enough or defined him as enough of a Bush Republican. In an article for the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Moore puts it like this:
Convince yourself that the Republicans are just going to roll over and play dead because there is simply no life left in their party. Convince yourself this one is in the bag! Convince yourself that if you play by the rules, the Republicans will too.
And when McCain and his people roll out their nuclear arsenal on you, just go all sweet and sensitive and logical. Believe that the truth shall prevail, that good people will see what the Republicans are up to. As they smear you, your family, your religious beliefs — cower, back down, go on the defensive.
This, I think, happened to an extent in 2004 with Kerry v. Bush. But that was a different time with different candidates. Then, we saw a Democratic candidate who received criticism for being overly academic and stiff at the podium. He was up against a sitting wartime president at a time before the backlash against the war had spiked. At least partially as a result of that, the Republicans successfully framed the debate, and a lot of skepticism surrounding Kerry seemed to stick.
By contrast, Obama, has run an incredibly successful and calculated campaign, knocking off the once-presumed unbeatable Hillary Clinton as smoothly as he seems able to brush aside controversies, the most notable being the Reverend Wright affair, something I initially thought would effectively end his campaign. Obama’s got more than a three-to-one advantage in the number of field offices, many of them in the battleground states; the McCain team, I sometimes think, isn’t really even trying (good Newsweek editorial). From website design to TV ads to stump speeches, the Obama camp just has a sleeker, more professional, more effortless quality about it.
For those still wary about the national polls, Mark Nickolas at The Huffington Post notes how in the past national poll differences of as little as five and a half points have translated into electoral landslides of more than a 200-vote difference. And Seth Colter Walls from the same place cites political science prof Alan Abramowitz’s analysis that day-to-day variations in the polls mean little, as they have been stable over ten day periods with Obama holding a lead of three to four points.
So in others words: if you’re rooting for Obama, no need to worry. Save for a National Enquirer love child scandal or the selection of Louis Farrakhan as his VP, I’ll take Michael Moore on and wager Obama does have this in the bag (knock on wood).