Everyone's writing the "pre-mortem" of McCain-Palin, and with pretty good reason. It's really hard to see how he comes back. Let's look at the state of the race as of October 14:
Polls, Polls, Polls
Obama's now up by about 8 points in the national polls, and looking even better in the electoral college. Polling guru Nate Silver says that Obama has a 1-2 point advantage in the electoral college, meaning that he'll likely get over 270 even if he's trailing by a small margin. Beyond the obvious trends, Obama appears to have a few hidden advantages as well. Silver looked at the cell phone effect and concluded that it results in a 2.8 point error in this election, meaning that one should add roughly 2.8 points to Obama with respect to any poll conducted only by landlines. Then there's the effect of the groundgame. Due to a combination of massive amounts of money, a deep, abiding commitment to building a highly motivated grassroots GOTV organization, and incredible voter enthusiasm, you're likely to see a historic turnout among African-Americans and the 18-30 age bracket, both of which is likely to be devalued in likely voter models. Ann Selzer, the pollster who called the Iowa caucuses right, has consistently used models that weighed for higher youth and minority turnout, leading to a "house effect" in favor of Obama by at least 2 points. If she's right, then we're looking at 4-5 "hidden" points for Obama that doesn't show up in the typical tracking poll. To be conservative, I'd guess that Obama has a 3-point edge based on groundgame/enthusiasm/demographics.
Wingnuts, though, argue that polls are overstating Obama's lead. They're hanging on to their hopes that the Bradley Effect will doom Obama. Never mind that the Bradley Effect is pretty much a myth, as Silver (again) shows. Not only has it not shown up in recent elections, it's unclear there was a "Bradley Effect" in Tom Bradley race in '82, as his opponent Deukmejian's pollster attests. In the era of robo-polls and character smears, it makes little sense that voters will say they're voting for Obama in the polls, but do something else in the ballot box.
That's not to say there isn't a racism effect. In the primaries, Clinton tends to win over the "made up mind in last 3 days" group by large margins, suggesting that, if race were a factor, it may be that undecideds will flow disproportionately towards McCain.
Just to be cautious, let's give McCain 3 out of 4 undecideds. Even so, given the other effects, if Obama can be at 46% in the last round of polls, he'll likely win the electoral college. So Obama can afford to lose a few points from his total right now and still be okay.
Here's where Obama has the biggest advantage. Obama needs 270 electoral votes (or 269, as a tie goes to the Democratic House). Right now, there are basically no Kerry states are in danger, amounting to 252 votes. Add Bush '04 states Iowa and New Mexico, which leans strongly towards Obama and you're at 264. Even if the national race tightens up, Obama will have 264 votes in his pocket as he seeks to poach just one state among: Colorado, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, or Ohio (North Carolina, Missouri, and Indiana would move to lean McCain if the race tightens). McCain has to sweep all five states -- win five coin flips in a row, essentially -- to win.
Bizarrely, the McCain campaign spends time trying to poach Wisconsin, Pennsylvania (where Obama has at least a 10 point lead in every poll taken this month), and Iowa. His tactical decisions remind me of Bush in 2000, when they decided to do psy-ops by going to California in the last week. Right now, McCain's only shot is to win a bunch of battleground states by the slimmest of margins, against an opponent with a 2-to-1 spending advantage. That means he needs to pour all of his resources into the five critical states and make a stand. What he shouldn't be doing is spending time in Pennsylvania just to show he's going on offense.
It'll be about the economy, and I'm afraid McCain simply doesn't have the fluency on this topic to "win." He keeps associating the economy with either tax cuts or earmarks, when in a debate format, discussing the subject calls for half a dose of empathy with half a dose of pandering. That's just not John McCain. And Obama and Biden are baiting McCain to bring up Ayers; I suspect that Obama's got something up his sleeve.
It's difficult to see McCain shaking the race up tomorrow, given the way the two candidates have performed thus far in these forums.
Next three weeks and McCain's constraints
A lot of us expected that the last few weeks of this election will be Wright/Ayers/random bogeyman. But events -- and Steve Schmidt -- have proceeded to neuter the effects of an Atwateresque finale. Events are obvious -- character smears look like obvious petty distractions in the face of this financial maelstrom. And any time McCain goes there, Obama can say he's diverting attention from The Issues.
As for tactics, Steve Schmidt made two enormous mistakes, both of which are stemmed from a kind 2004 mentality that assumes reality will bend to the will of the GOP. The first concerns the voters. It's a widespread assumption that persuadable voters are not knowledgeable and easily manipulated, but Schmidt took this assumption too far and treated voters like complete morons. This tendency to insult the voter was especially pronounced the Sarah Palin rollout, when they came out with doozies like "Palin has foreign policy experience because Alaska was next to Russia" that are just ridiculous on their face. And when nobody bought this story or Palin's vaunted "executive experience", the message team just kept pushing. After the "lipstick on a pig" gambit, it looked like the McCain team were just a bunch of cynical hacks to any voter not in the tank. By repeatedly pushing idiotic messages, McCain whittled away his hard-earned credibility, one of the candidate's longstanding strengths.
The other mistake is the gaming of the media, which is the same mistake Hillary Clinton's team made. Again, the Palin rollout is emblematic. Remember when Palin was introduced, the media took it upon themselves to vet her -- with good reason. And when the media caught her in a lie about rejecting the Bridge to Nowhere, they decided to ignore the media and just brazenly repeat the lie over and over again. This kind of spin is a big F- you to the media, and coupled with Schmidt's furious newscycle-uber-alles approach to politics, really damaged McCain's standing in the media. Remember, John McCain is (or was) the biggest media darling in politics, and instead of capitalizing on that, the McCain campaign re-ran the anti-media Bush 04 campaign. This year, when the GOP's power is at an ebb, the media fought back.
Of course, McCain's media problem isn't just his fault. Barack Obama happens to be the perfect media-friendly candidate: a good-looking, graceful, cosmopolitan, hyper-intelligent black Democrat who is about as earnest as a politician can be in this day and age. He's a once-in-a-few generations type talent, and one precisely plays well with the media. Though I've had serious issues with Obama's message operation, one thing that helps him with the media is that he typically takes a higher road and doesn't press hard on idiotic spin. And the toxic rumors surrounding his exotic background has also triggered the media's paternalistic instincts. This week's newscycles, much of it revolving around right-wing lunatics yelling out hateful remarks at McCain-Palin rallies, evidence this paternalism.
McCain's also been boxed in by two other factors out of McCain's control. One is that the right-wing base consists of a good chunk of troglodytes who shouldn't be let out of the house. The ones they put on TV are of course extremist lunatics mouthing discredited conspiracy theories. Loonies on TV grab viewer attention. But also, the Republican base is way out of the mainstream; these are the Bush dead-enders, the ones that still approve of their leader long after he's been exposed as a total failure to the rest of America. So they're out there hectoring McCain to go nuclear when McCain knows this strategy is a loser. He's in a "damn if he does, damn if he doesn't" position vis-a-vis the base.
The base will also cry foul whenever McCain proposed pandering economic programs -- the only kind that can really help him win over voters. I'm personally opposed to the mortgage buy-back plan proposed by McCain during the second debate, but it seems like with a PR push, it can prove to be quite popular. But alas, with the wingnuts going, well, nuts over it, this proposal really never had a chance. He's not only boxed in tactically, but also on policy as well.
The other factor is the Obama team's savvy pre-emptory moves. Obama and Biden have hammered McCain for trying to "turn the page"; any attempt to engage in character smears will provoke a hearty "this guy's trying to distract you because his plan is the same as Bush's" rebuke. The "erratic" charge, which is taking hold, also restricts McCain's ability to come up with new gambits to try to shake up the race. Both the media and Obama will immediately jump on any gambit and frame it as a desperate stunt. (Obama's team, throughout the election season, has played defense superbly but offense poorly.)
Since the beginning of the general election campaign, McCain's strategy has been to "disqualify" Obama. It turns out McCain probably could've kept it close (and even win) if he concentrated on refining his message and image (which hopefully will be the subject of a "pre-mortem" post). By making so many mistakes, McCain's now in a position where he's simply doesn't have the tools to disqualify Obama. He'll have to hope that some intervening event, or a big Obama slip up, changes the race. In the meantime, I think the experience + POW + divided government message is his best bet to prevent himself from sliding further back as he waits for a prayer to be answered.
Obama likes it smooth and steady. It looks he's sitting on wads of cash, which means he'll win the air wars (even with all of those mediocre message ads). All he has to do is stop McCain's message from penetrating while his GOTV advantage kicks in and Obama should win. So while he's not in prevent defense mode yet, he appears quite content to sit back and trade punts with McCain. It's probably the best strategy; as in the primaries, Obama lacks the killer instinct to finish an opponent off, but why take the chance?
Of course, if he does want a quick knockout, McCain's weak spot is right in the open: Sarah Palin. A concerted effort to hammer Palin (who now have the highest unfavorables of anyone on either ticket) and tie her to McCain's poor judgment (and age) will surely doom McCain. It won't happen, because Obama doesn't need a KO, but I kinda wanna see him try.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua v. Body of Lies
The mood in the country is depressed and anxious; folks what something light, a bit of uplift. Last weekend, the star-studded dark CIA thriller gets walloped by a talking dog comedy in its second week. I hope the Obama team is paying attention and close with some well-produced inspiring, feel-good ads. Like the kind that aired during the Olympics, but maybe with a bit more meat.