Can McCain Come Back?

Over the last few days, the national tracking polls, for the first time in a month (or since the Lehman Brothers collapse triggered the current stage in the financial crisis), have shown a small movement away from Barack Obama and toward John McCain. A 6.6% Obama lead in the RCP national average Monday was down to 5.1% Wednesday.  The trend, however is mixed. Gallup gives Obama his biggest lead of the year at 11%, while Reuters, Hotline, and CBS, show the race in the 1-3% range. Even with margins of error, this range of results is pretty large. 

The state polls, on the other hand, have been quite favorable to Obama in the battleground states for weeks, and are consistent with a national polling lead of 6-7%.  Obama now is in a commanding position with regard to the Electoral College.  The state polls tend to lag the national tracking poll movement since they are not conducted as often, and if the national race is tightening, the state polls will also move a bit when they next appear.

Given his financial advantage, ground game advantage and current lead in the key states, Obama is clearly in a very good position today. So can McCain recover?  If so, what is his path to victory?  I will explore this in two ways: the state targets to get to 270 Electoral College votes, and the issues and themes that could serve to tighten the race.

National Polling Trends

The movement in the large sample size national tracking polls in the last month has been extraordinarily large given the late stage of the race. Gallup has swung from a 5 point McCain lead to an 11 point Obama lead in a month, a 16 point swing.  Rasmussen moved from a 3 point McCain lead to an 8 point Obama lead Tuesday (Wednesday the lead shrank to 6), an 11 point swing. Rasmussen's results have been more stable for most of the year than Gallup's, which have shown more volatility , but in either case, it is highly unusual to have such a sharp move toward one candidate after the two party conventions have been concluded. Gerald Ford picked up a lot of ground on Jimmy Carter late in the race in 1976, and Ronald Reagan pulled away from Jimmy Carter in the last two weeks in 1980.

To have a move back toward McCain after the Obama surge would not be surprising; races often tighten a bit near the end. But moving the national numbers 5 points or more will not be easy. 

And for McCain to have a chance in the Electoral College, he will likely have to be even or ahead in the national numbers.  That is because of certain built in advantages Obama has in the Electoral College map with many more red states in play than blue states, a situation that has existed all year except for the first part of September. 

Blue states

George Bush defeated John Kerry by 286-251 in 2006 (one Kerry elector chose not to vote for him), but the Democratic base of Kerry states is 252 Electoral College votes. At the moment, Obama is in the lead in all the Kerry states.  One survey gave McCain a 1 point  lead in Minnesota (10) last week, but other surveys have Obama ahead by significant margins in the state (Rasmussen has Obama up 7).  McCain has reduced his effort in Michigan (17), and is now behind by double digits in Pennsylvania (21).   Obama had a lead of between 5 and 10 in recent surveys in Wisconsin (10).   Obama also has opened up a good sized lead in New Hampshire (4) of 8-12% in the most recent  polls.


The outlier blue state where McCain is doing better than his national numbers and recent history would suggest is Maine (4), a state the Obama campaign seems to have taken for granted.  I spent a few weeks in Maine in September and there are McCain signs everywhere on the roads. The state has lots of hunters, and lower income small town voters. Sarah Palin may have real appeal there. The state awards one of its Electoral College votes for the each of its House districts to the winner of the district's vote. If McCain is only behind by 4-5% statewide, as recent surveys suggest, he would be in range of securing the one vote for Maine's 2nd district (the more conservative northern district in the state).

There are somewhat plausible scenarios in which Maine's 2nd district gives McCain a 270-268 Electoral College win (Obama wins Iowa, New Mexico and Nevada, and no other red state, or he wins Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado and loses New Hampshire). McCain is in contention to win the state too and pick up two more Electoral College votes, if the national numbers move in his direction a few points. But even if that occurs, he is unlikely to win the more liberal 1st district. Kerry won Maine by 8% in 2004. If the national numbers move 5% or more, Wisconsin will be more competitive, and so might New Hampshire and Minnesota. But Obama would still be favored in these states.

Red states

One red state, Iowa (7), is at this point, a near lock for Obama, who has had double digit leads in all but one survey in the state for the last few months. It is not at all clear why McCain is still contesting the state. McCain has a shot at holding all the other red states, though it won't be easy, and in no case will it happen unless the national numbers move decisively towards a breakeven race.

Many observers have conceded New Mexico (5) to Obama, but the recent numbers in the state show Obama up 5-8%, a good lead, but not yet a locked up state.  McCain may have fallen a bit less in the western states than in the Midwest or in some competitive southern states. New Mexico remains the 2nd most likely state to shift from red to blue. If it does, then Obama needs only one more state to win.  Two very competitive states --  Colorado (9) and Virginia (13) -- both seem to be leaning to Obama at the moment, Colorado perhaps a bit more.  In both states, McCain had the lead before the financial crisis became the only major news story, suggesting he could recover in both states if the national polls move toward McCain.

The next tier of red states includes Nevada (5), Ohio (20), and Florida (27). Most surveys in each of these states now show Obama ahead, but the results are a bit mixed in each of them, with some outlier surveys showing McCain ahead.  The early voting in Ohio, with ACORN and the Obama camp bringing buses loaded with homeless people, felons and others without picture IDs or much else to prove who they are, to register and vote, has put McCain in a tough spot in the state. Perhaps in no other state in the country has the Secretary of State (a Democrat), been more egregiously partisan in her rulings and voting decisions.

If the national numbers move 5%, I think McCain will be in decent shape in all three states. Obama has a better ground game in all of them, and is advertising more heavily than McCain and the RNC, but he has not locked up any of these states, all of which have trended Republican in recent national elections.

The final tier of red states in play includes North Carolina (15), Missouri (11), and Indiana (11). All of these states are for now too close to call. If Obama wins any of them, he is likely to have won other red states already discussed, and be on his way to a comfortable Electoral College victory. To have a shot at winning, McCain must win these states comfortably, and be able to devote more of his more limited resources to Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Virginia and Colorado.  With no easy blue state targets, McCain must in essence pull to an inside straight, and win all the close competitive red states that are in play. If Obama wins New Mexico and Iowa, he only needs to pick off one more, and chances of his doing so remain very good, even if the national numbers improve for McCain, and are about even 26 days from now.

Themes for McCain to pursue

The voting public is taking a second look at Obama, now that the big media have proclaimed all but a lock to become the 44th president. McCain and Palin must actively help shape the narrative as voters focus on learning more about him, as the next 26 days become a referendum on Barack Obama.

Obama can overplay his hand. He has chosen to remain his unflappable self, cool and confident, playing it safe. There may be voters who want to know how his plans for running the country have changed, given the current financial crisis and its powerful impact on the federal budget, and economic growth going forward.  Obama has been sticking to campaign sound bites that have been played out over 21 months, and continues to focus on George Bush or McCain. This approach does not address voters' concerns.

McCain could tell voters that if Obama is elected, he will not be a successful President by continuing to blame George Bush for al that is wrong with the world. He'll have to do a better job himself, but Obama has never run anything. His ability to lead a weakened nation in January is something voters should consider. Will raising taxes on higher earners,  spending hundreds of billions on new federal programs, and making trade with our partners more difficult, serve to put the nation on a better glide path back to economic growth, energy self-sufficiency, and a reversal of our debtor station status? 

Obviously, John McCain can help his own cause by hitting Obama for sticking with his by-now stale approach to governing, which seems to ignore to a large extent how things have changed. In the debates, neither Obama nor Biden have offered to hold back on any of the vast spending programs to which they are already committed, except maybe to delay initiating Professor Jeffrey Sachs' near trillion dollar foreign aid giveaway, which Obama has enthusiastically endorsed

McCain, conversely, needs to show that he is energetically engaged, and working to address the specific issues that are now front-and-center for the country.  McCain also  needs to continue to hit on the role Congressional Democrats and Presidents Carter and Clinton played  in enabling and encouraging FNMA and Freddie Mac to make subprime loans and create the mess which led to the collapse of the securitized mortgage market.

Barack Obama blames the financial crisis on Republican deregulation, and surprise, surprise, George Bush. But Bush did not create the regulatory climate for banks overseas that have been collapsing the last few weeks.  Americans can understand why subprime loans became problematic, but cannot be expected to understand a $77 trillion market in credit swaps.   Keeping the story simple, but naming the villains (e.g. Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, and Obama himself), can put the Democrats on defense.

McCain also needs to make Americans think one more time about who Barack Obama is, and where he came from. In this regard, the Bill Ayers history is important, as is Obama's role in the New  Party, Reverend Wright, Tony Rezko, and Father Michael Phleger. There is a pattern of association and alliances with very radical figures for many years.

It is understandable why the Obama campaign has been pushing back so hard to keep the Ayers story from getting out. The mainstream media has done their predictable whitewash of the Ayers Obama relationship, saying it was casual and not close, and not worrisome in any case, since Ayers is now a respectable education reformer. All of this is fundamentally untrue, of course.

McCain also needs to bring national security concerns back into the discussion, since most voters still give the GOP an edge on these issues, and Obama's positions on meeting without preconditions with Ahmadinejad ,and other rogue state leaders, his refusal to back the surge and instead demand an early withdrawal from Iraq a year back (whatever the consequences on the ground) and his desire to cut back missile defense systems ,are all issues that might weaken his support among independents who at the moment lean to his candidacy.

As I said at the outset, it is uphill for John McCain, but he has had bigger and tougher fights before.  Both McCain and Palin have been underdogs and triumphed. If McCain can rattle Obama with his reminders about Bill Ayers, Americans may  see a nastier Barack Obama than they have seen so far. Then things may get interesting again.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.