Gordon Campbell: Can McCain Make A Comeback


Only a week to go, and have John McCain’s attempts at a comeback peaked too soon? Eight days ago, the US opinion polls began to carry a few flickering signs of a McCain resurgence – after Barack Obama had pulled clearly ahead in the wake of the second presidential debate and the financial meltdown on Wall Street. Last Friday and Saturday for instance, both the Associated Press and the IBD/TIPP polls had McCain at a virtual tie with Obama nationally, or within a margin of error striking distance.

There’s more. In some battleground states that McCain needs to win to stay viable there have been inconclusive signs of a Republican revival. Check out for instance, the McCain rebound on the weekend in the two Strategic Vision polls ( see the Pollster.com page for full details) in Florida and in Ohio – though McCain still trails in other Ohio polls in what is a major ‘must win contest’ for him. More on the Ohio situation below.

True, in Virginia, Nevada and North Carolina, some of the McCain bounce-back is occurring in places previously seen as being relatively safe Republican states – and where the Obama legions have outperformed the Republicans on the ground – so any poll movement may simply be a wavering return to natural allegiances. While he has been flat-lining nationally, McCain has recovered a bit of ground in a few key states since the third and final televised debate : in that respect, Joe the Plumber seems to have done more for McCain than the Colin Powell endorsement has done for Obama.

Obama must still be considered the odds on favourite on November 4th, however. That McCain-favourable IBD/TIPP poll mentioned above for instance, contained a bizarre result among 18-24 year old young voters ( it put McCain ahead in that age group by a 78-22% margin ! ) that even the pollsters themselves were dubious about. Nate Silver, the baseball statistician turned political guru for the 2008 election, has analysed the IDB/TIPP poll on his Five Thirty Eight pollwatch website, and concluded that the odds for this 18-24 segment being accurate by chance, were something like 55 billion to one against.

Will race be decisive? In recent weeks, there has been an immense volume of media time and energy devoted to the so called Bradley Effect, which refers to the claimed distortion in the polls caused by white voters being unwilling to tell pollsters about their true intentions – namely, that they won’t be voting for that black guy for president. Note : the Bradley Effect is not about whether some people vote on the basis of race – clearly, some people do – but on whether they lie to pollsters about it beforehand, and are thus making Obama’s poll numbers look deceptively better now than they will turn out to be on election day.

The Charleston, Virginia Daily Mail has a pretty good general discussion here of the Bradley Effect, with one commentator estimating it to be causing about a 1-3 % inflation of Obama’s actual margin over McCain – which is roughly about the same as the “point or two in the polls” estimate made by the key Obama Harold Ickes, in a recent New York Times article.

Even that tiny fluctuation, given the wafer thin margins that exist in some states, could make some difference for McCain. On the other hand, there is a comprehensive debunking of the Bradley Effect in this week’s edition of Newsweek, by the ubiquitous Nate Silver, who has drawn on research into election contests held since 1980 ( the work was carried out by Harvard fellow Daniel Hopkins) to argue that the Bradley Effect finally petered out sometime in the mid 1990s.

Moreover, during the primary contests this year, Silver adds, Obama’s final outcomes generally exceeded his poll ratings – apart from in his unexpected loss to Hilary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, which had less to do with the Bradley Effect than with Clinton being seen looking vulnerably human and weepy on television, on the cusp of voting day.

All that aside Silver’s website carried this weird anecdote from the Obama campaign in Appalachia a few days ago, one that indicates that any Bradley Effect is now mutating beyond recognition :

Last week, Julie Hensley made one of her thousands of phone calls on behalf of Barack Obama. A woman answered. As Hensley ran through her short script, the husband impatiently broke in.

“Ma’am, we’re voting for the n***er.” And hung up.

Hensley wasn’t having it. “I went and made a couple other calls but chafed over this absurdity,” she told us, “so I called them back, as I still had a couple questions for the wife.” This time the man answered, asked pointedly who she was, and when she replied he hung up again.

We’re voting for the nigger. Yikes. That’s good…I guess. How has the Obama campaign managed to achieve such results in regions so inherently unfriendly to him ? With justification, people can point for an explanation to the Catalist voter identification data bank that the Democrats have assembled this year – which now seems the equal or better, of the Republicans’ much vaunted Voter Vault voter tracking system. Nothing however, beats the effort being put in on the ground. For a hint of the intensity of Obama’s campaign, check out this memo, written a couple of weeks ago, by one of Obama’s field directors to her staff in North Carolina :


“Stay calm – and BE RELENTLESS today. Get everyone motivated, educated, and into the field as quickly and as often as possible…

GET THEM COMFORTABLE WITH A BREAK-NECK PACE. They need to be the cool heads by the time GOTV [Get Out The Vote} rolls around…

Report your numbers like clockwork. Call me if you need me. Don’t stop until your last shift is confirmed for Sunday…

Barack really is expecting a lot out of us – and there isn’t much else for him to do. He has placed this election in our hands at this point. It’s up to us now. We may never again have our hands on history quite like this again for as long as we live. That makes each hour so, so precious. We can slack off, sleep in, and make excuses for the rest of our lives. But today – and for the next 3 weeks… whether we knew what we were getting into or not… we have ended up with people’s lives, livelihoods, and dreams for their children – all dependent on our performance day in and day out. This is our one chance at history… our one chance at perfection. Our one chance to live forever. So today – breathe this in… Realize that your grandkids will be reading about you… realize that you will miss this feeling very very soon… and win every single hour.

Proud of you in advance for a big day…



The Electoral College Body Count

The winning target for the Presidency is 270 votes in the electoral college. The Pollster.com tracking summary here by Mark Blumenthal has tabulated the current state figures at 268 safe Democrat Party votes and 38 leaning Democratic ( total : 306) as opposed to 139 safe Republican and 3 leaning Republican ( total 142) with another 90 votes judged as being too close to call.

The 90 tossups Blumenthal has tabulated are : Nevada (5) Montana (3) North Dakota (3) Missouri (11) Florida ( 27) North Carolina (15) Georgia (15) and Indiana (11)

This tally seems a little optimistically skewed towards Obama. Most commentators would add in the “too close to call” list the perennial swing state of Ohio (20) and also Colorado (9)
both of which Blumenthal at Pollster.com has in the “leaning Democrat” category at present. Besides those two states, I’d also add Virginia (13) and New Hampshire (4) in the “tossup” category, which kicks out the numbers in this category to 121 in all.

Despite the current poll numbers I’d also retain Georgia in the ‘likely Republican list. Overall picture : if McCain won all of these contests, he’d be the winner on November 4, with 278 electoral votes. With minor tweaking, you can also readily get a 269/269 tie, which – as I’ll explain later this week – would ultimately throw the result into the Senate to decide

That is highly unlikely. In usually safe Colorado, Indiana and Virginia, McCain has a huge fight on his hands, and Obama is even with four points of the Republican senator in a poll yesterday in McCain’s home state of Arizona. Right now, the McCain battle plan seemed to be to virtually concede the loss of Colorado, but to treat Pennsylvania – which John Kerry took in 2004 – as still being winnable by the Republicans, even though most polls currently have him ten points behind there. On October 20, CNN outlined the McCain tactical approach in these terms:

The McCain strategy depends on holding a handful of Bush ’04 states that are now rated tossups by CNN: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Nevada. It also depends on keeping Virginia, which CNN now considers leaning Democratic, in the GOP column.
But even if McCain won all six of those states, in addition to those in which he is already favored, he would still be shy of the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the presidency. Which is where Pennsylvania and its 21 electoral votes come into play….. [As] one top adviser told CNN on Monday, “The election hinges on Pennsylvania. We’ll win Virginia and Nevada in the end, but lose without Pennsylvania.”

The Catholic populations in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania have a key role in that strategy, with abortion as a leading edge issue, as the Washington Post reports :

It is a debate making its way to the center of the presidential contest in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, home to large and influential Catholic populations. It is a debate McCain appears to be winning. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Catholics supporting McCain by 54 to 41 percent — a significantly wider margin than a month earlier. But white Catholics are also more apt than other voters to say they could change their minds or remain uncommitted before Election Day, making them a target….

On cue, the news cycle in Pennsylvania is heating up. The Scranton, Pennsylvania Catholic Bishop Joseph Martino has been among several clergy in the Catholic Church hierarchy to come out strongly this week for Catholics to treat abortion as the single most important issue of the entire election campaign.

Joe Biden, originally a working class Catholic from Scranton, was put on the Obama ticket partly to counter the weakness that Obama showed in the working class /middle class Catholic demographic during the Democratic primaries in this part of the country. On the ground, the Obama campaign has tried to counter-attack not by taking an adversarial pro-choice stance, but by stressing contraception and adoption services, both of which are more compatible with a pro-life agenda.

Other signs of the Pennsylvania emphasis. Overnight, the state’s Republican party machine has claimed it was not responsible for a scurrilous email sent to Jewish voters in Pennsylvania, one that likened an imminent Obama presidency, to the conditions that preceded the Holocaust in the late 1930s.

This very same comparison was made by rightwing radio host Hugh Hewitt over the weekend, on Fox TV. It is a form of ethnically targeted smear that is nothing new for the anti-Obama forces. In July, Jewish voters in Florida were being sent a fake New York Times column, supposedly written by Maureen Dowd, in which the Obama campaign was claimed to be being funded by Saudi Arabia.

Rating the Pollsters: If you want to hone your nervousness to a fine fever pitch over the next seven days, keep in mind that some US polls are more reliable than others – with Gallup and the Zogby polls for instance taking a lot of flak from the polling nerdocracy.

Helpfully, the indefatigible Nate Silver has analysed the methodologies of all of the main US polls, and his table of weighted rankings can be found here:

To which I only would add a plug for (a) the Cincinnati University poll managed by Eric Rademacher, for their tracking of the always crucial situation in Ohio. Secondly, though the Suffolk University ( Boston) polls feature only half way down the table of reliability on Silver’s site, their methodology includes a pretty interesting set of ‘ bellwether counties’ where Suffolk racked up a solid 100% track record during the 2008 Democratic and Republican primaries. Personally, I think McCain is unlikely to win Pennsylvania – and the 2008 election will come down, as it did in 2004, to who wins in Ohio.

During 2004, I trouped aimlessly through Ohio trying to find an overall pattern to the state’s political allegiances. My conclusion was that there is not one answer, but four. Northwest Ohio, around Cleveland/Akron, and metropolitan northeast Ohio around Toledo are for Obama – and they need to be solidly for him to counter the margins McCain still enjoys in rural and suburban Ohio. South west Ohio contains Cincinnati and its bellwether Hamilton County – in its northern suburbs in particular, Cincinnati is socially conservative, suburban super-church territory.

For a different set of reasons, the south east corner of Ohio has also been Republican in 2000 and 2004. Bordering into Appalachia this part of Ohio is blighted by double-digit unemployment in the wake of steel mill closures. Out here, the counties to watch are Perry County, Scioto County and also (probably) Mahoning County.

Take your pick : they tend to be poverty stricken hellholes – around 98 % white, with light to low education. Here’s the rub : Perry County is one of the ‘bellwether counties’ picked by the Suffolk University Polling Centre in Boston and – though this was recorded before McCain’s surge over the last few days – Perry County has been giving Obama a four point lead over McCain. If that holds, McCain is toast. In Scioto County, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1, but half of the 48,000 registered voters there are independents – which gives the county its tantalizing electoral swing status and makes it such a useful mirror for the state and nation as a whole.

A bit closer to election day, I’ll post a definite address to track the Ohio results county by county, but this address is a good start to find official results in Ohio as they come in

Note: this year, the state attorney-general in Ohio is a Democrat. So, unlike the controversial situation in 2004, where widespread complaints of fraud, voting machine failure ( and alleged tampering ) were adjudicated by a partisan Republican political figure, the Obama campaign can expect better treatment if similar problems should recur this time.

Which takes me back to where I began – is there any way that John McCain can legitimately win this election ? Well, the most detailed public advice McCain has recently received on how to do this can be found here and once again, it comes from the omnipresent Nate Silver, this time writing in the New York Post.

The Silver plan would require a major breakthrough in the national news cycle during the next seven days sufficient for McCain to claw back five or six points nationally. No advice offered on how to do that. It would also entail McCain abandoning his campaign in Pennsylvania – ‘ the notion that McCain is going to win Pennsylvania is folly” – and also his losing campaigns in Minnesota, Iowa ( where his opposition to ethanol because of itys impact on food prices has been fatal ) and in Wisconsin. McCain could then better use his resources to attack via his tax message in libertarian New Hampshire, and in New Mexico, while he erects a defence line sufficient to hold on and hope in Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Nevada, and North Carolina.

This is a longshot strategy, Silver concludes, and the disaster so far has been very much one of the Republican Party’s very own making. “ During the summer,” Silver points out, “ McCain poured millions of dollars into attack advertising rather than building up the sort of robust ground operation that won George W. Bush the presidency in 2000 and 2004. He underestimated the threat in Virginia, North Carolina and Indiana until it was too late. And now, he and Sarah Palin are jetting all around the country like chickens with their heads cut off – falling into exactly the trap that the Obama campaign set for them.”

Of course, stealing the election – see 2000 nationally, and Ohio, 2004 – is always the last option to be tried. Later in the week, I’ll do a posting on voter suppression via identification hurdles and outright voter fraud, which may be the only way left for the Republicans to win from here. They’ve been good at it in the past.