Monday, August 18, 2008

Election 2008: You've Changed

For those of you not paying attention (maybe you've been on vacation, or so wrapped up in the Olympics you've forgotten this is a Presidential election year), in a matter of a week, Obama has lost his significant lead over McCain.

It's not just that he's in a statistical tie with McCain on the national level. (Oddly, Gallup today has Obama returning to his 3-point national lead after three straight days of ties: who can explain that, except that he's come back from Hawaii and there are no more pictures of him resting on vacation.) National polling is a very blurry picture, as solidly blue or red states can turn more blue or red, changing the national polls, without effecting the electoral outcome. The trend-lines on the electoral map are a bit more serious: ever since his overseas visit, the state-by-state races have slowly closed up, and some toss-up states have flipped into McCain's column. Nate Silver at 538 gives a day-by-day analysis of how each of the 50 states are faring.

This slow ebb of Obama's electoral advantage isn't pretty. Ohio, once a solid 3 to 4 point lead for a Obama, now slightly favors McCain. Colorado and Virginia - key states in Obama's new west strategy - now look too close to call. Florida is now considered out of reach. (In addition to that, strong leads in New Mexico and Michigan have gotten weaker - though still in his column.) If all those states go Republican, Obama has essentially done nothing to redraw the electoral map of the past eight years, as his campaign promised to do. The only thing going well for Obama: New Hampshire, which had favored McCain until recently, seems to be going the other way, coming into his camp (New Hampshire voters are probably as discusted by McCain's Rovian style campaign as I am, and as enthused by Obama's shift to the middle). The ironic thing? If Obama loses Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, and Florida, the electoral map becomes an exact replay of the squeeker of the 2000 Gore/Bush election, with just one difference: tiny New Hampshire swings the election from 271 Republican/267 Democrat to the reverse: 271 Democrat/267 Republican.

That's still too close for my comfort. Krugman argues is that the problem Obama is having is a lack of hard-hitting populist dialogue about the economy.

"If Mr. Obama can’t find the passion on economic matters that has been lacking in his campaign so far, he may yet lose this election," writes Krugman.

I couldn't agree more. I didn't even know Obama had given a major speech on the economy last month. Where were the sound-bites? Where were the follow-up memes?

But this is just one of the problems bedeviling Obama right now. His lead didn't really start diminishing till he returned from his overseas trip - where McCain begain his "celebrity" attack (which seems to have gotten credence in these Ohio/Colorado states) and was able to maximize his war-hero creds during the Georgia crisis while Obama relaxed in Hawaii. All bad timing for Obama.

Now Obama finds his lead narrowed as he rolls into a week of announcements and the convention. Surely all poised to return a significant lead, but as Nate points out, due to the coming and fading of a "convention bounce" he needs to be ahead by more than six points by night three of the convention to actually be considered ahead in the overall.

This means that, in essence, the summer die is cast as a narrow squeeker and there's no opportunity for Obama to regain a decisive lead by means other than the VP pick/convention/debates that will form the rest of the compaign through November. All his efforts now rest on the pyrotechnics coming from both camps, and how good a display they make.

Since the Republicans go second, they'll have plenty of time to deflate Obama's convention bounce and make fun of his every move. That means that essentially, this election will be determined by the debates. And we all know that for Obama, that's a hit or miss game.

Even if Obama holds his own and all this results in a tie all the way through, little New Hampshire could still give Obama his win. But that's a very little straw to hold onto. Basically, we've got to hope that Obama's overseas tour and homeland vacation were worth it, and enough to get him into shape to deliver one hell of a convention and debate show that gives him more than a six-point bounce. And we've got to hope Obama has been reading Krugman and is ready to sharpen the language of his economic message. That certain goes against Obama's natural tendancy to want to find common ground and build bridges. So far, though, he's yet to credibly do both - to take a decisive position on bi-partisan proposals (i.e., Gang of 10 drilling compromise) while also being sharply critical of Republican management of the economy. There's no contradiction there and Obama could still thread that needle (and certainly the Clinton's will help him do that at the convention).

There is one difference from Kerry, though. Kerry began sinking after the convention when the slimeball Corsi unleashed the Swift-boat campaign. Obama's already taken the Corsi hit pre-convention, and is fighting back sliming the slimer more effectively than Kerry did. And Russia's invasion of Georgia seems to be our "August surprise." So we can hope that all the Obama hits have gotten out of the way, before the convention, when Obama can re-inflate his ballon.

But that rests now on a lot of assumptions: that his VP pick and Convention will generate thunderous enthusiasm and a huge bounce (he needs a nine-to-ten point bounce to regain the lead he had just two weeks ago). That Republicans will be able to do their convention nit-picking but not generate a similar level of positive enthusiasm. And that he'll be able to hold his own against McCain in the debates.

All more ifs than we were contemplating two weeks ago. No doubt, this was not the position the Democrats wanted to be in going into the convention. But they are, even if it's not statistically significant anymore, still in the lead.

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