Why John McCain is not going to catch Barack Obama

by JS O’Brien

You can see it in liberals’ eyes and in their white-knuckled grips on their hammers and sickles.  They read the headlines.  The polls are softening for Barack Obama.  Could it happen this year, too?  Will the Democrats once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

In a word, “no.”  And here’s why.

The polls

There may have been a very slight movement of the national polls towards McCain, but it’s hard to be sure.   Some of the most widely reported polls in Obama’s favor were outliers to begin with and never should have been given much credence.  The high-quality polls — those that have tended to do a good job of predicting final results in the past — have been fairly steady for weeks.  Real Clear Politics is still reporting a +6.8 lead for Obama nationally; not that it matters much.

The only thing that matters, at this point, are the polls in battleground states, and those matter very much, indeed.  If there are white males in Alabama who have voted Republican almost every time in their lives, but weren’t quite sure who to vote for this time, and have now decided to vote for John McCain, it doesn’t matter a bit.  John McCain was always going to win big in Alabama and take its nine electoral votes.  If there are undecided voters in Massachusetts who have moved towards McCain, that doesn’t matter either.  Obama is going to win Massachusetts and its 12 electoral votes handily, and tightening the race by a few percentage points will make no difference to the outcome.

Given the national media’s coverage of Bill Ayers, Joe the Plumber, and other GOP attacks, it’s not surprising that Obama may have lost a few points in those states where he is not advertising and campaigning hard.  Absent national coverage of his own in attacks on McCain, that’s bound to happen.  But in those places where he’s spending a great deal of money and campaigning hard , namely in the battleground states, he’s doing very well.  Today’s polls suggest that:

  • He has a lead in Missouri (+6 from Rasmussen).
  • He is tied in a new battleground state:  North Dakota.
  • He has either a four-point lead (Rasmussen) or two-point deficit (SurveyUSA) in Florida, with SurveyUSA noting that they are the only poll that has consistently had McCain in the lead.
  • He is only six points behind in Georgia.

Polls from yesterday show Obama with a large lead in Pennsylvania, a six-point lead in Virginia, and a tie in Ohio.  In addition, traditionally red states like North Carolina and Indiana, and West Virginia (which voted for Bush) are in play.  The electoral realities are the same as they’ve been for weeks:  If John McCain takes all the states that are currently solid or leaning towards him, he must take all of the toss-up states (which now are expanded to include North Dakota). That would give him 252 EVs, so he needs to find another 18 EVs by taking states away from Obama.  He can do that by flipping Virginia and its 13 EVs back his way and then taking either Colorado or New Mexico, as well.  It’s hard to imagine there’s any other path open to him.

This is a monumental task, and the odds against it are staggering.  The Intrade Market odds now have an Obama win at nearly 84%.  Fivethirtyeight has the odds at 90%+ for Obama.  In other words, it will take a minor miracle for McCain to win.

Obama also has some other things going for him:

There is no Bradley Effect

Having done a fair amount of research on this topic, I’m now convinced that there was once a Bradley Effect (where white voters would mislead pollsters, telling them they were going to vote for a black man but then voting for the white candidate, instead), but that it has disappeared in recent years.  Sure, many voters will not vote for Obama because of his skin color, but they appear to be comfortable telling pollsters that they are voting for McCain.

Here’s an excellent article explaining why the Bradley effect is an illusion.

Cellphone-only voters are being undercounted

Young voters are heavily in favor of Obama.  Young people often do not have land-line phones.  Most polls do not survey mobile phone users because it’s too expensive to do so.  Nate Silver, statistical guru, believes the cellphone effect may give Obama another 2+ points on election day.

The ground game

The Obama campaign has more offices open in battleground states, more paid staff, and has managed to “bank” votes by getting them in early in states where early voting and mail-in ballots are allowed.  Everything about his campaign oozes competence.  It seems very likely that there will be heavy turnout on election day, and that favors Democrats.


Obama is heavily outspending McCain in most of the battleground states, and the Republican National Committee is already starting to triage, pulling monetary support out of several key congressional races. This speaks to both the McCain and national party’s financial weakness.

In short, the race may be tightening ever so slightly nationally, but the electoral map, ground game, and available resources still strongly favor Obama.

25 replies »

  1. October surprise, anyone?

    Heh – even if there were something new, McCain has played every lame card he can find for so long that a desensitization effect would have to exist, right?

  2. Great article. I was also starting to think that the Bradley Effect was a phantom. Plus, nothing McCain throws at Obama is taking on a life of its own. The same is not true for McCain.

  3. This is a good job of pointing out all the things beyond polls going for Obama. I myself predict a hell of a landslide.

    However, it’s worth pointing out a thing or two McCain has going for him, by which I mean voter roll purges and other dirty tricks. These will eliminate a certain number of Democratic votes, and mitigate a landslide. I don’t think we’re close enough for it to matter, but it should be taken into account.

  4. And in light of the Chicago Tribune’s historic endorsement of Obama — the first Democratic presidential candidate to win its support — we may be seeing a continuing trend toward dominoes falling in the next few weeks. Not to get complacent, but I was pretty bowled over by this development and what it may imply and portend.

  5. Unless…


    Most of the Scrogues are in Colorado, no? Republican Secretaries of State of swing-state Colorado have quietly purged one in six names from their voter rolls.

    Oddly enough, almost all of the shenanigans are occurring under the Help America Vote Act. I’ll give the Bush administration this: even Orwell couldn’t make up the stuff that they actually do.

    Let’s hope that there are no November surprises.

  6. then of course there are hackable voting machines out there,not to mention boxes of ballots”lost” .
    There is not a law the repugs won’t break to win. they are l despicable low lifes and do not care one bit about this country , despite the flag pins and flag waving. Funny, I’m still able to be shocked at how slimy the repugs are. I hate sharing a planet with them.

  7. Diane,
    I think the Bradley Effect and your mention of hackable votes are connected. The Repugs want to trump up the plausibility of the Bradley Effect to mollify the masses (just enough, anyway) if Diebold should hand McCain his narrow victory.

  8. I don’t believe in any October surprise from McCain. If anything I would’nt be surprised if Obama saves the best for last and brings up another surprise to nail the coffin shut once and for all.

  9. Just want to point out that not all republicans are repugnicans. There are quite a few of us who are unhappy with the direction our party has gone over the last couple of decades and are trying to recover it. Saying that I will also say I AM voting for Obama because McCain would NOT be part of rescuing my party.

  10. It’s also worth noting that large purges of voter registrations tend to make the news nowadays, so this sort of thing has gotten a lot harder to do.

  11. Don’t be overconfident. The repubs don’t have to win – they only have to get the vote close enough that they can steal the election.

    Don’t count on younger voters either. History has shown time and again that young people are too lazy to vote.

  12. I’d like to add that several people I love, admire and respect identify as Republicans in much the same way Rho does. As far as I know, none of them advocate hacking voting machines, few of them are visibly slimy, and as for sharing the planet, I’d hate to see my in-laws disappear… because hey, free babysitting.

  13. I honestly don’t think Obama will win Florida. Don’t ask me for proof, just wait.

  14. George:

    Obama may very well lose a number of toss-up states. If he wins Florida, it’s all over. If he loses Florida, he can still win along a number of paths.

  15. Rho and Ann have an important point that can’t be repeated or stressed enough. There is far too much of the “with us or against us” attitude on both sides of the political divide. And, i submit, far too much identification with party rather than principles. A conservative is much more likely to vote Republican, but that’s not the same as being a Republican and then defining conservatism as whatever the GOP decides it is. That ends with conservatives twisting themselves in knots to explain how a big government, budget busting, neo-liberal president is “conservative”.

    The identification with party feeds the with us or against us attitude that corrodes our entire political process. It makes what Wendy so eloquently described as common ground for the common good impossible. It makes our adversarial system non-functioning because it places all the stress on the second half of the phrase, “loyal opposition”…and often to the complete exclusion of the first half of the phrase.

    The other political party is not your mortal enemy, and as soon as you conceptualize it as such you make consensus impossible. Total, political victory is both unattainable and dangerous, even in its pursuit. These things are what’s fracturing our nation, and it will be them that destroy us…we are our own worst enemy.

    *Note that while i used the GOP as my example, the same things could be said about the Democratic Party and its adherents. Of course, none of this goes for every adherent.

  16. Lex, excellent and vital point. To use abortion as an example, the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to change the circumstances that make women believe they need one. That means helping new mothers, improving economic well-being for the poor (who have the most abortions), and so on.

    Outlawing abortions will have about as much effect on demand as outlawing undocumented workers has – almost none.

  17. Finishing up my early vote today, it occurred to me that there was no exit polling. With about three thousand votes cast at the early voting location in the first four days of operatiion (I was vote #3107) and some seventeen days left, and as the word about early voting catches on, it seems like the exit polling on Election Night probably won’t be very accurate.

  18. Thank you, Brian. I used Wendy’s phrase, “common ground for the common good” and that came from her post sometime back about abortion…which was probably the best piece of writing on the subject that i’ve ever read.

    Abortion is one of those issues, and i’ve never understood why it is such a contentious issue. It’s not as if anyone thinks that abortion is cool or fun; nobody is pro-abortion. I think that there is almost certainly a middle ground where consensus could be found, but i don’t think we’ll get there because the battle is more important than solving the problem.