John McCain desperately wants to frame the final days of this presidential campaign as yet another comeback story, and pundits and pollsters keep wondering if the race is tightening. What’s actually happening is that the prospects for a Democratic landslide are growing.
Look where the candidates are. In the closing days of the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, all the action was in Florida and Ohio. Now it’s in states that George W. Bush carried comfortably, such as North Carolina: Barack Obama was in Raleigh this morning, John McCain was in Fayetteville yesterday, Joe Biden was in Greensboro and Greenville on Monday, and Sarah Palin was in Asheville on Sunday. Or Virginia: Obama held two events there yesterday, while Palin did three on Monday. This is no coincidence. Obama has taken criticism for plowing resources into his attempt to redraw the electoral map. But the epicenter of this campaign has shifted to precisely the states where Obama wanted to expand the Democratic electorate, and McCain hasn’t been able to push it back.
Look where the money’s going. This week, the Republican National Committee is advertising in Montana and statewide in West Virginia for the first time. There can be only one justification for defending those kinds of deep-red states: The GOP is trying to protect itself from a tidal wave.
Look what’s happening down the ballot. A combination of anti-Bush revulsion, economic uncertainty, unprecedented campaign cash and good fortune has given the Democrats a good shot of picking up seven to ten Senate seats. It’s not just Alaska Republican Ted Stevens getting convicted on seven felony counts. This has been the kind of campaign cycle where Frank Lautenberg, an 84-year-old New Jersey Democrat, didn’t draw a serious opponent, while Norm Coleman, a moderate Minnesota Republican, will probably lose to comedian Al Franken largely because Coleman refused to explain who paid for his clothes. And in House races, where Obama’s popularity is helping Democrats, the Republicans themselves believe they could lose up to 34 seats.
And look at the competition. Libertarian Bob Barr will be hard-pressed to gain one percent of the vote in most states, but just as Ralph Nader wanted to damage Al Gore in 2000, Barr wants to injure McCain now. That’s why he’s campaigning in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia. Leaving aside Barr’s home state of Georgia, these comprise a good working list of seven states critical to McCain’s chances. McCain is now trailing in all seven.
Finally, look at the votes that already have been cast. Of the 9 percent of voters who have cast early ballots, 60 percent have backed Obama. More important, early voting is concentrated in the same series of red-but-battleground states Obama is targeting: Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. Obama has invested heavily in, and talked constantly about, getting out early votes in those states. That means he’s been locking up voters who are enthusiastic about him but haven’t turned out in proportion to their numbers in past elections, such as 18-to-30s and African-Americans, making for big net gains, even though some of that support is cannibalizing the totals he would otherwise run up on November 4. The McCain campaign, meanwhile, in contrast to both Obama’s efforts and the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, seems oblivious. "It's the 100-yard dash,” Paul Gronke of the Early Voting Information Center told USA Today. "And Obama is already 20 yards ahead."
Yes, the contest could get closer. Republican strategists believe that in states where white men haven’t already broken for McCain, they could still do so. And McCain continues to hope to exploit Obama-Clinton divisions in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. But let’s be real. McCain hasn’t led Obama in any Pennsylvania poll since April. And in the most recent survey out of New Hampshire, by WMUR and the University of New Hampshire, Obama was ahead by 25 points. Overall, RealClearPolitics now pegs the Electoral College at Obama 311, McCain 157, and the margin grows to 375–163 after allocating all toss-up states. FiveThirtyEight gives Obama a 41.2 percent chance of winning 375 or more electoral votes (and McCain just a 3.8 percent chance of winning the election).
You want to know the real state of play in this campaign? It’s McCain 46 percent, Obama 44 percent in Arizona, according to John McCain’s hometown newspaper today.