Late in the afternoon on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, several dozen contemporaries of Obama’s from Harvard Law School more than twenty years ago gathered in a private room at the Denver Ritz-Carlton for a cocktail party–cum–reunion. The mood was warm and convivial but sober in every sense. There was no high-fiving, no backslapping, no whooping or hollering. The bartender reported that he’d never served so few drinks at an open bar; Pellegrino was the only beverage in short supply.
That Obama’s impending coronation as the Democratic nominee occasioned no boisterous celebration on the part of some of his oldest friends was a function of many factors—their Harvardian, type-A tightassedness not least among them. But for some, a deeper source of reserve was a stubborn sense of doubt: not over whether Obama was equipped to be president but whether he could do, would do, what it took to capture the prize. “I was scared,” says one Obama classmate and Democratic activist. “A friend of mine, a big supporter of his all along, wrote me an e-mail that said, ‘Oh, my God, he is McGovern!’ ”
But then came the fall of Lehman, the implosion of AIG, and the constriction of the global credit markets—and the race began to turn. By the end of last week, Obama had assumed a commanding lead in almost every significant national poll. The Pew Research Center put him ahead among likely voters by a whopping fourteen points; the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey put the margin at ten, and the new ABC/Washington Post tracking poll has it at eleven. And underneath those headline numbers were some vastly problematic trends for McCain. With Democrats leading Republicans in party identification by seven points nationally, and with Obama doing a bit better with members of his party than McCain is with members of his, the latter would need to beat the former by about twenty points among independents to win the popular vote. But Obama is trouncing McCain among this group—by eighteen points according to Pew and twelve according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
The picture presented by the battleground states is no less gruesome for McCain. Judging by the mash-up of polls at the new online bible for political-stats obsessives, FiveThirtyEight.com, Obama is leading in every state that Kerry won in 2004. And he is either ahead or within the margin of error in ten states—yes, ten—carried by George W. Bush last time: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia.
Until a few weeks ago, McCain’s electoral strategy had been staggeringly simple: compensate for Obama’s strength in several small Bush states (Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa) by taking Michigan. But in early October, McCain’s brain trust realized that the Wolverine State, despite the racially polarized climate around Detroit owing to the multi-count indictment of the city’s former African-American mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, was a lost cause. So now the campaign has shifted its blue-state focus to Pennsylvania.
The logic behind the Pennsylvania push is less than clear but seems to revolve around an attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities that Obama demonstrated among white working-class voters in his Democratic-primary battle there against Hillary Clinton. To do so, the campaign appears to be reconsidering McCain’s previous refusal to pound on Obama for his erstwhile relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And at least one prominent Pennsylvania Democrat professes to believe that Obama has reason to be concerned. “I’m still a little nervous,” Governor Ed Rendell told CNN the other day, as he issued a plea for Obama and both Clintons to show their faces in the state again.
More than a few Republican strategists, however, regard the Pennsylvania gambit as desperate and doomed. “They’re smoking crack,” says consultant Alex Castellanos. “It’s one thing for a working-class Democrat to vote against Obama on culture in a Democratic primary. You’re still voting for a Democrat; you still get to be a Democrat. But to vote for McCain, you have to become a Republican. I don’t see it.” “There’s a reason we haven’t won Pennsylvania since 1988: It’s a Democratic state,” says another GOP guru. “Obama is ahead by double digits. And if McCain rolls out the Wright thing there, the national backlash will be huge, and moderate states like Florida will disappear as opportunities.”
I asked the second strategist if there was any way, absent an act of God or Osama bin Laden, he could envision Obama losing the election. “The cake is baked,” he replied. “McCain is getting outspent six to one in states he has to win, and Obama is ahead or close. We’re gonna lose Virginia, North Carolina is slipping away. And here’s what I’m scared about: We’re losing first-time voters by 50 points—50! What the McCain people need to focus on now is trying to cut the margin of defeat. I hate to say it, but at this point, that’s the best that we can hope for.”