With 10 days left in the race, the political science forecast models from August are looking golden. Any progress that John McCain was making at the national level has slowed in recent days, according to the daily national tracking polls. As of yesterday, the average of the five daily tracking polls I’ve been following puts Obama at 49.6%, and McCain at 44%, for an almost 6% lead for Obama which is not quite 1% higher than it was almost a week ago. There are two important points to take home when looking at these numbers. First, Obama’s average level of support is near 50%, and that support seems solid. Second, the number of undecideds in these polls hovers at just above 6%. Keep in mind that despite what you may read in blogs or hear from the media, races do NOT necessarily tighten in the last 10 days – they are almost as likely to break wide open as the front-runner pulls away.
At the state level, things are looking a bit better for McCain, but not by much. In theory, all McCain needs to do is to hold all of Bush’s states from 2004 except for Iowa and New Mexico, both of which seem out of reach for McCain this year. In 2004 Bush won 286 electoral college votes to Kerry’s 252. If you substract Iowa and New Mexico, McCain wins the election with 274 electoral college votes. The problem is that he isi fighting an uphill battle to retain several remaining Bush states, including Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Now conceivably he could lose Colorado but still win by picking up Pennsylvania, which Kerry won narrowly in 2004. However, although McCain continues to make very incremental progress in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio, he is down by 8-10% in Pennsylvania which is only a slight improvement from where he was a week ago. Despite erroneous media reports, he has not pulled out of Colorado (although he has scaled back his paid media there) and the state remains in reach. However, his numbers are quite bad in Virginia, and he is struggling to hold onto Missouri and Indiana, all states Bush won in 2004. At this point, McCain really has two roads to victory: hold onto all the 2004 Bush states except Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado, but steal Pennsylvania, or else retain Colorado. All this assumes he wins in Virginia which is looking increasingly doubtful. (A third path is even more complicated: if McCain loses Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico, but picks up New Hampshire, and holds the rest of the Bush states, the Electoral College race would be tied at 269!)
Now, is there anything to suggest that these polls are missing underlying trends toward McCain, or overstating Obama’s lead? Were I to rely on a single poll with a built-in bias based on distorted partisan weighting (see the Daily Kos tracking poll!) I might hedge my bets. But, in theory, taking an average of the five tracking polls should ameliorate the house effect of any one poll. It is true that the standard deviation between polls (that is, how far each poll is from the average of all the polls) is greater this year than it was in 2004 at a similar time. This means that there is greater variability across polls. The reason, I think, is that pollsters are not comfortable with their partisan weighting of samples, or their projections of overall turnout, and thus each pollster is “guesstimating” using slightly different projections. This reflects their uncertainty regarding reports of higher registration numbers, the impact of a potential “Bradley” effect, the potential cell phone bias, and the Palin effect. All these factors have contributed to an unusually volatile polling year. Nonetheless, my read on the election at this point (and I admit to relying heavily on the political science forecast models from August as comfort) is that Obama continues to be safely in the lead in the popular vote, and that he has a strong if not invulnerable position in the Electoral College. To be sure, McCain has found a stump message that is working – one that owes much to Hillary Clinton’s effective campaign strategy beginning in March during the primaries. But Obama is not coasting to the finish line; he has stepped up his direct attacks on McCain to try to counter that message, and is flooding key battleground states, particularly Florida, with overwhelming campaign advertising. In short, the opposing campaign frames are largely negating one another, leaving the race to be determined by the fundamentals – the economy and change – that have favored the Democratic candidate from day 1. In looking at the polls, then, the key message you should latch onto is that every one shows Obama in the lead.