Last week I said "The polls will narrow over the next two weeks as undecideds finally extract heads from asses, but there are only two ways to get around the data showing Obama in the lead." Indeed, the national polls seem to be narrowing ever so slightly, bumping McCain up to around 45%. But the state polls aren't budging. In Pennsylvania, for example, Obama's lead remains in double-digits. How is that possible?
It's pretty simple. First, right-leaning pollsters like Rasmussen and Zogby are amping up the use of "likely voter" models to exclude respondents who get in the way of the surge story. Second, a lot of "undecided" voters in uncompetitive states are coming out of the closet for McCain. I'm sure it thrills the campaign to realize that it may have rocketed from 38% to 42% in California.
Let me explain in detail what John McCain would need to accomplish – in about four days, mind you – in order to win this election. While polling is not an exact science, let's start by assuming that McCain (but not Obama) currently wins the "strong" states – states in which the polling lead is more than 10 percentage points. Hell, let's even give him the three GOP leaners and consider them solid. Thus:
We start gramps with 142 EV (AK, AZ, ID, UT, WY, SD, NE, KS, OK, TX, LA, AR, KY, TN, MS, AL, SC, and WV). Now here is his mission, with tasks arranged in order of increasing difficulty.
Step One: Prevail in three toss-up states in which Obama's competitiveness has been unexpected (Montana, North Dakota, and Georgia). The RNC has just started running ads in Montana, a decent sign that they are worried. McCain needs to go 3-for-3, putting him at 163 EV. And then…
Step Two: While devoting heavy resources to the above three states, McCain must also find a way to prevail in four legitimate toss-ups, states that are statistical ties or Obama leads: Indiana, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina. Note what has been laid out so far – McCain has swept seven tough swing states, including a behemoth like Florida. That gives him…a whole 227 EV. If he goes 7-for-7 in battlegrounds. And then…
Step Three: McCain must once again sweep a set of four states which lean Obama (New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and Ohio). Note that he has never led in New Mexico or Colorado and he has officially pulled up stakes in NM to boot. So without even campaigning heavily (or at all) in these states he must overcome four statistically significant leads for Obama. If he does, bringing his ridiculously improbable run to 11-for-11 in battleground states, he wins, right? Actually, that puts him at 266 EV. And then…
Step Four: Finally McCain must win a state in which he currently trails by margins like 10 or 12 points in single-state polling. The list includes New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, or Minnesota. He has never led in any of these states. In Virginia he has trailed significantly for more than a month. The good news, if it can be so called, is that if he wins a big one like Pennsylvania he would have some wiggle room to drop one of the 11 states mentioned previously. The bad news is that making up a 10-point deficit in a couple of days is unlikely, let alone coming from behind in a dozen states at once.
So it's just that easy. All McCain needs to do is win everywhere and do it in four days with no money and a campaign that has devolved into vicious in-fighting – not to mention all the high-profile conservatives who have abandoned ship or the fact that literally hundreds of polls must be wrong by about 8 points in order for any of this to be remotely plausible (although the last part isn't necessary as long as you're going by the real polls – the ones Zogby does for Drudge Report based on discredited decade-old turnout models).
I'd say "Stranger things have happened!" but unless you can find evidence of a team of nearsighted midgets performing Death of a Salesman in Mongolian wearing robes made of veal, then no. Stranger things have not happened.
The candidates are using their ticket-mates quite differently at this point, Palin being used heavily to fire up the rednecks and Biden being locked in a small closet with water but no food. Other than in Pennsylvania, where he could potentially help, Biden can only hurt the campaign now. Palin is in her element (i.e., slandering Obama to crowds of slack-jawed racists) and it's hard to tell if she's campaigning for McCain or for herself in 2012.
McCain has ceased to run for president as much as he is running against Barack Obama. His campaign has abandoned whatever message it had about its candidate and is 100% devoted to going negative. Notice how there's never any talk about McCain's philosophy or ideas, only dark hints of Obama's socialist leanings. No policy proposals, only scare tactics about what Obama's proposals will bring. No relevant character points about McCain himself, just hundreds of different aspersions about Obama. It wouldn't be so sad if it actually worked, but it appears to have little effect.
Lastly, the McCain camp is launching its desperation "ACORN stole the election from us" message a week early. They're just so gosh-darn confident about winning that they need to devote their pivotal final week to planting this seed. Irrespective of my preferences, if Obama wins I hope it is by a sizeable margin. Otherwise this is going to be decided in court (although note that the Supreme Court rejected the Ohio GOP's attempt to force the SOS to purge 100,000+ voters based on spelling errors and technicalities). If there is fraud involved in our voting process I will be the first person to call attention to it. This, however, feels less like an epidemic of fraud than a pitiable attempt to play the victim card of which the right have taken full ownership in the Fox News era.
I see nothing changing. Either the data we have now are accurate and Obama wins or every empirical measure of the race is flat wrong and the polling industry needs to be vigorously spanked.