Polls Show Bad News for John McCain in Race Against Barack Obama

Obama made healthy gains with previously undecided white men in "red" states.

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When a pollster opens up a discussion about the presidential race with the phrase "Yes, he can," a play on Democratic nominee Barack Obama's campaign slogan, it can't be good news for GOP nominee John McCain.

And it wasn't. Just five days before Election Day, pollster Brent McGoldrick, vice president of FD, invoked Obama's mantra before briefing reporters on the Allstate/National Journal Battleground Poll numbers. They show that, although McCain has largely been holding on to his support in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia—all states won by George Bush in 2000 and 2004—Obama has picked up enough of the previously undecided voters to take at least narrow leads in all of them.

That makes McCain's path to the presidency extremely narrow, even though Obama's edge is within the poll's 4.9 percentage point margin of error in each of the states. These are must-win states for McCain, said Ronald Brownstein, political director for Atlantic Media, which publishes the National Journal.

To win the presidency, Obama needs only 18 more electoral votes than Democrat John Kerry captured in his razor-thin 2004 loss to Bush. And Obama currently leads in every state that Kerry won. Polls project he will likely bring Iowa and New Mexico—a total 12 electoral votes—back into the Democratic fold November 4. (They went for Democrat Al Gore in 2000 and for Bush in 2004.) If you crunch the Electoral College numbers, Brownstein says, Obama needs only to win one of the traditionally "red" states to capture the presidency.

The poll, conducted in the five red states between October 23 and October 27, found that Obama made healthy gains with previously undecided men, Republicans, those without a college education, and "hard independents"—those who refused to say they leaned one way or another. Why? McGoldrick says that the playing field improved for Obama in a number of ways:

  • The nation's economic decline benefited him, particularly with voters for whom the downturn has translated into "acute" concerns that include jobs, layoffs, paying the mortgage, and healthcare costs. A majority of financially comfortable voters whose economic concerns are more long term—the stability of retirement accounts and financial markets, for example—preferred McCain.
    • The three presidential debates contributed to Obama's ability to pull even with McCain in terms of who voters in the five surveyed states say they believe is best prepared to lead. Obama also increased his lead as the candidate voters say best understands their problems.
      • Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, has been an "untold story" of the Democrats' rise, McGoldrick says. Biden's favorability rating has gone up, and he's become a "likable foil to [GOP vice presidential nominee] Sarah Palin," he said. Palin was seen by a majority of voters surveyed as unprepared to lead.
        • Perhaps most importantly, Obama has benefited from what the pollster characterized as the comprehensiveness of the decline of George Bush. An average of 65 percent of voters in the five surveyed states say they disapprove of the job Bush is doing. Yet McCain is doing historically well among voters who have an unfavorable opinion of Bush, Brownstein says, attracting 20 percent of them. That's a "great performance," he says, considering that only 9 percent of voters who had unfavorable opinions of President Clinton voted for Gore and 11 percent of those who didn't like President Reagan voted for George H. W. Bush in 1988. But McCain needs to capture 30 percent of those voters to make a race out of it, and that's "like telling someone who runs a four-minute mile to run a three-minute mile—at age 72," Brownstein said.
        • Bush's unpopularity is the fundamental ill plaguing McCain, Brownstein says. And it also appears to be infecting the chances of a number of GOP senators seeking re-election, including those in North Carolina, Oregon, Georgia, and Minnesota. And as McCain goes into the final days with a strong, traditionally Republican tax-cut message, the polls—and pollsters—say it looks like the Republicans, running up against the electorate's desire for change, will simply run out of time.