The Race Isn't Necessarily Over for Barack Obama and John McCain

There are lots of factors that make a Democratic victory uncertain.

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Does Obama have it all locked up? My colleague at Thomas Jefferson Street, Robert Schlesinger, thinks so. And he may very well prove to be right. When we look back over the course of the campaign some time after November 4, we may very well conclude that Barack Obama sprinted to a lead during the two weeks following the coagulation of credit on September 18. Obama's coolness during the financial crisis, combined with John McCain's impulsiveness, convinced many voters that Obama was the safer choice, the story line will go. And Obama's big advantage in television advertising contributed to his advance in target states, as Republican blogger Patrick Ruffini argues. As Robert notes, Obama's current leads in several Bush '04 states means that McCain must change the basic tenor of the campaign in order to win; eking out a narrow margin in one or two states won't do it in the current state of opinion. And no one has a clear idea of how McCain can change the dynamic. So, the argument goes, Obama has this thing locked up.

But maybe not.

When I was in the political polling business, I once wrote an optimistic report on a poll. My boss, Peter Hart, took me aside and said, "Whenever you put something on paper, keep in mind how it will read after the election and your client has lost." This election has been compared to 1980, when, just about all analysts agree, voters were prepared to get rid of Jimmy Carter and only waited to see whether Ronald Reagan was an acceptable alternative. Reagan's performance in the only debate convinced voters he was, and he went on to win by a 50 percent to 41 percent margin, carrying 44 states. Similarly, some say, Obama's performance in the two presidential debates so far (and Joe Biden's performance in the vice presidential debate) has resolved voters' doubts and led a majority of them to conclude that Obama is an acceptable alternative to the candidate of George W. Bush's party.

Karl Rove begs to differ. He thinks voters haven't really decided yet and are still waiting for more evidence. The Carter-Reagan debate, after all, took place on the Thursday before the election. Voters had only five days left to make up their minds. Today, as I write, voters have 26 days left to decide. Maybe they'll wait and see how things go before they make their final decisions.

One reason to doubt this is that early voting is much more common than it was in 1980. The Obama campaign has spent much time and effort on organizing registration, early voting, and turnout efforts. Marc Ambinder of theatlantic.com, usually a cool observer, is in awe of their efforts. But as Jim Geraghty of nationalreview.com notes, very few votes were cast during the one-week period of early voting in the crucial state of Ohio—far fewer than Geraghty (or I) expected. The most successful recent turnout drive was that of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, which relied on peer-to-peer volunteers, local people who made connections with neighbors with whom they had something in common (fellow members of a particular church, fellow accountants, nearby neighbors). The Obama campaign, in contrast, seems to be depending on youthful volunteers who seem unlikely to have such connections. Ambinder notes that, over the summer, the Obama organization concentrated on attracting more volunteers and only in September started concentrating on metrics of voter contacts.

A disciplined approach, certainly. But how effective are all those volunteers? Are they as effective as those stocking-capped Perfect Stormers of the Howard Dean campaign in Iowa in January 2004? You saw those orange stocking caps swarming all over Des Moines, but they didn't end up producing many caucus votes. And that was in an early stage of the contest. As a supporter of George McGovern in 1972, I remember that it seemed relatively easy to knock on a strange voter's door and get a commitment to vote for a then little-known candidate who stood near the left of the political spectrum. "Hey, if this nice young kid is willing to come over on a cold day, why not give this guy a vote?" But when you knocked on people's doors in September and October, the response was more like: "Hey, kid, it's nice that you're motivated and I'd like to give you some milk and cookies, but big things are at stake, and I'm gonna vote for Nixon."

The Obama candidacy is obviously in far better shape today than McGovern's was in fall 1972, and there are surely more voters today who are persuadable. And there are surely a lot of marginally involved young and black Obama supporters susceptible to organization efforts—people who would not vote if not contacted but who will if urged and helped to do so. But as Sean Oxendine of thenextright.com argues, the one-week Ohio early voting numbers suggest that the Obama organizational efforts may not be producing as many votes as the Obama campaign hopes. We simply don't know. There will be other metrics in the weeks ahead on which to base judgments. But I think we'll have to wait until the actual election results start coming in to make a judgment on the effectiveness of these tactics. Which was the case in 2004. Journalists then provided good accounts of the easy-to-cover Democratic organizational efforts in black neighborhoods and university towns. They provided very little on the harder-to-cover Bush-Cheney '04 organizational story. My working hypothesis is that peer-to-peer is a lot more productive than young, stocking-capped volunteers. The Obama campaign's organizational efforts are obviously far superior to the McCain campaign's. But I think it's an open question whether they will produce the kind of turnout increase that the Obama campaign wants and, if the balance of opinion changes a bit, will need.