The presidential election is still a few weeks away, but the presidential race is over.
Sure, there's still one more presidential debate; and a month is a proverbial lifetime in politics, but a sober look at both the current electoral landscape and political history tells us that—barring a reality-altering political deus ex machina—Barack Obama will be our 44th president.
Consider: The biggest political event last week was not the Palin-Biden sideshow but the McCain campaign's surrender in Michigan. Michigan's blue-collar voters were supposed to be cold to Obama, leaving the state vulnerable to John McCain. Not so.
Consider that the McCain campaign conceded last week that six states that voted for Bush in 2004—Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, and Ohio—are tossups. Ohio, Missouri, and Florida last went Democratic in 1996 (no Republican presidential candidate has ever succeeded without the Buckeye State). But North Carolina hasn't gone Democratic since 1976, when neighboring governor Jimmy Carter won it, while Virginia and Indiana haven't supported a Democrat since 1964, when Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson but inaugurated the conservative era. Let's repeat: It's October, and McCain is still struggling in North Carolina (where three polls released this week have the race at either a tie, a McCain lead, or an Obama lead), Virginia (three recent polls have Obama leading from 2 to 12 points), and Indiana (two polls released this month, one rating the race a tie, the other giving McCain a 5-point lead).
Nationally, the picture is just as grim for McCain: Gallup's daily tracking poll pegged Obama's national lead at 11 points yesterday. Gallup's lead seems outsize, but Rasmussen has Obama at 6 points ahead nationwide. That's closer to Real Clear Politics's average of the major national polls, which sets Obama's lead at 5.1 percentage points.
But a month in politics is several lifetimes, and anything can yet happen, smart people argue. Don't be so sure—there are historical and logical reasons to doubt a McCain comeback.
On history, Brian Schaffner at Pollster.com has written a couple of excellent analyses of historical poll numbers and has come to two conclusions: first, that major October swings in presidential polls are unlikely—once voters settle on a candidate, they rarely flip back the other way; second, virtually all candidates with big leads in October win in November.
As a practical, logical matter, what can McCain do? The bloviators after the debate Tuesday night were suggesting that McCain needs to enter the last debate with some sort of big, new idea to wow the voters. But he tried that Tuesday night, with the only obvious effect being causing some disgruntlement in his base. And at this point, voters would see through a new, whiz-bang idea: It would transparently be an electoral ploy, yet another lurch in a campaign that has not distinguished itself as having a steady hand on the tiller.
The campaign as ship at sea is an apt analogy—think of turning a big ship with lots of momentum. Think of how long it takes to turn such a ship around. And now think of how close are the shore and the shoals.
Finally there are two wild cards: race and turnout. A new Gallup Poll found that while 6 percent of voters said that Barack Obama's race made them less likely to vote for him (with a like number saying the same of John McCain, by the way), 9 percent said that Obama's race made them more likely to vote for him (7 percent for McCain). As for turnout, Obama has built a more thorough, more impressive ground organization than has McCain and figures to be on the winning side of the enthusiasm gap.
Which leaves us here: The campaign for the past several weeks has been event driven, as a smart Republican argued to me recently. McCain's chances hang on a cataclysmic event, a deus ex machin a—a terrorist attack, alien invasion, or Obama naming Jeremiah Wright to his cabinet.
Short of that, we're into political kabuki for a few weeks and an early night on November 4.