Monthly Archive for September, 2008

Congress: Schwarz defects in MI-07, Feeney slammed on Abramoff

A few months after being defeated in his party’s primary, Republican Rep. Gilchrest (MD-01) announced he was endorsing the Democratic candidate in his district. Now, the same scenario has occurred in Michigan’s 7th district: Former Rep. Joe Schwarz, who was defeated by Tim Walberg in the 2006 Republican primary, just endorsed Walberg’s Democratic challenger.

This is an important development in a race that recent polls have shown is highly competitive. Democrats have been arguing that Walberg is too extremist to represent the district, and the defection of more moderate Schwarz will help them make their argument. That said, it’s important not to make too much of this news. Schwarz has been out of office for two years, and while his defection can help Democrats highlight Walberg’s conservatism, endorsements rarely move any numbers by themselves. Two important questions: Will Schwarz actively campaign for Schauer? Will he shoot an ad like Gilchrest did?

As for Rep. Walberg, he is getting some help from conservative group Club for Growth, which recently said it will spend $175,000 in this district. Any outside money is golden for House Republicans who have to face a barrage of Democratic ads without any help from the NRCC. The DCCC has already spent almost $170,000 in this district alone hitting Walberg with ads like this.

Meanwhile, in another important House district, the DCCC has released an a in FL-24, the first that slams Rep. Tom Feeney for his ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This comes a week after Feeney released a remarkable ad apologizing to his constituents for “embarrassing them.” That apology ad - never a good sign when an incumbent feels compelled to air one - is currently being aired, so the district’s voters are being exposed to this story in a way they were not before - and the DCCC is clearly looking to go for the kill with a brutal spot that hits Feeney for being “one of the most corrupt” congressmen:

[youtube="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBFmdCZVPCI"]

But the DCCC’s most consistent strategy right now is to use the financial crisis to hit Republican candidates across the country on Social Security. This is something we already discussed a few days ago, but the DCCC released a number of new spots yesterday that invoke the Wall Street meltdown to attack the Republicans’ support for privatizing Social Security. Lou Barletta is the target of such an ad in PA-11; in MO-09, the DCCC hits “insurance executive” Blaine Luetkemeyer and warns that this is the “toughest ride since the Great Depression:”

[youtube="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6jMlV6E4WAc"]

If Democrats could get away with it, they would always air ads about Social Security. This is an issue that fundamentally favors their candidates, but it is not one that always weighs heavily on voters’ minds. Yet, the stock market’s yoyo and the Wall Street crisis that has been on the frontpage of all newspapers lately makes ads about Social Security savings extremely relevant. And it is precisely because the country’s political environment has shifted towards a focus on bread and butter issues that Democrats are now hoping to nationalize the congressional elections and score a repeat of 2006.

Finally, I have alluded a few times to the impact congressional ads might have on the presidential election. Down-the-ballot candidates across the country are airing spots that use the same arguments, the same imagery and often the same slogans as those John McCain and Barack Obama are hurling at each other. I wrote a detailed analysis of this on the Huffington Post, and I will not post the entire piece here since it would be repetitive to readers of this blog who have already seen most of the spots I allude to. But here is my take on why, in this game of message amplification, it is Democrats who stand to gain the most, and Republicans who face the greatest pitfalls:

GOP candidates are trying to convince voters that they are not the typical Republican, that they are unique and can take on the party establishment. But that argument risks becoming a caricature if all Republican candidates say the same thing. It’s one thing for McCain to brand himself as an anti-establishment firebrand, but the entire party cannot credibly run against itself without it becoming a transparent stunt. Can a voter in New Hampshire’s first district come to believe that John McCain, John Sununu and Jeb Bradley are all mavericks? If so, who is the establishment?

There is the parallel possibility that the use of the Bush tag becomes a caricature and thus loses its effectiveness, but the risk is less important as there is nothing contradictory in the Democrats’ argument that the entire Republican Party is tarnished by the Bush years. For a voter in North Carolina to hear over and over again that McCain, Dole and vulnerable Rep. Robin Hayes are all “more of the same” serves as an indictment of the GOP as a whole. By amplifying the volume of Obama’s multi-million ad campaign, the Democrats’ down-the-ballot TV spots could help ensure that Bush remains on the minds of voters when they go to the polls on November 4th.

Poll watch: Six red states within the MoE, Perdue and Chambliss in trouble

[Updated with new Insider Advantage polls] We’re now exactly five weeks from Election Day, and we seem to be getting fewer polls every day - especially compared to the constant deluge of surveys we were treated to two weeks ago and last week. At least, we are getting our daily tracking polls which now appear to have stabilized in the mid-to-high single digit range - and that is significant given that today’s release marked the first which were entirely taken after the first presidential debate. Rasmussen, Diego Hotline and Gallup all find a 6% margin today in Obama’s favor, while Obama jumps to a 10% lead in Research 2000.

If such numbers hold over the next few weeks, state-by-state discussions would be somewhat moot, as many red states would naturally fall in Obama’s lap if he were to win the election anywhere near a 7% margin… but it nevertheless continues to be remarkable that Obama has not gained as much in the most disputed red states as he seems to have gained at the national level (he does appear to have pulled ahead in PA and MI in the aftermath of the financial crisis), leaving a lot of uncertainty in the election.

That said, Obama has undoubtedly made gains in a number of red states over the past 10 days, and while these gains are not enough to move any of them to his column, Obama has also erased any edge McCain had in states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida (as today’s polls once again confirm).

So the situation remains the same: If Obama defends the roughly four endangered blue states, he needs to pick up one more red state (though Nevada would not be enough if he loses New Hampshire). And the day’s polls confirm that he has plenty to choose from: Numbers in Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina and Nevada are all within the margin of error - though a second Virginia poll shows Obama jumping to a comfortable lead, and the three Florida and Ohio polls show Obama improving! On to the day full roundup:

  • Obama leads 49% to 46% in a PPP poll of Florida (polling history) thanks to Obama’s 15% lead among the 64% of respondents who say that the economy is their top issue. McCain led by 5% three weeks ago. Since then, Palin’s favorability rating has gone south.
  • McCain leads 49% to 46% in an ARG poll of Virginia.
  • Obama leads 49% to 41% in the latest Morning Call tracking poll of Pennsylvania (polling history) . Obama has increased his lead by 1% every day since Friday, when he led by 4%.
  • McCain leads 49% to 46% in an ARG poll of North Carolina (polling history) - McCain’s first lead in four polls (who would have ever thought we’d say that), though within the margin of error.
  • McCain leads 52% to 44% in a SUSA poll of Georgia (polling history). And though this subgroup has a huge margin of error, Obama gets more than 60% among the 10% of respondents who say they have already voted.

Meanwhile, in down-ballot surveys:

  • Saxby Chambliss’s lead has collapsed to within the margin of error in SUSA’s latest release from Georgia’s Senate race (polling history). He is now ahead 46% to 44% (down from 17% two weeks ago), with 5% for libertarian Allen Buckley.
  • Pat McCrory leads Bev Perdue 44% to 41% in a PPP poll of North Carolina’s gubernatorial race (polling history). This is his first lead in a PPP survey. This is significant because the same survey showed Obama and Hagan gaining.
  • Mitch Daniels keeps a decisive edge in Indiana’s gubernatorial race in the latest SUSA polling, 53% to 37%.
  • A University of Connecticut poll has Rep. Simmons Courtney crushing his GOP challenger Sullivan 55% to 27% in CT-02. This is a district the GOP once had high hopes for.

Shall we make it… eleven? This is the second poll in a row after the DSCC-sponsored survey released yesterday that has Chambliss’ lead within the margin of error. More importantly, this is an independent poll that pushed undecideds, and the trend lines echoes what we are seeing in Kentucky’s Senate race - apparently confirming my post from last night. The GOP looks like it might soon find itself in the same situation as 2006, where seemingly safe Republicans find themselves in a fight, though it is difficult to view Chambliss as fully endangered until the DSCC gets involved.

That said, getting just one of these two races (KY, GA) anywhere near the top tier would already be an amazing achievement for Democrats. In this context, Susan Collins’ ability to weather the storm is truly remarkable: Who could have predicted a year ago that Tom Allen would never get within 7% (and I believe only Rasmussen found that tight a race) while Lunsford and Martin would be within the margin of error?

Beverly Perdue, on the other hand, looks like she is not doing very well. For her to fall under in the same poll that has Obama and Hagan surging is a sign that something is not going well for Democrats in this race, and that McCrory’s reform message might be functioning. Similarly, the situation is not rozy for Democrats in Indiana’s gubernatorial race, which once looked promising but now seems to be increasingly safe for the incumbent.

Ad wars: GOP on defensive, McCain invokes Clinton, Obama hits gov-run health care, Illinois Dem remakes Daisy

It had been announced last week, it was released today. The RNC’s latest spot (which will be the first GOP ads Indiana voters will see), hits Obama on his spending plans. While that is certainly unexpected, it does so by suggesting that the Illinois Senator is tied to the bailout plan, a somewhat surprising move considering that John McCain has associated himself more tightly with the now-rejected deal.

This ad should worry McCain supporters. Their candidate is now trailing by high single-digits, and this is all the GOP has to offer? This is not to say that attacking Democrats for their spending habits is not an effective strategy, and it could very well hurt Obama this year - but the spot lacks the magnitude an attack ad would need to move the fundamentals of the race. And it contradicts voters’ perception that it is Republicans who are to blame for the financial crisis, and it is a Republican Administration that has proposed the $700 billion plan.

This is not to say that the ad might not be necessary: McCain is being undercut by the fact that he is now associated with a unpopular deal he associated himself and then failed to push through, and the GOP now has to push back against any harm that ensues from that. But that points to the problem with this ad: It is essentially a defensive spot that attempts to change the conversation and might at best neutralize Obama’s advantage on the topic rather than reverse momentum. Republicans were surely hoping to be airing foreign policy ads by now, but instead the RNC’s independent expenditure arm is stuck producing unimaginative spots on the economy.

John McCain also released an ad this morning. The spot is devoted to the financial crisis, has more news value than the RNC ad (it uses recent statements by Bill Clinton’s words that appear to blame Democrats) and spends more time casting McCain as a reformer who had warned about the risks to the mortgage industry. But the ad’s end goal is the same: cast the blame on Democrats where voters are now blaming Republican. In that, the spot is also a defensive ad: Breaking news are forcing McCain to address issues that fundamentally help his opponent:

Meanwhile, we get two new Obama ads this morning - one was released by his campaign, the other was not released but was captured by a viewer and posted on Politico. That latter spot denounces government-run health care, leaving little doubt that Obama is determined to win at the center even in the midst of this crisis and that his campaign doesn’t subscribe to the idea that it could capture the imagination of Democrats who aren’t voting for him with a more populist and progressive economic agenda. It is also surprising that Obama chose to run a somewhat defensive-sounding health care spot with little to no prompting from the GOP, as there has been relatively little discussion of health care in the general election:

Obama’s other ad is a 2-minute spot (!) in which he talks directly to the camera, in what is a detailed explanation of his economic proposals and of his tax policies. Obama has aired ads like this one before, but I do not believe he has included a 2-minute spot in his regular rotation until now. The format allows him to get into the specifics of his proposals, and that is a very effective strategy for him. A complaint undecided voters often voice about Obama is that he does not provide enough substance, and having Obama walk viewers through a few of his policies could certainly address that vulnerability:

But all of these presidential spots are amateurish play compared to the ad unleashed by Illinois Democrat Colleen Callahan, who is running in the conservative-leaning open seat of IL-18. Her opponent, 29-year old state Senator Aaron Schock, recently voiced the idea that the United States sell nuclear weapons to Taiwan and the Callahan campaign chose to go all-out in a remake of Lyndon Johnson’s infamous Daisy ad:

The ad accuses Schock of being “too extreme,” the best charge Democrats have to use in a district whose retiring representative is known as a moderate in the Republican caucus. But portraying a nuclear explosion might not be the most subtle way to make the point, and is most likely an attempt by Callahan to get some attention in one of the rare open seats Democrats have not been successful at making competitive.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Congressional Democrats who had long hoped that 2008 would be another 2006 might be getting their wish, though It is still too early to tell whether current trends will maintain themselves all the way to November 4th.

Just a few weeks ago, it looked like Republicans would avoid being submerged by a blue tsunami. The GOP brand appeared to be improving and independents seemed less hostile to the idea of voting Republican. But just as 2006, late September events look like they could shatter the GOP’s defenses. Sure, the financial crisis might be more consequential than Mark Foley, but that scandal was an earthquake that cost Republicans any hope they had of recovering.

This year, the Wall Street meltdown has caused voters’ disapproval of government to skyrocket along with voters’ economic insecurity; and while Congress might no longer be in Republican hands, both developments are guaranteed to boost Democratic prospects as long as the White House is in Bush’s hands and as long as Democrats remain the party of bread-and-butter issues.

Voters are once again angry, and they are angry about the economy. Further economic developments could certainly change the situation, but this has certainly boosted Democratic hopes that the national environment will once again outweigh local patterns and carry unlikely candidates to victory on the strength of anti-GOP sentiment.

At the top of the ticket, this new dynamic has undercut John McCain’s campaign, but the Arizona Senator remains standing. Just as we have long known that McCain was one of the only Republicans who was separate enough from the Bush Administration to have any hope of prevailing, McCain has enough cards to play to hope to survive voter discontent, which is why it remains amazing that the Republican nominee chose to return to Washington and associate himself that closely with an unpopular Congress and an unpopular bill.

But other Republicans don’t have McCain’s stature, and a new Democracy Corps poll of battleground districts suggests that Republicans are losing ground in at least 40 seats they hold and in which the pollsters asked voters about House match-ups. Republicans’ situation has deteriorated since July, a number of incumbents are endangered and Democrats look particularly strong in the GOP’s open seats. This is a very similar situation as 2006, where Democrats scored big wins in a big number of open seats, and did so again in 3 special elections this spring.

The trouble Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell finds himself in is telling of the worsening situation Republicans find themselves in. SUSA and Mason Dixon found McConnell’s race against Bruce Lunsford down to a dead heat last week in what could be a direct repercussion of McConnell’s leadership role in the Senate. Now, Stuart Rothenberg reports that he has seen a third poll - a private one about which he releases no details - that confirms that the race is a dead heat. This is prompting the Kentucky press to take notice of the race’s increasing competitiveness, which is in and of itself a positive development for Lunsford since it is always important for a challenger to be taken as a serious contender by the media. Will the DSCC cavalry come next?

Can other Democrats who are facing long shots take advantage of the situation? Can Tom Allen of Maine - perhaps the year’s most disappointing congressional race for Democrats - put Susan Collins on the defensive? Collins looks to be made of rock, as nothing has dented her lead, but it is truly now or never for Allen to link Collins to her party and to the Bush Administration - and this is exactly what the Democratic candidate is doing in a new ad. But this is a race where all of this might be too little, too late. Collins has shown no sign of vulnerability, and Allen remains a long shot.

There is one major difference between 2006 and 2008, however: Democrats have much more money, Republicans far less. While it would be unfair to say that the DCCC or the DSCC were under-funded two years ago, they faced some painful choices in the final stretch, and the DCCC’s failure to fund candidates like Larry Kissell in NC-08 surely cost them a few seats. This year, the situation is very different. Last week alone, the DCCC spent more than $4 million and targeted 27 Republican seats; the RNCC spent… $75,000. That stunning 57:1 ratio makes Mike Bloomberg’s ridiculous overspending seem amateurish, and it will allow Democrats to leave no stone unturned.

While Democrats exploit the anti-GOP environment, it is very important for Republicans to run a micro campaign and disqualify individual Democratic candidates in order to put them on the defensive and prevent them from positioning themselves as reformers, outsiders or change agents. And it looks like the GOP has once again to take the initiative against Al Franken in Minnesota. No candidate wants to run ads addressing  charges relating to rape five weeks from Election Day, but that is exactly what Franken has had to do this week:

[youtube="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPaN6hKS51Q"]

That’s right, in the midst of a giant financial crisis that gives any Democrat an opening to destabilize his opponent, Al Franken has to air ads defending himself against “desperate attacks that will not work” but that must be working in some way if Franken is taking the time to address them (not that Franken is being careful to denounce the GOP ads over their negativity rather than over their substance, as the last thing Franken wants is to get in a he said, she said about rape jokes and assault charges). And the NRSC is keeping up, releasing yet another ad hitting Franken on similar charges:

[youtube="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNj7A1qZdNI"]

Given how much time Franken has spent defending himself against all sorts of charges for the past few months, it is a testament to the cycle’s anti-Republican bent that the race remains a toss-up.

Poll watch: FL is dead heat, Obama leads in second NC poll, widens gap in PA

There have been relatively few polls released over the past few days, as it makes little sense to conduct surveys that are in the field both before and after the presidential debate. But the few surveys that were released today confirm that Obama continues to gain - though perhaps at a less dramatic pace than some polls last week suggested.

Obama’s strongest showing today comes in Pennsylvania, a state that is still rated a toss-up in my ratings but where two polls today find Obama widening the gap to 7% and 8%. Both pollsters (Morning Call and Rasmussen) had Obama leading by 3% and 4% last week in the Keystone State, implying that Obama is solidifying his claim on blue-leaning states (he opened a wide lead in a number of Michigan surveys last week).

But the basic situation remains the same: Obama is unable to put red states other than IA and NM away. The good news for Obama, however: He only needs one of those states (VA, OH, CO, NC, FL, IN…) as long as he holds on to the blue states, as he seems increasingly likely to do as PA and MI seem to be rapidly shifting towards him. And that is an awful lot of toss-up states to choose from… In today’s polls only, he leads in Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado - all within the margin of error, sure, but he also trails within the MoE in Ohio and Florida. As long as Obama stays ahead nationally, is it really conceivable that McCain sweeps all these toss-up red states?

In particular, Obama’s gains are dramatic in North Carolina, where Obama leads for the second time ever and for the second time in a row. There is little question left that North Carolina has become a toss-up that will consume the GOP’s attention over the next few weeks. Obama also gains significant ground in Florida (5% in SUSA and 5% in Rasmussen compared to a poll taken last week-end).

On to the day’s full roundup, and note that I have fully updated my polling page (I had fallen behind), and added some color coding to make it easier to follow:

  • Obama keeps up his lead in all four tracking polls. He leads by 5% in Diego Hotline (47% to 42%) and Rasmussen (50% to 45%). He maintains an 8% lead in Gallup (50% to 42%) and a 9% lead in Research 2000 (51% to 42%), whose Saturday sample had Obama leading by 11%. Interestingly, McCain is at 42% in three out of the four tracking polls.
  • Obama leads 47% to 45% in a PPP poll of North Carolina (polling history), with 3% for Bob Barr. This is Obama’s second lead ever in the state, and it comes only a few days after the first (in a Rasmussen survey that found the same margin). PPP found a tie last week, which was already considered a strong result for Obama. 20% of the sample is back - about where it was in 2004, so PPP’s surveys don’t even posit an increase in the share of black voters. Sarah Palin’s popularity is falling.
  • McCain leads 48% to 47% in SUSA’s latest poll from Florida (polling history). McCain led by 6% in SUSA’s past two surveys. Obama’s biggest gain occurs among Democrats, where he finally surges above the 80% line… The poll was taken Saturday and Sunday, after Friday’s debate.
  • The candidates are tied at 47% in Rasmussen’s latest poll from Florida. This is a 5% improvement for Obama since last week.
  • Obama leads 50% to 42% in a Rasmussen poll of Pennsylvania (polling history). He led by only 3% last week.
  • Obama leads 49% to 42% in Morning Call’s 5-day tracking poll of Pennsylvania. He led by 6% yesterday, 4% on Friday.
  • Obama leads 50% to 47% in a Rasmussen poll of Virginia, within the margin of error. Obama led by 5% in a Rasmussen poll taken mid-last week, but trailed by 2% a week ago.
  • Obama leads 49% to 48% in a Rasmussen poll of Colorado. Obama led by 3% last week.
  • McCain leads 48% to 47% in a Rasmussen poll of Ohio. This is the same margin as a poll taken last Thursday, but a 3% improvement for Obama since a week ago.
  • Obama leads 52% to 42% in a SUSA poll of New Jersey.

Meanwhile, in down-ballot polls:

  • Kay Hagan takes her biggest lead yet in any poll, 46% to 38% in the latest PPP survey of North Carolina’s Senate race (polling history). Libertarian Chris Cole gets 6%, which allows Hagan to hold Dole under 50% of the white vote.
  • GOP Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has a large lead, 53% to 36%, against Annette Taddeo in a Research 2000 poll of FL-18.
  • GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart leads Joe Garcia 45% to 41% in a Research 2000 poll of FL-25. The poll does find Obama trailing by 15%, though Kerry lost the district by 12%.
  • In NJ-03, a Zogby poll finds GOP candidate Chris Myers narrowly ahead of John Adler, 39% to 37%. 22% are undecided.
  • In PA-10, Rep. Chris Carney leads Republican challenger Paul Hackett according to a Lycoming College poll.
  • A DSCC-sponsored poll finds Saxby Chambliss leading only 37% to 34% (down from a 6% lead in August) in Georgia’s Senate race (polling history), but the pollster’s decision to not push undecideds at all doesn’t strike that much confidence in Jim Martin’s chances.
  • California’s Proposition 8 would be defeated 55% to 41% according to the latest PPIC poll.

Instead of releasing poll numbers, the DSCC would be investing some money into running an ad campaign in Georgia’s Senate race if they were that confident that this is a 3% race. To choose to not push undecideds at all in this red a state can be a way to lower an incumbent Republican’s numbers. Until we get more proof that Chambliss is this vulnerable, Georgia cannot be considered part of the top tier Senate races.

That said, Democrats can certainly celebrate Elizabeth Dole’s continuing collapse. What is truly worrisome for the incumbent Senator is that many pollsters are showing a similar trendline. Before this PPP poll, it was Rasmussen that had found Dole sinking to a new low at the end of last week. And Dole will also have to struggle against Obama’s ground game.

As for the House races, Democrats have their eyes on many Florida seats - and not all look as promising as they would hope. Of the three Southern Florida districts, however, two seem ripe for pick-up (FL-21 and FL-25), but this is not the first poll to find that Ros-Lehtinen looks safe in FL-18. The situation in FL-13 seems more debatable, but it does look like Democrats missed an opportunity in 2006 (or did they? in no district was the result as controversial as here).

House rejects bailout, keeps financial crisis on front page

The House threw another wild card in the campaign today by rejecting the bailout plan by a somewhat comfortable margin (228 noes, 205 ayes). This could mean many things to the world economy, to the Wall Street meltdown and to the Capitol Hill negotiations - but this is and remains a campaign blog, and 5 weeks from Election Day a story like this is likely to have quite significant electoral repercussions.

The Bush Administration and most lawmakers were hoping to be done with the bailout debate by now, and the most obvious consequence of today’s vote is that the financial crisis and the bailout will remain on every newspaper front page for the days to come. This is very worrisome news for Republicans, who have been steadily going down in the polls since the political focus massively turned to the economy. John McCain tried to seem more in control of the story by suspending his campaign last Wednesday, but that gamble doesn’t appear to have done him much good and polls continue to show Barack Obama with a large lead on who can best manage a financial crisis and economic issues.

For John McCain to have hope of pull off this election, upcoming news cycles need to be dominated either by breaking international news or by character-based stories. The GOP was very successful in propagating the latter the first half of September, but Wall Street’s meltdown makes it difficult for lipstick-related controversies to go viral - and it now looks like that trend will continue.

But there are a lot of questions surrounding the bailout’s failure and what political impact it might have:

  1. Will there be another vote, and will the outcome change?
  2. Who will get the blame? Right now, the House GOP is blaming Nancy Pelosi, John McCain is blaming Barack Obama, and Democrats are blaming Republicans. It would seem that it will be easier for Dems to win this argument, since 67% of House Republicans voted against it, while a majority of Democrats supported it.
  3. Is it even a bad thing for one party be assigned blame here? Most polls show that the bailout plan was deeply unpopular, and it is telling that most endangered incumbents from both parties (with some rare exceptions like Reps. Kanjorski, Kirk, Mahoney, Porter and Shays) voted against it. Five weeks from Election Day, those representatives who would be the most likely to feel voter anger did not want to take the risk to go back home and be hit by their opponents on this issue

So could the failure help McCain if voters come to be grateful that Republicans blocked the bill? That might have been the case had the Arizona Senator chosen to take a more oppositional stance. But tens of millions of viewers saw McCain defend the principle of the bailout at the Friday debate and said that “sure,” he would support it. In fact, not only did McCain not oppose the bailout deal but he moved to take ownership of congressional negotiations with his campaign suspension last Wednesday and insisted that he would be able to bring House Republicans on board.

This is what McCain’s campaign manager Steve Schmidt said yesterday on Meet the Press: “What Senator McCain was able to do was to help bring all of the parties to the table, including the House Republicans, whose votes were needed to pass this.” To the extent that it is House Republicans who caused the bill’s collapse today, McCain’s decision to suspend his campaign looks like it could backfire even more than the week-end’s tracking polls suggested. On the other hand, Barack Obama had less at stakes in the day’s vote since he hadn’t invested himself as publicly as his opponent - though enough to not look like he did not care about the issue.

As for congressional elections, the fact that so many endangered incumbents voted against the bill somewhat removes this from becoming a major issue in the final weeks of the campaign, at least at the House level. For instance, Suzanne Kosmas of FL-24 had positioned herself to hit Feeney, but his negative vote today complicates that maneuver (though she can still use his ties to mortgage companies). In districts in which the incumbent voted for the bill (PA-11, FL-16, IL-10, NV-03 and CT-04, for instance), expect the challengers’ to make this an issue, even if some of them had said they were open to the bill themselves.

Battleground watch: Discussing the Bradley effect, preparing for early voting

Some Democrats have long been worried that Barack Obama’s race will complicate his electoral prospects, but it is important to not conflate two different phenomenons. On the one hand, there is the question of how much Obama is underperforming because of the reluctance of white or Hispanic voters to cast a ballot for a black man; the AP generated a lot of talk last week by positing that number to be 6% based on a poll they conducted. On the other hand, there is the question of the Bradley effect: how much is Obama’s support overrepresented in the polls?

The former question was an interesting one to debate a few months ago, when Democrats were trying to decide which of their candidates was more electable; but it does not impact the way we should read today’s polls. If a white voter who would have voted for another Democrat but not for Obama is willing to tell that to a pollster, his reluctance is already incorporated in the polls and in no way hints at the likely existence of a Bradley effect.

It is important to keep that in mind when reading about that AP poll or about stories like this one in the New York Times. The piece documents the reluctance of some union workers’ to embrace Obama, and labor organizers are saying that some of their members openly admit they will not vote for a black man; others use sentences like “I don’t know him” which some see as racially charged code words. But in both cases, what is striking is these voters’ openness to admit they are not voting for Obama. Their voting for McCain would not cause a gap between Obama’s Election Day performance and his level in polls.

In a sense, it is reassuring for Democrats that Obama is leading by healthy margins while a number of voters who might have voted for another Democrat are admitting they will not cast a ballot for him. It suggests Obama has already taken the blunt of the AP’s 6% and is still in the lead.

The question that we should answer to determine whether a Bradley effect is likely is whether any white voters are lying to journalists, canvassers and pollsters and saying they are supporting Obama when they have settled on McCain because of racial prejudice.

This is possible, of course. While a recent academic study shows that the Bradley effect has disappeared since the mid-1990s, a presidential election is a whole other ball game and might make some voters uncomfortable. But, as I said already, the question isn’t whether racial prejudice exists but whether the voters are likely to feel ashamed enough they are not voting for Obama to lie about it. If anything, the more such voters have other excuses to give (there might be less social clues against admitting you aren’t voting for a Muslim, for instance, than against admitting you aren’t voting for an African-American), the less they are likely to feel like they ought to deceive pollsters.

In short, whether Obama’s lead is smaller than it could be because of race is one question - and the AP poll and stories like the New York Times suggest it would; whether Obama’s support will be lower in final results than it looks today is another.

Meanwhile, in news from battleground states:

  • Ed Koch campaigns for Obama in Florida, in what could be a golden opportunity for Obama to address his vulnerabilities among older Jewish voters.
  • Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun is surprised Nevada polls are still finding a toss-up.
  • The Miami Herald reports on Florida’s Hispanic community and finds that the GOP’s hold is still strong.
  • A bizarre story out of Indiana has the Obama campaign scrambling to deny they made a deal with GOP Governor Mitch Daniels.
  • Ballot questions are rarely covered, but the New York Times explores the possibility that Massachusetts voters might
  • Limbaugh attacks the Obama campaign for having enlisted prosecutors in his Missouri truth squad (though the McCain campaign has done the same), creating complications for a Missouri reporter as tens of thousands of callers call in to complain about Obama’s plan to arrest old ladies.

And then there is everything related to early voting - starting with Ohio, where the state’s first early voting program starts in 24 hours! This is really make or break time for both campaigns in one of the most crucial state’s of the election, and there is no room for error. The Columbus Dispatch reports on the frenzied activity both campaigns are undertaking, and on the fact that demands for absentee voting ballots are already hitting records in some counties. One potential wild card: The GOP is suing to stop voters from registering and immediately voting (as the Secretary of State ruled they could).

Meanwhile, we are getting some of the first breakdowns of early voters by party, and they have Colorado Republicans worrying: Absentee balloting traditionally favors Republicans in this state by heavy margins, and Democrats rely on Election Day voting to close the gap, but many more Democrats than usual are requesting ballots this year. In Arapahoe County, for instance, Republicans cast 48% of mail-in-ballots in 2004, versus 30% for Democrats; as of last week, however, 40% of mail-in-requests had come from Republicans versus only 37% from Democrats.

The politics of catch-up

Saturday Night Live’s debate parody was expected to focus on John McCain’s transparent condescension or mock Barack Obama’s excessive deference. Instead, they chose to ridicule McCain’s campaign suspension and transform his determination to pull stunts into the skit’s main running joke.

That made for an underwhelming skit, but it perfectly captured the dynamic of the past few months of the presidential campaign.

Obama has been leading since the general election was launched on June 3rd, except for a brief period in early September where McCain’s convention bounce caused widespread Democratic panic. Sure, the race has not swung towards Obama’s favor, and his advantage has been narrow enough that the election has remained highly competitive. But the basic dynamic has largely remained intact: McCain has had to think of ways to come from behind and overcome the year’s Democratic fundamentals.

But this has to be executed with some flair for a new message, a new attack to break through all the noise of competing political stories: what a trailing candidate needs is to attract attention, steal the spotlight and catch his opponent unprepared.

What a trailing candidate - particularly an underfunded one - needs is spectacle.

Yet, one might respond, Obama played catch-up last year against Hillary Clinton without resorting to any spectacular gambles - so why should McCain? There is very little in common between Obama’s situation int the summer of 2007 and McCain’s situation today. The playbook for a candidate who is trailing in the primary is to have a solid organizational advantage and to gain momentum in the early contests. And Clinton looked vulnerable in Iowa and in New Hampshire; the only polls in which she had a seemingly insurmountable lead were the Iowa caucuses. Furthermore, other candidates were taking care of hammering Clinton, so Obama did not have to do so. (It was Edwards who relentlessly attacked Hillary’s ties to lobbyists and her vote on the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment.)

On the other hand, a candidate who has fallen behind in the general election cannot rely on early victories to gain momentum: He needs to change the race’s most fundamental dynamics before a single vote is counted, and that is no easy thing to do. But whenever the electoral outlook has looked the bleakest for McCain, his campaign has managed to fight back with unexpected maneuvers that have repeatedly been successful in halting Obama’s momentum and keeping McCain alive.

The late July Britney ad, the Sarah Palin pick and this past week’s campaign suspension were all gambles that threw a conventional general election momentarily off-course. And whether or not each individual maneuver ends up helping or hurting McCain, such continuously unorthodox moves is what McCain needs if he is to have a shot at the White House. The politics of catch-up require such gambles.

Unfortunately for the Republican nominee, this also serves as a testament to the precariousness of his position.

For one, a gamble by definition can go either way: It presents higher rewards than the conventional course, but also greater risks. And while McCain managed to knock Obama off-course and tighten the race with his much mocked but nonetheless effective celebrity ads, his campaign suspension appears to have backfired: McCain blinked by deciding to join the debate without much progress on the bailout deal, and polls suggest that voters see the decision as a political stunt. Today’s trackings polls (the first taken entirely after McCain’s announcement) show that it is Obama who has progressed.

As for the Palin gamble, the jury is still out as to her final impact, and it is undeniable that she provided McCain a jolt of energy his campaign needed. But the past few weeks have been so disastrous for the Alaska Governor that many Republicans are getting worried that McCain’s gamble will end up hurting his chances. (Much will depend, of course, on Thursday’s vice-presidential debate.)

The second problem with the politics of catch-up is that whatever success a candidate has will only allow him to close the gap rather than pull ahead. In 2004, John Kerry had a very strong first performance in the first debate that changed the narrative and boosted him in the polls - but since he had entered the debate in a trailing position, all his strong performance won him was a dead heat race, with a lot of work left to be done to actually get an advantage. McCain managed to tighten the race with his celebrity ads and erase Obama’s edge with the Palin pick, but he only managed to capture a very narrow and very fleeting advantage in national polls in early September. The financial crisis soon got McCain down to where he started.

How many strong performances, how many successful gambles can one candidate accumulate simply in order to capture a narrow advantage?

This is not to say that McCain cannot win the election, quite the contrary. He has stayed far more competitive than many would have predicted in June. We are now about 5 weeks from the election, and McCain is within striking distance. All he needs to do is make sure that he takes that narrow advantage again close enough to Election Day that he rides it to victory. And he has plenty of opportunities left to achieve that: two more presidential debates, the potential of an October surprise and whatever other gambles McCain attempts in the final stretch.

McCain is still trailing, and some of his campaign decisions might have backfired. But his campaign has demonstrated that it is willing to take risks, and that means that they will not hesitate to seize whatever opportunity presents itself to them. That is why McCain’s failure to create a memorable moment at Friday night’s debate must have been so disappointing for Republicans: There are only a few obvious occasions left for McCain to make a move, and he needs to make the most of them.

Gubernatorial rankings: Fate of two Dem-held seats could depend on Obama’s coattails

Gubernatorial races have never been a focus this year since only four seats are in any sense competitive - and of these four two have grown less interesting over the past few months. In Missouri, Attorney General Jay Nixon has been in a strong position for months, but Republicans were hoping that Rep. Kenny Hulshof’s primary victory would give him enough of a bounce to make this race more suspenseful; that does not appear to have happened. In Indiana, incumbent Governor Mitch Daniels has solidified his position since the spring, and the financial difficulties of Democratic challenger Jill Long Thompson are forcing her to rely on Obama’s ground game to pull an upset.

That only leaves two highly competitive races, both of which are currently held by Democrats. In North Carolina, Beverly Perdue and Pat McCrory continue to pounce each other but neither appears to be getting an edge; in Washington, Governor Gregoire looks very vulnerable in a rematch of her controversial 2004 match-up, as the assumption that she would have had time to entrench herself does not appear to have played out. What is interesting is that the fundamentals in both states should favor Democrats. Washington leans blue - especially in such a Democratic year. And not only does North Carolina typically vote Democratic in state-level races, but Barack Obama’s stunning competitiveness reduces Perdue’s need to convince voters to split their vote. In both Washington and North Carolina, therefore, Barack Obama’s coattails could be enough to carry Gregoire and Perdue across the finish line, but any last minute show of strength by John McCain could improve the GOP brand and allow Rossi and McCrory to upset historical trends.

Lean take-over (1 R)

1. Missouri (Open; Previous rating: 1)

Rep. Kenny Hulshof prevailed in a very heated Republican primary back in August, and that is likely to be his only victory of the 2008 cycle. Attorney General Jay Nixon has been campaigning for the gubernatorial position for nearly four years now, and he is being further boosted by this year’s Democratic environment. Nixon has led throughout the contest, and he is comfortably ahead in the most recent polls. One added bonus for Nixon is that Barack Obama is showing no sign of giving up on the Show Me State so that he will be able to rely on Obama’s turnout machine to boost his own totals; that was not the case for Claire McCaskill in 2004.

Toss-up (2 D)

2. North Carolina (Open; Previous rating: 2)

Who knew that North Carolina’s top three statewide races would all be rated toss-ups - the only state in the country that is in such a position. Just as Republicans John McCain and Elizabeth Dole were expected to have an edge in the presidential and senatorial races, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Beverly Perdue (or Bev Perdue, as ballots will be marked) looked favor to keep the governorship in Democratic hands. But Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory is proving to be a strong candidate for Republicans.

McCrory is pounding Perdue on ethical issues, seeking to make an issue of the Democrats’ hold on state government and corruption scandals that have erupted over the years. While Perdue has never been involved in any, she has been working in state government for decades and McCrory is hoping to take advantage of that by directly referencing the “culture of corruption” and hitting Perdue as part of the “power elite.” Meanwhile, and in a telling sign that North Carolina is not as reliably conservative as some might expect, Perdue is not hesitating to duplicate the strategic blueprint Democrats have been using in bluer parts of the country. She is hitting McCrory for his support of Bush’s agenda and for benefiting from Bush’s help - and she is also invoking social issues by running ads against McCrory hitting him on stem cells. Those spots have led to some of the toughest exchanges of the race, and McCrory accused Perdue of exploiting the sick for political purposes.

The latest polls are showing a dead heat, with a number of surveys finding McCrory holding an edge. But the only surveys that have found McCrory leading outside of the margin of error have also shown McCain leading comfortably, suggesting that McCrory’s fate is dependent on a strong result at the top of the ticket - and the fact that Obama has a far superior ground game and has registered thousands of new Democratic-leaning voters could make the difference in Perdue’s favor if the election remains close.

3. Washington (Gov. Gregoire; Previous rating: 4)

This is the first time that I am rating this race a toss-up. It seemed likely that Christine Gregoire would be able to rely on the advantage of incumbency in a blue state in a Democratic year to take a decisive advantage over Dino Rossi. Instead, the contest looks just as tight as it did four years ago - so tight, in fact, that SUSA’s surveys have found the margin to be within the MoE for seven polls in a row. Other pollsters also find a dead heat.

All of this points to the simple fact that Gregoire remains eminently vulnerable, and that she was not able to fully legitimize herself after her controversial 2004 victory on a second recount. Her fate largely depends on the national environment on Election Day, as a Democratic breeze would likely be enough to push her across the finish line. Rossi needs the GOP brand to improve a bit, and he is fully aware that the biggest obstacle to his election is his party label. That is why he has gotten to be listed on the ballot as “GOP party” rather than as “Republican.” Democrats sued against Rossi’s maneuver, but a judge just ruled in Rossi’s favor.

Lean retention (1 R)

4. Indiana (Gov. Daniels: Previous rating: 3)

You can’t blame Democrats for having high hopes for toppling Mitch Daniels. The incumbent was so unpopular two years ago that he contributed to the state GOP’s catastrophic results in the 2006 midterms. And polls throughout the spring showed Daniels locked in a dead heat against the two Democrats who were vying to oppose him. But it looks like the May 6th primary was the high point of Jill Long Thompson’s campaign. She is now in a difficult position financially and she was recently forced to close some offices and cancel TV advertising for at least an entire week of September. And Daniels has opened a decisive lead in the polls of the past few months, usually above the 50% vulnerability threshold. Long Thompson is still not out of contention, but her fate appears to be largely dependent on that of Barack Obama, and she will need to ride Obama’s organization and ground game to reach voters she would not be able to organize herself.

Full rankings of all 11 races here.

9th presidential ratings: NC and FL’s move to toss-up column gives Obama largest lead yet

The presidential race has seen quite a few dramatic momentum swings over the past few weeks, and that is reflected in the bounciness of my presidential ratings. The margin between Obama and McCain was relatively stable from mid-June to late August, but McCain’s momentum the first two weeks of this month allowed him to close the gap to only 6 electoral votes in my most recent electoral ratings. Since then, however, the economic crisis and the natural fading of McCain’s bounce have allowed Obama to regain his footing and jump to his biggest lead yet - 55 electoral votes.

Obama’s new found advantage comes primarily from the erosion of McCain’s base. Only 174 electoral votes are rated McCain, which is by far his lowest ever (see full history). While the Arizona Senator seems to have solidified his hold on the Mountain West (Obama gave up on contesting North Dakota, and Montana polls suggest that McCain has recaptured a double-digit lead), there is little question that other states that McCain should be winning comfortably have become dead heats: Last week, I moved Indiana to the toss-up column. This week, it is North Carolina’s turn to head out of the McCain column, in what is a devastating development for McCain; Florida also returns to the toss-ups, though that is less dramatic a move, and Obama is close to erasing McCain’s advantage in Missouri as well.

What is most worrisome for McCain in this erosion is that late September is a time a candidate wants to start locking away his most secure states. Instead, the GOP has had to expand its advertisement to Florida late last month, North Carolina two weeks ago and Indiana starting next week. In fact, Indiana and North Carolina’s move to the toss-up column isn’t due to any dramatic and surprising change in those states’ numbers but rather to the fact that we have now reached the final stretch with no sign that these states’ usual partisan affiliation is kicking in.

(Also, note that Indiana and North Carolina - the two reddest states which are now part of the toss-up category - were the two states that held their primaries on May 6th. Could Obama have been this competitive in either state this late in the game had it not been for the extended primary?)

All of this does not mean that McCain is doomed, because Obama has not yet been able to expand his base. This week, 239 electoral votes are rated Obama this week - and that is more or less the level the Illinois Senator has been at for months. He has been able to solidify his hold on Iowa and New Mexico, but other states (notably Minnesota and Wisconsin) have tightened. And while Virginia and Colorado showed signs of moving towards Obama this week (with a number of polls showing Obama leading outside the margin of error in both), a few days of strong polling for Obama in one of his best weeks isn’t enough to remove either from the toss-up column. Yet, Michigan returns to the Obama camp - the only state to move out of the toss-up column this week. McCain has deployed tremendous efforts in the Wolverine State, but it seems like the financial crisis has allowed Obama to finally gain an advantage.

For Obama, the path to 270 remains far more clear than it is for McCain. With Iowa and New Mexico tilting in his direction, Obama needs to retain four endangered blue states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota) and pick-up one more state, with Colorado then Virginia looking like the most promising at the moment (if Obama wins either of those, he would not need to save New Hampshire since 269 should be enough). Those 6 states thus look like the most important at the moment - and take this as further proof that no, it does not all come down to Ohio or Florida this year.

Without further delay, here are the ninth electoral college ratings (states whose ratings have been changed are in bold). Remember that states that are in the “lean” category are considered to be very competitive and certain to be hotly contested, but it is possible to say that one candidate has a slight edge at this time.

  • Safe McCain: Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska (at large + 3rd congressional district), Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Tennessee, Texas, Wyoming (122 EVs)
  • Likely McCain: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska (1st and 2nd congressional districts), North Dakota, West Virginia (38 EVs)
  • Lean McCain: Missouri, Montana (14 EVs)
  • Toss-up: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia (125 EV)
  • Lean Obama: Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Wisconsin (42 EVs)
  • Likely Obama: Iowa, Oregon, Maine (at-large, 2nd district), New Jersey, Washington (43 EVs)
  • Safe Obama: California, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine’s 1st district, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont (154 EVs)

This gives us the following map and totals:

  • Safe + Likely Obama: 197 electoral votes
  • Safe + Likely + Lean Obama: 239
  • Toss-up: 125
  • Safe + Likely + Lean McCain: 174
  • Safe + Likely McCain: 160

I will naturally not attempt to provide an explanation for every single one of these ratings and will concentrate instead on those that have shifted over the past two weeks:

Florida, lean McCain to toss-up: McCain was expected to have a more comfortable time in the Sunshine State than Bush did in 2000 and 2004, but the millions Obama poured in the state throughout the summer allowed him to close the gap and have forced McCain to invest in the state - something he did not want to do. But it seems that the Democrats’ goal was not simply to put McCain into a defensive position, and the Obama campaign is dead serious about winning Florida’s 27 electoral votes (and, with them, almost certainly ensuring that they get to 270 electoral votes).

Obama spent a lot of time in Florida last week - and a candidate’s time in late September is a sure sign that the race is hot. David Plouffe has said that his campaign intends as much as $39 million in Florida this fall (that’s almost half as much as McCain can spent nationally), and the Obama campaign dramatically increased its ads last week, as they are now spending about $2 million a week - more than in any other state. While McCain had a consistent edge in August and early September, both men have been leading in recent surveys, almost always within the margin of error.

Iowa, lean Obama to likely Obama: Iowa becomes the only state rated likely or safe Obama in which McCain is airing ads, but we always knew that the Hawkeye State would be very difficult terrain for McCain. He skipped the state’s caucuses both in 2000 and 2008, simultaneously angering residents and missing opportunities to introduce himself to voters. Obama, on the other hand, built an extensive organization here in the lead-up to his January 3rd victory and that network boosts his November 4th prospects. The latest polls have Obama regularly leading by double-digits, and it would surprise no one if McCain were to pull out of Iowa in the weeks ahead to concentrate in resources in states he has a better chance of winning.

Michigan, toss-up to lean Obama: Throughout the spring and early summer, it looked like the GOP was looking to replace Pennsylvania with Michigan as the biggest endangered blue state - and Obama was clearly struggling to perform at the level of a generic Democrat in a state in which his weakness among blue-collar Democrats looked like it could be fatal. And McCain and Palin’s frequent visits to the state confirmed how high it was on the GOP’s priority list. That made it particularly curious to notice earlier this month that the McCain campaign was spending significantly more in Pennsylvania than in Michigan, perhaps a sign that Republicans noticed they were losing ground here.

And as Obama has gained ground nationally in the aftermath of the financial crisis, he was boosted that much more in Michigan - taking a stunning double-digit lead in a number of recent polls (especially the major Michigan pollster EPIC-MRA). Nowhere are Democrats in a better position when the conversation turns to the national economy than in Michigan, one of the most hard-hit states. That said, McCain remains highly competitive in the state, and the race could tighten again if national security comes to occupy a greater place in the campaign in October. And the amount of legal action in the state testifies to its continuing competitiveness.

North Carolina, lean McCain to toss-up: I wrote a long post devoted exclusively to North Carolina’s tightening just two days ago, so you can read that for a full analysis. Obama’s North Carolina numbers had been stunningly strong in the Tar Heel state since the beginning of the year, but the fact that McCain kept a consistent (albeit narrow) edge in every public poll suggested that the state remained McCain’s to lose. That has changed over the past week, as PPP and Civitas released two polls that had the candidates tied (those were only the second and third surveys ever to find such a result, and the first since April) and Rasmussen had Obama narrowly leading - his first edge ever in North Carolina! And there are other indications that North Carolina is highly competitive: The McCain campaign finally went up on the air earlier this month, and the Tar Heel state was Obama’s first campaign stop after the first debate.

Oregon, lean Obama to likely Obama: Oregon was one of the most endangered blue states in both 2000 or 2004, but Obama has always looked stronger the average Democrat in the Northwest. When Clinton was still in the race, general election surveys showed that this region was one of the only ones in the country in which it seemed safe to say that one candidate looked more electable than the other. And the last few months have confirmed Obama’s strength in Oregon: He now regularly leads by double-digits in a state Gore won by only 7,000 (14% according to Research 2000, 11% according to SUSA and ARG).

South Dakota, likely McCain to safe McCain: This deeply conservative state was not rated in the safest of McCain’s columns because of Obama’s surprising strength in the Mountain West throughout the summer. While Obama had only invested in North Dakota and in Montana, some polls suggested South Dakota might not be entirely out of reach - but that door appears to have slam shut as McCain has regained his footing throughout the region.

Washington, lean Obama to likely Obama: Surprisingly, Obama is having more trouble pulling ahead in Washington polls than in Oregon, which is generally considered to be a more competitive state than its Northern neighbor. But what I wrote about Oregon applies here, namely that Northwestern independents and Democrats appear to harbor warmer feelings for Obama than those in the rest of the country, allowing Obama to hold an edge in a region McCain would have loved to contest. And while I had moved the state to the lean Obama column last week, the Democrat has since then recovered in national polls; it is unlikely McCain can contest Washington without holding a national edge.

History of Campaign Diaries’ electoral ratings:

  • September 27th: + 55 Obama (239 for Obama [154 safe, 43 likely, 42 lean] and 174 for McCain [122 safe, 38 likely, 14])
  • September 20th: +6 Obama (222 for Obama [154 safe, 19 likely, 49 lean] and 216 for McCain [119 safe, 41 likely, 56 lean])
  • August 31st: + 16 Obama (243 for Obama [154 safe, 29 likely, 60 lean] and 227 for McCain [93 safe, 75 likely, 59 lean])
  • August 20th: + 14 Obama (238 for Obama [151 safe, 32 likely, 55 lean] and 224 for McCain [90 safe, 75 likely, 59 lean])
  • July 30th: + 38 Obama (238 for Obama [151 safe, 42 likely, 45 lean] and 200 for McCain [90 safe, 75 likely, 35 lean])
  • July 16th: +28 Obama (255 for Obama [150 safe, 43 likely, 62 lean] and 227 for McCain [90 safe, 78 likely, 59 lean])
  • July 2rd: +11 Obama (238 for Obama [143 safe, 50 likely, 45 lean] and 227 for McCain [93 safe, 78 likely, 56 lean])
  • June 18th: +22 Obama (238 for Obama [86 safe, 97 likely, 55 lean] and 216 for McCain [87 safe, 87 likely, 42 lean])
  • June 4th: +20 McCain (207 for Obama [76 base, 107 likely, 24 lean] and 227 for McCain [97 safe, 77 likely, 53 lean])

Poll watch: Obama up in pre-debate trackings, McConnell and Porter in danger

As we now wait to see whether the first debate will move any numbers (and perhaps fulfill the 1980 parallel I have talked about before), any presidential poll released this week-end should be seen as a baseline to see whether either candidate receives a bounce since most will have been in the field before the debate. That’s why we will exceptionally start with some down-the-ballot surveys in today’s poll watch:

  • In what is the most shocking of the day’s polls, Mason Dixon finds the Kentucky Senate race is a dead heat: McConnell leads 45% to 44%, and the race is tied when leaners are not included.
  • In more good news for Southern Democrats, Rasmussen shows Mary Landrieu cruising. She leads John Kennedy 54% to 41% in what is one of the least polled Senate races of the cycles. Landrieu led by 17% in August.
  • McCain’s best friend Lindsay Graham leads 51% to 42% against “Democrat” Bob Conley in a Research 2000 poll of South Carolina’s Senate race.
  • In what is the day’s most instructive new House poll, an incumbent Republican (NV-03’s Porter) released an internal poll in which he only leads 41% to 39%. This is a response to Dona Titus’s survey earlier this week that showed her leading by 9%.
  • In CA-04, a Research 2000 poll finds Democrat Charlie Brown with a narrow lead over Tom McClintock, 46% to 41%. This is a very conservative district, and an open seat.
  • In FL-13, an internal poll for the Jennings campaign finds the Democrat trailing Rep. Buchanan 44% to 40%.
  • In MI-07, Tim Walberg released an internal poll showing him leading 50% to 40% to contest the internal released by his opponent two days ago which showed him trailing by 6%. But Walberg’s poll only sampled 300 voters, with a very large margin of error of 5.7%.
  • For those interested in the crucial battle for New York’s state Senate, Siena polled six of the most competitive districts (how often do we see independent polls released for state legislature races) and finds that Democrats are in a good position to finally take the majority but that Republicans have a fighting chance.
  • Also, SUSA finds that California voters approve 52% to 36% of a proposition that would institute a 48-hour waiting period for minors to have an abortion after their parents are told.

Any time an incumbent thinks that it is a good thing to be getting 41% in an internal poll, you know that they are in real trouble. Porter’s internal is as damning for him than Titus’s internal poll was the other day because it shows that Porter’s campaign is now so worried that he is falling behind that they are looking to celebrate a poll with a 5% margin of error that shows their candiate stuck in the low 40s.

But the day’s most important congressional survey is undoubtedly Mason Dixon’s shocker from Kentucky’s Senate race. Early this week, SUSA released a poll that found a 3% race, which led me to wonder whether Democrats could make Kentucky into their 10th competitive seat. Mason Dixon’s survey answers in the affirmative, and the Senate Minority Leader is finding himself in a real fight. The DSCC has not yet invested in the race, probably since Lunsford can take care of himself and self-fund his campaign; but McConnell remains a formidable candidate with a large war chest and an entrenched incumbent with a well-oiled machine, so national Democrats would probably need to get involved at some point. Also, Lunsford will have to overcome the coattails of the presidential race, which were fatal to Mongiardo in 2004.

But however much Democrats still have work to do, Kentucky’s emergence as a tight battleground in the Senate battle is very worrisome news for the GOP.

Meanwhile, in presidential polling:

  • The day’s trackings were favorable to Obama, though even Friday night’s samples were almost entirely taken before the presidential debate. And for once, all trackings show very similar results! Obama leads by 5% in Gallup (49% to 44%) and Diego Hotline (48% to 43%), by 6% in Rasmussen (50% to 44%) and Research 2000 (49% to 43%).
  • Obama leads 51% to 43% in a Rasmussen poll of Iowa. He led by 5% last month.
  • Obama leads 54% to 38% in a SUSA poll of Connecticut.

These tracking polls might not tell us much about the reaction to the debate, but they underscore that (1) McCain doesn’t appear to have benefited from his Wednesday afternoon gamble, and (2) that it was important it was for McCain to score a game-changer last night. He needed to do what John Kerry succeeded in doing in 2004, when Kerry went in the debate trailing widely and managed to close the gap thanks to the first debate, entering October in a very competitive position. I don’t believe (and neither did the first snap polls) that he succeeded in doing so.

In debate with no defining moment, visuals could help Obama

Despite Jim Lehrer’s best attempts to get the candidates to engage each other, neither candidate attempted to land a deadly blow. There were no memorable one-liners, nor any gigantic mistakes. This debate is unlikely to give one candidate a jolt of momentum - and that is better news for Barack Obama since it is John McCain who is playing catch-up at the moment.

The foreign policy debate was McCain’s best opportunity to convince voters Obama was too risky a choice on national security. While it might be too early to say that Obama managed to address voters’ doubts, it seems safe to say that McCain’s attempts to paint Obama as an ignorant ingenue did not succeed in disqualifying his opponent.

To try to declare a winner in a debate with no home run is an inherently subjective exercise. It is difficult to know what undecided voters might react to or what they were even looking for. But when a debate lacks a defining moment that dominates people’s perceptions, the overall visuals become that much more important. And here is where Obama might have gained an edge tonight: he seemed to be more in control of his image, and better aware of what is likely to come across well on television.

In one of the debate’s tensest moments, Obama turned to McCain to attack his support for the Iraq War. “John, you like to pretend that the war started in 2007,” he said, before launching into a list of McCain’s early mistakes. “You were wrong,” he asserted repeatedly. This was a made-for-TV moment, and McCain’s immediate comeback was bound to work its way in the clip that cable news are now going to play over and over again. So what did McCain answer? “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

Ouch?

That moment exemplified one of the night’s trends: McCain let Obama get under his skin and wasted some of his time on attacks that are unlikely to do much good. Pressed on his refusal to say that he would meet with the Prime Minister of Spain, McCain responded, “I’m not going to set the White House visitors schedule… I don’t even have my own seal yet.” Was that even intended to convince anybody? Besides political junkies who treat every campaign subplot like a major story, I doubt more than a handful of voters understood that the seal reference was meant as an attack against Obama, let alone what it was referencing.

More often than not, McCain’s shots seemed solely designed to let him vent his contempt. McCain must have known that he had to control his awkward smiles, and yet his condescension was stunningly transparent throughout these 90 minutes.

He smirked, he sneered, he scoffed, he sighed - sometimes audibly even when he was not on screen - in what seemed like a remake of Al Gore’s first debate performance in 2000. McCain looked impatient when Obama spoke, and that impatience trickled down to his own answers. This was especially the case in the debate’s second half, when McCain seemed to grow more personally invested. How voters come to view this aspect of McCain’s performance will be decisive: Will it be seen as passionate or as erratic and overly negative?

My sense is that McCain’s making no effort to hide his obvious disdain for Obama will make viewers conclude the latter. The Republican nominee was determined to cast Obama as an inexperienced politician. Over and over again, he repeated that Obama “doesn’t understand.” But it is one thing to make a forceful appeal to experience, it is another to repeat at the beginning of seemingly every answer that Obama has no idea what he is talking about. For one, that claim doesn’t sound credible when Obama is clearly holding his own on policy questions; and plainly disrespecting your opponent is rarely a good idea.

Meanwhile, Obama looked determined to keep a sober tone and did not let himself grow emotional or overly irritated throughout the debate. That was a stark contrast to some of his confrontations with Hillary Clinton, who often managed to get him exasperated. In many ways, this hurts Obama, who sometimes looked more discursive than emphatic - though he has made progress on this since the Democratic debates. But in this particular debate, the contrast with McCain’s impatient responses should play well for Obama.

Obama looked steady, and in times of crisis that might be what voters are looking for. He did not tremble or seem out of his element, addressing some of the doubts undecided voters have.

What makes such a debate so difficult to judge, however, is that other viewers are likely to have widely different reactions to the same visual cues. Take, for instance, the fact that Obama often turned towards McCain but that McCain religiously avoided looking towards Obama. What some might see as McCain disrespecting his opponent, others might see as Obama being overly deferential - and that’s clearly the spin the McCain campaign is looking to put on the debate. (Another dynamic whose impact it is too early to determine is the age factor, as the generational gap was quite apparent throughout the debate. Will it strengthen McCain’s experience appeal or Obama’s “change” argument?)

I am aware that most of these points focus on tonight’s visuals, but that is only because the candidates seemed to neutralize each other substance-wise. But it is still worth taking a closer look at the night’s substantive factors.

The best news for the GOP is that most of the debate was waged on McCain’s turf: one of the most extended back-and-forths concerned Obama’s meeting with foreign leaders without preconditions, and much of the economic discussion was centered on tax cuts - a theme Republicans are always happy to discuss. Yet, Obama never lost ground while on the defensive. Most of his answers were crisp and he had some strong responses to McCain’s attacks (”Wildly liberal? Mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrongheaded policies.”) He also held his own throughout the foreign policy discussion and effectively pivoted terrorism-related questions to Afghanistan.

Inversely, McCain did better than expected in the opening segment on economic issues. Earmarks were to McCain what Afghanistan was to Obama: no matter the question he was asked, the Arizona Senator delivered a lengthy attack on wasteful spending. Did McCain aides even expect to have this much time to talk about one of McCain’s preferred topics tonight? Sure, earmarks are probably not the first and foremost economic issue on voters’ mind right now, but neither is Afghanistan the first national security issue voters think of when they worry about national security.

Furthermore, while Obama’s answer on tax loopholes was one of his strongest of the night, McCain’s surprising decision to float the possibility of a spending freeze allowed him to briefly look like the more bold and presidential candidate; Obama stayed too vague when Lehrer pressed him to explain how the financial crisis would change his plans, and his answer to McCain’s spending freeze claim could have gone much further in ridiculing McCain’s proposal.

In fact, both candidates seemed to accumulate missed opportunities in their responses. On the one side, McCain could have done much more to distance himself from President Bush.He barely tried to make the change argument tonight, and his listing issues on which he has disagreed with Bush sounded too flippant; considering that all polls show that this is one of McCain’s major problems, he should have done a more careful job in walking viewers through those differences.

McCain often seemed to tie himself to his party label by betting his political success on the continuing popularity of whatever is left of conservative ideology. His prolonged railing against meeting leaders without preconditions and his insistence on talking about tax cuts and spending were arguments that could have resonated more strongly with the electorate in 2000 or 2004, not after eight years of Bush.

On the other hand, Obama should have gone further in tying McCain to his record and to his support for now-unpopular policies. Though Obama did repeatedly attack the conservative economic ideology in the first 30 minutes  - a remarkable feat for a candidate who until a few weeks ago stayed away from most such ideological pronouncements - he did not sustain his attempts to link McCain to Reaganomics, nor did he hit his opponent as hard as he could have on an issue like Iraq.

The first snap polls taken by CBS and CNN as well as the first focus groups (Frantz Luntz and Greenberg) whose results have been made public suggest that Obama gained the most tonight, but it will take a few days for polls to start reflecting what effect - if any - this debate had. There are still two presidential and one vice-presidential debates, and the burden will be on McCain to make them more memorable than tonight’s encoutner.



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