WASHINGTON — If we have learned anything from this election cycle, it should be how volatile and unpredictable campaigns can be. This cycle, nothing has remained static for long; it's an election in which the rule book seems to have been chucked out a window. That's why it is now so dangerous to conclude that this presidential race might be over, despite a preponderance of evidence that it might be.
On Monday, the Gallup Organization reported the results of their national tracking poll, showing that for the 10th consecutive day Sen. Barack Obama had held a lead over Sen. John McCain, beyond the statistical margin of error. The Democrat was 8 percentage points ahead, 50 to 42 percent, in their three-day moving average of 2,744 interviews with registered voters over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, all conducted after Thursday night's vice presidential debate (margin of error +/-2 percent). Obama has been holding at 48-50 percent each day, McCain between 42 and 44 percent, a very stable pattern. With as much as one third of the vote expected to be cast before Election Day, every day that Obama maintains a lead of this magnitude makes it that much harder to overcome. In their weekly compilation of data from almost 6,400 interviews, Gallup had reported their mid-week demographic breakouts showed that Obama had improved his standing with a number of key subgroups which had been showing resistance to his entreaties, including whites with just a high school education or less, conservative white Democrats and senior citizens.
In terms of states, Obama had pulled at least nominally ahead in every state carried by either Vice President Al Gore in 2000 or Sen. John Kerry in 2004 and was running slightly ahead, even or within the margin of error in 10 states President Bush won in 2000, 2004 or both. In short, Obama was ahead in enough states to put him within 10 Electoral votes of the magic 270 number and within range to get well over 300. In short, McCain would have to run the table, winning every state that he was even close in, in order to win. That is a tall order.
With the economy dropping precipitously and the credit markets in horrible shape, Americans seem to have concluded that the risk and fear of the status quo is greater than the risk or fear of change. Beyond taxes, McCain has simply not articulated a coherent economic message, and the fear of Democratic tax increases has become secondary to fear of a recession. It would seem that for voters, beyond national security and Iraq, McCain has little to say and whatever he is saying isn't particularly persuasive.
It certainly seems that in the aftermath of McCain's recent missteps in his comments on the economy and the continuation of the subject as a primary issue in the campaign, McCain can't win. He needs some event or change in the dynamics or circumstances to shift the focus back onto national security, his strong suit.
There was a time when McCain could speak intelligently and persuasively on a multitude of subjects, but it would seem that his tunnel vision on Iraq, some might even say obsession, has considerably narrowed areas in which he can speak authoritatively. In short, he has become a Johnny One-Note, and that note isn't the one that people seem to be listening for right now.
Not coincidentally, the picture for Republicans in the Senate and House has worsened as well, with the deterioration starting even before two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the initial $700 billion rescue package. Both national polling -- a special survey in 50 vulnerable Republican-held congressional districts conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for Democracy Corps -- and conversations with strategists in both parties indicate a political environment that could result in GOP losses even beyond the 12-17 seats that had been envisioned.
Normally, the only saving grace in a party having a really ugly election is that they almost never have two bad elections in a row: Dynamics change and, at least in the House, there is usually a rubber-band effect, some bounce-back in the next election, six years later in the Senate due to their longer terms. But now Republicans are facing the distinct possibility of two consecutive ugly elections. Unless something happens really quickly, they will have themselves in a deep hole.
While GOP Senate losses might still be kept to just six or seven seats, the possibility of an eight seat loss is now very real, and a nine seat loss is not beyond the range of possibility. As things are playing out now, Republican Senate losses in the open seats in Virginia and New Mexico seem to be inevitable, while incumbent Ted Stevens' fortunes seem inextricably linked to his legal trial in Washington. Democratic chances in the open seat in Colorado and against incumbent John Sununu in New Hampshire seem slightly better than 50-50. Incumbents Norm Coleman in Minnesota, Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina and Gordon Smith in Oregon are even, though some would say a bit worse. If they were all to fall Democrats would be at eight seats. The only thing between that and nine seats would be either appointed incumbent Roger Wicker in Mississippi or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose race has closed some in recent weeks.
There is still time for this election to turn. But every day that goes by, the event or circumstance needed to reverse the course has to be bigger and quicker than what was needed the day before.
Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.