How will we know what and are doing right -- or wrong -- in persuading key voters as we approach Nov. 4?
It's highly unlikely that we'll see either break out to a big lead by then; it's much more likely that the two will remain deadlocked in both national and key battleground state polling all the way to Election Day. So how can we figure out whether the McCain and Obama camps' strategies over the next few weeks are working?
One way is to focus less on the head-to-head number and more on key demographic groups. Trends among these voters will give us some clues as to who's gaining significant traction -- or falling behind. Since Sept. 2, the Diageo/Hotline tracking poll has interviewed 4,270 voters. We've identified at least four key groups that we think will have outsized influence on determining the White House winner.
• McCain Mavericks: In an election where almost 80 percent of voters say the country is headed in the wrong direction and 65 percent disapprove of the job President Bush is doing, McCain can't be content to rally the diehards -- he needs to win over voters who disapprove of Bush.
For many of these voters, it's style, not substance, that has them feeling disillusioned. They may agree with the general GOP philosophy but think that Bush has devalued the GOP brand. These are the voters McCain was talking to in his nominating speech in St. Paul, Minn., when he said, "We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. We lost the trust of the American people when some Republicans gave in to the temptations of corruption. We lost their trust when, rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger."
McCain is currently getting 22 percent of Bush disapprovers -- a serious improvement from previous nominees looking to replace their party's term-limited president. In 1988, George H.W. Bush got 11 percent of Ronald Reagan disapprovers; in 2000, Al Gore got just 9 percent of Bill Clinton disapprovers. Of course, Reagan and Clinton had much lower disapproval numbers than Bush does.
• Suburban Sprawlers: There's been a lot of focus on Obama's performance in rural areas, but he's also depending on surpassing traditional Democratic performance in the exurbs. These fast-growing areas -- think Loudoun County, Va., or Weld County, Colo. -- are populated by lots of college-educated independent voters.
Right now, Obama's running slightly ahead with college-educated independents -- 41 percent to 38 percent. But McCain's beating him by 16 points among independent voters without a college degree.
• The Women, Parts I & II: The most striking gap isn't between men and women, it's between white women with a college degree and those without.
Those who are married and have a college degree give Obama a very slight lead, 45 percent to 44 percent, while those without a degree overwhelmingly support McCain, 57 percent to 31 percent. Among white men, the difference is negligible. McCain is getting 56 percent among white men with a degree and 58 percent from white men without.
How does this compare with past elections? National Journal political director Ronald Brownstein tells us that in 2004, John Kerry took just 39 percent of married, white college-educated women -- 5 points below Obama's current standing.
But Obama is underperforming among single white women without a degree -- a group that Bush only narrowly carried in 2004, 51 percent to 48 percent. McCain has an 8-point lead among this group, 47 percent to 39 percent. Is this the Sarah Palin factor, or is something else at work?
Either way, it's clear that Palin's job over the next few weeks will be to mind -- and mine -- that gap, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Will the news this week of a struggling economy help Obama gain some traction among this group?