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September surprises keep voters hopping

In a presidential campaign that has yet to find its rhythm -- and might never -- the only constant is the next poll-swinging shift of momentum.
/ Source: National Journal

Normally at this point of the presidential campaign, the race has found its rhythm. The candidates have honed their messages and they're fine-tuning their campaign operations. There's always talk of an "October surprise," but that rarely materializes -- how many times over the course of the 2004 race did you hear the phrase, "What happens if Osama bin Laden is caught by November?"

This year, however, has been full of surprises, and we haven't even reached October. In the course of just a few weeks we zoomed from Palin to Paulson, leaving even the more flexible of us with a serious case of whiplash. The idea that this race can fall into some sort of traditional equilibrium may never happen.

Momentum, it seems, shifts overnight. It wasn't long ago that Democrats were wringing their hands, convinced that the Sarah Palin selection had allowed to change the dialogue and pick off those downscale white women they'd hoped had captured in Denver through the public "healing" with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Just as quickly, an economic crisis has steered the momentum back to Obama. Today's Diageo/Hotline poll shows him up by 6 percentage points, his largest lead since early September. And the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama with a whopping 9-point lead.

Among the key voting demographics we're tracking in the daily Diageo/Hotline poll, we saw some significant swings over the course of the month. For example:

• During the first week of September, white, married, college-educated women were supporting Obama by a 5-point margin. The next week (Sept. 10-16), when Palin officially hit the campaign trail, McCain jumped to a 9-point lead. By the next week, when the economy was in the spotlight (Sept. 15-21), Obama was back in the lead by 5 points.

• Among single, white, non-college-educated women, McCain led by 3 points during that first week. He jumped to a 15-point lead in week two, but then he settled down to a 1-point lead in week 3.

To be sure, these are small samples, and as such are prone to more dramatic swings than larger ones. How volatile they'll be for the next six weeks remains to be seen. If nothing else happens between now and Nov. 4, it's fair to say that the upcoming debates will be the next momentum-changers.

But while there's a growing consensus -- and plenty of polling evidence -- that the current economic troubles have boosted Obama politically, there's still plenty of potential for political fallout. And voters are feeling just as whipsawed as the candidates. The latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll showed that 55 percent of Americans say it's not the government's responsibility to bail out private companies with taxpayer dollars, even if their collapse could damage the economy.

Yet another survey, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, found that Americans, by 57 percent to 30 percent, favor government action to save financial companies. How the final bill gets packaged -- both structurally and rhetorically -- will force Obama and McCain to do even more recalibrations. And it could force yet another recalibration by voters.

This also tells us something about what to expect for the next few weeks on the trail. When the contest is focused on the fundamentals, like the struggling economy, Obama benefits. The more distractions -- think lipstick or Tony Rezko -- the better for McCain. Just who can keep the fight on his terrain is the challenge for both campaigns going forward.