Maybe it isn't over after all
Mon October 27, 2008 10:24 am

For those, including me, who think that the presidential race is over, the online political journal Salon has an interesting article about the Bradley effect and Obama's vulnerability. Written by veteran GOP political operative Bill Greener (he was, among other things, manager of the 1996 Republican convention), its thesis is that Obama needs to stay above 50% in battleground states. Otherwise, the "undecided" vote will break toward McCain because much of it consists of white voters who aren't really undecided at all.

The article is important, because the Bradley effect is about the only way Obama can lose at this point. No conventional strategy can win the race for McCain. Reports this morning indicate that both candidates will be spending the last week in red states, putting McCain on the defensive.

Here are some key points in the article:

* Despite what the polls seem to be saying, a closer look at the numbers shows that a Democratic victory is not a foregone conclusion. Why? Because if history is any guide, Barack Obama, as an African-American candidate for political office, needs to be polling consistently above 50 percent to win. And in crucial battleground states, he isn't.

* Much has been written about the so-called Bradley Effect, in which voters lie to pollsters about whether they're willing to vote for a black candidate. . . . There are two other ways in which voters can mislead pollsters about their intentions. One is to decline to participate in a poll. (More than one expert has suggested that conservatives are more likely to decline than liberals, meaning there could be many uncounted McCain voters.) The other is when [voters] participate but . . . say they're undecided when they really aren't. It's the latter phenomenon in particular, I think, that gives John McCain a chance at winning enough swing states to reach the White House.

* There's an old rule in politics that an incumbent candidate is always in danger when he dips under 50 percent, even if he is leading his opponent in the polls. It's all about the undecideds. In a race with an incumbent candidate and a challenger, on Election Day the undecideds tend to break for the challenger, at rates as high as 4 to 1. If an incumbent is polling at, say, 47 to 45 percent with 8 percent undecided, there's a good chance he's going to wind up losing 49 to 51. As it's sometimes expressed, if you're an incumbent, what you see is what you get.

* The same pattern seems to be true for African-American candidates in much of the country. If you're a black candidate running against a white candidate, what you see is what you get. And it doesn't matter whether you're an incumbent or a challenger. If you're not polling above 50 percent, you should be worried. As of this writing, Barack Obama is not polling consistently above 50 percent in a number of electoral-vote-rich swing states, including Ohio and Florida. He should be worried.

Here is what I think is wrong with Greener's reasoning. As I wrote last week in the post, "It's Over," in which I called the race for Obama, the problem McCain faces is that Obama's lead in the states carried by John Kerry is insurmountable. I'll update the list of those states with the latest polling (from pollster.com):

Kerry States (251 electoral votes)
ME 53.5 - 38.5 (4)
NH 50.6 - 43.7 (4)
VT 57.2 - 34.1 (3)
MA 57.8 - 38.3 (12)
RI 48.2 - 30.9 (4)
CT 54.4 - 39.4 (7)
NY 58.8 - 35.5 (31)
PA 52.7 - 40.0 (21)
NJ 52.5 - 40.6 (15)
DE 55.2 - 39.5 (3)
MD 55.5 -37.5 (10)
DC 82.0 -13.0 (3)
MI 54.0 - 38.1 (17)
MN 51.4 -42.6 (10)
WI 51.4 - 42.6 (10)
WA 52.3 - 42.7 (11)
OR 53.1 - 39.7 (7)
CA 54.7 - 38.1 (55)
HI 63.8 - 30.2 (4)

Bush swing states 2004 in which Obama has > 50% (12 electoral votes)
IA 53.1 - 41.2 (7)
NM 50.4 - 43.9 (5)

Running total: 263 electoral votes

Red states in 2004 in which Obama has > 50% (22 electoral votes)
VA 51.8 - 43.7 (13)
CO 51.3 - 44.6 (9)

If you go by Greener's "What you see is what you get" rule, Obama has enough votes to win. He is over 50% in states with 285 electoral votes (270 to win). The undecided vote doesn't matter at all if he holds onto his vote. It's true that he could dip below 50% in New Hampshire and New Mexico, and he is running below 50% in Rhode Island. But RI is a certain blue state. Even if he lost all three of these states (13 electoral vote), he would still have 272 electoral votes. If you look at McCain's % in these states, there is not a single one in which he has as much as 45% of the vote. And in Pennsylvania, a state that is the centerpiece of McCain's "narrow victory" strategy, a poll released yesterday has Obama in front, 52-40.

More: Obama is leading in these red states:
NC - 49.0
NV - 49.4
OH - 49.6
FL - 48.0
ND - 44.9

He might win North Carolina and Nevada. I don't think he'll win FL or OH. But he doesn't need any of them, so long as he holds onto the majority in the states where is is over 50%.

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