Why It’s Still a Race
Wednesday, October 29, 2008 8:45 AM
By Howard Fineman
Here’s all you need to know about Sen. Barack Obama and his campaign. He taped his half-hour TV special, which airs across your dial at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight, last week.
Now, a week is a year and a year is a lifetime in presidential campaigns. But it is characteristic of Obama to plan ahead in the heat of the battle. The cool, collected senator has known from the start (nearly two years ago) pretty much what he has wanted to say. He kept his eyes on the prize. The small stuff didn’t distract him.
That is why his campaign and its staff, which I have checked in with twice in the last week here in Chicago, remain relatively calm as they head into the final lap of a national NASCAR race that has not quite turned into the rout that history and other factors would lead you to predict.
By all accounts and by all odds, Obama is fairly comfortably ahead in the Electoral College—which, as Al Gore will tell you, is what matters.
On TV Wednesday night, Obama will give what one aide described to me as a “meaty” discourse on his basic tax and health-care proposals. No high-flown rhetoric, but rather a briefing paper for wary undecided swing voters---most of whom, the campaign thinks, are “soft Republicans” who kind of want to vote for Obama but need reassurance.
And yet, in the meantime, Sen. John McCain has not quite disappeared in the rear-view mirror.
I find that astonishing. And, if you are in the Obama campaign, you have to find that at the very least a teeny bit troubling in these last days.
Let me repeat the following litany, just for the sake of wonder if nothing else:
Consumer confidence is at an all-time low. The job performance rating of the outgoing Republican president is at Nixon-Carter levels. Nine out of ten voters think the country is off on the wrong track. The Democrats lead in the generic congressional preference vote by a double-digit margin.
Obama has outspent McCain on TV advertising three or four to one (though McCain is matching him in some key states here at the end). Obama has four thousand paid organizers in key states, an unheard of number. Most voters think that McCain’s running mate is not qualified to be president. Many people wonder aloud if McCain is in fact too old (72) to be president. Much of the media coverage of Obama has been fawning to say the least, and with good reason. He is one of the most winsome, charismatic candidates to have appeared on the scene in decades.
Still, in today’s “traditional Gallup” Daily Tracking Poll (the one that screens likely voters most rigorously, based on past votes), Obama leads McCain by only two percentage points, 49 to 47 percent.
Here in Chicago, they say that they expected a close race at the end, as one staffer put it. They are steady as she goes on ad spending, and they are fighting the end game on Red State turf, which is what the frontrunner does. They scoff at the idea that McCain could win Pennsylvania, and they are almost certainly right about that.
It’s hard to make the Electoral College numbers add up for McCain. He has to win all of the current tossup states (Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina and Florida), plus Ohio and Virginia and one of the following three: New Hampshire, Colorado or New Mexico. That isn’t just drawing one inside straight; that’s
drawing a whole casino’s worth of them.
Why hasn’t Obama run away with this?
Because the country remains culturally divided. Because the more it looks like Democrats will score huge gains in Congress, the more worried “soft Republican” voters get. Because McCain has succeeded, in the minds of some of those voters, in raising the hoary specter of “tax-and-spend” liberals. Because Obama hails from a place (South Side Chicago) and background (the son of professional academics) more reminiscent of Democratic losers like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry than winners like LBJ, Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Because some voters remember the hate-filled sound bites of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
And, to a degree we cannot measure and may never fully know, because Obama is an African-American---and one with a Swahili name at that.
There is nothing that the staffers here in Chicago can do about any of that at this point. Up on the 11th floor of the office building here, staffers are hard at work. They aren’t thinking about those things. Their campaign manager, David Plouffe, won’t let them. “We expected this to tighten,” one of them said to me a few hours ago.
And so, it seems, it has.
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