Some pundits claim John McCain has no chance of beating Barack Obama. "The current bundle of economic troubles should doom any Republican hoping to succeed George Bush," says NBC's Chris Matthews. "It's almost impossible to believe that another Republican could get elected," insists Katty Kay, the BBC's Washington-based correspondent. They need to better understand the rhythms of presidential campaigns and show more humility in a year that's been chock full of political surprises.
Some Democrats claim new polls by Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times showing Sen. McCain trailing by 15 points in each seal the deal on an Obama presidency. But both polls appear to be outliers. Other polls show the race to be close.
Both surveys polled registered, not likely, voters. Normally, only two-thirds of those end up casting ballots, and nonvoters lean Democratic. Second, Democrats had a 14-point advantage in Newsweek's sample, and a 17-point advantage in the Times poll, with Republicans making up only 22% of respondents. That's an unusually low number. Most other polls have the party ID gap with a significantly smaller Democratic edge.
Republicans shouldn't panic, but they should be worried. The McCain campaign reflects the candidate's impulsive nature and hasn't articulated a consistent reform agenda. President Bush's job rating has collapsed. One recent survey found only 53% of Republicans now approve of his performance. Sen. Obama will have so much money to spend he can microtarget millions of his supporters early and deliver absentee ballots which are prone to abuse to them.
This election reminds some of the 1980 race, when voters were clearly looking for a reason to vote the incumbent party out of the White House. Even so, Jimmy Carter kept even with Ronald Reagan well into October by painting him as risky and out of the mainstream. Then, in the home stretch, Reagan finally convinced voters he was sensible and trustworthy, and wound up winning by double digits.
Barack Obama is roughly in the same position as Reagan was back then. He is untested in foreign policy. His record in office clearly leans left, with the nonpartisan National Journal rating him the most liberal U.S. senator. When asked this month by ABC News when he had ever broken with liberal orthodoxy and taken risks with his base as Bill Clinton did on trade, culture and welfare Mr. Obama had little to say. At a meeting of Obama voters I attended this week, some bemoaned the fact that many of their friends backed him solely because of his cool "name brand" and vague message of change.
The McCain campaign can't expect to win the election on the strength of their man's personal appeal or character. He is most likely to win by engaging Mr. Obama on the issues, and forcing debates over competing visions of foreign policy, and the size and scope of government. Tackling concerns about energy and food costs are key.
Here Mr. McCain has an opening. On many core issues, the country still leans right of center. In last week's Washington Post poll, 50% of voters favored a smaller government with fewer services while 45% wanted a bigger government with more services the same percentage breakdown as in June 2004.
In the Democratic primaries, Mr. Obama's ideas were rarely challenged. In the fall, they will be. "This election is remarkably fluid with two nonincumbents running," says pollster Scott Rasmussen. "Some 30% of voters say they could easily change their minds, and a third of independent voters aren't paying much attention yet."
There is evidence that fall campaigns, which tend to focus voters on big-picture issues, usually help Republicans. In 1976, Gerald Ford was seen as a goner during the summer but rallied to finish only two points behind Jimmy Carter. A dozen years later, Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush in June and July. He lost by eight points in the fall. In 1992, Bill Clinton had a 10-point lead around Labor Day. He won by only five and a half points. Even Bob Dole closed a 12-point Labor Day gap to only eight points by November 1996. If that history is a guide, a focused McCain campaign that clearly contrasts conservative and liberal approaches to the issues should have a good chance of winning.
After all, it isn't easy for Democrats to win in a two-person race for president. Since FDR's last victory in 1944, only one Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has won 50.1% or more of the popular vote. Both of Bill Clinton's victories were aided by Ross Perot's presence on the ballot.
Mr. Clinton's 1996 re-election offers another lesson. Facing a presidential defeat in addition to losses in Congress, Republicans boldly appealed to the public's fondness for divided government. They put out ads featuring a fortune-teller staring into a crystal ball showing over-the-top scenes of Biblical devastation, plague and conflict. An announcer warned: "Remember the last time Democrats ran everything? The largest tax increase in history. Government-run health care. More wasteful spending. Who wants that again? Don't let the media stop you from voting. And don't hand Bill Clinton a blank check."
It worked. Republicans kept control of Congress. Haley Barbour, then chairman of the Republican Party and now governor of Mississippi, said at the time that voters responded to the idea they needed an insurance policy against one-party rule. Independent voters may not like the idea of having the government completely controlled by the trio of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.
If Republicans had a better sense of why Democrats so often slump during fall campaigns, more of them would come out of the tall grass where they've been hiding and earn a presidential victory the old-fashioned way by focusing on the worth of their ideas. Their additional challenge this year is also convincing voters they've learned from the mistakes they made when they abandoned those ideas.