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Leading Pollster: McCain Victory "Highly Improbable"

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Three weeks ago I interviewed Professor David Paleologos, political pollster and Director of Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. At the time, I encouraged the professor to poll my home state of Arizona, saying there were strong indications Obama might win. But he declined, saying he was focused solely on seven swing states: Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire.

In a follow up interview conducted exactly one week before election day, Professor Paleologos gave a hardy laugh when I reminded him of my Arizona plea, saying (magnanimously and very good naturedly): "I should have listened to you!" Paleologos now agrees Arizona will be in play on election day, adding: "The fact that McCain has to pay attention to his home state is embarrassing. That speaks volumes to what is happening in the rest of the country."

As the election draws to a close, Suffolk is releasing polls at a rapid pace, all of which show Obama getting stronger. Ohio poll results released Oct. 20 show Obama up by 9 points.

Florida poll results released Tuesday show Obama up by 5 points.

And, in what this long-time pollster admitted was a shock even to him, Nevada poll results released Wednesday show Obama up by 10%.

(Pollsters are in the field in New Hampshire, with results expected to be released Thursday afternoon).

"I actually went back and looked at those Nevada results again," Paleologos said. "In this entire 2008 election, no poll has ever showed Obama with a double digit lead in Nevada. We are the first, and quite frankly I was kind of shocked at the margin." Professor Paleologos attributes this dramatic change partly to a shift among retirees, not only in Nevada but nationwide, remembering that Suffolk's earlier polling showed McCain winning that demographic by 15 points. "You could call it the 401K issue. The economic collapse has been devastating to retirees, simply devastating. Look, if you're retired with no new source of income, and you're watching your 401K shrinking, that's your hot button issue right there. The economy is trumping everything for everyone, but particularly for retirees."

The shift among older white men and women to Obama has also become a trust issue. "They've totally lost trust in Republicans and are blaming Republicans, and that's not a surprise." Hand in hand with that loss of trust for Republicans Paleologos sees a gain in trust for Obama. "People are now comfortable with Obama, that's what we're finding out. People now truly trust him."

In our earlier interview, Paleologos mentioned one demographic he thought could contribute to the outcome of the election-- women between the ages of 35-50 who had supported Hillary Clinton. That's not an issue, the pollster now says, partly due to the Republican Vice Presidential candidate and her continued decline in popularity. "As Sarah Palin's numbers declined, this group of voters tracked more and more strongly in the Obama camp." The other factor? Hillary Clinton herself. "To her credit, Clinton has done everything in her power to make the case for Obama, and it's showing up in the polls."

Professor Paleologos zeroed in on a surprising indicator in Nevada -- people who voted for George W. Bush in 2004. "Now, you would expect '04 Bush voters to be virtually 100% McCain voters, and the majority are. But 21% of them in Nevada are now Obama voters. Think about that: one in five '04 Bush voters in Nevada, covering all demographics, are voting for Obama. That's really high! I find that very important."

Using a colorful analogy, Paleologos likened the '04 Bush voter statistic to a colorful stone. The shift among older men and women, he said, is another colorful stone. McCain barely holding on with voters in his home state, still another. "All these little stones are starting to paint a picture," Paleologos explained. "They're creating a mosaic right before our eyes because they're all saying the same thing: voters are telling us they trust Obama, they're comfortable with Obama, they're willing to change, and they're voting Obama. That's the big trend. That's what I'm seeing."

McCain's statistical chances of winning are shrinking. Paleologos laid out two just-for-the-sake-of-argument scenarios. Scenario one had McCain winning Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia."Virginia would be miraculous at this point," he added, as he continued to play the scenario out. Even with this unlikely list of wins, McCain still loses the election because of what Paleologos deemed The Western Firewall of Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. "Even if somehow McCain wins all those Eastern states, which is statistically unlikely, when the time zones shift and the Western polls start to close, that's it. Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico will effectively act as a firewall, and McCain loses." Another scenario: McCain somehow wins all historically Republican states still in play. But again, that list would have to include wins in Virginia and Nevada, and Paleologos stressed that's highly unlikely. The only other McCain-positive scenario the pollster could give relied solely on the candidate and ignored polls completely: "McCain's prevailed over adversity before."

In a recent lecture at Harvard Kennedy School, a student asked Paleologos to give the statistical odds of McCain winning the election. Instead of giving a percentage-based answer, the pollster gave him an analogy based on what he considers the last possible swing states. Again the pollster stressed that statistical evidence shows not all of these states in play, but he gave the student Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia. With those states in mind, Paleologos told the student: "Picture seven boxes. And even though statistics don't support this, let's say all seven boxes are covered 50-50 with Obama and McCain's names." Now imagine throwing the boxes up in the air. "For McCain to win this election, all seven boxes have to come down showing McCain. That's a 1 in 128 chance." And since polls show Obama with a solid lead in some of those 7 states, those boxes wouldn't be covered 50-50. "So," Paleologos said, "the odds are really more like 1 in 400, maybe even 1 in 500." He gave the student a moment to absorb that before concluding, "That's what John McCain is facing right now." Paleologos noted how he hears people criticize Barack Obama for having a transition team and planning ahead, but says bluntly: "What would you do if your opponent had, at best, a 1 in 128 chance of winning? Obama's looking at the same numbers I am."

As this long-time pollster knows, with a week to go anything could still happen to change the election results. But the Suffolk professor who makes his living with statistics gave a final assessment. "In the end," said David Paleologos, "everything has to go right for John McCain.

And that is highly improbable."