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Paul Hogarth

Paul Hogarth

Posted: August 21, 2008 12:21 PM

McCain's "Surge" is No Cause for Alarm


It's déjà vu all over again. We're in August of a presidential election year, and all of a sudden progressives are freaking out by saying: "I think [insert Republican candidate here] is going to win." But it's important to keep things in perspective, and stop the same usual panicking that is only self-defeating. John McCain may have inched up in the polls, but Barack Obama still has a lead. And this movement (which has only been a few points) is the product of a string of McCain attacks that the Obama campaign did not respond to until now. More importantly, McCain cannot keep this going because he's outspending Obama in the "swing states" - despite raising less money. Meanwhile, Obama is waging a 50-State strategy that gives him a far superior ground game - giving him more than one pathway to victory, and also more room for error. If anything, the Obama campaign is brilliant to let McCain do this now while most voters are still not paying attention. After the Democratic Convention next week, McCain will have run out of options.

Everyone is panicking over a new national Zogby poll with McCain leading Obama by five points - despite a consensus among knowledgeable observers that it's the most unreliable polling outfit. What we don't hear is that Obama still leads McCain in the state-by-state numbers, where the Election will really be decided. Even blogger Chris Bowers laments the Obama campaign "isn't working" - while reporting that Obama has a 43-vote lead in the Electoral College. An Obama victory isn't a definite "lock" - but the presumptive Democratic nominee is still well ahead.

While Obama took a vacation in Hawaii like any normal person would do in the summer, McCain virtually had the campaign to himself. In the past month, he has run attacks that border on the laughable (comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton) to the obscene (comparing him with Moses) - but have nevertheless dominated the discourse in the media. And it had some small effect. But far from being "swift-boated," Obama has counterpunched in the past few days with a passion that Kerry or Dukakis were never capable of - just in time for the Convention to start next week.

And McCain won't be able to sustain these attacks. Although Obama nearly doubled McCain's fundraising in July and has more cash on hand, McCain has actually outspent Obama in the "swing states." McCain has spent a million dollars more than Obama in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, $800,000 more in Nevada and $500,000 more in Missouri. McCain has such a focused strategy because the only way he can hope to dislodge Obama would be to score an upset in a few states.

But Obama has TV ads running in all the same states where McCain is outspending him. And he's also airing commercials in Indiana, Alaska, Montana, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Virginia - where McCain has no air presence at all. Before people start panicking about Obama's lead "slipping" over McCain, consider that he has more room for error. So if John McCain's smear campaign manages to grab Ohio on Election Night, Obama has been building a presence in other states that will compensate such a loss.

Compare that with 2004. John Kerry gradually pulled out of one state after another, until his only hopes for winning the presidency hinged on keeping Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania - while winning either Ohio or Florida. When you focus on only a few states like McCain is doing, all the stars have to line up perfectly for you to win. But if you keep the other side busy in more states, fallback options are available.

Moreover, Obama has a more sophisticated ground game than any presidential candidate has ever had - and the contrast with McCain is striking. Obama has a three-to-one edge in the number of campaign offices, and his edge among "voter contacts" (knocking on doors and making phone calls) is a whopping 35-to-one. For decades, the Democratic Party never had a "voter file" for the crucial final days of an election. Thanks to Howard Dean, now they do.

Even the polls that predict a tight race still show that Obama's supporters are far more enthusiastic than McCain's - which will count a great deal on Election Day. And with youth and Latinos voting in high numbers for Democrats, traditionally red states like Colorado and Virginia should flip to Obama.

John Kerry didn't lose in 2004 because of "Swift Boat" attacks that hit the airwaves in August - although that's what that the traditional media pundits think happened. It was a vast network of grassroots evangelical leaders who came out for George Bush - catching those of us who are not part of that community completely off-guard. Obama's lead may have dipped for now, but the ground game he's putting in place will pay off dividends on the only day when all this really matters: November 4th.

Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.