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Are the Polls Tightening?

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The question on everyone's mind today is - are the polls tightening? As I suggested the other day in my post, Expect McCain to Gain Ground These Final Weeks, the real question isn't whether the polls are "tightening," but whether the fundamental dynamic in the race - a clear and decisive win by Barack Obama - has begun to change. I guess you can say that John McCain turning an eight-point race into a six-point race - which of course is within margin of error - shows the race is tightening. But it still means a landslide win for Obama. So is this concept of tightening at this stage important, salient? I'm not so sure.

Surveying all the main sites - Real Clear Politics, fivethirtyeight, Pollster.com - and DemFromCT's always excellent early morning analysis - there is no evidence of sustained movement to McCain, or any major change in the fundamental dynamic in the race. The averages have it six points today 49-43, and if anything, the news from the states just got a whole lot worse for McCain, as his campaign now admits with CO, IA, NM and VA slipping away, that their map is essentially impossible. Obama's number - the important one to watch - is holding steady in most polls at 49-51. As I wrote yesterday, unless that number starts to drop, there is no way McCain can win at this point.

So the question isn't "tightening" now; it is whether the map and the polling have changed enough to alter the dynamic in the race. And the answer to that today is clearly "no."

All this became clear to me when I watched CNN this morning. They claimed the race was tightening by showing one-point movement in polls in Ohio and Missouri, while showing Obama still winning Florida by a wide margin. The anchor's conclusion by looking at these 3 states was "the race was tightening." But of course by showing Obama winning Florida and with OH and MO within margin of error, what he was really saying - but could not say - was that this data showed Barack winning the election. It will be important to hold analysts and commentators accountable on this point in the final two weeks.

With the national numbers apparently stabilizing, it will be interesting to see what happens in the states these next two weeks. My sense is that this is where the Obama fundraising advantage will really kick in, and if anything, we could see improvement in the states while the national numbers either stay the same or we see McCain bring his base home and get a slight national uptick at the end.

Finally, as the CNN piece above suggests, I think the states to watch now are the small and medium sized states. If Obama holds the Kerry/Gore states, he then just needs to win 3 of 5 currently Obama-leaning states - CO, IA, NM, NV, VA - to win. These are now the true battlegrounds and if McCain cannot chip away there, the race will be over long before Election Day.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.

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