Is the race for president "narrowing" enough for John McCain to catch Barack Obama by Tuesday? While our national trend has closed slightly over the last two weeks and today's new polls show a whisper of a narrowing in the battleground states where the McCain campaign has increased ad spending, time is short and Obama's lead still looks daunting.
We entered 37 new polls into our database yesterday. A little less than half (16) represent updates to previous polls conducted by the same pollster in October, 11 are updates from September or earlier and 10 are first impressions. Ten of the recent tracker updates represent slight nominal improvements for Obama, 5 represent slight upticks for McCain and one showed no change in margin.
The impact on our trend estimates in battleground states is also mostly random, with a slight edge to Obama: The margin on our trend estimates shifts slightly in Obama's direction in 9 states and slightly in McCain's direction in 5.
The trend estimates provide a small glimmer of hope for Republicans: Even though the changes in the trend estimates are generally small and possibly random in direction, they have moved slightly in McCain's direction today in four of the six states where the McCain campaign increased its media buy this week. Nielsen reports increased ad spending by the McCain campaign this week in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Of these, all but Ohio and Georgia shifted slightly red yesterday (and we had no new polls in Georgia). Still, the shift across the five states was very small: the margins narrowed by an average of just 0.3 percentage points leaving Obama still leading in these states by an average of 5.1%. At this rate of change, McCain will need more than the four remaining days to close those gaps.
Two new polls in Virginia by AllState/National Journal and Marist College both show Obama leading by 4 points, a narrower margin than the roughly eight point lead Obama has held on our trend estimate for most of this week. The new polls narrows Obama's lead on the Virginia trend estimate to 7.2 percentage points (50.9% to 43.7%), tipping the state back to the light blue "lean" Obama category. In the rank of states, Virginia is the one that looks most likely to put Obama over the total of 270 needed to win. So if McCain can somehow catch Obama nationally, Virginia remains as critical a battleground state as any in the country.
On the national trend, there has been much continuing speculation about whether the results show a "narrowing" and if so by how much. If you look at our national trend chart, we definitely show a narrower Obama margin now (5.4% as of this writing) than about a week ago. Obama's current national trend estimate now stands at 49.5%, about a point lower than his smoothed high of 50.9% a week ago, but still higher than at any point this year before October 10. McCain's current 44.1% represents a slightly less than two percentage point increase since a smoothed low of 42.2 on October 12. Also, of 7 of the 11 new national surveys yesterday show slightly narrowed margins since the previous non-overlapping sample from each pollster; only two show slight gains for Obama.
The obvious question is whether McCain can continue to narrow that gap enough over the next four days to catch Obama. The rate of change (roughly two points on the margin over the last two weeks) seems inadequate. Still, Obama continues to lead on every national poll and yesterdays tracking updates show no decisive shift in either direction -- 3 polls tick slightly to Obama, 2 to McCain and two show no change in margin at all.