09/22/2008 01:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

43 Days to Go and the Pendulum Swings Back

Obama won the earned media battle last week for the first time in more than a month and he did it without any particular tactical or strategic gambit. Instead, the political environment swamped the McCain campaign - another reminder that this is a Democratic year and this election remains Obama's to lose.

That is not to say that the McCain camp didn't make any tactical mistakes last week - they did. The candidate continues to search for its voice on economic issues (saying the economy's fundamentals remained strong was perhaps McCain's worst moment of the campaign) and his surrogates hurt him (see Carly Fiorina). The economic crisis also put President Bush back in the news, a development that doesn't help McCain. After a few weeks on offense, the McCain campaign is back on defense and playing on Obama's turf.

Poll numbers began moving toward Obama last week and we are sure to see some additional movement this week. Our sense is that Obama is ahead nationally by approximately 2-3 points. Note how easy it was for Obama to erase a small McCain lead (note, too, that it had taken McCain months of attack ads and a successful GOP convention to build up even a small lead). All of this reinforces the notion that the environment favors Obama decidedly and his campaign will benefit when the spotlight is on the current economic situation.

We want to caution everyone, however, that this is movement at the margins (primarily among swing and true undecided voters). This is, of course, where this race will be won or lost, and we will see this micro-pendulum swing back and forth several times in the next few weeks. The week ahead has some potential for some swing-inducing events, as well:

  • While the financial crisis will dominate the early part of this week, it may not be front-and-center by the week's end. In fact, we are taking a somewhat contrarian view that perhaps the timing of this financial meltdown is good for the McCain team (though obviously it would better for McCain if this hadn't happened at all). If today was October 22nd, our sense is that the election would be over. Instead, there are five weeks until the election and anything can (and will) happen between now and then. Chris Dodd said this morning that Congress will move quickly to pass the $700 billion package. Assuming this happens and the economy and financial sector stabilize a bit, the issue could move off of the front pages and the campaign could pivot on other issues. Until then, however, it is all about the economy.
  • There will be a debate on Friday night. This one is on foreign policy. If you are McCain, could there be a better time to change the subject? To this point, Obama hasn't been a very good debater. He was just adequate during his myriad of primary debates and not much better at the recent forums at Saddleback and Columbia University. Most voters haven't seen him in this type of format before; if Obama can avoid his professorial tendencies this is a real chance for him to show voters that he is capable of serving as commander-in-chief. For McCain, a "draw" won't cut it: he needs to win this first debate.

Current Issue Environment and Obama's Underperformance

It is all about the economy and jobs. The below snapshot from a recent CBS/NYT survey shows that the economy dominates as the most important issue when considering who voters would like to see as the next President. The below chart is startling for three reasons:

  1. This Presidential contest is on the verge of becoming a single- issue election. Nearly 50% of voters say the economy is the most important issue.
  2. We are engaged in a war that has gone on for five years, drained the treasury, cost the lives of more than 4,000 soldiers and has been at the center of our national dialogue for years...and yet only eight percent of voters in this poll say that Iraq is the most important issue when thinking about the next President. Think about it: the war in Iraq is the 5th-most important issue in the country right now - that is stunning.
  3. Obama has failed to convert the nation's deep economic anxiety into an electoral advantage (yet). The same CBS-NYT poll gave Obama a five-point lead (48% to 43%). While this is a modest lead it is surprisingly shallow given the Democratic lead in party identification and on the generic ballot. It certainly means (without benefit of the cross-tabs) that a large chunk of voters who think the economy is the most important issue are voting for McCain.
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Historical Perspective

We decided to take a quick look back at Gallup polls conducted among registered voters in 2000 and 2004 so that we could compare them to today.

Sept 16 - 18 2008: Obama 48%, McCain 44%

Sept 13 - 15 2004: Bush 52%, Kerry 44%

Sept 16 - 18 2000: Gore 49%, Bush 41%

In 2000 the debates and intervening campaign events turned the tide; in 2004 they did not. McCain needs to do well in the debates or it will be very difficult to buck the current environment.

LCG EV Map: Colorado is the New Florida?

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In 2004 Bush beat Kerry in Colorado by 52% to 47%. He beat Gore by ten points in 2000 (Nader had a sizable impact, garnering five percent of the vote in the state). There has been a lot of talk about Colorado being the new Florida. Several smart political commentators have suggested that the race may come down to this one state. It is an interesting analysis. Certainly the state has moved from a "safe red" to a toss-up. Here are some demographics to consider:
  • Only 41% native to the state, so the electorate is shifting with new arrivals
  • 75% white, 4% black, 17% Hispanic
  • 14% military vets is high, not to mention lots on active duty, especially in Colorado Springs
  • Thought of as a rural state, but population is actually 85% urban, mostly in Denver and its suburbs
  • Colorado Springs is the state's second-largest city
  • 33% of state is college graduates, a bit below the national average
  • 21% blue collar, 65% white collar, 15% gray collar, so, again, it defies traditional perception as blue-collar/rural

Note below that our LCG average of the most recent polls shows that Obama's lead increased slightly last week, to 47% - 44%.

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Yes, Colorado is important and is truly a toss-up in this election. But it is no more important than Ohio, Virginia or Florida. Given the recent historical presidential voter pattern, our sense is that if this state moves into Obama's column it will mean an electoral blowout for the Illinois Senator. Virginia is more likely to be the state that settles this race.