Friday, September 19, 2008

Electoral Update - Obama Catches Momentum

If your head hurts from analyzing so many polls over the past week, you're not alone. By our count there have been 99 polls released since last Friday.  American Research Group, in the last two days, has released 30 of their own including perhaps the only D.C. poll we'll ever see between now and election day (Obama 82 McCain 13). Why bother, right?

In nine weeks, we've noticed essentially no movement up or down for Obama, almost as if there's an unbreakable ceiling around the 268-273 mark. Blame Florida which has been leaning McCain since the beginning of August. Obama's also had a tough time gaining momentum in Ohio. With Ohio, Florida, and a handful of traditionally red states now leaning toward McCain, it's easy to see why the Arizona Senator has surged over the last few weeks.

Here's a look at the electoral movement over the past seven days. 

Obama 273 (+5)
  • Gain:  New Mexico (5) where the last four polls show Obama with significant leads, two of which show a 7 point margin.
McCain 232 (-8)
  • Gain:  Nevada (5) where he's led in every poll since the end of the Republican convention.
  • Loss:  McCain loses Virginia (13) to tossup.

In recent days, national polling has revealed a significant shift back in favor of Barack Obama. This comes as no surprise given the this week's bad news on Wallstreet. However, the shift in state-to-state polling shows less movement. This may be because several of the state polls were conducted during or prior to the market meltdown. For example, the Big 10 Battleground Pennsylvania poll showing the race as tied, was conducted 9/14 - 9/17. It's not possible to know how many voters were sampled prior to the bad market news.

Last week, we asked three important questions, two of which were related to Palin's impact.

1.  Can John McCain sustain his current numbers?

At this point, it appears the answer is no.  And the reasons why are plenty.  The slipping economy, convention bounce falls back to earth, Palin's newness wearing off, regulation/deregulation flip-flops, and more McCain gaffes.  Is McCain in big trouble? As McCain does damage control over the weekend, he'll also try to regain momentum. But what strategies does he have left?  The negative ads he ran just days ago seem to have backfired, so that option may be off the table. Running on the issues will be tough given the Republican brand. Palin's shiny new appeal is wearing off, not to mention he can't let her speak for fear of her assuming she's at the top of the ticket! Don't be surprised if McCain tries to shift the focus to foreign policy and Iraq again.

2. Can Obama hang on to the Kerry states?

While there has been plenty of good news lately to rejoice about in the Obama camp, they have also noticed some slippage in places where losing would be disastrous.  Moderate leads in PA, MI, MN, and WI have slipped to razor thin margins (1-3 points) according to a couple of recent polls.  Two polls in PA show the race tied and one in MN reveals similar results. It will be interesting to see if state polling catches up to the latest round of national polls.

3.  Is there a page two of the Palin story?

The love affair is over, and Palin's favorable numbers have fallen like a rock. With each passing day, there's another news story about Palin.  And the news is not good [see more]. Page 3? Page 4? The number gurus at answer this question thoroughly.
McCain's other problem is that Sarah Palin may no longer be an asset to the ticket; in fact, she may be a liability. Averaging the candidates' favorability scores across four recent polls -- as one should always try and do when looking at favorability numbers since they can vary greatly depending on question wording -- Palin now has the worst net scores among the four principals in the race:

Palin's average favorability score is now a +7 -- about 10 points behind Joe Biden's numbers. Perhaps more importantly, these numbers are 10-15 points behind where Palin's numbers were just a week or so ago. If voters come in not knowing very much about a candidate -- and the more they see of the candidate, the less they like of the candidate -- this is a major concern.

Battleground States

Several projection models around the country this week show large numbers of tossup states. Our model is based on an analysis of several polls as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to just one or two. For example, we've decided to keep Minnesota in the Obama column for the moment because of national movement favoring him. Even more, McCain has never led in Minnesota. New Hampshire follows the same pattern where just two polls have been conducted since the close of the RNC. One recent poll shows McCain leading by three; however, that is his first lead in NH since May. If trends develop, we'll make adjustments.

What's happening in Pennyslvania?

Two polls in PA since last week show the race as dead even: Rasmussen and Big 10 Battleground. This flies in the face of recent national polling. This may be the result of both polls being conducted before the Wallstreet Crisis. Obama may need to call in Bill and Hillary to help bring "lunch bucket Democrats" into the fold. Biden, from PA, also plays a role in securing PA's 21 electoral votes.  We'll move PA to tossup if any other polling suggests the race as tied or McCain leading.

Rockin' Pollin' Ohio

Unless something breaks for one side or the other, we may just keep Ohio in the tossup column until our last projection. Both sides have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.  For McCain, there have been eight polls conducted in the last three days, six of which he's leading.  Obama is hoping for some traction after two consecutive polls show him leading here.  Neither candidate has been able to break the race wide open, and it's unlikely either will.  More polls have been conducted in Ohio than any other state since the party conventions ended (13 since September 9th).  Obama can claim the White House simply by winning Ohio and hanging on to the Kerry states.

Meet Virginia Tossup

All year long, polling has suggested a tight race in Virginia.  All the sudden, we have numbers all over the place. In the past week, the race has been shown to be anywhere from Obama leading by two to McCain leading by nine. Two polls show the race as tied.

Colorado & New Mexico (Obama's Backup)

The best news of the week for Obama may be that he's still protecting his lead in Colorado and expanding his lead in New Mexico. In Colorado, voters have been surveyed seven times since the close of the RNC, and Obama has led in five of those polls by an average of four points. He's also led in the last two consecutive polls, one by ten points. In New Mexico, Obama has led in three consecutive polls by seven or eight points.

45 Days...

We are at another turning point in the campaign where Obama has an opportunity to extend his lead. McCain's gaffes and flipflops could be catching up to him.  Palin's plunge isn't helping either. If national numbers continue to hold up for Obama, will the battlegrounds show equal movement? 

While it's clear there's been a momentum shift back in Obama's favor, one week is a lifetime in American politics.  The last time McCain needed a jolt to his campaign, he shocked everyone with Palin. If at some point, the campaign begins to slip away, he may just pull another fast one. 

Looking to next week, John McCain probably can't wait until the first debate, which will focus on foreign policy and national security. He's proven, thus far, to be a better speaker than many thought he'd be in the forums we've seen so far. The expectations won't be high for McCain so even a mediocre performance is sure to get high marks from his surrogates (Ditto Palin). 

Next Friday's debate between Obama and McCain, moderated by Jim Lehrer, begins at 9:00 pm EST and can be watched on most major networks.  Third party candidates will not be included as none have reached a 15% minimum polling requirement (in five polls) as mandated by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

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