Archive for September, 2008

This is the first in a series I will be doing every week from now until Election Day. The following map shows the race as it stands right now, and divides the 50 states into three categories: McCain (Red), Obama (Blue), and Swing (Yellow).

I’ve allocated states for John McCain and Barack Obama based on traditional and current voting trends and demographics. As always, the swing states – by my count, the 16 states which can go in favor of either candidate on Election Day – will determine which candidate wins the White House in November. The magic number of Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency is 270, hence the title of this entry.

A brief observation about the 16 swing states in this year’s race: many of them are perennially up for grabs in presidential elections, among them three of the biggest prizes up for grabs: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Their importance cannot be overestimated: two of these states have ultimately decided the winner of the last two presidential elections.

But what makes this year unusual is that the GOP is forced to play defense in three states that have been reliably Republican for decades: North Carolina, which hasn’t gone to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign; and Virginia and Indiana, which were last won by Lyndon Johnson during his 1964 landslide victory. John Kerry made an attempt to pick up Virginia and North Carolina (the home state of his running mate John Edwards) four years ago, but ultimately gave up when poll numbers showed both states to be out of reach.

Montana is also a remote possibility as a swing state, although recent polls have the state leaning toward McCain. But the Democrats have had a bit of a resurgence at the state level in recent years. Historically, Bill Clinton won the state back in 1992, but he had help from Ross Perot, who siphoned off votes that might have otherwise gone to the incumbent president George H.W. Bush. George W. Bush routed Al Gore and John Kerry in Montana by 25 and 20 points respectively in his two presidential campaigns.

With the exception of these four states, the swing state map is virtually identical to 2004. In contrast, there are no solidly Democratic states (i.e. Massachusetts, Washington) that are up for grabs the way that Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, and (to a lesser degree) Montana are now.

Based on recent trends and analysis, here’s what the map would look like if the election were held the week of September 29:

Barack Obama would win the election 291-247, with a majority of the swing states breaking in his favor. There are two reasons for this argument: first, James Carville’s famous line from the 1992 Clinton campaign “It’s the economy, stupid,”, second, the McCain campaign’s dizzying and near perpetual tailspin which began with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy on September 15, which shifted the focus of the campaign from lipstick on a pig and national security – considered John McCain’s strong subject – to the economy, a subject which polls show voters prefer the Democrats.

McCain’s downward spiral has gotten progressively worse with his decision to suspend his campaign, essentially drawing against Barack Obama during the first presidential debate which helped to solidify the Democrat’s standing in the national and state polls, the failure of Congress to pass a bailout package in the House of Representatives, and the Dow Jones industrial average taking a record 777 point nosedive after the bill’s collapse.

McCain would narrowly win Florida and Ohio, two states out of the big three up for grabs that both went for George W. Bush in the last two elections. But Obama would compensate for those losses by winning Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Virginia – worth a combined 32 Electoral College votes, almost enough to offset the combined loss of Ohio and Florida’s 47 Electoral College votes – while retaining all of the other states John Kerry won in 2004.

It’s a pretty safe bet that one of these states will push Obama or McCain past the 270 threshold to win the White House. If I had to pick one, based on the 2006 elections, I’d choose Virginia. It was the Webb-Allen Senate race that in the end gave the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate, and it was also the last race to be decided.

Ohio would be very close again, and the political terrain might shift in Obama’s favor compared to 2004 because of Democratic gains in the state during 2006 and because of the focus on the economy, particularly in a manufacturing state like Ohio which has been hit hard by outsourcing and unemployment. It wouldn’t be enough right now to flip to the Obama side, but McCain and the Republicans would have to spend a lot of time and money defending it, because without Ohio it would be virtually impossible for McCain to win the race.

McCain’s best chance at picking up a Kerry swing state from 2004 at this point is New Hampshire. Given the strong libertarian and independent streak in their electorate, and the fact that McCain won two critical victories in their primary in 2000 and 2008, that it is the most Republican-leaning state in New England, and that it was one of only three states (along with Iowa and New Mexico) that flipped parties between 2000 and 2004, don’t be surprised if you see him there a few times between now and November.

One thing working against him is recent political trends. When the Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006, one of the geographic areas where they made a significant amount of gains was in New England, where several incumbent moderate Republicans in the House (Nancy Johnson, Charlie Bass, etc.) and the Senate (Lincoln Chafee) were ousted. Now, there is only one House Republican from New England: Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut, and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is facing a tough re-election fight.

As I said in a previous post, unless John McCain or some outside event can fundamentally shake the dynamic of the race away from Obama’s favor, it will become increasingly difficult to stop his momentum and of perceptions of undecided voters from hardening. A lot can change in a day or even a few weeks, as we’ve seen during the month of September, but time is running out for the McCain campaign.

His best hopes are either that Obama does disastrously in the final two presidential debates, or that some enterprising reporter unearths an October surprise that will damage his candidacy that could push just enough swing voters in McCain’s direction. But given that no reporter, or any opposition researcher from the Hillary Clinton campaign for that matter, was able to find a silver bullet to stop the Obama juggernaut, this is not a strategy I would plan the final weeks of a presidential campaign around.


Sarah Palin practicing for the VP debate with McCain aide Randy Schuenemann
Image courtesy of the McCain campaign, via Politico.

Republicans are probably not going to find too much comfort in reading stories like these in the Wall Street Journal. The whole thing is worth taking the time to read but these excerpts stand out:

The McCain campaign moved its top officials inside Gov. Sarah Palin’s operation Sunday to prepare for what is certain to be the most important event of her vice-presidential campaign: her debate on Thursday with Democrat Joe Biden.

The moves follow several shaky performances by Gov. Palin last week and come amid concern and grumbling from Republicans, and even a few queries from her husband, Todd Palin, according to campaign operatives and Republican officials.

Meanwhile, the more experienced advisers assigned to her by the McCain campaign are accustomed to working with seasoned candidates, not someone “completely green on the national stage,” one strategist said. Several Republican backers have griped that the campaign has put the candidate in difficult situations, from sitting for high-profile television interviews to popping into meetings with foreign leaders, some of whom made sexist remarks, said several officials.

Amid the heavy scrutiny in a close campaign, Gov. Palin is under considerable pressure to make Thursday’s debate a “game changer,” advisers said. The campaign is sending in Sen. McCain’s debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, to help with her preparation, advisers said. Though he always was expected to help out after Sen. McCain’s debate Friday in Oxford, Miss., Mr. O’Donnell now needs to “undo” much of her previous debate prep, which has resulted in occasional “rote” responses, one adviser said.

As if the thought of Sarah Palin going one-on-one with Joe Biden for 90 minutes before millions of television viewers weren’t nerve-wracking enough, it turns out that CBS may have more embarrassing Palin responses from the Katie Couric interview it will air in the days leading up to the VP debate later this week. The key detail, from this story by Politico’s Jonathan Martin:

Of concern to McCain’s campaign, however, is a remaining and still-undisclosed clip from Palin’s interview with Couric last week that has the political world buzzing.

The Palin aide, after first noting how “infuriating” it was for CBS to purportedly leak word about the gaffe, revealed that it came in response to a question about Supreme Court decisions.

After noting Roe vs. Wade, Palin was apparently unable to discuss any major court cases.

There was no verbal fumbling with this particular question as there was with some others, the aide said, but rather silence.

Now it looks like McCain’s people need to give her a crash course on national security, Supreme Court history and constitutional law, and the economy. They will be in the unenviable position of going into the debate hoping for the best but expecting the worst.

Update: The McCain campaign released the photo of Palin practicing for the debate with McCain foreign policy aide Randy Schuenemann after I posted this, so I’ve added it retroactively.

Also, the New York Times has a story on Palin’s debate prep. The following graphs are worth noting:

Ms. Palin has traveled with a briefing team since Sept. 10. Two people close to the campaign, addressing her difficulties, said she had been stuffed with facts as if preparing for an oral exam and had become nervous and unnatural in the few interviews.

Advisers said she was a diligent worker and was frequently up until the small hours of the morning in her hotel room trying to cram as much information as possible before the debate.

I know there’s no way anyone can ever be absolutely 100 percent prepared for a nationally televised debate, but is it feasible to think that late night cram sessions are going to help her at this point? This is the vice presidency of the United States that’s at stake, not a college midterm.

While both campaigns are playing the expectations game and raising or lowering the bars for the two candidates, Politico has this interesting study of Palin’s past debate performances. In essence: she can hold her own and Democrats would be foolish to think she’s a pushover just because she’s been a disaster in two out of the three nationally televised interviews she’s done since being tapped as McCain’s running mate.

The conventional wisdom and expectations are in Joe Biden’s favor, but as numerous articles have pointed out, he needs to avoid appearing condescending or indignant whenever Palin makes a mistake. A note from the only other vice presidential debate with a female candidate: George H.W. Bush ran into a mild backlash after an exchange he had with Geraldine Ferraro during the 1984 campaign.

Photo courtesy: New York Times

“Disconnect and self-destruct one bullet at a time.”
A Perfect Circle, “The Outsider”

September 15 is celebrated as Independence Day in many Latin American countries, but in U.S. political history that day might be remembered as the beginning of the end of John McCain’s presidential ambitions.

The collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the federal government bailouts of AIG, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae completely changed the dynamic and narrative of the campaign. While mock outrage over lipstick on a pig and real issues of national security – McCain’s strong point – had been driving the media cycle and coverage, the biggest financial crisis since 1929 completely changed the playing field. And John McCain blew it.

“The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” McCain said at a campaign event the same day that the markets were going haywire. This was manna from heaven for the Democrats, who proceeded to hammer McCain mercilessly over the comment. His subsequent reversal did little to undo the minimal political damage caused by the original comment.

His decision to “suspend” his campaign will probably leave voters at large with a very unfavorable impression of him. David Letterman did him no favors either, brutally eviscerating him after finding out that McCain canceled an appearance on the Late Show – not to go back to Washington and work on the legislative bailout package as he originally claimed – but to do an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.

“Hey Senator, can I give you a ride home?” Letterman facetiously asked as the show took the live in-house CBS feed of McCain getting ready for the interview with Couric. This may well go down in history as a late night campaign moment, potentially up with Bill Clinton playing saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show back in 1992.

Given the influence of late night comics at reaching the electorate who may not get their dose of politics from hard news programs like the NBC Nightly News or 60 Minutes, having someone with Letterman’s influence and reach taking him out to the woodshed on a semi-regular basis won’t do McCain any favors.

Letterman continued his comedic assault on McCain a day later. “Here’s how it works: you don’t come to see me? You don’t come to see me? Well, we might not see you on Inauguration Day,” he said.

Sarah Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric only served to reaffirm doubts among her critics, raise them among her supporters and the punditocracy about her qualifications to be vice president, or step in and take over for McCain in case of an emergency. Her responses to legitimate questions from Couric were a series of talking points incoherently sequenced together to make something she hoped resembled a sentence. The McCain campaign will keep her as far away from the press as possible after the vice presidential debate.

The only upside from that interview is that it has effectively set the bar so low for the vice presidential debate that it will probably be considered a success for her just for showing up and taking questions. Joe Biden doesn’t even have to attack her – all he needs to do is look and act like the elder statesman he is in answering questions, not make any gaffes, and let her dig herself into a hole before a nationally televised audience of millions.

But perhaps the biggest jumping the shark moment in this two week self-implosion was McCain boldly proposing to postpone the first presidential debate and reschedule the vice presidential debate – having been agreed to by both campaigns and the debate commission long before – unless Congress passed a bailout package.

McCain effectively boxed himself into a corner that left him with no good options. If he didn’t show up, he would effectively give Barack Obama 90 minutes of free uncontested airtime to millions of voters and anger potential voters in Mississippi, where Ole Miss had already spent more than $5 million in setting up for the debate. If he reversed himself and did show up – with or without a package ready to go – he would look like he backed down from a threat he couldn’t carry out.

During the debate, McCain said “If you’re going to aim a gun at somebody, George Shultz, our great secretary of state, told me once, you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger.” To phrase it using those terms: McCain aimed a gun at these debates, threatened to pull the trigger if Congress didn’t pass a bill, and backed down. The fact that his campaign had produced web ads proclaiming McCain won the debate, which were released before it even took place, shows McCain took the pulling the trigger option about as seriously as most political observers take Ralph Nader now.

There are five more weeks and three more debates to go between now and Election Day, and we’ve already seen how much the dynamic can change in the course of one day or one event. McCain and his surrogates (Rick Davis, Steve Schmidt, Carly Fiorina, Douglas Holtz-Eakin) have been misfiring on nearly all cylinders during the last two weeks. Unless McCain is able to fundamentally shift the dynamics of the race in his favor, or some outside event does it for him, he will spend the rest of the campaign watching his presidential ambitions slipping away.