The surprising sprint to the finish

It was a surprise headline, to say the least, waking up Saturday morning, with just three days until Americans pick a president, to read that John McCain was leading Barack Obama. The news came from pollster John Zogby whose three day tracking polls have a long standing reputation for accuracy, and there was Zogby, now saying McCain led Obama 48% to 47%. 

Now it turns out, this was looking at the results of just one day of the three day tracking; a fact Zogby was quick to point out, but was this a last minute surge by Maverick McCain? It seems not. Now on Sunday, Zogby has Obama bouncing back in Saturday’s polling and the three day average remaining quite stable, 49.5% for Obama, 43.8% for McCain.

The bigger surprise at this stage of the race is that there is a race at all. While Zogby has daily bumps, Gallup has the two 8 point apart 51% for Obama, 43 % for McCain, while TIPP has them 2.1% apart - 46.7% for Obama to 44.6% for McCain.

This election - coming after 8 years of Republican rule in the White House, with an increasingly unpopular sitting president, a war the Democrats say is all Bush’s fault and an economy reeling from a late summer meltdown - should have been sewn up by Barack Obama. But he hasn’t done it. 

Make no mistake, I believe the likely outcome will be an Obama win come Tuesday; he may even defeat McCain by a wide margin, but so far the Democratic candidate has failed to consistently pierce the 51% support range in most polls. This is far from the landslide victory Obama supporters are claiming will be theirs.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan defeated Walter Mondale by taking 58.8% of the vote to Mondale’s 40.6%. Tuesday’s win, assuming it goes to Obama (and still not a sure thing),  will be closer to Reagan’s 1980 win over Jimmy Carter when Reagan took just over 50% of the vote, Carter 41% and independent candidate John Anderson captured 6 percent. This year there is no independent challenger pulling in significant support  in this election cycle and Obama has yet to raise much above Reagan’s 1980 support level. 

Before getting into why this might be, let’s deal with two reasons being floated to explain why Obama’s vote may not be as high on Tuesday as pollsters are signaling. The first is the Bradley effect and the second reason is the difference between the number of young people being polled and the number who will actually show up and vote.

The Bradley effect is named for black California politician Tom Bradley who ran as the Democratic candidate for governor in 1982. Polls showed Bradley well ahead in the days leading up to the election; in the end Bradley lost, as fewer white voters came out in support of his campaign and undecided voters turned heavily to his opponent.

Could the Bradley effect hurt Barack Obama? It is doubtful, and the candidate’s wife, Michelle Obama spoke about this issue with CNN’s Larry King recently.  "That was several decades ago, and I think there's been growth and movement," she said. "I just believe that the issues are going to weigh in people's hearts more so as they go into the voting booths this time around." 

Much has changed since 1982 and this election may finally put the Bradley effect to rest. 

What of young voters? It’s no secret that young people have been flocking to Obama’s campaign, but as any political observer knows, the enthusiasim of youth for a candidate can be difficult to turn into action on voting day. Put simply, young Americans don’t vote in the same numbers as older Americans. Will it be enough to change the election? Not according to Gallup.  

In the Gallup poll, young voters favour Obama 62% to McCain’s 34% but voter turnout among the young is still expected to be low compared to older Americans. Models performed on increased, and one can assume decreased, voter turnout among the young, show that for every two new Obama voters, John McCain gets one new voter. Put another way, for every two young voters too lazy to go and vote for Obama, there will be one young voter too lazy to go and vote for McCain. It is not enough to drastically alter the national horserace numbers says Gallup. 

Can’t close the deal 

If Barack Obama were running to lead a country with a Westminster style government like Britain, Canada or Australia he would be precariously close to a minority government; enough votes to control the executive branch, but not enough for full, unfettered power. Which leads us back to the question of why? 

As stated earlier, the Illinois senator has benefited from an unpopular sitting administration and a faltering economy which normally helps the party out of power. He’s also faced a fairly incurious media. Since the primary season, there have been complaints from Democrats (such as Hillary Clinton) and Republicans that Obama has been given a free pass by journalists. In fact it was a skit about this issue on Saturday Night Live last spring that helped the moribund comedy show revitalize itself, turning a show many had forgotten about into a must watch for the political season. 

Sheila Liaugminas asked an appropriate question on the Mercatornet Election Blog, “Why did it take so long for this to come out?” She is refering of course to an interview Obama did on Chicago Public Radio in 2001, hardly ancient history. In the interview, the State Senator Obama talks about redistributing wealth and the best ways to achieve that. While much commentary has focused on whether he sees the U.S. Constitution as flawed or the Supreme Court sufficiently radical, the fact is Senator Obama was engaged in a discussion about how best to bring about a redistribution of wealth. 

In Canada, and in many countries around the world, this type of conversation may not seem radical at all, but in America, it truly is radical and voters deserve to know the candidate’s true position on the issue. If the media covering this race day to day can tell me that Sarah Palin’s husband Todd was once a member or attended a meeting of an Alaskan independence movement in the 1990s, surely they can tell me Senator Obama’s views on the redistribution of wealth.  

It is also an incurious media that has lead to Barack Obama attending and offering a toast at a party for Rashid Khalidi, a man often described as a Palestinian-American activist by supporters, an apologist for terrorism by opponents.  

Why has the media, charged with covering this election day to day, not found out the full contents of the tape from a source other than the one the LA Times used?  The Times says they promised their source not to release the tape, and the paper says it keeps promises it makes to sources. As a journalist, I can understand that. As a journalist though, I can’t understand not following up on the event through other channels. This event, after all, was also attended by another controversial figure in this election, Bill Ayers, the former member of The Weather Underground. 

That neither of these incidents have come to light is truly a fault laid at the feet of the American national media, yet both incidents failing to make front page news well before the last week of the campaign is also a sign of a McCain campaign that isn’t on the ball. 

The McCain campaign must have something going for it to still be making the appearance of a race at this late stage, but digging up dirt on your opponent is part of the political game and on these two issues the Republicans fumbled. For all the handwringing voters and media pundits do about mudslinging in an election, researching and airing unknown facts about your opponent is part of the electoral process. If the McCain camp was operating as it should, this material would have been out weeks or even months ago. 

So we go into the final two days of a seemingly unending electoral season, a season where the challenger and the front runner has had all the advantages a politician could hope for and yet he still hasn’t closed the deal with voters. Could it possibly be because deep down, American voters don’t really care that much for Obama’s policies and are just tired of 8 years of George W. Bush and the men who surround him?

Brian Lilley is a political journalist and Ottawa Bureau Chief for CFRB 1010 in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is also Associate Editor of Mercatornet.


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