Election 2008

Pool, Charles Dharapak/AP

Is It Over for McCain?

October 17, 2008 10:50 AM
by Liz Colville
Most polls show John McCain trailing Barack Obama, and his debate performance received mixed reviews. With three weeks left, can the underdog bounce back?

On To the Swing States

Following the third and final presidential debate at Hofstra University, many polls, including RealClearPolitics’ national average, show Ill. Sen. Barack Obama maintaining a lead over Ariz. Sen. John McCain.

Republican and Democratic pundits vary in their readings of the third debate, with headlines ranging from “That’s it for McCain” to “Obama hasn’t closed the sale.” What does remain on many experts’ minds is past U.S. presidential election history, with comparisons being frequently drawn to the elections of 1932 and 1948, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt seized control during the Great Depression, and where bipartisan champion Harry S. Truman made a surprising comeback despite a low approval rating.

Concerns about voter fraud and the Bradley Effect prevent some from making firm decisions about the outcome of Nov. 4. Howard Fineman of Newsweek describes the Bradley Effect as stemming from “white voters, especially older ones, who will hide their prejudice until, alone in the voting booth, they vote against a black candidate because of his race.” The voter registration group ACORN, which works primarily in poorer communities, remains a central focus as it is being accused of voter fraud and has been linked to Sen. Obama by the McCain campaign.

Voting machine technology
is also a hindrance that could change the picture currently being painted by polls and debates.

At a rally in the “toss-up” state of New Hampshire on Oct. 16, Obama himself warned his supporters not to get “cocky,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “We are 19 days away from changing this country,” he told the Londonderry crowd. “But for those who are getting a little cocky, I have two words for you: New Hampshire.”

That advice could also be directed at a bookie in Ireland, Paddy Power LLC, which has already deemed Obama the winner of the election and has paid out those who bet on him, the Associated Press writes. But Paddy Power has been wrong in the past, having paid out in advance people who bet Ireland would vote “yes” on a recent European Union treaty. When the vote came back “no,” the bookie had to pay out the losers and winners; the same would happen if Sen. McCain wins on Nov. 4.

Historical Context: The economy, underdog candidates and the Bradley Effect

To illustrate Obama’s surge in the polls following the economic crisis, comparisons have been made to the 1932 election, when President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, clinched the presidency from Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover in the midst of the Great Depression. As the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog notes, there are similarities to several other elections, including 1976, when Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter “present[ed] himself as an outsider and a wholly new kind of candidate who transcends politics as usual.”

President Harry Truman surprised the nation when he triumphed in the 1948 election to win a second term. Though a Democrat, President Truman has been compared to Sen. McCain. Karl Rove suggested in an Oct. 16 editorial that if McCain were to win on Nov. 4, it would be as great a feat as Truman’s win in 1948, which saw him surge ahead at the voting booths despite clear evidence that he was trailing even among his own supporters during the campaign.

In the Chicago Tribune’s blog The Swamp, David R. Colburn wrote this summer, “like Truman, McCain does not hesitate to speak his mind. He has also been accused of being impatient and having a temper, much like Truman. … [McCain] seems to understand that the issues facing the nation are so complex that only a bipartisan approach will ensure successful solutions.”

Opinion & Analysis: The third debate and the next three weeks

The third debate, held at Hofstra University, “may have been McCain's strongest performance of the three,” Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post, but it exemplified “how Obama has used the encounters to try to show that he has not only the knowledge of the issues but also the temperament and the judgment that voters are looking for in a successor to President Bush.”

Fox News called the debate “far more combative than the previous two,” highlighting McCain’s remark, “I am not President Bush. If you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.” McCain also brought up Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and former radical activist William Ayers. Lewis last week drew comparisons between the McCain campaign and segregation advocate George Wallace, comments that McCain asked Obama to “repudiate.”

Looking ahead to the next three weeks, pundits are divided on how accurate current polls are in predicting the actual result of the election. In the Wall Street Journal, former Bush strategist Karl Rove writes that McCain “is shaping a story line that draws on well-founded concerns about Mr. Obama’s lack of record or experience.” But he acknowledges that the economic crisis “has taken an enormous toll on the McCain campaign.”

Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe is more explicit, saying “That’s it for McCain” and that the candidate has been “unable to explain why his experience makes him better able to lead the country.” Obama’s advantage is the economic situation, Vennochi adds, as it has helped him make a stronger case that electing McCain would mean a continuation of the Bush Administration.

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