Of course, "unless something happens" is the biggest qualifier in the world, more than adequate to CYA me should Obama prevail. It's politics. There are almost three months. Odds are something will happen.
Still, it wasn't supposed to be this way. Obama's electoral handicaps—his racial identification and short resume—should have easily been eclipsed by Bush's—er, McCain's well-stocked aviary of albatrosses. McCain was and remains short of money. His campaign organization is a mess. Republican bosses are unenthusiastic, both about his prospects and about the direction he would take his party should he win. He has aligned himself with the most unpopular aspect of the wildly unpopular outgoing administration, the Iraq War. At a time when economically insecure voters are staring down the barrel of a recession-cum-depression, McCain promises more of the same—no help is on the way. And he's old. Sooo painfully I-don't-use-the-Internet old.
What is it that has the politerati betting on a McCain administration? Historical precedent. During most presidential election years, Republicans tend to surge in the last few months of the campaign. For a Democrat to win in November, he must have a comfortable lead in the polls at this stage in the game.
The classic example is 1976; Jimmy Carter led incumbent Gerald Ford by 33 percentage points. Ford was hobbled by Watergate, a recession and his pardon of Nixon, as well as his dismal performance in the debates, where he claimed that the Soviet Union wasn't dominating eastern Europe. Nevertheless, Ford closed the lead, losing to Carter by just 2 points. This follows the pattern, albeit by a wider margin than in most elections.
In recent years, the countervailing example is the 1992 contest between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, the incumbent. After the Democratic National Convention in August, Clinton was only ahead of Bush by a few points. Clinton won, but only because independent Ross Perot, a businessman with libertarian leanings, attracted so many votes from registered Republicans.
Perot ran again in 1996, but was less of a factor. So the old pattern reasserted itself. Clinton led Bob Dole by roughly 20 percent in mid-August, but won by 8. Republicans always close the gap.
It happened again in 2000. In mid-August, Al Gore had an 8-point lead ahead of George W. Bush. Gore won the popular vote by 0.6 percent.
If you're a Democrat, being ahead isn't enough. In 2004, John Kerry was ahead in mid-August—but by just 2 points. Bush was an incumbent with potentially grave weaknesses—he hadn't found Osama or Iraq's supposed WMDs, and he was already losing the war—yet the pattern reasserted itself. Bush gained 4 points, prevailing in the popular vote by 2.4 percent. (I won't comment on the electoral vote, aside from mentioning that it was stolen in the key state of Ohio.)
If Barack Obama ends up beating John McCain, he will have done so with the smallest August lead for a Democrat in memory—3 points, within the statistical margin of error for tracking polls. A columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times argues that's good news: "Out of the gate," writes Carol Marin, "the thoroughbred who leads too early and by too great a margin is more often than not the vulnerable one, the one in danger of losing it all to the horse who strategically holds back, waits, and then thunders in the final furlongs to finish first." Nice metaphor, but presidential campaigns aren't horse races. They're boxing matches. The last man standing wins.
If the election were held today, Obama would win. But it won't be, so he might not. Republicans fight harder than Democrats, so Republicans land more punches. Democrats, at least Democrats of the wimpy post-LBJ variety, need to start ahead in order to eke out a victory.
Unless Obama starts swinging soon, he's done for. Insiders are tut-tutting over Ohio, an important swing state this year. Given the decade-long recession and voter anger there—not to mention a significant African-American population—Obama ought to be kicking McCain six ways to Sunday. But the two candidates are neck and neck in fundraising. "For McCain to even be competitive is surprising to me," says Chris Duncan, chairman of the political science department at the University of Dayton. "I don't think it's that he's doing better than expected. I think it's that Obama is doing worse than he would expect."
Vincent Hutchings of the University of Michigan wonders if the Obama campaign is counting too much on young voters. "Is he generating enough enthusiasm to excite people who lack a formal education and are disproportionately young, and not likely to vote?" he asks.
As I argued in my 2004 polemic "Wake Up! You're Liberal: How We Can Take America Back From the Right," American voters feel besieged. At home, they see prices rising while their salaries get gnawed away by inflation. From a foreign affairs standpoint, they see a world full of terrorists and hostile rivals—Iran, North Korea, Russia, China—out to get them. As a psychologist would say, the fact that there isn't much truth to this perception doesn't make it less real.
Americans want their presidents to be a National Daddy—an ornery cuss willing to err on the side of kicking some innocent schlub's ass to protect them.
Last time around, in 2004, John Kerry repeatedly turned the other jowl as Bush and his proxies pounded him with the now-notorious Swift Boat ads. Of course, whether Kerry's Vietnam service rose to the level of heroism was debatable. What wasn't was that Bush weaseled out of going at all. But Kerry never responded. If the guy won't fight for himself, voters asked themselves, how will he fight for me?
Obama has already traveled too far down the Path of the Kerry, repeatedly voting for funding a war his entire candidacy is predicated upon opposing, not to mention government spying on U.S. citizens and, most recently, the embarrassingly cheesy spectacle of endorsing offshore oil drilling. I mean, really: Do any right-wing conservatives believe he really means any of this stuff?
If he is to make history by salvaging his campaign from its current neck-and-neck status with McCain, Obama will have to rally the Democrats' liberal base by throwing them some red meat: immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, socialized medicine and a sweeping credit crisis bailout plan (all interest rates legally reset to prime) would be a start. He'll also need to beat up McCain (fairly) for agreeing with Bush about just about everything—and pledge to hold the Bushies responsible for their crimes.
(Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.)