If this election really is a choice between one nominee who should have become president eight years ago and another who should become president eight years from now, more voters certainly seem to be betting on hastening the future's arrival than on clinging to the past. Since October 4, Barack Obama has held a statistically significant lead over John McCain in the daily Gallup tracking polls: 50 percent to 43 percent, a margin of 7 points, going into the final debate. Since October 3, Obama has steadily clocked 50 to 52 percent of the vote while McCain has consistently recorded 41 to 43 percent, with the Democrat's lead running from 7 to 11 points.
Simply put, with the economy going into a free fall, the stock market plummeting, and credit markets seizing up in recent weeks, a political environment has developed in which voters might be willing to take a chance on a presidential candidate just four years removed from a state legislature. The fear of a continuation of the status quo is now greater than the fear of what the future might hold. Voters see greater risk with no change than with change that is relatively unknown in many ways.
Although this is probably true, it sells Obama short. Had he not performed so impressively in the debates, voters might still be unwilling to take a chance on him. But now he's like Ronald Reagan, a former actor and two-term governor of California with no Washington experience -- and no foreign-policy or national security credentials whatsoever -- who beat a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and incumbent in the midst of the Cold War. In his October 28, 1980, debate with President Carter, Reagan managed to reassure skeptics that he was big enough and smart enough to be president of the United States, thus transforming a race that had been too close to call into a 10-point landslide.
Likewise, Obama's strong debate performances have reassured many swing voters who, like those in 1980, wanted change but were uncertain about the qualifications of the outsider candidate. Really big choices are usually tough ones.
From time to time, one major political party or the other has a train-wreck election where bad things happen to their candidates all over the country, and they lose a large number of races and seats. The circumstances and causes vary greatly, but it happens.
Democrats lost plenty of seats in Congress in 1966, 1980, and 1994; Republicans lost many in 1958, 1964, 1974, 1982, 1986, and 2006. What is so unusual about this year is that it is very rare for one party to have two consecutive train-wreck elections, as is looking increasingly likely for Republicans. In 2006, congressional Republicans were badly punished over the controversy surrounding both the decision to fight in Iraq and the way in which the war was being conducted. Various scandals and embarrassment over mounting deficits and mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort also took their toll.
But in this election, Republicans are not being punished for the war. Indeed, the war is hardly an issue. Republicans are being punished because of the economy: Many Americans have seen their retirement savings badly depleted and have watched our banking system teetering on the brink of disaster. It now seems that the 30 House seats the GOP lost in 2006 (not counting its three special-election defeats since then) and the six Senate seats it also lost in 2006 could be followed by the loss of 20 to 30 House seats and six to eight Senate seats. Losing nine or 10 Senate seats is no longer impossible.
Devastating back-to-back election cycles are truly rare: They have happened only twice in the past 80 years (40 elections) -- to Republicans in 1932 and 1934 and to Democrats in 1950 and 1952. Usually, when voters kick the heck out of one party, their anger is satisfied and they move on. Voters rarely come back the very next time and kick the same party hard again.
This election isn't over, but it is looking very bad for Republicans -- and seems to be getting worse.
This article appears in the October 18, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.