John McCain needed a breakthrough during Tuesday night's debate. If he got it, I must have been watching the wrong channel.
Yes, McCain definitely seemed more comfortable with the town hall setting than with the earlier debate's more traditional format. And, for the first time this year, McCain articulated some semblance of an economic message. But none of this changed the trajectory of the race, which is increasingly headed in Barack Obama's direction.
Going into this week's debate, Obama held a 9-point lead in Gallup's national tracking poll. That was his widest edge so far, and it marked 11 consecutive days in which the Democrat held a statistically significant advantage over McCain in the Gallup survey. State-level polls also show Obama pulling ahead -- not just in every state that Al Gore won in 2000 or John Kerry won in 2004 but also in some key states that George W. Bush carried twice, such as Colorado, Florida, and Ohio. The contests in several other Bush states, including Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, and Virginia, are now dead heats.
Heading toward the end of the second week of voting in some states -- and with as many as one-third of votes nationwide likely to be cast early -- this election is settling into a very bad pattern for McCain and the GOP.
What has happened? Veteran Democratic pollster Peter Hart, drawing on his latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey and on a focus group he recently conducted in St. Louis for the Annenberg Public Policy Center, wrote to his clients before Tuesday's debate. "The reason we have reached an important inflection point in this campaign is that the economy is not just another issue being highlighted, but the issue in voters' personal lives," he told them.
The heightened economic and credit crisis has effectively changed the venue of this election to turf that is virtually unwinnable for a Republican presidential candidate. If voters are focused on the economy going into Election Day, the outcome will almost certainly favor Democrats. But Hart also said that if the public's priority ends up being national security, Republicans not only could, but probably would, win.
"John McCain has lost control of the economic issue, and the debate over the financial crisis has made voters doubt him," Hart wrote. "The economy is overwhelming all other issues." He noted that 59 percent of voters cite economic issues as their greatest area of concern and that "these voters who consider economic issues most important are voting for Obama by 15 points. Also, McCain's handling of the financial crisis has made voters feel less reassured about him -- 25 percent more reassured, 38 percent less."
Another important dynamic in recent weeks is that Obama, through his first debate performance, seems to have cleared a threshold, much as Ronald Reagan did in his October 28, 1980, debate with President Carter. In that encounter, Reagan took advantage of voters' animosity toward the incumbent and his party. The former California governor went on to ride a wave of change that had eluded him until a sufficient number of voters felt comfortable with the idea of his being president.
Reagan's background as an actor and his lack of congressional, Cabinet, or national security experience had given voters pause, but the debate allowed him to clear that hurdle. For Obama, his relative youth and lack of national experience, as well as his race, had worked against him until he projected a high level of intelligence and knowledge about issues in the first debate. He was also confident, poised, and sufficiently tough to persuade enough recalcitrant Democratic and independent voters to join ranks behind him. That's when he began to pull away in the polls.
This contest is not over yet, of course. McCain needs something big to change the dynamics -- something bigger than a kick-ass ad, a strong debate performance, or a misstep by Obama. If voters stay focused on the economy, this contest could soon be out of McCain's reach. If their attention returns to national security in the next week or so, he could still come back.
This article appears in the October 11, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.