A certain anxiety is palpable among Democrats gathered this week in Denver for their national convention. Clearly, overconfidence had built over the first half of the summer, leading some party members to see Barack Obama's election as almost inevitable.
As premature and wishful as that thinking was, the fact is that, in many ways, it should have been true. First, a party rarely wins the White House three times in a row. Indeed, that has happened only once in five opportunities since the end of World War II.
Second, given that roughly 90 percent of voters who either identify with or lean toward a party usually end up voting for that party's presidential nominee, the fact that Democrats have gone from rough parity with Republicans four years ago to a lead of 7 to 13 points ought to translate into a very strong Democratic advantage. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain's chances are simply much more dependent on winning a lot of independent votes than Obama's are.
Third, with the national economy in a recession or teetering just above one, conditions are hardly conducive to the GOP's getting its White House lease renewed.
Fourth, with the Republicans' candidate about to turn 72 years of age, and polls showing that many voters harbor serious reservations about electing someone three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he first won the presidency, this year would seem an unlikely exception to the rule.
Yet, Obama's lead -- to the extent that he has one -- is exceedingly tenuous. The latest Gallup nightly tracking poll, conducted through Saturday night, has the race tied at 45 percent. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll, conducted through Friday night, has Obama up by 4 points -- 49 percent to 45 percent. And the pollster.com trend estimate as of Sunday afternoon put Obama ahead of McCain by a scant 1.2 percentage points, 45.1 percent to 43.9 percent. The RealClearPolitics average shows the senator from Illinois up by a slightly wider 1.7 percentage points, 45.3 percent to 43.6 percent.
So, what gives? Even through the early summer, when Obama was enjoying a somewhat larger lead, he failed to put this race away, despite all these factors working in the Democrats' favor. There was resistance to Obama among voters who were not quite comfortable with him and couldn't identify with him. Then, when Russia invaded Georgia this month, the news spotlight went to foreign-policy and national security concerns -- precisely the area where McCain is most experienced and Obama's resume appears thinnest.
We will never know whom Obama would have chosen as a running mate had the Russians not attacked, but the shift to foreign policy certainly increased the attractiveness of picking someone with strong credentials in that area. And the tightening of the polls suggested the need for Obama to opt for someone willing to attack toughly and relentlessly. Joe Biden may help Obama clear the national security threshold in much the way that former CIA director, United Nations adviser, and emissary to China George H.W. Bush helped former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and that former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney helped Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.
In his inaugural appearance as Obama's teammate, Biden showed more exuberance and skill in going on the attack than 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards ever did on John Kerry's behalf. In short, the wisdom of the Biden choice is growing clearer.
But by the time the Democrats leave Denver at the end of the week, Obama needs to have connected with recalcitrant Democrats and independents. His success with that mission could hinge on whether Biden gets him over the national security hurdle.