For a political analyst, the normal posture this time of year is much like a baseball umpire's: hunched over, peering carefully as the ball approaches the plate, watching for whether it breaks left or right, whether it's coming in high or low. But, these days, we analysts are more like outfielders, watching in awe as a ball seems on a trajectory to not only clear the fence but very likely land in the upper deck.
By every metric, Barack Obama's presidential campaign appears headed for the upper deck. Polls (both national and state-by-state), organization, money, and momentum are all running strongly in Obama's favor. At this point, one wonders whether Obama's winning margin could be greater than Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's 5.6-point win over President George H.W. Bush in 1992, more than Bush's 7.7-point win over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988, or more than Clinton's 8.5-point win over Sen. Bob Dole in 1996. Even higher on the landslide roster is California Gov. Ronald Reagan's 9.7-point victory over President Carter in 1980 and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's 10.9-point win over Adlai Stevenson in 1952.
Certainly, the 2008 presidential contest could reverse direction and result in victory for John McCain. But at this point, he would have to be the beneficiary of something quite dramatic for that to happen.
As this campaign has shifted from a surprise-around-every-corner situation to one more akin to watching concrete set, many observers have begun playing "What if?" If McCain had picked someone other than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, would he now be higher in the polls? If the senator from Arizona had waged this battle more as John McCain 1.0, the 2000-vintage candidate who was more of a maverick and less of a partisan than the 2008 version, could he have succeeded because he was less tied to his Republican Party and less joined at the hip with President Bush?
These are interesting questions, but they avoid one unmistakable fact: This is a toxic political environment for Republicans. That's why they will probably lose at least seven seats in the Senate and at least 20 in the House. Having former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former eBay CEO Meg Whitman or even Mother Teresa as McCain's running mate would not have changed that. And, with Bush's job-approval rating in a recent Gallup Poll at 25 percent, my National Journal colleague Ronald Brownstein has noted that McCain would need the support of one-third of all voters who disapprove of Bush's performance in order to reach 50 percent in a general election. With Republican Party identification down from parity four years ago to a 10-point deficit, this race would have been incredibly hard for the Republican nominee no matter what.
Although this contest was very competitive over the summer and could have gone either way before the stock market crashed and the credit markets seized up, arguably it has become virtually unwinnable for McCain. The nation's economic problems feel very personal and very painful for nearly everybody who has looked at their 401(k) or other retirement account statements and seen that a quarter or more of their retirement savings have evaporated. Many voters even held stock in venerable companies, including some of those long considered among the safest around, and have watched in horror as those investments turned almost worthless.
For voters who may end up working many more years than they had planned, or who have lost money set aside to send their children or grandchildren to college or to start or expand a business, it is far easier to blame anyone wearing a red Republican jersey than to dwell on thoughts about which presidential nominee has had more experience on national security issues or has spent more time contemplating the situation in the Middle East.
Of course, this election isn't over. Something could transform it from one focused on an economic recession to one obsessed with national security or some other topic that would give McCain a fighting chance. But with the growing popularity of early voting, that "something" would have to be very big and happen very soon to have the power to change the trajectory of Obama's campaign.
For now, what is so jarring about the tempo of this election is its shift from turbulent to placid, from shocking to inevitable. Perhaps that is a fitting end to this weird campaign year.
This article appears in the October 25, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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