Given the closeness of the last two presidential elections and the con-siderable polling data pointing to yet another tight contest, this November's election seems likely to be a squeaker.
Yes, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll shows Barack Obama ahead of John McCain by 12 points, and a Newsweek poll has Obama up by 15 points. But two polls aren't a trend. A more recent three-night tracking poll, completed on June 24 by Gallup, has the race dead even at 45 percent each. A separate USA Today/Gallup poll has Obama up by just 6 points. And polls by Fox News; ABC News/Washington Post; Cook Political Report/RT Strategies; and Reuters/Zogby, all taken about the same time, have Obama ahead by 4 to 6 points.
But, just for fun, let's review all the possible outcomes. First, either John McCain or Barack Obama wins big because the other major-party nominee says or does something exceptionally foolish or is discovered to be hiding a large skeleton that renders him virtually unelectable.
A more likely scenario is that McCain or Obama wins narrowly: A hard-fought campaign is waged and nobody implodes; the popular and electoral votes might even split, as they did in 2000.
What else could happen? It is feasible that Republican voters will turn out in fairly normal numbers. Regardless of what Republicans do, Democrats will come out of the woodwork. Gallup polling for USA Today earlier this month found that 61 percent of Democrats said they were "more enthusiastic than usual" about voting this year. Just 35 percent of Republicans said they were unusually energized. Signs abound that Democratic turnout on November 4 could be very high, particularly if young people, who usually are apathetic about voting, continue to show the interest they have so far this year.
It is entirely plausible that McCain will attract as many votes as President Bush did in 2004, given that Republicans often vote out of habit or a feeling of civic duty. But there is a very good chance that Obama will receive a record number of votes, far exceeding what John Kerry got in 2004. And pollsters might not be able to detect a turnout surge in advance.
A Carter White House official, who recalls how tight the 1980 race between President Carter and former Gov. Ronald Reagan was for much of the contest, proposed a final scenario to me. After being too close to call for some time, that election broke open after the candidates' October 28 debate in Cleveland, their only joint debate that year. The race just exploded, with Reagan going on to win by a landslide--10 points.
Looking back, the former Carter aide says, it's evident that voters were leaning toward Reagan or against Carter, but they weren't quite comfortable with the challenger on the experience issue. When Reagan more than held his own in the debate, appearing at least as "presidential" as the incumbent, he effectively crossed the threshold of acceptability. Once that hurdle was overcome, the outcome was clear and inevitable: Reagan went on to win by a margin that few observers would have predicted only weeks earlier.
In the current cycle, Americans are demanding change. A glance at the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that just 16 percent of voters think that the country is headed in the right direction. Seventy-one percent say that it is off on the wrong track. As they are demanding change, voters are showing a preference (note the distinction) for Democrats. The same poll shows that, by 16 points, voters want the Democrats to win the White House.
This election could hinge on whether voters think that McCain represents enough change. But it is more likely to turn on whether they think that Obama represents a dangerous amount of change. If Obama can emulate Reagan and cross the acceptability threshold, he will not only win but win big. If a significant number of swing voters end up concluding that an Obama presidency would involve a risky level of change, the outcome will likely be close.
The questions about Obama's experience are not unlike the ones about Reagan in 1980. In presidential trial heats, Obama is not polling as well as a generic Democrat. That may be partially because McCain is better liked or more respected than his Republican Party. But part of it may be reservations about whether Obama is ready for the nation's highest office.
It isn't that voters are sure that Obama is not ready. It's just that they are not sure that he is ready.
This article appears in the June 28, 2008, edition of National Journal.