Washington Matters


Not Yet a Time For Partying -- or Sulking



Republicans are all but dancing in the streets. Democrats are holding their stomachs, feeling that slight nausea that comes with an all-too familiar sense of doom -- the one they experienced when formidable leads by Mike Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry turned into close races or all-out routs. But both sides should take it a little easy and remind themselves that this has been a remarkably unpredictable year. After all, if polls and momentum and gut feelings had been right, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama would be the nominees of their parties.

If you want to size the race up in a realistic way right now, there are several factors that have to be considered. Let's go over some of the key ones:

  • Polls. They're important, but always take them with a grain of salt, especially after a series of developments and events such as those of the past week. And use several grains of salt if they are all over the place. The slew of polls released today range from a 10-point lead for McCain to a tie. Whatever the most accurate picture is, McCain -- down 5 to 9 points just a week ago -- clearly has gained significant ground. But it probably makes sense to discount the 10-point lead since it is so different from other polls and those at the other end showing a tie race, since they, too, are in the minority. What you are left with is a slight lead for McCain, at best, or more realistically, a race too close to call with two months of campaigning left.
  • Enthusiasm. This is where Republicans undoubtedly have made gains, at least for now. This is a party saddled with one of the most unpopular presidents in history, a party poised for substantial losses in Congress for the second straight election and a party whose base just two weeks ago seemed barely interested in the election. But Palin's hit at the convention changed that -- and while convention bounces are often temporary, the undeniable excitement of the base is not something that will fade any time soon. And that's important. The Washington Post had a story today about how lukewarm supporters of McCain called their local party to volunteer on his behalf. One thing to watch for: Palin may also invigorate Democrats who were ho-hum about Obama. Palin is popular with the right because of her stands on cultural issues: opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape, in favor of abstinence-only sex education classes and in favor of including creationism in public school curriculums. Many independents and moderates in both parties find those positions objectionable, and many liberal Democrats find them dangerous. That could mean more solid backing and more volunteers for Obama.
  • Organization and new voters. This, really, is the big enchilada. The candidate that has the strongest ground operations, registration gains and get-out-the-vote drives in key states will win. On its face, that would seem to favor Obama and the Democrats. Obama has an unparalleled organization that has brought in millions of new voters this year, while Republicans have lost over 300,000 voters. But Republicans have their own get-out-the vote effort going and, particularly given the Palin-powered energy boost, it can't be discounted. Such Republican efforts often fly well below the radar. Remember that in 2004, Ohio appeared extremely close in the polls, but Bush won with relative comfort, mostly because of the votes of well-organized suburban evangelicals.
So if you add all these together? The only bet I'd make is on this race remaining close at least up until the debates -- the final exam for all four presidential and vice presidential candidates.




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