Washington Matters


Some Friendly Advice For the Final Days


This seems to be the crazy time, with everyone running around, biting their nails, reading the polls, watching the pundits, studying early voting patterns  -- and these are supposedly normal people, not those directly involved in politics. This is my 11th presidential election as a reporter, and I've never seen one that has everyone riled up quite like this.

My Democratic friends call me day and night seeking reassurance: Is Obama really going to win? Will McCain's new attack work? Palin's energy speech was good -- will that turn things around?  Democrats will screw it up like they always do, won't they? 

My Republican friends are no better: Is Obama really going to win? What do they see in him? Why is the press so unfair? Do you trust the polls? Can McCain pull it out? How?

I usually respond with the wisdom of my age.  "It depends," I say, no matter which side the caller represents. Then I suggest they take in a movie, open a good bottle of wine, or try a sleeping pill (for those having nightmares). Then I hit them with my closer:  "Just relax. There's nothing you can do but vote and then wait for the results." "Hah," they respond. "Easy for you to say."

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This is not an exaggeration; I've never seen so many anxious people, and there really is nothing for them to do. But for readers of the Kiplinger blog -- and we thank you for your loyalty and support throughout the past several months -- I'll go a bit further and offer my personal and professional advice on what to watch for in the final weekend of the campaign. Take it with a grain of salt (and two aspirins if that will help).

-- Early voting. It's heavy and running about 3-2 for Obama, but it's early yet. The famous Republican 72-hour get-out-the-vote effort has yet to begin, and we won't really know anything useful until that plays out. Even then, it's iffy. Early voting is a sign of enthusiasm, and we'd expect it to favor Obama, but no one knows whether this means more support for him or whether we're just seeing people vote now who would normally vote Nov. 4. To track early voting, check out George Mason University's excellent site.

-- Polls. We all pay attention to them because, along with early voting, they give us the only real data we have. But this year's polls are fraught with uncertainty. The influx of first-time voters, most of whom are young or minorities, the growth of cell-phone-only households, and the race factor make it tricky for any pollster to estimate who will actually vote. That's why there is a wide variance in the results and why you look at the average of polls. RealClearPolitics has a good set of averages. If you can't keep away from polls, at least focus on the battleground states and pay attention to whether either candidate crosses the magic threshold of 50%. The national polls get more and more irrelevant as we get closer to Nov. 4. No one is campaigning or running ads in New York or Texas so the polls there don't reflect the most recent activity, and they can skew the results. So skip the nationals and keep your eye on the electoral vote map (ours especially).

-- The economy. If you must pay attention to national polls, watch the economic numbers. The percentage of people who think Obama would do a better job than McCain in handling the economy narrowed from 18 points to 10 in the Washington Post/ABC poll early this week, but it's now holding steady. Any further narrowing is a cause for concern or hope, depending on your preferences.

-- It's all about Virginia and Colorado. Assuming Obama takes Pennsylvania, as we expect, McCain can't prevail without winning Virginia and Colorado, which together have 22 electoral votes. With all due respect to the late Tim Russert, Florida doesn't matter this year. Nor does Ohio. McCain can win them both -- and all the other swing states -- but still lose if he doesn't get Virginia and Colorado, both of which are leaning to Obama.

-- On the congressional side, pay attention to North Carolina and Kentucky. If Elizabeth Dole and Mitch McConnell are defeated, Democrats will get awfully close to the magic 60 -- the number of seats needed to shut off a filibuster.

-- On the House side, watch Connecticut, a state that usually reports early. If Republican Chris Shays loses, Democrats will be en route to adding 25 seats to their total. If he wins, their gain will be 20 or less. If Shays loses and Democrats start to win GOP seats in toss-up districts (Diaz Balart's 25th in Florida, the open 1st in Maryland, the open 7th in N.J.), then Democrats could gain 35 seats, a real rout.

Will it be over early Tuesday night? Who knows. Long lines and lots of confusions suggest it will take a while for votes to be counted and the early voting complicates exit polling. So be prepared for anything. Come to think of it, it might be a good night for a movie.

 




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