What Will Decide the Election?

Washington Matters

What Will Decide the Election?

What is going to determine the outcome of this election? Remember the extraordinary turnout of evangelicals in suburbs and exurbs that helped turned the tide for President Bush in 2004? There are usually one or two key factors like that seem decisive. Of a number of possibilities this year, what do you think will make the difference? I suggest some of the possibilities below, but please mention any you feel were left out.

I suspect it will be independents. Look for how Barack Obama and John McCain try to woo them during the debates and from the stump. While specific stands on issues, especially the economy, will matter, independents will be weighing their leadership abilities and demeanor of the candidates. Look for Obama to try to reassure them by remaining cool under fire while McCain will do all that he can to undermine confidence in Obama.

Turnout? Independents won't matter so much if there is a huge tide of support for Obama. New registrations, incredible enthusiasm from younger voters and the possible undercount of Obama supporters by pollsters (for a variety of reasons, including being first-time voters and having only cell phones) could be disguising considerable support for the Democrat.

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Organization? Republicans are known for exceptionally strong, hi-tech-driven voter turnout efforts. And as I noted, much of their effort in 2004 went unnoticed by the news media and the Democrats, so it's its certainly possible that a deep undercurrent is being missed. But Obama married aggressive on-the-ground operations to the most successful political use of the Internet yet to capture the nominaton. His campaign has been building on those structures ever since. Primary workers immediately turned their attention to the general election in key states such as Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Early voting? Some 30 states allow early voting, an increasingly popular technique to encourage participation and avoid bottlenecks Election Day. With voting starting in many states with Obama holding his strongest sustained lead to date, early votes could go in his favor. That could blunt the potential damage of a late surge by McCain.


Democratic registration gains? A good argument can be made there. Democrats have made substantial strides. But registration is one thing, showing up and voting is another, though.

Sarah Palin? Some Republicans believe she is just what McCain needs to energize the debate and to take Obama down a few notches. And the veep debate set a huge record for viewership, which certainly wasn't because of Joe Biden. Nonetheless, I'm not sure she can make much of a difference. Despite all the attention she garners, most voters vote for the top of the ticket. And there is no evidence in the polls that her debate performance caused much of a ripple with voters.

Generational difference? Will more voters want a younger president, or an older one with more experience?

Race? Perhaps. It's hard to know to what extent the prospect of a minority-race president is a huge concern for some voters and a huge motivating factor to others -- and whether those factors essentially cancel each other out. We also don't know to what extent people may not be telling pollsters how they will actually vote (the so-called Bradley Effect) or how much pollsters may be underestimating turnout by minorities and other voting blocs likely to favor Obama.


The economy? Obviously this is the issue of the campaign and displacing it would require a calamity or scandal of such gargantuan proportions that I'd rather not think about the possibilities. The question is whether McCain can do anything to erode Obama's advantage on the issue. Certainly a strong argument there. It is foremost in many voters minds. Jobs, gas, investments, credit market tightness.

Referendum on George Bush? He's not on the ballot, but you wouldn't know that from the Obama-Biden statements and ads trying to link him to Bush repeatedly and warning of Bush's "third term". There is broader resentment against the party as well, evidenced by its defeat in the congressional elections two years ago. It simply might not be possible for a Republican to win in such a poisonous an atmosphere.

Campaign money? Obama has more of it. He is forcing McCain to decide where to spend more precious resources and time, including having to shore up support in what otherwise might have been easy states for him - Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, for instance. McCain has already abandoned once-promising Michigan to husband cash and staff.