Page 2 of 2   <      

Polls Point to Struggle for McCain

There may be quibbles with the particular margins in particular states, but the direction of these surveys is consistent with almost all national polls, which show Obama's lead approaching or slightly into double digits.

The Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll has been holding steady this week, showing Obama's advantage at around 10 points. Gallup has had it between five and eight points, depending on its model for determining the most likely voters. The Pew Research Center put it at 14 points. The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll showed a 10-point lead for Obama earlier this week.

Peter Hart, who helps conduct the NBC survey, said that "what has been a tight and competitive race for six months has suddenly and dramatically opened up in Barack Obama's favor."

Hart concluded that after months of doubts, voters "have reached a comfort level with Barack Obama." In contrast, he said, McCain faces significant doubts "that he matches what Americans are looking for in terms of change or hope and optimism for the future."

There are certainly some polls that portray a different race. Some show Obama's margin in mid-single digits, and one poll this week showed Obama with a lead of a single point. Some pollsters see those variations and deduce that in a year like this, with the economy in such distress, the electorate is highly volatile. Be wary, they say, of drawing broad conclusions from even several polls at any given moment.

But even accounting for that volatility, there is no question that McCain is currently losing this race. By what margin is another question. If Obama's lead nationally is in high single digits, then, if past patterns hold, the battleground states are within a few points up or down from that margin.

Take Ohio as an example. Republican presidential candidates generally run a few points better there than they do nationally. That means if McCain can trim the margin to low single digits nationally, he would be in a position to win Ohio. But if the national race looks closer to a 10-point difference, then his hopes of winning the state diminish dramatically. The same dynamic holds for Florida.

What all the polls, battleground and national, point to is that Obama now has multiple routes to 270 electoral votes, the winning number, while McCain has to win virtually everything that is competitive. lists seven tossup states. All were won by President Bush four years ago.

Many analysts have long predicted that the race could stay close until the end but that it could pop open in the final weeks -- and if that happened, it would most likely go in Obama's direction.

The reasons are obvious. The economic meltdown has turned an anxious country into a stressed country. Voters are enormously pessimistic about the future, and that's harmful to McCain as the nominee of the party that holds the White House. In the Big Ten polls, the economy dominates: 61 percent of those surveyed in Ohio and Pennsylvania and 67 percent in Indiana cited it as the top issue.

"The Wall Street collapse has created a very bad headwind," Dick Wadhams, the Republican Party chairman in Colorado, said yesterday morning.

McCain is also weighed down by Bush's unpopularity. The president's approval rating is under 30 percent, and in many of the battleground states, it is far below that. That means the GOP nominee has to win over lots of voters who are unhappy with the performance of a Republican president.

It is often said that the race for the White House is not one campaign but 50, as the candidates battle for electoral votes in one state after another. That's true in tight races, but when the margins open up, it's too much for a candidate to fight state by state.

Obama said this week that he expects the race to tighten in the final 10 days. Some Republican strategists believe that will happen, making some battlegrounds more competitive than current polls suggest.

McCain is hammering his rival on taxes and readiness, and the question is whether, as voters focus on a possible Obama presidency, there will be second thoughts. That is what McCain must hope for, given the headwinds he is now facing.

<       2

© 2008 The Washington Post Company