By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Democrat Barack Obama, seeking a history-making victory in a presidential campaign that has captivated the country as few others ever have, maintained a clear advantage over Republican John McCain yesterday as the two made final appeals in battleground states and readied massive get-out-the-vote operations in advance of today's balloting.
State and national polls released yesterday underscored the steep hill McCain must climb in the final hours to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Burdened by President Bush's unpopularity and an economic crisis that redrew the race in September in Obama's favor, the senator from Arizona sprinted through a series of critical states yesterday -- all but one of which Bush carried four years ago -- exhorting his supporters to help him defy the odds.
Obama concentrated on Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, appealing to supporters to produce a huge turnout in those battlegrounds as he sought to checkmate his rival by keeping alive as many options as possible for winning an electoral college majority. The strategy, laid down in the summer at the beginning of the general election, has proved successful in the late stages of the race and require McCain to win virtually every state where the polls are close to deny Obama a victory.
Obama, the first African American nominated by a major party, is looking not only to win the presidency but also to produce a popular vote majority, which no Democrat has done since 1976, when Jimmy Carter won 50.1 percent. By invading Republican territory in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountains, Obama also is bidding to redraw an electoral map that has been static and closely divided into red and blue states in the past two elections.
If Obama were to win, he probably would enter the White House with enhanced Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill. House Democrats are looking at the potential for a gain that could come close to equaling the 31 seats they added two years ago when they took control of both chambers. Senate Democrats are trying to add substantially to the 51 seats they currently control, with reaching 60 not out of the question.
The Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll showed Obama leading by nine percentage points -- 53 percent to 44 percent. That is slightly narrower than the 11-point lead Obama held the day before, but in general, Obama's advantage has held steady for the past several weeks.
About a third of those surveyed said they had already voted, testament to the long lines seen in a number of states at early balloting sites, and 90 percent said they are following the race closely -- 63 percent said very closely. That speaks to the enthusiasm seen throughout the campaign on the eve of what could become a history-making moment if Obama becomes the first African American elected president.
The economy dominates the national agenda, with half of poll respondents citing it as the top issue, far eclipsing all other issues, including the war in Iraq. Obama has a wide advantage over McCain as the candidate voters trust more to deal with the nation's serious economic problems.
Both candidates are viewed favorably by the electorate. More than three in five (63 percent) said they have a favorable impression of Obama, while just over half (54 percent) said they have a positive view of McCain.
Some other national polls also showed a small tightening in the margin between Obama and McCain. Obama's lead varies from five points to 11 points in about a dozen national polls released yesterday. But in almost every case, the Democratic nominee had a clear lead and at least 50 percent support, with a small percentage of the electorate undecided. That means McCain not only has to win virtually all the undecided voters but also peel away some voters who currently say they support Obama.
The closest states include some that are familiar from the past two elections but also several where Republicans generally have dominated. Florida appears very close, as does Missouri. Obama has a lead of six points in two Ohio-based polls released in the past two days, but that state is still regarded as a battleground.
But among other states that are now competitive, there are a few surprises. They include Indiana, Georgia, Montana and North Dakota. In several other states Republicans carried four years ago, Obama is now leading, although not in all cases by as much as he needs to put them safely in his column. This group includes Virginia, Colorado and Nevada. He has bigger leads in two other states where Bush won narrowly in 2004: Iowa and New Mexico.
McCain advisers said again yesterday that the race continues to tighten in enough places to leave the outcome in doubt. Privately, they make no secret of the fact that their candidate must pull off a sleight of hand to win, given the number of states Bush won four years ago that are either up for grabs or tilting narrowly toward Obama.
Obama, in contrast, is now looking at the prospect of winning by a potentially large margin in electoral votes, although the estimates by various analysts vary wildly. A weekend analysis by The Post estimated that he is well ahead or narrowly leading in states that add up to 291 electoral votes. Other states, totaling 87 electoral votes, were too close to call.
The first-term senator from Illinois has reached this moment with a campaign that has energized younger voters, that has produced an enormous surge of enthusiasm within the African American community, and that has attracted more better-educated and affluent voters to the Democratic coalition. Until the polls close and the final votes are tallied, nothing is certain in Campaign 2008. But the contours of a new electorate are revealed in the barrage of surveys that have been done in the past month.
The remaining mysteries are how voters ultimately will respond to the prospect of the nation's first African American president and whether any racial resistance to his candidacy can be offset by the Obama campaign's effort to expand the electorate.