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Obama leads but could McCain pull off an upset?

October 18, 2008

Obama leads by only 4.84

My new projections are (my methodology is here):

Barack Obama 49.44
John McCain 44.60

Linear regression analysis of polling trends since the selection of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate suggest an Obama victory of 9.15 in the popular vote. However there is about a 25% chance of McCain winning in the election. Although the selection of Sarah Palin has destroyed the argument that John McCain is the most experienced candidate and has produced an unwelcome distraction, for the McCain campaign, from some of the more pressing questions about Obama, there are several reasons why the betting markets are underestimating John McCain’s chances.

1. Complacency – The Obama campaign seems to have been extremely complacent. Although Obama has talked about the experience of New Hampshire they seem not to be trying that hard. Even in the 1997 election when Labour where ahead by huge amounts, they were fighting for every news cycle and trying to win over as many swing voters as possible. The Obama campaign have allowed McCain to browbeat the media into dropping any further investigation of Palin and they are focusing on turnout rather than undecided voters.

The Boston Globe’s suggestion that Bush should stand down immediately after an Obama victory is eerily reminiscent a similar call the Chicago Tribune made in 1948, regarding President Truman and Thomas Dewey. In that case a passionate underdog pulled off a surprise victory against the calm, and complacent, favourite.

2. Taxes – When the Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg interviewed a bunch of ‘Reagan Democrats’ in Michigan he found that “The tax attack raised more doubts than the Reverend Wright one (68 versus 55 percent) and produced marginally more voters pulling away from Obama. Frankly, these financially pressed Reagan Democrats were more concerned that their taxes would be raised than with Obama’s relations with Reverend Wright.”

Samuel “Plumber Joe” Wurzelbacher may be unlicensed, in trouble with the IRS and a Republican (rather than genuinely undecided) , but it seems to have connected with swing voters and forced Obama on the defensive. While the Republican party may be too far to the right of the general population of this issue there are real flaws with Obama’s tax proposals as well that the McCain campaign can exploit.

3. Sarah Palin – It is likely that, after her appearance from Saturday Night Live, Governor Palin will take a much lower profile. At the same time both McCain and Palin seem to be distancing themselves from each other. While this may be cynical in Palin’s case (she doesn’t want to be held responsible for the likely defeat) and too late on McCain’s part, having Palin at arm’s length can only be a positive for the Senator from Arizona and will help him with undecided voters.

4. The current polls – In the last few days McCain has experienced a “mini-surge” going from over eight points down on October 10th to less than five points behind as of yesterday. This may be a blip or it could be the start of a fight back. However, if the polls are being biased by absentee and early voter lying about who they voted for (the exit polls overestimated the Obama-Clinton margins by about five points during the primaries), then the two candidates could be virtually neck and neck.

5. Swing states – Obama seems to have broadened his focus to solid red states, such as Indiana and North Carolina, and solid blue states, such as California. While expanding his lead in the electoral college and pumping up the popular vote may give him a stronger mandate than George W Bush had in 2000, he is being arrogant in not prioritising states like Ohio and Colorado. In contrast, McCain’s decision to spend time in the swing states is the strategy of a candidate who is more interested in winning the election, rather than merely reducing the margin of defeat.

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