The Magazine

It Ain't Over Till It's Over

The case against pessimism.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By JAMES PIERESON
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With just two weeks left before the election, John McCain faces a difficult test in overcoming the lead established by Barack Obama over the past month. An ever-growing number of national polls showed Obama with a lead last week of somewhere between 3 and 14 points--though few people outside the Obama camp gave much credit to the latter margin, reported in a CBS News/New York Times poll. Most polls were in a cluster with an estimated Obama lead of 5 to 7 points. The race thus remains surprisingly close, especially in view of the headwinds blowing against McCain from the financial turmoil that erupted into public view in mid-September.

Notwithstanding this fact, however, many pundits, pollsters, and public figures have rushed forward to declare the race over and Obama the presumptive winner. Liberal columnists, such as E.J. Dionne and Harold Meyerson, have declared that Obama's pending victory will mark the end of the conservative era and doom for the low tax and free market policies favored by Republicans since the late 1970s. House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid are already developing a legislative agenda that they will introduce in Congress in January in cooperation with the new Democratic administration. Senator Obama himself is said to be making plans for an election night victory celebration.

If John McCain can find any solace in these developments, it must be in the fact that his role has been clarified as the underdog who has been written off as a loser by the pundits and pollsters. The premature gloating on view among liberal columnists and the postelection plans being made by Obama and his allies might be turned by McCain to his own advantage. If there is anything voters do not like, it is being taken for granted by politicians.

There is some precedent in the elections of 1948, 1968, and 1976 for the kind of late in the game comeback that McCain must now try to engineer. In the tumultuous election of 1968, Senator Hubert Humphrey trailed Richard Nixon by 12 points (43 to 31 percent) in a Gallup poll published on October 22. George Wallace, the third party candidate that year, claimed 20 percent of the vote. Nixon's lead was undiminished in late October from where it stood when the campaign began in early September. Many declared the race over, as Nixon began announcing plans for the transition. Less than a week later, however, Humphrey had chiseled the lead down to 8 points (44 to 36 percent), mainly at the expense of Wallace's vote, which dropped to 15 percent.

The final Gallup poll, released on the day before the election, gave Nixon a two point lead, 42 to 40 percent--in other words, a dead heat. Humphrey surged in the last weeks of the campaign by playing upon longstanding fears among Democrats about Nixon's character and by persuading conservative Democrats to abandon Wallace. In the end, his rally fell short as Nixon won by less than 1 percent of the vote, just 500,000 votes nationwide.

Gerald Ford's furious finish against Jimmy Carter in 1976 was of a different character than the Humphrey rally, which proceeded by bringing traditional Democrats back into the fold. Ford was able to cut into -Carter's lead by appealing to independent voters who by 1976 represented more than a third of the electorate (here perhaps some precedent for McCain). Ford had trailed Carter by more than 30 points in polls taken in July and by 18 points in late August. His pardon of President Nixon in early September combined with the difficult economic conditions of the mid-1970s led many to conclude that the race was over before it even began.

Ford did not help himself with a blunder in the second presidential debate whereby he denied that Eastern Europeans lived under Soviet domination. Yet by raising questions about Carter's competence to lead and by attacking Carter's promise to pardon all Vietnam draft resisters, he cut the lead to 6 points by mid-October. On the eve of the election, the polls declared the race a dead heat. A Gallup poll taken on the last weekend of the race even gave Ford a 1 point lead, 47 to 46 percent. In the end, the structural obstacles to his campaign (a bad economy and the hangover from Watergate) were too much for Ford to overcome. He lost by two points nationally, 50 to 48 percent.