Is there something about chilly weather that makes the media jump to conclusions? Does the changing of seasons make pundits eager to pronounce Barack Obama a sure thing? Because fall has finally arrived in Washington, and suddenly it seems like we're back in January.
You remember January. That's when Obama trounced Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, and more or less every commentator on the planet pronounced the Democratic primary a done deal. After Iowa, polls showed Obama in the lead in New Hampshire. And when Obama won New Hampshire, we were told, the primary would be over. Except the primary wasn't over. It wasn't over at all. Clinton won New Hampshire, and the primary lasted until early June. Clinton won every big state except Obama's home state of Illinois. She positively trounced Obama in states like Pennsylvania and Kentucky and West Virginia. She won Ohio by nine percentage points.
Obama won the nomination in the end, of course. And now he is leading John McCain in the polls. And now, once again, the media have decided that the race is over. Newsweek's cover asks how "President Obama" will be able to govern our center-right nation, even though Election Day isn't for two weeks. Politico's Mike Allen wonders how the networks will cope if it becomes clear Obama is the winner "before most Americans have finished dinner." The Obama campaign has so much money that it's buying advertising space in--I'm not sure how this works either--video games.
If you watched Meet the Press on Sunday, you came away feeling as though Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama was more important than the actual election. Andrea Mitchell said Powell would make a huge difference in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, "even South Carolina." The editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was talking about Powell in such reverent tones that for a second I thought it was Douglas MacArthur who had somehow risen from the dead and endorsed Obama. NBC's political director, Chuck Todd, observed that the electoral map is shifting in Obama's favor, including in places like West Virginia, where, and this is not an exaggeration, McCain's lead is only in the high single digits. A Republican wag told Politico after the show that the Powell endorsement was "the nail in the coffin."
It's true that Obama is, at least for the moment, winning the presidential campaign. But I can't shake the feeling that the growing sense of inevitability among our political class is oversold. According to Saturday's New York Times, Obama is "outadvertising" McCain by a ratio of "at least 4 to 1." Yet the national tracking polls show a tightening race. Typically the polls in swing states end up in about the same place as the national polls. This should give pause to Obama and his supporters.
After all, we've been here before. Last year, every political analyst on the scene, including me, said John McCain didn't have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. Boy were we wrong. Throughout this year, folks thought Obama would win the big states and the Democratic primary would be over. Wrong again. We thought the general election would be about the war in Iraq. As it turns out, not so much.
This is a close race and McCain is a wily underdog. More important, perhaps, he's an underdog who is often helped by outside events. The success of the surge strategy in Iraq helped McCain win the GOP nod. Over the last month, the financial crisis and McCain's haphazard response to it all but torpedoed his chances to win the presidency. But now, thanks to a global effort, the immediate crisis seems to have passed, and the worst seems to have been avoided. Yes, we are probably in a recession, and there are tough economic times ahead. But the sense of impending economic collapse has faded. And that helps McCain.
Obama won the debates, but the debates are finished. Obama has a lot more money, but money does not determine elections. President Bush is still incredibly unpopular, but McCain is finally telling audiences that he's not President Bush. Obama has almost every advantage--but it ain't over yet.
Matthew Continetti is the associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.