Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Obama's ceiling

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Following up on my last post -- on the latest Gallup tracking poll that has Obama ahead of McCain by 11 points -- I want to pick up on a question posed by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight:

What is Obama's ceiling?

Basically, Nate says, "[i]f Obama is ahead by something like 7-8 points ahead nationally, that means that he has persuaded just about all of the persuadables." In other words, he's pretty much at or very near his ceiling already, with the Gallup poll something of an outlier, as there just aren't all that many voters left to persuade. The variable, however, remains the economy: "[W]hen six out of ten Americans thinks we're headed for a depression, perhaps the ordinary rules go out the window."

According to Chris Bowers at Open Left, Obama's ceiling -- the "maximum victory" -- is 8.5 points. Which isn't so bad, given that, in America's partisan climate, a victory of 5-8 points is considered a landslide. Chris is nothing if not sanguine: "Given that a very real percentage of Democrats and Independents won't vote for him because he is black, it was always absurd to think that Obama was going to break this mark. When Obama reached an 8% national lead, the only place for him to go was down." A 5-point lead is "about as big as one should ever expect Obama's lead to be, and it still is as much of a landslide as any election has been since 1984."

There are indeed "good reasons to be worried," and not just about unreliable polling. McCain's overtly negative campaign could take its toll -- if it doesn't backfire, as it might, it could narrow the gap significantly. And there is still one more debate to go. And, of course, a "surprise" this month could move the narrative in McCain's favour. Any sort of major international crisis could benefit McCain, if only because of the lingering perception that he has the experience, steady hand, and cool head -- he's been around a long time, but he has neither the steadiness nor the coolness -- to deal with conflicts abroad. Plus, there is always the possibility that the markets rebound, taking the financial crisis off the front pages and offering the illusion of good times ahead.

And yet, I wonder if Obama's ceiling is really in the 8-point range. Chris and Nate are experts in such matters, of course, but there is the opening that Nate mentions at the end of his post. The financial crisis, after all, is serious -- and voters are worried. It may be a stretch to say that another depression is right around the corner, but people are losing their homes and those with homes are having more and more trouble paying the bills, putting food on the table, and providing for their children. This is the current reality. It isn't just about the Dow, or about how much "wealth" has been lost, it's about Americans' very way of life. It's about bread and butter. Literally.

As well, although Palin has certainly energized the hardcore Republican base, the social conservatives, neocons, and theocrats of the right, Obama looks to have a significant advantage in terms of both new voters and getting out the vote. Simply put, Obama is an exciting and inspiring candidate -- and people are responding to him in an incredibly positive way.

These factors -- the economy, Obama's ground operation, and the nature of Obama's candidacy, combined with anti-Republican (and especially anti-Bush) sentiment across the country and a general desire for change -- could propel Obama past that 8-point ceiling. I don't want to suggest that I'm that optimistic -- again, there is still much to worry about -- but it's possible that he could pull off a double-digit victory next month.

I'm not predicting that -- not with Palinmania alive and well in Republican circles, not with the Republican Smear Machine cranked up to full steam -- but I'm just not sure what "the ordinary rules" are anymore. This may not be the year for them.

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Update: Frequent commenter Bob makes a great point: voting machines. I have little confidence that this will be an entirely free and fair election. And we all know there are sinister ways to depress Obama's vote. (I would add voter registration irregularities to voting machine problems. Just ask the good people of Ohio and Florida.)

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