Can McCain Battle Back to 270?

Twenty-four hours. Thirteen states. And only one of them is typically considered blue.

If you want to get a sense of how steep a climb John McCain faces in the final day of the 2008 presidential campaign, forget about the national polls. Look at the travel schedules instead.

Sure, the last pre-election burst of national numbers is nothing but bad news for McCain. Gallup has Obama trouncing his opponent 55 percent to 44 percent. NBC News and the Wall Street Journal show Obama ahead by eight points, 51-43. The rest of the reliable pollsters give the Democrat leads ranging from six points (Pew, 52-46) to 13 points (CBS, 54-41)--and none shows him polling below 50 percent. 

But presidential elections are won in the battleground states, not on the national stage--so at this point we can pretty much afford to ignore those numbers. What we can't ignore is where the candidates have chosen to spend their last full day of campaigning. It's by far the most important indicator of how they're faring on the eve of the election. And judging by McCain's itinerary--and, for that matter, Obama's--the Arizona senator is not faring well.

Sarah Palin will stump in Ohio, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.

There are four things to notice here. First of all, McCain-Palin is making only one stop--Pittsburgh--in Kerry Country, and even that's within 30 miles of the Ohio border. The rest are all red states.

Second, Indianapolis represents McCain's first-ever campaign rally in Indiana. Being forced to stop on Election Eve in a state that George W. Bush won by 20 points four years ago is not a sign of strength.

Third, there's the visit to the Blountville, Tenn. The goal here is to dominate the local TV news, which bleeds over into rural southwestern Virginia, and inspire the sort of turnout necessary to compensate for Obama's advantages in the Metro D.C. and the heavily African-American cities to the east. As Politico's Jonathan Martin notes, "it's a reflection of how imperative winning Virginia is for the GOP that — two days after McCain made stops in Hampton Roads and Fairfax — they would fly the candidate in to drive margins in a lightly populated part of the commonwealth." It's also a reflection of how overwhelmingly Obama has shaped this year's electoral map. The Democrat kicked off his general-election campaign in Bristol, Va. Neither Palin nor McCain visited until today.

Finally, McCain is ending the day with an event Arizona--his home state. Again, not a good omen. (Obama winds up in Chicago, but he's going home, not stumping.)

What's clear from McCain's schedule is that Obama has forced him to close the contest on defense. (Obama, meanwhile, is all offense, with stops today in ruby-red regions of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Indianapolis.)  What's not clear is how McCain expects to defend his way to 270 electoral votes by tomorrow evening.

His advisers--and the drama-hungry media--point to the latest round of polls from Mason-Dixon, which show McCain within the margin of error in Florida (-2), Nevada (-4), Pennsylvania (-4) and Virginia (-3) and leading in Ohio (+2), North Carolina (+3) and Missouri (+1). Now, it's risky to rely on a single set of surveys--instead of a more accurate polling average, like Pollster or RealClear Politics--as your only source of statistics (especially if the pollster in question consistently shows McCain faring 2.5 percent better than said average). But let's imagine for a second that Mason-Dixon is right. Tomorrow, McCain hangs on in Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri. He even comes from behind in Virgina, Florida and Nevada. The problem is, he still won't win unless he overtakes Obama in Pennsylvania--or captures Iowa, New Mexico or Colorado, where Obama consistently polls above 50 percent and leads by 5 to 15 points. The bottom line: even if every close Mason-Dixon state breaks McCain's way, he still faces a steep climb to 270. If they don't, he's toast.

Ultimately, even that scenario is probably rosier than reality. According to the RCP averages, Obama is leading in Florida (+2.5), Virginia (+4.2), Ohio (+4.3), Colorado (+5.5), Nevada (+6.2), New Mexico (+7.3) and Iowa(+15.3). If Obama swipes all of these Bush states, he'll win 338-220; if he flips only the ones where he's polling above 50 percent and/or leading by more than five points, he'll win 291-247. What's more, the Illinois senator is also within striking distance in the red states of North Carolina (tie), Missouri (0.4), Indiana (-1.4), Georgia (-3), Montana (-3.8) and Arizona (-3.5), which are collectively worth another 65 electoral votes. His paths to 270 number in the dozens.

Meanwhile, McCain needs the electoral equivalent of a royal flush to win tomorrow night. With a mad, last-minute dash through as many at-risk red states as humanly possible, the Arizona senator, an inveterate gambler, is doing everything in his power to make his own luck. But chances are it's about to run out.