Is McCain on the Comeback Trail?

(Stephan Savoia / AP)

Could McCain be--brace yourself, people--coming back?

That's the argument members of hopeful right (and paranoid left) are making this afternoon. Given the latest numbers--and the obvious incentives for both McCain and the mainstream media to characterize the race as "close"--it's not much of a surprise. Over at RealClear Politics, Obama's average national lead has narrowed from eight points on Saturday to 6.1 points today. His average margin in the (more-responsive) tracking polls has fallen further, from 7.8 points to 5.5 points over the same five-day span. Yesterday, McCain pollster Bill McInturff told reporters that, according to his internal polling, “the campaign is functionally tied across the battleground states … with our numbers improving sharply," He added that "the race has moved significantly over the past week, closing to essentially tied." The mood on the Straight Talk Express, say reporters, is "unusually upbeat."

So should Obamans be worried? Perhaps--but not for the reasons they might think. 

There's no need, for example, to obsess over the national numbers. First, the national movement--one or two percentage points on the margin--is "well within the usual range of sampling noise," according to Pollster's Mark Blumenthal. In other words, the decline in Obama's lead isn't large enough (at this point) to qualify as statistically significant.

Second, much of the shift is attributable to a slight rise in McCain's level of support (from about 42.5 percent to about 44 percent); Obama's support, meanwhile, has hovered steadily around 50 percent or so. What this means is that a small percentage of the people who were "undecided" at the end of last week--disgruntled, economically-stressed former Bush supporters, for the most part--now say they back McCain. Such movement is inevitable--and it's the reason the gap between Obama and McCain may continue to closebefore Election Day. McIntuff, for one, has claimed that when "undecided/refuse to respond voters" break, they "will add a net three plus points to our margins." But the fact is, unless Obama's numbers slip firmly below 50 percent, McCain can't overtake him--even if he wins over every singleundecided.

Which brings us to point number three: McCain won't win every single undecided--nor will he win enough to net three or more percentage points. Over the past 24 hours, two of the nation's most respected pollsters--Andy Kohut of Pew and Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin--conducted extensive analyses of the latest polling data and came to the same conclusion: that Obama and McCain will roughly split the five to six percent of the electorate that remains uncommitted.

Franklin's methodology was pretty simple. First, he examined the " raw, respondent-level data from more than 3,449 interviews conducted from Oct. 1 to Oct. 22 for the Diageo/Hotlinepoll" and discovered that "roughly 6 percent of the respondents were initially undecided, but split almost evenly (47 percent for Obama, 53 percent for McCain) when pushed for how they 'lean.'" Then he compared these leaners to the remaining undecideds for "every variable that seems predictive of vote preference--including party identification, age, race, gender, education, frequency of church attendance and geographic region." His finding? That the remaining undecideds should split about 54 percent for Obama and 46 percent for McCain.

Kohut's conclusion, as reportedthis morning on the Politico, was almost identical: "undecided voters [are] likely to split about equally between McCain and Obama." If Kohut and Franklin are correct, Obama should beat McCain 52 percent to 46 percent on Nov.4. So the only way McCain can catch up is by prying some support away from his opponent--not by relying on a landslide among undecideds. As Kohut put it, "there is likely no hidden life raft in the undecided vote for John McCain." [UPDATE: A third pollster, Stan Greenberg, concurs: "To get a 3-point net gain, the undecided would have to break 5 to 2 for McCain. There is no evidence to indicate such an impending break against Obama. Instead, the undecided could push Obama's vote up at least another point.")

So why should Obamans worry? One word: Pennsylvania. (Maybe.)

As you know, the presidency isn't decided by a national vote. So the national polls aren't particularly relevant at this point--unless they detect an emerging trend before it trickles down into the swing states. So far, Obama's standing throughout much of the battleground has showed no sign of slippage. As Noam Scheiber points out, "McCain's socialist/redistributionist attack may be getting him a lot of media coverage nationally" and "tightening the national numbers." But Obama has the "key battleground states... wired with paid staff and volunteers and is flooding them non-stop with ads"--so his support there is more "robust." Ultimately, Obama doesn't need to swing Ohio and Florida and Virginia to win the election; he just needs to add Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado--where his wide leads and 50-percent-plus poll numbers haven't changed an iota since Saturday--to John Kerry's 2004 map. A win in any one of the rest of the red states currently leaning Democratic--Florida, Missouri, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia--would simply be icing on the cake.

Unless, that is, McCain can battle back in Pennsylvania. Until today, there was no evidence that McCain's recent increases in stumping and spending were having any effect on the Keystone State. The last 14 polls had shown Obama clearing the 50 percent mark and leading by an average of 12 points. But this morning, the respected Mason-Dixon firm released a surveysuggesting that Obama's support had slipped below 50 percent--and that his lead had shrunk to a mere four percentage points (47-43*).

The Mason-Dixon poll may be an outlier--or, as the only sounding that doesn't include data from last week, it may be ahead of the curve. We'll have to wait and see. But without Pennsylvania, McCain can't possibly compensate for likely losses in Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado--or mount a realistic comeback. So instead of watching the marginal, irrelevant fluctuations in the national numbers, I'll be watching the Keystone State instead.

UPDATE, Oct. 31:  Another poll--albeit from a Republican polling organization--shows McCain within striking distance in Pennsylvania. According to the latest stats from Strategic Vision, it's 49 percent for Obama to 44 percent for McCain. The margin between the two candidates may still be larger than five points. That said, the Oct. 8 Strategic Vision poll showed Obama ahead by 14, so McCain may also have real momentum. We need more numbers before we can say for sure.

*Typo fixed; used to read 43.