So Who's Winning Now?

The current Real Clear Politics electoral map reflects the latest polls; it is not a prediction of the outcome

Forget the impending financial apocalypse for a second. Who the heck is winning this thing?

The last time we asked that question, the answer didn't bode particularly well for Barack Obama. It was Sept. 15, and John McCain was still enjoying his post-convention bounce. Although Obama held a slight, 273-265 lead on the electoral map, I wrote, "the Red States had gotten redder--and the Blue States had gotten purpler" since the Democrats left Denver. What's more, McCain had an "advantage in the [Real Clear Politics] average [of national surveys]--his first since Hillary Clinton hung up her spurs."

"What the last week of polling has shown beyond any doubt," I concluded, "is that McCain's successful convention and shocking choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate have shifted the map ever so slightly to the right, transforming a landscape that favored Obama into a landscape that favors, well, no one."

Not anymore.

It's been two weeks since we last surveyed the state of play--but for McCain it's probably felt more like an eternity. First, the Wall Street meltdown shifted the spotlight to a subject (the economy) that voters typically trust Democrats to deal with--and McCain's controversial response did little to close the gap. According to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, for example, 64 percent of likely voters said they're either very or somewhat confident that Obama would "make the right decisions" on the econony, compared to only 55 percent for McCain (his "not confident" rating: 45 percent). Meanwhile, Palin's approval ratings have plummeted after a series of shaky interviews from 60 percent or more (circa St. Paul) to less than 50 percent today, as her disapproval ratings have crept up near the 40 percent mark. Overlaid upon the immutable anti-Republican contours of the race--three-quarters of voters say the country is on the wrong track; Democrats typically hold a dozen-point advantage in generic Congressional polling--McCain's dodgy fortnight has boosted Obama to his most commanding lead since the general election began in earnest.

In other word, Obama is winning.

Let's look at the numbers. From the end of the primary season on June 3 until the shortly before the start of the Democratic Convention late last month, the Real Clear Politics average--a blend of the most recent half dozen or so national match-ups between Obama and McCain--told an essentially static story: despite never breaking the magical 50 percent mark, Obama led McCain by a steady three to six points for months. But two back-to-back conventions--which typically mark the point when the public begins to pay attention--scrambled those jets, and by Sept. 8, McCain was ahead in the RCP round-up by about three points (48.3 to 45.4). That would be his high-water mark. Starting on Sept. 15, McCain's average has slipped four points (from 47 to 43 percent). Meanwhile, Obama has made mirror-image gains, climbing from a low point of 44.7 percent to today's high of 48. Not counting his artifical post-Denver spike, Obama's current average national lead over McCain (about five points) and level of support (48 percent) are his most robust since the dog days of mid-July. No national poll taken since Sept. 22--with the exception of one flawed outlier--shows Obama with anything less than a five-point lead. Four soundings since Sept. 19 put his support over the magical 50 percent mark. 

But as every political junkie knows, presidential elections are fought on a state-by-state basis--not in the national polls. So what's happening on the ground? Much of the map has not changed since we last checked in: Obama is still winning every state he was winning on Sept. 15, and McCain still leads in most of his old, familiar territory as well. That said, there have been a few significant shifts over the past two weeks--and all of them favor Obama.

First, two states that preferred McCain last time around--Virginia and North Carolina--have gone from red to blue. Virginia is no surprise. A prime Obama pick-off possibility, it has switched sides a whopping seven times this cycle, and neither candidate has ever led there by more than three points. Still, it's significant that Obama now holds his largest average advantage of the year--a still-slim 1.4 percent. North Carolina is more surprising. On Sept. 15, McCain was clobbering Obama 52 percent to 41 percent in the RCP average. But over the past two weeks, a pair of surveys--PPP and Rasmussen--have given him a two-point edge in their latest soundings; other polls show a sudden tie. As a result, Obama now leads in North Carolina by a razor-thin 0.7 percent margin. Of course, the Illinois senator is still a longshot in Tar Heel country. That said, the GOP doesn't want to be defending a state George W. Bush won by 13 points.

The second development may be even more troubling for McCain. According to RCP, every single blue state on the Arizona's target list has become bluer since the middle of the month. On Sept 17, McCain trailed Obama by a mere 2.7 percent in Wisconsin. But the two polls released since then--Research 2000 and Quinnipiac--show Obama leading by a solid six and seven points, respectively. Minnesota is a similar story: a 1.3 percent average gap on Sept. 17 has since doubled, and the only survey (Rasmussen) taken entirely since that date puts Obama up by eight, 52-44. Meanwhile, Obama's average lead in Pennsylvania has increased from 1.3 percent to 5.5 percent over the same period of time, and his advantage in Michigan--McCain's top target--has ballooned from two points to more than six. When fitted with the final piece in the puzzle--growing Obama leads the Bush states of Iowa (9.2 percent), New Mexico (6.0 percent) and Colorado (5.0 percent)--it's hard to see how McCain reaches 270 electoral votes. Unless, of course, something changes--which it undoubtedly will. 

As it stands now, McCain has fewer plausible paths to victory. To win, Obama needs only to retain to Kerry's 251 electoral votes and flip Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado--all three of which he currently leads by an average of five points or more. What's more, if Colorado slips away, Obama could still pick off Virginia, Ohio (where McCain leads by a mere 1.2 percent on average) or Florida (where McCain's average advantage has plummeted since mid-month from more than six points to less than one). McCain, on the other hand, needs to win a big Kerry state like Michigan or Pennsylvania while retaining BOTH Colorado and Virginia; if he loses either, he'll be forced to poach even more property from the Democratic column. That would be a daunting task. According to RCP, Obama would win 301 to 237 if the election were held today.

Does this mean that McCain is toast? Hardly. As September has shown, support for the candidates can fluctuate wildly in response to events, and there's still time remaining on the clock for a comeback. Obama could still lose--easily. But it's impossible to ignore the fact that the Arizona senator now faces a steeper climb than ever before--with fewer days left for climbing.  As the New Republic's John Judis has pointed out, "since 1960, Gallup’s [Oct. 1] tracking poll registered the winner in the popular vote (including Al Gore in 2000), eleven of twelve times." Usually the race narrows somewhat at the end, but "in six of th[o]se elections--1960, 1964, 1976, 1984, 1988 and 2000--the final margin was different from the Oct. 1 polling results by less than three percentage points."

Which is why Obamans should be heartened by the latest stats from Gallup: Obama 50, McCain 42. On Election Day, the Bradley Effect--overstated support for black candidates--may cost Obama two or three points at the polls. Undersampled cell-phone voters and increased black and youth turnout may boost him by the same amount--or more. But either way, the fact remains: Obama merely needs to maintain altitude between now and Nov. 4. McCain needs to bring him down.

UPDATE, Oct. 1: The RCP map has shifted yet again. Thanks to new polls from Quinnipiac showing Obama ahead in Florida and Ohio by the shocking margins of 51-43 and 50-42, respectively, the Illinois senator now holds average polling leads in both Bush states, giving him an additional 48 electoral votes. Here's the new RCP landscape:


Does this mean Obama will win Florida and Ohio? Not at all. These polls could be outliers; things could change. And as Gawker's Peter Feld notes, much of "McCain's [national] support [has] gone... to undecided, not to Obama. With Barack at just around 50, there is still — barely — room for McCain to bounce back." That said, the new Quinnipiac stats do show that the Illinois senator is well-positioned to compete for the two most important electoral prizes. Which underscores the key dynamic of the current map: right now, Obama simply has far more paths to 270 than McCain.