August 22, 2008
Can Obama Beat McCain?
With about 80 days or less to go till the elections, Obama and McCain remain tied in the polls. At best Obama shows a few points ahead on some days and in some polls, but the leads are not statistically significant, and the race is certainly wide open. Will Obama eventually triumph or can McCain win in a year in which the Republican brand is toxic, and voter identification with the Republicans has shrunk significantly?
Obama faces many challenges. The base of his coalition consists of liberal whites, African-American and a majority of Latino voters. This combined gives him maybe 25-40% of the total vote. To get over the top he needs to pick up moderate white working class votes, but so far he has run very poorly among that group. Among white voters, John McCain has a 10 point lead, and among white men it jumps to 20 points. This is what is keeping McCain in the race.
Why does Obama have trouble with working class whites? They are uncomfortable with him is the most basic answer. Obama relates very well with educated white liberals, especially those in the big urban centers like Los Angeles and New York, but he has not articulated a clear reason for blue-collar whites to support him. This weakness was evident in the primaries, where he consistently lost this group to Hilary Clinton, and many of them now evidently prefer McCain to Obama.
The attacks on Obama, including allegations that he is a Muslim, or the not insignificant number of voters who are still uncomfortable with an African-American for President, have weighed down his ability to attract white voters.
Obama also is a great unknown to many voters. They may generically prefer a Democrat to a Republican, but they know John McCain, and they really don’t know Obama. Are voters willing to turn over this country and its foreign policy at the present time to a great unknown?
Obama does have some advantages. In fundraising he is well ahead of McCain, raising over 50 million in July compared to about 25 million dollars for McCain. Obama also has a more energized base, and this could be crucial in an election. If the two go into election day essentially tied, then whose supporters actually go to the polls will determine the winner.
Obama also seems to have somewhat broader support than McCain. McCain’s coalition, consisting of economic and social conservatives, and those disaffected working class whites that have decided against Obama, seems to be limited to about 43% of the voters. McCain rarely polls support above 45% of the population. Obama, on the other hand, at times can get close to 49% of voters. When the polls tighten, it is usually due to Obama voters switching to undecided rather than preferring McCain.
For Obama to win, he needs to reassure that working class white vote which normally would go Democrat in a Democrat year such as this one. If he can convince them that Obama will be a good choice, then he can win this election, and by a fair margin. Many of these voters are polling as “undecided”. There is often 10% in this category, and they will likely make up their minds in October. For them, the crucial event will be the debates. If Obama can convince these voters to go with him at the debates, he will win this election, if not McCain will be the next President.