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McCain Needs to Catch A Break - Or Else

Analysis by Scott Rasmussen

Sunday, October 12, 2008

John McCain needs a couple breaks if he's going to make the presidential race competitive down to the wire.

For one thing, the Republican presidential nominee needs a break from news stories about the economic meltdown, but, just as importantly, he needs a break from President Bush being back in the news to address the meltdown.

Currently, Barack Obama has the edge in every single state won by John Kerry four years ago. Of the states won by Bush in 2004, McCain is trailing in four, and five others are considered a toss-up.

As a result, Electoral College projections now show Obama leading 255-163. When “leaners” are included, Obama leads 300-174. A total of 270 Electoral Votes are needed to win the White House.

Political junkies who follow the presidential race on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis sometimes need to step back and take a look at the campaign from a different perspective. The rhythms of Election 2008 have not moved in synch with the ever-shortening news cycles but more gradually in response to significant events.

When Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination on June 3, he immediately enjoyed a bounce in the polls and took a modest lead over McCain that stayed in the five- or six-point range for the rest of the month. McCain had been the underdog from the start because of public unhappiness with the war in Iraq, but then the tide turned in Baghdad and the war began to fade as a factor.

Following the Fourth of July holiday, Obama’s numbers gradually softened as the glow from defeating Hillary Clinton faded a bit. For most of August, the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll showed Obama with a one-or-two point lead nationally over McCain.

Then came the running mate announcements and the conventions. Predictably, both candidates got a bounce from their conventions. Obama, whose convention went first, opened up a six-point lead at the peak of his bounce but then saw it all disappear during the Republican National Convention. In fact, McCain came out of his convention leading Obama by a few points and held on to that lead for a bit longer than anyone expected.

Rank-and-file Republicans were fired up when McCain chose as his running mate Sarah Palin, a fresh face in the contest and a candidate conservatives could rally around. Democrats, by contrast, were lukewarm about Obama's choice of Joseph Biden, and Democratic women voters seemed a plausible target for the GOP.

By mid-September, Republicans began to get their hopes up after a year in which everything seemed stacked against them. Voters were evenly divided as to which candidate they thought would win the White House. For a brief moment, it looked as if the campaign might remain a toss-up all the way until the votes were cast.

But then events intervened. Lehman Brothers collapsed, and Wall Street's problems became visible on Main Street.

From that moment on, everything else became secondary, and we entered the new - and possibly final - phase of the campaign. Election 2008 shifted from a contest between McCain and Obama to a referendum on the Bush years, and Obama opened a respectable - and stable - lead. For 17 days so far, Obama’s support has ranged from 50% to 52% while McCain has been at 44% of 45% (see trends).

As Obama opened his lead in the Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll, the state polls naturally followed.

For McCain, it is no longer a question of picking one state or another to gain the magic number of Electoral votes. His campaign is like a football team down by a couple of touchdowns halfway through the fourth quarter. It’s not time to panic and throw a desperation “Hail Mary” pass. Instead, he needs to keep moving forward, take the opportunities that are available to him, present the best possible case for his campaign -- and hope for those breaks.

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