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Keep Worrying

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Democratic friends want to know when they can stop worrying.

The answer is soon, but not too soon. Say around 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4. And I mean 8 p.m. Pacific time.

Barack Obama is ahead right now. Comfortably ahead. Yes, if you look through every single poll, you can find some outliers -- the ones that have the race as close as one or two points, along with the ones that have the gap approaching the teens.

The rule of thumb on polls, like scores in figure skating, is that if you want the truth, throw out the highest and the lowest and believe what's left. If you do that now, you'll see a race that is not at one and not at 12, but somewhere around five or six. Make no mistake: Five or six is not a close race. If it's five or six, McCain gets clobbered, no one stays up late, and the Democrats end up with the White House, the House and the Senate, a mandate and a ton of expectations.

There are, however, two problems with getting out the cigars now on the basis of any such expectations.

The first is those Founding Fathers of ours. Presidential races are not determined by the national horse race, even as measured by the actual votes on Election Day. They are determined by the results in the 50 states, calculated in the primaries under what we would call the "winner take all" rule and in the general election by what we just recognize as the weirdness of the Electoral College.

Margins don't matter. There's no rule of proportionate representation. Jesse Jackson never got ahold of the Constitution. You win New York by a little or a lot, and you still get the same number of electoral votes for doing so; ditto for Illinois and Texas and wherever. So while the national numbers do describe the race as a whole, that's not how the adding gets done, or how the winning and losing gets accomplished.

In presidential campaigns, what matters is not whether it's one or 12, or five or six, but who wins Ohio, Virginia, Indiana and Florida.

The current electoral map is looking very blue. According to the latest estimates from realclearpolitics.com, Obama/Biden is holding on to almost twice as many electoral votes as McCain/Palin (306-157), with only 75 toss-up votes. McCain could win every toss-up state and it still wouldn't be enough. Put another way, he needs all his leaners, all the toss-ups (Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota), plus 38 of the 47 electoral votes from the Obama-leaners (Ohio, Virginia, and New Mexico or Colorado) to pull this off.

Possible? Sure, anything's possible. Likely? No. Not likely.

The second problem is that the only thing in politics that's almost as bad as being sure you're going to lose is being sure you're going to win. People who are sure they're going to lose can end up feeling dispirited and do the unthinkable: not make their calls, do the last-minute door knocking and, most important of all, vote. They can be put off by the futility of it all, not to mention by low (or high) temperatures, rains or lines. The irony, of course, is that the same thing can happen to people who are too sure that their side is going to win.

These next two weeks could be a wonderful time to be a Democrat. It doesn't get any better than going into the final days with a strong candidate and a solid lead. It should be fun. It should be energizing. It should be exciting.

Democrats have every reason to work, knowing that there is an excellent chance that their work will pay off in victory. That's the reason to keep pushing, to keep at it, to not leave anything to chance. Because chance is the way Democrats could lose, not win.

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