McCain Going Down

The 2008 presidential horse race is going as badly for the Republicans as it did in 1996, when they nominated Senator Bob Dole to unseat sitting President Bill Clinton. At the equivalent stage in the campaign, with under three weeks to go, it took a lot of imagination to see how Dole could amass the required number of electoral votes to reach the magic total of 270. So it is with the war hero the Republicans have chosen this time around, John McCain.

Karl Rove, the dark political genius who assembled the winning arithmetic for George Bush, said following the third and final candidates’ debate on Wednesday night that Senator Barack Obama had yet to close the sale, but it’s awfully hard to see how the car America drives home on the night on November 4 won’t be an Obamamobile.

The three televised debates have drawn record-breaking audiences and while the pundits have differed as to the winner, the viewing public has not, giving the edge to Obama in each case by a progressively larger margin. Not only have majorities scored the face-offs for Obama, on every occasion the percentage of people who say they like him after seeing him in action has risen significantly, while rising only marginally, and this week actually falling to less than half, for McCain.

Wednesday’s numbers, per CNN, were devastating for the Republican in every way. Who did viewers trust to handle the economy, now far and away the most critical issue in the election? Obama by 59 per cent to 35 per cent. McCain has been staking nearly everything on persuading voters that with Obama the taxman cometh. Viewers said they favoured Obama’s tax position – ask more from the very wealthiest — 56 per cent to 41 per cent. By two to one, they thought he was better on health care reform.

CNN equipped a focus group of undecided Ohio voters with dials to signal their response to the candidate’s remarks in real time, with the results graphed on the screen as the debate proceeded. They loved it when Obama talked about his plans for health care and energy. On the other hand, McCain’s attempts to tie Obama to the former Weather Underground bomber, now elderly professor, Bill Ayers, or to implicate the Democrat in alleged voter fraud by ACORN, a network of grass roots activists, fell entirely flat, especially with women.

Negativity of almost any kind fared poorly, coming from either candidate, so it was not good news for McCain that 8 out of 10 viewers though he had spent more time attacking his opponent than the other way round. Nor was it good news that his ratings from women dropped through the floor when he spoke about his running mate, Sarah Palin.

The Palin gamble has failed badly. What at first seemed defensible as a bold play to trump Obama’s formidable change card now looks like a reckless piece of gimmickry. Her stump appearances have become magnets for bigotry which she has failed to repudiate. By no stretch of the imagination is she qualified to be a heartbeat from the presidency in the midst of the most serious financial crisis since 1929. Any hope that she would be the winning difference in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, has evaporated.

The electoral map now looks very bleak for McCain. Add up the electoral votes awarded by the states where Obama’s lead in the polls is larger than the margin of error – these now include Pennsyvania and Michigan – and you get 286, 16 more than he needs to win. Add up the votes of every state where he is ahead by any margin and you’re into landslide territory: 360.

Can McCain claw back? It’s difficult to see how. Voters appear to have a low tolerance for mudslinging this year and Obama is comfortably ahead on the issues that count the most. The election is not going to turn on the policy wonkery of the candidate’s economic plans especially now that the explosion of the great American credit bubble has obliterated ideological battle lines. What people are looking for is a first class temperament. Obama has one. McCain does not.

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