Obama Is Dominating in the Polls, but Four Things Keep Me Awake at Night

As a lifelong Democrat who has seen my party lose winnable races, I can't help thinking about how things can go wrong this year. These are the four factors that keep me up at night.
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We are one week from election day. Barack Obama leads John McCain in every poll. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com gives Obama a 96.7 percent chance of winning. And some McCain supporters with a nose for survival are jumping off of the Republican bandwagon faster than Sarah Palin running to an Alaska consignment shop (yes, I'm talking to you Joe Lieberman).

And yet I can't bring myself to believe Obama will win next Tuesday.

You have to forgive me. As a 41-year-old Democrat, I've seen too much to ever be confident. I watched the nation choose a bumbling Bush (the first one) over a smart, successful governor, all because the governor was a bit of a nerd. Okay, a lot more than a bit, but still. (I often think about the Saturday Night Live sketch in which Jon Lovitz, as Michael Dukakis, in a debate with Dana Carvey's George H.W. Bush, responds to a nonsensical response by looking into the camera and saying, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy!") I've seen Americans twice put into office a language-bungling, shallow-thinking, political legacy who, as was brilliantly said once, was born on third base but acted like he hit a triple (one of the elections coming after it was clear he had led America into a dangerous, damaging, unnecessary war that was completely mismanaged by his administration).

So you can at least understand why I won't believe that the U.S. has elected Obama until/if I see McCain giving a concession speech.

I know what you're thinking right about now: "But Mitchell, it's over. Just look at the polls." I get it. I'm not pretending that there is necessarily a rational underpinning for my paranoia. I wouldn't begin to set out an electoral path to victory like Silver gamely tried to do for the New York Post (give the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid credit for asking a smart Obama supporter how the paper's guy could pull an upset).

But I can tell you the four things that keep me up at night and make me wonder if there ever really will be an Obama inauguration in January.

Close Races
When the polls are viewed through the prism of how many of the close states McCain has to win, they certainly look daunting for the Republicans. But consider that Obama holds fairly small leads in nearly all of the toss-up states, according to Rasmussen, which is ranked as the most reliable of all the major polling organizations by fivethirtyeight.com (only Seltzer and SurveyUSA have a better record, and Rasmussen is the top daily tracking poll).

According to Rasmussen:

- Virginia: Obama up 51 percent to 47 percent.
- Colorado: Obama up 50 percent to 46 percent.
- Missouri: McCain up 48 percent to 47 percent.
- Ohio: Obama up 49 percent to 45 percent.
- North Carolina: McCain up 49 percent to 48 percent.
- Florida: Obama up 51 percent to 47 percent.
- New Hampshire: Obama up 50 percent to 46 percent.
- National Daily Tracking Poll: Obama up 51 percent to 46 percent.

Considering that, depending on the scenario, McCain has to win most (if not all) of these states, the numbers I have laid out above look very good for Obama. It's hard to imagine McCain sweeping so many close races.

But here is where the dread creeps in: The biggest lead Obama has in any state is five points. So if there is one big event, or one big factor, that can put a jolt into the election nationally, it can change the look of the map in a hurry. As you consider the next three nightmare scenarios, remember how relatively little effect they have to have on the electorate to shift the outlook of the race.

Voter Fraud
Make no mistake: If the Republicans cannot generate more votes for their candidate, they are happy to win by decreasing the number of votes of their opponent. Shortly after the 2004 election, Robert Kennedy wrote about voter fraud in Ohio, and there have been a number of films to cover the story, as well.

And it's not like the GOP is going to suddenly play fair in 2008. On Friday, Bush asked the Attorney General, Michael Mukasey, to investigate 200,000 voter registrations for minor discrepancies in data. Bush is quick to look into non-issues like this one and the minor voter registration (note, voter registration, not voter fraud) allegations at ACORN, but he can't be bothered to enforce congressional subpoenas or investigate actual voter fraud allegations. (Hendrik Hertzberg wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker explaining how the ACORN issue has been completely distorted and misused by the Republicans.) It's fair to say that McCain has the might of the federal government on his side in any election fraud-related issue.

The Ohio problems are not unique. Early voters in West Virginia had their computer monitors flip their Obama votes to McCain, and a confusing North Carolina ballot, which excludes the presidential race when someone chooses to vote a party line, may cost Obama, by one estimate, tens of thousands of votes. Today brought news of a flyer in Virginia telling Democrats to vote on November 5 (the day after the election), and a man in Florida posing as a worker for a Democratic candidate for Congress (but whose information was traced back to a consultant of the Republican incumbent) taking ballots from Democrats and promising to deliver them. And that doesn't even include the widespread purges of voters in Democratic neighborhoods conducted by Republican state officials. An excellent article on voter fraud, also co-authored by Kennedy, can be found here.

Remember, it only takes a few points in the key swing states to make a difference.

So even if the polls are correct and most Americans support Obama, I would not be the least bit surprised to wake up next Wednesday to a "miraculous" McCain comeback victory (with the miracle provided courtesy of election irregularities). Of course, this year, the Democrats are better prepared for such an eventuality, and any fraud will be more vigorously challenged. But that only does so much to assuage my fears.

October or November Surprise
It's not too late for the president to engineer an event to put national security on the front burner of the election. After all, security is the one issue on which McCain outperforms Obama in polls. If we've learned one thing from watching McCain run a disgusting smear campaign, it's that Republicans, who seem to see the White House as a birthright, are not below doing anything to secure victory.

I fear that Bush's move to have Mukasey investigate voter registration in Ohio is not the end of his involvement, but only the beginning. It's not like any Republicans right about now are looking for Bush's endorsement or want him to campaign for them. But this is a way the president could actually affect the race.

More Than Just the Bradley Effect
There has been a lot of debate about whether or not there is a Bradley Effect; that is, if there are white voters who tell pollsters they will vote for a black candidate, but when they get into the voting booth, they can't bring themselves to actually do it and cast a ballot for the white opponent.

But there is nothing to which one can compare this election. An African American has never been a Republican or Democratic nominee for the presidency before. There is just no way to judge what will happen on election day.

Even if the Bradley Effect does not exist (and there certainly is a strong argument to be made in that regard), I am concerned that there are white voters who won't vote for an African-American candidate, and that many of them are contained in the "undecided" category of the polls. (Despite an interesting science-based defense of undecided voters in today's New York Times, I still can't imagine how anyone at this stage of the race can't decide between two candidates who are different in virtually every way.)

There are things to look at if you want to scare yourself into thinking that race may be a deciding factor in this election. For example, in the race for governor in Missouri, a state that leans red (Bush carried it in 2000 and 2004), Attorney General Jay Nixon leads Republican Congressman Kenny Hulshof by nearly 20 points (57 percent to 38 percent) in the latest Rasmussen poll (October 17), and yet in the presidential race in the state, Obama trails McCain by one point in Rasmussen's latest survey (October 27). On CNN this morning, a radio host from Missouri didn't shy away from explaining the difference in the numbers: He attributed it to Obama's race.

Maybe race is the reason, and maybe it's not. We don't know for sure, but I'm certainly afraid it is. The Missouri factor is not unique. Based on Rasmussen results, the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate seats in Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and New Hampshire are all outperforming Obama in their states.

Both the New York Times (Pennsylvania) and the New Yorker (Ohio) have recently done features on rust-belt white voters, and in each case, it's clear that Obama has to overcome some pretty strong race-based biases. The Times piece features one voter saying, "I'm no racist, but I'm not crazy about him either. I don't know, maybe 'cause he's black" (the person claimed to be voting for Obama anyway), while another remarks, "He scares me. The coloreds are excited, but my friends and I plan to write in Hillary's name." When I read the last line, chills of fear and disgust literally shot up my spine. I don't know what bothered me the most: that someone would care so much about a candidate's race (the positions of Clinton and Obama are so similar), that the person would admit it to a New York Times reporter, or that the person would use the term "colored." It's 2008. How often do you, in your day-to-day life, hear that word? I can remember someone using it to me once in the last 20 years (and, oddly, it happened a few weeks ago, but it had nothing to do with Obama).

Look, I get it. Despite yahoos like the people quoted in the article, the polls look good for Obama right now. But with this kind of race-based nonsense floating in the ether, especially when the McCain campaign is all too happy to fan these flames whenever possible (like when a McCain staffer pushed the phony attack story of Ashley Todd to reporters), I can't feel entirely comfortable.

McCain and Palin have spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania, despite every poll showing Obama with a more-than-10-point lead. Why? Is it a suicide mission? It just may be. It may be that McCain has run out of viable options, so he is going for one of his now-patented Hail Mary plays and hoping it is more successful than the last two (choosing Palin and "suspending" his campaign to work on the financial crisis), which both backfired on him. But since we're talking about what keeps me up at night, what if race is the wild card that McCain is counting on in Pennsylvania? I'm not saying he's right (in fact, I don't think he is), but since I'm admittedly looking for doomsday scenarios, I can't help but think of this one.

And again, with the numbers fairly close on a state-to-state basis, it's easy to be afraid of one false inflammatory rumor taking hold in this final week and tipping the scales to McCain in too many states. It's not like there is any shortage of McCain robocalls or flyers trying to scare voters out of supporting Obama.

To be perfectly clear, it's not that I am predicting McCain will win the election. The logical side of my brain realizes that McCain's scare tactics have seemingly failed, and it is really hard to make a mathematical case right now that he has a real shot of winning. But as a lifelong Democrat who has seen my party lose winnable races, I can't help thinking about how things can go wrong this year. And these four factors are what keep me up at night. Let's hope I'm worrying for nothing.

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