Obama-McCain Matchup: Blowout Or Trench Warfare?

Obama-McCain Matchup: Blowout Or Trench Warfare?

Pollster.com has at the top of its front page a chart suggesting that the presidential election is all but over.

The public opinion experts who run the site say states with 284 electoral college votes - 14 more than the 270 needed to win - lean to or firmly support Barack Obama; states with 147 lean toward or are in John McCain's camp; and 10 states with 107 electoral votes are tossups.

In other words, the site suggests that Obama does not need to win a single tossup state -- Colorado, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Arizona, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, North Carolina or Indiana -- to take the oath of office on January 20, 2009.

There are some in the political science community (if community is the right word, perhaps it should be called a cauldron) who share this view and others who are less sanguine about the prospects of an Obama blowout.

One of the first shots is this dispute among academics was fired here on the Huffington Post. In an essay titled "The Myth of a Toss-up Election," Alan Abramowitz (Emory), Tom Mann (Brookings) and Larry Sabato (Virginia), jointly declared:

[V]irtually all of the evidence that we have reviewed - historical patterns, structural features of this election cycle, and national and state polls conducted over the last several months - points to a comfortable Obama/Democratic party victory in November. Trumpeting this race as a toss-up, almost certain to produce another nail-biter finish, distorts the evidence and does a disservice to readers and viewers who rely upon such punditry....

It is no exaggeration to say that the political environment this year is one of the worst for a party in the White House in the past sixty years. You have to go all the way back to 1952 to find an election involving the combination of an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and an economy teetering on the brink of recession....[I]f history is any guide, and absent a dramatic change in election fundamentals or an utter collapse of the Obama candidacy, John McCain is likely to suffer the same fate as Adlai Stevenson.

In a direct rebuttal to "The Myth of a Toss-up Election," James E. Campbell (SUNY-Buffalo) countered with an essay titled "Anybody's Ball Game." He makes these points:

*Dissatisfaction with President Bush does not necessarily translate into antipathy to Senator McCain...The McCain campaign would certainly prefer it if President Bush's approval ratings stood where they were in 2004, but their drop from that point does not put the election out of reach for the Republicans.

* Republicans have one clear advantage in this election. Despite the party's best efforts, Republicans will nominate the most electable candidate in their field....[W]e have recent and hard evidence that Senator McCain votes as a moderate conservative and Senator Obama votes as an extreme or consistent liberal.... If Americans are really looking for a moderate who can work in a bipartisan way to solve the nation's problems--from energy prices to international crises--McCain has the record they are looking for and Obama does not.

Vanderbilt's John Geer, in turn, is by no means convinced that McCain will lose as badly as Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

"We all know it is a Democratic year. But that does not mean Obama will win. Yes, the odds are in his favor. But there are at least 3 reasons why the election may be close, with either McCain or Obama winning," Geer said.

First, according to Geer, "we live in a post 9-11 world and the public has to be comfortable with a candidate's ability to deal with foreign policy. Many voters are not yet comfortable....Second, McCain is a good candidate....Third, the last two presidential elections have been very close. Yes, there have been Democratic gains in some quarters and turnout may be up. But turnout was up in 2004 from 2000 and Republicans had made gains right after 9-11 and yet the election remained close."

Robert Y. Shapiro (Columbia) also sees a close election, but he adds that the closeness means the quality of the two campaigns will become all the more crucial: "This is where I see Obama as the likely victor not only in the popular vote but in winning, perhaps by very close margins, in the past blue states he needs to hold on to, and in Ohio and states in the west and possibly a few surprises. This will happen if, as I expect, Obama outcampaigns McCain."

Along similar lines, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, of the University of Iowa, said he and a colleague, Charles Tien of Hunter College, City University of New York, have just written an essay forecasting "that Obama will win, but just by a hair. The reason the contest will be so close is because of what we call 'ballot box racism.' We estimate that about 11 or 12 percent of voters who would otherwise vote for Obama will not vote for him because he is black. Our forecasting model, if uncorrected for the race factor, predicts a landslide for Obama. But once the 'racial cost' is corrected for, we get a bare Obama majority (about 50.6% of the two-party popular vote)."

Helmut Norpoth of Stony Brook University has an even closer prediction based on his model: a virtual tie, 50.1 percent for Obama, 49.9 percent for McCain.

Colby College's L. Sandy Maisel, in contrast, argued:

The preponderance of the political science analysis leads to the Abramowitz, Mann, Sabato conclusion that Obama will win this election handily.... In my view, this election is Obama's unless he makes some very serious error--and I doubt that will happen. I cannot see what McCain can do to help his own cause appreciably.

Political scientists are not reluctant to add a little edge to their comments. Maisel, for example, said those who argue the election will be competitive "are grasping at straws." Norpoth, in turn, countered that the "Abramowitz et al. claim is the real myth here."

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