There's so many unpredictable elements in the election that forecasting a landslide for Obama seems risky to the point of recklessness. Nobody knows how Obama's racial status as a mixed-race, African-American is going to play out. Nobody knows how the economy is going to look in October or what's going to be happening in Iraq. And nobody knows where the next Jeremiah Wright, lobbyist, drunk-driving, or patriotism scandal is going to come from.
But I'm still going with Obama 57, McCain 43.
The Reasons. There are several reasons why. John McCain is operating with several severe disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage for McCain is that most of the American public is sick of President Bush, Dick Cheney, and the Republican Party as a whole. Bush's approval numbers are in the 20's and not likely to get better as both gas prices and unemployment go up. Public opposition to the war in Iraq is rock solid at 60-65% despite the relative success of the surge and the financial and sex scandals of Congressional Republicans have branded Republicans as the party of greed, lust, and hypocrisy. Adding everything up, the Democrats have a 55-36 advantage in party identification and most people want to elect a Democrat as president.
There's more. Barack Obama is going to have a huge money advantage. There are some estimates that Obama will be able to raise $500 million for the general election campaign while McCain has taken public financing and is only going to be able to spend the $84 million the government gives him. (bias alert: I've kicked in $150 for Obama myself). What this means mostly is that Obama is going to be doing so much more television advertising that he'll be able to win previously red states like Virginia and Colorado and force McCain to invest scarce resources into "defending" states like North Carolina. The Obama campaign is even talking about putting traditionally Republican Alaska into play. As a result of his financial advantage, Obama will also have many more staffers in place (he already has 700), and will have a much more extensive get out the vote operation than McCain.
The huge financial advantage will work particularly well for Obama because he has a simple message that most Americans already believe--"a vote for a Republican is a vote for four more years of GOP arrogance, incompetence, and corruption."
Of course, McCain won't exactly be helpless. He'll get plenty of free media coverage from a press that genuinely likes him, financial help from the Republican National Committee and some assistance from "527 committees" running negative ads against Obama. But McCain will still be operating at a huge disadvantage at the same time that he has to communicate a set of complex set of "but" messages. McCain's has to convey that he's a straight-line conservative but not like Bush. He's also has to claim that he's a proud Republican but not like other Republicans, and that he's a strong supporter of the war but thinks the war's been conducted very badly.
That's much too much nuance for a budget of "only" 84 million.
The John McCain Problem. The other big problem for the McCain campaign is the candidate himself. McCain and his campaign manager Rick Davis have never been good at organizing campaigns. The McCain campaign was badly out-organized by Karl Rove in 2000 and consequently couldn't take advantage of McCain's big New Hampshire breakthrough. They haven't done any better this time. McCain had almost four months to present himself to the American public as the Republican nominee, build up a reservoir of good will, and motivate GOP activists for the fall campaign. But the McCain campaign frittered away the time by sending him overseas to show his "leadership," putting together a "character" tour of all the places where McCain had grown up, and sending him to poverty spots like Martin County even though McCain doesn't care much about poverty. It was all a waste. The McCain campaign wasn't much better prepared in June than it was in February and Republican insiders have been fretting about it to the media.
McCain also has a very narrow range of effectiveness on the campaign trail. He's great at mixing with the press in the back of the Straight-Talk Express or the campaign plane. He's also very effective in townhall settings. But John McCain is a very poor public speaker who has a ghoulish grin, does applause lines in the most awkward manner imaginable, and is extremely awkward with a teleprompter. McCain's speech in New Orleans on the night Obama clinched was an enormous embarrassment and McCain's speech-making looks particularly bad next to Obama's often inspirational oratory. I can't imagine Republicans are looking forward to his acceptance speech.
McCain's also beginning to slip up on basic facts and get irritable during interviews. The media has yet to put much emphasis on things like McCain referring to Vladimir Putin as the President of Germany or his irritable responses to a series of questions about Obama. But if McCain keeps it up, one of those gaffes might become a symbol of his inadequacy as a candidate.
One of the reasons why I'm predicting a big win for Obama is that McCain is such a weak candidate.
Party Activists. The final reason why McCain is going to lose big is that conservative GOP activists are so suspicious of McCain that they have to decide whether they're going to vote for McCain at all before they think about campaigning for him.
Bush barely won in 2004 because he had a highly motivated conservative and evangelical base. Unless McCain has that kind of excited conservative base in 2008, he won't even be able to keep it close. I don't see that conservative excitement as happening and I don't believe McCain will be able to keep it close.
The Polls. Barack Obama is current running 5.5 points ahead of McCain in the standard RealClearPolitics poll average. That's above the margin of error but still not a big lead.
Nevertheless, there are some indications that Obama has the potential for a big win. Newsweek came out with a poll today that has Obama in a 15 point lead--51-36. Dividing up 12% of the undecided vote evenly between Obama and McCain (leaving 1% for minor candidates) and that would come out as a 57-42 lead for Obama. Almost right on my prediction.
The Newsweek poll is clearly an outlier poll. The other polls give Obama a 4-6 point margin. As a result, the findings should be taken with a big grain of salt until they are further substantiated. However, the Newsweek findings are indirectly confirmed by the fact that Obama has gained considerable ground recently in battlefield states like Ohio (Obama +5.3), Pennsylvania (Obama, +7.3), and Florida (ARG survey, Obama, +5)and formerly red states like Virginia (Obama, +.5)and Georgia (McCain, +1).
If Obama really is only one point behind in Georgia, that's an indication that the landslide is probably already starting to turn significantly in his direction.
Conclusion. It's important to emphasize that Barack Obama is far from nailing down a landslide and John McCain is (still) far from goofing up his campaign on the scale of George McGovern's 1972 race (although I think he can).
But there's enough potential for a big win that I'm sticking with my 57-43 prediction and breaking out the lyrics for the Stevie Nicks classic "Landslide"--"The Landslide brought it down."
Even if I have a lot of trepidation in doing it.