Alex Massie

Why is the race so close?

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It's August and there are still acres of newsprint and hours of newstime to be filled. Something has to be published or aired. And in any case everyone agrees that we need a new storyline, right? So what's it to be? The obvious answer - and the one selected by thirsty hacks desperate for any refreshment during the dog days of summer - is Why isn't Barack Obama Doing Better? Happily a couple of national tracking polls have popped up that show McCain and Obama more or less tied. Juicy stuff that will furnish at least a week's worth of breathless commentary... And nor is it just conservatives who are slyly arguing that not winning by more means Obama is actually losing, some liberals are also getting just a teensy bit jittery. 

Elsewhere my friend Toby Harnden offers ten possible reasons for this apparent tightening. The one I find most persuasive is, I think, that it's August folks...

And how close is the race really? McCain may have enjoyed his best week of the campaign but he still has some work to do. The scale of the task is well illustrated by Real Clear Politics' summary of the state of the electoral college: looking at the state-by-state polls, they caculate that Obama has 238 electoral college votes (141 solid, 97 leaning) and McCain just 163 (just 91 solid and 72 leaning). In other words, should these figures hold (a hefty conditional, admittedly) Obama would require just 32 of the 137 votes currently placed in the "toss-up" column.

RCP puts considers 11 states "toss-ups". Only two of them, New Hampshire and Michigan, were won by John Kerry four years ago. The other eight, Virginia, Missouri, Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, New Mexico, Indiana, Florida and North Carolina were won by George W Bush.

Polls of polls in these eleven states currently indicate that McCain is leading in just three of them, Missouri, Florida and North Carolina: enough for 52 EC votes, while Obama leads, albeit narrowly in some cases, in the other eight, worth a total of 84 EC votes.

Now, yes, McCain may yet turn this around. But the idea that the race is neck-and-neck does not yet seem to be supported by the state polls, even if you argue that the state polls ay not be as up to date as the national tracking surveys. Then again, it isn't a national election is it?

And look at some of the figures: Bush won Indiana by 20 points; Obama has a slight lead in the Hoosier state. Bush won Colorado by 4.7%, Obama leads by 1.7%. Bush won Iowa; Obama leads by 7.4%. Bush won virginia by 8 points, Obama leads in the Commonwealth. What is striking, actually, is that Obama is not polling very much better than John Kerry in states, such as Michigan and New Hampshire, that Kerry won. But he is performing much more strongly in the battleground states won by Bush four years ago. Obviously this is what he needs to do. Obama is doing much better in relation to Kerry than Kerry did in relation to Al Gore.

Or, to put it another way, if you had suggested three years ago that a black liberal with just four years service in Washington and no national security experience would be leading the most popular Republican in the country in eight of the 11 key states before the nominating conventions I suspect most people would have scoffed at such a notion. At the very least eyebrows would have been raised.

Clearly it's not impossible for McCain to win, but a week's worth of encouraging tacking polls is not the firmest foundation upon which to build the case that he will.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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