How Bad Can It Get for McCain?

No one on John McCain’s team will ever admit this (before the election, at least), but his campaign is rapidly curling up into the political fetal position.

Two weeks ago, they stopped seriously contesting Michigan, once a promising and electoral-vote-rich target that Democrats have carried for four straight elections. This week, they added Wisconsin and Maine – two more traditionally blue bastions – to that list. That leaves Pennsylvania and Minnesota as the only two blue states that McCain is now actively seeking to win over, but his polling numbers in both of those states have collapsed in the past two weeks.

At the same time, McCain is redoubling his efforts in traditionally Republican states like North Carolina – last carried by a Democrat in 1976 – and Virginia, a shoo-in for the G.O.P. since 1964. His campaign schedule over the next few days will take him to those two states as well as Ohio and Florida – a combined 75 electoral votes that were crucial to George W. Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be in Virginia and North Carolina in the next few days, too, as well as Missouri, yet another normally Republican state where McCain is now – at best – running dead even with his opponent.

McCain’s defensive crouch – protecting his party’s traditional turf and giving up on winning over the other side’s – calls to mind the final days of Bob Dole’s doomed 1996 bid, when the former Kansas senator found himself campaigning in South Dakota, which hadn’t (and still hasn’t) voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in ’64, and a host of other G.O.P. redoubts.

The Dole forces recognized that beating Clinton was out of the question – it had been for some time – and rearranged the candidate’s schedule (and resource allocation) in those final days in order to shore up his support in wavering Republican states. The purpose was two-fold: To spare Dole the historical indignity of suffering a thorough, McGovern-Mondale-type thrashing, and to prop up down-ballot Republican candidates who were vulnerable to the Democratic tide being generated at the top of the ticket. (In South Dakota, for instance, three-term G.O.P. Senator Larry Pressler ended up losing to challenger Tim Johnson by two points.)

Of course, the Dole folks never formally acknowledged their damage-containment strategy, and they mixed obligatory visits to California and other battleground states into his schedule to give the appearance of an offensive-minded campaign. But his final week also included stops in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Missouri and other states he would never have been spending time in had the national race been remotely winnable. In the end, Dole took 159 electoral votes – not much worse than George H.W. Bush in 1992 – and kept Clinton (barely) under 50 percent of the national popular vote. Rallying the depressed Republican base in the closing days of that race probably spared him a much worse beating.

It should go without saying that, as in the final days of the ’96 campaign, some dramatic, unforeseen development could still change the trajectory of this race. Stranger things have happened – although not in modern presidential politics. In ’96, Republicans held out hope that a then emerging fund-raising scandal – the one that would, long after the election, prompt Vice President Al Gore to invoke his notorious “no controlling legal authority” defense – might metastasize and sink Clinton, just as some Republicans now wishfully hope that Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright or maybe even Joe the Plumber will prompt a late rethinking of Obama by the electorate. So McCain, like Dole (who, with the exception of a few naps and “hygiene breaks,” campaigned nonstop for the final 96 hours of the ’96 race), will press on aggressively, hammering away at his opponent, claiming that the polls are moving in his direction, and predicting an upset victory.

But the better question now isn’t “Can he still win?” but rather “How bad can it get?”

By any reasonable estimate, Obama is now favored to win significantly more than 270 electoral votes. All of the states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 – 252 electoral votes between them – are now firmly in Obama’s column. (The closest is probably New Hampshire, where polls put Obama ahead by about 8 points, on average). Add to those states Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, Bush states where Obama has now opened consistent and statistically significant leads, and Obama’s electoral vote total hits 286. As of now (again, barring a dramatic change of trajectory) this probably represents the worst-case scenario for Obama – and the best case for McCain.

But it will almost certainly get worse – maybe much worse – than that. Obama has, in the past few weeks, opened a clear lead in Florida and smaller leads in Ohio, North Carolina, Missouri and Nevada – red states that account for a combined 78 electoral votes. And he’s within a few points in Indiana (11 electoral votes), West Virginia (5), North Dakota (3) and – maybe – Montana (3), red states all. (He’s also competitive in at least one Congressional district in Nebraska, where electoral votes are awarded by district, and both Obama and McCain are now expending resources there.)

If Obama were to hit each one of these targets, he would secure 387 electoral votes – the best number for a Democrat since L.B.J. massacred Barry Goldwater. It’s hard to imagine an Obama landslide getting much worse than that, although theoretically Georgia (13), Kentucky (8) and Arkansas (6) could come into play in an Obama perfect storm.

McCain’s campaign schedule, resource allocation, and even his debate rhetoric on Wednesday night (stridently anti-abortion, for instance) all suggest an effort to limit the number of red states that Obama can flip – not an all-out push to win over Democratic states. McCain does not want to be remembered as having waged the most disastrous Republican campaign since his Goldwater, his fellow Arizonan.

There’s also the issue of down-ballot damage. Twelve years ago, Dole lucked out because the country, having elected a Republican Congress in 1994 as a check on Clinton, had taken a favorable view of the idea of divided government. So the voters’ rejection of Dole didn’t trickle down to the Senate and House level, and the G.O.P.’s majorities went undisturbed.

The climate is different this year. No Democratic Senate incumbent is in trouble, and very few in the House are. The prospect of a 60-seat Senate majority and a two-dozen seat gain in the House for the Democrats grows by the day. Whether the Democrats hit those numbers will depend on races in red states like North Carolina, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia. Shoring up his standing in those states and ensuring that the G.O.P. base turns out could help McCain avoid being remembered as the G.O.P. nominee whose campaign resulted in a filibuster-proof Democratic stranglehold on Washington.

Barring the above-mentioned miracle, there are no longer any good scenarios for McCain. The question is how bad he will look in defeat. How Bad Can It Get for McCain?