Polls showed him trailing by anywhere between five and twelve points, but on the eve of the 1988 presidential election Michael Dukakis nonetheless predicted to cheering supporters that "Tomorrow, we’re going to have a November surprise!"
Less than 24 hours later, he had officially lost 40 states – and the election. It just goes to show you: Among true believers, optimism lingers until the very end.
That same spirit is evident these days in John McCain and some of his most vehement backers (or, perhaps more accurately, some of Barack Obama’s most relentless critics). The evidence from national and individual state polls is clear: Mr. McCain is running considerably behind Mr. Obama, and the spread isn’t much closer than those final Dukakis-Bush polls 20 years ago were. And yet Mr. McCain travels the country bragging that "we’ve got them just where we want them" while sympathetic voices suggest that the polls are suddenly shifting in his direction.
(The Drudge Report announced last week that the G.O.P. nominee had pulled into a tie with Mr. Obama in a new "shock" poll – but it turned out to be an experimental Web-based survey that had taken ten days to complete and that made no effort to make sure that its respondents were registered voters.)
In reality, there remains no evidence that Mr. Obama’s lead is wilting. Even a slight tightening this week in the averages of all national polls is, as the Washington Post’s Ben Pershing pointed out, easily explained: There were a few polls released last week that gave Mr. Obama a double-digit lead, but they have since "expired" and are no longer being factored in to the national averages. But among the daily tracking polls (which are always a part of the national averages), the numbers haven’t moved at all and Mr. Obama enjoys the same healthy advantage now that he did a week ago.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that victory is impossible for Mr. McCain – even though a comeback from his present deficit would now be unprecedented in modern presidential politics. But he’s currently on course to lose – unless some very funny things start to happen.
Just consider the electoral map. Four years ago, George W. Bush won re-election with 286 electoral votes, meaning he had almost no margin for error. So to win this year, Mr. McCain would need to either hold on to all of the states that Mr. Bush won or to compensate for the loss of a few Bush states by picking off a Democratic state or two.
This is easier said than done. By any reasonable standard, Mr. McCain has fallen hopelessly behind in Iowa, a Bush state, where polls consistently give Mr. Obama double-digit leads. And he now routinely trails by nearly ten points in polls in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, Bush states all. As with national polls, there is absolutely no evidence in any of these states of movement toward Mr. McCain; if anything, the trend is against him – especially in Virginia, where the race was legitimately even a month ago.
Together, these states account for 34 electoral votes. If Mr. McCain can’t manufacture miracles in at least three of them over the last two weeks of the campaign, he won’t even have a theoretical chance of reaching 270 electoral votes with just Bush states.
And this isn’t even taking into consideration the countless Bush states in which Mr. McCain is at least competitive. North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Nevada, Indiana, West Virginia, Georgia, and North Dakota: To believe that Mr. McCain will yet win the White House is to believe that he will win every single one of these states, even though he now trails in many of them.
Then there are the blue states. Of all the states that John Kerry won in 2004, New Hampshire is the closest – Mr. Obama leads by seven points, on average – but it’s only worth four electoral votes, and anyway the trend in the Granite State is working against Mr. McCain. Where else? Pennsylvania? Mr. Obama leads by 16 points there, on average. In Minnesota, his lead is eight. After that, there really aren’t any blue state targets for Mr. McCain, who recently stopped throwing money into Michigan, Wisconsin and Maine.
And all of this, mind you, is playing out against the backdrop of unprecedented interest from segments of the population that don’t traditionally vote and a truly remarkable grassroots organizing effort by the Obama campaign. This has prompted reputable polling outfits, like Gallup, to create an entirely new turnout model, one that suggests Mr. Obama may gain an additional three or four points on Election Day. Mr. McCain has no remotely comparable organization.
Mr. McCain and supporters echo the Dukakis campaign of twenty years ago by insisting they will still win this election. But the closer you look, the harder it is to understand how it could possibly happen.