Why you shouldn't break out the bubbly yet

With Barack Obama's striking advance in the polls, some people are already saying John McCain has little chance for a comeback, but it's still too early to celebrate.

By Alex Koppelman

Published October 3, 2008 12:40AM (EDT)

It's been a pretty bleak couple of days for John McCain and his supporters. He's taking a beating in the polls, and his campaign is pulling out of Michigan. The odds that he'll be elected president are certainly looking worse. In fact, over at Pollster.com, Brian Schaffner writes, "Despite the fact that McCain is only down by 5-7% nationally, time is running out and a comeback seems like a tall order."

It seems like it's still too early to count McCain out, though. In my experience, the people at Pollster are smart and worth listening to. And Schaffner's a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. But it seems odd to divorce the polling, and comparisons with previous elections, from the context of this election in the way Schaffner does.

First off, it's worth considering two factors that seem to play a major part in McCain's difficulties in recent polling: Sarah Palin and the economy.

At one point, Palin was helping McCain in the polls. Now, she appears to be dragging him down. But it's hard to imagine that she'll do as badly next month as she did during this last one; she really has nowhere to go but up. Also, keep in mind that, in the days immediately following the announcement of her as McCain's running mate, she looked like a disaster. But then she turned things around with her speech at the Republican convention. A competent performance at tonight's debate could help her make lightning strike twice. There's precedent for that sort of thing -- in 1980, the polls moved dramatically after a late debate that made voters more comfortable with Ronald Reagan.

And then there's the issue of the economy. Obviously, this is a winning issue for Barack Obama. But it also complicates our analysis of this election, simply because the current crisis has changed the focus of the election. In 2000 and 2004, the years Schaffner uses for comparison purposes, the issues didn't change this way, so it's hard to say for sure that there won't be some sort of rebound.

Clearly, the situation looks very good for Obama right now, and it does look like it will be quite difficult for McCain to make a comeback. All I'm saying, really, is that it's worth remaining skeptical, and not starting the celebration quite yet. Remember -- the reason we're talking about Obama's lead is because the polls have shifted dramatically over the past few weeks. That's not likely to happen again. But it certainly could.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.