The storyline throughout this election has been that this is a big year for Democrats and that they would win big in the Presidential as well as Congressional elections. That may still come to pass, but judging by the polls one has to wonder whether we're going to have a different outcome (similar to 1948 when Harry Truman upset the heavily favored Thomas Dewey).
Examining the state of the election with less than a month to go, Senator Barack Obama should be leading by a double-digit margin. Yet, the Real Clear Politics poll average hovers around 6 points (5.6 to be precise as of this writing).
Some pundits suggest that the Bradley effect is coming into play and that Senator Obama's support in the polls is overstated. I don't necessarily subscribe to that theory. Polls are not an accurate barometer of public opinion due to their wide variances in poll methodology. In fact, at the state level, they can be wildly inaccurate.
But assuming for a moment that these polls are somewhere close to a realistic snapshot of the race, why isn't Senator Obama leading by a wider margin? We've been told that voters are ready for a change after eight years of President George W. Bush in the White House. The economy, we are told, is melting down and voters favor Democrats on economic issues. Senator Obama, as the first African-American Presidential nominee has a chance to make history if he is elected. Voters are theoretically flocking to Obama as a result. So why isn't he farther ahead?
If I had to venture a guess it would be this: voters who haven't already decided who they are going to support are conflicted on whether to vote at all. Neither candidate has been able to solidfy significant support outside of their own party's base and so the support for each candidate is relatively soft.
Perhaps there is more to this decision dynamic. Perhaps voters see on one hand a candidate in Senator Obama who they believe embodies the change that they desire to see and yet lacks the experience and the judgement to deal with a crisis. Senator Obama said it himself during the last debate: "But, look, the nature of the challenges that we're going to face are immense and one of the things that we know about the presidency is that it's never the challenges that you expect. It's the challenges that you don't that end up consuming most of your time." Voters look to someone who can handle that type of crisis. Perhaps that is what they see as lacking in Senator Obama and why he can't seem to pull away from Senator McCain in the polls.
On the other hand, voters look at Senator McCain and see someone who fits the mold of a steady hand in the midst of a crisis. But they aren't sure that he has the answers to their problems especially when it comes to the current economic crisis. If we were facing a major foreign policy challenge (and we are facing many of them even though the news seems to be myopically focused on the economy), Senator McCain would be the man I think voters would be more comfortable with. But because he can't adequately address the voters' appetite for change especially with the current disgust with Congress over the recent financial bailouts he continues to trail in the polls.
There are other factors at work, too, that have a direct bearing on the outcome of the election. Democrats squandered part of the advantage they had going into November when they recessed earlier this summer without dealing with the energy crisis and in effect handed a key issue over the Republicans. They didn't help themselves when they couldn't get a financial bailout passed without loading it up with pork to help fence-sitters vote in support of it. In fact, during the entire negotiation process they acted more as the minority party than the majority party in large part because Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid couldn't get their respective caucuses to fall in line on the bailout. It's no wonder given the Democrats' legislative ineptitude that a recent opinion poll showed 59% of voters would vote to replace the entire Congress. Again, it's an opinion poll so we do have to take it with a grain of salt. But there is certainly a mood that suggests voters are ready to "throw the bums out". Given that the system overwhelmingly favors incumbents it's not likely to happen unless there is an all out voter revolt.
The bottom line is that this is likely to be the most unpredictable election in recent memory. With a little less than four weeks to go I am willing to venture this much of a guess: November 4 may be a very long night for political geeks like me. We may not know until early the next morning if not several days or weeks later who has ultimately won. Anyone who says they know for certain what's going to happen don't really know anything. This election is far from over and it's still an eternity until Election Day.