Is It Over? | Harper's Magazine

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Barack Obama is ahead in every national poll by a seemingly comfortable margin. He’s shattering all records for political fundraising, is attracting huge crowds to his rallies, and the pundits have pretty much declared that the race is over. It’s that last item that gives me pause, given that the media’s prognostications and story lines have so frequently been proven wrong during this year’s campaign.

Obama certainly appears to have a strong edge. And the astonishing $150 million he raised in September (thanks to his decision to opt out of the public-financing system, making him the first major party presidential candidate to do so since Watergate) will allow him to out-organize McCain and vastly outspend him in advertising. As regards to the latter, Obama is already ahead by about a 4 to 1 advantage in recent spending for TV ads.

So, yes, Obama will probably win the election two weeks down the road. But just to be contrarian (since it’s Monday) I asked Tom Edmonds, a prominent Republican media consultant, if he thought McCain had any chance of winning. He wasn’t exactly optimistic, but here’s why he thinks McCain isn’t dead yet.

The states that will make the difference – Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio and Florida – are all pretty close. (We’re going to know the winner early this time because the key states are mostly in the East). It’s not that the polls are wrong exactly, but there are two problems: they are undercounting Republicans as a percentage of voters and they are overestimating the youth vote.

You can ask 1,500 people how they are going to vote, but you have to weight the sample properly. A number of the pollsters use a sample that assumes about 35 percent of voters will be Republicans, and that’s probably not realistic. McCain has not run an inspiring campaign, but a lot of Republicans are going to go out and reluctantly vote for him. Obama has a lot more enthusiasm, but a reluctant vote for McCain counts the same as an enthusiastic vote for Obama.

The other big thing is the youth vote. There’s been a lot of hype about it, but it’s not going to materialize on Election Day. Roughly 33 million people voted in the 2004 primaries, and 58 million people voted in this year’s primaries. The youth vote was up, but not nearly as much as voting by middle-aged people and old fogies. The polls are capturing the enthusiasm for Obama, but college students are not going to turn out.

College students needed to re-register using their current address, or they will need to go home to vote on Election Day. That requires pre-planning and that’s not what they do. This is a category of voters that wants to register and vote online, but that’s not the way it works. They have no habit of registering to vote and going to the elementary school on the day of the election.

The largest youth turnout in the primaries was in Utah, where 16 percent of eligible young voters turned out – and they weren’t voting for Obama, they were voting for Mitt Romney. Sixty-five and older voters turn out four times as frequently.

If I was a consultant for Obama, I would feel good but not confident. The odds are with him, but it’s not wrapped up. It’s all going to depend on turnout.

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