Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Myth of a Toss-Up Election

By Alan Abramowitz Thomas E. Mann and Larry J. Sabato July 24th, 2008

“Too close to call.” “Within the margin of error.” “A statistical dead heat.” If you’ve been following news coverage of the 2008 presidential election, you’re probably familiar with these phrases. Media commentary on the presidential horserace, reflecting the results of a series of new national polls, has strained to make a case for a hotly contested election that is essentially up for grabs.

Signs of Barack Obama’s weaknesses allegedly abound. The huge generic Democratic Party advantage is not reflected in the McCain-Obama pairings in national polls. Why, according to the constant refrain, hasn’t Obama put this election away? A large number of Clinton supporters in the primaries refuse to commit to Obama. White working class and senior voters tilt decidedly to McCain. Racial resentment limits Obama’s support among these two critical voting blocs. Enthusiasm among young voters and African-Americans, two groups strongly attracted to Obama, is waning. Blah, blah, blah.

While no election outcome is guaranteed and McCain’s prospects could improve over the next three and a half months, virtually all of the evidence that we have reviewed–historical patterns, structural features of this election cycle, and national and state polls conducted over the last several months–point to a comfortable Obama/Democratic party victory in November. Trumpeting this race as a toss-up, almost certain to produce another nail-biter finish, distorts the evidence and does a disservice to readers and viewers who rely upon such punditry. Again, maybe conditions will change in McCain’s favor, and if they do, they should also be accurately described by the media. But current data do not justify calling this election a toss-up.

Consider the following.

Except for a few days when the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls showed a tie, Barack Obama has led John McCain in every national poll in the past two months. Obama’s average margin has consistently been in the 4-6 point range during this time. By contrast, the polls in 2000 and 2004 showed much more variation over time. State polling results have also consistently given Obama the advantage. According to realclearpolitics.com, Obama is currently leading in 26 states and the District of Columbia with a total of 322 electoral votes; McCain is currently leading in 24 states with a total of 216 electoral votes. Obama is leading in every state carried by John Kerry in 2004 along with six states carried by George Bush: Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, Indiana, Nevada and Colorado. A seventh Bush state, Virginia, is tied.

Obama is leading in 11 of the 12 swing states that were decided by a margin of five points or less in 2004 including five of the six that were carried by George Bush. And while Obama has a comfortable lead in every state that John Kerry won by a margin of more than five points in 2004, McCain is in a difficult battle in a number of states that Bush carried by a margin of more than five points including such solidly red states as Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, and North Carolina.

And remember these June and July polls may well understate Obama’s eventual margin. Ronald Reagan did not capitalize on the huge structural advantage Republicans enjoyed in 1980 until after the party conventions and presidential debate. It took a while and a sufficient level of comfort with the challenger for anti-Carter votes to translate into support for Reagan. If Obama’s performance over the last eighteen months is any guide, a similar pattern could unfold in 2008.

Aside from the horserace results, there is evidence of a growing Democratic party advantage in the electorate. A recent analysis by Rhodes Cook of voter registration data in 29 states and the District of Columbia that permit registration by party shows that since November of 2004, Democratic registration has increased by almost 700,000 while Republican registration has declined by almost one million.

Democrats now enjoy a substantial lead over Republicans in voter identification. According to the Gallup Poll, the two parties have gone from near parity four years ago to a 12 point Democratic advantage in the first half of 2008. And polling data continue to show that Democrats are more satisfied with their party’s nominee than Republicans voters and more highly motivated to vote. While Republicans normally benefit from higher turnout among their supporters, that may not be the case this year.

In order to defeat Barack Obama, John McCain will have to convince a lot of currently disgruntled Republicans to turn out and vote for him. Yet mobilizing the Republican base, a strategy employed successfully by Karl Rove in 2002 and 2004, won’t be enough for McCain to win in 2008. He’ll also have to convince a majority of independents and a substantial number of Democrats to vote for him. That’s a task that proved too difficult even for Rove in the 2006 midterm election and it may be still more difficult in 2008. That’s because since 2006 the political environment has gone from bad to worse for Republicans.

It is no exaggeration to say that the political environment this year is one of the worst for a party in the White House in the past sixty years. You have to go all the way back to 1952 to find an election involving the combination of an unpopular president, an unpopular war, and an economy teetering on the brink of recession. 1952 was also the last time the party in power wasn’t represented by either the incumbent president or the incumbent vice-president. But the fact that Democrat Harry Truman wasn’t on the ballot didn’t stop Republican Dwight Eisenhower from inflicting a crushing defeat on Truman’s would-be successor, Adlai Stevenson.

Barack Obama is not a national hero like Dwight Eisenhower, and George Bush is no Harry Truman. But if history is any guide, and absent a dramatic change in election fundamentals or an utter collapse of the Obama candidacy, John McCain is likely to suffer the same fate as Adlai Stevenson.


Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University. Mann is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. Sabato is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and director of its Center for Politics.