For months, Sen. Barack Obama has been leading in a handful of traditionally Republican “red” states, including New Mexico and Colorado, and now appears to have gained the edge in two more GOP-leaning battlegrounds - Florida and Ohio - since the first presidential debate.
With little more than four weeks remaining in the presidential campaign in a tough economic environment, the grim reality facing Sen. John McCain‘s presidential candidacy is that there are a lot more competitive red states than competitive blue states. Indeed, Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, can boast that he is now ahead in at least half a dozen red states, while the Arizona Republican isn’t leading in any blue states.
“It is difficult to find a modern competitive presidential race that has swung so dramatically, so quickly and so sharply this late in the campaign,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Senator John McCain has his work cut out for him if he is to win the presidency, and there does not appear to be a role model for such a comeback in the last half century.”
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The latest Quinnipiac poll shows significant gains for Mr. Obama in three pivotal battleground states - Florida and Ohio, which the GOP has carried in the last two presidential elections, and Pennsylvania, which has remained in the Democratic column. Not since 1960 - and Florida was not a big electoral prize then - has a candidate won the White House without carrying at least two of these three states.
Quinnipiac’s findings raised eyebrows among pollsters and GOP strategists because of the dramatic size of Mr. Obama’s gains in its latest post-debate poll. It showed him leading by eight percentage points in Florida (51 percent to 43 percent), eight points in Ohio (50 percent to 42 percent), and 15 points in Pennsylvania (54 percent to 39 percent).
Republican Party strategist Frank Donatelli, Mr. McCain’s point man at the Republican National Committee, thinks the numbers are wildly exaggerated and sharply at variance with the other latest public polls.
“They are substantially different from any other survey I’ve seen. Normally, you look at the averages, and the averages in all of those states are particularly smaller than the Quinnipiac polls show,” Mr. Donatelli said.
“Most of the public polls have these states much closer, and we certainly think all of these states are much more competitive,” he said.
“These numbers do not make sense,” said Florida Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich. “Even if you think Obama will win Florida, do you think he will win it by eight points?”
A recent Florida InsiderAdvantage poll showed Mr. Obama with a three-point edge (49 percent to 46 percent). The Real Clear Politics Web site, which tracks all polls, showed the freshman senator with an average lead of three points in Florida.
Mr. Stipanovich, a former top aide to Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, acknowledges that the economy in his state is in rough shape, and that has made the GOP’s campaign more difficult.
“Things are tough here, but I think it’s winnable. I think McCain will win the state,” he said.
In Ohio, other polls showed the race there still a tie. The Real Clear Politics average showed Mr. Obama with a two-point edge, with one poll - by SurveyUSA - giving Mr. McCain the edge, though by a statistically insignificant 49 percent to 48 percent.
“There’s no question that the economic meltdown on Wall Street has harmed us in Ohio, but we don’t have any numbers that are close to the Quinnipiac poll. The race is tight, as we expected it to be,” said state Republican Party chairman Bob Bennett.
Democratic state chairman Chris Redfern similarly expected the point spread to narrow as the race continued. “I do know this is going to come down to a couple of hundred thousand votes. It will be a very tight race,” he said. President Bush carried Ohio in 2004 by a narrow 118,601-vote margin.
Of the three state Quinnipiac polls, the Obama campaign’s 15-point lead in Pennsylvania was the largest shift in numbers in any poll taken this year. Real Clear Politics had Mr. Obama leading his rival by an average 7.9 points (49.9 percent to 42 percent).
But Mr. Obama also appears to have the edge in three other battleground states that usually wind up in the GOP’s electoral-vote column but now seem to be shifting to the Democrats or have turned into tossups.
In reliably Republican Colorado, the race was a statistical dead heat, according to a Ciruli Association poll that showed Mr. Obama with a one-point edge, 44 percent to 43 percent, while the Real Clear Politics average had Mr. Obama leading by 4.4 percentage points.
In New Mexico, a swing state that Mr. Bush narrowly won in 2004, Mr. McCain trailed by five points in a Rasmussen poll, 49 percent to 44 percent, while a SurveyUSA poll had him behind by eight points.
Two other reliably Republican Southern states also have turned into tossups but have been sending mixed signals to pollsters.
In Virginia, a recent Mason-Dixon poll shows Mr. McCain with a three-point lead, 48 percent to 45 percent, while the Real Clear Politics average has him trailing Mr. Obama by 2.4 percentage points, 49 percent to 46.6 percent.
In North Carolina, a Sept. 30 Rasmussen poll of 700 likely voters had Mr. Obama ahead by three percentage points, 50 percent to 47 percent, but an American Research Group poll conducted Sept. 27 to 29 of 600 likely voters showed Mr. McCain with a three-point lead, 49 percent to 46 percent.
On the other hand, Mr. Donatelli points to several traditionally Democratic states that have become more competitive, particularly Minnesota, a state that the Republicans haven’t carried since 1972. A SurveyUSA poll released last week showed Mr. McCain with a one-point edge, 47 percent to 46 percent.
“The Republican national convention in Minneapolis helped us because a lot of Minnesotans tuned in and liked what they heard, and McCain’s running mate Sarah Palin has been a game-changer here,” said Republican state chairman Ron Carey. “She fits the state so perfectly as a hockey mom who likes to fish, hunt and snowmobile, and that describes Minnesota people who say she’s one of us.”
GOP strategists also said they hoped the House’s final approval of the Bush administration’s economic-rescue plan Friday would spark a turnaround in the stock market that would improve the economic climate somewhat and help the McCain campaign in the process.
“Half of the problem is psychological, and to the extent this legislation puts real money into the financial system that will help us get out of the immediate crisis, that could restore the debate about how we can begin to move the economy forward, a debate that we welcome,” Mr. Donatelli said.