John McCain used to joke about politicians — like George W. Bush — who claimed they never paid any attention to polls. "Oh, no, we never look at the polls!" he said aboard the Straight Talk Express in the days before the New Hampshire primary in January. Then he shot a glance over to his chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, and asked with a grin, "Any new polls this morning, Sergeant Schmidt? Any new numbers?" Like most politicians and political professionals, McCain was obsessed with the polls. He knew how to read them. And he knew — whether they bore good news or bad — that they usually told the truth.
And so it required a slight suspension of disbelief to watch NBC's Meet the Press Sunday morning as Tom Brokaw opened with, and kept coming back to, McCain's weakness in the polls in his contest against Barack Obama for the White House. "Listen, I don't have the most encouraging news for you today from the NBC News/Mason-Dixon poll," Brokaw began, as he sat with McCain in Waterloo, Iowa. "Here in Iowa, it now shows that Obama has a lead of 11 points, 51% to 40%." McCain's reply — "Those polls have consistently shown me much further behind than we actually are" — set up what became a kind of call-and-response routine between host and guest for the rest of the interview, with Brokaw pointing out all the signs of trouble, and McCain insisting things were not nearly so bad. "We're doing fine. We have closed in the last week," he said gamely. "We continue this close through next week — you're going to be up very, very late on election night."
McCain seemed tired, as if he had been up too many late nights, and at times his answers meandered through a series of only tangentially connected sentences. But his central argument — that the race is not over, that he might still pull this thing out — is not completely unreasonable. It is not just that McCain has stared long odds in the face before and triumphed, as he did when his campaign collapsed in the summer of 2007, financially broke and in disarray. Back then, trusted friends advised him to withdraw rather than suffer a humiliating defeat. Even some of his closest associates were ready to give up, and it fell to McCain to tell them to quit feeling sorry for themselves, to lecture them about what it means to keep fighting for what you believe in. Of course, he was right, and he emerged improbably from a field of contenders to win the Republican nomination. "McCain doesn't have a lot of time for quitters," says a senior McCain adviser. "He's not about to quit now."
The press has been awash in stories lately in which anonymous sources detail the infighting and blame-throwing going on within the campaign and the anger and fear felt by Republicans outside it; over the weekend, rising tension between aides to running mate Sarah Palin and McCain loyalists was on display, with one McCain adviser telling CNN that Palin was a "diva" who didn't listen to anyone. Morale was already an issue two weeks ago, when Schmidt gave a pep talk to staffers and volunteers at the campaign's Arlington, Va., headquarters. "Being part of an effort that fails does not make you a loser; it makes you a competitor," said Schmidt, according to an article in Sunday's Washington Post. "What makes you a loser is curling up into the fetal position at a time of adversity. The only thing that would ever define anyone as a loser is to quit before it is over."
McCain, say people who know him, believes he still has a chance. There are enough stray signs of hope — like a one-day poll sample from John Zogby that placed Obama's national advantage over McCain at just 3 percentage points (though most other national tracking polls put Obama's lead more in the 5-to-10-point range) — to keep the candidate and the the campaign going. Eschewing the attacks revolving around Bill Ayers and ACORN that appeared to backfire earlier this month, McCain is focusing most of his firepower on two primary targets: Obama's readiness to be a world leader ("I've been tested," McCain now says, referring to Obama running mate Joe Biden's own recent clumsy comments about the Democrat facing an international test once in office) and the threat of higher taxes and out-of-control government spending (where Joe the Plumber references keep coming up). Just in case neither of those are particularly persuasive, McCain is also making the argument that the country needs a Republican in the White House to check the ambitions of the almost-sure-to-grow Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
When Bob Dole realized he wasn't going to win against President Bill Clinton in 1996, Dole started campaigning in states that were of little help to him but where he could assist Republicans trying to hold on to their majorities in Congress. That kind of pivot hasn't happened in this race, though over the weekend conservative writer David Frum openly called on McCain to do just that for the good of the party. Scott Reed, who ran Dole's '96 campaign, says he believes McCain could still pull off a victory. "I think Schmidt's strategy has brought [McCain] back and kept it from being a blowout," he says. "It can be done."
Reed's comments echo the words of Mark McKinnon, who was McCain's chief media strategist until June, when he dropped off the campaign because he decided he didn't want to participate in attacking Obama. Writing for the website the Daily Beast, McKinnon defended McCain's general election strategy. "I know that Steve Schmidt and his colleagues have run a very good campaign and have taken McCain further than he had any reasonable right to, given the political climate," said McKinnon. "And by the way, don't tell the press, but the election ain't over yet. The old fighter pilot may have a couple barrel rolls left in him."
That could also just be happy talk meant to buck up the weary and the dispirited who dedicated much of the past 24 months of their lives to this effort. McCain's strategy in these final eight days of the campaign hinges on winning a slew of red states in which Obama currently holds leads of varying sizes in the polls — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada — and then somehow producing an upset in Pennsylvania, a Blue state that went for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004 and where Obama currently boasts a lead in the low double digits.
Both McCain and Palin have been spending much of the past couple of weeks in the Keystone State, hoping that Obama's support in western Pennsylvania, where Hillary Clinton far outdid the Illinois Senator in the primary, is soft and that McCain's efforts to distance himself from the current Republican President are convincing. (In that regard, he did himself no favors over the weekend, admitting that he and Bush share a "common philosophy," which Obama quickly seized upon.) Heeding calls from the likes of Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell not to take the state for granted, Obama is returning for rallies both Monday and Tuesday of this week. Absent a seismic event that changes the entire election dynamic, such an outcome for McCain is unlikely at best. "It's a very long shot," says a Republican strategist who advises the campaign. "But it's not impossible. At least it's something to hold on to."