The most reliable surveys put McCain five to seven points behind Obama as we enter the last week of this interminable campaign. But in a race that will be famous for years afterwards for its volatility, it is not too late for the Republican to pull out a victory.
For Harry Truman in 1948, the presidential race shifted dramatically in the final week, and it's happened three more times in the past 30 years. In 1980, Reagan came from eight points behind to a solid victory by winning his sole debate with Carter in the last week of October. In 1992, Clinton, who had fallen behind in the polls because of the pounding he was taking over his liberalism and propensity to raise taxes, surged ahead of Bush when Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh announced that he was indicting Defense Secretary Casper (Cap) Weinberger, an indication of Bush's possible complicity in the Iran-Contra scandal. And in 2000, Bush's three-to-four point lead in the polls was erased over the final weekend when reports surfaced that he had been cited for DWI 20 years before and had not revealed the fact to the public. Bush still won the election, of course, but Gore won the popular vote by half a point.
What does McCain have to do to pull off a similar shift this time?
1. Use the stock market crash to highlight the tax issue. With the Dow Jones dropping each day by hundreds of points, this election is being held against a backdrop of economic fear unlike any since the Depression. Almost every reputable economist agrees that it would be catastrophic to add to the economy's woes by raising the capital gains tax. But Obama is on record as favoring an increase from 15% to 20% and suggested during the primaries that he would consider hitting 28%.
McCain should jump on the issue and challenge Obama to agree to a two-year moratorium on increases in the capital gains tax. If Obama agrees, McCain will score points for leadership. If Obama refuses, or ignores the challenge, McCain can attribute much of the drop in the market to the fear of increased capital gains taxation once Obama takes over. After all, its pretty obvious that if you keep 85% of your capital profits right now but stand only to keep 80% or 72% once Obama takes over, it's prudent to unload now. This pressure to sell is exactly what the markets do not need, and McCain can hammer the point home.
McCain can say that Obama's refusal to join in supporting a moratorium on capital gains taxation increases shows his commitment to class warfare - and that big government exceeds any concern he might have for stock market stability or the value of 401Ks or retirement pension funds.
McCain has already scored mightily with his invocation of Joe the Plumber and, polls show, he won the third debate by using the issue of taxes and small businesses. By early this coming week, his advertising will have achieved sufficient levels of frequency to have an impact on the polling.