A GOP operative argues that in a race between a white and black candidate, "undecideds" vote white. Meaning, "undecideds" will break for McCain.
As his campaign manager has described it, John McCain is now looking at a "narrow-victory scenario." "The fact that we're in the race at all," added Steve Schmidt, "is a miracle. Because the environment is so bad and the head wind is so strong."
But talk of miracles and head winds aside, I think John McCain really does have a decent shot at winning, and that's not just because I'm a longtime Republican political operative. Despite what the polls seem to be saying, a closer look at the numbers shows that a Democratic victory is not a foregone conclusion. Why? Because if history is any guide, Barack Obama, as an African-American candidate for political office, needs to be polling consistently above 50 percent to win. And in crucial battleground states, he isn't.
Much has been written about the so-called Bradley Effect, in which voters lie to pollsters about whether they're willing to vote for a black candidate. The Bradley Effect is meant to explain why, for example, Doug Wilder had a healthy 9-point lead up to Election Day in the 1989 Virginia governor's race, and a similar lead in exit polling, only to squeak through to victory by one-half of 1 percent. But I'm not talking about voters telling pollsters they're going to support Candidate A when they're really going to vote for Candidate B. There are two other ways in which voters can mislead pollsters about their intentions. One is to decline to participate in a poll. (More than one expert has suggested that conservatives are more likely to decline than liberals, meaning there could be many uncounted McCain voters.) The other is when pollsters participate in a poll but withhold information. Specifically, they say they're undecided when they really aren't. It's the latter phenomenon in particular, I think, that gives John McCain a chance at winning enough swing states to reach the White House.
There's an old rule in politics that an incumbent candidate is always in danger when he dips under 50 percent, even if he is leading his opponent in the polls. It's all about the undecideds. In a race with an incumbent candidate and a challenger, on Election Day the undecideds tend to break for the challenger, at rates as high as 4 to 1. If an incumbent is polling at, say, 47 to 45 percent with 8 percent undecided, there's a good chance he's going to wind up losing 49 to 51. As it's sometimes expressed, if you're an incumbent, what you see is what you get.
The same pattern seems to be true for African-American candidates in much of the country. If you're a black candidate running against a white candidate, what you see is what you get. And it doesn't matter whether you're an incumbent or a challenger. If you're not polling above 50 percent, you should be worried. As of this writing, Barack Obama is not polling consistently above 50 percent in a number of electoral-vote-rich swing states, including Ohio and Florida. He should be worried.
As you look at the polling data in the homestretch of this election, pay close attention whenever you see any numbers, be they statewide or national, where Sen. Obama is below 50 percent. So long as there are more than a handful of voters describing themselves as undecided, I will maintain that Sen. McCain is very much in the race. Even if Sen. Obama were to open a larger lead, my basis for analyzing things would remain the same. Are there enough undecided voters in crucial states to bridge whatever gap exists in the head-to-head? If so, don't be shocked if on Election Day, Sen. McCain is your winner.