Barack Obama’s poll numbers have been looking good for so long that it is easy for his supporters to assume a triumphalism stance as America’s longest-ever presidential campaign enters its final week.
But be careful about that. The Democratic nominee for president, while he is currently ahead of Republican John McCain, stands perilously close to a dangerous threshold.
First, a little recent history: In the Democratic primaries last winter and spring, Obama rarely ran better than his poll numbers. He either hit the figure he was at in pre-election polls (in states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania) or fell a little below it (in states such as New Hampshire and California).
That’s worrying because, while the Democrat’s poll numbers now look strong by comparison with those produced for a stumbling McCain campaign, they still hover around the 50 percent line nationally and in a number of current and former battleground states.
The McCain camp is betting that primary patterns will hold and that Obama will finish little or no better than his pre-election poll numbers. They see that as their opening, on the theory that McCain will get his base polling figure in any particular state and an overwhelming portion of supposedly “undecided” voters.
To understand how the theory works, let’s put the variables introduced by third-party candidates and other factors on hold and simply consider the one-on-one competition in the hotly-contested state of Florida.
As of Monday in Florida, the polling averages had Obama up with 47.7 to 45.8 for McCain. That leaves 6.5 percent undecided. McCain strategists bet their man gets three quarters of the supposedly undecided voters, while Obama takes the remainder. Final result: McCain 50.6 to Obama 49.4.
If the Republicans are right, this could still be a close election — perhaps even a “Dewey Defeats Truman” upset election.
So, how worried should Obama backers be at this point?
The first answer is: A lot less worried than McCain backers.
The second answer is: There is still some argument for disquiet on the Democratic side.
Let’s begin with the numbers we’ve got.
Various “poll of polls” surveys give Obama a solid national popular vote lead of 7.3. points — 50.4 for the Democrat to 43.1 for Republican John McCain.
Of course, the United States does not hold national elections. But, on the surface at least, the state-by-state results of races for Electoral College votes are equally encouraging for Democrats.