I remember meeting up with Haley Barbour, now Governor of Mississippi, for lunch in the summer of 1991 at the Watergate complex in Washington D.C. where the conversation quickly turned to the 1992 presidential election.
President George H.W. Bush’s approval ratings stood at nearly 90% in the aftermath of the popular and successful Gulf War. I commented that President Bush should be re-elected fairly easily. "Not so fast," Haley retorted, right there predicting the possibility of unforeseen bumps in the road..
President Bush went on to run a mediocre campaign and squandered the popularity he had accumulated from the Gulf War, losing to Bill Clinton in a three-man race that included Independent candidate Ross Perot. What Haley instinctively knew was that early poll numbers don’t mean very much. Presidential elections are won by individual votes cast every four years on election day - a single Tuesday in November.
That’s why it is impossible to say how things will go later this year in spite of an avalanche of daily tracking polls. Still the media spend much of each day deciphering the latest poll results from individual states and declaring either Barrack Obama or John McCain the leader or bigger gainer in momentum.
Sure, a basic working theory of where the election will be won or lost is important. The 1996 electoral college map is a good place to start because it represents a helpful bottom line of how well the Republicans can do. It’s widely acknowledged that Bob Dole did not run a very good campaign in 1996 but he still managed to receive a respectable 159 electoral college votes even while losing traditional Republican states such as Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arizona, Missouri, and Nevada.
The Democrats will build their base of support in the mid-Atlantic and New England states and can count on the big electoral states of New York and California to also vote Democratic. It’s easy to see why just a handful of states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and New Hampshire – might well determine who wins the magic 270 electoral votes needed for election.
Yet the election always comes down to individual voters – neighbors – up and down average streets across the land who will decide things that Tuesday. There’s a growing trend among voters to wait until the last day to decide for whom they will vote. With so much information available and issues changing all the time voters like the idea of making their decision very late.
For now, John McCain is the underdog, and he likes it. He’s a fighter and won’t quit, and voters like that in a candidate. He wants to stay within striking distance down the stretch – and hopefully peak at the right time and score an upset win.
Obama is in a different position. He has to maintain a lead and refrain from peaking too early. That’s hard to do in a presidential campaign, and he seems prone to "missteps"’ which make voters uneasy about his readiness – a McCain strength. Obama is aided by a groundswell of popular support and eight years of Republican control of the White House. Voters like the idea of alternating presidential power among the political parties.
But the country’s decision is many months out.
It’s worth reflecting on several lines from one of the greatest political newspaper ads ever created. In the final week of the1968 presidential campaign, the Nixon campaign ran this ad in The New York Times under the one-word headline, "Tuesday":
"It will be quiet on Tuesday. No speeches. No motorcades. No paid announcements. It’s a very special day, just for grown-ups. America votes Tuesday.
"On Tuesday, the shouting and the begging and the threatening and the heckling will be silenced. It’s very quiet in a voting booth.
"And nobody’s going to help you make up your mind. So - just for that instant - you’ll know what the man you’re voting for will do a thousand times a day for the next four years.
"Now it’s your turn."