The McCain campaign is unusually upbeat. Does it have reason to be?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 29 2008 6:49 PM

Don't Worry, Be Happy

The McCain campaign is unusually upbeat. Does it have reason to be?

With only five days left until Election Day, John McCain's campaign aides seem happier than they have been in a while. For the last few days, the campaign has been increasingly buoyed by what it says has been improvement in its internal polling of 14 battleground states. Aides see a tightening race in states that are crucial to their long-shot march to 270 votes and victory. Even McCain himself is upbeat. "He's been happy for the last few days," says one aide. "That's a change."

What are we to make of this? Where do we plot the mindset of the McCain campaign on a continuum that stretches from deceit (aides know they're losing badly and they're play-acting) to Drudge-like self-delusion (they're mindlessly clutching at, and believing in, any glimmer of positive news) to truth (there actually are real signs of hope)? The line can be hard to define, but it seems to me that the McCain campaign is somewhere between self-delusion and truth.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

John McCain and Barack Obama.
John McCain and Barack Obama

There are a lot of reasons for campaign aides to be engaging in self-delusion. The press is full of stories about how badly it has been run. Peddling the idea that things are working well enough to close the gap in polling helps buck up the campaign. Plus, after two years of campaigning, no one wants to be forced to go through the motions just for the sake of appearance, so if they believe they're making progress (regardless of whether they are), it's easier to get out of bed in the morning.

Still, the landscape looks pretty bleak. A flood of public polls show that McCain is down in several important, traditionally Republican states. The news organizations and analysts that have reported and sifted the numbers guess that, at the moment, Obama would garner upward of 310 electoral votes by winning not only all the states John Kerry won but also Ohio, Virginia, and several other states that went for Bush in 2004.

In McCain's most optimistic scenario, he loses a few Republican states like New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and Iowa. He just has to hope that he doesn't lose too many of them. (Losing a biggie like Florida or Ohio would be curtains.) He could make up for a small loss of GOP states with a victory in Pennsylvania or New Hampshire.

How do McCain aides get around this dire picture without the aid of strong drink? Let's just say that McCain's campaign now relies on hope more than Obama's does. They hope that the Obama organization isn't as impressive as signs suggest it is. They hope that the greater enthusiasm apparent among Democrats turns out to be less than advertised on Election Day. They hope that the public polls that show a big Obama lead are poorly designed, overstating participation by young voters and African-Americans. They hope undecided voters will all break to McCain in the end.

The McCain path to victory relies heavily on the campaign's pollster, Bill McInturff, who is conducting surveys in battleground states every day. For the entire campaign, McCain aides say, McInturff has often been a bit of a wet blanket. Whenever they've felt good, he's been the voice of caution, explaining that the landscape was bleaker than they thought. Recently, though, his internal campaign updates have actually been eagerly anticipated: The subject line of a recent one said "a memo you will want to read."

Could McInturff be blowing pretty rings of imaginary smoke? Perhaps. But he has a good reputation for honesty among pollsters. It's also not in his professional interest to play Pollyanna. Who wants to be known as the Baghdad Bob of pollsters, making crazy claims that turn out to be untrue? Plus, his ability to get future clients depends on his integrity.

McInturff released a memo yesterday that outlined his case for why it's still possible for McCain to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Here's what he sees: His poll of battleground states shows Obama with such a small lead, it's within the margin of error, which means it's effectively tied. In Iowa, he sees the race tightening to within a few points. In Pennsylvania, it's in single digits (though that could mean nine). (The average of other pollsters say McCain is down by a dozen in Iowa and Pennsylvania.) Moving toward McCain, say his aides, are women making less than $60,000 and white men with only some college education.

Of course, when it's in your interest for things to look positive, you tend to see them positively. When any campaign talks about "internal polls," be wary. They can be manipulated for spin reasons—allowing them to present pseudoscientific numbers to make a political point—or they can just be wrong. Their formula for turnout may be as faulty as those calculations that valued mortgage-backed securities. McCain's pollsters think they've taken the "Obama effect" into account—the number of new voters and lapsed voters who will actually participate—but what if they've wildly undercounted?

The McCain campaign also says its message about Obama's plan to "spread the wealth" is taking hold. Republicans are coming back to McCain, they say, and Obama's favorables are dropping a little. They say they are now able to drive the message about Joe the Plumber as effectively as Obama is able to push any of his messages. And they say the robo-calls, which many in the political business say are useless, are working to raise doubts about Obama.

Whether the Joe the Plumber message is punching through as much as the McCain camp says, it does have one psychological benefit: For the final stretch of the campaign, his aides know each day what they're supposed to be talking about. For a campaign that has had many messages and themes, that's encouraging in itself. "We are not just going through the motions," says an aide. "We're fighting to win." For McCain, whose heroes of film and literature are often doomed protagonists who battle on despite near-certain defeat, perhaps just being in the fight again is reason enough to be elated.