The Catholic University of America

John Kenneth White, professor, politics, was quoted in an Oct. 31 Canwest News Service article about the surprises and twists in the 2008 presidential campaign. See his comments in the story below.



Banking on a shock finish
For McCain, a campaign of sudden turns and abrupt stops is still far from over

From: Canwest News Service
Date: Oct. 31, 2008
Author: Sheldon Alberts

WASHINGTON - On a blustery New Hampshire evening in late December 2007, John McCain stood in a high school gymnasium in the tiny town of Pelham, making his case for the Republican presidential nomination.

With wet snow and freezing rain falling outside, it was the kind of early winter night that made a strong case against political campaigning. The narrow highway leading to McCain's town hall meeting was slick and treacherous, with cars littering the ditches. Inside, the candidate was bundled in a sweater against the chill.

He had no Secret Service detail, no police motorcade and no hesitation talking to a Canadian newspaper reporter who strolled up for a chat as the crowd began to disperse.

"I think several things are coming together," McCain said gamely, when asked about his long-shot campaign, declared dead only a few weeks earlier. "People are starting to focus on the candidates and we know the independent voter in New Hampshire breaks very late."

Even then, McCain believed.

Now, as the marathon U.S. presidential race enters its final days, the 72-year-old Arizona senator faces a political scenario every bit as challenging - if not more so - as the one he confronted during the darkest days of his campaign last year.

Almost every pre-election metric - from national polls to early voting trends to battleground anecdotes - points to a victory for Barack Obama. But if there is a hard lesson that journalists and politicos should have learned from this epic 22-month campaign, it is this: be wary of conventional wisdom.

From McCain's long-odds triumph in the GOP race, to Hillary Clinton's shock victory in the New Hampshire primary last January, to Sarah Palin's emergence as a conservative star and - most unlikely of all - Obama's arrival at the cusp of the presidency, the 2008 campaign has provided an unrelenting set of surprises.

Could one more happen Tuesday?

"Any Democrat who is overconfident needs a refresher course in recent history," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

On election night 2004, Democrats buoyed by strong exit polling were convinced John Kerry had defeated George W. Bush, until real votes began to be counted. In 2000, Al Gore had already conceded defeat before Florida's ballot box nightmare propelled the nation into a month-long postelection crisis decided by the Supreme Court.

And the 2008 campaign trail is littered with the crumpled remains of election pamphlets and posters belonging to candidates who were supposed to be sure things.

Throughout this exhausting, compelling and historic race, there have been two kinds of surprises. There were the ones that no one saw coming - like Clinton's come-from-behind New Hampshire win - and the ones foreshadowed with clues that seem obvious in retrospect.

Remember when everyone thought Rudy Giuliani was a lock to win the GOP nomination? At one of the earliest Republican debates - in Columbia, S.C., in May 2007 - the former New York mayor strolled through the media "spin room" with an entourage in tow, like a proud hen clucking over an already-hatched brood.

Standing alone on the perimeter of the room was California Representative Duncan Hunter, an early also-ran in the Republican race. He wasn't buying the Giuliani hype.

"Can he win the Republican primary with a position that is pro-abortion? The answer is no," Hunter told me.

Giuliani remained a favourite right up to the moment Republicans started voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he was undone by perceived arrogance and a campaign organization that utterly failed at retail politics.

Like Giuliani, Hillary Clinton's place atop the Democratic ticket seemed inevitable to reporters and pundits right up until Obama delivered his victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. But there were signs, even before that moment, of the tough battle ahead for the former first lady.

On the morning that Iowans caucused, Bill Clinton strolled into a Des Moines Starbucks and began downplaying expectations.

"It's a long process," he cautioned a handful of journalists, and no wiser a line was spoken until the Democratic nomination finally ended in June.

For journalists who covered Obama's campaign since he entered the race on a toe-freezing morning in Springfield, Ill., in early January 2007, it was sometimes tempting to conclude victory was inevitable.

At every moment throughout the campaign, the lines outside his rallies were longer and the energy among his supporters more palpably intense than for Clinton, first, and then McCain.

But cautionary tales abound. On a warm night in April, more than 35,000 people crowded into downtown Philadelphia to see Obama, more than anything Clinton could muster.

Yet he lost Pennsylvania, Ohio and primaries throughout America's Rust Belt. It was a useful reminder that the vote of a hyper-enthused Obama supporter counts the same as the vote of a no-fanfare Clinton or McCain supporter.

On the night Obama accepted the Democratic nomination before 80,000 people at Denver's Invesco Field, the consensus among reporters squeezed into the south end zone press stands was that Obama would get a sizable post-convention bounce.

Instead, they were blindsided by Palin, the only candidate from either party to match Obama in star power, and McCain moved temporarily ahead.

"There's a reason Obama keeps reminding supporters in these final days not to take anything for granted," said John White, a politics professor at Catholic University in Washington. "Don't assume this election is over."

So are there any tangible signs - with three days remaining in the campaign - of an Obama collapse akin to Giuliani's and Clinton's, or another McCain comeback?

The lion's share of polls continue to paint a bleak picture for McCain. In three influential national surveys - by Gallup, Rasmussen Reports and Zogby - Obama's lead has remained at four to seven points. But there has been some tightening over the past week. In election battlegrounds, Obama has retained statistically significant leads in Virginia, Iowa, New Mexico and Colorado, Republican-leaning states that could give him the keys to the White House.

In Ohio, recent polls have shown a steady four-to-six point Obama lead.

"That means the presidential race is effectively over, absent some stunning development or unexpected event," said Cal Jillson, a politics professor at Southern Methodist University.

"What (Republicans) are doing right now is running through the tape, finishing the race as strongly as they can."

McCain has seen some good news, mainly from polls showing a dead heat in must-win swing states like Florida, Missouri and Indiana. One survey, by Mason-Dixon, suggests Obama's lead is down to four points in Pennsylvania.

In states that allow early voting, there has been a huge turnout among African-Americans, a boon for Obama. But turnout among young voters - whom Obama has relentlessly courted - has been no higher than in 2004.

And while Democratic voter registration has far outstripped Republican sign-ups, GOP voters have a much better history of actually turning out on election day.

"No one is ever absolutely sure of anything in politics. But if Obama loses, there will be a shock wave greater than the one that followed the Truman upset of 1948," says Sabato, referring to Harry Truman's unexpected win over Republican Thomas Dewey.

"The Obama organization has outclassed the Republicans almost everywhere."