On Oct. 6, Barack Obama led John McCain by 6 points in the Real Clear Politics poll average. The average isn’t a perfect indicator of the state of the race, but it does show trends, and this was Obama’s largest lead since the beginning of September.
It was close to the largest lead he’s held in the race, which was a 7.5-percent margin in late June.
With only three weeks left, can McCain catch up? Maybe.
We’ve seen lots of volatility in this election cycle. During his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, Obama experienced five large swings, each compacted into a few weeks’ time.
Obama gained a total of 15 points during the first three weeks of January and 10 points during the first three weeks of February. He picked up an additional 10 points in April, followed by an equally big swing to Clinton. Two weeks after that, Obama enjoyed a 13-point gain.
Obama’s campaign against McCain has been less volatile, but it has seen some rapid swings, too. Again using the Real Clear Politics average, Obama gained 6 points in June. Over the next nine weeks, he lost and then recaptured 5 points. There was a big, 10-point swing against him during the two weeks around the conventions, and then, beginning with the Lehman Bros. meltdown, he picked up 6 points in just three weeks.
The upshot is that, for Obama, large swings can, and already have, taken place in short periods of time.
This is good news for McCain: Swings of 5 points or more have often occurred in less than four weeks. And Obama’s leads have often been fleeting. He has become the clear front-runner before, only to watch voters turn away from him again.
Unfortunately for McCain, that’s where the good news ends. As Election Day approaches, the electorate becomes less fluid. Undecided voters begin to decide, and decided voters typically harden in their decisions.
In this cycle, the “undecideds” are still hovering around 8 percent. That’s almost double what they were at this point in 2004, but it’s down from about 12 percent just five weeks ago. (For some perspective, the electorate was 8 percent undecided at this point in 2000, when Al Gore made up a 5-point deficit in the last four weeks of the race.)
The other bit of bad news for McCain is that Obama finally seems to be performing in sync with Democrats on the generic congressional ballot. The generic ballot — polling on whether voters prefer to send an unspecified Democrat or Republican to Congress — is a good indicator of the country’s opinion of the political parties.
For most of the cycle, Democrats held a solid, double-digit lead over the GOP in this measurement, but Obama was locked in a tight and volatile race with McCain. The Democrats’ generic lead shrank when Sarah Palin became McCain’s running mate.
But when the financial crisis came to a head in late September, Democrats gained ground in close parallel with Obama’s progress against McCain.
All of this suggests that McCain’s options going forward are limited.
At the start of the race, McCain had three potential paths to victory. He could make the election a referendum on Obama, hoping voters would hesitate to elect the least-experienced and least-qualified president since the Civil War. He could follow the Nicolas Sarkozy model, distancing himself from the GOP while portraying Bush, the Democrats and Obama as part of the same establishment. Or he could run an affirmative campaign as a reform Republican.
To some degree, McCain’s campaign has tried out each of these narratives during the past four months. However, two of those paths are now closed to him.
McCain’s brief attempt to run on a positive message of reform after the conventions only kept him even with Obama. And the numbers show that, fairly or not, voters have allocated most of the blame for the financial meltdown to McCain and the Republicans.
That means McCain’s attempt to separate himself from the Republican brand and link Bush with the Democratic Congress has failed.
Which leaves one strategy: “Not Obama.” If McCain is to have any chance of a comeback, he’ll have to refocus the public’s attention on his opponent and force Americans to take one last, clear-eyed look at Obama’s views, associations and experience.
Jonathan V. Last is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.