Here’s the long and short of it for John McCain: Barack Obama has as large a lead in the election as he’s held all year. But there is much less time left on the clock than there was during other Obama periods of strength, such as in February, mid-June or immediately following the Democratic convention. This is a very difficult combination of circumstances for him.
On the strength of a set of national tracking polls that each show Obama at or near his high-water mark all year, our model projects that he would win an election hold today by 4.2 points. It discounts this lead slightly to a projected margin of 3.3 points on November 4, as most races tend to tighten as we approach election day.
This lead might not sound like that much, but it’s fairly significant: we’ve been through two conventions and one debate, voters have dug their heels in, and Obama’s position in the Electoral College is extremely robust. Trimming away a 4-5 point lead isn’t that difficult over the summer months — in fact, McCain accomplished exactly that in July and August — but it’s a steeper hill to climb after Labor Day. And if anything, our projection may be lowballing Obama slightly, as the aforementioned national tracking data (which incorporates one day of post-debate interviewing) has Obama’s lead in the range of 5-8 points; the model will need Obama to hold those numbers for another day or two before it catches up to them.
Democrats have no reason to be complacent. Although the situation looks dramatically better for them than it did two weeks ago, so too have the stakes of the election increased. The next president will face perhaps the most challenging set of circumstances of any since Franklin Roosevelt, and could potentially have nearly as much impact on the future direction of the country. Obama could very easily lose, and even if he wins, odds are that there will be at least one more swing back toward McCain in the intervening 37 days. Nevertheless, as Isaac Chotiner suggests, I believe that the national punditry is understating the difficulty of the position that McCain finds himself in.
There is almost no action at the state level today. Mason-Dixon has John McCain ahead by 16 points in Tennessee and 12 in Kentucky; SurveyUSA has Obama up 16 in Connecticut. Among these results, the only remotely interesting one is Kentucky, and then only because it suggests that Obama might be able to avoid a complete disaster in Southern Ohio.