If the election were held today, Barack Obama would win - but a lot of voters would be confused, since Election Day isn't until November 4.
Except - the election is being held today. And tomorrow. And for the next five weeks. That's because more and more states allow Early Voting, so people are already casting ballots in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and other key states.
I can't imagine voting before Election Day. I want every bit of information before making my decision. What if a candidate is caught doing something horrible a few days before the election? Or dies? I see no reason to vote until I really have to.
Many undecided voters say they've been waiting for the debates to help them make up their minds. Well, the debates started last Friday - and it's clear which way those voters are breaking. This race is starting to jell now, and although it could certainly whipsaw in another direction at any time, it's becoming Obama's to lose.
I thought John McCain did very well in the first debate. Expectations were lowered by his schizoid behavior in the days before it, his will-he-show-or-won't-he soap opera and the "suspension" (such as it was) of his campaign to help address the financial crisis. But I thought he came out strong in the debate's opening moments, took the fight to Obama and displayed his impressive knowledge of the issues, both foreign and domestic.
Obama won by not losing, though. He held his own against McCain, made no glaring mistakes, and by the end of the evening, proved he belonged on the same stage as his veteran opponent, establishing his "presidential" credentials. Obama was far more gracious and respectful than McCain, who came off kind of like the cranky neighbor who always complains about your dog tearing up his garden. That irascible attitude seemed to annoy a lot of undecided voters, and Obama clearly has passed a significant hurdle with many of them this week: they've decided that he is ready to be president, despite McCain's rather pointed assertions to the contrary.
Our new CBS News-New York Times Poll finds that of those who watched the debate, 51% thought Obama won, and only 26% thought McCain did. Overall, including people who didn't see the debate but heard about it later, 41% said Obama was the winner, and 21% said McCain. Other polls support those findings. More importantly, voters in the swing states came to the same conclusion. In Florida, for example, where McCain has been holding a small but steady lead, the Quinnipiac poll found those who watched the debate scoring it for Obama, by a margin of 49 to 34%. As a result, Obama has surged ahead of McCain there, 51-43.
In Ohio, which has been a dead heat with McCain barely ahead, debate-watchers told the Quinnipiac pollsters that Obama won the showdown (49% to 33%), and suddenly, Obama has taken the lead in the Buckeye State, 50-42. There's a similar story in Pennsylvania, where Obama's lead over McCain had been dwindling. Now Obama is way ahead, by an astounding 54 to 39%. In Iowa, which voted for President Bush last time, Obama's got a 16-point lead now, according to the new KCCI-TV Poll. In Virginia, Nevada and bellwether Missouri, all swing states that were Republican red in 2004, Obama has caught and passed McCain.
It's not just the debate, of course. Voters think Obama is better-equipped to manage the economy, and they're also losing confidence in Sarah Palin. The more interviews she does, the more she sinks in the surveys. Palin's answers - on Russia, on the bailout, on the Supreme Court, even on what newspapers she reads - are dropping as many jaws as the opening scene of "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers."
One conclusion is inescapable - the pundits' opinions don't matter nearly as much as our critics think they do. The voters made their own judgment of that debate, regardless of what we professionals thought. Most experts I spoke with called it pretty much a draw, and many gave McCain a slight edge. But the voters gave Obama a clear victory. You can't blame that on the liberal media conspiracy.
There is deepening concern in the McCain camp. A whiff of desperation is creeping into their rhetoric. You can hear the panic among the conservative talk show hosts as they ratchet up their vitriol. They can feel this thing slipping away.
It isn't over, of course. Sarah Palin has a huge chance to redeem herself in Thursday night's vice presidential debate. Again, the expectations have been lowered, to a ridiculous level. If she's vibrant and sparkling, homespun and funny, zinging Biden with folksy Alaska one-liners, and can somehow muddle through the tougher fact-based questions with enough stock phrases about reform and change and shake-up, then she could surprise those who think she's just going to babble, drool, and spew non sequiturs until her head spins around and explodes. Joe Biden could call her "darling" and "sweetie," veer off on some long-winded digression about his childhood in a Welsh coal mine, and then reminisce about Abe Lincoln's TV appearances during the Mexican-American War. Barack Obama could show up for next week's town hall debate in a dashiki and bandoliers.
Or, on a more serious note, there could be a major terrorist attack, or some other foreign policy emergency that undermines the voters' emerging confidence in Obama's readiness. And, of course, there is the potential racism factor, which could subtract five to seven points from what Obama's getting in all these polls, and that could swing enough of those battleground states back to McCain.
But for the moment, the narrative of this election is being set - and it's setting in Obama's favor. We'll see if The Great Debates, Round Two - Biden vs. Palin - does anything to keep the cement from hardening.