Press Box

A McCain Victory Survival Kit

A just-in-case guide for reporters just in case Obama collapses.

John McCain

With Politico Editor-in-Chief John F. Harris predicting not just a Barack Obama win but a possible Lyndon Baines Johnson-size blowout that reduces Republicans to a token presence in Congress, the 2008 election looks to be over.

Don’t accuse Harris of wishing Obama into the White House. He’s a hard-news guy’s hard-news guy who has hand-sifted the polls, performed the Electoral College calculus in his sleep, debriefed his reporters, and consulted every practitioner of the campaign dark arts there is. He may have captured Washington’s conventional wisdom, but more often than not the conventional wisdom is right.

An Obama victory will have a million chroniclers, but how can a reporter hedge the conventional wisdom on the long shot that John McCain—the comeback geezer—climbs that ladder with a load of bricks on his back one more time and wins in November?

Over the last week, the press has actually started to hedge the Obama-landslide predictions with pieces about the so-called “Bradley effect” (CNN, Washington Post, New York Times, Agence France-Presse, and elsewhere). Named after former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who lost the California governor race after leading in the polls, the effect holds that voters lie to pre-election pollsters about their intentions to vote for African-American candidates.

Although some dispute the presence of a Bradley effect in the Bradley campaign (see this pollster who worked that election), the effect will be one of the biggest angles if McCain wins. Smart political reporters will have already secured election-night reservations with Bradley-effect experts, but here are angles and sources for other indemnification-minded journalists to pursue:

McCain’s Michigan Miracle. The McCain campaign retreated from Michigan earlier this month when polls showed it was impossible for him to win there. According to the Quinnipiac University poll, McCain was behind only 48 percent to 44 percent in September, with a sampling error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points. But after McCain ditched the Water Winter Wonderland at the beginning of October, he fell seriously behind Obama—54-38. Could the new Obama margin be soft? If Obama and the Democrats take Michigan for granted, might that not depress turnout and give the state to McCain? If voters take an Obama victory for granted, might they give the ballot box a bye? Emergency sources to contact: Michigan Republicans, Sarah Palin, Sean Oxendine, and David Gergen.

The Economy Boomerang.The wiggy economy helps explain some of the recent Obama surge. But what if the massive intervention of government into markets this week, which has pushed stock exchanges upward, quiets voters’ nerves? McCain just changed his stump speech to accentuate those new positives. Emergency sources to contact: Jim Cramer, Alan Greenspan, James Carville, andDavid Gergen.

New Voter No-Shows. The number of registered Democrats is up 5 percent from 2004, says the Associated Press, and the GOP has lost 2 percent of its registered voters. The Democrats enjoy a big margin in swing states, completely out-registering the GOP, the Telegraph reports. If the new voters vote in the same percentage as new voters did in 2004, Obama’s prospects are good. But getting new voters to the polling stations is harder than getting seasoned ones there. How many new voters who won’t actually vote are reflected in the polls? Emergency sources to contact: Peter Nadulli, Alan I. Abramowitz, Henry Brady(presidential voting-patterns scholars), and David Gergen.

Corollary: The Undecideds Weren’t Really Undecided. They were really for McCain. Emergency sources to contact: the Gallup Poll’s Jeff Jones, Scott Keeterat Pew, the Mystery Pollster, Mark Blumenthal, and David Gergen.

The Curse of Bob Shrum. Campaign consultant Robert Shrum has never put one of his clients into the White House (Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Bob Kerrey, Al Gore, John Kerry). Why? Because of a “curse.” Is the curse strong enough to turn his prediction of an Obama victory into a defeat? Emergency sources to contact: Shrum, Mickey Kaus, Joe Klein, palm readers, Ouija boards, and David Gergen.

The Obama Bubble. The dot-coms turned out to be a speculative bubble. Oil turned out to be a bubble. Real estate turned out to be a bubble. The stock market turned out to be a bubble. What if all that Obama support is really a bubble, and his November collapse is really a puncture? What if the nation contracts Obama fatigue? Emergency sources to contact: Daniel Gross, Slate writer and author of Pop: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy; James Pethokoukis; Charles Krauthammer; and David Gergen.

National Security, Domestic Security, and Other October Surprises … A dirty bomb detonates in a swing-state stadium during an NFL game. A Predator missile whacks Osama Bin Laden. Osama Bin Laden whacks New York City. Rezko drops a dime on Obama. Iran tests a bomb. U.S. hostages are taken in Syria. Israel attacks Iran. Jihadists who have seen Dr. Strangelove 15 or 16 timestopple Pakistan. Emergency sources to contact: Peter Bergen, Arianna Huffington, Daniel Benjamin, Henry Kissinger, John Kerry, and David Gergen—if he’s not too busy.


Many thanks to Slate’s Chris Wilson, who did everything but write this piece for me. I worship Wilson but suspect he’s cheating on me with David Gergen. Send Gergen sightings to CNN sightings don’t count. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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