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Comparing 1996 And 2008

If you want to start worrying about the presidential election this year, you can look at the comparison between 1996 and 2008. John McCain is a similar candidate to Bob Dole--a war hero, running on his experience, but also somewhat past his political prime. The Democrats had the advantage of incumbency in 1996,  but of course Bill Clinton had been rebuked by voters in 1994. In July 1996, Democrats only enjoyed a 5.1 percent advantage in generic congressional polls. Yet in late July, Clinton was ahead of Dole in one Harris poll by 22 percent and in a Gallup poll by 17 percent. Although Dole would close the gap during the convention and the last weeks of the campaign--when the Clinton campaign scandals broke--the election was all but over.

In 2008, McCain is running about as inept a campaign as Dole. And Democrats enjoy an average lead of 11.6 percent in generic Congress polls. In addition, the Republican administration is wildly unpopular; the economy is in a tailspin; and the Iraqi president has endorsed Barack Obama's withdrawal plan. Yet Obama is only running an average of 4.5 percent ahead of McCain in the polls, and as Nate Silver recounts below, is losing ground in some critical state polls. Is it the fact that McCain has run more ads in the last months? Perhaps--in 1996, Clinton was already inundating the airwaves--but Obama is catching up with McCain in ads this month. That couldn't be the entire or even principal explanation.

American Adam

I'm not just making a comment about the polls. I think that the Obama campaign needs to ignore the pundits who have already declared him the winner. He is the favorite because of the Democratic tailwind behind him, but he could easily lose even to the latest version of Bob Dole. He probably should be following Clinton's example and flooding the airwaves. And he should not get too cocky in choosing a vice president. He may have to pick someone who is not to his liking, but who can make sure he carries states like Michigan and Pennsylvania and give him a better than average chance in Ohio and Florida.

John B. Judis