John McCain’s candidacy has lost its convention bounce. But it's worse than that. If you look at current polls, McCain looks like he is in serious trouble in states like Virginia and Colorado that he really needs to win in November. If Barack Obama wins Virginia and New Mexico, where he is pretty safely ahead, he need only reproduce John Kerry’s numbers in the other states to be victorious.

Let’s look at two states where Obama was behind, but is now inching ahead. In Virginia, Obama has picked up votes, it appears, primarily from women and college-educated voters. In the Survey USA  poll, Obama went from leading among women by six percent before the Republican convention to leading by 16 percent in the poll taken from Sept. 19 through Sept. 21. In a poll taken right after the Republican convention, Obama and McCain were tied among college graduates.  In the current poll, Obama is ahead by 54 to 43 percent. Many of these voters are concentrated in Northeast Virginia suburbs of Washington DC, where Obama's margin has grown from 16 to 21 percent.

In Colorado, he has picked up votes from Independents, Democrats, and upscale voters.  In Aug. 15-21, before the conventions, Quinnipiac found McCain ahead by 46 to 44 percent among independents. In their current poll, conducted Sept. 14-21, Obama is now ahead by a whopping 51 to 40  percent. Obama’s support among Democrats has increased from 86 to 91 percent  It also increased in the more cosmopolitan, upscale, better educated Denver/Boulder area from 56 to 64 percent. That suggests that the Independents he is attracting are the Democratic-leaning ones from this area rather than the libertarians from the less populated parts of the state.

Clearly, the financial crisis is a factor. But I’d point to two other telltale signs.The first is that McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin to be his vice-president is beginning to backfire. (Amidst all my errors, I’ll take credit for predicting this.) It seems to be a factor in the movement of women and college-educated voters--and of Democrats--back into the Obama column. Quinnipiac asked Colorado voters whom they would prefer as president, Palin or Democratic choice Joe Biden. Men chose Palin by 46 to 44 percent, while women chose Biden by 47 to 37 percent. Independents preferred Biden by 50 to 37 percent and Democrats--presumably including Hillary Clinton backers McCain wanted to attract--by 86 to 4 percent. 32 percent of Independents said the choice of Palin made them less likely to vote for McCain; only 13 percent said the choice of Biden made them less likely to vote for Obama.

The Survey USA and Washington Post-ABC  polls didn’t ask about Virginia voters’ reaction to Palin, but showed the same movement among the same groups as in Colorado. There was, however, another factor that appeared in the Washington Post-ABC poll. There was a change in which candidate Virginia voters thought was “more honest and trustworthy” --from 44 to 38 percent McCain in the poll released Sept. 7 to 43 to 41 percent Obama in the poll released Sept. 21. That could be a result of another McCain strategy backfiring: the rash of ridiculous negative ads, highlighted by the ads claiming that Obama had defamed Palin by taking his statement about “lipstick on a pig” entirely out of context and the ad claiming that he was a supporter of sex education for kindergartners.

As the campaign proceeds, it is hard to see how McCain can undo these two mistakes. He can’t get rid of Palin. And his campaign staff, drawn from the same people who defamed him in the 2000 South Carolina primary, will be tempted to run even more scurrilous ads in order to slow Obama’s momentum. 

--John B. Judis