Posted on November 03, 2008 in Washington Watch

You are reading this just hours before the conclusion of the longest and costliest campaign in American history. Every national poll shows Democratic candidate Barack Obama with a comfortable lead, as do polls in most key battleground states the candidate must carry in order to secure the 270 electoral votes needed to win the election. Obama currently leads in every state won by John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000. He is also ahead of his Republican opponent, John McCain, in Virginia, Florida, Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa and New Mexico – states that Bush won in 2000 or 2004. Signs, therefore, point to an Obama victory.

Another metric pointing in the direction of a clear Democratic sweep is one I have written about before, American University Professor Allan Lichtman’s “13 Keys.” The keys represent mega-trends that define the political landscape in any election. Developed in 1981, Lichtman’s approach was derived from an analysis of every U.S. election from 1860 to 1980, and he has used it to correctly predict the outcome of every Presidential contest since then (1984-2004). In this model at least eight of the thirteen mega-trends must work in favor of the party currently holding the White House for that party to win the election. Earlier in this election I generously gave John McCain seven keys – still one short of victory. But I recently had Professor Lichtman on my Abu Dhabi TV show, “Viewpoint,” where he said that his analysis now only gives McCain five, causing him to predict a Reagan-style 1980 Democratic sweep for Obama.

So much for the polls and the “Keys” because, all that being said, there are imponderables to consider that could determine the outcome on election day.

1) The role of race: Dirty tricks abound, with emails, fliers, and automated phone calls spreading fear and outright bigotry among some white voters. Clearly, Obama has won near-unanimous support among black voters and more than two-thirds of Hispanic voters (incidentally and interestingly, two-thirds of both Arab American and American Jewish voters, as well), but the question remains whether or not there will be a white backlash, which is the outcome this negative campaigning seeks to promote.

2) Turnout: It is anticipated that this election will produce the largest voter turnout in recent history; but who will turn out and vote on election day? Even though there have been large numbers of early voters, will the record number of young, black, Hispanic, and new voters registered by Democrats actually come to the polls and vote? If their numbers are large, Obama will win; but if they only vote at traditional levels, the contest could be closer.

3) Voter intimidation and suppression: There is concern that possible record turnouts could overwhelm inadequate preparation and capacity in some states (leading to six hour long lines and thousands becoming frustrated and leaving the polls before voting, as they did in 2004). Some jurisdictions have indicated that police will be deployed to polling locales where turnout is expected to be heavy. Since many of these are in African American neighborhoods, will this discourage some voters from turning out? And, if there is frustration leading to disturbances or unrest, will this also discourage late voters from going to the polls?

4) Technical problems: After the fiascos of the 2000 and 20004 elections, the weaknesses in our electoral system have been exposed. Some problems have been corrected, but many remain. Already, for example, there have been troubling reports from early voters in some states who have found that the touch-screen system recorded their vote for Obama as a vote for McCain. The massive number of new voter registrations may present additional problems, and the voter rolls, themselves, may prove problematic. Mistakes in the recording of new names, and newly-instituted changes in requirements for voting (showing ID cards and requiring an exact name match, etc.) may result in many voters receiving “provisional ballots,” which may not be counted until after the courts have ruled on the legitimacy of the new requirements.

With all this being said, if you will be following the results on election night, here is what to watch for:

1) Turnout and ease of voting: If the turnout is large in metropolitan areas and in college towns (traditional Democratic strongholds), and if the voting runs more or less smoothly, that will be a good sign for Democrats. If, on the other hand, the turnout is normal (despite early voting), or if there are reports of unrest causing some voters to stay away, then the outcome may be less certain.

2) As the states begin to report their results, here’s what to look for: Since McCain must hold all of the states normally won by Republicans (“Red” states) or win Pennsylvania (the only “Blue”/Democratic state he is currently contesting) if Pennsylvania goes to Obama, and if Obama also wins any one of the previously “Red” states of Florida, Virginia or Ohio, the election will be clearly his. Victory, for Obama, in these states would indicate a trend that could also carry over into other red states, namely Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico.

As the famous malapropism of baseball player Yogi Berra would say it, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” We’ll be watching Tuesday night.

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