AMES, Iowa -- In the final week until election day, Barack Obama leads John McCain in the national polls, as well as those in key battleground states. Iowa State University political scientists say McCain may be running out of time and options that would allow him to rally for victory by Tuesday.
"You know, Sen. McCain can hope that the economy will suddenly turn around, which is not very likely," said Steffen Schmidt, a University Professor of political science at ISU. "That is now his biggest liability and unfortunately, presidential candidates really can't do anything about the economy. They can talk about what they're going to do if they're president. But for McCain now, it's I think to try and develop a consistent message -- and not hit so many different themes, which are apparently confusing voters -- and that's his leadership qualities being greater than Barack Obama's."
McCain's surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate initially brought him up in the polls -- allowing him to briefly pass Obama following the Republican National Convention. But Palin's now become a liability, according to polls showing that the majority of American voters find her unprepared to be president if called upon.
And so the Palin decision may ultimately play a big hand in McCain's election day fate.
"John McCain had a difficult choice in what to do," said Dianne Bystrom, director of ISU's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. "He's made his political life by primarily appealing to independents as a maverick. So what were his choices in this presidential campaign? Does he appeal to the mavericks? Does he appeal to the middle? Does he appeal to those independent voters who have been kind of your bread-and-butter in some of these campaigns? Or does he excite the social conservative base of the party? I think he tried to excite the base of the party with Palin's selection, while still appealing to independents and mavericks."
Expect young voters in record number
The Obama camp is pinning some of its election day hopes on a big voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds -- many of them first-time voters -- who have historically not been the most reliable. But Jim McCormick, professor and chair of political science at Iowa State, predicts this year will be different. He expects voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds to exceed 50 percent.
"The appeal that Obama has been able to strike among the youth is also going to not only get them registered, but turn them out to vote," McCormick said.
Getting young voters to the polls is central to Obama in the final week of the campaign.
"I think the big thing for Obama is that he needs to motivate those young people to turn out," said Bystrom, who conducted research on the Iowa youth vote during the 2004 presidential campaign.
"You also have to consider that even though they're setting record numbers -- they (18- to 28-year-olds) voted at 49 percent in 2004 and that was nine points over 2000 -- but 68 percent of those age 30 and over voted in 2004," she said.
Finding young people and potential new voters has also been problematic for pollsters, making the numbers a bit less reliable.
"This election may be a little different in that if you're an Obama supporter, he may be under-supported because younger supporters might have cell phone-only availability," said Mack Shelley, a University Professor of political science and statistics, who has worked on political polls. "It's a little harder to find those people for your sample if they don't use landlines.
"At the same time, you're much more likely to get women when you're conducting telephone polling than men," he said. "And women generally tend to support Democrats for president. Things like that could easily account for 4 to 5 percentage points in polling differences."
History will be made
And those points may make the difference in the presidential decision Tuesday, when history will be made -- regardless of the outcome.
"No matter who wins, this is going to be an historic election," Schmidt said. "You're going to either have an African-American as president of the United States, which is certainly an enormous accomplishment from where we started -- just in my life experience.
"Or if Sarah Palin becomes vice president and McCain becomes president, you'll have the oldest president and the first woman in American history as vice president," he said. "So, you can't lose this year. This is a great year for benchmarks and landmarks and everybody slapping high fives and saying, 'We did something that has never been done before.'"