In Friday’s Crikey, Charles Richardson wrote that “there is no longer any doubt about the result of next Tuesday’s election” and Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.

This is a brave call by Charles; bravery should always be applauded and is preferable to being smart after the fact. He believes that while opinion polls show an easy win for the Democrat candidate, the media is talking up a “close contest”, as it did for Australia’s federal election last year.

But I see the opposite: a good, solid opinion poll lead being reported so many times, in so many different ways, with so many different surveys, as to create the impression of a huge one. The amount of polling at this election is phenomenal, but it does not, overall, have Obama in unbeatable territory. It tends to average around six points. (Kevin Rudd’s average vote lead over John Howard during 2007 was usually twice that or more.)

“But wait, there’s more!” we repeatedly read and hear, because Obama is also comfortably ahead of John McCain in the “battleground States”. Or, put another way, he’s leading in many States George W. Bush won in 2000 and 2004! But so he should: he’s ahead in the overall polls. If a comfortable national lead did not translate into leads in most, if not all, “swing States” it would be very strange.

More dramatic are accounts of Obama ahead in some States the Democrats haven’t taken since the Lyndon Johnston landslide of 1964. North Carolina and Virginia fall into this category.

Sounds impressive. But a quick look at the map shows there are others — such as Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia — that Bill Clinton won both in 1992 and 1996 but where Obama trails.

Swings and roundabouts: a six point national lead is just a six point national lead, no matter how often you report it.

All the ingredients favour a Democrat win this year and Obama is a very impressive guy. McCain made a terrible blunder in choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate, in one swoop negating his opponent’s weaknesses on “inexperience” and “celebrity” and his own no-nonsense, serious image. It brought doubts about his judgement and signified that he was a politician after all. Most Americans are scared of the prospect of Palin as president.

But this article end with a whimper and with no brave calls. I reckon Obama will probably win but I’m not sure.

Investing John Howard with superhuman “comeback” electoral powers in November last year was always wishful thinking. But a black man running for US president is uncharted territory.

Opinion polling is an imperfect science, and in America there are many polling variables. As well, that country’s electoral apparatus is the worst in the developed world: under-funded, riddled with partisan control and open to abuse.

And how are the last minute stories of a massive black turnout going down in “middle America”? You don’t have to buy every element of the so-called “Bradley effect” to suspect that when push comes to shove at the ballot box, perhaps — just perhaps — people won’t do what the surveys expect them to.

That six points might disappear.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey