Look at the electoral map with less than two weeks to go, and the picture could hardly look more grim for Sen. John McCain. He's playing defense in a host of states he can't afford to lose — from Florida to Virginia to Indiana — and polls show his options dwindling fast for capturing enough states to reach the necessary 270 electoral votes. But 12 days is still a lot of time, and so far almost nothing about this election has been predictable.
1. The primaries told us something. If there's one thing we learned from those hard-fought party battles, it's that McCain closes strong and Obama doesn't. McCain capitalized on momentum from some early wins to take control of the race by mid February, but Obama followed primary wins with losses and didn't claim the nomination until June. Now, a number of state and national polls show a tightening race.
2. Polls aren't gospel. Question marks on polling this year: hidden racism; the increasing number of Americans refusing to talk to pollsters; the growing number of voters not getting polled because they use only cell phones; how polling models factor in infrequent voters who may not show up on Election Day. On Wednesday, a national Associated Press poll had Obama up by one point, while a Fox News poll had him up nine.
3. Complacency. Obama is relying heavily on big turnout by young voters and other groups who typically don't vote in large numbers. The more that conventional wisdom coalesces around the idea that Obama will win, the less motivated many Obama voters will be to turn out. Hence Obama's mantra lately is to remind supporters about Hillary Rodham Clinton's big upset: "Remember New Hampshire."
4. Pennsylvania. Polls show Obama with a double digit lead in the Keystone State, but the McCain campaign insists Obama is underperforming in key Democratic parts of Pennsylvania and they could eke out a victory. If McCain wins those 21 electoral votes, that could put him in the White House.
5. Obama hasn't closed the sale. Despite his vast advantages in TV and organizational spending in battleground states, many polls show he has not crossed the threshold of 50 percent support. There's every reason to think last-minute deciders could break McCain's way.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8241.