Opinion by Matthew Dowd, ABC News Political Contributor
So, now, with only a few days until the first presidential debate, which is likely to garner record viewership, it seems a good time to take stock of the patterns that have developed and the possible game changers that could still emerge in these final weeks of the election.
As expected, the Palin pop subsided and Obama has retaken a small lead in the race. It seems the equilibrium in this race is Obama leading McCain by a small but formidable few percentage points. Events happen, and then this lead returns. This lead is mainly driven by the generic party advantages the Democrats have this year because of an unpopular administration and voters’ hunger for real change in Washington.
What can change this Obama built-in lead advantage?
First, the events of last week related to the financial meltdown of established institutions could cause this lead to grow, or at least solidify for Obama. Why?
If this race becomes solely about the economy, then Democrats have a huge advantage. They lead Republicans solidly in polling on this issue and that hasn’t changed much in last few months. McCain’s answers about the economy being "fundamentally sound" certainly haven’t helped him when voters are asked to judge if he appreciates what’s going on in their lives.
In addition, in most voters’ minds, last week’s crisis was deserving of collective action by the country and serious government involvement. In recent U.S. political history, when the country is in a collective action mood, Democrats have almost always gained the advantage. When the country is more focused on individual action or responsibility, Republicans usually gain. This desire for government involvement will help the Democrats because voters’ assumptions will be that Democrats are more likely to be good at that.
Yet, the debate on Friday and the other remaining debates could reset the equilibrium of the race and bring McCain to parity or possibly with a lead. But debates could also provide an opportunity for Obama to break the race open and widen his sliver of a lead.
Either outcome depends entirely on each candidate’s ability to connect and perform at the debates. The question will be who will be first to really set the tone? If one significantly falters, then the gameclock on this cycle could be significantly reset. McCain needs a win to overcome Obama’s built in advantage in this race.
I look forward to watching.