Friday, October 24, 2008

Florida Still in Play and the "Biltmore Effect"

McCain-Palin signs on a rainy day in Florida, and the Arizona Biltmore, about the time of its opening in 1929.

A new Mason-Dixon poll, released this week, shows Republican Presidential candidate John McCain leading Democratic candidate Barak Obama 46 percent to 45 percent in the crucial state of Florida. With a margin of error plus-or-minus four percent, it means Florida remains a dead heat. Until this week, all the election polls so far showed Obama with a lead over McCain in Florida.

Florida is an historically Republican state. But as the ballot debacle of the year 2000 suggests: a tight race in Florida is not out of the question. McCain’s strongest showing in the new poll is in what is known in Florida as the I-4 corridor, the area between Tampa on the Gulf Coast, and Daytona Beach on the Atlantic, where Interstate-4 slices through the state. The new poll shows McCain leading Obama 47 percent to 44 percent in this central part of Florida. Since McCain must win Florida to win in the Electoral College, this new poll is a bit of good news for Republicans.

Of more concern, should be a tiny item stuck in a tiny corner of this morning’s paper: John McCain’s press staff has told reporters that he won’t be making a statement at the big election night party being held for him at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. He’ll be giving his statement at a press site on the lawn of the hotel. The McCain staff noted difficulties with the size of the room in which the event is being held, but you don’t have to have the nose of a bloodhound to suspect that something about this announcement has a distinctive odor to it. The tracking polls must be showing McCain’s staff that he will be losing on election night and thus McCain is planning to make a quick concession statement on the lawn and then go home to bed (he’s 72 after all and probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in months); or that the election is going to be too close to call so he will avoid making any statement until all the votes are counted, when the sun will be rising over the Arizona Biltmore and the party inside will long be over.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, but it is one of the most interesting hotels in America. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, and opened in 1929, it has all the weird and wonderful marks of a Wright Building: striated cement blocks, geometric angles, flat-ish roof lines and strange water features. Because it is an historic landmark, there have been limits placed on how the building can be modified, so there is an outside chance—pretty far outside if you ask not Joe-the-plumber but Robin-the-reporter—that some combination of room size and candidate stubbornness may be at play. It is possible.

But above and beyond the polls being released by the media, each campaign has its own much more detailed polling organizations. They know exactly how many votes they will need in specific precincts in specific swing states, exactly how voter turnout will impact their candidate and they have a very good idea, long before election night, what the election is going to look like. Thus the announcement from the McCain camp about the election night party is much more significant than it looks. Along with the so-called “Bradley Effect” in this presidential election (that voters don't always tell pollsters the truth when an African-American candidate is in the race), we might also find ourselves remembering the “Biltmore Effect.” Which means, if a candidate begins to act squirrely about his election night party, something definitely is up.

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