There is, however, one peculiarity to advertising for political campaigns, which is that states differ in their electoral importance, and that some fraction of Americans -- I would guess about 10 percent -- have their TV originate from a different state. To reach Northern New Jersey, for instance, you'd have to run advertisements in New York, wasting money on viewers whose votes will make no difference in the electoral math. It's these bleeds and overlaps in the nation's 210 Designated Market Areas that account for most of the difference in the de facto cost of targeting voters in particular states.
With that in mind, let's review the advertising situation in the 22 most important states as according to our tipping point ratings. I have assigned each state an 'Efficiency Rating' from 0 to 10 based on the forgivingness of its particular geography. You can also view maps of each state's media markets by clicking on that state's name.
1. Ohio. A great state to advertise in. Ohio's markets generally bleed into other states rather than the other way around, and the bleeding isn't much. Also, the number of markets is a plus: there are 12 different ones covering every corner of the state, making it easier to target swing voters. Efficiency Rating: 9.
2. Michigan. Another pretty clean state; about 98 percent of Michiganders get their TV from markets originating within the state. The biggest logistical annoyance is that the Detroit market covers both the very poor inner city, and the very wealthy collar suburbs; you'll generally be more interested in reaching the former than the latter, but will have to pay to do both. But advertising time in Detroit is quite cheap, rendering this somewhat moot. Efficiency Rating: 8.
3. Pennsylvania. The problematic market is Philadelphia, which also covers about half of New Jersey's geography and most of Delaware's. There are also six counties on the periphery of the map that get their TV from a neighboring state. Efficiency Rating: 6.
4. Colorado. Extremely straightforward, although the Denver market reaches substantial portions of Wyoming and Nebraska. Efficiency Rating: 9.
5. Virginia. Total mess. To reach Northern Virginia, you absolutely have to buy up Washington DC (only ABC has a subregional station in Virginia proper). But then you're also paying to reach eyeballs in Maryland and in DC itself, which you have no interest in whatsoever. Washington DC is the most problematic market in the country in this sense, since Maryland and Virginia will rarely be competitive in the same election. Also, the panhandle area in Western Virginia gets its TV from Tennessee, but TV is so cheap there that that isn't really a problem. Efficiency Rating: 3.
6. Iowa. Some overlaps, but not bad. The main issue is the Council Bluffs region in the southwest corner of the state, which gets its TV from Omaha. However, since the electoral vote in Omaha's congressional district is up for grabs this year, that is not really a problem at all. Efficiency Rating: 8.
7. Wisconsin. Another very good state -- importantly, the Chicago market does not bleed into Wisconsin at all. You do lose a few counties to Minneapolis and Duluth, but they are not very populous. Efficiency Rating: 9.
8. Indiana. About 20-25 percent of the state gets its TV from Chicago. It's hard to imagine that purchase being worth it, and I certainly do not recall seeing any Obama or Clinton ads here in Chicago in the run-up to the primaries (although I also do not watch a lot of local TV). Cincinnati and Louisville also present problems in the Southern portion of the state, although since you'll be advertising in Cincinnati anyway, the latter isn't such a issue. Efficiency Rating: 4.
9. New Mexico. Most of it is just one huge market covering Albuquerque and Santa Fe. A handful of counties are covered by Texas, but this is not a major problem. Efficiency Rating: 8.
10. Florida. Pretty favorable terrain, although TV time tends to be quite expensive in Florida. The only real challenge from a geographical standpoint is that Pensacola overlaps with Mobile, AL. Efficiency Rating: 8.
11. Oregon. Extremely straightforward, and smaller cities like Bend and Eugene have their own markets, making targeting easier. You do lose one county apiece to Boise, ID and Spokane, WA, but that's easy enough to live with either way. Efficiency Rating: 9.
12. New Jersey. Why does it seem like politicians from New Jersey -- like Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg -- are always rich? Because it's completely impossible to advertise in New Jersey cheaply. The top half of the state is covered by New York and the bottom half by Philadelphia. That's it -- there are no markets that are native to the state, and both New York and Philly are horrifically expensive. For this reason, I would not expect the McCain campaign to make any sort of cute play for New Jersey. Efficiency Rating: 0.
13. Missouri. All but two counties get their TV from inside Missouri, but the St. Louis market bleeds quite a bit into southern Illinois, and naturally Kansas City bleeds into Kansas. Efficiency Rating: 7.
14. New Hampshire. Looks worse than it is. Technically speaking, 84 percent of New Hampshire's population is covered by the Boston market, and the rest by Maine or Vermont. But there is a bit of a market-within-a-market, as both ABC and NBC have New Hampshire-based affiliates, whose very existence might owe itself to New Hampshire's importance in presidential politics. Efficiency Rating: 4.
15. Nevada. Almost perfect. Three eastern counties get their TV from Salt Lake City, but nobody lives out there. Efficiency Rating: 9.
16. Minnesota. Only minor problems; parts of the state get their TV from North Dakota, South Dakota or Wisconsin, whereas the Minneapolis market bleeds into Wisconsin. However, since both Wisconsin and North Dakota should also be in play this year, you don't mind reaching those eyeballs. Efficiency Rating: 8.
17. North Carolina. The western quarter of the state shares its TV with South Carolina, Tennessee or Georgia, and much of the Inner Banks from Virginia. But these are manageable concerns. Efficiency Rating: 7.
18. North Dakota. Couldn't be much simpler, as the state's population is about evenly divided between the Bismarck and Fargo markets. Fargo overlaps a bit into Minnesota and Bismarck into Montana, which are the only things preventing a perfect score. Efficiency Rating: 9.
19. Montana. Not only is TV time very cheap out here, but you can be picky and choosy, with six distinct markets originating in Montana, and just a few tiny overlaps to worry about. Efficiency Rating: 9.
20. Delaware. It's a little odd that Delaware is showing up on the swing state list, but it hasn't been polled in forever, producing more uncertainty around our estimate. But the fact is that if the campaigns are advertising in Philadelphia, they are covering two of Delaware's three counties anyway. The third Delaware county, Sussex, gets its TV from Maryland. Efficiency Rating: 2.
21.Washington. Very simple. Five counties are covered by Portland, Oregon, but if you're advertising in Washington, you're probably advertising in Oregon anyway. Efficiency Rating: 9.
22. Alaska. Finally, our first perfect score. Because of its geographic isolation, there is no overlap between markets in Alaska and those in any other state. Efficiency Rating: 10.
So to sum up, the big problem is in New Jersey, where the lack of native TV markets completely alter the political dynamics of the state. Other challenges are presented by Indiana, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Oh, and Delaware, if you ever felt the need to target it.
As I hinted yesterday, the amount of variance in each simulation run now differs from state to state. There are actually two different components to this. The first is how responsive a state is to national trends. We had already figured out a way how to estimate this. However, we now apply it specifically to each simulation. For example, let's say that New Hampshire polls move 120 percent as much as national polls. If in simulation #3,268, Obama's national trend has moved downward by 5 points, New Hampshire's polls will move 120 percent that much, or down 6 points. If in simulation #7,008, Obama's national trend has moved upward by 10 points, New Hampshire's polls will move up by12 points. It's as simple (or as complicated) as that.
Separately, however, there is also a question of how much variation there is within a given state's polling, period. You could have a state where the polls are relatively uncorrelated with national trends, but where the polls nevertheless seem to fluctuate wildly, marching somewhat to their own drummer. The way we account for this type of variance is to take the standard deviation across all polls conducted in a state after having stripped out the national trendline. Then, we run our demographic regression against these standard deviations to see whether anything systematic seems to be driving the amount of volatility in a given state's polling. It turns out that there are a few such things: variance tends to be lower in states with large numbers of African-Americans, for instance, but higher in states with large numbers of elderly voters.
The most important implication of this is that the polls are liable to be more stubborn in the Deep South (excluding Florida) than they are elsewhere in the country. So even though Obama has whittled down McCain's lead to the single digits in states like Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina, those are going to be tough points for him to make up. On the other hand, the polls have been quite volatile in Appalachia, where you have a lot of conflicted, downscale voters who are not particularly fond of either of these candidates. So, even though we show McCain with the same 8-point lead in both Georgia and West Virginia, our model gives him a 91 percent chance of hanging on to win Georgia, but just a 75 percent chance of winning West Virginia.
You will notice, by the way, that this second adjustment doesn't distinguish between cases where the polls vary a lot over time, and cases where they vary a lot at the *same* time (as they do in Florida right now, for instance). That's perfectly okay, because both things increase our degree of uncertainty about exactly what's going to happen in November.
Lastly, I have swapped out a couple of variables in the 538 regression analysis. The 'partisan' variable has been replaced by a liberal-conservative Likert scale for each state drawn from 2004 exit polling. This seems to provide slightly more unique information to the model than the partisan ID index, particularly as partisan identification tends to change more quickly over time than one's political philosophy. I have also added a variable for Hillary Clinton's performance in the primaries (the results from caucus states are adjusted). Yes, all else being equal, Obama does worse where Hillary had done better.
p.s. Happy 232nd birthday, America!
Let's agree up front that if Edwards were offered the #2 slot and took it, the notion of canceling the event with Rove would not be any big deal. Telling the university and obviously interested media that he regretfully needs to focus on VP stuff, and perhaps finding a stand-in to keep the event(s) viable, is an excuse everyone would obviously accept. And it seems highly unlikely Obama would want Rove getting clean shots at his VP, so the cancellation of said debate(s) would seem automatic.
Still, Republicans would carpet the airwaves for a day, asking, "What's John Edwards afraid of? Just because he's the VP candidate he can't still debate Karl Rove? Why are Obama and Edwards afraid? (Blah blah blah "Democrat Party" national security here)." Why give away cheap, freebie points like this? Why even waste the energy having surrogates point out how silly it is and even one day of controlling the message?
If you're standing in John Edwards' shoes, and let's say you want the #2 offer, is accepting this kind of commitment five weeks before the general election more or less an indication that you're clearing your schedule for the fall? It can be argued that if the unwritten rules require you to appear publicly disinterested in the post, this commitment signals excellent blasé-itude.
But what to make of the snippet that this may not be an individual event, but part of a series?
As surrogates for the parties’ standard bearers, the two also could square off more than once at other locations around the nation.Committing to a series of high-profile and sure to be much-discussed debates with Karl Rove is a great way to stay important in the Democratic Party; it's also a telegraphed sign that Edwards knows the answer to whether he'll be the pick.
“We’re working on something like that for our Distinguished Speakers Series,” said Bill Regan, UB’s director of special events. “We’re not really sure of the format yet. But we do think they are scheduled to do it at least once together before they come to UB.”
Have a safe and happy 4th!
'Tipping Point States' are those states that tip the outcome of the election from one candidate to the other. In each simulation run, the states are lined up from best to worst for each candidate. The states are marked off sequentially until the candidate reaches 270 electroal votes. The state responsible for putting the candidate over the top to 270 electoral votes is the tipping point state for that simulation run.Naturally, Tipping Point States are usually going to be those associated with large electoral vote counts. It's much more likely that a state like Pennsylvania, which has 21 electoral votes, will make the difference between winning and losing the election than something like Montana, which has 3. The goal of the Tipping Point States metric is to balance which states are closest to the median of the electorate with the value of each state in the Electoral College -- and it generally comes up with pretty intuitive results.
However, it is not necessarily the case that the states with the highest Tipping Point number will represent the best return on investment for the candidate. While Pennsylvania is more likely to swing the election than Montana, it is also many times more expensive. Of course, a campaign will still want to invest more in Pennsylvania than it does in Montana in the aggregate. But which state is better on a dollar-per-dollar basis?
To get at this, what we can do is divide a state's Tipping Point percentage by its population (more specifically, it's eligible voter population). What this implicitly assumes is that the expense of competing in a state is proportional to its eligible voter population. Strictly speaking, this is not true, especially when it comes to television buys, where there are a lot of idiosyncrasies related to the geography of different TV markets (something I'll be writing more about in the near future). But it's a reasonably safe and neutral assumption for our purposes here.
This calculation produces a ratio, whose value is meaningless in the abstract, but which can be compared to the ratio in the country as a whole (in other words, we're taking the ratio of the ratios). The ratio figures, for instance, that a dollar spent in Pennsylvania is about 3.5 times more likely to influence the outcome of the election than one spent in the nation as a whole. This is what we call the "Return on Investment Index". Which states have the highest ROIs?
The top state is New Mexico, which produces an ROI almost 6 times higher than the nation at large. Why New Mexico? We project it to be very close to the median of the electorate. Right now, we are predicting a 2.7-point victory for Barack Obama in New Mexico, versus a 3.7-point victory in the national popular vote. Strictly speaking, the states that deserve the most attention are not those that are closest at any given moment, but rather those that are closest to the national average. If, say, Barack Obama has built a 12-point lead in August, you will probably start to see some weird things like Mississippi being a toss-up. But that doesn't mean the Obama campaign should at that point begin to invest heavily in Mississippi, because the only time the decision to invest in an individual state matters is when the election is close. If that hypothetical 12-point lead in August reverted back to a 1-point lead in October -- the only contingency that matters, it is very likely that Mississippi would no longer be one of the closer states. Likewise, even though Obama has a "safe" lead in Pennsylvania now, he cannot stop campaigning there (nor can McCain), because if the election tightens, Pennsylvania is liable to be within a couple of points.
The other small advantage in an investment in New Mexico is that small states have more electoral votes per eligible voter: New Mexico offers one electoral vote for every 274,000 eligible voters, whereas Pennsylvania offers one per 449,000.
Overall, the map suggests a slightly more defensive-minded resource allocation strategy than the one that the Obama campaign is employing currently. It doesn't look like states like Oregon and Iowa are going to be all that close now, for instance, but it also doesn't look like the election is going to be all that close; if the polls tighten, they may be vulnerable. At the same time, the calculation validates the Obama campaign's decision to put resources into states like North Dakota (which ranks 10th by this metric), Montana (14th) and Alaska (17th). By contrast, Florida ranks just 25th. It's running about 6 points behind Obama's national averages, and it's extremely expensive to compete in.
Sixty-one percent of voters believe that McCain has changed his mind for political reasons; 37 percent do not. Fifty-nine percent of voters believe that Obama also shifts positions with the political winds; 38 percent do not.I'm moderately surprised that McCain's number is as high as it is, since the media has tended not to highlight his flip-flops. I'm not one of those people, by the way, that thinks the media is constantly biased in John McCain's direction. I think Obama gets more of the bad from the media, but also more of the good.
That's a change from 2004, according to Holland. “One of the reasons President Bush won reelection in 2004 was that only one-third of voters believed he would change his policy positions because of changing political dynamics. Most voters, on the other hand, believed that John Kerry was a flip-flopper.”
But in any event, this underscores one of the points I had made before: John McCain is not seen as having the higher ground on the flip-flops issue in the same way that George W. Bush was. Nor is it clear that being labeled as a flip-flopper is necessarily some kind of death-knell for Obama (or McCain for that matter): both candidates were regarded favorably in this poll overall.
That's not to say there isn't any danger on this point to Barack Obama. I think his flip-flop numbers will go up some, and I think that might harm his approval numbers by a point or two. On balance, however, I tend to side with Noam Schieber: John Kerry's problem wasn't that people saw him as a flip-flopper, it's that people saw him as sort of a poseur. Likewise, with Mitt Romney, the flip-flop label really stuck in the primaries -- partly because Romney has changed his positioning on a lot of issues (there's a fascinating argument that Romney could have won the primaries if he'd run as a competent, moderate reformer) -- but also because people just don't like the guy.
Another difference with John Kerry is that he committed a gaffe that compounded his reputation for flip-flopping: namely, by saying the words "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it". A flip-flop is not a gaffe; it is the opposite of a gaffe, something done intentionally with an eye toward improving one's electoral standing. But Kerry's sloppy phrasing was a gaffe, and one of the more damaging utterances since "Read My Lips: No New Taxes".
Finally, Kerry's alleged flip-flop on the Iraq War was not toward the center, but toward the left. It's harder to criticize a candidate when they're taking on a position that is more in line with your own. Moreover, it appeared as though Kerry had been opportunistic twice over: first in voting for the war in the first place, when most of the mainline liberals in the Senate hadn't --and then by reversing his position later on.
It would, obviously, be premature to conclude that Obama is the favorite in Montana. Our regression model still thinks that the state ought to favor McCain by about 6 points, and will probably maintain that opinion until we see some other good results for Obama in (i) traditionally red states or (ii) states out West. Thus far, Obama's bounce had come mostly in blue and purple states east of the Mississippi, which is why this result is surprising.
But there are two things I think we can make of it. Firstly, it certainly validates Obama'a decision to campaign in North Dakota today. If you'll recall, Obama has already spent several days in Montana. Yes, that was nominally in connection with the state's Democratic primary, but at that point Obama was already 80 percent of the way to general election mode. While I don't think Obama is the odds-on favorite to win Montana, he very probably is the favorite if he runs a campaign there and McCain doesn't.
Secondly, we're seeing a bit of a cultural divide in Montana between cultural conservatives who have resided there for a long time, more libertarianish folks who have resided there for a long time, and new migrants who like the cheap land and beautiful scenery and bring more of a West Coast mentality to the state. In this poll, Obama leads by 27 points among Montanans who rarely or never attend church, and by 20 points among people who attend occasionally, but trails by roughly the same margins among people that go to church at least a few times a month.
A couple other polls out today too. In Rhode Island, which also hadn't been polled in a long time, Obama leads by 28 points in a Rhode Island College survey. This is not a surprise considering his recent results in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Speaking of which, there is yet another poll out in Connecticut, this one by Research 2000 on behalf of Daily Kos, which shows a 22-point lead for Obama (and suggests that Joe Lieberman would lose to Ned Lamont if that matchup were held today). Finally, a Strategies 360 poll in Washington has Obama ahead by 8.
n.b. Edited for maturity.
From among this group, the most annoying omission is North Dakota, which Obama is visiting today and may actually hope to compete in. For good measure, it's probably also worth polling South Dakota. As to the rest of these states -- it's fairly obvious in which direction they're going to go, although Maryland is very bourgie and would therefore be helpful for calibrating demographics, and it's surprising that Illinois, which has the fifth-largest population in the country, has been polled so little when California and New York have been polled so much.
For the time being, however, what we're going to do is establish a requirement that the highest-rated poll in each state will be assigned a minimum weight of 0.25, with any other polls in that state calibrated to that number. This is admittedly a little ad-hoc, but all it's doing is affecting the extent to which we weight the polling as opposed to the regression, which was an ad-hoc decision to begin with. It doesn't feel right to completely ignore polling that has taken place in a state when that polling is the best thing we have, even if that polling is a little (or a lot) out of date.
This precedent will also be applied to our Senate polling numbers, where it is somewhat more consequential, as some Senate races are polled quite rarely.
Courtesy of Pew, we learn that Democrats are following news about this presidential race much more closely than Republicans. Since the start of the campaign, Pew has tracked the percentage of partisans and independents following campaign news “very closely.” As July 2008 opens, this index shows its widest gap since Pew began tracking: 52% (of Ds) to 28% (of Rs), a near double-up.
This is a fascinating chart. Three things jump out. One, the intensely competitive race began to climax interest-wise in late February with the onset of “Shame on You Barack Obama!” and Clinton’s drama-laden Kitchen Sink Strategy.
Two, for all of the initial hit from Kitchen Sink Strategy drama, for all the Jeremiah Wright and Bittergate controversies that began in mid-March and which captured the media’s collective breath, the "very close" public interest dropped sharply (10-15% across the board).
Three, the single most interesting time for Republican voters, to date, occurred not when John McCain won the nomination battle but when Obama and Clinton were going at it hot and heavy in the roughly ten-day runup to the March 4 primaries.
This final point has to be troubling and underscores the rationale behind the shakeup in the McCain camp yesterday. Whichever guilty party you want to blame it on – historic and dynamic Obama/Clinton campaigns, the “liberal media” obstinately refusing to report on McCain, lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for what their own party hath wrought, McCain himself for his gruntychucklish “that’s not change you can believe in!” lime-green delivery – the fact that the window of McCain’s own nomination win (mid-30s) was far less attention-capturing for Republicans than Obama v. Clinton for the March 4 runup (mid-40s) cannot be spun both positively and persuasively.
To win, McCain needs big Republican turnout to compete with the expected big Democratic turnout. He can’t rely solely on antipathy toward Obama. He has to inspire his own base, and he can’t do that if his base finds Democratic drama is 25-30% more riveting than him winning the nomination. For a game-changing move in the numbers, McCain needs game-changing messaging.
If there is any comfort for McCain partisans out of the chart, maybe it’s that there’s still room for Obama to be defined in the minds of less-attentive Republicans (and independents, who generally track with Republicans by this measure), particularly if the Republican base is not yet tuned into "campaign news." Underground smears, though not officially owned by the campaign, will certainly be a part of it. Just the other day an otherwise sweet girl solemnly informed me that Obama was secretly only “8.25% black.” (Yes, that is one-12.1212121212th black, for those scoring at home.) But something tells me the dissatisfied public right track/wrong track mood is going to dwarf the traction of smears. If I were a Republican, I wouldn’t feel comfortable betting on the smears.
Perhaps the most significant lesson Pew's chart teaches us is that Kitchen Sink attacks and "controversy" depress "very close" attention across the board. Counterintuitively for those who voraciously consume political news and have an emotional investment in the outcome, just when it seems like everything is becoming Urgent with a capital U because of some particular story, that very well may be when the aggregate of millions are tuning out.
But a quick sampling of what visiting a state like North Dakota can do for you: check out this editorial from the Fargo Forum, which endorsed George W. Bush in 2004:
[North Dakota] hasn’t gone for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. It’s been reliably “red” in presidential contests for 40 years. The suggestion that the state is taking on a shade of purple – it could go either way – seems ludicrous, especially to Republican faithful who can’t conceive of North Dakotans tilting blue.
Well, that’s what Republicans thought about New Hampshire, where Bill Clinton won twice, where Sen. John Kerry won in 2004 and where George W. Bush won by a thin single point in 2000 over Al Gore. The state’s Democratic governor won re-election in 2006 with a whopping 74 percent of the vote.
Political winds change.
North Dakota is not New Hampshire, but at least one public poll and several “internal” polls suggest Obama has a chance to beat McCain in the Peace Garden State. The polls are intriguing because they are the first indications that North Dakota’s 40-year Republican grip on presidential politics is not as strong as it once was. Not weak, mind you, but not a guarantee.
If Obama can challenge in a state that’s gone for the Republican candidate since 1964, he can challenge anywhere.
State Republican Party officials tend to dismiss Obama’s appeal to North Dakotans. But remember, these are the same people who endorse congressional candidates [...] who rarely get an anemic 30 percent of the vote against Democratic incumbents. These are the same people who grudgingly support Gov. John Hoeven only because he’s wildly popular; some of them believe he’s not “Republican enough.” Their analysis of Obama’s chances is partisan boilerplate.
No one should conclude that Obama has a lock on North Dakota. He certainly does not. But given the surprises in this year’s presidential campaign, it would be unwise to assume McCain has the lock. That’s the dynamic the Obama campaign senses, and that’s one reason he’s in North Dakota today.
They're almost daring McCain: Go ahead. Take us for granted. See what happens. Also, note the reference to internal polls showing a competitive race.
"Suggests the McCain camp could be worried Obama has a shot in the historically Red state"The McCain camp could be worried that Obama has a shot? I could be worried that I'll have to pay taxes next year. Obama leads in all three recent public polls of the state (albeit by tiny margins). The state has a popular Democratic governor and a popular Democratic senator, and will soon have a second, because the best candidate the GOP could recruit against Mark Warner was Jim Gilmore, who was last seen sitting at the Tancredo/Brownback table at the Republican Debate afterparty. The good thing about a staff shake-up is that it can give you an excuse to swallow your pride and do some things that an underdog needs to do -- like playing defense in Virginia.
EDIT: After reading Jonathan Martin's description of the McCain campaign's shake-up, it's a bit harder to attribute this decision specifically to Schmidt, since the official line out of Crystral City is that Schmidt is responsible for communications and message control, while Rick Davis retains responsibility for strategy. That may be being said out of politeness to Davis, though. At the very least, there was a certain nonchalance in the way that Davis had been handling the campaign that this decision marks a reversal from.
There are two new polls out in Connecticut. Quinnipaic has Obama leading by 21 points, and Rasmussen has him ahead by 17. In the previous editions of those polls, Obama held leads of 17 and 3 points, respectively. The 3-pointer from Rasmussen might have been partially responsible for The McCain campaign's insistence that Connecticut was a toss-up, but it was the only poll conducted since the new year to have shown McCain within single digits of Obama in Connecticut.
Perhaps the more important news out of the state, however, is that Joe Liberman's approval ratings have fallen to 45 percent. A rating that low is relatively unprecedented for a Senator who was just re-elected 20 months ago and has not had a major scandal befall him. The piece of longer-term fallout from this is that we might now expect Liberman to try and make good with the Democrats if Barack Obama becomes President, figuring that he'll have four years to rehabilitate his reputation. Whether the Democrats would welcome him back is another question, but frankly I'd expect them to be so giddy if they won the Presidency that they might be in a generous mood. If John McCain becomes President, on the other hand, Lieberman had better hope that McCain has a 60 percent or better approval rating by the time they both come up for reelection in 2012.
In Massachusetts, Rasmussen has Barack Obama up by 20; that's up from 13 a month ago. And in New York, Rasmussen has his lead reaching 31 points -- it was a 19-point lead in late May.
So what's that little something these polls tell us? Whatever else the consequences of Obama's perceived shift to the center, it certainly hasn't cost him among the Democratic base.
Henceforth, we will be accounting for population growth, by using the current Voting Eligible Population estimates determined by George Mason University, and assuming that the same proportion of the eligible population will turn out in each state as did in 2004.
This is by no means the fanciest assumption we could make. There seems to be a pretty clear relationship, for instance, between how close a state is, and what turnout winds up being. We'll likely see much better turnout in Indiana this year, for example, since whether or not the state remains a dead-heat in the polling, it will certainly be much closer than it was in 2004.
But whereas those things are somewhat speculative, the basic demographic reality on the ground is not. States like Texas and Arizona have gained substantially in population since 2004, whereas Louisiana has lost it as a result of Hurricane Katrina. It is straightforward to account for these things.
As most of the population growth is concentrated in red states, this change winds up boosting John McCain's projected share of the popular vote by about four-tenths of a percentage point. However, the way the model is designed, it should not really change the projected electoral vote much at all. It does though reinforce the idea that John McCain is more likely to win the popular vote and lose the election rather than the other way around.
The culprit is this piece from the Washington Post, which alleges that Barack Obama received a "discount" on his 30-year home mortgage when he purchased his house in Hyde Park in 2005. Obama's mortgage rate was 5.625 percent; the Washington Post cites databases stating that the average rate on comparable properties was 5.93 percent.
So Obama's rate was 30 basis points better than the average. However, the amount of the loan and the nature of the property are not the only factors that determine a mortgage rate. Another major consideration is the creditworthiness of the borrower. According to current rate quotes from myFICO.com, a borrower with very good credit can expect a mortgage rate about 30 basis points better than someone with pretty good credit, and a borrower with excellent credit can expect about a 50 basis point discount.
Unless the Washington Post has access to Obama's FICO score -- and unless it has rented an apartment to him, it probably doesn't -- it is missing a pretty important piece of information on what Obama's mortgage rate ought to have been. What was Obama's FICO score? I don't know, but considering that...
* Obama had just gotten a $2.27 million book deal from Random House -- about $1 million more than the value of the mortgage.
* The Obamas each had exceptionally secure jobs that paid them a combined annual salary of about $500,000 per year.
* The Obamas had just sold their condo, on which they had realized a $137,500 profit.
* The Obamas were prominent public figures whose political futures depended in part on maintaining a reputation for responsibility and trustworthiness.
* The Obamas are known to be relatively thrifty and have no credit card debt but substantial savings.
...I would think that the Obamas were exceptionally creditworthy. So indeed, Obama received a "discount" -- the same discount that any borrower in his position would have received.
And, yes, I apologize for being a little off-subject (and running three media-bashing pieces in a row), but one of the things that ties together my work over here and my work at Baseball Prospectus is that I want the media to be smarter and more accountable when they cite statistical information, be it mortgage rates or polling numbers or batting averages. This article was neither smart nor accountable. It's the equivalent of noting that Alex Rodriguez has a batting average 40 points better than the league average, and using that to infer that the umpires were biased in his favor.
From the National Council On Public Polls:
Certainly, if the gap between the two candidates is less than the sampling error margin, you should not say that one candidate is ahead of the other. You can say the race is "close," the race is "roughly even," or there is "little difference between the candidates." But it should not be called a "dead heat" unless the candidates are tied with the same percentages. And it certainly is not a “statistical tie” unless both candidates have the same exact percentages.From CNN:
And just as certainly, when the gap between the two candidates is equal to or more than twice the error margin – 6 percentage points in our example – and if there are only two candidates and no undecided voters, you can say with confidence that the poll says Candidate A is clearly leading Candidate B.
When the gap between the two candidates is more than the error margin but less than twice the error margin, you should say that Candidate A "is ahead," "has an advantage" or "holds an edge." The story should mention that there is a small possibility that Candidate B is ahead of Candidate A.
(CNN) — With the dust having finally settled after the prolonged Democratic presidential primary, a new CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama locked in a statistical dead heat in the race for the White House.p.s. Yes, I was being being slightly facetious with the headline.
With just over four months remaining until voters weigh in at the polls, the new survey out Tuesday indicates Obama holds a narrow 5-point advantage among registered voters nationwide over the Arizona senator, 50 percent to 45 percent. That represents little change from a similar poll one month ago, when the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee held a 46-43 percent edge over McCain.
CNN Polling Director Keating Holland notes Tuesday's survey confirms what a string of national polls released this month have shown: Obama holds a slight advantage over McCain, though not a big enough one to constitute a statistical lead.
"Every standard telephone poll taken in June has shown Obama ahead of McCain, with nearly all of them showing Obama's margin somewhere between three and six points," Holland said. "In most of them, that margin is not enough to give him a lead in a statistical sense, but it appears that June has been a good month for Obama."[...]
The poll, conducted June 26-29, surveyed 906 registered voters and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Two quick points. Firstly, Davis is flat wrong that John Kerry held a national lead of the magnitude that Obama has now. Kerry flirted with a 2-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average at various points over the summer, but he never had the 6-point lead that Obama presently has in the RCP number. Al Gore, for that matter, trailed significantly for most of the summer (Bush led by an average of 5.3 points over 34 polls conducted in June and July 2000) before making a comeback after the Democrats held their convention.
What is pretty clear, however, is that Sen. Obama leads Sen. McCain as of now nationally by a relatively small margin — and about the same margin that John Kerry led George Bush in June of 2004.
That is the good news.
The reason for continuing concern for the Obama campaign, with which I am sure they would agree, is that the Gallup tracking polls (and virtually every other mainstream national general election poll) continue to show that the two are still so close — even with all the bad news on the McCain side of the political equation, from Bush’s below-30% approval ratings, to more than two-to-one wrong direction-right direction ratios, to the self-identified Democrats and leaners (who are at the highest gap over Republican identifiers in decades), fuel prices skyrocketing, and McCain himself conveying neither coherent themes nor projecting positively in the daily TV sound bites.Yet, over the last six months, really ever since Iowa and up to the present, Sen. Obama has rarely, if ever, won more than 47% or 48% of the general electorate. That apparent ceiling, at least so far, should be worrisome to the Obama senior strategists and probably has been noted. It is reminiscent of both John Kerry and Al Gore’s polling numbers vs. George Bush.
Secondly, is Davis really still at it with that whole Hillary Clinton racket? At the time she abandoned her nomination bid, Clinton held about a 3-point lead over McCain in the national averages, which was pretty much her high-water mark all year. That's still three points less than the lead that Obama holds now. And Obama's gains appear to have come precisely in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida that appeared to make up the core of Clinton's electoral argument (and also in Michigan, where Clinton never polled especially well), while he continues to poll strongly in places like Virginia and Colorado that Clinton might have had difficulty competing in. I would guess that, if you polled the 49 Democratic Senators on Capitol Hill, you wouldn't find more than a dozen who would want to replace Obama with Clinton on the ticket right now. But hell hath no fury like a surrogate scorned.
Nevertheless, I do tend to agree with Schaller's conclusion: the South (again excluding Florida and Virginia) is fairly likely to disappoint the Democrats again. We have a number of polls today to back that up.
Let's focus first on the results in Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina. Obama did get a bounce from Strategic Vision's last poll of Georgia, where he had previously trailed by 14 points. But he remains 8 points behind, and while Bob Barr is pulling 3 percent of the vote away from McCain in Georgia, it doesn't appear to me that Barr will have the resources to improve that number significantly. In North Carolina, Obama has been stuck at 3-5 points behind John McCain for quite a long time; the PPP poll today confirms that conclusion. And in Louisiana, Southern Media & Opinion Research has Obama 16 points behind, just as it did in April.
It seems to me that Obama's numbers in states like North Carolina and Georgia are liable to come in within a relatively narrow range. He'll do better than a Democrat like John Kerry did there, with substantial support from blacks (although Schaller is right that African-American turnout has not been particularly low), students, information-sector workers, and new migrants to the region -- as PPP notes, Obama is leading by 6 points among people who have moved to North Carolina from outside the state, but trails by 13 among people who were born and raised there. But where Obama is disliked in the South, he tends to be disliked a lot; his "very unfavorables" tend to be pretty high in the region. There just aren't that many swing voters in the South, and the Democrats are left watching the paint dry and the demographics gradually become more favorable to them in states like North Carolina and Georgia. North Carolina could be 2012's Virginia, and Georgia could be 2016's, but it's probably too soon for a non-Southern Democrat to be winning states in the interior of the region.
Florida, however, remains its own demographic entity, and there an Obama win is more plausible. PPP has him leading by 2 there -- a big move upward from their only previous poll of the state, which had Obama 11 points behind in March -- although Strategic Vision has him trailing by 6. The fact is that Florida remains something like Obama's Plan C or Plan D for winning the election, but any state with 27 electoral votes and where the polling appears to be this volatile will need to be closely monitored.
And once we move entirely outside of the South, Obama appears to be doing quite well. SurveyUSA now has him 20 points ahead in New York -- up from 10 points before -- and he's holding onto a 5-point advantage in both major national tracking polls. From everything we can tell, Obama's post-primary bounce has plateaued, but not peaked, though it does appear to be concentrated in particular regions, some of which (like the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Michigan) have been quite helpful to Obama, and others of which (like New York and California) are fairly superfluous.
Finally, one quick methodological aside: the Strategic Vision polls were "leaked" today by Political Wire with a limited number of details. I have filled in my guesstimates of survey dates and sample sizes based on their typical patterns, but we will correct those tomorrow as needed.
Building a regression model for the Senate is inherently more challenging than doing so for the Presidential race. Rather than 50 manifestations of one race between the same two candidates, we instead have 35 different races and 70 different candidates to deal with. At the same time, having a regression model is arguably a more important feature of doing Senate projections than Presidential projections, as the polling data tends to be much sparser -- many races, in fact, have not been polled at all.
Fortunately, I was able -- not before extensive trial-and-error -- to design a relatively simple four-variable model that does a pretty darn good job, with an r-squared in the high 70s. As a quick reminder, this regression model is not formally speaking trying to predict the outcome of the race. Rather, it's attempting to predict what the polling results "should" be in a given state. In this respect, it's the same as our general election regression model, but not the same as our model from the primaries, which was attempting to regress against actual voting results. The four variables are as follows:
1. Incumbency. Well, duh. This is a dummy variable that takes on the value 1 if the Democratic candidate is an incumbent, -1 if the Republican candidate is an incumbent, and 0 if there is no incumbent.
2. Incumbent Standardized Approval Rating. The good thing about approval ratings are that they are extremely abundant, including for races where there is little or no head-to-head polling. The bad thing about approval ratings is ... pretty much everything else. They are extremely dependent on question wording, and therefore vary significantly from source to source. So, we work from a standardized versionthat attempts to account for these house effects.
The first step in this process is simply to gather a Senator's approval scores. Actually, there are (at least) two familair forms of this question -- approve/disapprove and favorable/unfavorable. The dataset includes the most recent numbers for all organizations that have released approve/disapprove or favorable/unfavorable ratings for a Senator at some point in the calendar year 2008. This is typically somewhere between 2-4 ratings for each incumbent; in cases where no data has been released on the candidate in 2008, we take the most recent approval poll avaialble. . The scores are then standardized to a 0-to-100 scale by reallocating all neutral/undecided/don't know responses evenly between approve and disapprove. So, a Senator whose ratings are 50 percent approve, 40 percent disapprove, 10 percent neutral will have a standardized score of 55 (taking his all of his 'approves' and half of his neutrals).
The next step is the tricky part. The vast majority of our approval scores come from one of three organizations: Rasmussen Reports, SurveyUSA, and Research 2000; everything else can be lumped together into an "other" category. It turns out that if you look at cases where the same Senator is tested by more than one of these organizations, there are some very substantial systematic differences from agency to agency. In particular, SurveyUSA and Research 2000 tend to produce low approval scores, and Rasmussen Reports and "other" tend to produce high ones. The differences are not trivial: a Senator who polls at 50-50 in a Research 2000 favorability question can expect to poll at about a 57-43 in Rasmussen.
Nobody is right or wrong on this, by the way; the difference arises because Rasmussen's categories allow people on the fence to hedge with a 'Somewhat Favorable' rating, whereas Research 2000 provides only 'Favorable' and 'Very Favorable'. In any event, the process is to translate the approval scores to a neutral standard. So SurveyUS and Research 2000 scores are bumped up a bit, and Rasmussen and 'Other' scores bumped downward.
Standardized approval ratings for all incumbent senators running for re-election this year are as follows:
Pryor AR 74.9Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, who took over for Craig Thomas last year, has never had an approval poll conducted on him, and so what we do is to assign him Roger Wicker's score of 63.8, as the two candidates are in somewhat analogous positions (noncontroversial but reliably conservative senator taking over a reliably conservative seat in mid-term). The standardized approval ratings are used for incumbents only. To make the math work properly, Republican incumbents are assigned the negative of whatever their score is, and Democrats the positive.
Johnson SD 71.8
Cochran MS 70.3
Sessions AL 69.5
Rockefeller WV 68.7
Alexander TN 67.8
Enzi WY 67.4
Collins ME 63.8
Wicker MS 63.8
Landrieu LA 62.6
Baucus MT 61.9
Reed RI 61.9
Durbin IL 61.8
Roberts KS 60.7
Harkin IA 60.1
Graham SC 59.7
Cornyn TX 59.5
Biden DE 59.4
Dole NC 59.3
Levin MI 59.3
Kerry MA 59.0
McConnell KY 58.7
Chambliss GA 58.1
Smith OR 55.5
Inhofe OK 55.3
Coleman MN 52.2
Lautenberg NJ 49.8
Stevens AK 48.0
Sununu NH 47.0
3. Fundraising Share. Fundraising data, somewhat annoyingly, is only available on a quarterly basis for Senate candidates, and so we are using figured from the FEC's last filing on 3/31. On the other hand, we aren't trying to learn anything all that sophisticated from this metric. Basically, we want to know: (i) in a race against an incumbent, does a challenger have the resources to put up a serious fight, and (ii) in a race without an incumbent, who is winning the money race? The specific version of this metric I prefer is the percentage of funds raised by the Democrat out of the total funds raised by both candidates. This formulation produced more statistically significant results than any other variant.
4. Highest Elected Office Achieved. As recently as the first version of the Senate ratings that went up this morning, I had been attempting to use a variable for ideology, designed by building my own liberal-conservative scores for each candidate. The idea was to find out which candidate was closest to the median point of the electorate in his state, and assign him some bonus points as a result. This actually turned out to produce a statistically significant result -- understanding ideology is a very important part of understanding Senate races. But it introduced an awful lot of work and an awful lot of subjectivity into the model.
One reason why ideology is important is because not all candidates are particularly serious, and a good litmus test for whether a candidate is running a serious race is whether he is somewhere reasonably close to the middle of the state's electorate. Someone like Bob Tuke in Tennessee, for instance, looks like a serious enough candidate until you realize that he's trying to run as a strong progressive in a not-so-progressive state; Christopher Reed in Iowa does not strike one as a particularly serious candidate, but even less so when you see his platform. By contrast, someone like Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi or Dick Zimmer in New Jersey have platforms that will be tolerated by most of their state. So one thing we are trying to do here is to filter out the wackos.
Another way to vet the candidates, however, is to see the highest elected office they have achieved; if you have been elected by some large number of constituents, odds are that you will have at least some feeling for the popular will in your state. The metric we use to evaluate this is the size of the population governed:
(i) A candidate whose highest elected office is governor gets credit for the entire population of his state;
(ii) A candidate whose highest elected office is senator gets credit for half the population of his state (since each state has two senators);
(iii) A candidate whose highest elected office is the U.S. House of Representatives gets credit for the population in his Congressional District;
(iv) A candidate whose highest elected office is mayor gets credit for the population of his city;
(v) A candidate whose highest elected office is in the state house or state senate gets credit for his state's population, divided by the number of legislators in that particular body. For example, since Iowa has 50 state senators, a candidate whose highest elected office was serving in that chamber would get credit for one-fiftieth of Iowa's population (about 59,000 persons).
This system tends to produce fairly intuitive results. The one square peg is John N. Kennedy, the Louisiana Republican whose only elected office is State Treasurer. We treat him as equal in influence to a typical member of the U.S. House and assign an average-sized Congressional District as his population base.
Then, just as we did with the fundraising numbers, we take the share of the total jurisdiction governed by the Democrat as a fraction of the Democrat + Republican total. So, for example, in New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg's highest elected office is Senate, where he is given credit for governing 4.2 million people (half of New Jersey's office), whereas Dick Zimmer's highest eleted office was as a member of the U.S. House in a Congressional District of about 650,000 persons. So Lautenberg's share of the highest-elected-office variable is
(4,200,000 / (4,200,000 + 650,000).
This works out to about .867; Lautenberg holds about 87 percent of the experience points in his election against Zimmer.
And that's it. Those four variables account for the entire regression analysis that you see reflected here. A couple of stray notes on particular states:
Minnesota: The regression model sees this race tightening -- Norm Coleman is not popular, and Al Franken has nearly matched him in fundraising -- but one way to look at why Franken hasn't quite taken off is that he's never held elected office before. If he had run for the House before stepping up to the Senate, for instance, he might have emerged as a more vetted candidate, and something like his tax return issue would have been less likely to distract him.
Maine: This is the one state where I think giving up on the ideological variable somewhat hurts the model, as in spite of Maine being a fairly liberal state, Susan Collins is much closer to the median of the electorate than Tom Allen.
South Carolina and Montana: On the other hand, these states were causing problems with the ideological variables because the opposition candidates hold a series of idiosyncratic positions that don't fit neatly onto the political spectrum but might give the appearance of centrism if averaged together. Bob Conley in South Carolina, for instance, is running as a sort of family values version of Ron Paul; he is quite conservative by the standards of a Democratic candidate, but not in such a way that is really designed to cater to South Carolina's electorate. Bob Kelleher in Montana, meanwhile, is running as a Republican this year, but has previously run as a member of the Green Party and is strongly in favor of single-payer health care; this might be one of the first cases in history where the Republican candidate was demonstrably more liberal than the Democrat (the relatively centrist Max Baucus). Niether Kelleher nor Conley has ever held elected office, however, so our model is able to recognize them as not-very-serious candidates.
Alaska: Mark Begich's highest elected office is as the mayor of Anchorage, but almost 40 percent of Alaska's population is contained within Anchorage's city limits. So Begich is not actually not very far behind Ted Stevens in this metric, as Stevens is given credit for presiding over half of a very small state.
That should helpfully give everybody some idea of how all of this is working. We'll follow up and cover the other parts of the projection model at some point later this week.
In Florida, on the other hand, Rasmussen has John McCain holding steady with a 7-point lead. Rasmussen had surveyed Florida barely a week ago, then showing McCain ahead by 8 points. The main problem that Rasmussen seems to be detecting for Obama in Florida is that the Democratic defection rate remains relatively high -- he's losing 20 percent of Democrats to McCain, and 4 percent to "some other candidate". The puma is native to Florida, I would point out. Nevertheless, since Quinnipiac and ARG seem to feel differently about the state, it might be time to get a Mason-Dixon or a SurveyUSA on the case. Hell, I'll even take an Insider Advantage poll.
Rasmussen also sees no movement toward Obama in Georgia, where he trails in their survey by 10 points, just as he did a month ago. Unlike Insider Advantage, which found Bob Barr polling in the mid-single digits, Rasmussen gives him just 1 percent support. I have been a little inconsistent in my treatment of Georgia. It is a state that Obama could win if a number of things go right, but then again, that's true of probably 40 of the 50 states on the map this year.
Lastly, SurveyUSA has Obama ahead by 2 points in Virginia. This brings SurveyUSA into line with Rasmussen and PPP, each of which show nearly identical numbers, but is a step backward for Obama from SurveyUSA's May poll, which had Obama up 7 points in Virginia. As I argued yesterday, if you see a result that looked aberrant before -- and a 7-point lead for Obama pre-unity bounce definitely looked a little weird -- you sometimes have to ignore the trendlines and take the result on its own merits. Virginia is perhaps the closest state on the map at the moment -- the state whose county names we might all learn by heart staying up late on Election Night -- and all the polling is reflecting that.
There have been an increasing number of surveys, however, particularly on the Senate side of things, that somewhat test our definition of an "internal poll". Where would you draw the line on the following spectrum?
1. Polls commissioned by the candidate himself.
2. Polls commissioned by another candidate for office in that state.
3. Polls conducted by a national campaign committee (e.g. RNC, DSCC)
4. Polls conducted by an interest group (Emily's List, US Chamber of Commerce), but formally unassociated with the candidate.
5. Polls that are private, but conducted on behalf of someone with no direct interest in the campaign, such as an outside lobbying group.
Presently, I have been drawing the line between #3 and #4. But I'm not sure that there's a major philosophical difference between, for instance, Emily's List commissioning a poll, and the DNC doing so. I'm also not so sure that I necessarily have things in the right order.
Anyway, I've come to very much trust in the wisdom of the 538 crowd -- so opinions are solicited and appreciated.
We give the Democrats about a 20 percent chance of reaching 60 seats counting Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, and a 13 percent chance counting Sanders but not Lieberman. The Democrats are nearly certain to hold on to an outright majority of seats, whether or not Lieberman's seat is counted.
There is, obviously, a lot of explanation required for what goes into all of this, which will come in doses over the next day or two.
(Note: revised at 5:45 PM)
Senate polling detail follows below the jump.
I've also read Paul Krugman's new editorial which is out in tomorrow's Times and criticizes Obama for being too "Clintonesque". While Krugman's position is a little bit more nuanced than Hannity's, it is nevertheless ironic coming from someone who had argued so fervently for four more Clinton years in the White House, albeit four from the missus rather than the mister.
All of which goes to show: if the worst thing they can say about you is that you're the new Bill Clinton, then you're probably in pretty good shape for November.
Certainly, there is more to the story than that. For one thing, I'm not sure that Obama's apparent shift to the center is quite as premeditated as everyone has made it out to be. It seems to me that there are a couple of issues -- like NAFTA and Israel -- where Obama has moved to the center and had probably intended to do so for some time. That Obama was going to turn down public financing has also been obvious for months now. But others are more a matter of timing and circumstance. On FISA, for instance, I have argued that Obama's hands were somewhat tied once Nancy Pelosi staked out her ground. The Obama campaign was slow to issue a position statement on FISA, and one almost senses that they did so through gritted teeth. Likewise, the Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty and the Second Amendment came down this week simply because this was when the Court decided to rule on those cases. So what might have been four or five isolated incidents stretched out over the course of the summer instead were compressed into a period of a week or two, and a meme was born.
Nevertheless, what does all of this really tell us about Obama? It tells us, I think, that Obama has a pretty keen sensibility for risk management, and tends to come down on the risk-averse side.
John McCain's best strategy for winning this election was and possibly remains the following: seize the center, while simultaneously portraying Barack Obama as an agent of the radical left. This was not necessarily going to be easy to do, since some of the right's favorite critiques of Democrats were likely to fall on deaf ears in the context of a poor economy and an unpopular war. Nevertheless, among a number of relatively weak strategies that McCain had to pick from, this was probably his best. Democrats have something like a 4:3 edge in party identification and they are going to turn out in November; the number of Democrats with an unfavorable opinion of Obama is no longer especially high and is likely to continue declining. That means that McCain is going to need to dominate among independent voters, something which might become more difficult now that Obama has preempted his move to the center.
Secondly, as Hannity and Krugman reveal, Obama was going to be criticized either way. Are there greater risks in being labeled a radical liberal or a flip-flopper? There are greater risks to Obama in the former. The 'radical liberal' caricature is more likely to bring things like Jeremiah Wright, flag pins and Obama's race into play, whereas the caricature of the pandering politician is familiar -- depressingly so to some voters, but perhaps reassuringly so to others. Moreover, John McCain is on relatively shaky ground to criticize Obama as a flip-flopper. As Obama surrogates have eagerly begun to point out, McCain's own flip-flops have been considerable. One of the benefits to being as wrongheadedly stubborn a man as George W. Bush was is that you rarely have problems with consistency. McCain does not have that luxury, if you can call it that.
In short, Obama does not mind so much being labeled a 'Generic Democrat', in an election where a Generic Democrat might beat a Generic Republican by 10-15 points.
Obama's decisions can perhaps be thought of as risk-averse. To extend Krugman's analogy, perhaps he is less likely now to win a Reagenesque 489 electoral votes and more likely to win a Clintonesque total somewhere in the low-to-mid 300s. But whereas Clinton pulled significantly ahead of George H. W. Bush in the summer and essentially never looked back, Reagan's move came at the last minute. He was probably inherently more likely to lose the 1980 election than Clinton was in 1992, even though he wound up winning bigger.
That does not mean that there are no risks to Obama. The flip-flopper label remains among the more damaging ones in American politics, and if Obama is not careful, it too might be used as a vehicle to bring in excess baggage: Who is this guy? What does he really stand for? So it will be up to Obama to bring the 'change' brand full-circle by denoting exactly what kind of change he intends to deliver. Instead of the compassionate conservative, Obama can portray himself as the principled pragmatist. Pick at least three of the four core issues I outlined the other day -- health care, the economy, the environment, and Iraq -- argue that they are at crisis point and that others must take a back seat, make clear that you aren't prepared to compromise on those, and put forward some policy specifics. Public sentiment on all four issues significantly favors the Democratic position, and if Obama does not waver on those, the electorate should have no trouble perceiving his consistency.
Arguably the more interesting result is in the Gallup Daily Tracker, which shows Obama pulling 4 points ahead of McCain after having been tied with him for several days. When you see a result like this -- when a poll steps back into line with other polls -- it should not be read as momentum for one or another candidate so much as reversion to the mean. Nevertheless, just yesterday I was suggesting that there might have been just a smidgen of momentum toward John McCain in the polling numbers, and now that is harder to see.
EMPSCAT consists of a battery of five questions. The more of the questions that can be answered in the affirmative, the bigger the impact of the story. The five questions -- chock-full of Halperin style and/but/nots -- are as follows:
1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?
This question is important. Something like "Boratgate" -- the Clinton Library / Kazakhstan uranium mining quid-pro-quo-pro-quo that the New York Times reported on in January -- had all the intriguing hooks of a spy novel, but also a plot as convoluted as Mission Impossible II.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand?
3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/"prove" a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?
Let's take these two together. The classic political scandal is one that makes the candidate look like a hypocrite -- a "family values" champion like David Vitter being caught with a hooker, or Larry Craig with his pants around his ankles.
But perhaps the more damaging kind is one that provides evidence toward a lingering perception about a candidate that had otherwise been hard to articulate. John Edwards' $400 haircut, for instance: doesn't seem like it should have been a big deal, but there was a perception out there that Edwards was a little superficial, and the haircut provided the "proof".
The "best" scandals combine both of these elements. Jeremiah Wright both undermined Obama's unity message and gave voice to the notion that he hadn't been fully vetted. Tuzla both cut against Hillary Clinton's experience meme and played into the perception of her having a rocky relationship with the truth.
4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?
This is trickier territory than it looks. The Obama campaign couldn't say much about Clinton's comments on RFK without their looking even more tawdry than she did. The Clinton campaign couldn't say very much about Jeremiah Wright without refreshing accusations of race-baiting. And the Law of Unintended Consequences often applies. It was partially because the Obama campaign pushed back a little too hard on Geraldine Ferraro that ABC News took "Politically Incorrect Comments Made by Associates" for $200 and investigated deeper into the Wright tapes.
5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?
A slow media cycle never hurts.
Let's put La Jollagate through the EMPSCAT.
1. Can the scandal easily be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?
In this case, the answer is yes: "The McCains didn't pay their taxes".
The McCains' best one-sentence rebuttal is probably: "It was a clerical error". The problem is that (i) this one has been tried before, and (ii) it takes several more sentences to explain: the property was part of a trust, the trust was managed by a bank, and the bank didn't get the bill. Besides, throwing your accountant under the bus isn't an excuse to avoid paying taxes.
2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate's brand?
Not to a large extent. McCain hasn't made an especially big deal of housing or taxation issues, for instance. It may cut a little bit against the duty part of McCain's honor and duty theme. There is also a potentially damaging subheadline -- "What? The McCains have seven houses?" -- but he hasn't really tried to run as some sort of champion of the working class.
3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/"prove" a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?
Again, probably not -- it seems like something of a one-off. You could try play it as McCain being old and therefore absent-minded, but that would violate Rule #4:
4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?
Generally speaking, yes. It's a big enough deal that the Obama campaign won't look petty by raising it, nor so personal that they'd look insensitive. Nor is it an area where, as far as we know, Obama has had any problems (if he's been delinquent on his taxes at any point -- no sale).
What the McCain campaign will do is to try and portray it as a Cindy McCain issue rather than a John McCain issue, and remind the media that Obama said hands off the first ladies. But the Obama campaign could call that bluff and have a get-out-of-jail free card against the next Michelle Obama story. McCain also might try and bring up Tony Rezko, but that story has already failed the EMPSCAT several times.
5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?
Yes. It isn't a sexy story, but there's little else going at the moment.
The La Jolla story passes three out of the five questions on the EMPSCAT. Medium-impact, but not spicy.