This is going to be a brief update; there were few dramatics in the Senate numbers this week. But there is one exception, and it is good news for the Republicans. In Oregon, Gordon Smith has opened up a lead over Jeff Merkley; a new Rasmussen poll shows Smith ahead by 6 points, and SurveyUSA , which is polling this race for the first time, has him up by 12. There is, at this point, a fairly clear dividing line between the five GOP-held seats that the Democrats appear likely (Colorado, Alaska) or nearly certain (Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire) to pick up, and everything else.
It may be out of the Democrats' power to gain a 60-seat majority by means of a piecemeal approach. Instead, they will need something that shifts the national numbers in several races at once. For the time being, their numbers are moving in the wrong direction, as Republicans have ticked up slightly in generic ballot tests.
Also, the Democratic challenger has been determined in two races. In Georgia, Jim Martin will challenge Saxby Chambliss. Martin has a better chance at making a race of it than his opponent in the primary run-off, Vernon Jones, but remains about a 20:1 underdog according to our metrics. And in Tennessee, Bob Tuke is the choice; he's about a 100-to-1 longshot to upset Lamar Alexander.
The fluctuation in coverage of McCain compared to the steadiness in coverage of Obama mirrors the complaint from Republican corners that McCain’s team has been reactive and struggled to provide a clear and consistent message beyond “Don’t vote for Obama.”
The level of McCain's media attention undulates with the traction of any specific way McCain articulates that core argument. Spears-Hilton gained McCain more attention because it was a surprising and original angle for attacking Obama. But the upshot remains: McCain is dependent on Obama for his messaging; Obama’s messaging is independent. Notice how flat the line is for Obama coverage. McCain’s line is all over the graph. That’s a strong statistical signal McCain’s message team is not in full control.
Notice the Boston Globe's recent visual depiction of the different most prominently featured words on each candidate’s official blogs.
Little wonder that stories about McCain are more easily pushed aside; McCain’s own stories are mostly about Obama; McCain gets more attention by attacking in unexpected ways – Spears-Hilton Week was unusual and so the "Look what McCain’s doing!" and "What is McCain thinking with this?” stories led to his tying Obama that week in news coverage.
But unless and until John McCain can consistently drive a message untethered to Barack Obama, expect to see the news coverage graph to stay the same – a stable Obama line and a zigzagging McCain line.
There are three demographic variables that explain almost all of the votes in the primary -- gender, party, and income.Each of these factors, of course, was important in determining candidate preferences in the Democratic primaries. But Penn gives short shrift to the most important demographic variable of all, which was race. (Penn did reference race in the sentence that follows this passage, but does so only in passing -- "Race is a factor as well, but we are fighting hard to neutralize it.").
-- Mark Penn, 3/19/07.
Let's look at a simple chart:
This tracks Hillary Clinton's performance among black voters over the 18 months of the primary campaign -- first using a series of public polling numbers, and then from South Carolina onward the actual voting results. Clinton began with, roughly speaking, a 20-point advantage over Obama among black voters; this was temporarily diminished by the excitement surrounding Obama's entry into the race in early February, but had worked itself back up to as many as 24 points by October.
Some of Clinton's support was undoubtedly very soft. Between October and November, Obama moved from about 20 points behind among black voters to essentially even with them, as the campaign coverage picked up, Obama had a chance to introduce himself, and Clinton had a few stumbles. There was relatively little negative campaigning during this period. But it was the period in between "now the fun part starts" and "Jesse Jackson won South Carolina" when the bottom really fell out, with Clinton losing about 60 points' worth of African-American support in a month's time. And things actually got a little bit worse thereafter, with Clinton going from a -60 among black voters in South Carolina and Super Tuesday (a margin that might have allowed her to salvage the nomination) to a -80 in the primaries that followed.
Overall, Clinton lost 100 points of support among black voters in about 120 days: a truly remarkable achievement. Since black voters make up about 20 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, a 100-point swing among black voters translates to a 20-point swing among all voters. And that, essentially, was how the primary was lost. In national trial heats, Obama was polling about 20 points behind Clinton throughout most of calendar year 2007, and wound up polling about 5 points ahead of her for most of the period after Super Tuesday. That is a 25-point swing, and 20 of those 25 points came from black voters.
It is clear from reading the Penn Memos that the Clinton campaign had very little idea this was coming. There is abundant discussion about how to squeeze every last nanometer of a vote out of groups like "waitress moms", but very little substance about how to build or retain their support among African-Americans. Penn revealed himself as a pollster rather than a strategist; polls are inherently backward-looking, whereas a good strategist must anticipate future trends.
The question is whether this was more or less inevitable, or caused by specific behavior of the Clinton campaign. If the former, the Clinton campaign would still have had to chart a different strategic course. Penn had carefully constructed what amounted to a 55 percent coalition, but it was one that implicitly leaned on support from working-class blacks, and especially working-class black women, without which 55 percent quickly dissolved to 47 percent. If she had understood the softness of her African-American support, Clinton might have been able to target a different demographic instead, such as 18-39 year old white women, which might have implied a toning down of some of her experience rhetoric and more emphasis on her being a trailblazer.
The other option, of course, is that the Clinton campaign deserved every last black vote it didn't get. After reading some of the race-baiting rhetoric in Penn's memos, it is easy to jump to this conclusion. Penn, certainly, comes across as too cute by half, thinking he could press the narrative of Obama being un-American without the black community -- not to mention the (predominantly white) liberal blogosphere -- picking up on the subtext.
Clinton, to her credit, declined to press many of Penn's more venomous lines of attack, although they came out occasionally through surrogates, including Clinton's husband. More fundamentally, though, one senses that the Clinton campaign simply took the black community for granted, and didn't understand how certain of their core lines of argument might go over with African-Americans. In particular, Clinton's claims to being experienced were always fairly specious, considering that she had spent barely more time in elected office than Obama (less, if you count his years in the Illinois State Senate) and had relatively few accomplishments to her name (there is a humorous passage in one of the Penn Memos in which he begins to recite Clinton's legislative achievements, but is unable to provide more than one example thereof).
The point, certainly, is not that Clinton's "experience" argument was some kind of racist dog-whistle. But it was far less self-evident than Penn (and Clinton) seemed to assert, and raised the question of what exactly did give Clinton the right to take the first bite at the apple. If Clinton, by contrast, had campaigned on life experience rather than work experience, that might have resonated with a broader series of voters, including minorities. Clinton was effective when she campaigned on her biography, but she did far too little of it.
In Colorado, a Public Policy Polling survey has Barack Obama ahead by 4 points. The margin is identical to a poll conducted last month, although each candidate has gained a point against undecided.
In Virgina, it's McCain by one in a new SurveyUSA poll. SurveyUSA's Virginia numbers have fluctuated somewhat wildly over the course of the cycle, with margins ranging from Obama +7 to McCain +12, but this is a modest improvement for McCain from their late June edition, when Barack Obama had led by 2.
Lastly, Rasmussen Reports polls have Barack Obama ahead by 5 points in Iowa -- down from 10 last month -- and ahead by 10 points in Oregon -- up a tick from 9 points last month.
Let's set Virginia aside for a moment, as well as Oregon, which has never looked especially competitive and where neither campaign is doing any advertising. It's Colorado and Iowa, along with New Mexico, that form Obama's firewall. If Obama holds the Kerry states but wins those three, he doesn't need to win Ohio, Florida, or any of the higher degree-of-difficulty states. And so far, Obama's lead in these states has been very consistent. In 16 Iowa polls conducted since Super Tuesday, Obama has led all 16. In 11 New Mexico polls over the time span, he has led 9, been tied in one, and trailed in the other. And in 14 polls of Colorado, he has led 11 times, trailed twice, and been tied once.
If I were John McCain, I'd be very skeptical about my prospects in Iowa, where I didn't really campaign during the primaries and where my agricultural policies are unpopular. Likewise, I'd look at Obama's strong national numbers among Hispanics, and conclude that New Mexico is probably moving in the wrong direction. Which means that I'd be devoting an awful lot of resources to Colorado, possibly conceding states like Pennsylvania and Minnesota in order to do so.
That is not to endorse McCain's more hardline stance toward Russia, the particulars of which this blog has no standing to comment upon. I have no doubt, however, that the lingering memory of the Cold War makes an anti-Russian stance an easier sale from the standpoint of electoral politics.
But the unscripted drama in the Caucasus also serves as a thought experiment of sorts, especially as it regards Barack Obama's VP selection. Would Obama be better off if he had, say, General Wesley Clark flanking him right now?
I think absolutely so. The reason does not necessarily have to do with Clark's experience per se. Rather, it is a question of how well positioned Obama is to win arguments about foreign policy on the campaign trail. In this case, it is Obama's position, rather than McCain's, that is closest to the consensus of NATO -- as well as, ironically, the Bush Administration. But in matters of global affairs that Americans don't know very much about -- and again, pretty much everything but Iraq, Al Qaeda, and perhaps Israel qualifies there -- they are more likely to defer to the brand name opinion on foreign policy, which means John McCain's
In this case in particular, the Obama side has some good arguments to make about Georgia -- for instance, that our moral authority to condemn Russia for its actions is undermined by our own invasion of Iraq, and that our tactical position to place our footprint in the Caucasian theater is undermined by the number of troops we have committed to Iraq. But these are big picture, macro-level arguments, and ones that require the right salesperson. Someone like, say, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.
To be clear, while these arguments hold to a certain extent for someone like Joe Biden, they are mainly an argument for Clark in particular. Joe Biden has a lot of credibility on foreign policy, but the aesthetics of what he could do on the stump and in interviews aren't really a match for those of a bona fide, ex-General. Biden might leave Obama better equipped to defend news cycles in which something like the South Ossetia conflict is the central topic; Clark might actually be able to win them.
UPDATE: Chris Bowers points to some other interesting tea leaves on Clark. And Clark is surging on Intrade right now, essentially turning the Big Four (Bayh, Biden, Sebelius, Kaine) into a Big Five.
UPDATE x2: For the record, if I had to rank Obama's potential VP choices -- culling from the quasi-official short list plus a couple of other names that are trading well on Intrade -- my choices would probably look something like this:
This is opinion, not analysis.
Obama won 37.6 per cent of the vote. Edwards won 29.7 per cent and Clinton won 29.5 per cent, according to results posted by the Iowa Democratic Party.Iowa actually didn't turn out to be that close, with Obama defeating Edwards by 7.9 points and Hillary Clinton by 8.1 points. For Clinton to have beaten Obama, she would have needed (as Wolfson correctly points out) about two-thirds of those Edwards voters.
"Our voters and Edwards' voters were the same people," Wolfson said the Clinton polls showed. "They were older, pro-union. Not all, but maybe two-thirds of them would have been for us and we would have barely beaten Obama."
The thing about Iowa, however, is that unlike virtually any other electoral contest, second choices matter, since Democratic caucus rules dictate that a voter may caucus for her second-choice candidate if her first choice does not achieve the 15 percent of the vote required for viability. As such, Iowa pollsters did a lot of work in trying to determine voters' second choices. And in virtually every survey, Clinton did rather poorly as a second choice: an average of several surveys in December showed that she was the second choice of about 20 percent of voters, as compared with 25 percent for Obama and Edwards (an even later version I have sitting on my hard drive showed the second-choice breakdown as Edwards 30, Obama 28.5, Clinton 23.5)
So the odds are that, if John Edwards had dropped out on the morning before the Iowa caucus, Obama would have won by more points rather than fewer.
It was also the case that Barack Obama appeared to get the lion's share of Edwards supporters once Edwards dropped from the race:
This is not to say that Edwards couldn't possibly have impacted the race in ways that were favorable to Barack Obama. He was probably useful to Obama, for example, in attacking Clinton early on, increasing her negatives without Obama having to pay the price. His endorsement of Obama in May was undoubtedly a big assist to Obama's endgame.
But Wolfson is making a much cruder sort of argument based on the polls, and the evidence cuts against him.
A fairly typical example comes in the form of a blind quote from a Democratic strategist this morning at The Politico:
A huge challenge for Obama, insiders say, is simply determining how much skin color will matter in November. Race is nearly impossible to poll – no one ever says “I’m a racist” – and no campaign wants it revealed they are even asking questions on the issue.Is there really so much uncertainty as this "operative" implies? Black candidates run races every cycle for the Congress and for the Governor's Mansion, and academics have spent copious time dissecting those results. And while we've never before had a major party nominate a black man for President, we did just finish an exceptionally competitive primary campaign in which a black candidate ran against an extremely popular white candidate with more than 35 million voters participating.
“It’s the uncertainty that kills me – we know it’s going to be factor, but how big a factor?” asks a Democratic operative with ties to the Obama camp. “How do you even measure such a thing?"
As we have described here before, polling numbers from the primaries suggested no presence of a Bradley Effect. On the contrary, it was Barack Obama -- not Hillary Clinton -- who somewhat outperformed his polls on Election Day.
The table below reflects 31 states in which at least three separate polls were released within 14 days of that state's primary or caucus. We compare the final trendline estimate from Pollster.com against the actual results from that state:
On average, Barack Obama overperformed the Pollster.com trendline by 3.3 points on election day.
There are some important differences by region. Using regions as defined by the US Census Bureau, Barack Obama overperformed his polls by an average of 7.2 points in the South. This effect appears to be most substantial in states with larger black populations; I have suggested before that it might stem from a sort of reverse Bradley Effect in which black voters were reluctant to disclose to a (presumed) white interviewer that they were about to vote for a black candidate.
Obama also outperformed his polls in the Midwest and the West (although there is not much data to go on in the latter case). The one region where Hillary Clinton overperformed her numbers was in the Northeast, bettering the pre-election trendline by 1.8 points. Recall that the Bradley Effect phenomenon describes covert rather than overt manifestations of racism. It may be that in the Northeast, which is arguably the most "politically correct" region of the country, expressions of racism are the least socially acceptable, and that therefore some people may misstate their intentions to pollsters. By contrast, in the South and the Midwest, if people are racist they will usually be pretty open about it, and in the West, which is nation's most multicultural region, there may be relatively little racism, either expressed or implicit.
The good news for Barack Obama is that, among the Northeastern states, only New Hampshire appears to be competitive -- and Obama would gladly trade a Bradley Effect in New Hampshire for a reverse Bradley Effect in a state like North Carolina. (Pennsylvania, it should be noted, is also defined by the Census Bureau as being in the Northeast, but in terms of political demography, it shares far more in common with the Midwest).
So why do we keep hearing so much about the Bradley Effect? Apart from the fact that it is a good way to fill column space on a slow news day, it seems that there are three or four reasons why the myth perpetuates itself:
1. Misunderstanding the Bradley Effect. Denying the existence of the Bradley Effect does not mean denying that some people vote on the basis of race. I have no doubt that some people will vote against Barack Obama because he is black. Indeed, I suspect that almost all of us either know such people, or know people who know them (friends and relatives of friends). I also have no doubt, by the way, that some people will vote for Barack Obama because he is black.
But the Bradley Effect is not an argument about whether people vote based on race. It's an argument about whether people will lie to pollsters. So long as race-based voters are honest about their intentions, Barack Obama's position is no worse than it appears to be in the polls.
2. Confusing Past with Present. There is fairly strong academic evidence that the Bradley Effect used to exist back in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, the evidence is just as strong that it does not exist any longer. The people who vouch for the existence of the Bradley Effect are not wrong so much as they are relying on dated evidence.
3. Confusing Exit Polls with pre-Election Polls. Unlike the normal, pre-election polls, exit polls conducted on the day of the election did substantially overstate Barack Obama's margins throughout the primaries. This is something to keep in mind at about 5 PM on November 4, when Matt Drudge and Jim Geraghty begin to leak exit poll results. It is not anything to worry about now, when we are trying to forecast the outcome from pre-election polling.
Nor is it clear the the discrepancies in the exit polls have anything to do with race; John Kerry, somewhat infamously, also underperformed his exit polls. The mechanics of conducting an exit poll are rather haphazard, involving a bunch of college kids and temp workers running around outside a polling place with clipboards and attempting to pass out survey forms to every Nth voter who leaves the ballot booth. This is not much easier than it sounds, and introduces a lot of human error and other forms of sample bias. For this reason, exit polls are not really intended to be used as they so frequently are in the panicked hours before ballot counting begins -- the results need to be calibrated and weighted, and exit polling firms rely on comparing their polls against actual voting results in order to do so.
4. Cherry Picking Results. The notion of the Bradley Effect gained a lot of currency after the New Hampshire primary, when Hillary Clinton did much better than anyone expected and won the state. However, the 8.9-point gap separating the pre-election polls and the actual results in New Hampshire represented only the seventh-largest error in the primaries. There were bigger discrepancies in Iowa, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Wisconsin and Mississippi, all of which favored Barack Obama. These discrepancies did not receive as much attention as New Hampshire because they did not change the outcome of the election. But mathematically speaking, they were just as important.
A related phenomenon is that the media often cherry-picks polling results within a given state. The Zogby poll that had Barack Obama ahead by 13 points in California received widespread attention; the SurveyUSA result that had Clinton 10 points ahead did not. Over the course of the primaries, polling results that had Barack Obama performing well generally made for better copy, since until at least mid-February, Obama was considered the underdog. But an informed reading of the polls, such as the Pollster.com method, reveals that Clinton did not overperform in states like California and Ohio nearly so much as the media tried to imply.
To have an electoral chance, John McCain’s camp has to make Barack Obama unacceptable, and they need to reach as wide an audience as possible to virally spread attacks on his character. They need to deputize as many citizen smearers as possible to go forth and spread the word that this guy can’t be trusted to lead. It’s not so much the issues – Democrats have too large an edge in the generic policy preference in this cycle and Nate’s innovative graph shows Obama is squarely in the Democratic policy mainstream – it’s Obama’s personhood that must be undermined in order to differentiate him from the hypothetical generic Democrat.
To that end, the McCain camp has gamed out the back and forth. McCain’s group raises fear about Obama, Obama calls out the behavior as fearmongering by trying to remind people he's different, McCain replies that Obama is playing the race card. This is catnip for the media. As Chuck Todd said the other morning, any day that race is the topic (regardless of who’s right about who played the race card) is a bad day for Obama.
Obama’s contrasting strategy: Only go negative in substantive ways on a local level. In Ohio, Obama is blasting McCain on the local impact of the loss of 8,000 jobs in the DHL-Airborne Express fallout. Campaign manager David Plouffe says everyone in the Cincinnati and Dayton markets will know that ad by November 4. In Nevada, Obama has an ad hammering McCain on the local substantive issue of Yucca Mountain.
This localized negative ad strategy dovetails with the Obama campaign’s focus that national tracking polls don’t matter, only winning the states it has to win does. Obama’s team beat the inevitable Clinton machine in no small part because it outhustled and precisely targeted its resources to win very specific battles en route to the overall win. It understands the approach we take here at FiveThirtyEight, which is to focus on electoral math and state-by-state polls with an eye toward heavy localized organizing.
Obama’s strategy is probably optimal; he has to be very careful with his own negative ads, despite the gnashing of teeth by some in Democratic corners that he launch heavy blanket offensives that change the media storyline (hint: it would be, “with his negative ads, is Obama really a new politician?”). Obama’s brand, for better or for worse, is about the toxic effect in out politics of character attacks and the politics of personal destruction. McCain’s camp is surely salivating at the opportunity to use the fact of any negative advertising to label Obama as fraudulent. But if the ads themselves are about a specific issue, it prevents the media from being able to discuss the implications of a negative Obama ad without explaining the dispute, thus amplifying the substance of the Obama claim.
Given that the Democratic primary lasted so long, Obama’s team had the opportunity to test state-specific messaging in nearly every state (Michigan and Florida being key exceptions). One would expect this iteration of campaigning to be much more well-informed with internal polling about what issues have traction where. Keep an eye out for this pattern of hitting McCain hard and locally on an array of hot button issues that remind voters how mad they are at Republican policies (see: wrong track).
Incidentally, if Nate hadn’t posted about John McCain using $6M to go negative during the Olympics, I would have. Wow. Last week, we speculated that even if McCain bought ad time, he’d use it for personal branding because surely, nobody would be so stupid as to punctuate the uplifting Olympics with personal partisan attack ads.
Obama’s Olympic “Hands” ad celebrates American ingenuity and runs for 15 seconds before you have any idea it’s even a political ad. There’s Michael Phelps setting world records, there’s Morgan Freeman’s powerful voiceover in Visa ads celebrating the human condition, then there’s a guy telling you how dangerous his political opponent is. Way to keep the mood going. Grinch, indeed.
After re-reading my piece, however, it occurs to me that some of the strategies I proscribe for Obama facilitating the youth vote might be problematic with other sets of voters. Consider this one, for instance:
Indeed, youth turnout rates in recent elections have been downright pathetic. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds had the right to vote, nearly half of citizens aged 18-24 turned out to the ballot box. But by 1976, with the Vietnam War off the table, the turnout rate plummeted to 42%. It has since fallen as low as 32% in 2000 before rebounding slightly in 2004.
Barack Obama is hoping to do a lot better than that - and unlike so many of his predecessors, there are signs that he may actually succeed. In 2004, voters aged 29 or younger represented 9% of the Democratic primary electorate, according to statistics compiled from exit polls. In 2008, that fraction jumped to 14%, representing a 52% improvement as a share of the electorate. Those voters overwhelmingly favored Obama, preferring him to Hillary Clinton by a 60-37 margin.
Branding. One way to pierce young voters' attention barrier is to market yourself like the products they love. And this is something the Obama campaign understands exceptionally well - the importance of OBAMA™. From the elegant serif font on their website to their use (and occasional overuse) of the campaign's logo to their Madison Avenue-like slogans, the Obama campaign distances itself from the stodgy, haphazard presentation of a traditional political campaign. Obama is the Mac to John McCain's PC.Isn't this part of what John McCain is critiquing with his 'celebrity' commercials? That Obama is too slick, too prepackaged? The ad campaign is, in part, a generational dog-whistle.
This doesn't mean that Obama should back down from such strategies. The Obama campaign has recently had a tendency to run away and hide whenever it encounters resistance, which is exactly the wrong approach. But it does mean that the campaign is going to have to try and reach multiple groups of voters through multiple channels -- by, for instance, producing several different ads concurrently, and running them on different networks to cater to particular demographics.
McCain's $6 million Olympic ad buy is getting lots of ratings points here in Chicago. I've also heard from a reader that it's been in widespread circulation in Utah. If the ads are running in Utah and running in Chicago, that means they're running everywhere, and so far the buy has been exclusively limited to the negative ad that I linked above.
This is certainly an unorthodox decision. I'd also venture that it's a stupid one. Not just because the ads seem tone-deaf in context, but also because they sacrifice a major opportunity for McCain to do some branding for himself. McCain's whole America First theme could have worked extremely well in the context of the Olympics. Work in pitches from McCain-friendly athletes like Lance Armstrong and Curt Schilling, and there are a million directions you could go with this -- almost any of which would be better than the one he chose.
The McCain folks seem to be convinced that the 'Celebrity'-themed attack ads are working for them. Even if that were true, that's not necessarily a reason to run them during the Olympics. But there's not much evidence that they're working in the first place. If you look at our tracking graph, you'll see a slight downtick in Obama's numbers that occurred between roughly mid-June and mid-July ... before his trip abroad and before McCain's attack ads started running. Since then, the trend has been essentially flat.
There's a lot of noise in polling data -- and there has been especially much noise lately. A campaign that's cherry-picking the polls can tell itself almost any story that it wants to. But if it's making decisions like this one, it is doing so at its own peril.
The table below represents my best estimate of the number of field offices that each campaign presently has open in each state, or plans to open in the immediate future. I say "estimate" because there is no hard-and-fast source for this information. Each campaign has listing of its field offices on the respective state-by-state pages within its website (Obama example) (McCain example), however, in certain cases, the offices appear to be relics of the primary campaign that have since shut down. In states where the number of offices appeared to be dubious, or the listing did not appear to have been updated recently, I spot-checked the numbers by randomly calling a couple of offices in each state. It appears that all or almost all of the McCain campaign's offices in California are inactive. But this was a larger problem for Obama, where offices in a large number of states that were important in the primaries, like Kentucky or any number of Super Tuesday states, have long since been shut down.
My best estimate of the current state of the ground game follows. States are ordered by their current rankings in the Tipping Point metric:
Overall, I count 336 offices for Obama and 101 for McCain.
What's more, the overwhelming majority of McCain offices aren't really branded as McCain offices. Rather, they are so-called 'Victory Offices' that are operated by the local Republican party in that state and which serve all Republican candidates in that state. Some fairly substantial degree of coordination between the national campaign and the state party apparatuses is inevitable in any Presidential campaign. But in Obama's case, it is Chicago that is driving the bus (to the extent that we'll probably begin to hear some complaints from local party officials), whereas the McCain campaign is effectively competing for resources and attention with other Republican candidates.
The state-by-state distributions are also interesting. McCain, who has spent almost nothing on advertising in Florida, is instead very heavily invested on the ground there with 35 offices, perhaps reflecting the fact that Florida has one of the nation's best and most effective state Republican party operations. The other states where McCain has multiple offices open are: Michigan (11), Ohio (9), Minnesota (7), Missouri (7), Wisconsin (6), Virginia (6), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (3). By contrast, the McCain campaign has just one office open in key states like Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and (somewhat shockingly) Pennsylvania, and no offices open in some second-tier swing states like Indiana and Montana.
The Obama campaign is not really running a 50-state campaign. Instead, they appear to be running an active operation in 22 states: Ohio (33 offices open), Virginia (28), Missouri (27), Florida (25), Wisconsin (23), Iowa (23), Michigan (22), New Mexico (18), Pennsylvania (18), Washington (18), New Hampshire (14), Indiana (14), North Carolina (11), Georgia (11), Colorado (10), Minnesota (9), Nevada (6), Oregon (6), Maine (6), Montana (6), North Dakota (4) and Alaska (4). For my money, the large number of offices open in states like Washington and Maine are unnecessarily defensive -- and in Georgia, hopelessly offensive. But generally speaking, the Obama campaign's distribution does a much better job of matching the Tipping Point map.
How can someone being portrayed as "the biggest celebrity in the world" also be painted as radical and out of the mainstream? Either Obama is like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton: a fluffy, substanceless, mass-consumed but empty celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake, or he is an unfamiliar and dangerous other with a hidden anti-American agenda.
It’s hard to reconcile the two. By trumpeting Obama's popularity, McCain is calling him – by definition – a safe, easily digestible consumer product, broadly acceptable in the mainstream. Thus, McCain boxes himself into a corner when he wants to make the argument not to elect Obama because he’s so far outside the mainstream.
The problem with trying to thread the needle and have it both ways by making both messages stick simultaneously is that if Obama is a dangerous other with a secret America-hating agenda, it’s hard to call him vapid. You can’t be sharp enough to be cunning sleeper and also be an empty airhead.
In theory McCain could put out both messages and hope that the audience of persuadable voters self-selects which characterization bothers them about Obama and ignores the other, and that, ironically, the non-deep-thinkers who would turn around and reflexively swallow those attacks wholecloth don’t appreciate how the subtexts work against each other.
In practice, the campaign is dependent on the media to repeat the buzzwords over and over and over to help amplify the impressions left by the ads. The media isn’t as likely to participate willingly in the “dangerous radical” game; they might be more willing to ask: “Obama phenomenon: crazy fad or authentic movement?”
The pivot is, ironically, an appeal to the cynical American cultural observation of itself, that Americans are often shallow in what they choose to make popular. This requires the person who embraces the caricature of Obama to see him or herself as not shallow, in opposition to his or her fellow Americans who have installed Obama on his celebrity pedestal. The audience then, is comprised of people who see themselves as above the common culture. (Closet elitists, if you will.)
Moreover, Obama seems more fully prepared for counterattacking the “dangerous other” theme, simply because he’s had a far longer time practicing. He’s been a national phenomenon far less time. It’s also awkward to argue against the celebrity charge. Every politician wants to be popular. And while Obama would love to argue (and has) that his popularity derives from an America hungry for policy differentiation from Republican policymaking that has produced record high wrong track polling marks, that doesn’t convincingly and fully explain his popularity. Obama has personal charisma, and he can't convince us that's not part of it.
The incredulity with which Obama responded to the Spears-Hilton ad betrayed his surprise at that new gambit: “Is that the best you can come up with?” And it appears, yes, the McCain camp is finding traction and investing heavily in the theme (over $140,000 day on the Britney ads alone). Given the subtext conflict, and that there is a risk of just as much backlash against the otherness fear politics, and Obama’s deftness at using aikido to turn those attacks around, McCain is better off going with the celebrity line and ditching the otherness line.
If nothing else, it undermines one of Obama’s greatest campaign assets – the numbers of people willing to go to their neighbors door to door and persuade on Obama’s behalf. If McCain’s campaign succeeds in caricaturing those supporters themselves as the political equivalent of boy-band tween fans, it might blunt some of that neighbor-to-neighbor outreach effectiveness.
Perhaps it'll ultimately sort out as Obama-as-cunning-stealth-sleeper and Obama's supporters as NYSNC fanboys and fangirls. Of course, caricaturing Americans who want to see an inspiring leader runs the risk of backfiring. Dumping on hope isn't generally a winning strategy.
In Michigan, Barack Obama leads John McCain by 4 points. This is down from 8 points a month ago, but consistent with other polling of the state -- the four most recent polls all have had Obama leading by margins ranging from two points to four.
I tend to believe that Michigan, unlike something like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, is liable to stay fairly close to the end. You have several exogenous factors that tend to help John McCain in the state: an rather unpopular Democratic governor, a Democratic mayor in Detroit who spent last night in jail (and who may impact Obama's turnout operations by triggering infighting at City Hall), and the fact that the Obama campaign got a later start on the ground here than in any other state. Weighted against that is a meaningful edge for the Democrats in party identification, a fairly large African-American population, two huge university towns in Ann Arbor and East Lansing, and the nation's highest unemployment rate. The balance of power still favors Obama, but not by much.
In Missouri, it's McCain by 6; he had led by 5 points in July. The Obama campaign is investing tons of resources into Missouri and believe that they can flip the state, but the better bet might be Indiana, a demographically similar state with the same electoral vote count, but where the McCain campaign is making a huge gamble and not playing defense.
Lastly, in Washington, Obama leads 54-42. John McCain has about as much chance of winning Washington as the Mariners do of making the playoffs.
Rany Jazayerli, my friend and colleague at Baseball Prospectus, knows Mr. Asbahi, and wrote me a long e-mail detailing his perspective on the matter. I asked him whether he'd be willing to share his perspective with the readers of FiveThirtyEight, and he graciously agreed. The following are Rany's words, unedited, and pulling no punches.
On Mazen Asbahi
by Rany Jazayerli
If you’re a politics junkie – and if you’re reading this, you are – you may have read the report in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that Mazen Asbahi, who just 10 days before had joined Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as national coordinator for Muslim American affairs, “stepped down Monday after an Internet newsletter wrote about his brief stint on the fund’s board, which also included a fundamentalist imam.”
Mazen Asbahi is one of my best friends. I introduced him to his wife 12 years ago, which was payback after his wife (a childhood friend) introduced me to my wife the year before. When I attended medical school in Michigan, where he grew up, his parents would invite me over for dinner regularly. Our kids play together and we dine together at least once a month. We’re close. And now, thanks to the work of some racist jerkwads, his reputation has been sullied from coast to coast. Nothing that has been inflicted on the Muslim community in America has made me remotely as angry as what has transpired over the last 72 hours. (Except for 9/11, of course. But I know those guys are getting what’s coming to them.)
The news that Mazen had been offered the position - and that he took a leave of absence from his law firm to work in an unpaid capacity – was celebrated not just among his circle of friends, but throughout the Muslim community in Chicago and nationally. Mazen had spent his adult life preparing for this kind of opportunity. He’s worked for a number of Chicago law firms since graduating from law school, and while most of his legal work has been in the corporate setting, he has always been most passionate about the work he did, much of it pro bono, on behalf of various charitable and social organizations. The opportunity to represent Obama’s campaign, one he strongly supports, to a Muslim community that knows and trusts him, was an immensely fulfilling task for him.
So I'm crushed for him as a friend, but I’m furious as a Muslim because what has happened is that Mazen was forced to resign because of a smear campaign that targeted him for the sin of being Muslim: nothing more, nothing less.
Let's parse the original Wall Street Journal column, if you don’t mind:
“In 2000, Mr. Asbahi briefly served on the board of Allied Assets Advisors Fund, a Delaware-registered trust. Its other board members at the time included Jamal Said, the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque in Illinois.”
‘I served on that board for only a few weeks before resigning as soon as I became aware of public allegations against another member of the board,’ Mr. Asbahi said in his resignation letter. ‘Since concerns have been raised about that brief time, I am stepping down...to avoid distracting from Barack Obama's message of change.’”
Where do I start? Let’s start with Jamal Said, “the imam at a fundamentalist-controlled mosque”. The consensus of the vast majority of Muslims in Chicago is that the mosque is not a fundamentalist anything, which is why it has such a large membership. Some of the mosque’s more recent projects include donating a riverfront garden to the city of Chicago (here’s a picture of major Richard Daley at the ribbon-cutting ceremony) and becoming the first mosque in the country to run on solar power.
Said has never been convicted of any crime, or arrested for any crime, or indicted for any crime. He has been accused of supporting Hamas, but has never been found guilty of anything. I’m not here to defend Said; I don’t know him, and unlike the people who wrote this column I prefer to not render judgments about people I don’t know anything about. But the point is that Said is not a convicted criminal, or a mafia don that walks the streets while people cower in fear.
What he is, is the imam of the largest mosque in the Chicago area. Mazen is an active member of the Muslim community here in Chicago. It would be almost impossible for him to be active and not have some contact with Said.
So Mazen happened to serve on the board of an investment fund with Said, until he learned about allegations that Said had been involved in raising funds for Hamas, at which time he quit the board. In 2000. Before 9/11, before Iraq, before the US government shut down Muslim charities such as the Holy Land Foundation after accusing them of funneling money to Hamas and other designated terrorist groups. (Incidentally, the case against the Holy Land Foundation ended in a mistrial.) But in 2000, before our own government felt that these charitable activities were illegal, Mazen decided to dissociate himself from even the hint of impropriety. That doesn’t support accusations that he’s a terrorist sympathizer; it refutes them.
“Other Web sites, some pro-Republican and others critical of fundamentalist Islam, also have reported on the background of Mr. Asbahi. He is a frequent speaker before several groups in the U.S. that scholars have associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Those groups “associated with the Muslim Brotherhood” include ISNA, the largest Muslim organization in the country, whose annual convention draws over 10,000 people. Other prominent speakers at past conventions include radicals such as Karen Hughes. Last year's convention was co-sponsored by the Department of Justice. The other group Mazen was involved with was the MSA, also known as the Muslim Students Association, which exists on every college campus. I was part of the MSA when I was in college; pretty much every Muslim who goes to college is. It serves the religious needs of students on campus in the same way that Campus Crusade for Christ or Hillel might.
“The Justice Department named Mr. Said an unindicted co-conspirator in the racketeering trial last year of several alleged Hamas fund-raisers, which ended in a mistrial. He has also been identified as a leading member of the group in news reports going back to 1993.”
Pardon my Arabic, but what the f**k is an unindicted co-conspirator, and why is our government using this phrase? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? And whatever happened to the notion that indictment is just the first step towards a guilty verdict? A prosecutor is supposed to be able to indict a ham sandwich, so what does it say that they’ve never been able to indict Said? (Maybe that’s his secret: Muslims don’t eat pork.)
In that racketeering trial – which, again, ended in a mistrial – the government listed close to 300 Muslim organizations as “unindicted co-conspirators”, which is tantamount to saying “we think some of them are terrorists, and since we don't know who, we’ll just blame them all.” So much for innocent until proven guilty. This isn’t even guilty until proven innocent – it’s guilty with no recourse to prove you’re innocent. How can you defend yourself against an indictment which doesn’t exist? Said is guilty by association. Which makes Mazen, apparently, guilty by association with someone who’s guilty by association. It's McCarthyism squared.
I’m so angry that I don't know where to direct my anger. I’ve fervently supported Obama’s campaign up until now, having just donated to his campaign again last week, but I’m not sending him another dime until I see some evidence that he’s willing to take a principled stand against this kind of bigotry. If Obama won't stand up to the flimsiest of accusations linking someone in his campaign, however remotely and ridiculously, to terrorists, then I’m not sure what he'll stand up against. I realize this kind of feckless approach worked so well for Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, Barack, but could you act like a man for once and grow a pair? Maybe Hillary will lend you hers.
If Obama doesn't want to stand up for Mazen on principle, how about standing up for him on pragmatism? Maybe he doesn't feel he needs to, since it's not like Michigan is a tipping point state in this election or anything. And it's not like Michigan has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims of any state in the union. And it's not like Mazen is from Michigan and his resignation is certain to depress turnout in the state from one of the Obama campaign's most reliable demographic bases. Seriously, who made this decision? Karl Rove?
I suppose I should credit the Obama campaign for having the courage to appoint a Muslim coordinator in the first place. In which case I have to ask, how stupid were they to not expect this kind of attack in the first place? The first thing I said to Mazen after he was hired – after “congratulations” – was “you know they’re going to come after you now, right?” He nodded, and we both knew who “they” were.
“They” are the racists who made these accusations and forced the Obama campaign to respond to them. They came after Mazen with everything they got, and all they landed was a feather punch – only to have the Obama campaign throw the towel in the ring anyway.
What they’re saying is that Mazen Asbahi has a link to people suspected of terrorism. What I’ll tell you is this: Mazen is not a terrorist. He’s not a fundamentalist. He’s not an Islamist. He’s neither a supporter of, nor a subscriber to the ideology of, the Muslim Brotherhood. The only thing he is guilty of, like the witch-hunted Debbie Almontaser, is being a Muslim and being an active member of the Muslim community. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have been qualified for the position in the first place.
As Ahmed Rehab put it in today’s Chicago Tribune, the headline should read “Muslim liaison for presidential campaign resigns after connections to Muslim community are found.” Mazen could not have been qualified to do this job without being associated, in some tenuous fashion, to someone like Jamal Said – just like Obama could not be a part of the political community of Chicago’s South Side without being associated with someone like, say, William Ayres.
Oh, and you know who else is associated with Said? As Jake Tapper pointed out, the board that Mazen and Said both sat on was the Allied Asset Advisor Funds, a subsidiary of the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT). NAIT is an adviser to the Dow Jones Islamic Fund.
Dow Jones. Which publishes the Wall Street Journal. Which broke the story that forced Mazen’s resignation. We’re officially through the looking glass, people.
If Mazen Asbahi is a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist. And if I were named to the same position, I'm sure they would have found a way to label me a terrorist as well. (I’m sure that if you scour my writings over the last 12 years, you’ll find that at some point I’ve threatened grievous bodily harm to a few members of the Kansas City Royals.)
And that’s what this is about. The same people who claim there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim will do everything in their power to slander people like Mazen Asbahi – the very epitome of a moderate, modern, integrated, tolerant, patriotic American Muslim – as an extremist. They will set their sights on any Muslim who seeks to be a part of the political process, and will pick them off, one by one, until there are no more targets left.
The world is at war right now, but it’s not a war of Christian vs. Muslim. It’s a war of moderates vs. extremists, and the two groups are battling it out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But they’re also battling here in America. This week, the extremists won. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them continue to win without a fight.
Rany Jazayerli is a physician, and co-founder of Baseball Prospectus. He lives in Naperville, Illinois
However, we need a bit of a reality check, since we are talking about voter contacts – numbers of phone calls and door-knocks. According to Martin’s reporting, the McCain camp made 20,000 combined door knocks and phone calls nationwide in the previous entire month. (Yes, you read that right.) With the resurgence, they are up to 324,000 in one week, an approximately 6500% increase.
To the uninitiated, that may sound impressive. Led by Steve Hildebrand, the Obama camp has been tight-lipped about its own numbers, as Martin's piece notes. But the reality is that on Monday alone in just Ohio, without revealing my sources, the Obama campaign made 109,029 persuasion phone calls. From general experience, contact rates are about 25%, meaning that for every phone call or door knocked, about 1 in 4 voters gives you information about their support or about their party or what issues are most important to them in helping them make up their mind. In turn, this information re-loops into the voter file and flows downstream until it's the final GOTV push.
Let’s do some quick math. Martin’s reporting suggests to us based on that ratio that nationwide, in one week, the McCain campaign talked to approximately 81,000 voters. The Obama campaign talked to about 27,000 in one state in one night. If we make a reasonable guess that Ohio has something like one-fifteenth of Obama organizers and volunteers, that’d be 405,000 voters contacted in one night nationwide. In 7 days, that’s 2,835,000 voters contacted, compared to the McCain 81,000, a thirty-five-fold edge.
Granted, 35-1 is a rough estimate and an improvement over the incomprehensibly sad 567-to-1 edge McCain was apparently giving away last month, but these field programs are still not in the same ballpark. One is an NFL team and the other is now a high school JV team.
For example, after the Tester-Burns Montana Senate race in 2006, I drove to San Antonio to help Ciro Rodriguez in his December 12 special election TX-23 runoff against incumbent Henry Bonilla. Every poll in that race, including the final poll released on election eve, had Bonilla winning by a comfortable 4-5 point margin.
Stunningly, Rodriguez won by almost 9 points. Organizing helped tip the balance. The DCCC poured late money into the race and a huge field effort with an assist from a Bill Clinton Dec. 10 appearance in the district helped spike the energy. The pollsters didn’t catch the under-the-radar movement.
In many ways this election was anomalous because special elections are low turnout affairs. In fact, turnout was only a 28% fraction of 2004 turnout. But it still shows that polling models can be well off (pollsters know that special elections are low turnout affairs and adjust their likely voter models accordingly) because they fail to capture the force multiplier of a far more energized turnout machine on one side versus another.
As a result, it’s a key topic in the presidential race, particularly when one side is going to the mattresses and setting a ridiculous precedent for organizing.
On Monday, a must-read piece in the Washington Post discussing Virginia specifically calculated the mathematical edge Obama hopes to leverage on Election Day through new voters. This example can be extrapolated to each state, since the campaign's field team in each state has its own voter registration goals.
Here are Virginia's numbers: the addition of 151,000 new voters by the registration deadline of October 6. Based on experience, the campaign believes about 75% of these new voters will show up on Election Day, and 80% of those newly registered will likely be Obama voters. (Mostly this is because the people out there registering voters are wearing Obama T-shirts and stickers, or sitting behind tables with Obama banners taped to their front that naturally attract undecideds and those inclined to support Obama.)
In Virginia’s case, that translates to nearly 68,000 extra votes for Obama uncaptured by pollsters in current polling. Given that Virginia’s general election turnout was 3.2M in 2004 and projecting turnout of 3.5M in 2008, banking 68,000 new votes means Obama would start out with a 1.9%-to-0 structural advantage.
It’s important to stress that this is not a hypothetical advantage. If the organizers and their recruited volunteers can hit their daily quotas (perhaps something like 20 per organizing pyramid per day as a broad guesstimation) in each state, this new voter edge will happen, and so will the 1.9%-ish bumps. It’s not an accident that tickets to the Invesco Field nomination acceptance speech are predicated on showing up to field offices and registering new voters.
The silver lining for Republican partisans is that nothing besides their own campaign choices and base enthusiasm is stopping them from matching Democratic partisans new voter for new voter, in which case the bump would be canceled out. In 2004, despite an intense effort on the Democratic side, Republicans had the better ground game and it made the difference. George W. Bush’s team saw the merit in investing big on the ground, and it paid off. The problem for them this time is lack of base enthusiasm and choices the McCain camp is making about resource investment.
Hildebrand said that to ensure that the campaign fills the stadium, the application process becomes in and of itself a recruiting tool.
"Every single person is going to be a level of seriousness," Hildebrand said. "You know, 'Tell us how you're going to get there from Maine. Tell us how you're going to get there from Florida. Give us a sense of whether or not you're really serious about this. If you're not, we're going to provide someone else with this.' "
Those who want a seat will begin the process at their local Democratic Party office. While demonstrating their ability to attend, they also will be encouraged to sign on to the campaign as volunteers.
"They fill out a form; there's a conversation," Hildebrand said. "We ask them and encourage them to register voters and to get out the vote and those activities that are important to us. It's not a requirement, but it's going to be an encouragement."
Moreover, until those new registration goals are reached, they aren’t reached. That seems like an obvious point, but a fair number of blogosphere-based Democrats seem to be caught up in appointing themselves amateur campaign advisers instead of bearing down on the work that has to be done, a point I made in a partisan post here today following on Al Giordano’s lead. I had more than one person tell me during the 2006 Montana Senate race that they didn’t need to pull a volunteer GOTV shift because I was needlessly worrying since Tester had it in the bag based on his consistent polling leads. (For those that don’t remember, the race wasn’t called until 10:30am local time on Wednesday morning, moments before Donald Rumsfeld resigned.)
As the election wears on, we’ll be staying on the organizing beat, looking for updates on numbers, reports from the ground, and insider tips about where the rival campaigns are in voter registration. Feel free to email pocket99s-at-gmail with confidential tips and general observations about the state of the ground game in your area.
That's a Pollster.com-style chart of Bill Clinton's favorability ratings since the start of calendar year 2001, just as he was preparing to leave office. The patterns are fairly easy to infer. Clinton remained popular in the waning days of his Presidency. Once he left office, his numbers essentially became a mirror image of George W. Bush's, moving into net-unfavorable territory when Bush was reasonably well-liked, and then rising as the President declined in popularity. But since his wife began to run for office, his numbers have faltered, falling from about a +20 at their peak in 2006 and early 2007 to roughly +5 now.
I think there is more risk than the insta-pundit reaction seems to be acknowledging in the news that Bill Clinton will speak just before the Vice Presidential nominee on the Wednesday night of the Democratic convention. This is a huge speech, and it means that there is going to be an awful lotta Clinton at the convention, with Hillary probably delivering the keynote on Tuesday and Bill stealing the spotlight on Wednesday.
Indeed, the only reason why Bill's speech won't upstage Obama's is because Obama is such a strong orator. It will possibly upstage his wife's, and probably upstage the vice president's. In fact, it puts Obama in even more of a pickle in making his VP choice. Does it become even more important now to have a 'change' candidate, to avoid the convention being too much of a back-to-the-future affair? Or do you need someone who won't create an awkward contrast with the Clintons? If the importance of oratory is elevated by the chore of having to speak after Bill Clinton, does that boost the prospects of the relatively stronger speakers (Joe Biden and Tim Kaine) at the expense of the relatively weaker ones (Evan Bayh and Kathleen Sebelius)? Does it help someone like Wesley Clark, who is relatively well equipped to navigate these different parameters? And how sure are we that we should be ruling out Hillary?
The most interesting results are perhaps out of Wisconsin, where new polls from Rasmussen and the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute have Barack Obama ahead by 7 and 6 points respectively. This is slightly closer than Wisconsin had been polling before (it's closer still if you exclude leaners from the Rasmussen poll, which diminishes his advantage to 4 points). Still, I think that Wisconsin is a trap state for John McCain. There have been 17 polls of Wisconsin since Super Tuesday, and Obama had led in 15 of them. The Republicans have been slightly outspending the Democrats in Wisconsin, which could account for a point or two's worth of tightening, but we're getting to the point where a consistent lead in the high single-digits is a pretty significant barrier to overcome. Moreover, Wisconsin is in an awkward position electorally. In only 52 of our 10,000 simulations did Barack Obama lose Wisconsin while losing Michigan -- and if Obama has lost Michigan, Wisconsin is unlikely to matter.
Oregon, where SurveyUSA has Obama ahead by 3, presents a somewhat more interesting opportunity, as it marches somewhat more to its own drummer. Still, while the polling has tightened in Oregon -- this is the second consecutive SurveyUSA poll to show a 3-point race, it's hard to look at the demographics, compare them to Washington or California (where Obama holds large leads), and conclude that McCain is going to swing the race without a lot of effort.
Moving outside of swing states (real or alleged), there are a couple of good vanity numbers for Obama. His +21 from Quinnipiac in New York represents a 7-point improvement from last month, and the Capital Survey result from Alabama frankly isn't bad for a Democrat. But neither state has any electoral significance.
Now, I appreciate that Gallup is willing to disclose so much about their methodology -- it certainly opens them up to more criticism. Having said that, winding up with a sample that understates the youth vote by perhaps 30-50 percent is pretty much prima facie evidence that something has gone awry. Indeed, I'm really not a fan of the Gallup likely voter model at all.
What Gallup does is essentially as follows. Suppose that the entire electorate consists of five voters. Gallup has an algorithm by which they estimate each voter's likelihood of participating. So what you might get is something like this:
Voter A - 70% chance of voting
Voter B - 50% chance of voting
Voter C - 90% chance of voting
Voter D - 60% chance of voting
Voter E - 80% chance of voting
For my money, the most logical way to handle this -- if you're going to apply some sort of likely voter model at all -- would be to multiply each voter's response by their likelihood of participating. So voter A would be counted at 70 percent weight, voter B at 50 percent weight, and so forth.
What Gallup does instead is to rank the voters in order, and to set an arbitrary cutoff point for how many voters they want to have in their sample. Assuming, for instance, they're targeting 60 percent turnout, that might look something like this:
Voter C - 90% chance of voting
Voter E - 80% chance of voting
Voter A - 70% chance of voting
Voter D - 60% chance of voting
Voter B - 50% chance of voting
Voters A, C and E would be included in the likely voter sample (and counted at full weight); voters B an D are dropped.
I think that this winds up throwing away good information. We know that Voter A isn't that much more likely to participate than Voter D, but Voter A is counted at full weight, and Voter D isn't included at all.
A larger problem arises however if there is some kind of systematic pattern in which voters tend to wind up in which buckets. For example, suppose that Gallup's scoring is such that you wind up with something like this:
Voter M1 -- Mature Voter -- 65% chance of voting
Voter M2 -- Mature Voter -- 65% chance of voting
Voter M3 -- Mature Voter -- 65% chance of voting
Voter Y1 -- Young Voter -- 55% chance of voting
Voter Y2 -- Young Voter -- 55% chance of voting
In this case, the three mature voters would all be included in the model, while the two young voters would be dropped -- even though there is a rather small difference in their respective likelihood of voting.
That was just a contrived example -- but Gallup's methodology could prove to be very problematic if there is any sort of Long Tail effect in voting patterns.
That is, suppose you have a small group of core voters who are nearly certain to vote, coupled with a larger group of non-core voters, any one of whom might not be all that likely to participate, but who collectively will make up a fairly large fraction of the electorate. If the voters toward the head of the curve tend toward one party (say, the Republicans), and the voters toward the tail of the curve tend toward another (say, the Democrats), you're going to wind up with a skewed sample if you set an arbitrary cutoff point somewhere in between.
The compromise proposal -- formally the New Energy Reform Act of 2008 -- is a complicated piece of legislation, but involves three or four basic components:
-- Opens additional drilling areas in the Gulf of Mexico, and allows Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to elect to permit drilling off their coasts. Existing bans on drilling off the West Coast, including in the ANWR, would be preserved.
-- Dedicates $20 billion to R&D on alternative fuels for motor vehicles.
-- Extends a series of tax credits and incentives, such as for the purchase of hybrid vehicles.
-- Funds the above -- at total cost of about $84 billion -- by closing tax loopholes for petroleum companies, in conjunction with licensing fees.
Barack Obama has come out with lukewarm support for the bill. McCain has come out with what amounts to lukewarm opposition to it, objecting to the removal of the oil company tax loopholes.
There would be tremendous electoral upside to Obama in making his support for the legislation full-throated, by signing on as a co-sponsor to the legislation and making the Gang of 10 a Gang of 11. Consider the benefits of such action:
- Would take the drilling issue off the table. Offshore drilling polls well, favored by roughly 2:1 margins. But more than that, it gives the Republicans a rhetorically effective detour by which they can bypass most of the debate on energy policy, and much of the debate on the economy in general. The passage of a bill -- particularly one that had Obama's support -- would mitigate the issue and force the Republicans to argue the economy from much weaker ground, such as the Democrat-friendly territory of social security, health care, and middle class tax cuts.
- Would make Obama look bipartisan. The Republicans supporting the bill aren't your usual cast of Gordon Smiths and Susan Collinses. Instead, they are center-right types: Saxby Chambliss, John Thune, Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, and Johnny Isakson. Obama's claims to bipartisanship would be very credible.
- Would make McCain look obstructionist. The converse of this is also true, substantially undermining Obama's claims to be a moderate/maverick.
- Would highlight McCain's loyalty to Big Oil. Even worse for McCain is his reason for opposing the bill -- his refusal to remove oil company tax loopholes. In this populist climate, and particularly in the wake of Exxon's record-setting profits, that is a potentially lethal position to hold.
- Would recast 'flip-flops' as 'compromises'. One of the potential drawbacks to Obama voicing more aggressive support for the legislation is that the McCain campaign would try and highlight is reversal on the offshore drilling issue. However, Obama has a couple of relatively persuasive defenses. Firstly, McCain flip-flopped himself on this very issue. And secondly, Obama can begin to build a narrative that explains his flip-flops by some means other than electoral opportunism. Namely, flexibility is required in order to engineer bipartisan compromise: he is willing to support drilling, but only if oil company tax loopholes are closed, and only if there are provisions to invest those tax revenues in alternative fuels. Since essentially all of Obama's shifts have been toward the center rather than the left, this might pay dividends not only on the drilling issue itself, but also in other instances in which he has changed his position.
- Would help Obama in electorally significant states. The bill is rather cleverly engineered in terms of electoral politics. It permits drilling in the swing states of Virgnia, North Carolina and Florida, but does not permit it on the West Coast, where the measure is significantly less popular. There might also be some secondary benefit to Obama in supporting the moderate Democratic senators who have championed the legislation. If Kent Conrad shoots a commercial in North Dakota, and says "This man had my back when the chips were down and it was time to lower your gas prices and secure America's energy future", that is very persuasive stuff.
- Would distance Obama from Pelosi and Reid. Increasingly, the right is trying to lump Obama together with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the extremely unpopular institution of the Congress. Supporting the compromise would allow Obama to keep Pelosi, who has been attempting to prevent a drilling bill from coming to a floor vote in the House, at arm's-length, and create the perception that he is in charge of his own destiny.
- Preempts a non-compromise drilling bill from passing. And frankly, it might also be doing Pelosi a favor. Intrade now forecasts that there is about a 50:50 chance of a drilling bill of some kind passing by the end of the year. What Pelosi is essentially doing is gambling that gas prices will decline over the summer while the Congress is on recess. If gas prices continue to go up, however, Pelosi could face an insurrection from swing-district Democrats, putting her at a Morton's Fork between allowing a vote on a drilling bill that wouldn't include compromise provisions (but which nevertheless would almost certainly pass), or attempting to plug the dam at the potential cost of a material number of House seats.
- Preempts McCain from doing the same. I believe that McCain made a significant and potentially even fatal mistake by opposing the tax loophole closure provision of the bill. But Obama may only have a limited amount of time to exploit it. There are too many electoral benefits to this bill for one or the other candidates not to come out vociferously in favor of it, and if Obama does not do so first, McCain may do so instead. Ninety percent of electoral politics is possession, and whomever grabs the apple first will make the other candidate look like a follower.
Frankly, it would not surprise me if the Obama campaign is already keyed into this maneuver. Last Friday, they sent up a trial balloon in the form of Obama's softly-voiced support for the compromise. The trial balloon did not burst; Obama took very little flak for his apparent flip-flop on the drilling issue, whereas the Republicans were reduced to a frivolous taking point about tire gauges. Then this week, Obama began to hammer McCain on his support for oil company tax breaks, highlighting McCain's reason for opposing the compromise measure. Everything is all set up for Obama to move on the issue literally overnight. If he gets the optics right, he will leave McCain in an unenviable position.
This lineup is nearly identical to 2004, except that Brokaw is replacing Charlie Gibson in the second debate. Whether this is a direct response to ABC's much-criticized Philadelphia debate during the Democratic primaries, I don't know -- I'm frankly not sure about how these things are negotiated -- but it's probably a slight break for Obama. It's also a bit of a break in tradition for ABC, which has moderated far more debates than the other major networks (see table below).
One break for McCain? The first and third debates will feature both candidates seated, rather than standing at their podiums (the second is a town-hall format), depriving Obama of the opportunity to fully leverage the aesthetics of his height advantage.
In Florida, a new survey from Public Policy Polling has John McCain with a 3-point lead. This is an improvement for McCain from the June edition of this poll, when he had trailed by 2. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Rasmussen has Barack Obama ahead by 10 points, after having led by 3 points in July.
I lump these two polls together because in each case, looking at the immediate trendline is a little bit deceptive. The preponderance of polling and demographic evidence -- including previous surveys from these firms -- has suggested that John McCain holds a small lead in Florida, and that Obama holds a larger, relatively safe lead in New Jersey. So this may very well just be a case of the numbers reverting to the mean, rather than any kind of organic movement. Likewise, in New York, Rasmussen shows Obama with a 19-point lead. This is down from a massive 31-point lead that he held last month -- but more consistent with other polling of the state, including Rasmussen's numbers in April and May.
Still, these numbers may impact electoral strategy at the margins. The McCain people have been smart enough to avoid a serious investment in New Jersey, which is a huge money trap. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, has been serious about trying to flip Florida, which is also a notoriously expensive state to advertise in (lots of old people = lots of people watching TV news). As I've elucidated before, having gone this far in Florida, it would be premature for the Obama campaign to pull out now -- by any measure it's a winnable state. But we're still talking about a fairly narrow set of conditions under which Florida matters. The basic flowchart for this election looks as follows:
1. Can McCain win Michigan? If so, McCain is very likely to win the election.
2. If McCain loses Michigan, can Obama win Ohio? If so, Obama is very likely to win the election.
3. If Ohio and Michigan are split, can Obama win Colorado or Virginia? If so, Obama is very likely to win the election, having essentially to pick off just one or two smaller states West of the Mississippi (Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Montana) while perhaps also having to defend New Hampshire.
These remain the paths of least resistance in this election. It is not coincidence that Obama has two winning paths to McCain's one, which matches the roughly 2:1 favorite that we make Obama in this election.
States like Florida, Missouri and Indiana represent break-glass-in-case-of-emergency states for Obama; McCain's analogous states are probably Pennsylvania, Oregon and perhaps Minnesota. If these states have become must-wins, we are talking about a scenario where a candidate is facing third-and-long: not an uncovertable position by any means, but also not the one they'd prefer to be battling from.
I've read -- well, skimmed -- the whole paper, and it strikes me as exceptionally thorough. The thing you worry about when you are conducting one of these sorts of analyzes is that there is some latent effect that you can't capture well through other variables -- some piece of DNA that might not manifest itself in traditional demographic categories like age, income or race, but which simultaneously makes one both more likely to subscribe to Oprah's products and to vote for Barack Obama. Garthwaite and Moore do everything they can to identify such latent variables, by (for example) searching for an Oprah Effect in the 2004 Illinois Senate race (there wasn't one) and also looking at subscription patterns of other popular women's magazines.
It's pretty convincing work. And it's important work too, because endorsements are a notoriously slippery thing to study. If you come right out and ask people whether endorsements matter, they are likely to tell you 'no'. But I doubt that people are being entirely honest. It's not that they're consciously lying to pollsters -- they're lying to themselves. If you stood outside of a Best Buy and surveyed everyone who had purchased an iPod, and asked them whether their purchase decision was influenced by iPod's ubiquitous advertising, I doubt very many of them would say yes. But the reality of the situation is that Apple's slick advertising and precise branding are hugely responsible for their dominance in the MP3 market, where they succeed in selling at a high price point in spite of a product that is not all that strongly differentiated from its competitors.
As a matter of pride, people are going to resent the implication that they aren't capable of making their own decisions. And certainly, Oprah doesn't hold anyone in a hypnotic spell (her ability to get hordes of people to purchase crap like A Million Little Pieces notwithstanding). But she might get people to get up off the couch and start becoming more engaged in the election, and when they do, to perceive things through a somewhat Obama-friendly lens. The researchers found that Oprah's involvement also increased votes for the other Democratic candidates -- just not as much as for Obama.
Is Martin a better candidate than Jones? Yes -- but Democrats ought not to be getting too excited. The most recent Rasmussen poll had shown Martin trailing Saxby Chambliss by 11 points, as opposed to Jones's 30-point deficit. Other polling from Strategic Vision had not had the race that tight, but that poll was somewhat dated, before Martin had really had the chance to introduce himself to the voters.
Still, the fundamentals work against him. Chambliss is fairly popular, and Georgia remains a red state. Martin's fundraising -- a little bit more than a million dollars so far -- is not bad for a challenger, but is no match for Saxby's numbers, and one wonders how much cash Martin has left on hand after what was a 10-round primary fight. Martin had served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 18 years, but that is relatively low-profile work. His issue positions, though well presented, are more or less in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, and it remains fairly hard for a non-Blue Dog Democrat to win in the South.
This is not to disparage Martin, who has run a likable, professional campaign and has some upside as a candidate. But, it's awfully hard to sell that upside when you're left with only a couple of months to do it. There is a give-and-take in setting a primary date -- if you hold it too early, voters may not be tuned in enough to make an informed choice. But clearly, it can't help a party when it doesn't know its nominee until August.