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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> November 2007

Debate Ratings

Media Bistro reported that the Wednesday night Republican debate had 4.29 million viewers. To appreciate where this fits compared with other television watching, consider the following ratings data from the week of November 19th - courtesy of Nielsen. These are the top ten network shows, and number of viewers over age two:

1. Dancing with the Stars (ABC): 22,849,000 Viewers

2. NBC Sunday Night Football (NBC): 21,810,000 Viewers

3. Dancing with the Stars (ABC): 20,955,000 Viewers

4. Desperate Housewives (ABC): 18,638,000 Viewers

5. NCIS (CBS): 17,341,000 Viewers

6. 60 Minutes (CBS): 16,134,000 Viewers

7. CSI: Miami (CBS) 15,832,000 Viewers

8. House (Fox): 16,877,000 Viewers

9. Criminal Minds (CBS): 15,884,000 Viewers

10. Samantha Who? (ABC): 14,384,000 Viewers

So - where exactly does the debate fit in? Here are the top ten shows for cable for the same week:

1. Titans v. Broncos (ESPN): 9,619,000 Viewers

2. Spongebob (Nickelodeon): 5,717,000 Viewers

3. Santa Clause 2 (Disney): 6,115,000 Viewers

4. Spongebob (Nickelodeon): 5,448,000 Viewers

5. WWE Raw (USA): 5,075,000 Viewers

6. WWE Raw (USA): 5,075,000 Viewers

7. USC v. Arizona State (ESPN): 5,134,000 Viewers

8. I Love New York 2 (VH1): 4,394,000 Viewers

9. Shot at Love: Tila Tequila (MTV): 4,198,000 Viewers

10. The Hills (MTV): 4,292,000 Viewers

So - the most watched debate of the primary campaign did about as well as the original programming on MTV and VH1. What's the lesson?

Is it that the debate changed no minds? Not necessarily. The number of primary and caucus voters in Iowa and New Hampshire is very small relative to the whole nation - and I have never seen ratings data that speaks to those sub-totals. Their numbers could be important. If 5,000 undecided New Hampshire voters were among the total viewers - that would be significant, as they would have amounted to 2% of the 2000 Republican primary electorate. In a five-way race, 2% is a big deal.

The lesson is that the number of "political junkies" in this country is very small relative to the total population. At least this week, we barely outnumber the fans of Tila Tequila. However - everybody at or over the age of 18 gets a vote, regardless of whether they were watching the debate or WWE Raw. If we want to get an advance read on this election, we must understand this context. We must understand that the average voter interacts with politics differently than we do. They are - as these numbers illustrate - exposed to a great deal less political information than we are.

Because of their numbers, they decide elections. We don't.

We amount to little more than a subculture in this country. We do ourselves a disservice if we forget this. The only way we can understand electoral politics is if we understand our place in it. So, let's remember that - while Wednesday's debate might have been consequential in some way - it was not watched by the average voter. He was watching Criminal Minds.

-Jay Cost

On the GOP Debate

I have to say that I enjoyed this debate. It must have been because journalists were not asking the questions. And so - the discussion was geared toward giving voters information about the candidates' policy positions. CNN did, of course, allow a few questions to go through that were either not designed to help the Republican electorate make their choices (e.g. will Ron Paul run as an indy?), or designed to trap the candidates (e.g. is the Bible literally true?). Nevertheless, they did not play too heavy a hand - and the debate was better off for it.

As I have said time and again, it is ridiculous to score these debates - to identify who won on debating points, and to infer from that who helped their electoral fortunes. But one thing that we can do is note who attacked whom. The reason this activity can have value is that it can give us a sense of what these candidates perceive their relative positions to be. As the primary process is essentially a war of attrition, this is valuable information indeed - especially for a race as complicated as the Republican one is (on the Democratic side...it is kind of obvious!).

This kind of count is all the more salient because CNN did relatively little to induce candidates to hit one another.

I kept rough track of the hits (defined as a specific critique of another candidate, indicated either by name or by a clear gesture) in the debate. This is what I observed.

(1) There was a total of seventeen "hits" on one candidate against another. All of them were policy based, i.e. designed to highlight issue contrasts between candidates. In particular, all of the hits were designed to indicate that a given candidate deviates from the GOP's median position, i.e. where the average Republican stands.

(2) More than half of these hits - nine of seventeen - were on immigration. Few of these were actually prompted by CNN. This is a sign that these candidates recognize the salience of the issue to the Republican electorate. Again - all of these attacks were designed to indicate that the candidate deviated from the median Republican position on the issue.

(3) Giuliani seemed like the frontrunner, at least in terms of attacks. He was attacked more than any candidate - six times. And he attacked only attacked Romney twice (as many times as he attacked Hillary Clinton). Both hits regarded immigration.

(4) Romney acted like more of a challenger tonight. He made five hits - against Rudy (twice) and Huckabee (thrice). Thus, we saw pretty clearly here that Romney perceives both Huckabee and Giuliani to be threats to his candidacy. What is more, all of Romney's hits occurred during the immigration exchanges at the beginning of the debate.

(5) Huckabee launched only one attack - against Romney. This was done in response to one of Romney's hits.

(6) Thompson was on the attack tonight - indicating that he sees the other major candidates as a challenge. He hit Romney twice, Rudy twice, and Huckabee once.

(7) No candidate attacked Thompson.

(8) McCain was also on the attack. He hit Romney and Rudy, though (quite obviously) not on immigration. Interestingly, he also hit Paul twice. I wondered about this. Was it just because McCain could not resist the low-hanging fruit? Or, on the other hand, perhaps McCain senses that Paul could steal independents in New Hampshire. It is hard to say. Paul is probably a problem for McCain in New Hampshire. But then again, McCain seems to me to be the type of guy who could not resist smacking Paul around.

(9) No candidate attacked McCain.

(10) One thing I did not mention in yesterday's column was that would-be spoiler candidates tend not to launch attacks. True to form - Paul, Tancredo, and Hunter did not attack any of the five major candidates.

All in all - the debate seemed to me to be consistent with the observations that we have made with the mediated attacks. To summarize:

(i) Romney seems to perceive Giuliani and Huckabee - but not McCain or Thompson - as threats.
(ii) Giuliani seems to perceive Romney as a threat. He saved his attacks for him.
(iii) Huckabee seems to perceive Romney as a threat - or, maybe better put, as a target. Like Giuliani, he saved his attacks for him.
(iv) Thompson and McCain seem not to threaten the major candidates. Nevertheless, both perceive others as threats.

What we seem to have, then, is a five man race. There are two leading contenders, and three long shots, one of whom is on the rise.

-Jay Cost

When Republicans Attack!

As most of us have observed this week, the Republican presidential contest is starting to get negative - although some candidates seem to be avoiding one another. This is from the New York Sun:

As the Republican presidential race devolves into a five-man free-for-all of sustained attacks and sharp rejoinders, one pair of candidates, Mayor Giuliani and Michael Huckabee, has avoided direct conflict, exchanging more compliments than criticism.

Mr. Huckabee, who has leapt to second in the Iowa polls, has drawn increasing fire from GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, but not from Mr. Giuliani, who has described him as "wonderful."

The former Arkansas governor seemed to respond in kind yesterday when he took Mr. Giuliani's side in the former New York mayor's bitter fight with Mr. Romney over their respective records as a mayor and governor.

"I think Mitt was the one who went after Rudy more than Rudy went after Mitt," Mr. Huckabee told reporters in a conference call, when asked for his thoughts on the dispute that has played out in New Hampshire in recent days. Messrs. Romney and Giuliani have taken harsh shots at each other on a range of issues, including spending, taxes, immigration, and executive appointments.

Meanwhile, nobody thinks enough of John McCain to attack him. This is from the Politico:

'The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," Oscar Wilde once said, and that is the problem the John McCain campaign is now grappling with.

Over the past few days, Mitt Romney has been attacking Rudy Giuliani (and vice versa), and Fred Thompson has been attacking Mike Huckabee (and vice versa), but who has been attacking McCain?

None of this is surprising. In fact - these candidates are doing what presidential candidates usually do.

First, note that these attacks are not coming through paid media. Instead, they are coming through the press. What happens is that one campaign puts out a negative press release, or makes itself available for questions so that it can slap another candidate around. The press reports the "story" - and presto! A free negative advertisement. Not only are they free of charge, they also carry with them real benefits. Scholars who have looked at these types of attacks have speculated that voters take them more seriously than negative ads because the attacks are packaged as news. Furthermore, the fact that they are on the news might inoculate the attacker from the blow back that can come from going negative.

Second, note the timing. I have written before about how pundits wrongly think it is a good idea to launch negative attacks months and months before an election. It is not. Usually, candidates save this kind of attack for when (a) there is a delegate rich state having an election soon, or (b) there is a "high stakes" event coming soon. These particular attacks are happening in advance of Iowa and New Hampshire - the events with the highest stakes.

Third, note the directions of the attacks. We have Thompson and Romney attacking Huckabee. We have Romney attacking Giuliani, and vice-versa. We have Giuliani and Huckabee explicitly laying off each other. We have nobody attacking McCain, but McCain is going after Giuliani and Romney. What explains this pattern - especially the strange détente between Giuliani and Huckabee? Some have suggested that it is because Giuliani and Huckabee are appealing to different voters. There is thus no reason for them to attack one another. Others have suggested that Giuliani and Huckabee do not see each other as electoral competitors. Giuliani is weak where Huckabee is strong, and vice-versa.

These explanations are not mutually exclusive - they may even be causally related to one another, and I would not be surprised if both were motivating the two campaigns. Both speak to the idea that the primary campaign is a war of attrition in which each candidate's goal is to eliminate his opponents. However, the research that I have seen indicates that ideological proximity does not explain why candidates attack through the media. Instead - it has to do with where they are in the polls. Researchers have found a few basic features of mediated attacks:

(a) Frontrunners tend to avoid negative attacks, except when (i) they are attacked by somebody, or (ii) a challenger is on the rise and is now threatening their position.

(b) Challengers attack frontrunners (or those who are ahead of them in the polls).

(c) Challengers are more likely to attack when given the opportunity (e.g. debates); frontrunners are neither more nor less likely.

With these generalities in mind, the direction of the attacks starts to make a lot of sense. Giuliani and Romney see each other as electoral threats, presumably because both of them want to do well in New Hampshire. In particular, the fact that Romney persists in attacking Giuliani may be a sign that the former expects the latter to close the gap. This is also why McCain is attacking Romney and Giuliani - they are in front of him in the Granite State. The fact that Huckabee is on the rise in Iowa is what has precipitated the attacks on him from Thompson and Romney. They see him as a threat in the Hawkeye State.

Meanwhile, the fact that Giuliani is not attacking Huckabee is an indication that Giuliani does not mind finishing behind Huckabee - so long as Huckabee damages Romney. Giuliani would probably not mind finishing third in Iowa if it means that Romney finishes second, or barely finishes first. Relatedly, the fact that Huckabee has remained mum on Giuliani - who is strong in New Hampshire - indicates that Huckabee is not making a significant play for votes in the Granite State. In fact, Huckabee might intend to write off New Hampshire all together - and take a victory in Iowa down to South Carolina. At that point, we could expect Giuliani and Huckabee to go after one another.

Finally, the fact that nobody is attacking John McCain is a sign that nobody sees him as an electoral threat. While it is true that he is close behind Giuliani in the RCP average of New Hampshire, his trend line has been flat for five months. It may be the case that Giuliani and Romney expect him to fade as both increase their television advertisements beyond what the cash-strapped McCain campaign can do. If this is what Rudy and Mitt anticipate, there is no reason to slap McCain around.

Now - none of these are earth-shattering conclusions. Many people (myself included) have drawn similar inferences about the state of the Republican race independent of these negative attacks. However - because we know some general trends about negative attacks (i.e. who generally attacks whom, when do they generally attack, etc) - we can draw some inferences about how these candidates view the race. This is of great value because it can confirm or disconfirm our initial impressions. Candidates are the true experts on the horse race. And, insofar as we can infer what they think about the campaign, we can understand the race better.

As this campaign unfolds - and especially as the general election begins in earnest - you will see that this is a common analytical strategy of mine. Drawing inferences about candidate perceptions based upon candidate actions is possible if you know enough about how campaigns work. And, if you read candidates correctly, you can tease out some real insights.

So - I would suggest that, while tonight's Republican debate probably will not change many minds (and therefore cannot really be discussed in terms of winners and losers), it will offer us further confirmation on who views whom as a threat, and therefore who is really competing where. So, don't worry about who is winning the debate. Don't play the same meaningless game the press plays. Instead, watch to see how the five top candidates go after one another. Who attacks whom? What are the lines of attack? Do they wait until they are attacked by somebody else, until they are prompted by the moderators, or do they just go for it without provocation?

-Jay Cost

On "Electability"

These days, electability is the talk of the town - if the town is Des Moines or Cedar Rapids. This is from yesterday's Washington Post:

Strategists for Obama said over the weekend that they see an opening for their candidate on the question of electability, and campaign manager David Plouffe also predicted a "relentlessly negative" barrage from the Clinton campaign in the days ahead.

Central to the new Clinton push will be the argument that only she can beat the eventual Republican nominee, a claim Obama is also seeking to make to voters here.

Advisers said her message will be: "You can't have change if you don't win." Her rivals, meanwhile, are moving aggressively to capitalize on Clinton's weaknesses in Iowa -- and, they hope, block her path to the nomination. [Snip]

"We're picking up a lot more on the ground on electability," Plouffe said. "What voters are looking at is: Who's got the best chance to win the election . . . and second, who can govern."

Also, Jason Zengerle offered an extended meditation in New York Magazine yesterday about electability and the 2008 primary contests. His conclusion is that the whole discussion is nothing more than a maddening puzzle with no solution. He writes:

Unlike political judgments that are based on concrete assessments of, say, a candidate's record or even something as grubby as his fund-raising prowess, those that are based on a candidate's supposed electability can change on a moment's notice. And then change again. Electability is completely ephemeral. Even those hoary and maddeningly indefinable political qualities like "character" and "authenticity" have more meat on their bones.

I think that Zengerle is on to something here - but like so many articles I read in Esquire, New York Magazine, the New Yorker or other such "upscale" mags where writers get 4,000 or more words to work with - he just ends up repeating the same basic point with different anecdotes. Zengerle never gets beyond the fact that electability is "squishy." Why is it squishy? Or, more specifically, why is it a squishy concept that we can't help but talk about? That's the question I would like to tackle today.

From a rational choice perspective - electability should be a critical factor in a voter's preference for the party's nomination. This is because winning the nomination brings about no changes in public policy. Only winning the general election will bring about such changes. So, a purely rational voter who is only concerned about public policy would have to calculate the expected policy benefits from a given candidate's election in something like the following manner:

Ideological Proximity of Candidate and Voter X Candidate's Chance of Winning Nomination X Candidate's Chance of Winning General Election

The latter two terms would combine to be a candidate's electability factor. So, electability is an important feature in the purely rational voter's preference for the nomination (although the purely rational actor might not even vote). We would call a calculation like this part of the act of strategic voting because it implicitly takes into account the choices that you expect other voters to make.

However, we confront here the problems that plagues all of us who make use of rational choice theory: people are not as good at acting "rationally" as mathematicians are at writing about it. Things get much more difficult when we are dealing with our subjective experience, and not the objectivity of a formal proof. In the real world, we might expect some interdependence between electability and ideological proximity. For instance, we might expect proximity to influence a voter's assessment of electability because, as everybody knows, what we want often gets in the way of our understanding what others want. We might also expect the causal arrow to run in the other direction: what others want can influence what we want. That would be a bandwagon effect. Princeton's Larry Bartels finds something like that in his Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice.

My intuition about electability is that it: (a) is an inevitable subject in a presidential primary campaign because the nomination is not an end, only a means; (b) contains some objective elements that would enable us to estimate who is more electable than who; (c) contains some subjective elements that would impede such estimates. This would explain why the conversation about it has been endless and fruitless. We can't help but discuss it because it is, after all, what a party's nomination is all about. We're also compelled to talk about it because there is something "real" to it - and so we are tantalized at the prospect of having an objective statement of who stands a better chance of winning. At the same time, we're confounded because, while there is something objective here, the subjectivity of it prevents any real consensus. Thus - we're left to debate endlessly (or, at least until the election!).

So, I have three basic assertions about electability: (a) inevitable, (b) partially objective, (c) partially subjective. Let me try to convince you that I am on to something here - for there is good evidence for each point. I think that (a) is essentially established. Common sense, rational choice theory, and polling data that shows voters are thinking about electability all conspire to put to rest any doubts of its importance. But what about (b) and (c)? Can we "unpack" the different elements that make up our conceptions of electability to see what in them is objective and what is subjective?

I think we can - but we'll have to do something that Zengerle does not: treat the work of political science with some care. He writes:

Political scientists, for their part, have taken a stab at gauging electability. At conferences and in journal articles, these academics have tried to suss out just what makes a candidate electable--or, at the very least, what makes voters perceive a candidate as electable. Physically attractive male candidates, one group of political scientists concluded, enjoy an electability advantage, but the same group could find no straightforward link between attractiveness and electability for female candidates. Similarly, some political scientists found that male politicians with hair tend to get elected more than balding ones. (There doesn't appear to be any research on the electability of balding female candidates.) And in 1994, two professors from William & Mary and the University of Colorado went so far as to come up with an actual electability formula, which looks like this:

Candidate electability = a + b1 (party) + b2 (evaluation of C) + b3 (C's proximity to R) + b4 (C's proximity to the average voter) + b5 (C's proximity to party) + b6 (C's nomination chances) + b7 (C's TV performance) + e

In my margin notes, I wrote next to this paragraph simply "Boo!" Maybe I am over-sensitive to the way that the work of political science is ignored by the punditocracy - but this seems to me to be downright rude. If you think enough of somebody's work to cite the work, you should also cite the somebody. Let me correct the oversight, and give some credit where it is due. The researchers who developed this idea are Walter J. Stone (formerly of the University of Colorado, now of UC-Irvine) and Ronald B. Rapoport of the College of William and Mary.

I also have to object to the obvious carelessness with which Zengerle read this article. It seems to me that he trolled it for a quickie rhetorical point - for he brings up this "formula" simply to compare its seeming over-complexity to the "straightforward approach" that pundits take. In so doing, he completely misunderstands what Stone and Rapoport are on about.

The point of Stone and Rapoport's equation is not an "electability formula" in the sense that Zengerle means it. This "formula" is an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression equation. OLS regression can be used for predictive purposes - a "formula." But - Stone and Rapoport would surely agree that their formula does a lousy job of predicting how electable a given voter views a given candidate. Their model has an accuracy rate of 25% to 57%. [When political scientists do use OLS regression to predict outcomes - say for congressional elections - they look for an accuracy rate of 80% to 90%].

OLS regression has another purpose, which is what they are actually utilizing in this article and which should not be characterized as the development of a "formula." What Stone and Rapoport do here is test whether some variables are significant causal factors in how voters perceive electability. The idea behind this equation is that you compare (for instance) a voter's evaluation of a candidate's television performance to a voter's evaluation of a candidate's electability. Are they related - and, if so, how strongly are they related? But you do this comparison in relation to comparisons between electability and the rest of the variables on the right hand side of the equation. That way, you can conclude whether any one of these factors influence electability controlling for the other factors. OLS regression, then, enables one to draw causal inferences in complicated situations where many variables interact with one another. This is what Stone and Rapoport are on about here.

In fact, they have a very specific question in mind. Do voters form assessments of electability based upon their perception of candidate moderation? As a candidate appears to be better able to appeal to the middle of the general electorate, will a primary voter view him as more electable? This question has great analytical importance, for obvious reasons. But it is also of civic importance as well. It would not be good for the country if small, unrepresentative primary electorates forced upon the broader public ideologically extreme nominees. So, Stone and Rapoport are interested in whether caucus goers in 1980 and 1984 perceived a link between ideological moderation and electability.

They do indeed find that proximity to the average voter is a factor in electability - but it is not as big a factor as other characteristics. They find that performance on television is a much stronger factor. That is, if we think a candidate performs well on television, we will be more likely to see him as being electable. Other factors influence perceptions of candidate electability more than ideological moderation: evaluations of candidates (the more we like a candidate, the more electable he will seem to us), nomination chances (the more we think a candidate will win the nomination, the more electable he will seem to us), and party (we are more likely to see candidates of our party as electable).

If we look at the list of variables that influence electability - we should appreciate the mixed bag that "electability" presents. On the one hand, there is a lot of subjectivity here. For instance, partisanship is a factor in evaluations of electability. Our perceptions of electability have a partisan skew to them. So also is our impression of the candidate: if we like him, we believe other people will, too. That is about as subjective as you can get! With electability being informed by such subjective evaluations - it is unsurprising that there is such disagreement among everybody about who is electable and who is not.

But, on the other hand, there is also some objectivity here, which I think helps explain why pundits (and campaign strategists) so frequently try to quantify it. For instance, television is a factor in perceptions of electability. As television is a shared experience - it probably gives the concept of electability some objective leverage. If I think a candidate does well on television, other people probably will, too. Also, as a candidate must be nominated to be elected - the fact that the chances of being nominated is a factor in electability makes it somewhat objective for a similar reason: all of us can agree on who could and who could not be nominated.

Relatedly, Stone and Rapoport found some rough parity in ideological placements of candidates among Republican and Democratic caucus goers. For instance, in 1984 Democratic caucus goers placed Gary Hart closer to the ideological center than Republicans. However, both Republicans and Democrats identified Hart as being more liberal than the average voter and more conservative than Walter Mondale. The fact that ideological positioning is a factor in electability therefore infuses the latter with an objective element because we seem to view ideology in roughly similar terms.

So, maybe we have hit upon an explanation for what Zengerle has observed: there is a debate about electability that seems to have no end. The importance of electability and the objective elements of electability compel people to debate it. There seems to be something more than just our subjective evaluations that inform the concept. However, the concept itself is still so subjective that it is quite unlikely that we could ever agree.

All of this also means that perceptions of electability are probably manipulable. This would explain why candidates - and not just analysts - are participating in the conversation. These strategy memos are not designed to elucidate the true state of the race for us. They are designed to do what all campaign actions are designed to do: persuade voters. Candidates have an incentive in creating the impression that they are electable - and the subjectivity of electability means that they might be able to create that impression.

-Jay Cost

Negativity in the Democratic Campaign

Kimberly Strassel had an interesting article on Friday that reviewed the weak spots of Hillary Clinton's campaign. It raised several points that I have wished to discuss for some time. She writes:

Until recently, the biggest thing going for Hillary is that she has appeared "inevitable." This is no accident. Mrs. Clinton may not be as naturally gifted as her husband, but she does have access to his playbook. One of Bill's more brilliant strategies when he ran in 1992 was to campaign as if he were already the nominee. It gave an otherwise little-known governor the legitimacy to sideline his opponents.

Mrs. Clinton has made this tactic a cornerstone of her campaign, and it had been working. During debates she frequently speaks on "behalf of everyone" on the stage. She chooses moments wisely to make statements no Democrat disagrees with ("George Bush is ruining this country"), leaving the competition nodding in miserable agreement. Her insistence that she and her Democratic colleagues should keep this race focused on their arch-enemy was equally savvy. With everyone piling on Dubya, nobody was piling on her.

Add to this Mrs. Clinton's stash of money, the vaunted infrastructure, the endorsements and her superstar status. The Clinton campaign has flogged all of these to leave the impression she's the only player in the game.

I agree with Strassel that this is what the Clinton campaign has done. I think that the strategy was a smart one. Research has shown that primary voters tend to view leading candidates more warmly because they are leading. They also tend to find reasons to support leading candidates. And so, campaigns have an interest in appearing to be in the lead. Mrs. Clinton's campaign has been as good as any non-incumbent campaign in the post-reform era at creating this impression.

Of course, I never thought much of the conclusion that Clinton was inevitable. It always seemed to me to require a false view of what those summer polling numbers really meant. It also seemed to be exactly the impression that Clinton campaign endeavored to create. Nevertheless, I was mightily impressed that it was able to construct such an artifice. It had most pundits convinced that a man who raised $80,000,000 was not even going to make it interesting. That was quite a feat.

Strassel notes another tactic that Clinton has used to great effect. She has endeavored to diminish the perceptions of disagreement - between herself, her fellow candidates, and the Democratic electorate. This is a common ploy with frontrunner campaigns. The fewer areas of contrast, the fewer reasons voters have for switching their support from one candidate to another. So, research has shown - unsurprisingly - that front running candidates tend to offer fewer substantive policy proposals. Why give voters a reason to disagree with you? Clinton does something akin to this every time she agrees with her opponents and pours it on Bush. Rudy Giuliani has done a very good job of this on the Republican side. He has explicitly praised some of his opponents - Huckabee and McCain, for instance - and he has taken every opportunity to attack Clinton.

What, then, should Clinton's challengers do about her? Strassel has some suggestions:

Mrs. Clinton's opponents have also got wise to her "inevitability" game, and no one more so than John Edwards. His decision to unleash the big guns on her Iraq vote and "dirty" corporate money has already yielded him a victory. She's deigned to acknowledge he's actually on the stage and even answered some of his criticisms, which in turn has suggested to audiences that she views him as a threat. [Snip]

Grateful as that nation is to Mr. Edwards for livening up the debate and unleashing some healthy Clinton criticism from other campaigns, we're also just 40 days from Iowa. The long, gentle treatment by opponents allowed Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead the attacks might now come a little too late.

They also may remain a little too little. Yes, Mr. Edwards is hitting Mrs. Clinton on foreign policy. Yes, Barack Obama is taking it to her on trade. But consider this: What none of her Democratic opponents has broached--what has so far been a super-off-limits-high-security-no-fly-zone--is any direct mention of Mrs. Clinton's ethically challenged period as first lady.

I disagree. Strassel fails to account for the fact that a negative campaign carries with it serious risks. It does. And so, when a candidate engages in negativity - he or she must be adroit. Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper - both of Rutgers University - have found, for instance, that incumbent senators who go negative in their reelection campaigns tend to lose support. This effect is independent of the competitiveness of the race. They conclude in a 2002 article on the subject, "A full accounting of the evidence suggests that, as often as not, attacking the opponent is a counter-productive campaign strategy to follow."

Note that Lau and Pomper track the effects of negativity in general election Senate races. We are talking about a presidential primary - and, so far as I know, this is a subject that has not been studied thoroughly. But that is all the more reason for candidates to be cautious. We know that going negative can be a double-edged sword, but we are not exactly sure when and where. So - the negative campaign is a weapon that should be wielded with a deft touch.

Dexterity is especially required for an attack on Hillary Clinton - and it is not because she is a woman. It is because, among Democratic primary voters, she is well known and well liked. She has been in the public eye for about sixteen years. Voter opinions of her are not based upon a dearth of information. And, according to the most recent Fox News poll, Democratic voters like her. Clinton's net favorable rating among Democrats is +58%. So, Obama or Edwards cannot just go after Clinton willy nilly. The attacks have to be subtle because they are directed at a public that knows of and is disposed toward her.

What they should not do is make use of "Republican talking points," which is precisely what Strassel suggests by exhorting Obama and Edwards to go after Clinton on ethics. Political scientists have found that negative advertising reinforces previous partisan dispositions rather than persuade the skeptical. And so, an attack on Clinton's ethics might influence an electorate composed largely of Republicans. But, obviously, the Democratic primary will have few of them involved. There will be a lot of Democrats who participate - and I doubt they would buy such an attack, especially if it was predicated on something old. As a matter of fact, I could see those voters being persuaded by the Clinton rejoinder: stop calling shots from the GOP playbook.

Personally, I like Obama's line of attack on Clinton. It is subtle. It sets up a contrast without alienating voters. The average voter gets the gist of what Obama is hinting at, but is not turned off by it.

A final point. Strassel suggests that Obama and Edwards waited too long to start drawing some distinctions between Clinton and themselves. I could not disagree with this more. This was a line that a lot of pundits were repeating prior to the Philadelphia debate - when Obama signaled that he was going to start to sharpen his rhetoric. Many said that he had waited too long. That kind of thinking rests on the false premise that voters pay as much attention to politics as pundits do. They don't, which means that candidates have to save their sharpest, most effective stuff for when they begin to pay closer attention. On their last tour - (what's left of) the Who played their new garbage in the middle of the show. They saved "My Generation" for the end. The same premise applies to campaigns.

Obama would have been unwise to start drawing sharp contrasts in the summer. It's all well and good that his reticence allowed "Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead" - but, as I have argued time and again on this blog, leads in national polls of summer and even fall are not worth much because voters are paying little attention. If having a lead in mid-November's Gallup poll was Obama's goal - then, by all means, he should have amplified his rhetoric in August or September. But his goal is to win Iowa and then New Hampshire - and ratcheting up the rhetoric 40 to 50 days before those contests is the right move.

Remember that Giuliani just started advertising in New Hampshire. The Giuliani campaign is a smart operation - and those of us who pay an inordinate amount of attention to politics should take this "lateness" as a cue to change our timetable. Remember, we political obsessives have different levels of attention and information than the average voter. Successful campaigns are built around winning them, not us.

-Jay Cost

Idle Entertainment

Today, I want to conclude an argument I have been developing over the last few days about the relationship between the media and the horse race. Up to this point, I've asserted that journalists and pundits have a false impression of how voters make their vote choices. One implication of this is that journalists have an impoverished or at least incomplete view of how electoral politics work. Another implication - one that I want to develop today - is that much of the electoral "news" that we encounter is just idle entertainment for political junkies. It is not getting at anything of real value, even if it might appear as though it is.

The media, and politicos in general, have a narrative about this campaign that they have spent a lot of time analyzing and interpreting. It is not about which candidate has the better policies or who is addressing the most important issues. It is about the horse race: who is up, who is down, why they are where they are, and where they are going next.

This is ironic. A discussion of the ins-and-outs of the horse race requires the participation of the broader public. It is implicitly about who has the edge in the upcoming election - and therefore whom the voters prefer and why. So, they have to be in the subtext of any horse race analysis. However, as far as the storyline that politicos have developed goes, it is clear that the voters are not playing along. As a consequence, the whole discussion loses much of its value.

Take, for instance, the lead of Dan Balz's Saturday article in the Washington Post:

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 16 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong performance in Thursday's Democratic debate here will blunt talk that she is on a downward slide and shift the focus to whether Sen. Barack Obama or former senator John Edwards can stop her march to the nomination, party strategists said Friday.

What is the object of this story's narrative? For whose benefit is all of this occurring? It surely is not the voters' benefit. Most of them did not watch the Las Vegas debate, whose record-breaking ratings still did not beat an average episode of The Biggest Loser. They do not pay enough attention to politics to dedicate two hours to such a display. And anyway, they dislike the gamesmanship of politics; even if they had watched, they would have found very little of value in a debate that focused mostly on tactical positioning and jewelry preferences.

So, with whom was Clinton on a "downward slide," the talk of which has now been "blunt[ed]?" For whom will the "focus shift?" The answer is: politicos. Balz's article is actually a story about electoral politics that does not involve the electorate at all! It just pretends to involve it. In reality, this is a story about how a very small group of people - who account for maybe 2% of the voting public, and who have in all likelihood already selected their favorite candidates - reacted to the Vegas debate. The broader voting public is injected to maintain the illusion that the stakes are higher than they actually are.

That is the way it goes for many days' horse race news. There is a false assumption that underlies much of the daily discussion - that what happened matters because it influences votes. It usually doesn't. The campaigns, the media, and the pundits are interacting with one another - but only for the benefit of each other. The voters are usually not involved in this interaction. We pretend that they are to make the story seem like it is about something real - but they usually aren't, and it usually isn't. In reality - the story is often about how political elites react to the ins and outs of the day's news, told as if the public as a whole is reacting in that way. It is a strange combination of autobiography and fiction.

Since I started this blog - I have set about to avoid this type of analysis. I think this is why my analysis of the Democratic race has been so constant. I'll say now what I have been saying for months about the Democratic race. It's basically a two-person contest. I don't think Edwards can win the nomination. It will either be Clinton or Obama. Because of her position in the public mind, a victory in Iowa is probably a sufficient condition for Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. Because of his position, a victory (or at least finishing ahead of Clinton) is probably a necessary condition for Barack Obama. He might still lose the nomination if he wins Iowa - Iowa just makes it a race. But Obama has the money, he has the organization, and he has the message to win the Hawkeye State. The Iowa polls are, as I have argued, not all that helpful in predicting who will win. So - all we can say is that Iowa is a three-person race.

All of this twisting and turning and strategizing - "Novak said this" but "Oh, he's just a GOP shill" - is all just a noisy show put on for politicos by other politicos. When you distance yourself from it - the noise dies down, you can think clearly, and you see that very little about this race has changed in the many months since it started.

-Jay Cost

Interesting Internals in the ABC/WaPo Poll

A few days back, I saw that Clinton web video called "Caucusing Is Easy." You probably saw it, too. Anytime Bill does something, it gets noticed:

At the time, I thought it was a bit strange - insofar as it did not cohere with the conventional wisdom that Clinton and Edwards were the ones winning the support of veteran caucus voters, and Obama was winning over newer "voters." It seemed to me that this kind of video would be something to expect from Obama.

That last paragraph sports some important scare quotes - because newer voters often turn out not to be voters at all. Systematic survey evidence has picked this up - and it conforms with anecdotal accounts. Remember Nader's huge rallies in 2000? How about Dean's in 2004? This is why videos like this get made: young people are unreliable voters, and often need to be charmed into voting. Many pundits have speculated that the young supporters of Obama might be his Achilles' heel - as they are sufficiently motivated to come out and see him on a cold fall day, but not motivated to support him on caucus night. The former has some curiosity value. The latter? Not so much.

So, it surprised me that Clinton was the one creating a "hip" video about caucusing. Then I saw this in the Washington Post's write-up of its latest poll:

Overall, the poll points to some strategic gains for Obama. His support is up eight percentage points since July among voters 45 and older -- who accounted for two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers in 2004. He also runs evenly with Clinton among women in Iowa, drawing 32 percent to her 31 percent, despite the fact that her campaign has built its effort around attracting female voters.

And despite widespread impressions that Obama is banking on unreliable first-time voters, Clinton depends on them heavily as well: About half of her supporters said they have never attended a caucus. Forty-three percent of Obama's backers and 24 percent of Edwards's would be first-time caucus-goers. Previous attendance is one of the strongest indicators of who will vote.

First off - WaPo does a good job of splashing some cold water on the statistical significance of the topline results. The margin of error on this poll is +/- 4%, so a 4 point lead for Obama is not statistically significant. However, statistical significance is conditioned by the number of observations. It has a lot in common with a simple computation of the standard deviation - which has the number of observations in the denominator. As the number of observations decreases, the standard deviation increases. It's the same basic premise for the margin of error.

So, when you are dealing with a subsample of the whole poll - say, voters 45 and older - the margin of error increases. I'd have to run a statistical test to confirm it (and the internals of the poll just do not provide the data to enable it) - but my intuition is that Obama's gains with older voters is not outside this increased margin of error. An 8 point difference between this poll and the July poll would be significant with the topline results, which are based on 500 observations - but probably not with a subsample of about 200 observations. WaPo was thus wrong to identify this as a "strategic gain" for Obama. It could very well be a sampling anomaly.

That being said - there are still some interesting inferences that we can make without running an undue risk of Type I error (i.e. wrongly concluding that something is significant when in fact it is not). The poll found Clinton and Obama relying on first time voters by about equal measure. The difference between their new supporters is not statistically significant - so the conventional wisdom about how Obama is relying on new voters more than Clinton does not hold. Accordingly, we have explained how Hillary's campaign could coax Bill onto a NordicTrack.

What probably does hold is the argument that Edwards is relying on new voters less than Clinton and Obama. The breakdown is basically 50/43/24. That is, (about) 50% of Clinton supporters are new, 43% of Obama supporters are new, and just 24% of Edwards supporters are new. Again, I would have to see more data than what ABC News/WaPo is providing - but my intuition is that the difference is statistically significant. Edwards is relying less on new voters.

This conforms with what Ana Marie Cox wrote last week in Time. Most of Edwards' supporters are reliable caucus goers. This might give us some clues about what to expect on caucus night. If attendance at the caucus is greater than what it has been in years past, that might bode well for Clinton and Obama. If it is equal to or less than what it has been, that might bode well for Edwards.

Another point on Clinton v. Obama. Clinton is splitting the female respondents evenly with Obama. She pulled in 31% of female respondents. He pulled in 32%. It is surprising to me that Clinton is not pulling in more females in this poll, given the tone of her campaign of late. These results make Mark Penn's promise to pull in Republican women seem like rhetoric designed to win over Democratic voters hungry for a victory.

For comparative purposes, I would note that the recent CBS News poll also found no statistically significant difference between Clinton and Obama among first time and long time caucus attendees. It also seems not to have found a statistically significant difference between them on levels of female support (although Clinton does lead this category by 12%, it is such a small sample that I suspect the lead is statistically insignificant), and levels of support among voters aged 45-65. However, it did find what appears to be a statistically significant difference on levels of support among voters 65 and older, though there is a tie between Clinton and Edwards among voters of that age. [Again - I'm "spitballing" these conclusions of significance because none of these polls ever give you the data you need to draw more assured conclusions.] So, all in all, I would say that the results of the ABC/WaPo poll roughly conform with the results of the CBS poll.

Now - it is important to remember that there are boundaries that we have to obey when drawing inferences from these Iowa polls. I wrote about this last week. Care is important because the Iowa Democratic caucus is a poor fit with the way polls are conducted. I am pretty sure that I have managed to color within these lines in this write-up - but we need to be careful.

-Jay Cost

The View

I really can't stand these debates.

And it is not because of the candidates. I enjoy watching them debate each other, and I thought they made it worth my while last night.

No. The reason that I cannot stand these debates is the media and the insufferable assumption that frames all of its analysis: voters are exactly like journalists. They pay as much attention as journalists do. They are as interested in the tactics as journalists are. They enjoy all of the thrusting and parrying of the rhetorical joust as much as journalists do.

This view was on display everywhere last night and this morning - from CNN's pre-debate analysis to the pundit reviews that followed. Find a debate analysis or scorecard that does not focus on tactics first, tactics second, tactics third - and maybe, if there is still room, policy fourth. Said scorecard will invariably go on to draw an inference about who helped their electoral prospects by being the best tactician of the night. Implicit in this view, of course, is the assumption that voters think about politics in exactly the same terms.

This is a narrow view of politics: the press collects seven people on a stage, knowing that one of them will be the next Democratic nominee and could very well be the next President of the United States, and has no interest except in whether they slap each other around a little bit. This is a solipsistic view of politics: journalists "know" that Americans find the gamesmanship of politics to be loathsome. Nevertheless, their analysis is predicated upon the assumption that Americans like it as much as the journalists do. This is a false view of politics: this way of analyzing the electorate has no empirical basis in reality - which journalists would quickly discover if they read more widely than what their fellow journalists are writing.

Narrow, solipsistic, and false. An impoverished view of politics.

This is why I do not like these primary debates. They concentrate everything wrong about the way the media covers presidential campaigns and jam-packs it into two hours. And then you have all of the endless, mindless, group-think "analysis" that follows. As if this morning's conclusion was not wholly predictable. Provided that Clinton did not trip when she walked onto the stage - the media was gonna conclude, "The kid stays in the picture!"

Enough already! If post-debate conventional wisdom was a machine, I would throw stones at it and curse in French.

Or, to quote Gelman and King (again):

"Journalists should realize that they can report the polls all they want, and continue to make incorrect causal inferences about them, but they are not helping to predict or even influence the election. Journalists play a critical role in enabling voters to make decisions based upon the equivalent of explicitly enlightened preferences. Unfortunately, by focusing more on the polls and meaningless campaign events, the media are spending more and more time on "news" that has less and less of an effect."

-Jay Cost

What Moves the Polls?

Mark Mellman had a very excellent column in the Hill yesterday. The topic involved the validity of horse race polling.

This is what he had to say:

Regular readers have heard me rail against the inaccuracy of early polling, which often fails to presage ultimate electoral outcomes.

Yet I have also maintained that presidential elections are predictable based on the fundamentals -- incumbency, war/peace, prosperity and the like.

Recognizing the implicit contradiction, political scientists Gary King and Andrew Gelman asked, in one of academia's best-titled papers, "Why Are American Presidential Election Campaign Polls So Variable When Voters Are So Predictable?"

Their answer focuses on learning during the campaign, and while they may be right, I fear the problem runs deeper. [Snip]

Though it is heresy for a pollster to say it, the evidence also suggests people are only mediocre predictors of their own behavior. Responses to horserace questions a year out may be a special case of faulty prediction.

Hardly an original thought, it can be traced at least to Russian exile and founder of Harvard's sociology department Pitirim Sorokin, who titled his 1936 paper, "Can One Predict His Own Behavior 24 Hours In Advance?" His answer, based on a study of federal employees, was a resounding no: When asked how much time they would devote to various activities during the subsequent eight-hour workday, the average person was off by five hours.

My hat is off to Mellman - who actually relies upon the work of one of the best political scientists in the country, Gary King, to make an argument about politics. A very rare thing indeed! Usually, political scientists get no more "airtime" than the occasional self-evident quote that journalists integrate into their preconceived storylines.

Mellman's topic - the invalidity of early election polling - is one that I have discussed frequently on this blog. I'd like to extend this conversation because I think the problem with media polls gets to what I think are some serious failings in the way journalists and pundits analyze politics.

The best way to discuss this is simply to review the Gelman and King article - which, I should note at the outset, is an attempt to explain a problem with general election presidential polling. Their title indicates the question with which they tussle. Political scientists have developed models that do a very good job of predicting presidential elections based upon "fundamental" variables like incumbency, partisanship, and the state of the economy. All of these are available a long time before ballots are cast. Meanwhile, the polls run all over the place prior to Election Day. How to explain this?

Gelman and King offer what they call the "Enlightened Preference" Model. They assert that:
(1) Voters do not have full information throughout the campaign about the "fundamental variables" that ultimately drive vote choices.
(2) Voters do use all available information to make their decisions.
(3) Voters do not rationally account for uncertainty during the course of the campaign.

This explains how polls can vary so wildly, and yet final results can be so predictable. Voters base their election decisions on basic variables. Thus, their vote choices are quite predictable. But it is only at the end of the campaign that they have fully grasped the values of the variables. Additionally, they do not factor this lack of knowledge into their thought processes. And so, when pollsters dial them up - they rely on the data they have available, but give answers that are less certain than they realize.

Gelman and King write:

[W]ithout sufficient knowledge of their fundamental variables, and when asked to give an opinion anyway, most respondents act as they will in the voting booth on election day: they use the information at their disposal about their fundamental variables, and report a "likely" vote to the pollster. We believe that this report is sincere, but the survey response is still based on a different information set from that which will be available by the time of the election.

Note that this does not mean that the campaigns are useless. The campaign organizations are the agents that provide the information to the voters. If there is a rough organizational "balance" between the campaigns - then the relevant information will be communicated to the voters through them. The media can play a role here - by providing relevant information to the public so that their choices are as informed as possible. Of course, in the last several cycles, most of the media's work has been in covering the horse race.

Now, as I indicated, I think there is a lesson in this for all of us who produce and consume political news and analysis. Of course, bear in mind that this is not a certification of the Gelman/King theory. My specialties in political science are party and campaign organizations. It is not in public opinion or political psychology. I lack the credentials to certify this theory. My intuition is that they are pretty close to the truth - but I am not up on the latest scholarly research to tell you with certainty.

However, I do know enough about these subjects to know that popular accounts of voter psychology are seriously askew because they falsely assume both too much and too little of the average voter. Gelman and King summarize what they take to be the "journalistic model" of the political campaign. I think there is a lot of validity to the characterization:

Under this model, voters base their intended votes partly on fundamental variables, but considerably more on the day-to-day events of the presidential campaign. Voters are assumed to have very short memories, relying for their decisions disproportionately on the most recent campaign events and last piece of information they ran across. Candidates are thought to be able to easily "fool" voters by changing their policy stance during the campaign or causing the opposing candidate to say or do something foolish. [Snip]

Also according to the journalists' model, voters do not take their role in the process very seriously, have very little information of the campaign and the issues, and frequently do not vote on the basis of their own self-interest.

This, Gelman and King argue, is how journalists implicitly explain the day-to-day movement of the polls. I think that this is a valid explanation of the way journalists and pundits approach politics. And, like Gelman and King, I think it is completely wrong-headed.

I would note three salient features about this false view of the voters:

(1) It assumes too much of them. Implicit in this theory is the idea that average voters pay as much attention to politics as political junkies do. We saw a great example of this early this month when pundits and journalists started talking about how the last Democratic debate "changed" everything. Give me a break! 2.5 million people watched that debate. It didn't change a thing! To think that it did requires one to accept a false premise: that average voters follow politics like the junkies.

(2) It assumes too little of them. It assumes that they can be beguiled - that, for instance, they voted for Bush over Dukakis because the latter put a dumb-looking helmet on his head. Again - give me a break! There is an implicitly condescending attitude toward citizens in media theories about vote choice.

(3) It assumes that average voters are quite like journalists. They love the gamemanship of politics. The twists and turns of the daily political soap opera is what they find to be valuable. They care, for instance, that Hillary Clinton's latest wardrobe choice has a lower neckline. And they really care about the political strategy that influenced the decision.

If these three assumptions are false - then most of the media's horse race coverage is a skewed version of what is really going on. I have been arguing this point for quite a while on this blog. What the media assumes about the voters is simply not true - and therefore its analysis is based upon false premises, and thus is wrong-headed. To appreciate this - try the following experiment: take any standard issue pundit discussion that you see on the news, ask yourself whether they are falsely assuming these three things about the voters, and then ask yourself whether - if they stopped making these false assumptions - the analysis would be different.

What, then, drives general election poll numbers? Gelman and King argue that one of the things that is surely driving it is the partial information that has been collected to date. That is, voters are in the process of collecting the data they need to make an informed choice in November. When queried in, say, July - they have only acquired some of that data, which is what they use to make their selection.

I would argue that there is something else going on in these survey responses. Sitting in the background here is John Zaller, whose theory on public opinion merges very nicely with the theory on vote choices that Gelman and King proffer. His 1992 book, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinions, is required reading on the graduate level - and I'd wager that a lot of undergrads are forced (much to their chagrin!) to slog through what is a very technical read. Zaller argues that one of the reasons public opinion varies is that respondents "receive" informational tidbits here and there from the dialogue of political elites. If those tidbits are essentially compatible with preconceived notions, they are "accepted" and mentally stored by the respondent - to be "sampled" from when the pollster comes calling.

Receive, accept, sample: the "RAS" Model of public opinion. So, in an ironic twist - the analyzers of public opinion actually are the ones creating some of it. It is not that the last Democratic debate had an independent effect on the polls (if there indeed was an effect at all); the effect was caused by the fact that analysts predicted that it would have an effect. Mass opinion is influenced by the elite conversation - so when elites talk about how an event shaped public opinion, they are in fact helping to shape public opinion in that way. But this kind of self-fulfilling prophesying is just a "game" that is quite separate from the way in which vote choices are formed. Public opinion can be tweaked by the elite dialogue - but insofar as this dialogue is not providing information on critical variables, it is not influencing vote choices. It's just shifting the numbers temporarily.

Now, let me reiterate that my specialty is not political psychology or public opinion. I have read and have understood the "great works" in the field, but I am not up-to-date on the current literature. And, as I said, Gelman and King's model is meant for general presidential elections. Nevertheless, I think that this explanation is probably not too far afield from reality. At the very least, I am certain that there is a disconnection between the way average voters really are, and the way journalists and pundits see them - and that this disconnection induces many, many errors in the way the latter examine politics. These errors ultimately make the media dialogue irrelevant for what really matters: who wins the election.

Or, to quote Gelman and King:

"Journalists should realize that they can report the polls all they want, and continue to make incorrect causal inferences about them, but they are not helping to predict or even influence the election. Journalists play a critical role in enabling voters to make decisions based upon the equivalent of explicitly enlightened preferences. Unfortunately, by focusing more on the polls and meaningless campaign events, the media are spending more and more time on "news" that has less and less of an effect."

-Jay Cost

Dueling Strategies

One of the most entertaining features of this cycle has been watching the candidates attack each other over campaign strategy. This is probably due in part to the fact that the media focuses upon the horse race relentlessly - and the campaigns believe that the appearance of strategic strength buys them a few points in the polls.

The most recent example of this came on Monday. Shortly after Giuliani's campaign advisers held a conference call explaining their primary strategy - the Romney campaign responded with a snarky retort.

Tom Bevan summarized the Giuliani campaign's strategy thusly:

The argument goes like this: Iowa, while important for momentum, will not award its 40 delegates until later in the cycle, tentatively in mid-June. In New Hampshire, where the Giuliani campaign says they feel good about their current 2nd place position, the Granite State's 12 delegates (half of the normal 24 thanks to the 50% penalty levied by the RNC last week for holding its contest earlier than February 5) will be allocated on a proportional basis.

In Michigan, where Giuliani also runs second in the polls, the date and method of selection for its 30 delegates (also a 50% reduction due to RNC penalty) remain up in the air until at least this Wednesday.

And in South Carolina, where Rudy is battling at the top of the polls with Romney and Thompson, the state's 24 delegates (post-RNC penalty) will be awarded on the basis of who wins at the Congressional district level with a bonus for winning the vote statewide. If the race remains tight in South Carolina, the delegates could be split among two, or perhaps more candidates.

Florida is often referred to as Rudy's "firewall," and the Giuliani campaign clearly sees this as the first state where their man can begin to break away. Even stripped of 50% of its delegates by the RNC along with the other states, Florida still has 57 delegates at stake which, like South Carolina, will be awarded on the basis of winning Congressional districts plus and for winning the statewide vote. But, their thinking goes, with more than a two-to-one advantage in the polls, Giuliani will be able to scoop up the lion's share of the delegates in the Sunshine State.

And then comes the Big Kuhuna on February 5th. The Giuliani campaign points out 1,038 delegates are at stake on Feb. 5h, nearly half of what is needed to secure the nomination, by far the single biggest day in the primary process.

Clearly, what underlies this strategy is the theory that Giuliani need not win the early contests to win the nomination. In particular, it looks as though Team Rudy is expecting to lose Iowa (at least on January 3), and it thinks it can finish second in New Hampshire and even in South Carolina. As the "firewall," Florida will not swing to Romney (or whoever wins these early states).

The Romney campaign thinks this is a bunch of hooey - and they responded on Monday with a memo that made its feelings clear. I have to admit, it reminded me a bit of Michael Scott's speaking strategy. "The most important part of a speech is the opening line. When time is not a factor I like to try out three or four different ones." And so Team Romney tries out two:

Mayor Giuliani's "momentum-proof" national polling lead, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all walk into a bar...

You're right. None of them exist.

Why the "frontrunner" label and fifty cents won't even get you a cup of coffee nowadays:

Mayor Giuliani continues to hang his hat on national polls that show him garnering around 30 percent support, yet fully 100 percent of the electorate knows who he is. That is a very big gulf to have between the number of voters that know him and the number that actually support him.

National poll samples are largely a reflection of name awareness at this point in the campaign. The polls taken of voters in the early primary states reflect the opinions of voters who are the most engaged and most informed about the candidates. For Mayor Giuliani to have 100 percent of Iowa voters know who he is, yet only around 11 percent of those voters support him...that's a major problem for his candidacy.

So - Romney's campaign strategy is exactly the opposite of Giuliani's. Romney thinks that wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and maybe a strong second (if not a first place finish) in South Carolina will swing the Republican electorate at large to the former Massachusetts governor.

Only one of these strategies can be correct. Either Romney's early wins will break through Giuliani's lead in the big states of February 5, or it will not.

So - will it?

Nobody knows.

This is my favorite part of political campaigns. They are often like JS Mill's "experiments in living." It's a matter of trial and error. Campaigns try new, untested ideas - and either those ideas succeed and they can be used again in the future, or they fail and everybody knows to avoid them next time around. We only find out after it is all over.

This is exactly where I think Mitt and Rudy are. The Republican campaign battle is unique in so many respects. We know all the reasons: no clear frontrunner, compressed primary schedule, bona fide celebrities in the race, a real ideological division within the party, and on and on and on. There is no historical precedent for us to draw on to see who has the strategic advantage. This is probably another reason the campaigns are so interested in communicating their strategies to the public - as well as attacking the strategies of others. There's a little self-consciousness on display here, dontcha think? [And, anyway, Team Rudy cannot be 100% certain about its theory of Florida and the later states. Otherwise, it would not be trying so hard in New Hampshire!]

I suppose that my only point on the viability of these strategies is that Romney's might be harder to execute. For Romney to develop the momentum that he needs to take Giuliani down on February 5 - he will have to have decisive wins in several of the early contests. This could be problematic. Huckabee is on the rise in Iowa - and a strong second might lessen the luster of Romney's win (and, of course, Romney would be in huge trouble if Huckabee bests him). Giuliani and McCain are currently both stuck in second place in New Hampshire, but both are within striking distance. Again, a Romney loss in New Hampshire (especially to Giuliani) would be a big problem for him. And South Carolina is a dead heat between Giuliani and Romney - with Thompson not far behind in third.

My feeling at this point is that this kind of mixed bag helps Giuliani. If we get to Florida with no candidate having any particular momentum over the rest - then there will not be any real pressure placed upon Giuliani's lead in Florida, and therefore on the later states. What Giuliani would need in that situation is simply to remain viable - to finish second in New Hampshire and/or South Carolina and be one of the feasible candidates. Generally, the poll positions in the early states reminds me a bit of the spate of endorsements we have seen - as various factions of the cultural conservative movement have been endorsing different candidates. The diversity benefits Giuliani - as it impedes cultural conservatives from coalescing around a single candidate in time for February 5.

But - the execution of a strategy is different from the viability of the strategy itself. If things play out as the Romney campaign would like - with wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - we would head to Florida presumably with just Giuliani and Romney being viable. In that situation - the Giuliani campaign is betting that Florida is a firewall, the Romney campaign is betting that it is not. There is no way to know who is betting correctly. The only way to see which strategy is better is to wait and see!

-Jay Cost

Unpredictable Iowa

Two items crossed my path yesterday that underlined the unpredictability of the Iowa Democratic caucus. The first comes from Ana Marie Cox of Time:

The Edwards campaign is alive and well in Iowa. Privately, rival campaigns concede that Edwards would probably win if the caucuses were held, say, tonight. Says one organizer, "His supporters are largely previous caucus-goers; you don't have to convince them very hard to go again. Everyone else is going to need all the convincing we can manage in the next month and a half."

The second comes from Richard Wolfe of Newsweek:

Is John Edwards in trouble in Iowa? Peg Dunbar thinks so. She signed up as a county chair for Edwards in the northeastern town of Waverly earlier this year, after backing the former senator's campaign in 2004. Now she has changed her mind and switched to Hillary Clinton. "John Edwards has been in Iowa for four and a half years and he's in third place," she says. "He should be in first place. Granted, it's very, very close. But I don't see him going anywhere and I don't go with a loser."

Dunbar is one of four county chairs--essential figures in any Iowa campaign--who have backed out since being identified as Edwards chairs in a June press release. Ernie Schiller of Lee County says he's now undecided, Frank Best of Louisa County has switched to Obama and Jody Ewing is supporting Bill Richardson.

So, what is going on in Iowa? How can rival campaigns see Edwards winning as of today, but Richard Wolfe see him losing?

I think the problem is that we do not have a reliable metric to measure the state of the race. Polls are of limited utility for gauging Iowa Democrats. This is a subject I discussed earlier in the year. There are two problems. The first is devising a sample of voters. Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is difficult to measure because it takes a good degree of devotion to participate. Chris Cillizza discussed this last week, writing:

Figuring out who is going to vote is always the most basic challenge for any pollster. Past results provide a guide but can never be taken as foolproof as turnout dynamics change from election to election.

This is especially true in Iowa's caucuses where an extremely small number of registered voters turn out to participate, voters can register the day of the caucus and turnout patterns fluctuate widely from caucus to caucus.

The challenge that anyone polling Iowa must face then is how to select an accurate sample of voters. Do you use the list of registered voters as your baseline? Or do you use the far narrower caucus list, which lists those that have participated in the most recent caucuses, to create your sample?

There is a second problem that is not discussed as much. A poll of Iowa Democratic caucus goers does not really mimic the process in which they participate. In a general election - you go into a voting booth, select your first choice, leave the booth, and drop the ballot in the box. And so, a poll that asks you for your first choice and then moves on to other questions does a reasonably good job of mimicking the act of voting.

However, this is not the experience of Democratic caucus goers. Iowa Democrats begin by standing in an area designated for their first choice candidate. Then, for thirty minutes, they either persuade or are persuaded by others to switch their choices. At the end of the half hour, electioneering is halted and caucus officials count the number of supporters that each candidate has. Candidates who have less than 15% or 25% are deemed not to be viable. And so, another thirty minutes for electioneering is once again granted. The supporters of nonviable candidates must find new candidates to support, team up with supporters of other nonviable candidates to make their candidate viable, or abstain.

As far as I know, there is no poll that fully reflects this process, which speaks to two very unique elements of voter psychology:

(a) How strong is your preference for your candidate? And we are not just talking about claims of strength, which some polls measure. We are talking about whether you can withstand being cajoled for half an hour. It is one thing to claim that your support is strong. It is another thing to endure thirty minutes of the Iowa caucus. This is also where organization is extremely important. To pry wavering voters from another candidate - a candidate needs organizers who are better at politicking than the other guy's organizers.

(b) If your candidate is not viable, who's your second choice among the viable candidates? For voters who support a viable candidate - second choices only become relevant if they change their primary candidate (either before or at the caucus). For voters who support nonviable candidates, second choices are quite important. Those whose candidates are deemed nonviable might add up to a substantive number. In the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll taken last month - about 16% of Democratic respondents claimed support for a candidate who would be deemed nonviable at a caucus meeting that mimicked the statewide numbers. What is tricky here is that most polls I have seen do not tell us who the supporters of nonviable candidates support secondarily. Zogby does ask for the second choices of respondents supporting nonviable candidates - but, importantly, we are dealing with a very small subsample of such voters. The supporters of nonviable candidates would only number about 75 people per sample. This makes it very hard to estimate with any statistical confidence whether any candidate is receiving a boost because of them. [Also, Zogby might run afoul of the ecological fallacy. Just because Richardson, for instance, does not reach 15% on a statewide level does not mean that all of his supporters have to be reallocated. He could be above 15% in a given precinct - and therefore those supporters would not have to be reallocated.]

Iowa is one of the reasons I was arguing that Hillary Clinton is not inevitable (before it was popular to do so!). Polling methods do such a poor job of mimicking the caucus process that I think we have to give a wide berth to each candidate's number. The RCP Average, as of today, has Clinton at 30%, Obama at 23.6%, and Edwards at 19.6%. But the bias that the caucus system might induce in the polling is such that I do not think any statements can be made about who is actually in the lead. At best, they just give us some basic purchase on who might win.

Note that this is not a matter of the margin of error. Adding +/-3% to each candidate's total is not necessarily going to solve this problem. The margin of error is a matter of efficiency. What we are discussing here is bias, or the failure of our polling data to approach the level of support that a candidate actually enjoys. Assume no margin of error, and we might still have to "adjust" the poll results by some unknown factor. That last phrase is the trickiest part. Bias is very difficult to measure beforehand. The unknown factor may be very large. It may be zero. We just do not know.

The word "bias" actually has a technical connotation that I am relying on here. It implies that the polls are systematically overestimating or underestimating a candidate's level of support. In such a situation, it is not that our polling data reflects the random variation we see any time we try to measure a large population via a small sample. That's what the margin of error accounts for. That is a matter of efficiency, not bias. Those sorts of variations are expected to cancel each other out - and therefore, on average, our samples will correctly measure the population. With bias, the variations do not cancel each other out. Instead, they reinforce one another - and so, on average, we are left with a difference between our sample and the population. Thus, instead of being inefficient - we are just plain wrong.

Each of the factors I mentioned above could bias the polls.

First, it might be the case that the respondents who will go to the caucus have systematically different preferences than the respondents who will not go to the caucus but who are not filtered out by the pollsters' likely voter screening processes. On the flip side, it might be the case that the voters who are being filtered out by the pollsters' screening process are indeed going to attend the caucus, and their preferences diverge systematically from the voters not filtered out. Either scenario is intuitively plausible - as it is plausible that there is a correlation between candidate support and the enthusiasm measured by likely voter screens. Cox's essay was hinting at the former scenario: Edwards' supporters are more certain to go to the caucus. Therefore, the actual set of caucus goers are more pro-Edwards than the polls indicate. If this were the case, the polls would systematically underestimate the strength of Edwards' support.

Second, it might be the case that there are systematic differences in strength of support per candidate - and therefore systematic differences in levels of support before and after the time allotted for politicking. For instance, Obama's supporters are younger than the average caucus goer. And younger supporters may be more susceptible to persuasion at the caucus. If this is the case, then the polls are systematically overestimating Obama's level of support because they fail to mimic the process those supporters will undergo on caucus night. On the flip side, perhaps Obama's relatively strong organization means that it is better able to peel away supporters of other candidates, even the viable ones. In this case, the polls would systematically underestimate Obama's level of support.

Third, it might be the case that there is a systematic difference between the first choices of all and the second choices of those primarily supporting nonviable candidates. Perhaps Biden's supporters tend to support Obama secondarily at a rate that is greater than the general population's level of primary support. If 24% of the whole public supports Obama first, maybe 40% of Biden supporters support Obama second. As Biden is deemed nonviable - those supporters have to pick another candidate. The former Biden supporters go more to Obama than the general public did (40% instead of 24%) - and thus Obama's position relative to Clinton and Edwards will be systematically better than what the polls are telling us.

Will any of these biases come about? Not necessarily. That is the troublesome feature of bias. We have to know the population values before we can know whether a polling sample is biased. We do know that there are differences between the ways the polls are conducted and the way the Iowa caucus is conducted. Maybe those differences systematically favor one candidate over another. Maybe not. We will not know until after the caucus.

And so, we are left with what I think is a relatively unpredictable event. We can be sure that Clinton, Obama, or Edwards will win the Iowa caucus. And maybe if the polls come to show a large and consistent break toward one candidate or the other - we might be able to say more than this. But, at this point, with the differences between these three candidates in the RCP average being only about 10%, I do not think we can say more than the victor in Iowa will be one of these three.

-Jay Cost

Romney Abandons "The Speech?"

I have spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing Mitt Romney's prospective "Mormon Speech." As we all read over the weekend - apparently, the speech is not in the works at the moment:

HOLDERNESS, N.H. (AP) -- Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Saturday his political advisers have warned him against giving a speech explaining his Mormon faith.

During a house party overlooking Squam Lake, Romney was asked by voters if he would give a speech outlining his religious beliefs and how those beliefs might impact his administration, much like then-Sen. John F. Kennedy did as he sought to explain his Catholic faith during the 1960 election.

"I'm happy to answer any questions people have about my faith and do so pretty regularly," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no -- it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone."

I would note first off that this comment does not square with what Bob Novak reported in October. This is what Novak had to say:

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

So - two questions are on my mind.

(1) Why not give the speech?

The basic maxim of a political campaign is similar to the maxim of the private enterprise: increase one's vote share. If Romney is not going to give such a speech - we can infer that his advisers believe that the speech will not increase his share of the vote. Indeed, they might even believe that it will diminish it. To me, this makes intuitive sense. At this point - Romney seems to be doing well with evangelicals in certain regards. He has picked up some endorsements from the religious right. He also seems to be getting some traction in South Carolina - which is the first real test of his strength among Christian conservatives. The RCP trend line shows that he has been on an upswing since about Labor Day. So - there may be no need to give the speech. On top of that - giving the speech would only draw attention to the one major difference between Romney and Christian conservatives. If they are starting to support him, why do that?

In previous posts, I have spent a good bit of time talking about Romney's speech. Of course, my thoughts on its content were always predicated upon the assumption that he would give one. I have also argued that Romney might be fortunately positioned vis-à-vis the "Mormon issue" - and therefore might not have to deliver such a speech. An issue only becomes an issue in a campaign if the media or the opponents make it one. It has been my theory for a while that neither was going to make any hay out of Romney's Mormonism. That is just not the kind of thing that the media does. It seems illiberal and insensitive. Candidates might feel a little more inclined. However, such a strategy is risky. Any candidate would face a backlash for an anti-Mormon campaign, even one done "underground." Furthermore, Romney's particular opponents would all face greater difficulty in making an issue of his Mormonism, should they be so inclined. After all - Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain have four divorces between them. Bringing up the "Mormon issue" could bring up questions about one's fidelity to the particular faith that one proclaims, and therefore one's moral constitution. Why run the risk?

So - I think there is good reason not to give the speech.

(2) Why tell people he's not giving the speech because his political advisers think it's a bad idea?

I don't know - and I think that was a mistake. Political campaigns are a lot like Hollywood movies. For them to be effective, we have to be able to suspend disbelief, if only for a little bit. So, any time we see a boom mike in the shot, the intended effect is completely spoiled. And so it goes with political campaigns. They are completely artificial - but they are most effective when they seem natural, spontaneous, and "real." I think that Romney's answer to the question makes the artifice of his campaign too apparent. This comment made him seem far too calculating. Again - it is all a matter of appearances. We know what campaigns are really about. We know that they are rational, utility-maximizing organizations whose sole purpose is to get to half-plus-one. However, when the calculations are laid bare before us - we are turned off. So, it is never a good idea to make the voters privy to them. Political advisers should be neither seen nor heard (except for the purposes of "spin").

I doubt that this will have an effect on the primary contest. In fact, I am confident that it will not. But a candidate should strive not to be so loose. It is a good discipline to acquire in advance of the general election campaign. Come next year, you don't want your nominee justifying important decisions by the fact that his preferred course of action was voted down by his "political cabal" (or whatever phrase would find its way into the opposition's talking points). This is the sort of comment that could get a candidate in some trouble in October, 2008.

I also think Romney's comment might make it more difficult for him to give the speech - should his campaign change its mind. His advisers do not want him to because, presumably, they think he is up - and thus there is no problem for a speech to deal with. If he eventually gives the speech, won't that give the impression that they think he's now down - and that there is indeed a problem? That is what the media will focus on with its typical relentlessness. I can just imagine the frame it would use: Romney changes tactics because he's in trouble with the Christian right. This will diminish the effectiveness of the speech.

Generally, it is not a good idea to be this candid about campaign strategy.

-Jay Cost

Thinking About the GOP Nomination

There was a really good conversation about the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday's Special Report panel. I want to tease an insight out from it, so I'll quote a longer-than-usual portion of it:

BRIT HUME, HOST: Our colleague Mr. Barnes here wrote an article in The Weekly Standard just the other day that said that when you get down to it and look at it with care, the Republican race is now a two man affair between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

And the next thing you know, Mitt Romney is moving up in South Carolina, which means that he now leads, or is close to leading, in all three of the early states. Fred, what about this?


HUME: Yes, exactly.

BARNES: Romney is scooting up.

These two, Giuliani and Romney, are the only ones that have realistic scenarios for actually winning the nomination. You have to do well in the early primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire. And then what is after New Hampshire?

HUME: Super Tuesday.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, you have Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, and then Super Tuesday. They're the only ones that I think realistically have a scenario--

HUME: And the reason is that if somebody else were to win one of those early states that, that person, whoever it is among the rest of the field, whether it be Thompson or anybody else, lacks the organization to capitalize?

BARNES: They lack the organization, they lack the money, in particular, because you wouldn't have time to raise a bundle before getting to Florida on January 29, and then all those primaries on February 5. They really would lack that serious base.

What would happen is what happened to John McCain in 2000 running against George W. Bush. He won in New Hampshire, and then couldn't do much with it. He won in Michigan, where independents could also vote, but after that he petered out. He didn't have the money, didn't have the base of support, didn't have, among Republicans, the organization. [Snip]

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR OF THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I totally disagree. I think it is a genuine five-way race.

Fred says you can't write a credible scenario for McCain, Huckabee, or Thompson. I think I could write a credible scenario for any of them.

Let's just take New Hampshire. Say McCain went to Iowa and gave an anti-ethanol subsidy speech. I think he is going to write off Iowa, hope that Iowa fragments off into a four-way, 22, 20, 18, 15 result, which is entirely possible -- no big winner.

He is in New Hampshire, that's where he has won before. If McCain wins New Hampshire, how much is it worth? How much paid money do you need if John McCain comes back, wins New Hampshire? The next primary is Michigan. McCain beat Bush in Michigan last time.

McCain could win. Fred Thompson could win or run second in Iowa. And Huckabee, if wins Iowa, is competitive.

I wanted to quote this because I think that Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol are thinking exactly the same way about the Republican nomination contest, even if their conclusions are different. I think this is the correct way to think about it - and I want to take some time to amplify this method because it is of general applicability.

This method is one that I have been using, though I have not been as explicit about it. What they are doing here is working backwards. They are assuming a result, and trying to argue for a way that this result could happen. This is the appropriate way to examine a "game" like the Republican nomination contest because it is one that occurs over time. It is not an all-at-once process. This line of thinking has a bit in common with the method of backwards induction.

Let's take an example, a seemingly unlikely one: Mike Huckabee wins the presidential nomination. Let's start at the end and work backwards, crafting a scenario by which Huckabee could win.

(5) Huckabee wins more delegates than Giuliani
(4) Thompson and Romney drop out of the race
(3) Huckabee wins South Carolina outright, and beats Thompson and Romney in Florida
(2) Huckabee does surprisingly well in New Hampshire
(1) Huckabee wins Iowa outright

This is the first step. You outline a way in which Huckabee arrives at the nomination. Because each event is predicated upon the one immediately preceding it - it is fairly easy to work out whether this whole process can happen. You take the probability of event 1 occurring, multiply by the probability of event 2 occurring given that event 1 has occurred, multiply by the probability of event 3 occurring given that event 2 has occurred...and so on.

So - by this method - we can begin to see whether Huckabee stands a chance of winning the nomination. Let's assign some hypothetical numbers here - just to give us a sense. First off, let's assume that this is Huckabee's only path to the nomination. There may be other ways, but they would be so unlikely that they are not worth mentioning (their final effect would be to increase whatever number we uncover, but probably only by a little bit)

What are the chances that Huckabee wins Iowa? As of right now, he is trading on InTrade at 25.0. That's as good a place as any to start. Let's say that the chances of him winning Iowa are thus 25%.

What are the chances that, given the Iowa win, he does surprisingly well in New Hampshire (e.g. he finishes a close second to Romney, thus taking the luster off the latter's win ala Clinton v. Tsongas in 1992)? Let's put that at 50%. That seems reasonable to me. Romney has a firewall he has built for himself in New Hampshire. It might hold in this scenario. It might not.

So, given an outright win in Iowa and a strong second in New Hampshire - Huckabee looks like the Southern son on the triumphant march back home. I'd expect him to win South Carolina and beat the other cultural conservatives in Florida. Let's put that one at 75%.

Thompson and Romney would assuredly drop out at that point, so step (4) gets 100%.

That would leave Huckabee versus Giuliani. Let's put the odds of Huckabee winning more delegates than Rudy at 50%.

So, the final number comes pretty simply: 25% X 50% X 75% X 100% X 50% = 4.69%.

Now, I don't think that Fred Barnes would agree with the numbers I have assigned here. In his article on the subject as well as during Tuesday's conversation, Fred seems to place a higher premium on money than I do - so he might think that Huckabee breaking through Romney's firewall in New Hampshire is less likely, say only 25%. This would move Huckabeee from about 4.5% to 2.25%. And money might be an impediment to Huckabee in South Carolina and Florida, which would reduce the number even further. Personally, I am more in line with Bill Kristol on the importance of money. I do not think it matters as much after the race actually gets going.

But we should not get caught up on the specific numbers. Don't be beguiled by the two decimal points of that figure I quoted. The numbers that informed it are far too imprecise to put much stock in it. There is just too much cloudiness in all of this to enable us to assign any number.

The point here is the general method - how it works, and how it helps us understand the race. By working backwards, we have done a great deal to clarify disagreements about the Republican race. We've isolated the various steps, and now we can discuss and disagree over the various steps along the way. We've moved from "Huckabee can't win" versus "Yes he can" to "Huckabee won't have the money to break through Romney's firewall" versus "He won't need money to do that." We also appreciate that, since only a few steps (if any) are assured, there is a multiplicative effect in any multi-stage scenario. It's not just a matter of the likelihood of Huckabee winning Iowa. It's a matter of that likelihood multiplied by several other likelihoods.

This is a process that could be repeated for all five Republican candidates - and thus it can serve as a good framework for analyzing this race. This is why I think the conversation on Tuesday's panel was so illuminating. They were talking about the contest in the correct terms.

-Jay Cost

The Previous Subject, Continued: Quantifying the Debate's Effect

A piece in yesterday's Politico by David Paul Kuhn argued that the debate has had a negative effect on Clinton's national numbers:

Hillary Rodham Clinton's lead nationally and in New Hampshire appears to have slipped following her shaky performance in last week's Democratic debate, according to several polls this week.

If you read on, you'll see the author quote several polls. But he quotes the polls selectively - i.e. in a way that corresponds with the thesis that her numbers are down. This is problematic because poll results vary randomly. That is, they go up and down not necessarily because of changes in the population, but from differences from sample to sample. This is why they have a margin of error. So, you can't just quote the polls that favor your thesis. There could be other polls that fail to favor it - and these need to be factored in.

This is why it is a good idea to average the polls. As you average them, you necessarily decrease the variance of the final result. The variation from sample to sample is inversely related to the sample size. So, a larger sample - or an average that includes many polls - reduces the differences that are due merely to sampling. An average therefore gives you greater purchase on whether the population as a whole has changed.

So - let's do that. RCP has recorded five national polls taken since the Democratic debate on October 30. These five polls put her at an even 45%. So we may have an apples-to-apples comparison, let's take the five national polls that preceded the Democratic debate. These put her at 44%. So, there is no evidence that Clinton's national standing has changed.

Nor should there be. This debate was watched by 2.5 million people nationwide. That's chump change compared to the population that these polls are trying to gauge. It means that everybody else who encountered the debate did so second- or third-hand - in news reports on television, in the newspaper, or from the comments of friends and family. The effect of the debate was therefore greatly diminished for those people.

What about New Hampshire? Well - that is more complicated because there has been only one poll taken since the debate. This would be Rasmussen's poll. Before the debate, Rasmussen found Clinton at 38% in New Hampshire. After the debate, she was down to 34%. The margin of error in this poll is +/- 4%, which means that we cannot reject the hypothesis that the difference is due to sampling variation.

In my previous post, I talked about Type I error. Specifically, I talked about how the press has in place insufficient protocols to prevent its occurrence. This is a perfect example of such poor protocols. Kuhn's analysis runs far too great a risk of Type I error. He is arguing that "something is there" - i.e. there has been a drop in Clinton's support - when in fact there is a very great chance that nothing is there.

-Jay Cost

The Culture of Type I Error

This article came to me (just as it came to billions of others) via Drudge:

Even Fred Thompson doesn't think he will become president. Chatting off-air to a television reporter, a stunningly candid off-the-cuff quip from the Hollywood actor cemented the impression that his heart is not in the 2008 race.

Trying to encourage his studio to hurry up so an interview could start, Carl Cameron of Fox News said into his microphone: "The next president of the United States has a schedule to keep." Standing beside him, a deadpan Mr Thompson interjected: "And so do I."

As some Thompson aides looked bemused and others cringed, a taken-aback Mr Cameron, Fox's chief political correspondent, exclaimed: "You can't do that kind of stuff!"

I've talked on this blog about Type I error. This is the error of the false positive, or the mistaken belief that something is there when, in fact, it is not there. I've argued that political journalists, political pundits, and others of that ilk have far too great a tendency to commit this error, to turn "nothing into something." I think a lot of this has to do with the pressures of being a journalist, of finding things to talk about every day. I think there is a natural human tendency to make something out of nothing. It takes some discipline to stop yourself from doing that - and this is a discipline that journalists probably do not have an incentive to develop.

This article is probably the single greatest example of Type I error I have seen all year. To infer that headline from this quotation is patently ridiculous.

In the social sciences - at least in the quantitative social sciences - there are all kinds of protocols to prevent the occurrence of Type I error. If you want to get something published in a scholarly journal or an academic press, you really have to prove to the reviewers that you are on to something, that there is a only small chance that what you think you have found is actually nothing.

For a long time, I took this for granted. I did not put much thought into why the rules are set up the way they are. But this election cycle has been helping me understand why academics are so careful about Type I error.

The above example is a silly one. Indeed - only a Brit paper could write something like that, and I don't think even they believed that Thompson was being serious. But there have been serious examples of Type I error. The one that comes to my mind right away is this notion that Rudy Giuliani was giving up on New Hampshire. It never fit the facts well at all. Nevertheless, the press accepted it as true. But - as theories that have trouble fitting the facts so often do - this theory turned out to be false. Rudy has basically planted himself in New Hampshire this month. The journalists and pundits who argued that he was planning to quit New Hampshire had obviously been committing Type I error. They believed a false theory was true. And what was their response to this mistake? They did not go back and conclude, "Hmmm...I guess we were wrong about Rudy giving up on NH." No. Instead, their argument was, "Rudy has changed his strategy!"

This is what you have to do with a false theory when it is faced with a falsifying instance - and you do not want to reject it outright. You have to attach ad hoc addenda to it. You have to alter it so that it fits the observed facts. But the alterations do not make it true; they just make it fit the facts. That is the only reason to accept the addenda. They are not intuitive or sensible. They do not emanate logically from the original theory. They're just attachments to keep it alive. The idea that Rudy changed his strategy is obviously ad hoc. The only reason to accept it is to keep the original theory going - it makes no sense whatsoever (as it requires him to have had three strategies for dealing with New Hampshire in the month of September alone!). And so, look what has happened: they have compounded the error. Before, they were "merely" wrong about Rudy giving up on New Hampshire. Now, they are wrong about Rudy giving up on New Hampshire and Rudy changing his strategy.

This is what happens when you do not have good protocols in place to reject false theories. You accept them. But, as they eventually fail to fit the facts, you are forced to accept false addenda to the original theory. That addenda will eventually fail you - so you have to accept another. Thus, you become more and more wrong. The tendency to commit Type I error is thus like the tendency to make turns down random, unknown roads after you are already lost.

Of course, there is a trade-off her. if you put protocols in place to keep yourself from accepting false theories, sooner or later you are going to reject a true theory. I would argue, this is much less damaging in the long run. The nice thing about true theories is that they are true, which means they fit the facts yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If you have not already accepted a false theory today, you'll be looking at things tomorrow - and you'll have another chance to be persuaded by the true theory. The only damage is that you went a little while not accepting the true theory. When you accept as true a theory that is actually false - you might never correct your error.

I think avoiding Type I error is optimal. This is how I consciously try to argue on this blog. My feeling is that, in the long run, I am much better off if I am skeptical of theories. I'll probably reject a few true theories here and there - indeed, I am sure I have already done that a few times. But, by being skeptical, and by asking for sound reasoning and solid proof before I accept a theory, I think that I am much less likely to commit Type I error, and therefore go seriously askew.

Update, 2 PM EST: I have added a continuation of this post, which can be accessed here.

-Jay Cost

Filing Deadline Now Passed in Illinois

The deadline to file candidacies in the state of Illinois has now passed. Illinois comes well ahead of the rest of the nation in this regard - most states have a deadline sometime in March of next year. A look at the candidates for the major contests can be had here.

A few observations:

(1) Five Democrats do not face Republican opposition: Jesse Jackson, Jr., Luis Gutierrez, Rahm Emanuel, Danny Davis, and Phil Hare

(2) No Democratic incumbent drew a Republican challenger who has previously won electoral office. This includes Melissa Bean, who ousted Phil Crane in 2004 and whom Republicans targeted in 2006.

(3) Neither Chicagoland Republican incumbent (Mark Kirk or Peter Roskam) drew a Democratic challenger who has previously won electoral office. However, Dan Seals - who gave Kirk a good run in 2006 - is challenging him again.

(4) There are three Republican open seats in Illinois - IL 11, 14, and 18. All of them are downstate. The Democrats have a candidate who has previously won an election in IL 11. In that contest, the Democrat has more electoral experience than either Republican.

(5) Dan Lipinski might face some strong opposition in the Democratic primary for IL 03. Lipinski is the son of former representative Bill Lipinski, who suddenly withdrew from the race in 2004 after he had won the Democratic nomination. His son was selected to replace him on the ballot. And, IL 03 being a district on the South and West sides of Chicago - he won the general election easily. But Dan Lipinski faced a tough primary challenge in 2006 (the opposition garnered 46% between them), and it looks as though he might again this cycle.

(6) Unsurprisingly, Richard Durbin faces no serious opposition to retain his Senate seat.

(7) Gutierrez, Jackson, Jr., and Hare face no opposition. The current tally for the 111th Congress is: Democrats 3, Republicans 0, TBD 432.

-Jay Cost

Ravenstahl Wins in Pittsburgh

A race that I had my eye on yesterday was the Pittsburgh mayoral race. This was a contest between incumbent mayor Democrat Luke Ravenstahl and South Side businessman Republican Mark Desantis.

At first blush, this might seem strange to care about. There has not been a Republican mayor in Pittsburgh since 1929. Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by 5:1. A Republican candidate has not cracked 35% since 1965. Why care?

Well - for a while it looked like it might have been a real race. Ravenstahl, who is only 27 years old, was elevated to the position in 2006 when Mayor Bob O'Connor died. He has had a bumpy two years in office. In January of this year, there were reports that Ravenstahl got into a shoving match with a city of Pittsburgh police officer at Heinz Field back in 2005. Ravenstahl also took an SUV funded by the Department of Homeland Security to a Toby Keith concert, and he participated in a celebrity golf tournament that worried the Pittsburgh city ethics board.

Enter Mark Desantis, who spent a good bit of money (a quarter million dollars, something never seen on the GOP side of the ledger here in Pittsburgh). He also picked up the endorsement of the Pittsburgh police union as well as the Post-Gazette, which has not endorsed a Republican since 1969. A lot of Republicans in this city hoped that Ravenstahl's youth and perceived incompetence might swing the election to the GOP. The fact that no independent polling was commissioned gave the race a sense of mystery. Could Desantis win?

No way. Ravenstahl won last night 63% to 35%. This just goes to show that, while some elements of the original FDR coalition have broken from the Democrats, urban voters really have not. They are still loyal to the Democratic Party. Last night in Pittsburgh, party registration trumped all else.

-Jay Cost

An Impediment to Paul?

Yesterday's news that Ron Paul took in $4 million prompted Steven Stark to speculate that this means that, should Paul run as a third party candidate, he could be a viable force.

Steven and I discussed this publicly last month. He wrote a column arguing that the GOP would be devastated by a third party run. I didn't disagree with this outright, but I did assert that it remains to be seen whether Paul could obtain a non-negligible share of the vote (and I argued against expecting a religious right candidate to be able to do that).

At the time, I received an email from somebody who noted that Paul could run into trouble with "sore loser" laws. Those are laws that prohibit a candidate who runs for a party's nomination for a given office in the primary from running for the same office with another party's nomination in the general election. I had heard about this for the first time last year - as it was what might have kept Joy Padgett from running in OH 18. She had tried, but failed, to win the GOP's nomination for Lieutenant Governor. And so, there was, for a time, a question as to whether she could run as the Republican in OH 18.

Padgett was ultimately allowed to run as the GOP nominee in OH 18 because she was running for a different office. Paul would be running for the same office, and so I wondered whether this reader was on to something.

It turns out that he was, but not to a great extent. I did some digging and found this article from Ballot Access News, whose relevant points I will quote here.

If Paul fails to win the Republican presidential nomination, he could then seek the Libertarian nomination (which he would be virtually certain to obtain) and run in November as the Libertarian nominee. John Anderson established the precedent in most states that "sore loser" laws do not apply to presidential candidates. John Anderson ran in two-thirds of the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, and he also won a place on the November 1980 ballots as an independent candidate in all 50 states. In some of the states in which Anderson happened not to run in the 1980 Republican presidential primary, there is still a precedent that "sore loser" laws don't apply to president, because others set such precedents. These include Lyndon LaRouche (who ran in Democratic primaries and then as an independent in 1984, 1988 and 1992) and David Duke (who ran in Democratic presidential primaries in 1988 and then ran in November 1988 as the Populist Party nominee).

Only four states maintain that their "sore loser" laws apply to president: South Dakota, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. After LaRouche won in court against Ohio in 1992, Ohio amended its "sore loser" law in 1993 to specifically apply to presidential candidates. No precedents have been set in Mississippi or South Dakota. In Texas, unfortunately, in 1996 the Constitution Party filed a lawsuit against Texas to get a ruling that the "sore loser" law doesn't apply to president. The federal judge who got the case, James Nowlin, refused to enjoin Texas' interpretation that the "sore loser" law does apply to president. The denial of injunctive relief is reported as US Taxpayers Party v Garza, 924 F Supp 71 (1996).

However, the opinion does not discuss the fact that the true candidates in November are running for presidential elector, not president. A presidential candidate's name is not listed on the November ballot in his or her role as a candidate. Instead, the name is an identifier for specific slates of candidates for presidential elector.

Of the four states where sore loser laws are still in at least nominal effect for presidential elections, only Ohio is a swing state. And even in those four states, Paul may be able to get on the ballot. So, by and large, it looks as though Paul would be relatively unimpeded should he decide to run as the Libertarian Party nominee (though I do not know nearly enough about Libertarian Party politics to know whether Paul would be "virtually certain" to obtain the nomination if he sought it). I still think there are other potential impediments to a Paul third party candidacy - but it appears ballot access is not one of them.

-Jay Cost

The Awful Task of Governance

There is a strange tension in the American political party. It strives to achieve a governing majority. That is its goal. But a governing majority is nothing but a hassle. It cannot accomplish much more than half measures, watered-down versions of what it promised, or symbolic gestures that change nothing at all. Eventually, its supporters catch on to this impotence, and they come to loathe it, decrying its members as dime-a-dozen politicians who squandered the public trust. So, I can't help but ask: why bother?

Of course, like a salmon swimming upstream, the party does bother. It works tirelessly to acquire 218 Reps or 51 Senators, even though it knows (or it should know) what awaits it upon "victory." And what awaits the party is one of the inevitable features of our system: it thwarts, stymies, and frustrates governing majorities. It was designed to do exactly that. Think about all of the various idiosyncrasies of our system that you first learned in eighth grade. The filibuster, the bicameral legislature, the tripartite government, federalism, the Connecticut Compromise, and so on. None of them are accidental. They all combine to make it excruciatingly difficult for the majority to accomplish anything of lasting substance. All of these have the effect of dispersing power.

The function of the political party is to concentrate power just enough so that the government can actually work. This is one reason why all of the original Framers ended up as party men. When it came time to solve the first problems of the young republic - it was soon discovered that a long-term coalition, built around a few basic principles, was a necessary expedient to coordinate activity across our very diverse government. What was needed was some kind of centripetal force in our system to collect at least some of the power that the Constitution disperses. Without such a force, our system would do little more than enforce the status quo. Thus, the party caucus was born. This remains the job of the political party to this day: to concentrate power by coordinating the actions of governmental agents with similar views.

But, unlike in other countries, our parties are, in a sense, working against our Constitution. As I said, the parties collect what the Constitution has dispersed. This means they must find a way to govern despite all of the impediments put in place to do so. The net result is a party whose power is accordingly diminished. Add five to zero, and you get five. Add five to negative three, and you get only two. That is the difference between the American system and other systems of democratic government.

A real problem for the party is that its campaign rhetoric never seems to match what it is actually capable of doing once it gets its hands on the majority. Every cycle, Democrats and Republicans promise all sorts of things that they cannot possibly deliver because the parties are simply not powerful enough to deliver them. This is a problem that the Democrats have been having in this Congress, as the Wall Street Journal observed today:

The way in which Senate Democrats wavered and then consented to the confirmation of Michael B. Mukasey as attorney general reflects the party's broader struggle to make headway on its national-security agenda, despite President Bush's unpopularity.

On questions such as Mr. Mukasey's stance on waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping and the war in Iraq, Democrats have been stymied by Republicans in Congress and the White House. That has sparked frustration among supporters, especially those on the left, who anticipated that last year's congressional takeover would force some policy changes.

These dashed expectations are one reason polls give Congress an approval rating lower than Mr. Bush's. The difficulties faced by Democrats on these issues look certain to complicate the party's bid to expand House and Senate majorities and regain the White House in 2008, a wartime election in which national security will be a major issue.

Democrats acknowledge the difficulty in speaking up for civil liberties while maintaining a tough stand on homeland security and terrorism.

Welcome to American governance, Democrats. It's one of the most frustrating jobs you can have. You are running a system whose designers intended to thwart you. And so, even though you have the majority, and you face a president whose numbers have been in the gutter for more than two years, you still cannot seem to do what you want to do.

This follows quite logically from the Madisonian design. Power is dispersed in our government so that no single faction, even if it is a majority (e.g. the liberal Democrats), can achieve its policy goals if those goals are "narrow." The only way these goals can be achieved is if a broad coalition, comprised of multiple factions (e.g. the liberal Democrats, the moderate Democrats, and the moderate Republicans), accept these goals and coordinate their actions to implement them. In this way, no faction can impose its will on another faction unduly - and true republican government is thereby preserved.

Most people look at articles like the one in today's Wall Street Journal, and ask, "Why can't they just get things done?" This is the answer: "James Madison didn't want them to!" Our system is designed to keep "things" from getting done. It's all right there in Federalist #10 and #51. They are the key to understanding the way our government works. If you can accept Madison's penchant for the run-on sentence - you'll find that these two documents answer most of your questions.

A question that has been on my mind in recent months is the following. Presumably, politicians know that they cannot get things done in our system. So why is it that, during the electoral campaign, they make promises that they know they cannot keep? I have sketched out some answers to this question - and in the next few days or so, I'll offer my thoughts on this blog.

-Jay Cost

A Real Race on the Dem Side?

So - the press has realized that there might be a real race on the Dem side.


-Jay Cost

Policy Differences in the Republican Campaign

Yesterday, I began a two-part discussion on policy differences in the primary campaigns. The subject was the Democratic primary - and the question I tried answer was: given that there are few obvious policy differences between the major candidates, what strategies are they pursuing?

Today, I am going to look at the Republican campaign. I think that there is a fascinating dynamic between the three top candidates, Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson.

Giuliani and Romney face the same fundamental dilemma. Prior to their campaigns for the presidency, both had staked out issue positions that diverged from the median position in the Republican Party. They have pursued two distinct strategies for solving this problem.

Romney has endeavored to claim for himself the mantle of "Mr. Republican." His conversion on social issues - whether valid or not - served this purpose. (Full disclosure: I think that it was both intellectually valid and politically motivated. My theory is that Romney had a legitimate conversion on these issues while he was working out a way to deal with his divergence from the party. His need to resolve the differences between the party and him put the question at the forefront of his mind - and the problem was solved, I think, because he really did decide that conservatives have the correct answer.) So also has his use of rhetoric. Romney's rhetorical strategy has been to place himself in the center of the Republican Party. His "Republican wing of the Republican Party" line was a case in point. I think that this rhetoric is meant to blunt his previous statements that put him somewhere to the left of that wing. The idea with this is very obviously to convince Republican voters that the policy differences between them are non-existent.

While Romney has worked to reposition himself in the Republican Party, Giuliani has pursued a different path. He has not changed his issue positions like Romney. He does not deny that differences persist to this day. At first blush, this seems like a very strange strategy. Why would you not work actively to minimize the policy differences between you and the voters? Isn't it axiomatic to run to the base in the primary, and then to the center in the general?

Not necessarily! There is actually good reason for this strategy: voters might take you to be honest, respectful, credible, and therefore worthy of their votes. One of my biggest problems with popular analysis of politics - the kind that takes the primary/general two-step as axiomatic - is that it presumes a level of ideological sophistication on the part of the voting public (primary or general) that has been shown not to exist. Voters are not nearly as ideological as pundits and elites think they are. They are therefore susceptible to appeals that are not reducible to basic issue positioning.

A great example of this comes from Richard Fenno, a political scientist who wrote a fantastic series of works in the late seventies that studied the electoral behavior of congressmen in their districts. Fenno followed more than a dozen members around, recorded their behavior, and then wrote a groundbreaking book on the subject, Homestyle. One of Fenno's subjects was "Congressman C" (kept anonymous for obvious reasons). This member was a Democrat in a conservative district. His voting record therefore was a source of potential problem for him, and Fenno was interested in how he dealt with it. The following is Fenno's account of Congressman C from one of his scholarly articles that preceded the publication of Homestyle:

When I asked Congressman C if he wasn't more liberal than his district, he said:
Hell, yes, but don't quote me on that. It's the biggest part of my problem - to keep people from thinking I'm a radical liberal. How do you explain to a group of Polish Catholics why you voted to abolish the House Internal Security Committee or why you voted against a bill to keep Jane Fonda from going to North Vietnam? How do you explain that? You can't...

Later...he mused out loud about how he managed this problem.
It's a weird thing how you get a district to the point where you can vote the way you want to without getting scalped for doing it. I guess you do it in two ways. You come back here a lot and let people see you, so they get a feel for you. And, secondly, I go out of my way to disagree with people on specific issues. That way, they know you aren't trying to snow them. And when you vote against their views, they'll say, "Well, he's got his reasons." They'll trust you. I think that's it. If they trust you, you can vote the way you want to and it won't hurt.

This is clearly what Guiliani is trying to do. He admits that there are differences between the GOP and him. He's betting that this admission will build respect and trust - and therefore confidence that he will do in office what he says he will do. He has supplemented this by doing something that Hillary Clinton is also doing. Clinton's anti-Republican rhetoric has been matched only by Giuliani's anti-Democratic rhetoric. I think that Giuliani's strategy is therefore two-fold: (a) Admit that there are differences. Be candid and hope the voters will respect you; (b) Attack the Democratic Party so that voters recognize that there are many more similarities than differences.

Both of these strategies are, I think, potentially winnable. That is, Romney's movement on issues could get him the nomination. Giuliani's candor/partisan sniping could do for him what it did for Congressman C for many elections. But neither is maximally efficient. The maximally efficient position is to be a candid candidate who has been a lifelong conservative. Enter Fred Thompson. I think that this is Thompson's angle in the nominating contest. Why vote for somebody who claims to be a conservative, but who might not be honest about it - or for somebody who is honest, but who is not a through-and-through conservative? You can have both.

-Jay Cost

Policy Differences in the Democratic Primary Campaign

One of the interesting phenomena of this primary campaign is the difference between the Republican and the Democratic contests. Now, we all know that the horse races are different. The Democratic contest is basically a two-, two-and-a-half-, way race between Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Clinton also has a clear edge in the contest. The Republican contest has more viable candidates - and the frontrunner in that contest, Giuliani, has less of an edge than Clinton.

Another interesting difference is the policy positions on both sides. On the Democratic side, you have three candidates that are essentially identical on issue positions. Of course, there are differences between each. You could probably array them left to right as Edwards, Obama, and Clinton. However, the differences between them are slight enough that average voters probably cannot apprehend the differences between them. This was the subject of an October 30 piece in the Boston Globe:

In the nine months since launching his insurgent campaign for president, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has seized on a slew of issues in trying to set himself apart from Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. But with Clinton's dominance unabated, there is little evidence Obama has made headway on any of them.

Poll after poll shows Clinton not only leading the Democratic field, but also leading on issues on which Obama has sought to gain advantage. Likely voters say that they see Clinton as the best candidate to fix Iraq. They trust her over her rivals to solve the healthcare crisis. And they believe she would bring change to Washington.

Part of Obama's problem, analysts say, is that despite how hard his campaign is working to highlight its differences - he is vowing again this week to take her on more directly - he and Clinton are simply not far apart on major issues.

"It's Wal-Mart and Kmart - they're occupying the same space," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Obama and Edwards have, I think, endeavored to create differences between Clinton and themselves in different ways. My impression is that Edwards is trying to emphasize the policy differences. He is working to create the impression that he is the authentic Democrat in the race - and his solutions to health care, Iraq, etc., are more in line with the Democratic electorate. This is a difficult path - but I think that Professor Ginsberg might be underestimating its viability. In the early states, where primary voters are paying more attention, they might be able to apprehend real differences - just as, on close inspection, one can see real differences between Wal-Mart and Kmart (if there was no perceivable difference between the two, the former would not have driven the latter to the brink of nonexistence). Edwards is obviously hoping that Iowa sees the differences, chooses his brand, and launches him on a national campaign.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to me to be pursuing a different strategy. This is from the Globe again:

Obama has also sought to differentiate himself in leadership style and message, casting himself as the candidate best equipped to change Washington. Last month's LA Times/Bloomberg poll of primary voters in early-voting states showed that Democrats believed Obama, more than Clinton, had "new ideas." But other recent surveys have shown that voters see Clinton as more "inspiring," more likely to bring "needed change," and best able to "reduce partisanship."

"Barack has had a difficult time both identifying distinctions between himself and Hillary and then making them clear," said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who worked on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

Obama strategist David Axelrod insisted that the two candidates have significant differences on issues, and said that this election is as much about leadership.

"It's about an approach and a style to politics and governance," he said. "And one of the questions is, are you willing to face these things squarely? Are you willing to be straight up with the American people, or are you going to pass everything through a sort of political calculus? I think that does have traction."

Obama's strategy indicates that elections are not "one dimensional." That is, they are not simply a matter of voters identifying candidate ideological positions and choosing the candidate whose position is closest to their own. Obama's trajectory is one to create contrasts on style and personality.

What I think is really interesting in all of this is that Clinton is very clearly trying to minimize the contrasts between Obama, Edwards, and herself. This makes intuitive sense. Clinton seems to be the "default" candidate in the Democratic primary. That is, absent a vigorous campaign by her opponents to convince the voters otherwise, it appears as though they will select her. Accordingly, her goal is not so much to give them a reason to vote for her, but rather to make the reasons Edwards and Obama offer seem less compelling. In other words, she needs to minimize the contrasts. She is going to lose some "authentic liberals" to Edwards and some "change the tone voters" to Obama. But what she needs to do is make it so that a good portion of both types of voters think they can satisfy their preferences by voting for her.

Edwards poses a particular dilemma because he is running strong to her left - at least rhetorically. If she matches him word for word, she'll damage her general election viability. It seems to me that she has dealt with this by attacking "George Bush and the Republicans." This is a good strategy, I think. It does not move her to the left in terms of policy positions - but it is a good way to blur the distinctions between Edwards and herself. It signals that she is a solid Democrat, which is what those "authentic liberals" want in a candidate, without forcing her to stake out positions that she might later regret.

We saw this in the debate during the Iran discussion. She voted for Kyl-Lieberman, which was probably necessary for her to do in advance of the general election. However, the Democratic base did not like Kyl-Lieberman - which gave Edwards a line of attack. Clinton blunted this not by swearing off her vote, but by really laying it on George Bush and the "Republican sabre rattlers." The intended result of this is to make it so that the "authentic liberals" perceive few differences between Clinton and Edwards. The latter talks ideology, the former talks partisanship. The differences are blurred. The voters select Clinton.

I think blunting Obama's attack is a much trickier task. Policy positions are flexible, as we all know. And, if your opponent is outdoing you on ideology, just outdo him on partisanship. However, Obama's differentiation is one based on style - and it carries with it a subtle, yet potentially dangerous, undertone. Obama's argument is that the failure for the party to break through with the public on the substantive issues upon which good Democrats all agree has to do with the style of the leaders. Thus, so Obama's argument goes, we are more likely to achieve Democratic policy goals if we elect a leader with a different style.

Clinton seems to me to have responded to this attack by wrapping herself in the cloak of the nineties. As often as she slams Bush, she praises her husband's administration (always in the first person plural!). I think the intended effect of this is to draw upon the Democratic electorate's warm feelings about the Clinton administration. They see Bill Clinton's time in office as a success. By referencing her husband - Clinton is actually making an argument against Obama's position. She is implicitly saying that we don't need an entirely new direction. Instead, we need to get back to the way (she and) Bill ran the government.

What I really like about this whole strategy is how the two separate arguments - the one for Edwards and the one for Obama - are fit seemlessly into a neat package: "We need to get back to the way things were before Bush, who is just horrible."

Will this position prevail? I cannot say. First off, I'm not a Democrat. So, this conversation is not really "for me," if you know what I mean. I consider myself to be like a fly on the wall when I watch the Democrats converse about these matters - and I cannot presume to know what they will ultimately prefer. Second, there is no polling available that can help us gauge whether this position will play with the Democratic electorate. So, my plan is just to wait and see what they do.

I will say that her strategy for blunting Obama carries with it a potential inefficiency. Recall George W. Bush's campaign of 2000. One of the most remarkable things about that campaign is that Bush created the impression that he was a "change" candidate, despite the fact that his father was a former president - and obviously not a symbol of change. I think one of the ways Bush did that was by minimizing the role of his father in the campaign. This enabled him to market himself as "new" much more efficiently.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is not pursuing this strategy. Bill is quite prevalent in the campaign. As I said, I think the purpose of this is to take advantage of the Democratic electorate's warm feelings for his administration. But the flip side is that it might make Hillary Clinton a kind of status quo candidate in next year's general election. This, I think, could be quite costly - as the Democrats' greatest advantage right now is that the public identifies the generic Democratic brand with change.

Now - it might not work out this way. The key word here is "potential." Clinton might still be able to present herself as the change candidate. The Republican brand might be so tarnished that whoever either party nominates, the Democratic candidate will be seen as the change candidate regardless of the particulars. And, anyway, maybe the public wants a "change back to the old" rather than a "new change."

I am not sure whether or not this will flush out in a way that damages Clinton. I am more confident that the GOP will try this line of attack. My guess is that whoever is the GOP nominee will try to argue that he is the change candidate, and that Hillary Clinton represents the old politics that are no longer working. I think it is not coincidental that many Republicans took notice of Sarkozy's victory in France. My guess is that this is something they hope to replicate - and Clinton might give them an opportunity to do so.

We'll talk about the Republican field tomorrow.

-Jay Cost