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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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Why Did Clinton Overlook Obama?

Most neutral observers would agree that Hillary Clinton's response to Barack Obama's rise has been bungled. Over the past few weeks, we have seen her campaign attempt again and again to attack him, only to make itself look foolish. I think the worst moment came last weekend when President Clinton was dispatched to the Charlie Rose Show to trash the junior senator from Illinois. That task was simply beneath a former president. And who did not notice the irony of Clinton arguing for experience over freshness? If any Democrat has parroted Republican talking points this cycle - it was Bill Clinton mimicking Bush-Quayle '92.

This plan was clearly put together on a spit and a prayer. It seems to me that if the Clinton campaign had anticipated that Obama would pose this kind of threat - it would have developed a better strategy for dealing with him. Its ineptitude over the last few weeks belies its lack of preparedness. I am sure that Team Clinton has a number of contingency plans in its filing drawer, but the rise of Obama is clearly not one of them.

Why was the Clinton campaign unprepared for this?

Unfortunately, we cannot answer this question directly. The only people who know are the higher-ups of the Clinton organization - and they are not going to admit that they were unprepared, let alone explain why. But I have a plausible theory worth sharing.

The way to approach the question is first to ask why we should have expected an Obama surge. It stands to reason that the Clinton campaign failed to account for at least one of the factors that make up our answer. These are the three reasons that I argued for over the summer and fall:

(1) Obama raised $70 million in nine months from half a million people. This demonstrates two points:
(a) He caters to a real demand in the Democratic electorate - intense enough to open wallets.

(b) His money can facilitate a more sophisticated campaign strategy. Obama can do more than win Iowa and hope that he magically catches fire. Instead, he can win Iowa and fight Clinton dollar-for-dollar, state-for-state.

(2) Obama is the most authentic change candidate among the top three Democrats. Hillary Clinton is not this candidate. Her principal qualification for the job is her role as her husband's advisor - so she was always going to run on the record of the 1990s. John Edwards has positioned himself as a change candidate, but he does not convey the authenticity that Obama does.

(3) Obama is organized in Iowa. He recognized that organization was critically important for an Iowa victory - and that an Iowa victory was necessary for his broader strategy. And so, he is organized and ready for the January 3 caucus.

Through the summer and the fall, journalists underestimated the importance of these because they used the opinion polls to create a horse race out of whole cloth. In reality - the opinions expressed to pollsters were not stable enough to support the idea that there was an actual race going on. Voter opinions were based on little information and even less interest in the campaign. Obama's activities were never going to register with these uninformed and uninterested voters in the summer; they were always meant to yield dividends in the winter. So, Obama was seen to be a weaker candidate than he really was. Accordingly, Clinton was seen to be stronger than she really was. She was always the frontrunner (she still is), but the overuse of opinion polls made her appear "unstoppable" and "inevitable" to the press.

Like the press, the Clinton campaign clearly underestimated Obama - it over-looked the money, the message, or the organizing. Perhaps the Clinton campaign did this for the same reason as the press. Perhaps it relied so heavily on the opinion polls that it could not see that Obama was preparing to launch a viable campaign later on.

I think this explanation has some credibility to it. I'm thinking in particular of Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. His comments over the course of the campaign have struck me as utilizing the same erroneous assumptions that informed the press' summer horse race narrative. Consider this snippet from the Ben Smith's blog. The date of this entry is October 18. 2007:

"Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of Republican women voters ... even in the South," he said. "I think you're going to see as much as 24% of Republican women defect and make a major difference nationwide in terms of, I think, the emotional element of potentially having the first woman nominee. And that that actually will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop."

This is a ridiculously overconfident assertion.

First, research has shown that partisanship is a stable and powerful feature of a person's psychology. It has also shown that voters who are conflicted between their partisanship and their evaluations of the candidates often resolve the conflict by simply abstaining, rather than voting for the other party. The idea that one in four Republican women will defy these regularities is possible, but far from likely.

Second, I just cannot see how this figure can be quantified some twelve-and-a-half months prior to the election. That's just insane to me. Everything we know about the levels of voter information, voter attention, the effect of the media dialogue on transitory political opinions, the influence of question wording and ordering - leads me to suspect that Penn is committing some serious inferential fallacy. It is not that he is necessarily wrong. It is that his assertion is dramatically underdetermined. The numbers are not giving him the hard answers he thinks they are.

This is the kind of comment I expect from non-expert journalists who look at the polls and read the numbers in a naïve way. "Republican women say that they would consider voting for Clinton; ergo, they would consider voting for Clinton." Not quite. The fact of the matter is that you can't come to this conclusion so easily. Underlying all of those seemingly straightforward numbers is a complex, intricate aggregation of individual voter psychologies. This makes inferential analysis extremely difficult.

I would contrast Penn's silly assertion with the considered work of political scientists who specialize in political psychology. The best work in this subfield is the most difficult stuff I have ever read. The theories are complicated, the methods are complex, and the conclusions are always narrow and tentative because voter psychology is incredibly difficult to delineate. It is not made any easier by the fact that our best point of contact with voters is the opinion survey - which, when you think about it, is quite distant from their interior mental states.

You can find the same flippancy in Penn's strategy memos - which have come out periodically over the course of the campaign. All of them follow the same basic script as this one from July: Clinton's poll position is insurmountable; there is no need to have an election because a sample of the voting population has reported statistically significant results that Clinton will win.

In January he argued, "If Hillary leads in Ohio at this point in the race -- the key state that gave the last election to the Republicans -- then this confirms that Hillary can win and is today winning. She is the strongest Democrat in what was the most difficult state." Look at his words carefully: polling results some twenty-two months before the election "confirm" that Hillary can win and "is" winning. In February he said basically the same thing in response to the latest polling data, "As other candidates are getting more and more attention, Hillary is getting more and more support...This poll confirms that Hillary not only can win but actually is today winning."

In August, he wrote that voters had "come to see the race differently," and accordingly "concluded" that Clinton "has what it takes to be President and what it takes to take on the Republicans." It is untenable to argue that voter perceptions were changing in August, or that voters had concluded anything before Labor Day.

In October, he said that Clinton's support among women is "deep" - and that "94% of young women" will be more likely to turn out to vote for the first female nominee. Much like his comment about Republican women - there is no way to quantify how "young women" will respond to Clinton some thirteen months before Election Day. Nor, for that matter, can depth of support be easily interpreted from simple yes-or-no questions asked months before the first votes are cast.

In November, he wrote that the "leadership card" is the reason "why people are voting for Hillary Clinton." His consistent use of the present tense to describe the act of voting represents the same fallacy that polling respondents are no different than voters.

Now, there is a lot of spin going on with these memos. In particular, Penn has an incentive to play to the prior beliefs of the audience - i.e. journalists who cannot distinguish between a February poll and a December poll. However, spin alone cannot explain Penn's voluminous study of the polls. I counted upwards of 6,000 words offered in analysis of polling data since the start of the campaign - no campaign's senior adviser spends so much effort dissecting the polls simply for the purpose of spinning the press. That would be a misallocation of resources.

Spin alone also does not explain why Penn would consistently take the tone he has adopted. If he agreed that the polls could turn on a dime, he would never argue that they would not. Anybody with a lick of sense knows not to tell a falsifiable lie if it can be avoided. Generally, the fact that the Clinton campaign facilitated the idea of inevitability is an indication that it believed that it was inevitable. You don't go pushing that storyline if you believe it is not necessarily true. Otherwise, you set expectations far too high - and you run the risk of getting burned when things do not go your way.

This is actually Clinton's biggest problem right now. When the voting starts, expectations matter. Most of the electorate's information on the campaign will come from the media - whose emphasis is on the horse race. Who's up and who's down. If Clinton loses several of the first contests, she will receive more negative coverage than, say, Giuliani because her campaign once convinced the press that she couldn't lose.

So, I think that the Mark Penn and the Clinton campaign might have made the same basic mistake the press made. They over-interpreted the polls. They wrongly assumed that the opinions expressed in them were more informed, sophisticated, and stable than they actually were. I think that this, in turn, caused them to overlook Obama's real strengths.

The big question: what will this cost them? Possibly nothing. I think this race remains fundamentally unchanged. Winning Iowa is a necessary condition for Obama. It is a sufficient condition for Clinton. Clinton could win Iowa - and her numbers that have slipped in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationwide will rebound. The race will be over. In that case, her campaign will probably be in better shape for having learned a good lesson at no cost. But it might cost them something. There is such a small margin that separates Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in Iowa that her campaign's maladroit response to Obama could cost her victory. In that case - the race continues to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday. And she could lose the nomination.

-Jay Cost