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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Democratic Race Moving Forward

Today's column is a continuation of yesterday's essay. Thus, it is appropriate to review exactly what was accomplished yesterday. Using two distinct data sets - the exit polls to date supplemented by the statewide vote totals - we formulated a basic outline of the set of groups that seem to be influential in the Democratic primary race.

The exit polling data indicates that several variables are factors in determining who wins a given primary or caucus: union workers, Catholics, Hispanics, African Americans, party identification, geography, and gender. In particular, we noted yesterday that southern whites tend to support Clinton, while northern whites split their support between Clinton and Obama according to gender.

We supplemented this analysis with an OLS regression model whose purpose was fairly modest. It was designed to confirm some of the observations made on the micro level as well as test whether some other factors might be influential. It was helpful in this regard. In particular, we found that caucus states, states with high white median income, and "homogeneously white" states all tend to support Obama.

What I would like to do today is use this knowledge to estimate where the race goes from here.

Hillary Clinton has been on a bit of a losing streak lately - and that streak continued last night. Clinton lost all three contests in the so-called "Potomac Primary" by large margins. Unsurprisingly, there have been stories about the bottom dropping out of her campaign - and we should expect them to continue given last night's results.

However, I respectfully submit that all of this talk is a bit hasty. Not necessarily wrong. Just hasty.

Of course, she has lost the seven contests since Super Tuesday - the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington have all gone to Obama. However, if we understand the Democratic race as the mobilization of demographic groups - none of these losses should come as a surprise, including the states she lost by a large margin. Each of the seven post-Super Tuesday states played heavily to at least one of Obama's several strengths.

For instance, the following chart reviews the African American population per state, the median white income per state, and whether the contest was a caucus.

Chart 1 2-13.jpg

These contests are tailor-made for a candidate that fuses the coalitions of Hart and Jackson, and one who inspires tremendous enthusiasm among his supporters. Given the voting coalitions that have formed over the last month and a half, Clinton never really stood a chance in any of them. African Americans drove Obama's victory in Louisiana. In the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, African Americans combined with wealthy whites to secure him victory. In Maine, Nebraska, and Washington - Obama took advantage of largely homogenous white populations and caucus contests to secure victory.

In other words, it is hard to identify a momentum effect here. Clinton's losses in the contests are as explicable as any of her losses before or on Super Tuesday. Obama has systematically won states that play to his particular strengths since the Iowa caucus. So has Clinton. Her problem has been that she has not had any good states in the last week.

This is not to say that momentum is not playing a role. The point here is more modest: if it is playing a role, it is currently undetectable. Relatedly, this is not to say that momentum will not develop as we move forward. It very well could. If it does, what we will see is Obama doing better among Clinton's strong groups, or him consolidating his position among his strong groups. However, I noted back in December that this the kind of momentum - where a contest in moment one influences a contest in moment two - tends not to describe candidates like Clinton and Obama. Front-running candidates with high name recognition, secure bases of support, and money to spend usually win or lose depending on how much money they spend and whether the state plays to their strengths. The most immediate results tend not to be factors for front-runners (though there are exceptions, e.g. George H.W. Bush in 1988). If front-running candidates benefit from momentum, it is usually via a process similar to what has aided McCain: they are launched by big wins in one of the early states (usually New Hampshire).

What can we expect to happen in the future? It is difficult to say. We can make a few modest statements if we assume that what has generally been true in past past cycles holds true this cycle. Namely, let us assume that momentum does not develop, and that both candidates face a hard slog through the sixteen remaining contests.

The following chart reviews the remaining sixteen states according to several of the variables we outlined yesterday.

Chart 2 2-13.jpg

The final two rows are worth particular attention. These are averages, weighted by total pledged delegates per state, of the African American population, the Hispanic population, median white income, and the union population for contests that have yet to occur (top row) and and those that have already occurred (lower row).

A comparison of these rows gives reason to think that the remaining contests will be as tight as the past ones. Note first of all that the median income of whites drops from here on out. This augurs well for Clinton, who seems to do better among "downscale" white voters - and it stands to reason that as the median income of all white residents in a state declines, so also does the median income of white Democratic voters (this is presumably why this factor was shown to be statistically significant yesterday). More good news for Clinton, though it is not represented in the above chart, is that there are just two caucus states left. Obama, however, is advantaged because the number of African Americans remains roughly constant, and the number of Hispanics and union workers declines. What is more, there are about as many "homogeneously white" states to go as have already occurred.

Examining matters from another direction yields the same basic point. Looking at the above states, we could easily envision Obama doing well in states like Hawaii, Montana, Oregon and a few other smaller ones. Clinton, for her part, should do well in states like Kentucky, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. Texas and Ohio play to many of her strengths, and she should be quite competitive in Pennsylvania. Though she seems down now, and though there are reasons to favor Obama in several of the above states, Clinton has real strengths in several small states and many of the big ones.

All in all, this implies a rough parity from here until the end of the primary season. Approximately speaking, neither candidate seems to have an advantage in the remaining contests. So, my suggestion to readers is not to get caught up in the "Obama is inevitable" storyline. Minimally, we should all remember how well the "Clinton is inevitable" storyline worked out five months ago!

Again, these considerations assume stable voting coalitions, and therefore an absence of momentum. This assumption might not hold. If it does not, what we will see is Clinton start to lose portions of her strongholds, or Obama consolidating support in his. Unfortunately, the exit polls in Virginia and Maryland do not provide much of a clue about whether momentum is coming into play. Obama's best groups are heavily represented in both states - and the exit polls do not really dig deep enough into voter demography to offer a clear answer as to whether Clinton is hemorrhaging parts of her core constituency. For instance, the exit poll shows Obama winning white men in Virginia by 14% and Clinton winning white women by 9%. The white gender gap remains, but it favors Clinton less. In Maryland, the story is the same. White men break more heavily to Obama than they have in the past; white women break less heavily to Clinton. Is this simply a function of wealthy voters, male and female alike, going for Obama? Amazingly, 39% of Virginia Democrats and 41% of Maryland Democrats reported incomes of $100,000 or more - this plays to a major strength of Obama. If income is causing these changes in the gender gap, it is hard to see momentum as a factor. If it is something other than income, Obama might indeed be benefiting from momentum.

-Jay Cost