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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> May 2008

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part III

Today, I would like to continue my review of Obama's voting coalition - by examining the swing states and counties. I think that this can offer some insights into the upcoming general election battle.

Before we dive in, we need to be confident that we are engaging in a probative activity. Context is a concern. Hillary Clinton is arguing that she is more competitive than Obama in the swing areas - and that this is a reason she should win the nomination. So, we need to be careful. We do not want to be chasing an idea that overlaps with a candidate's talking points if there is little analytical value to be gained from the pursuit. That being said, we would be unwise to overlook such a data source without good reason. After all, the preferences of a portion of the electorate have been revealed - without the mediation of public opinion polls. Rarely do we have access to such information prior to a general election.

I think a careful review of the primary data from the swing states can offer limited analytical purchase on what to expect in November. If voters in an area have consistently articulated a preference for Clinton over Obama - the fact that they have done so gives us some insight into each candidate's relative position. We could, based on such results, reasonably conclude that Clinton would be stronger than Obama in those areas. This is the "purchase" that this analysis can provide.

However, primary results simply cannot indicate whether Obama would be strong enough. In other words, the primary results give us an ability to draw an inference about the general election - but not the one inference we would really like. We can only gauge relative strength - not absolute strength. This is the "limitation" of the analysis.

I would make four additional points.

First, I am skeptical of the argument that the primaries have merely been an internecine battle among Democrats who will eventually rally behind the nominee. I certainly agree that self-identified "strong Democrats" will come home to the nominee in November. This is what strong Democrats do. For instance, Walter Mondale still won 89% of voters who identified themselves as strong Democrats.

However, turnout has been so great in these primaries that I think the electorate has been broader than the strong Democrats. Since the Potomac Primary, turnout has averaged about 85% of Kerry's 2004 general election vote - and it has been steadily increasing. This implies that there could be a large number of what we could call "weak Democrats" or "independent Democrats" participating. These voters are more prone to general election defections.

Second, Democrats in swing states and counties might all eventually come home in the fall. However, they are the friends, neighbors, and even relatives of the swing voters in that area. If Democrats in a region are articulating a preference for Clinton over Obama - this should make us wonder whom their independent-minded associates will prefer.

The preferences of these independents might not show up in current public opinion polls. Some analysts have noted that Obama is running about as well as Kerry and Gore did with some groups. This is a worthwhile observation; however, we have to be careful. After all, the polls also indicate that 8-15% of the public remains undecided. It stands to reason that many of the undecided voters are these independent-minded folks. They might not decide until late in the season. Others might be registering support for one candidate or another that is based upon very little reflection or information - and so even some of the 85-92% who claim to have a preference might ultimately change their minds.

Third, once upon a time we were not inundated with polling. It's hard to believe it, but it is true! There was also a time when primaries were not used principally to allocate delegates, but they were still conducted. Occasionally, they were used as a test of electoral strength. [Of course, the winners of the non-binding primaries always argued that their victories were a sign of strength!] Think of John Kennedy in 1960. He won the West Virginia primary, and showed that he could hold a crucial segment of the FDR coalition. Lyndon Johnson, after barely defeating Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.

Fourth, most us are already using the primary results to estimate general election outcomes. Nobody would argue, for instance, that Clinton is stronger than Obama in Wisconsin or Oregon. Similarly, nobody would argue that Obama is stronger than Clinton in Kentucky or West Virginia. If anything, people have come to believe that Obama's poor showings in both states strongly indicate that he cannot win either in November. All of these claims are based on the primary results. I think these claims are largely valid because I think we can use the primaries in this way.

So, let's use them.

Let's begin by identifying the states we are going to examine. We'll take the states that have had primaries to date and divide them into four groups: states that Bill Clinton won in 1996 and Kerry won by more than 5% in 2004 ("Safe Democratic"); states that Clinton lost and Kerry lost ("Safe Republican"); states that Clinton won and Kerry won by less than 5% ("Swing Democratic"); and states that Clinton won and Kerry lost ("Swing Republican").

Let's see how Obama and Clinton have performed in each type of state.

Obama v. Clinton Primary Vote Share By Competitiveness.gif

These are some intriguing results. Obama and Clinton have basically split the vote in the safe and swing Democratic states. The swing Democratic states are interesting for their high divergence from the median, which is roughly New Hampshire. Oregon and Wisconsin swung heavily to Obama. Pennsylvania and Michigan swung heavily to Clinton.

Meanwhile, there has been wide divergence in states George W. Bush won. In the safe Republican states - Obama has crushed Clinton. What you see on the chart is a 9.8% margin of victory. Clinton has only won three of these nine states - Oklahoma, Texas, and Indiana. However, in the swing Republican states - the situation is opposite. Clinton has posted a 14.4% margin of victory, winning 8 of these 10 states.

Let's push this analysis a step further to confirm that we are not about to commit some kind of ecological fallacy. While Clinton is winning the swing states, it may be that Obama is winning the swing counties in those states. In that case, Clinton's apparent strength would actually belie her weakness.

The following chart examines Clinton's average share of the two-candidate vote in the "swing counties" in the swing states (be they Democratic or Republican). The swing counties are defined as those that voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004.

Clinton Share of Vote, Swing Counties in Swing States.gif

This chart indicates that Clinton's statewide strength in the swing GOP states is not illusory. It also underscores a point made yesterday: Obama has done better west of the Mississippi River. Of the seven states below the average for all swing counties, five them fall at least partially on the western side of the Mississippi. Only one of the eight states above Clinton's average share falls (partially) on the western side of the Mississippi. That is Louisiana, where about 72% of Obama's total vote was African American.

The inference I draw from this is the following.

Bill Clinton forged a winning voting coalition in the 1990s that harkened back to the coalition that Jimmy Carter created in 1976. It was built in large part on the border states and the states of the industrial Midwest. George W. Bush was able to slice off a large portion of this coalition, which is why he won the White House for the GOP. Between 1996 and 2004 - he flipped more than 400 counties in these 15 states.

Based upon these results, it seems that Clinton is better positioned than Obama to flip these counties back to the Democratic column. The basis of this inference is that Democratic voters in those counties seem to widely prefer Clinton over Obama. We can take this as a limited indication that voters in these areas would also be more partial. This is not to say that Obama will be unable to win the (Bill) Clinton coalition, only to say that (Hillary) Clinton appears more able to. Remember, the value of the primaries is not that they divulge absolute general election strength, but relative strength.

Let's return to those Republican-leaning swing states to see if the exit polls confirm what the voting data is indicating. Our expectation, based upon the vote data, is that Clinton will have made inroads with the voting groups we typically associate with Obama. Let's see if exit polls bear this out.

We'll start by breaking the race down by racial/ethnic lines. Because we know that white voters often diverge by gender, we'll separate whites accordingly.

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Racial:Ethnic Groups.gif

These results are clearly consistent with what we found in the voting data. White males have been a kind of swing vote nationwide, but Clinton has performed extremely well with them in the Republican swing states. Unsurprisingly, she also won Hispanics and white women. Obama, per usual, carried the African American vote.

What about white voters by age? We know that, nationwide, young whites are partial to Obama, older whites partial to Clinton. What about in the Republican swing states?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Whites By Age.gif

While Obama did better among young whites, Clinton still carried them. Furthermore, she carried whites of all age groups.

What about partisanship? We know that white Democrats are partial to Clinton, white Independents are partial to Obama. Does this apply to the Republican swing states?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Whites By Partisanship.gif

The answer is yes and no. While Obama did better with white Independents, Clinton still won them.

What about income groups?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Income Groups.gif

Again, we see that while Obama did better with wealthy voters than with poor voters - Clinton won all categories.

What about our other metric of socioeconomic status, college education?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Education Groups.gif

Clinton won those without college degrees comfortably, and the two basically split the college educated.

Finally, what about votes by type of living area? We can break these into three categories - city, suburb, and small town/rural. Let's see how each candidate did.

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share By Area.gif

While Obama carried the cities, Clinton won the suburbs by a solid margin. The results from the rural areas are particularly noteworthy. What you see there is a 40-point Clinton victory.

All in all, the exit poll data, the statewide votes, and the countywide votes point in the same direction: Clinton was stronger in the areas that have swung presidential elections in the last decade. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that she would be relatively stronger at recreating the voting coalition that has provided victory to the Democrats in years past.

Again, this does not say anything about whether Obama would be strong enough in these places, or whether he would be able to acquire the White House in a new way. The Obama campaign has hinted that it intends to do precisely this, to forge a new majority voting coalition.

Unfortunately, the primary results cannot give us much insight into whether this is possible. We have two problems. First, three of the states that the Obama people believe could be an integral part of that coalition (Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada) had caucuses whose turnout was so low that we can derive little knowledge from the results. The other state his campaign seems optimistic about is Virginia; however, Obama's coalition there was not very diverse. By my (rough) estimate - African Americans, young whites, and whites who make more than $100,000 accounted for more than 2 out of every 3 Obama voters. So, he may very well build a majority coalition in Virginia - but we do not yet know what that coalition could look like.

The second problem is more broad. We are on better ground when we are using the "old" Democratic coalition as a baseline for interpreting the primary results. We have a better sense of the voters we are looking for. The coalition the Obama campaign may hope to build has never existed before - so we do not know exactly which voters to look at just yet. Indeed, it may very well be that a new Obama coalition does exist right now - but the polling cross-tabs, which have been designed based upon experience with previous elections and old coalitions, are actually cutting through it, obscuring its presence.

That's the problem with new things - they're hard to spot in advance!

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part II

At the conclusion of yesterday's essay, we noted an interesting trend in Obama's share among white males: it seems to depend in part upon socioeconomic status. That is, as socioeconomic status rises, so also does Obama's performance among voters in this demographic group.

We examined white males in detail because we had noticed that Obama has sometimes won this group, sometimes lost it. Perhaps the next question we should ask is: why must this trend be limited to white males? Could it not also apply to group that he consistently wins (e.g. young white voters) or consistently loses (women)? Of course it could. The margin of victory or defeat might vary systematically with socioeconomic status - even if the fact that he wins or loses does not.

Let's look at this in more detail. To start, we'll conduct a visual investigation of his performance among several key groups across regions. We'll examine Obama's performance among white women, white young voters (ages 18-29), and African Americans. Since we are interested in whether Obama's performance among them varies according to socioeconomic status, and we know that the white male vote varies by socioeconomic status, let's include Obama's performance among white males as a kind of control. Our expectation is that, if socioeonomic status is having an effect on his performance with white women, white youth, and African Americans - we will see his margins with them rise or fall as his margins with white males rises or falls.

We'll start east of the Mississippi River.

Obama's Performance Among Select Groups, East of Mississippi.gif

This indicates that white females and white youths seem to vary systematically with the white male vote. The difference is that Obama always does better with white youths than with white males, always does worse with white females than with white males. Still, the three groups move in tandem. As one rises, the others rise. As one falls, the others fall.

The same cannot be said for the African American vote. Clinton did relatively well with these voters in the northeast, but otherwise the African American vote seems to vary without regard to the other groups. Actually, it does not seem to vary much at all, instead remaining constant around 85% outside of the northeast.

Now, let's look west of the Mississippi.

Obama's Performance Among Select Groups, West of Mississippi.gif

Again, we see the same essential pattern among white groups in the west - although it is not as well defined. In particular, the Upper Midwest seems to be an exception. However, recall from yesterday that we have only one state (Missouri) in the Upper Midwest region with usable exit poll data. So, while the Upper Midwest does not seem to fit perfectly well, this is not really a problematic piece of evidence.

Once again we see that the African American vote seems largely unresponsive to whatever is altering the other three groups.

So, both east and west of the Mississippi River, we find that the white male, white female, and white youth vote vary together, while the African American vote does not follow along. We know from yesterday that the white male vote varies according to socioeconomic status. Thus, it stands to reason that the white female and white youth vote do as well.

We can confirm this, as we did yesterday, by regressing the white female vote and the white youth vote on our metrics for socioeconomic status, which are the number of voters earning more than $100,000 and the number of college educated voters. When we do this, we find that socioeconomic status is a statistically significant predictor of both the white female and white youth votes, though it does a better job for white youths.

Given what we saw in the above charts, our expectation is that socioeconomic status should have no effect on the African American vote. Indeed, statistical testing confirms that it probably does not. To date, the only significant factor affecting the African American vote that I have been able to identify is time. Obama has done better with these voters as time has passed.

What is the implication of this? It is that, among white voters, socioeconomic status permeates the Obama v. Clinton contest. It seems that one's inclination to vote for a candidate does not depend simply upon age and gender, but age and gender in the context of socioeconomic status. These factors interact with one another to produce (ultimately) a vote choice. White youth are more likely to vote for Obama than white women or men of all ages, but the particular likelihood that a white youth will vote for Obama also depends upon his or her socioeconomic status. Ditto white females. They are less likely to vote for Obama than white males or white youths, but the likelihood increases with socioeconomic status.

All in all, Obama's coalition seems to depend in large part upon African Americans, white youths, and upscale whites generally. The follow-up question is: just how much does his voting coalition depend upon these groups?

We cannot answer this question directly because the exit polls are simply not comprehensive enough. However, we can put together a rough estimate if we follow a simple, intuitive strategy.

First, we take the states that have useful exit polls. Our goal will be to determine what proportion of Obama's coalition in these states has been composed of the groups we just described - African Americans, white youths, and upscale whites. Our metrics for these groups should be as separate from each other as possible. For instance, we can easily count white youths and African Americans because these two groups are by definition independent of each other. The trick is that we believe that socioeconomic status is having a great effect among whites - but the exit polls do not sort socioeconomic status by race. Thus, we need to select a socioeconomic variable that overlaps with white youths and African Americans as little as possible. The best one available is probably voters who make more than $100,000. While it is obvious that some young whites and African Americans make more than $100,000 - in all likelihood most of these income earners are older than 30 and not black. Thus, we will have some overlap, but a tolerable amount.

So, this gives us a target. For each region, we'll develop an estimate of the proportion of Obama voters who are African American, whites under 30, or wealthy voters. Because we know they are wholly independent of each other, we'll combine white youths and African Americans into a single bar on our graphs. We'll use a solid line to separate the two groups, with white youths placed atop African Americans.

We'll against start east of the Mississippi.

Estimated Share of Obama's Vote Coalition East of Mississippi.gif

In New England, these groups probably fail to account for a majority of Obama's voting coalition - in large measure because his victories in Connecticut and Vermont were broadly based. However, outside of New England, these three groups account for a solid majority of his total vote. If we assume, for instance, that 3/4ths of voters who make more than $100,000 are not black and over the age of 30, we have accounted for anywhere between 55% and 82% of his total vote in the Mid-Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Central, and the South Central regions. If we assume that a larger proportion of $100k earners is white and over 30 - these estimates would increase. If we assume that a smaller proportion is white and over 30 - they would decrease.

Generally, we can conclude that for the part of the country that is east of the Mississippi River and south of New England - African Americans, young whites, and wealthy whites account for a sizable majority of Obama's total vote.

What about west of the Mississippi River?

Estimated Share of Obama's Vote Coalition West of Mississippi.gif

Clearly, things look very different here. Take the same assumption that 3/4ths of voters who make more than $100,000 are white and over the age of 30. In that scenario, these voters made up about 54% of his coalition in the Upper Midwest (i.e. Missouri), and 65% in the Lower Midwest. That is about what we found east of the Mississippi River. However, as we move farther west, these voters are less integral to Obama's coalition, making up just 2 out of every 5 Obama voters in both the Mountain West and the Pacific West.

What inferences can we draw from this?

I would suggest that, east of the Mississippi River, Obama's coalition has been relatively narrow. It has not been built upon a broad cross-section of the electorate, but rather the intense support of a few, loyal demographic groups. There are exceptions, of course. But by and large, these three groups account for a very large segment of his voting coalition. When we go west, we see that matters are different. Obama's coalition is somewhat broader - drawing less heavily upon these groups.

In a sense, he has been like two different candidates. In the west, his candidacy has been broadly based and relatively diverse (though he has lagged behind with Hispanics). In the east, it has been more narrow, largely failing to build a real cross-section of the electorate, at least outside New England.

The next question we might ask is how Obama has performed in the parts of the country that have swung the last three presidential elections? We'll investigate this tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part 1

Today I begin a review of the voting coalition Barack Obama has built. I will integrate statewide electoral returns, countywide returns, and exit poll data to provide a coherent, and hopefully comprehensive, narrative of how the junior senator from Illinois has (almost) acquired the Democratic Party's nomination for president. I will also take some tentative steps to infer what might happen in November, given the results we have seen to date.

Today's essay will be a broad overview of the nationwide landscape.

We all know the details of the RealClearPolitics delegate and vote counts. However, these national totals belie interesting variation in different regions of the country. To begin to capture this, let's make use of the Census Bureau's nine regions of the United States. We'll examine regions east of the Mississippi first.

Obama v. Clinton, East of Mississippi.gif

As we can see, Clinton has won more regions in the east. Built on her strong win in Massachusetts, she carried the New England region by about 10 points. She swept all three states in the Mid-Atlantic region - Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey - carrying the whole region by about 12 points.

The North Central Region is interesting. Obama won the region on the whole by about 8 points. However, this margin obscures significant variation within the region. Obama crushed Clinton in Illinois and Wisconsin, while Clinton posted strong wins in Ohio and Michigan, computed here by allocating all undeclared votes to Obama [I know this is a hot controversy these days - but remember our purpose here is to analyze voting coalitions, not to allocate delegates!].

A similar pattern exists in the South Central region. She won Tennessee and Kentucky. He won Mississippi and Alabama. Her wins were bigger - and so she won the region by 6.5 points.

The South Atlantic has perhaps been the difference-maker for Obama. What we see there is a 14-point victory for him. This is, by far, the largest margin in any region. It has made a huge difference. If we exempt the South Atlantic from our vote tallies, Obama would go from a 450,000 lead to a 425,000 deficit. In other words, he has netted nearly one million votes in the region. He has also netted a huge cache of delegates - 103 to be precise. Given that his overall pledged delegate lead is 158, this is very significant.

Now, let's move on to the west.

Obama v. Clinton, West of Mississippi.gif

First, we notice that Obama cleaned Clinton's clock in the Upper Midwest. This is built exclusively on caucus events. He's enjoyed 2:1 results in North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas - plus a solid victory in Iowa. The only primary to date in the region was Missouri - and that state was basically a tie.

Clinton won the Lower Midwest. This 6.5-point victory is built around her win in Texas, supplemented with big wins in Oklahoma and Arkansas. For his part, Obama won Louisiana by a large margin, thanks to overwhelming support from African Americans.

The candidates have basically split the Mountain West, which spans from Arizona and New Mexico to Idaho and Montana. Obama won the caucus states in the north. Clinton won the primaries in the south. They split the states in the middle - with Obama winning Utah and Colorado, Clinton winning Nevada. What you see on the chart there is a 3.5-point Obama victory.

Clinton's victory in the Pacific West is due entirely to her win in California. She lost every other state in the region. Once again, Obama performed extremely well in the caucus states - racking up huge wins in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. He also won the Oregon primary by a significant margin.

We know by now that Clinton has consistently won white females and Obama has won African Americans. However, there has been variation in how each candidate has performed among white males. Let's try to explain this. We'll start by looking at how each candidate has performed with white males in each region, beginning with the east.

Obama v. Clinton Among White Males, East of Mississippi.gif

As we can see, there is some significant variation here. Obama won the white male vote in New England, thanks to his wins among them in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut.

In the mid-Atlantic region, Clinton won white males in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Overall, she won them in the South Atlantic, though the figure here obscures some real variation in how the white male vote played out. Clinton won them comfortably in Florida, and overwhelmingly in North Carolina and West Virginia. Obama won them in Maryland and Virginia. They split them in Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina. Of course, Edwards actually won the white male vote (by 17 points) in South Carolina; my sense is that if he had not been in the race, they would have voted similarly to white males in North Carolina.

In the South Central, what we see is an eye-popping, 40-point victory for Clinton among white males. Once again, the tie in the North Central region obscures significant variation. Clinton won white males by 15-20 point margins in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Obama won them by 20-30 points in Wisconsin and Illinois.

What about west of the Mississippi?

Obama v. Clinton Among White Males, West of Mississippi.gif

Clearly, there is once again a lot of variation among white males - though this time the overall trends do not favor Clinton as much.

First off, I would not put much stock in that Upper Midwest number because it depends solely upon Missouri - the only state in the region with exit poll data on race by gender. Nevertheless, Clinton posted a solid victory among white males in the Show Me State.

In the Lower Midwest, Clinton also carried white males. Though she split them 50-50 with Obama in Texas, she won them comfortably in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

In the Mountain West and the Pacific West - Obama won the white male vote. In fact, the only state in the region where Clinton won the white male vote outright was Nevada. Her wins in Arizona, New Mexico, and California were provided by white females and Hispanics, not white males.

All in all, we find some intriguing variation among the states. What explains it?

My sense is that a partial explanation is socioeconomic status. Obama is probably winning upscale white males; Clinton is probably winning downscale white males. This, I think, accounts for his victories among white males in places like Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Texas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia. Each state has sizable populations of upscale whites - and I think that these are the types of white males Obama is winning. Meanwhile, Clinton does better with white males in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, etc. - all of which have significant populations of downscale white males inclined to see themselves as Democrats.

Unfortunately, the exit polls are not specific enough to allow us to check this directly. They do not provide socioeconomic data by race and gender, which is what we would need to make a straightforward inquiry. However, we can confirm this trend indirectly. Let's regress Obama's share of the white male vote in a state on two variables: (a) the percentage of voters with a college degree, and (b) the percentage making more than $100k. These are the two best variables we have for socioeconomic status. Our expectation is that, if Obama is winning upscale white males, these two variables will be positively related to his share of the white male vote.

Indeed, that is precisely what we find. Both the income and college variables are related to Obama's share of the white male vote. Combined, they account for 40% of the variation in Obama's share of the white male vote. From this, we can infer that socioeconomic status makes a difference with the white male vote. The wealthier and more educated the population, the better Obama does among white males.

We'll continue our analysis tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

Not Quite Yet

Elite opinion on the Democratic race has congealed around the idea that it is over. Clinton has no chance whatsoever to win the nomination now. There is a minority of analysts out there - maybe 5%, maybe even less - who see her path to the nomination as much narrower than it was four days ago, but who still see a path.

I'm with the minority on this one. I think she is nearly finished, but not quite yet.

As those who know me in personal life can attest, I am a contrarian. For better or worse, when I see everybody looking right, the first thought in my head is, "What's over there on the left?" So, the following might just be a product of my contrarian instincts, but I have to say that I just can't get to where most everybody is on this race.

Two things are holding me back: West Virginia and Kentucky.

The conventional wisdom has it that Clinton did herself major damage Tuesday night by getting blown out in North Carolina. I completely agree. This hurt her with the pledged delegate count. Much more important, I think, is that it hurt her with the popular vote count, which she must win to press an argument with the superdelegates.

However, it is possible that she could counter Tuesday's blowout with two big blowouts of her own in the next two weeks. This could undo most of the damage done by her big loss in North Carolina, and put her back on track.

West Virginia is 95% white, and one of the poorest states in the nation. Demographically, Pennsylvania's twelfth congressional district is a decent proxy of it. Clinton won Pennsylvania's twelfth by 46 points. A recent Rasmussen survey put her up 29 points in the Mountaineer State, with 17% undecided. Another poll had her up 40 points, with Obama under 25%.

Kentucky is not as poor or as white as West Virginia, but it is nearly so. Demographically, Kentucky falls somewhere between Ohio's sixth congressional district, which went for Clinton by 45 points, and the seventeenth, which went for her by 28 points. A recent Survey USA poll of the Bluegrass State had her up 34 points - with a staggering 72 point lead in the east, where Obama was winning less than 20% of the vote. Rasmussen recently had her up 25 points with 13% undecided.

Courtesy of the perspicacious Sean Oxendine, here's a graphical representation of how Appalachia has performed. The deepest blue represents countywide Clinton victories of 30+.


As Oxendine says in his analysis of Indiana and North Carolina: "Appalachia didn't budge [on Tuesday]. She is going to absolutely blow him out of the water in West VA and KY."

So, here's my question. What happens to "It's Over" if Clinton pulls a 40-point victory in West Virginia on Tuesday, then follows it up a week later with a 30-point victory in Kentucky? If these states turn out in the same margins that states since March 4th have averaged, that would imply a net of about 290,000 votes for Clinton. That puts her within striking distance of a reasonable popular vote victory. "Over" will be over as we turn our attention to Puerto Rico.

There are good reasons not to take Puerto Rico lightly, even though the press has continued to do exactly that. I would note: (a) Puerto Ricans vote in large numbers (2 million in the last gubernatorial election); (b) Puerto Ricans have never had this important a role in United States presidential politics; (c) Puerto Rico's politics is focused at least partially on how (if at all) to adjust its relationship with the United States; (d) Puerto Rico's is an open primary, and the residents of the Commonwealth, who are United States citizens, do not see themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

The inference I draw is that Puerto Ricans could turn out in huge numbers. If they do, and they swing for Clinton in a sizeable way, the popular vote lead could swing, too. Add 290,000 votes from West Virginia and Kentucky to 250,000 votes from Puerto Rico, account for expected losses in Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, and you get Clinton leading in many popular vote counts, some of which are really quite valid. If she has one of those leads when the final votes are counted on June 3rd, the race will go on to the convention.

Am I predicting that all of this will happen? No. That would be quite presumptuous. The problem is not that any of these incidents is individually unlikely. It is not unlikely that Clinton will get a huge victory in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Puerto Rico. Theoretically, I would wager at least one of the three will happen. The problem is that she has to do all three. What's more, she has to keep it competitive in Oregon (just how competitive depends on her margins in the other states). That's a tall order - four big things to do with no margin for error. I'd never predict that she could do all four. I may be a contrarian, but I am not an idiot!

Her biggest impediment might be the development (finally!) of some momentum. With the crush of stories touting the end of the race, will her vote be depressed in Kentucky and West Virginia? I doubt her voters would actually go for Obama - but they might stay home, thus diminishing both her overall margin of victory and/or her net vote score. Incidentally, I did find some good news for Clinton: finals week at WVU ends on Saturday.

My point is that those in the media who are declaring this race to be over are necessarily predicting that she can't do all of this. That's a conclusion I can't go along with. It's quite unlikely, but it is still possible - and it is more possible than the "Obama might have a meltdown" scenario.

Minimally, I will predict that West Virginia will be either her best or her second best finish, behind only Arkansas. Kentucky should come in right behind the two. This alone should be enough to induce some caution. I think it is too hasty to declare her finished just days before two of her three best states.

Am I on to something here, or is this merely my contrarian streak running amok? I'll let you decide. In fact, I'll help you make an informed decision! I have updated my vote spreadsheet to include all contests through Tuesday. I encourage you to play around with the numbers yourself. Follow this link to Predict the Race for Yourself, Version 2.0.

At the time of its initial publication, I had not put much thought into Clinton's vote margins in Kentucky and West Virginia. I merely used the results from Tennessee as a rough baseline. I think this was a bit naïve, given what we now know about the white vote in Appalachia. So, those numbers have been updated. I also updated the turnout projections, based on new data. Once again, you can adjust these figures however you like.

-Jay Cost

How Obama Beat the Line

Last night, Barack Obama beat expectations in both Indiana and North Carolina. Let's look carefully at how he managed this feat. We'll begin with Indiana. Let's compare the results from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio among select demographic groups.

Clinton in IN-PA-OH.gif

As you can see, Clinton did about as well in Indiana as she did in Pennsylvania and Ohio with white men, white Protestants, and seniors. However, beyond this, she suffered a decline among her best groups. Notice in particular her decline among white women, white Catholics, and union households. Basically, the core of her voting bloc was still with her, but Obama picked off a larger portion of it than he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Why did this happen? It wasn't because of southern Indiana. All of the counties south of metro Indianapolis went for Clinton except Monroe County, where Indiana University is located. Clinton won almost all of these counties in the south by at least 10 points. In some instances, her margins were 30 and even 40 points. All in all, the region bore a resemblance to southern Ohio, where Clinton did really well.

One big problem for Clinton came in metropolitan Indianapolis. Obama beat her in metro Indy by 17 points. Much of this came from Marion County, where a large number of African Americans live. However, discounting Marion County, she only won about 51.6% of the vote. Factor that in with her losses in Fort Wayne, South Bend (home to Notre Dame, and thus a reason why she underperformed among white Catholics), and Gary, and we approach an answer to why the final result was so close.

What about North Carolina? It is instructive, I think, to compare the results from North Carolina to those of Tennessee and Virginia. For the sake of perspective, let's add some basic demographic features of the three states - namely median white income as of 2000 and the percentage of African Americans in the state. We'd expect a priori that as both figures fall, Clinton would do better.

Clinton in NC-TN-VA.gif

As you can see, North Carolina performed roughly as we might expect, falling in between Virginia and Tennessee. Nevertheless, it is surprising that the results were closer to the Virginia end (i.e. Obama +29) than the Tennessee end (i.e. Clinton +13). What might explain the difference?

Unlike Indiana, it doesn't come from Clinton's core voting group. She did extremely well among white voters in North Carolina. Obviously, she didn't do as well with them as she did in Tennessee. However, she still trounced Obama among white men and white women, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Clinton's problem was with the African American vote, which came in at about 33%. Her trouble in North Carolina, as well as the South in general, is that white voters are more likely to be Republican than in decades past. This has given Obama a demographic edge in the region - one that has actually grown in the past few months. Note that African Americans in North Carolina went for Obama more strongly than they did in either Tennessee or Virginia. In fact, we can see a general trend in the African American vote toward Obama - not just in these states, but nationwide. It has not been much commented upon - most likely because African Americans have been supporting Obama more strongly than any other group. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, the African American vote has clustered around Obama much more tightly.

The following chart has the details. It delineates Obama's margin of victory among African Americans over time. The states are divided into the South and non-South, then arranged chronologically.

Obama Performance Among African Americans.gif

We have to be careful not to over-interpret these results because they are relatively small sub-samples of each exit poll. Nevertheless, there is a discernible trend in these numbers toward larger and larger Obama victories. The African American vote now goes much more heavily for Obama than it did at the beginning of the cycle. In fact, if we take Clinton's margin among African Americans in Tennessee and apply it to North Carolina, keeping all else equal, Obama would have barely defeated her.

So, we can conclude that Clinton's narrow victory in Indiana was largely because she didn't do as well with her strong groups as in Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, she did do just as well in the south. It was in metro Indy and in the north that she didn't do as well. On the other hand, Obama's extremely large victory in North Carolina was due to his strength among African Americans, a group with which he has improved over time.

-Jay Cost

Reflections on the Democratic Race

Having returned from Princeton, I'm back "on the grid," and wanted to offer a few reflections on the current state of the Democratic race.

(1) Many people with whom I spoke at the conference were interested in Obama's performance among working class whites. Nobody seemed to have an answer as to whether his poor results are a sign of electoral trouble in the fall. I still do not. Nevertheless, the conversations I had inspired two thoughts.

First, I would intuit that, based on these primary results, voters in these places are at least going to give John McCain more of an audience than they otherwise would in a year like this. That's not to say they will ultimately go for him, just that they will consider him more than usual for a year when the macro conditions favor the Democrats so heavily. I think Obama is not yet resonating with them. So, even if he wins the strong Democrats among them who have voted for Clinton - those soft Democrats, Independents, and soft Republicans might give McCain a harder look.

Second, if Obama were to carry a state like Ohio - there is a possibility he will do so in a new way. To appreciate what I mean by this, open the following links. From David Leip's Election Atlas, here are geographical representations of the Ohio results from 1976, 1992, and 1996 - the three elections in the last 40 years the Democratic Party has won. Every time, the nominee carried Ohio. Counties the Democrat won are in red; counties the Republican won are in blue. Note the similarity between the three. The counties that Carter and Clinton won form an inverted "C." Both Democrats did strongly along Lake Erie, strongly down the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and then they carried many of the counties in the Ohio River Valley. Now, compare these Democratic victories to the party's losses in 2000 and 2004. What is missing? Gore and Kerry won fewer counties around Lake Erie, and they did notably worse in the Ohio River Valley. Bush won almost all of those counties.

It is in the Ohio River Valley where Clinton beat Obama on the order of 30, 35, even 40 points. These are the kinds of voters I expect to give McCain more of an audience than he would otherwise receive. If they ultimately back McCain (again, a big "if" in a year like this!), and Obama wins the state anyway, he will have won with a voting coalition we haven't seen before. Perhaps he will have pulled in upscale, suburban Republican-leaners around Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

(2) I am very interested in next week's election in West Virginia. Everybody expects Hillary Clinton to win, but I can't help but wonder if they'll be surprised by the size of the margin.

We can reasonably expect it to be enormous. From a socioeconomic standpoint, West Virginia is almost entirely comprised of the sort of counties that Obama has done poorly in. The median white income in West Virginia is about $30,000 per year. African Americans comprise roughly 3% of the state's population. This puts it somewhere between Belmont County, Ohio and Greene County, Pennsylvania. Clinton won 72% of the vote in Belmont and 75% in Greene. From another angle, we see a similar situation. If we take the counties of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia that border West Virginia, we see that Clinton won on average 63.5% of the countywide vote. However, if we exempt the counties in Maryland and Virginia that border the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, her share of the vote jumps to 70.1%.

So, how would this be surprising? To date, you'd have to look closely to see Obama's poor results among working class whites in Appalachia. If you only take the 55-45 margins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, without drilling down a bit deeper, you might think, "That's not so bad." That probably will not be possible next week. The whole state of West Virginia should mimic what we saw in southern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia.

How will the press and the superdelegates react if Clinton wins by 30 points, 40 points, even 50 points? Remember that John Kennedy essentially wrapped up the 1960 nomination with a win in West Virginia because it proved that he had crossover appeal. What happens if Obama "proves" the opposite? Psychologically speaking, are people prepared for a loss of this magnitude, having fully absorbed the countywide details of previous results, or will this come as a shock to them?

Obama's impending loss in West Virginia might reinforce the previous point - an Obama electoral college victory might look different than anything a Democrat has ever put together. A Democrat has won the White House having lost West Virginia just once. Woodrow Wilson did it in 1916. Again, this is not a sign of any impending electoral doom for Obama should he win the nomination. States can and do move into and out of a party's voting coalition. Take Delaware and New Jersey, for instance. Both usually supported the GOP when it won the White House, but this is no longer the case. The point here is simply that an Obama victory might look like something we've never seen before.

(3) Despite his loss in Pennsylvania and the reemergence of Reverend Wright, Obama continues to close Clinton's lead in superdelegates. Why?

I think it has to do with his pledged delegate lead. The last few weeks have exposed some weaknesses in Obama. However, from the superdelegates' perspective, this does not mean that Clinton is the superior choice. She has her own problems, of course. More important than this is the fact that Clinton's path to the nomination is necessarily "dirty." She must out-muscle Obama at the convention. That's the only way. After all, Obama's lead in pledged delegates is 154. Even if the superdelegates rally around Clinton, Obama would not disappear, nor should he! He could and surely would take the fight to the convention, and try to win there.

Let's try a counterfactual thought experiment. Reduce Obama's pledged delegate lead by 139, so that he currently has a lead in pledged delegates of just 15. What would the superdelegates be doing now in response to the Wright controversy? How would they have reacted to his losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania? I imagine they'd be moving to Clinton, possibly in large numbers.

But why 139 delegates? That is precisely the number of delegates he has netted from the caucuses, which have all been low-turnout affairs. That's a key point. Even in states where Obama held a demographic advantage - there were presumably enough Clinton supporters in the state to level the playing field. Kansas is a good example. Obama won Kansas by about 18,000 caucus votes - out of only 37,000 or so cast. This is a state that gave Bill Clinton 388,000 votes in 1996. Surely, she could have found another 18,000 Kansans to support her.

So, why didn't she?

The answer is simple. He prepared for the caucuses. She didn't. He was organized. She wasn't. This enabled Obama to rack up huge delegate victories, all of which occurred (at the time) under the radar. We were looking at California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, he netted 24 delegates in Minnesota, 26 delegates in Washington, 15 delegates in Colorado, 15 delegates in Idaho, 14 delegates in Kansas.

I think his foresight to organize the caucus states has served him doubly well. Not only has it given him a large delegate lead compared to a modest popular vote lead - it has served as protection against political peril. My sense is that with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then Wright - superdelegates would be flocking to Clinton if it were not for his caucus victories.

Above all, this highlights a stark contrast between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Clinton campaign formulated a poor nomination strategy. When it fell to pieces, the campaign essentially began improvising. To this day, it lives week-to-week, one "do-or-die" primary after another. This has diminished its capacity to take advantage of political opportunities. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, formulated a superb nomination strategy, which it is still following even after 14 months of campaigning, and which has minimized the damage from a major political controversy.

-Jay Cost

The Party System and the 2008 Campaign

The following is the text of the address I delivered on Thursday, May 1st at Princeton University, at a conference entitled "The American Electoral Process," sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

First of all, I'd like to thank Professor Larry Bartels and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics for extending an invitation to me to participate today.

I'd like to respond to our headline question, "2008: Where We've Been and Where We're Going," by discussing the national party organizations - and their capacity to manage an election like this.

This has been a terrific nomination contest. Edifying, exciting, a few sharp elbows thrown, but not too many. Above all, it looks like the public will have a clear choice between two distinct political visions come November. Hopefully, this campaign will yield meaningful election results from which the victor can claim a mandate to move the country forward.

However, this process has also exposed some weaknesses in our democratic institutions. Specifically, it is clear that the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have been unable to manage their nomination processes. The RNC will probably pay no consequence for its impotence this year, but the DNC might. Its weakness might ultimately contribute to a brokered convention that would diminish its nominee's capacity to conduct a spirited fall campaign.

Let's step back and think about these national committees in general terms. This should provide some context for understanding the drama that has unfolded on cable news.

The purpose of these primaries is to secure the party's nomination. However, the nomination itself is only a means to an end - namely, victory in November. If a nominee has acquired the prize by a Pyrrhic victory, he or she might be at a disadvantage in the fall - and all who value the party's success will be worse off.

This implies that everybody in the party has a collective interest in a nomination battle that is efficient - one in which the nominee is selected with minimal cost to his or her general election prospects. The goals are therefore speediness and bloodlessness. The nominee should be chosen reasonably quickly so that he or she may pivot to the general campaign. Furthermore, the nominee's reputation should not be unduly damaged by the nomination battle.

Of course, the collective interests of a group often conflict with the personal interests of those within it. In those instances, individuals might pursue their immediate and tangible personal interests over the distant and hazy group interests. Thus, it is helpful to have a central authority with the power to induce individuals to support the collective good.

Ideally, this is the task of the RNC and the DNC. They are charged with managing their conventions, and by extension the nomination processes, to an efficient conclusion. However, they lack the power to constrain the actions of those within their respective parties. Instead, candidates, state parties, state governments, miscellaneous politicians, and interest groups can and do choose their personal good over the party's public good.

The national party organizations have never been powerful - and in the modern nomination era, their powerlessness has rarely been a problem. In most years, a frontrunner acquires an early, insurmountable lead, and the interests of the candidate and the party merge. In this candidate-centered age of politics, the presumptive nominee typically has the power to ensure that his interests are secured. This is essentially what has happened on the GOP side this year.

Meanwhile, there is no nominee on the Democratic side. There is instead a close race that the DNC cannot manage. The movers and shakers in the party have acted for the sake of their own interests, rather than the party as a whole. And so, the Democrats face the possibility of a brokered convention.

A few examples illustrate this point.

Last year, the DNC mandated that states and territories schedule their primaries or caucuses between February and June. However, it lacked the authority to enforce the mandate efficiently. When Michigan and Florida defied the DNC - the committee stripped them of their delegates. Unfortunately, this did not induce them to re-schedule, nor did it induce all candidates to remove themselves from all relevant ballots.

Obviously, Florida and Michigan were not motivated by the collective good of the Democratic Party. Quite unsurprisingly, they acted out of their own best interests. They wanted more influence in the process, as well as the economic benefits that accrue to the states with that privilege.

In another year, this story would have been an inconsequential footnote. The nominee would have been chosen quickly, and Florida and Michigan's delegates would have participated in the meaningless festivities of the convention. But there is no nominee yet, and there might not be one before the convention. In that case, there might be a showdown in the DNC's credentials committee over Michigan and Florida.

This poses two problems. First, this controversy might be enough for Clinton to perpetuate her fight to the convention - especially if she finishes strong. This, in turn, would distract Obama from preparing for the general election. Second, there might be confusion over who is the legitimate choice of the Democratic Party. Obama currently has a lead in pledged delegates and votes. However, factoring in Florida and Michigan will reduce the former and might eliminate the latter. It is conceivable that, after Democrats finish voting, both Clinton and Obama might be able to claim that they are the true choice of the party.

So, the DNC has been unable to manage the state parties, the state governments, and the candidates efficiently. Each has angled for its own good - and the good of the party is now in jeopardy.

Another difficulty comes with the superdelegates. These are elected Democrats, party luminaries, and party committee members who are guaranteed votes at the convention.

Ideally, there is some utility to the superdelegates. They effectively imply that a nominee must win a "super majority" of the pledged delegates to acquire the nomination. Thus, they can serve as a certification of the primary results.

However, the DNC places no constraints upon them. They are free to do whatever they like whenever they like. This year, this poses three distinct problems.

First, there is nothing to induce them to decide at any time prior to the first ballot on the convention floor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen a large portion of them hold back from endorsing one candidate or another. They seem to be waiting to move when the personal risks are minimal. As a consequence, the nomination battle drags on - and the last month has been very rough on the front running Obama.

Second, there is nothing that binds them to their endorsements. We saw this morning that former DNC chairman Joe Andrew switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama to bring about a speedy end to the nomination. Ironically, Andrew's ability to switch his support might prolong the battle. Obama is closing Clinton's superdelegate lead now. If Clinton is ultimately able to make a credible claim that she is the choice of Democrats nationwide, what is to stop these superdelegates from returning to Clinton?

Third, there are no rules to guide the choices of the superdelegates. They can decide on whatever grounds they like. Thus, they could make the nomination process even more incoherent than it already is - as the collective choice of the superdelegates is merely an aggregation of irreconcilable individual motivations. If some choose based on electability, some choose based on legitimacy, some choose based on constituent instructions, and some choose based on personal preferences - the party risks a nominee who has acquired the nomination by seemingly arbitrary means.

All three of these issues imply confusion and delay. Howard Dean has said that he wants the superdelegates to decide by early June. This may in fact happen. Unfortunately, the absence of boundaries placed upon them mean that it might not happen, or that - even if it does happen - the event will be meaningless, as the apparent loser vows to try to flip the superdelegates to his or her side.

None of this implies that the convention will necessarily be brokered. There is a good chance it will not be - that Obama will find a way to push Clinton out prior to August. The point is that, for Democrats, the risk that it will be brokered is far too high. What is more, this is needless risk. There is no benefit the party receives for the risk of a brokered convention.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is too late for this cycle to intervene. Events will play out however they will - little can be done. However, I think this cycle provides an opportunity for both parties to think proactively about the next cycle, to consider strengthening their national party committees. Why not grant them the authority to control their own destinies, to manage their collective interests? It seems to me that such self-control would be a marked improvement over what we have now. I certainly think that - if Howard Dean had some real power to control those within his party's coalition - the Democrats would be in much less jeopardy.

Minimally, I would make the following suggestion. At its core, the current nomination system is a disjointed hybrid of the old, state party-centered way of choosing nominees and the new way that places power with rank-and-file partisans. The reforms of the 1970s did not amount to root-and-branch changes, but rather 20th century updates to a 19th century system.

Perhaps this accounts for the powerlessness of the national committees. They are tasked with bringing coherence to an incoherent system. I would suggest that whatever changes are made - whether the national parties are strengthened or not - the goal should be to impose coherence of form and purpose. Right now, both processes have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. This is, I think, unsustainable in the long run.

Thank you.

-Jay Cost