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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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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