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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> July 2008

On Obama's Message

Pundits have criticized the McCain campaign as disorganized, undisciplined, and directionless. These are valid critiques. His camp occasionally reminds one of the incoherent Dole, Gore, and Kerry campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is the opposite of this. He is the Felix Ungar to McCain's Oscar Madison.

However, Obama's organization is built around a politically risky meta-narrative.

A meta-narrative is just a campaign's central message, the core claim that connects all of the campaign's assertions. It communicates the candidate's diagnosis of the country and his prescription for the future. Bill Clinton had a great one in 1992: generational change can invigorate a tired government and grow a sagging economy. Clinton's outfit consistently reinforced this narrative. From the campaign theme, to the selection of Al Gore as running mate, to "It's the economy, stupid" - it made sure people knew his core claim.

Obama's narrative should be similar to Clinton's. It's tailor-made for a year like this and a man like Obama. But that is not the Obama campaign's message. Its message often seems to be: this great man will unify a divided America around himself.

This is not entirely bad. A message of unity could be effective, even though it is tricky to sell in a partisan campaign. The trouble comes with the part about Obama himself. His campaign's emphasis on his greatness is creating three political problems.

Navigate to BarackObama.com, and you'll find this at the top of almost every page.

Obama Banner.jpg

If Democrats are wondering why Republicans have taken to sarcastically calling Obama "The Messiah," this is a good indication. On nearly every page, we are greeted with a picture of an illuminated Obama issuing a challenge from the clouds: if you believe this special man can change Washington, rally behind him.

This is a shaky foundation for a voting coalition. Most voters will be skeptical that Obama is so grand. So, why should they vote for him?

If he is going to issue a challenge to voters, it should be something like: if you don't like George W. Bush and if you are upset about the economy, vote for Obama. Cue Fleetwood Mac. Drop balloons.

Another example. Most of us have seen pictures like this:

Obama Progress Poster.jpg

This was not made by the Obama campaign, but it apparently thinks enough of the picture to offer it for sale at BarackObama.com. It certainly conveys similar ideas to that picture of him in the clouds. His greatness is a source of progress that we can all support.

Unfortunately, this imagery spills into the real world, too. Obama is holding his nomination acceptance speech at Invesco Field, which can hold 75,000 spectators. This will divert attention from any practical political vision (assuming that he offers one) to the Obama-centered spectacle. This is what the pundits will emphasize, so he's sure to get good buzz. People watching at home are likewise bound to be caught up by it, so he should also get a good bounce.

However, his campaign does not need buzz, or even a bounce. They call it a bounce because the numbers eventually come back down. The lasting value of a good nomination speech is that it frames the general election campaign on the candidate's terms. By choosing such a venue, the Obama campaign will again frame the contest as one in which voters are asked to decide about the grandeur of Obama himself.

This is a poor way to frame a general election campaign. Everybody thinks the economy is lousy and a strong majority thinks George W. Bush has done a poor job, but not everybody thinks Obama is the greatest thing since sliced bread. To get to half-plus-one, he must persuade people who are resistant to this claim. He must frame this election in a way that appeals to them.

The second problem is that this narrative might be keeping him from doing things that winning Democrats have typically done. Strong Democratic candidates like FDR, Truman, Johnson, and Clinton made "average folks" feel like they were one of them. Each connected with average people in his own way, but each connected. Most of them could do this because they had typical backgrounds themselves. Obama doesn't, but neither did Roosevelt (though of course Roosevelt's background was quite different from Obama's). And yet FDR could talk to average people better than anybody.

The common touch is not a trifling quality. Most voters are not policy experts, and they lack detailed political information. Yet they must still make a choice. In that situation, what should swing voters (i.e. those not guided by partisanship) do? It makes sense for them to vote for the guy with whom they can relate. That's a candidate who can be trusted to do what the voters would want him to do.

Obama's narrative seems to preclude this quality. The claim of greatness carries with it an implication of distance. If Obama is great, and the rest of us are average, how can we identify with Obama, or he with us?

Prior to Independence Day, Obama went to Independence, Missouri, home of Harry Truman. Good backdrop. Past Democrats might have given a speech here about how the essence of American independence is home ownership - but because of the "cronyism of George W. Bush, John McCain, and the Republicans, our independence is being threatened."

Obama did not give that speech. Instead, he gave a 3,500-word lecture on patriotism. The media loved it, but it had a problematic subtext. Lectures necessarily come with a presumption about the lecturer's elevated standing on the subject. Thus, the speech fit with the above images because it implied that Obama possesses some special gift - in this case, one that qualifies him to lecture the public about patriotism. This is not the way to develop a connection with the average voter. No candidate should ever lecture any voter on any subject for any reason.

The third problem is that it can diminish his greatest political strength - his rhetorical skill.

This was the conclusion of his June 3rd speech:

[G]enerations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment - this was the time - when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals.

I have read through this speech many times, and I am not entirely sure what "this moment" actually is.

Is it a broadly defined one, encompassing the entire campaign and the process of rejecting the policies of George W. Bush? That would be a pretty modest claim, casting Obama as the leader of a movement that is bigger than he.

Or, is it more narrow, referring to the point when the Democratic Party chose him over Hillary Clinton? That would be an extremely grandiose claim. The policy differences between Obama and Clinton were virtually nil, so the benefits of this moment would be produced by Obama's unique personhood.

Honestly, I can't tell which one he is on about.

Obama thanks his fellow Democrats in glowing terms, which makes me think that he understands he is just one of many who could have produced this moment. He also says that he is humble, which is consistent with the idea that this moment is not about him personally. But at other times, like when he thanks his supporters for listening to their hopes rather than their fears, he implies that he's actually talking about the narrower moment. Then there is the venue itself, which was meant to give the sense that this particular evening was momentous. What's more, June 3rd really was a momentous day in the primary battle. So, when he talks about this moment, it's natural to think of June 3rd.

So, Obama's role in the speech is ambiguous. Is he the imperfect vessel of the common good, or is he its personification?

This diminishes the speech's effectiveness. It also makes me wonder what to expect in Denver. In light of the images depicted above, as well as the speech he gave in Independence - I think it is reasonable to believe that the June 3rd speech was ambiguous because his campaign is of two minds. It surely doesn't want to create a cult of personality with Obama as the messiah. Nevertheless, it is depicting him in the clouds, it is selling art that portrays him as the fount of human progress, and somebody in the campaign created an Obamafied Great Seal that somebody else approved. Perhaps it isn't surprising that his June 3rd speech straddled both viewpoints. Will the speech on August 28th do likewise?

Early in his candidacy, Obama's narrative was very different. He was a candidate mobilizing the public into a social movement for the sake of the common good. This was a good message - but because of his campaign's grandiose rhetoric and imagery, it has been displaced. Obama no longer seems like the mere mobilizer, working to unite people around the common good. Instead, he often seems like the point of the mobilization itself.

He should return to that initial narrative. I can think of three ways to do this.

First, remove the over-the-top stuff from the website.

Second, hire a speechwriter who appreciates Obama's rhetorical style, but is not left breathless by him, and who knows what Democrats should say to swing voters. Obama is a good speaker, but his material needs to be crafted so as not to leave the impression that he thinks this is all about him.

Third, embark on an "Anytown, USA" bus tour where he can meet people on the street, visit struggling factories (making sure he doesn't wear a suit), neighborhoods where dropping home values have been a problem, and places where gas prices have hit consumers especially hard. No big venues. Small stuff. Out in the open. Unscripted and organic.

Interstate 70 runs straight from Baltimore to Denver, running through a cross-section of the country. An I-70 bus tour might be a perfect venture for Obama. He could start at Fort McHenry in Baltimore (a great venue to launch the tour) and travel all the way to Denver, arriving right before his nomination speech. Along the way, he could stop to meet and greet his fellow citizens, just as George Washington did in 1789. If that isn't enough, I'd note that I-70 actually runs right through Terre Haute, Indiana - the home of Evan Bayh!

-Jay Cost

Swing State Review: Ohio, Part II

In the previous installment, we analyzed partisan voting patterns in Ohio. Today's essay will apply this analysis to the upcoming election.

Let's encapsulate the last essay's observations in a simple visual presentation. The following picture measures the partisan "swing" of each Ohio county. 1

Ohio Countywide Partisanship.jpg

The lightest red, lightest blue, and purple counties generally vote as the state does. They are bellwethers. A few observations about them are noteworthy.

First, Ohio's mid-sized cities are in the political center. The purple counties in the northwest are near Toledo (in Lucas County). Dayton is in Montgomery County, another purple county. Ditto for Springfield, in Clark County, and Canton, in Stark County.

Second, there are lots of swing counties in the south. We noted last week that Democrats tend to win when they form an inverted "C" on the map - winning the counties along Lake Erie, the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and the Ohio River. However, such a pattern is not a guarantee. While the eastern border is generally reliable territory for Democrats, the southern border is not.

Let's apply these insights to the pragmatic task of winning a close election in the Buckeye State.

In a close election, a generic Democrat can generally count on many counties along Lake Erie and the eastern border, but he or she must supplement this base. There are several ways to do that:

(1) Win the counties surrounding Cleveland (Medina, Lake, and Ashtabula Counties).

(2) Win the south/southeastern counties in Ohio's sixth and eighteenth congressional districts.

(3) Win Columbus (Franklin County).

(4) Win mid-sized cities like Canton, Dayton, and metro Toledo.

(5) Minimize losses in the Cincinnati and Columbus suburbs/exurbs.

Of course, complete success would mean a blowout, not a close election. To win a close one, the Democrat need not do all this. Instead, he or she can win by mixing-and-matching several of these tasks. Indeed, if you look at the close elections we reviewed in the last essay, you'll see that Democratic victories all look a little different.

Meanwhile, the generic Republican can count on the western and central parts as his base. He or she must then stop the generic Democrat from doing several of these tasks. Much like the Democrat, there are many possible combinations for a GOP victory. 2

What might a McCain or Obama victory look like? By and large, we'll have to wait and see. Nevertheless, we can make a few reasonable points now, thanks to the primary results. However, we have to be careful with the data. After all, there was no McCain-Obama ballot question. So, the results cannot tell us how well one will do against the other. Nevertheless, they might tell us about a candidate's strength in one part of the state relative to his strength in another. 3

Let's begin with Obama-Clinton.

Clinton v. Obama.jpg

These results indicate potential problems and opportunities for Obama. We'll begin with the potential problems, of which there are two.

Start with the counties on the eastern border. Counties like Trumbull, Mahoning, Belmont and Monroe are solidly Democratic. So, we should not expect them to vote McCain. They'll go for Obama. The question is, by how much? They swung heavily for Bill Clinton, but less so for Gore and Kerry. Clearly, Obama was not the first choice of Democrats in these counties. Is this an indication that the swing voters here - the friends, neighbors, and relatives of the primary voters who voted so overwhelmingly for Clinton back in March - will be inclined to McCain? Possibly, but not necessarily.

Next, notice the Appalachian counties in the south and southeast. Unlike Trumbull and Mahoning, many of these are swing counties. Clinton defeated Obama by such large margins here that I would give McCain the advantage. Indeed, I think Obama would, too. After all, he chose to advertise in North Dakota and Montana, but not Kentucky and West Virginia, which these counties are a lot like.

This is the bad news for Obama. However, it is far from devastating. As mentioned above, there are many ways a Democrat can win Ohio. The primary map indicates the possibility of other such routes for Obama.

First, the Appalachian counties are not very populous, and many are losing people. Obama can suffer losses here, so long as they are not extreme. For instance, suppose that turnout in 2008 is identical to 2004, that Obama performs as well in those dark green counties as Kerry, and that in the rest of the state he performs as well as Bill Clinton did in 1996. Under those conditions, Obama would win. It would be closer than Clinton's victory - more like 2% than 6% - but a win is a win.

Second, many counties where Obama performed well have plenty of (as Paul Begala famously put it) "egg-heads and African Americans." Ohio University is in Athens County. Ohio State is in Franklin County. Greene County, in the southeast, has several colleges and universities, including Wright State and the famously liberal (and currently closed) Antioch College. Plus, there are sizeable African American populations in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, and Montgomery counties. If the Obama campaign amplifies turnout, this is where we will see its effects.

Third, Obama did relatively well in Butler County, north of Cincinnati, and he won Delaware County, north of Columbus. Both are large exurban counties, which have been a critical part of the GOP's success. The counties around Cincinnati and Columbus gave Bush a net of 175,000 votes in 2004 (and remember that Bush won the whole state by about 120,000 votes).

Obama claims he can win Republicans: can he win exurban Republicans? According to this map, possibly. He would not need to win these counties outright. It would be enough for him to need to minimize the size of McCain's victories. The gas price issue may be the crucial factor. When gas was $2 or less, exurbans swapped a longer commute for affordable homes and quiet, open spaces. Now that it is $4 or more, they are getting squeezed.

What about McCain? Unfortunately for our purposes, McCain was the all-but presumptive nominee by the time of the Ohio primary. This probably skewed the results in his favor, limiting our ability to use the data. Nevertheless, we might be able to make a few, extremely narrow conclusions.

McCain v. Huckabee.jpg

Note that McCain seemed to be strong in typical Democratic areas - the counties along Lake Erie, the PA-OH border, and the Ohio River. He also performed very well in metropolitan Columbus, winning Franklin County and its surrounding areas by over-sized margins. A similar result occurred in Cincinnati - he won Hamilton and Clermont counties by large margins. His showing in Butler County was strong, too.

This might be a sign that McCain is well-suited to counter Obama along the eastern border, as well as the suburbs and exurbs. However, that is far from a slam-dunk. After all, McCain was running against Huckabee, a candidate whose appeal never broadened beyond evangelicals. So, all we can say for sure is that McCain should be better at this than Huckabee, which is not saying much.

So, to conclude:

What To Watch in the Buckeye State

(1) If the national vote is close, expect Ohio to be close. It's a bellwether.

(2) Watch the mid-sized cities. They tend to vote with the winner. If Canton, Dayton, Springfield, and metro Toldeo go for the same candidate - he'll have the edge.

(3) Watch Franklin County (Columbus). If recent history is any guide, it will go for Obama. The question is by how much.

(4) Watch the exurbs. Obama promises to appeal to Republicans. These Republicans here are probably his best bet. McCain should still win the exurban counties of Cincinnati and Columbus, but Obama will be in good shape if he can turn them pink.

(5) Watch the eastern border. There are lots of "working class whites" here, the ones Obama had trouble with in the primaries. But it's not the strong Democrats he needs to worry about. It's the swing voters. If they vote McCain, these counties will be a lighter shade of blue than what Obama needs.

(6) Watch the south. It voted heavily for Clinton in the primary, and there are good reasons to expect it to support McCain. The bigger the margins, the better for the GOP.

(7) Watch Hamilton County (Cincinnati). Obama promises game-changing GOTV efforts. If he delivers, the first sign of success should be here. Traditionally, Hamilton County votes Republican, but just barely (and by steadily decreasing margins over the years). If Obama amplifies African American turnout enough to flip it, that's a sign that his plan's on track.



We'll review Pennsylvania next.

***
Endnotes.

[1] This chart was created by examining all close elections (where the two major parties are separated by 10 points or less) over the last ten years to see how each county voted relative to the state. If, for instance, the state voted +2 Republican, and Cuyahoga County voted +20 Democrat, we would say that Cuyahoga County had a Democratic swing of 22 points. Each county gets a score like this for every close election, and those scores are averaged to produce the picture above.

[2] So, we see an intersection between the structures of politics and the personalities in politics. Each victorious candidate generates a winning coalition from the party base, plus his or her own unique personality, background, and message.

[3] For instance, suppose that Obama defeated Clinton by 6 points in one county, but lost by 40 points in another county. It is reasonable to infer from this that Obama is better positioned in the first county than the second. We have to be careful with this kind of inferential work because the data is not fine-grained enough to make some types of judgments. For instance, if Obama lost the second county by 6 points, rather than 40, we would be unwise to make any judgment between the +6 and -6 counties. The bottom line is that modest judgments can be made if we are careful with the data we have.

-Jay Cost

Swing State Review: Ohio, Part 1

Today I initiate a new series of essays that will discuss the electoral landscape of the swing states.* Each essay will consider a different state in some detail, outlining how partisanship in the state typically manifests itself, and what this manifestation might mean for November.

We'll begin with Ohio, which typically has been a crucial component of Republican voting coalitions ever since the Civil War. That being said, Ohio has not been a state that the Republican Party could necessarily count on. Since 1960, it has voted with the winning party in every cycle. That's 11 in a row. Plus, Ohio's popular vote has tracked closely with the national popular vote. Over those 11 presidential elections, Ohio's vote has deviated from the national vote by a scant 2%.

Ohio behaves like this because of its diversity. It has large populations firmly rooted in one party or the other. A great example of this can actually be seen in the famous election of 1896. In Ohio, Democrat William Jennings Bryan won 47% of the vote against William McKinley, of Canton. At first blush, that seems strange. Why didn't McKinley dominate his home state? The answer had to do with the state's diversity. McKinley was the candidate of prosperous American industry, Bryan of struggling farmers. Because Ohio was a state with sizeable farming and industrial elements, it split its vote between the two.

While the nature of the Republican and Democratic bases have changed - the fact remains that both parties have large enough bases that competitive elections are inevitable. The relatively narrow slice of voters in the center of the state is thus endowed with the power to swing many elections one way or the other.

Because the zeitgeist currently belongs to the Democrats, it is fitting to begin our investigation with the last presidential election Democrats won - the anticlimactic contest of 1996. Bill Clinton won Ohio by 6.4 points. How did he manage it?

1996 Election for President.jpg

Clinton's victory is visually striking. It is a kind of inverted "C." He dominated the counties along Lake Erie and the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Prior to the election of 1932, these places were solidly Republican. With FDR in 1932, they switched sides and generally have not switched back.

Furthermore, note the cluster of counties that Clinton carried in the southern part of the state. These are the poorest counties in all of Ohio. There is little farming or industry here. They are actually part of Appalachia, and many of them are classified as economically distressed. Typically in these counties, you'll find the biggest employers to be various governmental agencies (local school districts, the state, etc) and Wal-Mart.

Additionally, observe the three counties in the middle of the state that Clinton won. These are Montgomery County (Dayton), Clark County (Springfield), and fast-growing Franklin County (Columbus). Each of these counties have sizeable African American populations, which makes them more electorally balanced than their neighbors. Also, note the suburban counties that surround Franklin, Hamilton (Cincinnati), and Cuyahoga (Cleveland). By and large, Clinton did not win them, but he kept Dole's margins relatively small. Neither Al Gore nor John Kerry could do that to George W. Bush, which is a big reason both of them lost.

Bob Dole, for his part, generally won central and western Ohio. These are areas with vast expanses of farmland. However, you're much more likely to find people in these parts making a living through industrial work. As we'll see in a little bit - the central and western parts of Ohio constitute the Republican base in the state.

The pattern of Clinton's victory is neither unique nor accidental. Instead, this inverted "C" forms the geographical core of the Democratic coalition. When Democrats win, their victories tend to take this shape. Consider, for instance, the 2006 election for Attorney General, which the Democratic candidate won by about the same amount as Clinton did.

2006 Election for Attorney General.jpg

There are some modest differences in how the vote is dispersed, but by and large we see the same essential pattern. That is noteworthy. Even though the election for Attorney General is not nearly as salient as the election for president, the same basic dispersion of the vote remains.

Sooner or later, a political party in power will mess things up really well, giving the opposition an opportunity for a big win. Republican governor Bob "No Contest" Taft had succeeded in doing that by 2006 - which meant that the Democrats had an opportunity to win some offices by large margins. Their victory in the Attorney General race was relatively narrow, but Sherrod Brown's victory over Mike DeWine in the Senate contest was broader, and thus illustrative of what the state looks like when Democrats win a bigger majority.

2006 Election for Senate.jpg

Brown's 12-point victory did not occur because the state voted homogeneously. That inverted "C" is still the essential pattern. Instead, the differences between Brown's win and the other Democratic victories are two-fold. First, the inverted "C" is more pronounced in Brown's victory. The counties in the east and south that vote Republican in other elections flipped to the Democrats; the counties that vote Democratic did so more intensely. Second, the counties outside the "C," while still red, are generally a much lighter shade. DeWine still carried the western and central counties, but his margins were much smaller. Importantly for the Democrats, DeWine was relatively weak in the suburban counties that surround Columbus and Cincinnati, and he was defeated outright in the suburban counties around Cleveland.

These days, gleeful Democrats and gloomy Republicans forget that partisan triumphs are part of a larger partisan cycle. The competitive character of elections promotes the cycle: defeat inspires innovation, reinvigoration, and eventually restoration. If we take a broad enough time frame, we can appreciate this. In fact, the Democratic triumph of 2006 ultimately depended upon the Democratic defeat of 2002, which serves as a good transition to examine how Ohioans behave when they are feeling more like elephants and less like donkeys. The following picture examines Taft's landslide reelection for governor.

2002 Election for Governor.jpg

This is an inverse of the 2006 Senate race. What we see is that the red counties became more red, and the counties of the inverted "C" became light-blue or even pink.

What about a more modest Republican victory? George W. Bush's 2004 win in Ohio is instructive. It is illustrated below.

2004 Election for President.jpg

As mentioned above, Bush failed to win Franklin County. He also lost it in 2000. This is noteworthy. Prior to Bush, the last victorious Republican to win Ohio without winning Franklin County was Benjamin Harrison, who bested Grover Cleveland in the state (but nevertheless lost reelection) in 1892. A lot has changed since then - but it is interesting that, despite improving statewide relative to Dole statewide, he was unable to improve on Dole's performance here. Moving forward, weakness in Franklin County might put more pressure on Republican candidates to win other parts of the state by larger margins. Of course, this might be mitigated by continued growth in "exurban" counties, where Republicans had been doing quite well (prior to 2006, of course). Of the 10 fastest-growing counties in Ohio, Bush won all 10, with an average of 65% of the vote.

Beyond Franklin, Bush generally was successful in Ohio. Several factors contributed to his victory. First, he consolidated the Republican hold over the central and western portions of the state - most counties there gave him margins of 20 points and higher.

Second, he kept Kerry's margins pretty minimal in the northeast. Bush was unable to make much of a dent in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) or Mahoning County (Youngstown), but everywhere else in the northeast moved noticeably in his direction.

Third, he generally improved upon Dole's performance in the suburban and exurban counties that surround Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. We indicated this earlier by noting that Bush carried the fastest growing counties in the state. What we see in a comparison of the 1996 and 2004 maps is that the counties surrounding Ohio's three largest cities all became less blue and more red.

Fourth, relative to the results in 1996, Bush actually flipped most counties in the southeast. Remember that these counties are the economically distressed parts of the state. If Clinton's appeal to these voters was based on economics, Bush's was based on culture.

The countywide results we see in Bush's 2004 victory are not unique. Typically, that is exactly what we see when Republicans win by a modest margin. You can confirm that by checking out Taft's first election in 1998, Bush's first election in 2000, and the ever-so-narrow victory of Republican Mary Taylor for Auditor in 2006. Between these three and Bush's reelection, you'll note some variation between the counties. But by and large, Republican victories look generally similar.

All in all, we have a good sense of what Democratic and Republican victories look like. The following picture specifies this idea further by examining how the map changes as the statewide votes change.

Collage.jpg

This demonstrates the "flow" of vote patterns in Ohio. As one party or another begins to run away with the election, the picture changes in a systematic fashion. These results date back to 1996, but a trip further back in time shows the same pattern.

Old and New.jpg

These days, everybody talks about this place or that place "emerging blue." A few years back, the talk was about "emerging red." That's all well and good, and some places are indeed emerging - but this picture tells us we need to be careful with all that talk. The fact remains that vote choices depend largely upon partisanship - which, even though it can and does change at the margins, remains a fundamentally stable political characteristic, typically passed on from parent to child. This is how we can explain elections separated by 40 years or more in basically the same terms. There is a great deal of stability to American electoral behavior. We need to remember that.

This concludes the general overview of voting in Ohio. In the next installment, we'll use this analysis as a foundation to understand exactly what McCain and Obama need to do to win the Buckeye State.

***
[*]I'd like to thank Sean Oxendine for the helpful advice he gave in the start-up phase of this project, as well as for letting me use his maps prior to my figuring out how to make my own.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Chicago Campaign

Barack Obama's first general election campaign ad began airing in eighteen states while I was on break, so I did not have an opportunity to comment upon it when it first began airing. As he recently made his second buy in these states, the subject is still worth discussing.

Generally, I take the buys as a signal of the Obama campaign's posture. Practically speaking, the ads will have little electoral benefit. Their purpose is thus broader than simple persuasion. They also communicate the Obama camp's attitude about its prospects.

So, what does the ad buy tell us about Obama?

Consider the following chart, which delineates George W. Bush's 2004 share of the two-party vote (with 47% as the bottom cut-off), whether Obama is running the ad in the state, and whether Bill Clinton won it in 1996.

Obama Advertisement.gif

I would note how aggressive the buys are. Of the eighteen states where Obama chose to air his first television ads, fourteen of them are states that George W. Bush won in 2004. I am particularly intrigued that he chose not to purchase airtime in Minnesota. My intuition is that this has something to do with the GOP convention. Just as the Obama campaign chose to hold its June 3rd rally in St. Paul, it has also chosen not to advertise there. The message is clear: this is my turf.

This does not surprise me. I have thought for a while that the Obama campaign has a kind of Chicago boldness to it. Some say that the nickname of Chicago - the "Windy City" - is not actually from the wind. Instead, they claim that "windy" is a synonym for bombastic - arising from Chicago's reputation for boastfulness in the late 19th century. Maybe that's where the name comes from. Maybe not. At any rate, anybody not from Chicago who has lived there for a time will probably aver that it is a uniquely self-assured city.

Like the city it's headquartered in, Obama's campaign is very audacious (where have we heard that word before?). When there is a choice between boastfulness or modesty, the campaign always seems to boast. To me, that is very Chicago.

This attitude can make for good politics, and I'd note with interest that this cheeky meat packing town managed to snag the World's Columbian Exposition over New York City in 1893. The Obama campaign has been reaping benefits for its confidence, too. The coverage of Obama since he clinched the nomination has usually centered around all of the things he might be able to do, rather than the things he might not be able to do. I think the campaign's bravado has had something to do with that.

Return to those ad buys. Look at the seemingly solid Republican states Obama is advertising in: North Dakota, Alaska, Montana, and Indiana. Typically, Democrats only win these states when they win most everything - 1964, 1932, etc. Montana went slightly for Bill Clinton in 1992 - with Ross Perot winning about 26% of the vote. Four years later, Clinton lost it as Perot's share fell to 13%. All four were solidly Republican in 2004. According to the 2004 exit polls, self-identified Republicans outnumbered self-identified Democrats in these states by 15, 22, 7 and 14 points, respectively.

Georgia is also a pretty thorny state for Democratic presidential candidates these days. It voted for Carter twice (obviously), and it voted for Clinton in 1992. Otherwise, it has voted against the Democrats since 1960. Like Montana, Bill Clinton was unable to hold the state in 1996. In 2004 self-identified Republicans out-numbered Democrats there by 8 points.

So, why advertise in these places?

Is it because the Obama campaign thinks it can win them? Maybe.

Is it because it thinks it can head fake the McCain campaign? Maybe.

Is it because it wants us all thinking, "He's advertising in North Dakota. North Dakota! What does he know that we don't?" Definitely!

Obama has enjoyed some success in getting people to think this. There have been a whole host of stories about all of the groups and places Obama could win. I think the audacity of these ad buys has helped generate this frame.

Personally, I find the Obama campaign's posture refreshing, just as I always enjoyed the self-confidence of Chicagoans for the time I lived there. As charmed as I am, though, I'm not buying what the Obama campaign is selling. At least not yet.

My opinion of the Obama candidacy did not change during my hiatus. His advertising buy has actually reinforced it. I see him going in one of two directions. He could be electoral dynamite, exploding the old categories and forging a voting coalition that we have never seen before. However, he could fail to do this, and underperform in a year when the macro conditions unequivocally favor his party.

Compare the ad buys to the 1996 results, and you'll notice that there are six states Clinton won that Obama, who is flush with cash and could spend anywhere, has chosen to leave off his list. Obviously, Arizona is easily explained, as it is McCain's home state. However, there are five other states not included in the buys: Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas. We can make three points about them.

First, they have been more supportive of successful Democratic presidential candidates than North Dakota et al. Bill Clinton won all five in 1996 and 1992. Jimmy Carter won them all in 1976. Until recently, West Virginia was solidly Democratic - voting for Carter in 1980 and Dukakis in 1988.

Second, with the exception of Kentucky, all of them were more supportive of Kerry in 2004 than North Dakota et al.

Third, they generally remain Democratic in their partisanship. In 2004, self-identified Democrats outnumbered self-identified Republicans in Kentucky, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Arkansas by 4, 2, 18, and 10 points, respectively. Tennessee sported an 8-point Republican advantage in 2004 that was cut to 4 points when Bob Corker squeaked by Harold Ford in 2006. Plus, Ford split the Independents with Corker.

Suppose you are a Democratic presidential candidate in a year that heavily favors your party. You are interested in expanding the playing field beyond what it was in 2004. All things being equal, where do you go? Do you go to North Dakota, Alaska, Montana, Indiana, and Georgia? Probably not. Those states have been pretty solidly Republican over the years. You might ultimately make a play for them, but only when you already have the meat and potatoes, and you want the gravy.

Until then, where do you go? You go to Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Arkansas. If you were looking to expand the field beyond 2004, these are the first states you would add to the list.

However, Obama is ignoring all of them.

Why?

We know the answer already. This is a picture (courtesy of my friend, Sean Oxendine) of the Clinton v. Obama primary battle in the mid-Atlantic. Deep blue areas represent landslide Clinton victories.

Updated Map of Appalachia.gif

The map doesn't show Louisiana. Obama won its primary in late February, but with just 30% of white voters, who in 2004 constituted 70% of the general electorate.

This is why I think the Obama campaign can be summed up as one of promise or peril.

He might do away with the old categories and put states like Indiana and North Dakota into play. He might literally redraw the electoral map.

On the other hand, he might fail to do that. North Dakota et al. might not come into play this cycle. In that case, he is not going to put states like West Virginia into play, which would mean that the electoral playing field will be about as big as it was in 2004.

We'll know soon enough which possibility becomes reality. Until then, I'll continue to enjoy the audacity of the Obama campaign as it gets the press to focus relentlessly on the positive. That's a Chicago kind of thing to do!

-Jay Cost