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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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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.


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