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By Jay Cost

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Thoughts on Obama's Speech

There has been a lot of analysis on Obama's speech last night. Much of it has been too high-fallutin' for my taste. If we're talking about "what Obama needs to do to win," then we're talking about undecided voters whose partisan inclinations are weak at best.

And there's something we need to bear in mind about these people. Most Americans pay little attention to politics; these people often pay even less. So, if we're going to enter into some kind of exegesis of Obama's speech that requires a B.A. in the humanities, we're quickly moving beyond the electoral implications of the speech.

I can do that kind of analysis, but I prefer not to. This isn't called the Horse Race Blog for nothing.

So, a few thoughts on more immediate, visceral subjects.

(1) Obama's sure to get a bounce. His poll numbers were weak going into the convention, so minimally we can expect him to return to his high point over the last few weeks and months.

(2) The reactions among the pundits seemed largely to correlate with pre-existing views about Obama, with a few exceptions. That indicates to me that Obama probably changed few minds last night. If you went into the speech with a strong opinion about Obama, you came out with the same view. The question is how it affected those without strong opinions, which is a question nobody writing a regular political page is immediately capable of answering. That's the trick with undecided voters. They're not part of our little blogospheric clique, so who among us really knows what they think?

(3) I am not a fan of people evaluating political speeches at the venue. According to Nielson's preliminary ratings, about 0.20% of the entire viewing audience was actually at that speech. How can anybody analyze its effect for the 99.8% of us when he or she is one of the 0.20%?

(4) I didn't like the audio/visual mix. It seemed off. The visual image of Obama was a crystal-clear shot framed pretty tight. It seemed like he was indoors. The audio, however, had that echoey sound you typically hear with somebody who is outside.

(5) There were a lot of people at that stadium. That, to me, was a risk. That crowd was so big that television viewers are bound to have an opinion about it. It was not background. It was foreground. I don't see how that helps him.

(6) Obama's eye contact stunk. This was a direct result of the venue. He mostly looked at the crowd. How could he not? I sure as hell couldn't look away from 85,000 people staring directly at me. Obama typically looked at the camera only as a brief pause between the side-to-side stares, and he almost never looked at the camera to make his key points. The bigger problem is that the crowd was above him - so, from the vantage point of the camera, he kept looking up. I saw a lot of Obama's nostrils last night. I don't think that was optimal.

(7) The stage set was not a visual impediment, as many had feared or hoped it would be.

(8) Obama is a good speaker, but his stylistic range is pretty limited. His style lacks the common touch of Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. That's a political problem for him.

Consider a hypothetical experiment. It's 1941. Barack Obama is President of the United States. Bankrupt and exhausted, Prime Minister Churchill turns to President Obama in desperate need of assistance. Knowing full well that his country is deeply suspicious of being drawn into another bloody European war, President Obama must change public opinion to save England.

What would Obama have done? He would have given a soaring peroration that played up the "fierce urgency of now." He would have gone big.

What did FDR do? First, he went small. This is how he introduced Lend-Lease:

Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out his fire. Now what do I do? I don't say to him, "Neighbor, my garden hose cost me fifteen dollars; you have to pay me fifteen dollars for it." No! I don't want fifteen dollars. I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.

Of course, FDR could be grand, too. He gave us garden hoses and the "Arsenal of Democracy." My point is that being small can work. It can be eloquent. It can connect when big can't connect. Americans love small, in part because we see ourselves as being equal to one another. In fact, we love a mix of small and big. Small ingratiates the speaker to average Americans, and then big reminds us of how gosh-darned important we are.

Remember, Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992 after having played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall. I doubt de Tocqueville would have been surprised by that.

Obama has a lot of great speaking gifts, but they all make him seem larger than the rest of us. I think this is one reason the public doesn't "know" a man who has written two best-selling autobiographies. He's an inspiring speaker, but his speeches never leave one feeling like he's one of us.

The Obama people seem to have intuited this - the McCain "Celebrity" ad probably tipped them off - but I didn't like the response last night. Much like the audio/visual, I don't think last night was mixed well. You had a big speaker at a big venue, but a smaller speech. Obama's "workmanlike prose" fit neither his style nor the venue. It felt like the Rolling Stones appearing before a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field to play an acoustic version of Exile on Main Street. That's not what brought the Glimmer Twins to the show. "Start Me Up" and "Satisfaction" brought them. That's what they should play. If they want to do acoustic Exile, the Vic is right off the Belmont stop on the Red Line.

-Jay Cost

Palin a Calculated Risk for McCain

Hats off to the McCain campaign. It has managed to match the excellence of the Obama campaign in its veep rollout. That's no small feat.

Sarah Palin is an interesting pick. On paper, she has plusses and minuses. The credits should exceed the debits - but ultimately that will be up to Palin and how she performs. [The same can be said of Joe Biden, who still hasn't shown whether he will be good or bad.]

She has one big minus. She's inexperienced. That could hurt McCain's attack on Obama's inexperience, but I'm skeptical of that. What is more likely is that her inexperience leads her to make rookie mistakes. That's the question: can she perform under pressure?

She has three big plusses. First, she plays directly to McCain's message of reform. Second, she's a woman. Third, she's a mom. That's a big deal, too.

Putting aside the particulars of Sarah Palin, there are three things I like about this pick.

First, she's a risk. I think she's a calculated risk, but she's still a risk. I like that because I think those polls showing an even-steven race a week ago were a mirage. This race is not a flip of the coin. Obama is the favorite. McCain has to be bold and daring and take the election away from the Democrats. Picking Pawlenty would not have done that. Pawlenty is safe in a year when McCain needs to be bold.

Second, she was clearly selected in response to Biden. This was a big advantage McCain had going for him. He could use the Obama selection to inform his own choice. He clearly did that. No way Palin was the pick had Obama selected Hillary. But Obama passed Hillary over. That gave McCain the opening to pick Palin.

Third, this will minimize the media coverage of Obama's speech - and hopefully for the McCain campaign, cause it to recede into the public's hazy memory. This was the other advantage that McCain had going for him with the timing of the convention. He could use the pick to mitigate Obama's bounce. The best way to do that was with a dark horse - and the McCain campaign managed to pick a dark horse despite having the media pay relentless attention to the veepstakes. That's impressive - and a testimony to the fact that the new McCain operation should not be taken for granted. It's has strategic thinkers who seem to have a good plan that they have executed with discipline. If McCain manages to win this, Steve Schmidt is going down as a legend in GOP circles.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the Second Night

I do not think last night accomplished much for Barack Obama.

Once again, the networks only started their coverage at 10 PM, and the pre-speech analysis was dedicated exclusively to Hillary. From 10:30 to the start of the speech, I counted about 10 mentions of Barack Obama from NBC news anchors and analysts. Clinton mentioned Obama about 10 times. So, that's 20 mentions of the nominee between 10:30 PM and 11:10 PM.

That's not much.

Define a convention as four days of sustained politicking for the nominee - with partisans showering him with praise, making his case as aggressively as possible, and arguing that the public shouldn't vote for those damned bastards on the other side.

This gathering in Denver is not a convention. It's too distracted by the rift between Obama and Clinton. All day today the talk is about Hillary Clinton - whether or not she did what she had to do. Biden gets the prime time spot tonight, but the newsies will spend plenty of time talking about Bill Clinton. In case that's not enough, there will even be a roll call vote this afternoon!

How does any of this help Obama's candidacy? That should be the first priority of the convention, but it seems like the last.

If there is fault for this, none of it lies with Hillary. For starters, she did "what she had to do" last night. She endorsed Obama as well as she could have, given the nature of the primary battle. And remember, candidates with half as much standing usually make twice as much noise. By historical standards, Hillary has been the model of graciousness.

This is Obama's doing. He is the nominee. He could have given Hillary the vice-presidential nomination. Choosing her would have totally changed the convention for the better. But Obama didn't choose her. He tapped Joe Biden instead. As a consequence, he's lost control of his own convention.

He's betting that his Thursday speech will be good enough to render all this moot.

It better be. Come Friday morning, McCain returns to the front page with his vice-presidential pick. Then the attention turns to the convention in St. Paul, which will not have such distractions.

-Jay Cost

Wisdom from Mike Murphy

Over at Swampland, Mike Murphy writes:

[M]ost of the delegates doing all this "I'm just not ready yet to put on an Obama t--shirt" talking to the media have - sorry - no real power. There is a huge mythology about "organization" but 85% of it is just fantasy. A year ago we all heard about Hillary Clinton's big edge in "organization" and her fearsome "machine." But who has the nicer hotel rooms here in Denver now? It's a message, money and media game these days; true organizational power died with Boss Pendergast.

Murphy makes a good point. It is easy to overestimate the power of party "organizations" during a week like this. But they are not what they used to be. Many of them are not much of anything at all.

And why should they be? A hundred years ago, there were no televisions and no public opinion polls. Yet Americans still politicked. How'd they do it? Manpower managed by organization.

But the times have changed. Today, the way to campaign goes something like this: hire a bunch of experts to make you look good on TV for the voters that your other experts told you to persuade. Rank-and-file partisans are not really part of the equation anymore. Even if there might be some utility to mass-based organizations, campaign finance rules are such that the parties can't afford them and all the ads.

As I've said before, these conventions are antiquated - they are holdovers from an older era. The only reason they happen today is that they are advertisements that the candidate doesn't have to pay for himself. In other words, a clause or two in our inefficient campaign finance laws keeps these things afloat.

The state and local party outfits that populate the convention with delegates no longer serve the functions they once did, but they are still around, still organizing just enough to send delegates to the quadrennial convention. People at this convention, even the ones who look like average voters, are not average. Their experience with politics is lived via a party organization that their friends, neighbors, and coworkers wouldn't even know exists were it not for their involvement.

What do the parties do now? The party as a whole has several vital tasks: (1) campaign on behalf of its candidates; (2) legally launder money from one committee to another; (3) establish formal and informal "rules of the game" to manage political ambitions (e.g. the "invisible primary" that selects which would-be nominees are viable and which are not viable); (4) promote a party message or theme; (5) form and manage legislative caucuses.

The people you see on the convention floor really have little to do with any of this. Ditto the local party organizations, the few that are are actually left. The state parties do participate in the money laundering game and the support of candidates for state offices. But they aren't what they used to be. The power center of the American political party is now Washington, D.C., the hub of a largely informal network that connects candidates, professional advisors, and donors. Most of the delegates on the floor aren't part of that world.

-Jay Cost

Is That Robert Davi?

Does McCain have Robert Davi doing the voiceovers of his advertisements?

That IS Robert Davi!

I've been a fan of him for a while. He was the villain in License to Kill, the most under-rated James Bond film. He did the voiceovers for the History Channel series Breaking Vegas, and he even had a fun supporting role in the Halo trilogy.

He has a great voice - quite suited for this type of work. Good pick by the McCain campaign, whose ads have been really good lately.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the First Night

The networks did not start their coverage until 10, so their viewers only saw a media package on the Kennedy speech. Michelle Obama did not get started until around 10:40. She was done before 11. A few more thoughts from the journalists, then on to local news. After that, people saw McCain on Jay Leno.

So, my guess is that the electoral effects of tonight will be minimal. If you can be convinced by just 20 minutes of campaigning by a candidate's wife, you were probably persuaded a while ago.

Did it add to the larger campaign narrative Obama's operation wants to build? Maybe, but probably not much. I do think it was a "win" for Obama's campaign because Michelle looked great, she seemed warm and personable, their kids were adorable, and she gave a fine speech. Her brother was even appropriately nervous. That was charming. The first response from the network people all seemed positive. So, for whatever it's worth, that's a win.

Let's put aside the electoral implications - as the evening was worthwhile even if it swayed few voters. Barack Obama is an interesting candidate to watch. He has many political strengths, but they are often mixed in with his weaknesses.

Many of his strengths are not acquired skills, but rather just part of who he is. Take his speaking ability. Obama has done good work by refining his talent, but it's still mostly a gift from the Man upstairs. Ditto his family. On the night of her big debut, his wife was intelligent and likable and poised and clearly in love with her husband. His children were cute and sweet and just the perfect touch of impish.

But Obama has weaknesses, which were on display tonight as well. He had only a handful of lines, but he mixed up one he should have landed. He said he was in St. Louis when he was really in Kansas City. This kind of mistake is never a good thing. McCain said something nice about the Pittsburgh Steelers a few weeks ago, but it was a line he had initially said about the Green Bay Packers. The local paper reported the contradiction. My hunch is that it annoyed people here just a tiny bit. Obama did something similar tonight on network TV with Missouri's two largest cities. Fortunately for him, Sasha was there to bail him out!

It was a small fumble, but a fumble nonetheless. And it wasn't atypical. While Obama has many gifts, he doesn't have the best campaign discipline. The modern, mass media campaign is a grind. Excelling at it takes practice and commitment. You must remember minute details to be recalled on a moment's notice; you must be interesting and yet on message at the same time; you must smile on cue, and so on. Doing all that is an acquired skill, a discipline. Obama seems to be having a bit of a tough time with it.

That's not a deal-breaker by any stretch. Kerry had trouble with the discipline, and he lost by just 2 points. Gore couldn't quite get the rhythm right, yet he still won the popular vote. Bush is a master of the discipline, but the public doesn't listen to him anymore. The discipline is an asset, but it's not the most important one.

-Jay Cost

On the Biden Pick

On Friday, Bill Kristol made two trenchant points in response to a column I wrote:

1) In the five open seat elections since 1948, three (1960, 1976, and 2000) have been razor-close. There's no reason to assume this one won't be.

2) With so many undecideds, the debates might well make a difference--as they arguably did in 1960, 1976, and 2000 (and 1988, for that matter; there was no debate in 1952). So after the conventions, the big day to focus on is Friday, Sept. 26--the first debate, in Oxford, Miss.

This is spot on. I'm guessing the Obama campaign, like Kristol, senses that the debates will be critical, which must be one reason it picked Joe Biden. Recalling Biden's successes during the primary debates, it is betting he'll do well in the veep debate.

On this particular item, I think the campaign's logic is sound, and there are other reasons to like Biden on the ticket. Nevertheless, I do not think Biden was the best choice.

Of course, Biden has plenty of upsides. He proved a good debater during the primaries. He has lots of experience, and so he might provide "gravitas." He has a working-class Catholic background, so he might appeal to some of the FDR Democrats who liked Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton. Plus, he's tough, so he can go after the Republicans.

On the other hand, his windiness is a big downside. I get the impression that most insiders who know Biden kinda like him - but they probably prefer small doses. I know I feel that way. Biden makes me grin when I watch him for 10 minutes or so. But after two months of Biden every day? I'm going to need a break from old Joe by then. And then there is the possibility that he will say something catastrophically stupid.

There are other downsides to Biden. One is that he highlights Obama's inexperience. Call this the ying to his gravitas yang. He also does not seem like the kind of change Obama has been campaigning for. Instead, he looks like one of the people Obama thought should be transcended.

All serious veep prospects have upsides and downsides (if they have nothing but upsides, they would probably have secured the top spot!). What a campaign must do is "total up" the upsides it expects from each, then subtract the expected downsides. The rational choice is the candidate who brings the greatest net benefit.

This is where my objection to the Biden pick lies. I like Biden, and overall I think he could be a reasonably strong candidate. However, Hillary Clinton would have been a much better selection.

Hillary brings just about every upside Biden brings. She brings seasoning. She brings toughness. She brings facility in debates. Meanwhile, her downsides largely overlap with his. She highlights Obama's inexperience. She is not consistent with his message of change.

Each brings downsides the other doesn't. He is windier and more likely to stick his foot in his mouth. In the course of that 18-month primary battle, Hillary said a few bone-headed things, but nothing approaching the clips of Biden now circulating on YouTube. One downside Clinton has that Biden does not - her negatives are already quite high. So that favors Biden in the calculus.

None of these considerations tip the scale to Clinton. At this point, I remain indifferent between the two. Clinton comes out ahead when we consider all those voters the ever so clever Jacob Weisburg thinks are "racists." They are why Hillary should have been the pick.

The Obama vs. Clinton battle was one hell of a fight. It split the Democratic Party along regional, demographic, economic, and cultural lines more than any contest in the open era. I don't think anybody should assume that the division in the party is ephemeral, that the hunger to win will resolve all matters by November. Remember, the Democratic coalition has fractured twice in the last fifteen elections - 1948 and 1968. That's not counting all the traditionally Democratic voters that the GOP has peeled off in years past - cf. 1972 and 1984.

The Democratic Party is powerful because it is broad. It can compete just about anywhere in the United States while the Republican Party cannot. However, its breadth carries with it an enhanced possibility of crippling division.

Accordingly, every Democratic nominee should do everything within reason to achieve unity - which, I would note, has been a premise of Obama's campaign. Most nominees need not worry about unity because their act of securing the nomination did not rend the party. However, Obama's nomination has rent it. Selecting Hillary would have been a reasonable step in reuniting it. I think he should have taken it.

Hopefully for the Obama campaign, the risk of passing over her will not materialize into electoral damage. Instead, pro-Hillary Democrats will see McCain as Bush III, and they'll be so hungry for change they'll pull the lever for Obama. Of course, hope has no place in one's coldly rational decision calculus. There is a non-trivial chance that the party will fracture - not necessarily at the Denver convention this week, but in the living rooms of Democratic leaners in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc., sometime before Election Day, as they quietly decide they like Hillary best, McCain second, and Obama third.

Selecting somebody other than Hillary Clinton does very little to reduce this risk. That leaves me asking: what special quality does Joe Biden - or Evan Bayh or Tim Kaine or Chet Edwards or Kathleen Sebelius - bring to the ticket that makes up for unity? If you want to argue that Biden was better than anybody else on the short list, I'm all ears. But nobody on the short list constitutes a significant step toward unifying the party, which must come first.

Obama is betting that Democrats will unite on their own. And so, the Biden pick reminds me once again that the party has nominated a very audacious candidate. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, Barack Obama is a bold guy. Watching him this cycle is like watching a cocksure poker player. When other players fold, Obama calls. When they call, he raises. Whatever he does, he always represents a good hand. But is it really?

We'll know soon enough.

-Jay Cost

Two Links Worth Noting

Hope everybody is having a nice Sunday. Just wanted to pass along two links of interest.

First, Ed Kilgore over at the Democratic Strategist posted a brief review/response to my Virginia analysis. I get the sense that Ed is slightly more bullish about Obama's prospects in the Old Dominion than I - and he raises some very salient points. I wish I had thought of them!!!!

Second, in regards to my comment about MSM caricatures of average voters - you can check out a particularly obnoxious one by Jacob Weisburg, who argues that it is racism, nothing more and nothing less, that could prevent Obama from winning in November. This is what I was talking about on Friday, only much worse. MSMers might frequently revert to caricatures of average voters, but hardly ever do I see what I saw from Weisburg, whose ignorant analysis is saturated with condescension.

Occasionally, I receive emails from people who argue what Weisburg asserts. In response, I kindly inform them where they can stuff it. I explain to them that I come from and reside in Western Pennsylvania (a supposed bastion of supposed anti-Obama supposed racism), that they don't know what they are talking about, and that their arrogant presumption to crudely categorize my friends, family, and neighbors has earned them my just rebuke.

But this is a family blog, so I'm not going to do that here.

-Jay Cost

Hats off to the Obama Campaign

The rollout of his veep is driving me batty because it is soooooo slow. But it's smart.

A slow rollout builds interest. And how do you become one of the FIRST to know who gets the second spot?

You sign up for a text message, which means you are officially on their contact list for fundraising solicitations!

I've never seen a campaign work the veep nomination from a financial angle like this. It's a good idea, well executed.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the State of the Race

With Barack Obama about to make his vice-presidential selection, the general election is finally set to begin. Thus ends the middle period between the nomination campaign and the general election campaign. I would like to offer some reflections on the state of the race, the media, the candidates, etc.

Once again, the mainstream media disappoints.

When I started my blog in 2004, I did so because I was sick and tired of the way the mainstream media covered the presidential campaign that year. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, they are committing the same errors this cycle. I expect them to continue to.

I could catalog endlessly all of the things I think the media mishandles, but ultimately it comes down to how they mischaracterize the average voter, who appears to be like somebody you'd hear about in a Kinks tune - a sillyhearted schizophrenic with amnesia.

Take an example, one making its way through the mainstream media at the moment, this McCain housing "gaffe." The only way this non-event could have any significant effect on the election is if it influences the vote choices of a good number of citizens. But think of what we must assume about those citizens to believe that! What kind of a moron would somebody have to be to be planning to vote for McCain, hear that he doesn't know how many houses he has, and presto! that voter switches to Obama. Of course, his memory is so shoddy that he can't keep the decision in his pea-sized brain through the next mini-scandal. Sooner or later, Obama will do something stoopid - and presto! he's back voting for McCain.

I'm not accusing anybody in the mainstream media of being intentionally condescending to the average voter. I think that most analysts just get caught up in their culture. They're not "plugged in" to the way average people think. They're plugged in to the way Washingtonian politico types think, which is very different.

I just don't think mainstream media people understand how average voters think about politics. They know that average voters pay relatively little attention. But after that they don't know very much. So, they develop an image of them that they don't realize is actually a caricature. And because Washington is the center of their universe, they're never forced to reconcile the caricature with the genuine article. Their only sustained interaction with average voters is through the public opinion poll. When you think about it, those polls are nothing more than aggregations of "1's" and "0's" given in response to a handful of pre-determined, hyper-structured questions. How much can you know if that's your only source of information?

But haven't the polls "tightened?"

First of all, let me say that I frickin' hate all these polls. Hate them. Public opinion polling is a great boon in many respects - but it has been grossly overused in academic and popular political analysis, to the detriment of both. It has become a substitute for a lively imagination and rigorous reasoning. The number of polls in this election has reached an absurd level, and it has had the effect of further impeding good political analysis, which was already in short supply.

As for the tightening, it depends on the poll you look at. Gallup hasn't budged. And, when I look at polls, I go to Gallup first. It's the gold standard. And, God bless them, they interview 2,500 people every three days. That means that the margin of error on their tracking poll is so low that statistical inefficiency is not a problem. The only problem could possibly be statistical bias. And if there is one pollster that is unbiased (in a strictly statistical sense of the term), I'm betting it's Gallup.

[Update, 12:30 PM: Speaking precisely, I should say that Gallup hasn't budged substantially. To quote the standard-bearers of Frank Gallup: "[Obama's one-point advantage] matches the average gap between candidates over the past week...Obama had enjoyed a slightly larger three-point average margin over McCain from the time Obama clinched the Democratic nomination in early June through the Aug. 11-13 tracking results." So, we've gone from Obama +3 to Obama +1. Somebody catch me 'cause I'm gonna faint! The point is that the race was close in June, close in July, and close in August. I see little difference between 5-, 3-, and 1-point spreads, at least in the summer.]

More generally, the fact that the polls occasionally respond to the MSM's discussion-of-the-day is largely irrelevant to my point. Poll responses and vote choices are two very different things. The mass public picks up the MSM's dialogue in some sense, regurgitates it to the pollster, and the MSM declares that the public does in fact respond to what the MSM thought it did. It's called the echo chamber.

Here's the state of the race, at least as I see it.

(1) The macro conditions favor the Democrats in a way we have not seen in at least 28 years.

(2) In response, the Democrats nominated a candidate with relatively little governing experience and a background quite different from white voters, who swing presidential elections.

(3) The Republicans nominated a candidate who built a national reputation by disagreeing with George W. Bush in particular and the Republican Party in general, in the hopes that this man is immune from the public disaffection with the GOP.

(4) The public now gets to choose a man with little experience and a different background, or a semi-Republican. They're not sure which one they want. And because there are two wars on, a credit crisis, a weak economy, and high gas prices - they're taking their sweet time in deciding.

(5) Anybody who tells you what is going to happen is probably trying to sell you something.

Did I miss anything?

History is of relatively little value in determining where this race is headed.

We can build a model that predicts presidential vote outcomes based on macro conditions. We can profitably take that back to 1948 or thereabouts. That gives us fifteen previous elections to work with.

But this is an open presidential election, one where the big dog is not running for reelection. Those are very different, and there have only been five of them since 1948.

In those elections, you'll usually see the vice-president running on behalf of the incumbent party. There's been just one exception.

That year was 1952. Structurally speaking, this year has a lot in common with 1952.

But the candidates have nothing in common with 1952. Instead, they are much more like the candidates from 1976. Barack Obama reminds me of Jimmy Carter - he's relatively inexperienced and his background is such that a segment of this country is probably going to balk at voting for him. John McCain reminds me of Gerald Ford, though I suspect he would have let Nixon go to jail.

Unfortunately, we've never had a previous presidential election where the structure is 1952 and the candidates are 1976.

Bottom line: we're in unchartered water here. History is still useful, and it establishes that the Democrats are favored. But the limitation of history is that we don't know how heavily they are favored.

-Jay Cost

Swing State Review: Virginia

Today we take our Swing State Review to Virginia. Historically, Virginia has not been much of a swing state, instead consistently favoring the Republican Party. The effect has been that the Democrats typically win Virginia when they have already secured 270 Electoral Votes.

The following chart makes this clear by examining the "Republican tilt" of Virginia against the three previous states in our review - Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Virginia Partisanship 1.jpg

Virginia's Republican tilt is apparent. In the last sixty years, only Truman and Johnson have carried the Old Dominion.

So why are the Democrats so bullish? Part of it is probably induced by their overall confidence. George W. Bush's job approval numbers are low, the public favors the generic Democrat over the generic Republican, and all of the "macro forces" of electoral politics seem to favor them. And remember, Republican tilt is a relative term. If the nation votes +10 Democrat, and Virginia votes +5 Democrat - it has a Republican tilt, but the Democrats still get its Electors!

Of course, Democratic confidence has been shaken with Obama's declining poll position. I think deriving one's confidence from summer polls is as silly as staking out the houses of potential vice-presidential candidates. For goodness sake, it's still August! That being said, the particulars of the Obama-McCain match up might disrupt the typical partisan electoral dynamics, producing a closer race than what some experts would otherwise predict.

So, the most fruitful question to ask is whether Obama can win the state in a close election.

Because this query is so similar to the one we asked about Colorado, it makes sense to approach it in a similar manner. Accordingly, let's divide Virginia into metropolitan regions - plus another "odds and ends" rural category. 1

Virginia Partisanship 2.jpg

There seems to be an angle for the Democrats here. From 1968 to 2000, metropolitan Washington favored the Republicans, but not in 2004. Some Democrats see an incipient realignment in the works here. Personally, I have such a hard time predicting one election, I don't know how anybody could predict the next ten! I'll just say that, realignment or not, there is certainly potential for Obama in metropolitan Washington, D.C.

That being said, Republicans have reasons to be cheery as well. All other areas represented in the graph - metro Virginia Beach, metro Richmond, and the rural areas - went for Bush in 2004. Additionally, the GOP has dominated the smaller metropolitan regions, as this graph and this graph make clear. The only exception to this trend is Charlottesville - which, like metro Washington, exhibited a Democratic tilt in 2004.

Comparing Virginia to Colorado, it is fair to say that, all else equal, Colorado is a more promising short-term opportunity for the Democratic Party. Assuming that metro Washington continues to favor the Democrats, the Republican Party is still left with a sizable base to fall back upon. You could have tripled Kerry's margin in metro Washington, and George W. Bush would still have won. That's how well he did in the rest of the state. Whether or not this persists in the medium- or long-term is outside the purview of this essay.2

In the short-term, that makes the state a relatively difficult capture for Obama (so long as we assume that his vice-presidential nominee does not give him a "favorite son" bump). This can be appreciated by examining how previous Democrats have done in statewide contests. The following picture reviews the most populous parts of the state.3

Virginia Democratic Margin of Victory 1.jpg

A close examination of the 2006 Senate contest indicates Obama's challenge in Virginia. Webb pulled an enormous margin out of metropolitan Washington, and yet he eked out the barest of victories - a margin of 9,300 votes out of more than 2 million cast. What tipped the race in Webb's favor? Virginia Beach. While John Kerry lost the area by about 6 points, Webb won it by 3 points.

This could be hard for Obama to mimic - for Webb's greatest strength in the region is one that favors McCain, not Obama: Virginia Beach has an extremely large concentration of military veterans. About 20% of the voting age public are veterans. Webb's military background probably made the difference in Virginia Beach, and thus the whole state. In 2004 John Kerry, himself a veteran, won 36% of the veteran vote in Virginia. Jim Webb won 42%. That difference was large enough to tip the election.

So, Webb's victory depended upon an angle Obama simply doesn't have. Does he have an alternative one? Maybe. One oppportunity manifested itself in the Democratic primary.

Virginia Obama Clinton.jpg

Notice that Obama did very well in metropolitan Washington, a sign that he might be able to improve on Kerry's margins there. He also did well in the south and east - in places like Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Danville. This was due in large measure to his overwhelming support from African Americans, as the following picture indicates.

Virginia African American.jpg

Note the close relationship between the two pictures. This is not a mirage. According to the exit polls, 42% of all Obama voters in Virginia were African American.

This might present a general election opportunity for Obama. Clearly, African Americans in Virginia are strongly behind him. If there is a surge in turnout among African Americans, such that they increase their share of the vote by 5%, and Obama does really well in metro Washington - he might be able to pull off the upset. Holding everything else constant from 2004, adjusting the racial demography of the electorate would cut Bush's margin of victory by about half, from 8 points to 4 points. Toss in a Webb-like performance in metropolitan Washington, and Obama carries the state.

Of course, it is one thing to write this - it is another thing entirely to do it. African Americans in Virginia vote in proportion to their overall population, which means that increasing their share of the vote 5% would be a monumental undertaking.

I'm not saying this is impossible. Frankly, I do not know. I just pulled that "5% increase" out of my you-know-what. If there was a sensible baseline I could use - believe me, I'd use it. But the fact is that there has simply never been a presidential candidate like Barack Obama, which in turn means that it is impossible to estimate what kind of effect his candidacy will have on the racial composition of the electorate.

There is another relevant subject to discuss, one we covered in our reviews of Ohio and Pennsylvania. Note Obama's poor margins in the southwestern part of the state. This area voted much like neighboring West Virginia and Kentucky, and nearby southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. This is not an incredibly populous part of the state, but there are three important caveats to keep in mind. First, every previous non-voter who votes Democrat this cycle nets Obama one vote, but every typical Democrat who backs McCain nets the Republican two votes. Second, in the best-case scenario for the Obama campaign, the final result in Virginia will be close, something on the order of the 2006 Senate race. Every vote counts in that instance. Third, Obama's poor margin in the southwest indicates that he might have a more general problem among some downstate white voters. We might not be seeing it in the primary results in places like Roanoke, Lynchburg, or Danville because Obama did so well with African Americans. On the other hand, Obama did pretty well in Harrisonburg, which has a relatively small African American population - so it is hard to identify the extent of any potential problem with downstate whites. Ultimately, that's the limitation of countywide analysis - if there is intra-county variation (and there probably is), we can't see it.

I would note that McCain is still picking up a good portion of Clinton voters. My hunch is that these voters are not evenly distributed nationwide, that instead they are clustered in specific areas. I don't know how else to explain why, in a year like this, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia are out of Obama's grasp. Such voters might also be disproportionately concentrated in Virginia - which in turn could yield trouble for him on Election Day.

So, in conclusion, I would say that of the four states we have reviewed thus far, Pennsylvania is the most likely to go for Obama, Virginia the least, and Colorado and Ohio fall in between. It's certainly not impossible for Obama to flip Virginia, but it won't be easy.

Here are five things to watch on Election Day.

(1) Washington. Incipient realignment or not, Obama has a chance to improve on Kerry's numbers in metro Washington. Can he? If so, by how much? He'll need a big haul in northern Virginia to overcome McCain's advantages in other parts of the state.

(2) Virginia Beach. Home to a large number of veterans and African Americans - Virginia Beach plays to Obama and McCain's strengths. Keep an eye on Hampton, which has particularly large veteran and African American populations. In 2004, it went for Kerry by 15 points. If that number changes substantially in either direction, we'll get a sense of what kind of night we're in for.

(3) Richmond. Both Webb and Kaine did better than Kerry in metro Richmond - Kaine, who hails from Richmond, substantially so. If Obama can hold his own among suburban/exurban whites - enhanced African American turnout here might boost his margins and put the state in striking range.

(4) Downstate whites (outside Richmond and Virginia Beach). One reason Jimmy Carter kept Virginia so close in 1976 was his support outside metropolitan Washington. In an inverse of the 2004 results, Ford won metro DC while Carter was very strong in the rural areas and smaller towns like Roanoke, Blacksburg, and Bristol. These days, such voters generally vote Republican - but some still vote Democrat. Will they this cycle?

(5) African Americans. The Obama campaign has promised game-changing African American turnout. In the last two contests, African Americans constituted about 20% of Virginia's presidential vote, proportional to their share of the state's population. If, when the exit polls roll out on Election Night, we find something closer to 25% - expect the state to be very close.


[1] Unfortunately, our rural category for Virginia is even more diverse than the category we etched out for Colorado. These counties include places in the western, mountainous part of the state, as well as coastal counties that are not categorized as being part of Richmond or Virginia Beach. One implication of this is that there is a wide divergence in the racial composition of this "region." On average, African Americans make up about 19% of all people in non-metropolitan counties - but the standard deviation is an eye-popping 17%. Such an odds and ends category is as necessary as it is unfortunate. Breaking this category into subcategories would mean that the number of units to analyze in our review would simply be unmanageable.

[2] One's bet on the future depends upon two items. First, how one chooses to extend those Republican tilt graphs into the future. As I noted, my preference is to wait until I have actual data before I draw them forward. Second, changes in population. Americans' mating habits are easier to predict than their voting habits - so we can get some purchase on this. The following chart tracks the four most populous regions' share of the presidential vote over the last fifty-odd years.

Virginia Share of Statewide Presidential Vote 1.jpg

Metro Washington clearly has been on the rise, a growth that seems to have come largely at the "expense" of the rural areas. One of the advantages the Republicans have in Virginia that they do not possess in Colorado is that in Virginia the principal city, while recently leaning to the Democrats, makes up a smaller proportion of the statewide vote. Denver is leaning to the Democrats like metro Washington, but metro Denver matters more to the electoral politics of Colorado than Washington does to Virginia. That being said, Washington's trend line has a positive slope. So, in the future, we should expect Washington to become more and more important in the partisan results of the state. For those of you who are insanely interested in fine-grained data, as I am, you can check out the population trends in the rest of the state here and here.

[3] See how Kerry, Webb, and Kaine performed in the rest of the state here and here.

-Jay Cost

Swing State Review: Colorado

Today we continue our Swing State Review with an examination of Colorado, whose recent electoral behavior has been more dynamic than Pennsylvania or Ohio.

The following chart makes this clear by examining the "Republican tilt" of Colorado compared to Pennsylvania and Ohio. Republican tilt is measured by the margin of victory (or defeat) for the Republican presidential candidate in the state minus his national margin. So, if a state supports the Republican more than the whole country, it has a Republican tilt.

Colorado Partisanship.jpg

We noted in our Pennsylvania review that the Keystone State has exhibited a slight, pro-Democratic tilt over the years, which can be seen in this chart. For Ohio, we noted that it generally votes slightly more Republican than the nation. This too is clear.

Meanwhile, Colorado's behavior has been more variable. Of course, the variability is not entirely "random." Though the line bounces around quite a bit, it still has a downward slope, which indicates that it has moved from the right to the middle. When analysts suggest that Colorado is an emerging purple state, this is what they are on about.1

Thus, it's reasonable to assume that if the national vote is close this year, Colorado will be close, too. Let's take a closer look at the state to see if we can get an idea of what to expect.

Let's begin by investigating the partisanship of different parts of the state. Once again, we'll use Republican tilt as our metric, but instead of reviewing the state as a whole, let's break it into segments: the seven largest metropolitan areas, plus a "Small Town/Rural" segment that captures the rest of the state. 2

We'll examine the four most populous areas first.

Presidential Partisanship 2.jpg

Interestingly, we see Colorado becoming polarized over time. In 1952, these areas differed only slightly in their partisan preferences. They all sat on the Republican side of the aisle, and the differences among them were less than 20 points. Flash forward fifty-two years and we see significant polarization. Colorado Springs has become more Republican, Boulder strongly Democratic, Denver slightly Democratic,3 and the rural areas essentially unchanged.4

This indicates why Colorado is a swing state. Both parties have solid, sizable bases of support. Additionally, the most powerful part of the state, metropolitan Denver, sits in the middle. While it has a slight Democratic lean, both parties can play in metro Denver.

Let's take an even closer look by examining particular elections. We must be careful in how we do this. Because Colorado has only recently begun to behave as a swing state, we should favor recent statewide elections in our analysis. Building a set of expectations from older elections might bias our estimates toward the past alignment. So, let's stick to recent events.

Fortunately for us, Colorado offered two great data points in 2006. For Secretary of State, Republican Mike Coffman won a 1.6-point win over Democrat Ken Gordon. For State Treasurer, Democrat Cary Kennedy won a 2.6-point victory over Republican Mark Hillman.

Let's also include John Kerry's 4.7-point defeat as a baseline. The following chart reviews how the three Democratic candidates - Kerry in 2004, Gordon in 2006, and Kennedy in 2006 - performed statewide, as well as in the four most populous parts of the state.

Democratic Margin of Victory 1.jpg

What made the difference between victory for Kennedy and defeat for Kerry? Obviously, Kennedy improved relative to Kerry in all four quadrants, but there are two noteworthy features to her win.

First, she improved relative to Kerry in the rural areas. She didn't win them. In fact, she lost them by 6 points. But Kerry lost them by 15 points.

Second, Kennedy won metropolitan Denver by a comfortable margin - around 9 points. Kerry and Gordon both won metro Denver, but their margins (around 3 points each) were smaller. For Gordon, this was probably enough to keep him from winning.5

This gives us a pretty specific sense of what each candidate must do in November. However, the story is slightly more complicated than this. Until now we have operated under the assumption that Colorado's vote will be close if the nation's vote is close. While this is generally reasonable, there are two caveats to add.

First, while Denver has split down the middle in the last five presidential elections, 2004 saw it vote more Democratic than any time since 1952. Is this simply an "outlying" point around a central tendency of moderation, or is it a signal that the city is moving to the Democratic Party? It is too soon to say. If Denver continues to vote down the middle, we should expect Colorado to stay in the middle. If, on the other hand, it votes more Democratic, the whole state will shift to the left.6

Second, Colorado's population has been growing rapidly - by more than 30% in the last eighteen years. Much of this has been due to an increase in the Hispanic population. The following graph reviews changes in the Hispanic population in the most populous portions of the state.7

Hispanic Population As Percent of Whole.jpg

The electoral implications of this immigration have not been fully felt. In 2000, Hispanics accounted for about 17% of the state's total population, but 14% of the presidential electorate. In 2004, they were estimated to account for nearly 19% of the state's population, but just 9% of the presidential vote. This is about the share they made up in 1998 and 1996.

If Hispanics in Colorado begin to vote proportional to their numbers, Democrats should enjoy at least a short-term advantage. Despite George W. Bush's best attempts to attract Hispanics, John Kerry still won them in Colorado by better than 2-to-1.

Practically speaking, this means that our assumption about Colorado voting roughly as the country votes, while reasonable, is not a certainty. Simply put, Colorado is a state in flux. It's moved from reliably Republican to a swing state in recent years. It remains to be seen whether this is just a stop on the way to some final left-of-center destination.

We now have a good idea of the electoral landscape in Colorado. Let's tie all of these considerations into a "bottom line" conclusion. Here are four things to watch on Election Day.

(1) Metropolitan Denver. Denver is the critical battlefield because it's so large and sits in the middle. It will probably tip the state one way or the other on Election Day. Expect Obama to carry metro Denver. The question is: by what margin? Kerry won it by about 3 points. Obama will need to win it by close to 7-9.

(2) Hispanics. Will Hispanics comprise around 15% of the vote, or will they once again be counted lower than 10%? That could make a huge differences for Obama, assuming they go strongly for him. Will they? That's the other big question. From recent poll numbers, it looks as though Obama is on track to match Kerry's performance, but it is still early.

(3) Rural and small town areas. These parts of Colorado are often overlooked because no one place is particularly large. However, collectively they add up to the second largest category we have defined, so they should not be taken for granted. Can Obama improve over Kerry? Rural voters back east were not inclined to him during the primaries, but he did reasonably well with them in Oregon and New Mexico. If he can hold his own in rural Colorado, keeping his margin of defeat in the high single-digits, he'll be well positioned.

(4) Boulder and Colorado Springs. These towns are symbols of Colorado's political polarization over the last fifty years. Boulder has trended leftward, Colorado Springs rightward. This year, the parties have nominated candidates who supposedly possess cross-partisan appeal. Do they? I doubt it, but if they do, we might see Boulder and Colorado Springs break from their recent patterns. Electorally speaking, conflicting movement would cancel each other out. What would be consequential is if both places moved in the same direction. Combined, Boulder and Colorado Springs typically account for 20% of the state's vote.

We'll cover Virginia next.


[1] The current political alignment of the Centennial State, while new in many respects, nevertheless has roots in days long gone. The following picture makes that point.

Colorado Montage.jpg

These elections are separated by some 64 years, and yet the countywide voting patterns are extremely similar. This indicates that Colorado has exhibited both change and continuity over the years. The change has come from the fact that FDR did very well relative to prior or subsequent Democrats. A tight race in Colorado was not something any Democrat could typically count on then, or for many years to come. Today, they can. That's the change. The continuity is the similarity between the countywide vote patterns. Close races then and now could be expected to produce roughly similar countywide results.

[2] "Small town/rural" is an odds and ends category, and even though (as we'll see) the "region" as a whole votes Republican - there is significant variation from rural county to rural county. Southern Colorado has a sizeable Hispanic population and can generally be expected to support Democrats. Eastern Colorado, where the best farmland in the state is located, is solidly Republican.

[3] The Census Bureau identifies ten counties in metropolitan Denver, including recently created Broomfield County. In 2004, Bush won Arapahoe, Broomfield, Elbert, Jefferson, Park, and Douglas counties. Kerry won Adams, Clear Creek, Gilpin, and Denver counties. The only county to switch from 2000 to 2004 (excluding Broomfield, which did not exist at the time) was tiny Clear Creek County (population 8,956). It went for Bush in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. Overall, metropolitan Denver was essentially unchanged from 2000 to 2004 in terms of its absolute vote. It gave Bush 46.8% in 2000 and 47.8% in 2004. Kerry improved over Gore in part because Ralph Nader's role was greatly diminished.

[4] The less populous cities were more diverse to begin with, and they remain so today, as this chart makes clear. Note in particular the movement of Fort Collins, which has gone from being solidly Republican to a swing area. For the sake of brevity, we'll place the data on the less populous cities in the endnotes. However, this should not be taken to imply that they are not important. In fact, metro Fort Collins, metro Greeley, and metro Boulder are all about the same size, ranging from about 250,000 to 300,000 people. Pueblo and Grand Junction are less populous, with about 150,00 people each.

[5] An examination of the other parts of the state shows that Kennedy also improved on Gordon and Kerry in Greeley, Fort Collins, Pueblo, and Grand Junction. See here for the relevant chart. See here for the 2004 presidential map, here for the 2006 Secretary of State map, and here for the 2006 State Treasurer map.

[6] As everybody knows, Denver has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. What is less remarked upon, however, is that the rest of the state has kept up.

This has had an important political consequence. Though Denver has grown, its voting power relative to the rest of the state has remained roughly constant. The following chart illustrates this point.

Share of Statewide Presidential Vote 1.jpg

When we combine this with the fact that metropolitan Denver sits roughly in the middle of the state and the country - we find another reason why Colorado is a swing state. Denver is relatively moderate, and it is not so large that it has "hegemonic" power over the rest of the state. [As this chart makes clear, the net change in voting power in the rest of the state has been roughly zero.]

[7] See here for changes in the Hispanic composition of the rest of the state.

-Jay Cost

Swing State Review: Pennsylvania

Today we continue our Swing State Review, examining Pennsylvania. It is a common conception that the Keystone State has been "trending blue" in recent years. Commentators often note that Pennsylvania voted for Ronald Reagan twice and for George Bush in 1988, but has since voted Democratic.

While this is significant, it is not by itself a signal that Pennsylvania has been "trending blue." It is more appropriate to call Pennsylvania consistently and marginally blue. In the last fourteen presidential elections, Pennsylvania has voted more Democratic than the rest of the nation all fourteen times. On average, its Democratic tilt has been about 4 points. For instance, in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson by 10.5 points. He won Pennsylvania by 5.8 points, for a Democratic tilt of 4.7 points. In 2004, George Bush beat John Kerry nationwide by 2.4 points. He lost Pennsylvania by 2.5 points, for a Democratic tilt of 4.9 points.

Interestingly, this statewide consistency masks significant intrastate change. It is frequently noted that metro Philadelphia has moved to the Democrats. This is quite true. However, this has been countered by movement to the GOP in central and western Pennsylvania. Taken together, these various shifts have altered the political contours of the state while keeping the aggregate vote results roughly consistent.

The following picture indicates this point. It illustrates the shift in the presidential vote from the 1968 presidential election to the 2004 election. These are two elections where the Democrats won modest victories: 3.6% in 1968 and 2.5% in 2004. Thus, they offer a good "apples to apples" comparison of how the state has shifted over time.

Pennsylvania 1.jpg

Clearly, the east has moved to the Democrats. All of the counties of metro Philadelphia have generally trended blue (Berks County being the sole exception). This is especially important as the surburban counties have grown in population. We also see some movement to the Democrats in the far northeastern counties, which have increasingly become part of greater New York.

Meanwhile, the central and western parts of the state have clearly been moving in the Republican Party's direction. All of the exterior counties of metropolitan Pittsburgh - Armstrong, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland - have shifted noticeably toward the GOP. The Republicans have also made gains in fast-growing York County. Lancaster County has not shifted, but it was very Republican to begin with. So, its growth has given the GOP more votes.

We can see the same patterns from two different angles. First, the 1976 election produced statewide results similar to the 2004 election. Jimmy Carter won a slight, 2.7-point victory. So, we can generate another "apples to apples" map comparing '76 to '04. By and large, we once again find the same pattern: movement to the Democrats in the east and to the Republicans in the center and west.

Second, the following picture examines the average partisan "swing" of each county for three groups of presidential elections: 1968-1980, 1984-1996, and 2000-2004.* This gives us a sense of each county's voting pattern relative to the state as a whole.

Pennsylvania 3.jpg

We are interested in how counties change color over time. In the east, red counties have turned purple or blue. This trend is countered in the west, where solid blue counties have turned purple or, in a few instances, red. The sparsely-populated central third of the state was Republican to begin with, and it has generally become more so.

Taken together, these pictures illustrate that while Philadelphia and much of the east have been moving toward the Democrats, the south and west have been moving to the Republicans.

As indicated above, the net effect of these shifts has so far been roughly zero. Pennsylvania still generally tilts Democrat by 4 or so points. Whether this pattern persists in the future depends on a number of factors outside our immediate concern. The important point for us now is that the Democrats still possess this advantage. So, Obama is favored because he is the Democrat in what many expect to be a close election.

Whereas in Ohio, Obama was on "offense" and McCain on "defense," matters are reversed in Pennsylvania. Accordingly, let us examine what McCain must do to flip Pennsylvania from blue to red. There are four areas he should focus on:

(1) Metropolitan Philadelphia. George W. Bush's numbers in metro Philly were not great in 2004. Statewide, Bush's vote share ticked up 2 points between 2000 and 2004, from 46.4 to 48.4. In the suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia, it barely inched up, from 46.7% to 47.0%. If McCain can improve on Bush's 2004 share in the suburban counties, he will be better positioned to win the state. He would not have to do much better - a shift of just 2 points in the suburban counties would close more than a third of Bush's statewide deficit.

(2) The Lehigh Valley. This is in Lehigh, Northampton, and Carbon counties. Formerly a center of American manufacturing, the economy has recently been invigorated by the tech and service industries. With this revitalization has come an increase in population. Bush was basically stagnant in this region between 2000 and 2004. He lost all three counties by slim margins in 2000. In 2004, he won Carbon County barely, and ticked up a bit in the more populous Lehigh and Northampton Counties, still losing both. This is an area McCain cannot afford to ignore: Republicans who have won close statewide races in recent years tend to win the Lehigh Valley.

(3) York and Lancaster Counties. York and Lancaster are in the southeast - in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Situated just east of the Appalachian Mountains, these counties have some of the most productive farmland in the state, though this does not account for their political importance. They sit between Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Washington - and their populations have been growing as people willing to commute look for new places to settle. Like most "exurbs" nationwide, Bush did exceedingly well here, winning more than 3 out of 5 voters in both counties in 2004. McCain will have to match that. A strong performance here is already built into a Republican loss. So, he cannot afford to underperform here.

(4) The West. Culturally conservative western Pennsylvania has been trending Republican in recent years. For a long while, their ties to American industry induced them to vote Democratic, even as the Party of Jackson moved to the left on cultural issues. With the decline of industry, the area's allegiance to the Democratic Party has weakened. Meanwhile, the region is still largely pro-life and pro-gun, which has given the GOP an opening. In fact, George W. Bush did better in the five outer counties of metropolitan Pittsburgh than any Republican since 1972.

To win Pennsylvania, McCain will have to find a way to account for Bush's weaknesses while mimicking his strengths. While it remains to be seen whether he can do this, we might get a sense of what to expect by examining the Democratic primary results. This could give us an idea of Obama's position in the state, and therefore what McCain needs to watch for.

Pennsylvania 4.jpg

This picture presents a mixed bag for the McCain campaign. First, it indicates that McCain can be reasonably optimistic about the western part of the state. Obama did poorly here, especially in the southwest. Given that these are areas where the political dynamic has increasingly favored the Republicans, anyway - Obama could have some rough sledding here.

Obama ran better in the Lehigh Valley than he did in the west, but that is not saying much. Indeed, he failed to break 40% in any of the counties in the Lehigh Valley. Plus, in lightly populated Carbon County, he barely won one out of five voters. There might be an opportunity for McCain here.

On the other hand, Obama ran very well in the Philadelphia suburbs. He carried Chester and Delaware counties, and kept it close in Montgomery. So, he might be well-positioned to prevent McCain from improving on Bush here.

Furthermore, Obama won Lancaster County. This is similar to his win in Delaware County, Ohio. Both Lancaster and Delaware are fast-growing exurban counties. Is it possible that Obama might be able to blunt the GOP's nationwide advantage in the exurbs? Maybe, though I'd note that Obama was roundly defeated in the exurban counties of Pittsburgh - Butler and Westmoreland.

The primary map points to another area we should watch as the election returns come in - the old coal country of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Lackawanna County, home of Scranton, is typically a safe Democratic county in presidential elections. However, it is not a lock. Michael Dukakis eked out at 3-point victory in the county in 1988. Luzerne County, home of Wilkes-Barre, is more in the middle, though it slightly favors Democrats. Obama did quite poorly here, winning only about 25% of the vote in either county. Let's add this part of the state as a fifth place for McCain to focus on. If voters in these areas are disinclined to Obama, McCain might pick up some support here that a "generic Republican" would not.

Overall, it is far too early to make any predictions about Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, given the last half-century of elections, it is not unreasonable to expect the state to vote more Democratic than the country at large. If this holds true this cycle, Obama should have the advantage in the Keystone State. That being said, McCain certainly has a shot here, and if this turns out to be an election where the old rules of electoral politics are suspended, we might see a surprise on Election Day.


[*] "Swing" is defined here as it was in our review of Ohio. It measures a county's partisan behavior relative to the state. If, for instance, the state voted +2 Republican, and Philadelphia County voted +20 Democrat, we would say that Philadelphia County had a Democratic swing of 22 points. Each county gets a score like this for every presidential election, and those scores are averaged to produce the picture above.

-Jay Cost

McCain Should Pick Romney, And Soon

As John McCain mulls his veep pick, I'd offer some thoughts on what he should do. As the title indicates, I think Mitt Romney is quite possibly the best choice, and McCain should pick him soon.

Analysts have given multiple reasons for picking Romney over Tim Pawlenty, Rob Portman, Tom Ridge, etc. I think many of these hypothesized benefits are less than compelling:

(1) Romney will energize conservatives. Maybe, but the real question is whether they need energy. All that matters is if they vote, and it looks as though they will. This is an open election, and a consequential one. If the race remains reasonably close, turnout should be high, and conservatives should vote.

(2) Romney will bring Michigan. Do veep candidates really bring states? Color me skeptical. Most recent veep picks have not been chosen to win home states - which should tell us something. Anyway, who's ever heard of a veep bringing his dad's state?

(3) Romney will bring economic credibility. With a few exceptions, qualities or qualifications have not been transferred from veep to the top guy. It's just as possible that, rather than boost McCain's economic bona fides, Romney would underscore the impression that those bona fides are pretty weak.

(4) Romney can raise extra cash. He probably can, but by itself this is not a reason to select him. A veep nominee is more important than an ATM, so Romney has to offer McCain something else. If he can, his fundraising prowess is really just a supplement.

It is generally unreasonable to expect direct benefits from a vice-presidential nominee. Voters do not make their choices based on the second guy or gal. That being said, it is not an inconsequential selection. A good vice-presidential pick will further a candidate's message. While voters do not vote for the top guy because of the veep, they do vote for the top guy because of his message, which the veep can help communicate.

So, McCain should pick the guy who helps his message the most. But what is McCain's message? I think it is: in a year when the country is dissatisfied with his party, he is an acceptable Republican while his opponent is a needlessly risky choice.

Even for the most able candidate, this would be difficult to communicate. It is hard to criticize an opponent without diminishing yourself. Unfortunately for the GOP, McCain is not the "most able candidate." It seems to me that his team has tried to execute this strategy with McCain as chief critic - but it has backfired. McCain seems less acceptable, Obama seems no more risky.

The McCain campaign should not expect this to change if things remain as they are. McCain has lots of political strengths, but attacking another candidate is not one of them. He can't seem to hit Obama. Hillary Clinton couldn't, either. The two of them seem smaller for their efforts.

However McCain has an asset that Hillary simply lacked. He can outsource the attacks, handing the duties over to the veep pick. McCain can go back to being the maverick straight talker while the vice-presidential nominee can go after Obama.

This is why Mitt Romney might make a good veep candidate.

Anybody who followed the primaries closely noted that Romney was a frequent critic of his fellow Republicans. His campaign put him on the attack early and often. I thought this was a bad strategy, and I noted it at the time. That being said, Romney executed this bad strategy very well. He reminded me of a cross between Al Smith and Spiro Agnew. Chris Cilizza recently referred to him as the "smiling assassin." For what they were, his primary attacks were very good.

Picking Romney means putting the McCain campaign's attacks in his mouth. That should make them much more effective. Never in his political career has Obama encountered an opponent who can land a blow as well as Romney. Furthermore, picking Romney will help retain McCain's reputation. If McCain does not have to attack Obama, he can return to being the maverick straight talker.

In other words, a McCain-Romney ticket might be able to do what McCain has so far failed to do by himself. McCain can emphasize how he is an acceptable Republican. Romney can emphasize how Obama is needlessly risky.

Of course, there are reasons not to pick Romney. Some of them are valid, but many are not:

(1) McCain and Romney dislike each other. I don't see why this is a problem. Presidential and vice-presidential candidates need not form a working relationship. All that matters is whether Romney can follow the campaign's plan, which I am sure he can. After they win, McCain can send him off to attend funerals and cut ribbons.

(2) Romney will alienate evangelicals. Maybe, but my feeling is that evangelical voters are going to vote. Again, turnout will be high if the election is close. So if they vote, who will they vote for? Barack Obama? Bob Barr? Ralph Nader? No, no, and no. Evangelicals are usually Republicans, which means we should expect them to vote Republican. Plus, Obama would never touch the "Mormon issue," not even with a ten-foot poll. That will minimize its salience.

(3) Romney will overshadow McCain. I agree that Romney looks more presidential - except for the fact that McCain roundly defeated him in the primaries. That should close any stature gap caused by differences in physical appearance.

(4) Romney wants to be president. This is actually an asset, in my opinion. Romney will have an incentive to work his behind off. If McCain wins, Romney will be the heir apparent. If McCain loses, but Romney gave it his all, he will be well positioned for 2012.

One potentially harmful drawback is his work at Bain Capital. The Democrats will probably try to tar Romney as a job slasher or something to that effect. Given that the unemployment rate is going up, the McCain campaign should be ready for this. Another potential problem is that Romney still polls weak. According to Rasmussen, his net favorable is negative at the moment. If McCain's internal polling indicates that this negativity might rub off on him, that would be a reason not to pick Romney.

Of course, all veep picks have strengths and weaknesses. The choice comes down to what the campaign needs most. As far as personal qualities go, McCain needs very little. The public has a well-formed, positive impression of him. Few politicians ever develop such a reputation. What McCain really needs is somebody who can articulate the negative message. Romney can do that.

If Romney is the correct pick, now might be the correct time.

Selecting Romney now will bring his services immediately. That's a real benefit. The McCain campaign clearly thinks it needs to criticize Obama over the summer. I think it's right. So, the sooner Romney takes over the attacks, the better.

This means McCain wouldn't pick Romney immediately prior to the GOP convention, when veep nominees are typically chosen. Many analysts think this is a reason to wait. I don't.

Picking Romney now might diminish the magnitude of McCain's convention bounce because it will make the GOP gathering less eventful. This should be of little concern in a year like this. This is a very peculiar election for a Republican candidate, and Obama is very different than most opponents. These facts should alter the McCain campaign's strategy.

Obama will probably enjoy a sizeable bounce from his convention. McCain should not fall into the trap of trying to match him. Spoiler alert: he can't. Matching Obama on a stage like that would be like going on after Jerry Lee Lewis in 1957. Only a fool would try to upstage "The Killer."

So, if McCain casts aside the idea of matching Obama bounce-for-bounce, then what? He adopts the mantra of the tortoise: slow and steady wins the race. If Obama gets the bounce we all expect, it will be because he'll do the same thing he's been doing for months: big, splashy images, tens of thousands of adoring fans, and well-delivered, grand-but-vague rhetoric. If it moves Obama's numbers, it likely will not address the underlying concerns about him the electorate still retains. There is probably no speech that can do that. If there were such a speech, Obama would have given it by now.

That gives the McCain campaign its opening. It must articulate the doubts of the voters in a coherent, clear way. To do that, it doesn't need an eye-popping convention or a corresponding bounce. Slow and steady will do well enough. McCain's path would thus be similar to the one Gerald Ford almost walked in 1976. He fosters the doubts about Obama in voters' minds, so that by late October and early November - the undecideds and soft Obama supporters break his way. A big convention bounce for either candidate would be immaterial.

But slow and steady is a better strategy the earlier it begins. That's why I'd put Romney in place now, even if it results in a less momentous convention. I'd get Romney out there today, acting as an effective critic of Obama, offering editorial comment to all of the grand images we're bound to see between now and Denver, giving voice to the doubts voters still seem to have about the Democratic nominee. The idea here is that McCain cedes some of the boost he might otherwise get from his convention in return for laying the groundwork for a late-stage surge.

There might be reasons to wait on announcing Romney, or reasons not to choose him at all, that supercede the considerations outlined here. The McCain campaign has access to polling data and background material that the rest of us simply lack. Who knows what this indicates? It could show that his work at Bain makes him too hard a sell, or that his negative ratings will drag McCain down. And so on.

However, if McCain waits or chooses somebody else, he must do a better job in his critique of Obama. Right now, it is not nearly as good as it needs to be. I think picking Romney now would be a way to improve it immediately. If the McCain campaign wants to save a Romney announcement until St. Paul, or if it thinks it is better served by another pick, it must look for a way to improve its attacks.

-Jay Cost