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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> October 2008

McCain-Palin Focus on Ohio and Pennsylvania

As the campaign enters its final days, we can develop a good sense of where the campaigns think they stand. That's because campaigns have two scarce resources. The first is money. We can't track money directly, but we can track what it is buying - namely, television advertisements. Thanks to Nielson, we know that McCain-Palin has recently focused its ad buys on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Meanwhile, its ad buys are being scaled back in Colorado.

The second scarce resource is time. If we follow where the candidates are traveling, we can know where they think their campaign events - and all the local media they generate - can make the best difference. So, let's examine where the McCain-Palin campaign has been travelling in the last few days. I built the following picture via Google Maps. It shows where John McCain has been from October 25th through today.

McCain1.jpg

First off, we notice very few appearances out west. None in Nevada, none in Colorado, just two in New Mexico that occurred last Friday. Interestingly, there has been one trip to Iowa, which is curious, given the public polling. We also find three trips to Florida and one to North Carolina, which are consistent with his advertising in those states.

McCain's emphasis has been on Ohio. He's basically planted himself in the Buckeye State, holding eleven events in the last week.

Now, let's examine Sarah Palin's travels in the last week.

Palin.jpg

Palin has actually made no appearances in the west, another indication of the campaign's attitude about Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. Meanwhile, she has made two appearances in Iowa. Given that Obama is in the Hawkeye State today, we can infer that the race might be tightening there.

Palin, like McCain, has checked in with North Carolina and Florida. She's also been in Virginia and Indiana this week. However, Palin's emphasis has been on Pennsylvania.

So, the ticket has been focused on Ohio and Pennsylvania in the last week. Let's take a closer look at their travels in those two states. The following picture, again courtesy of Google Maps, does that. McCain visits are shaded blue. Palin's are green. Joint appearances are in purple.

McCain Palin PA.jpg

Let's begin with a close look at Ohio.

What is interesting is that some of McCain-Palin's time has been spent in Democratic strongholds. For sure, McCain has made appearances in Defiance, a GOP stronghold in the northwest, and Lancaster, a GOP bastion in metro Columbus. However, there have been visits to blue-collar Democratic areas like Toledo, Elyria, and Steubenville. These are the kinds of places John Kerry was visiting at this point in the cycle in 2004. McCain-Palin has also hit several swing areas - Mentor (in metro Cleveland), Dayton, and Hanoverton (just south of Canton on I-77).

Overall, this has been a fairly balanced schedule, with both McCain and Palin toggling between Democratic strongholds, Republican strongholds, and swing areas. The only peculiarity I'd note is the relative inattention paid to the southern third of the state. Palin made a few stops in metro Cincinnati the week before, but McCain has not been there in quite a while. That is a bit surprising. I'm also surprised that there has been just one visit to Ohio's sixth congressional district (Steubenville). The sixth was a swing district in 2004 that heavily favored Clinton over Obama in the primaries. I would expect that, given fourteen total visits to the state, more than one would be dedicated to the sixth district.

What about the Keystone State?

There were fewer visits in Pennsylvania this week, and Palin hosted most of them. She held a rally in York, an exurban GOP stronghold that will need to come in big for McCain-Palin. She also has spent a good bit of time in the "Middle T" of the state, with visits to College Park (Correction: University Park), Williamsport, and Shippensburg. These are "rallying the base" visits with small town voters who have been loyal to the GOP for more than a hundred years (though Penn State helps Democrats in College Park). Note the visit to Erie, PA - a Democratic town that went for Kerry in 2004. Palin also made a stop in Latrobe, on the outskirts of metro Pittsburgh in Westmoreland County. She was in Beaver County the week before - a working class county also in metro Pittsburgh that has been trending toward the GOP in recent cycles. McCain, for his part, made a trip to Pottsville, PA - which sits about halfway between Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre along I-81. They held a joint appearance in Hershey, PA - just outside Harrisburg.

Interestingly, what we have not seen from McCain-Palin in the last week are any trips to metro Philadelphia. The last time McCain was in metro Philly was October 21st for a rally in Bensalem. Palin was last there with a visit to Blue Bell on October 14th. This is an indication that the GOP ticket is focusing on the central and western parts of the state rather than the southeast. I discussed the logic of this earlier in the week.

So, what's the bottom line? Again, time and money are scarce resources. Candidates allocate them according to what they believe is the best strategy to win 270 Electors. That McCain-Palin has essentially planted itself in Ohio and Pennsylvania is an indication that it thinks its time is of good use here. Combine that with its enhanced advertising buys in these two states, and we can conclude that Ohio and Pennsylvania are crucial components of its electoral strategy.

-Jay Cost

McCain Putting Ad Dollars Into Pennsylvania

Another interesting data point from Nielson, which has been tracking campaign commercials.

This is their chart of daily ads run in Colorado:

Colorado.jpg

As we can see, McCain has been pulling back in the Centennial State. On Tuesday the 21st, his campaign ran 135 ads in the markets that Nielson monitors. This Tuesday, he ran just 55. That's a 60% decrease.

Meanwhile, here is what Pennsylvania looks like.

Pennsylvania.jpg

Last Tuesday, McCain ran 249 ads in monitored markets in the Keystone State. This Tuesday, he ran 337 ads. That's a 35% increase. Meanwhile, McCain has upped his ad buys in Ohio and Virginia.

What the heck is McCain up to? I have an idea. This is the picture of the primary results for Obama versus Clinton in Appalachia (courtesy of Sean Oxendine).

Appalachia.gif

Meanwhile, the candidates are heading back to Iowa. Sarah Palin had two events there on Saturday, and Barack Obama will be there tomorrow. What's up with that?

-Jay Cost

Obama's Commercial

Nielson reports that the combined household rating for Obama's campaign commercial last night was 21.7, meaning that 21.7% of all households in the 56 markets Nielson monitors watched the program. National numbers are still to come.

Here are the breakdowns for Obama's ratings in swing state markets:

Ratings.jpg

Unsurprisingly, Philadelphia is the #1 market list here. Although interestingly enough Baltimore was the #1 market nationwide.

Check out more details here.

-Jay Cost

Return To Pennsylvania

Michael Barone published an excellent essay on Pennsylvania earlier this week. In it, he analyzed McCain's prospects in the Keystone State, and from there pivoted to a broader discussion about the governing coalition Obama hopes to form.

I cannot recommend it more highly. Here, I'd like to supplement it, hoping to specify McCain's strategy in the Keystone State and its likelihood of success.

I suspect that McCain is aiming for a voting coalition roughly similar to the one Hillary Clinton fashioned in the April, 22 primary.

2008 D Primary Pennsylvania.jpg

As we can see, Obama performed well in the southeast, winning three of the five counties in Metropolitan Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Hillary dominated the rest of the state, winning the rural areas, metro Pittsburgh, and the smaller cities along the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike - Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton.

Indeed, another look at the primary data indicates just how well Clinton performed in these areas.

Clinton Margin.jpg

Those are some very large margins of victory outside Philadelphia. Pittsburgh presents an interesting case. Thanks to strong African American support in the city and the neighborhoods in the east, Obama won 45% of the vote in Allegheny County. However, outside Allegheny County, he did quite poorly. He only cracked the 33% threshold in Butler County, which is an exurban county (Obama tended to do well in exurban counties nationwide in the primaries). In Fayette County, he barely managed to win one of five primary voters. As we can see from the map above, Obama's generally performed quite poorly throughout the western third of the state.

This data seems to indicate an opportunity for John McCain and Sarah Palin. If primary voting Democrats broadly preferred Clinton over Obama, it might be that Independents and persuadable Democrats can be brought to the GOP. But can they really? Can McCain make any progress in these areas? The fact that both sides have been stumping in the state recently suggests that the answer might be yes. In light of this, let's examine the following chart - which tracks the "Republican tilt" of these areas since 1964.

Republican Tilt.jpg

As we can see, the rural areas have consistently supported the Republican candidate at levels greater than his national average. Allentown and the cities along the Turnpike Extension have been pretty consistent over the last 40 years, displaying a Democratic tilt between 1 and 10%. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is once again an interesting case. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pittsburgh is not home to "Reagan Democrats." The steel industry took a huge hit in the early 1980s, and the town responded by favoring Mondale by nearly 13 points. George W. Bush, however, did very well here, performing better than any Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972. That had a lot to do with the region's cultural conservatism.

So, there is potential for McCain. Republicans tend to do all right in these ares, so McCain might have an opportunity here to do well. If he hopes to win the state, he would have ultimately have to pull more votes in these three places combined than Bush did in 2004.

However, this strategy faces a major obstacle: Philadelphia. Barone notes that the southeast, according to the most recent Survey USA poll, seems primed to favor Barack Obama by a margin greater than what John Kerry pulled. He offers a very cogent theory for why:

My hypothesis is that that is because places like the Philly suburbs are places where the recent decline in household wealth has been most conspicuous. Housing prices mean a lot more to you when your house started off at $400,000 and declined to $290,000 than they did when you started off (as may be typical of Scranton or a blue-collar town in metro Pittsburgh) at $140,000 and declined to $110,000. Newspaper coverage of our current economic distress focuses on the very poor (like a recent Washington Post story on North Carolina, which focused on an ex-convict in a cheap motel in Charlotte), but the people who are getting hurt most visibly in their lifelong project of accumulating wealth are the more affluent. They're the ones whose house values have most visibly and spectacularly declined, and whose 401(k) accounts and stock portfolios have tanked in the last few months as well. Folks in Scranton or in the cheap motel in Charlotte didn't expect to live comfortably ever after off their increased house values, 401(k)'s, and Merrill Lynch accounts; a $700 monthly check from Social Security is about what they have long expected and that's not in danger (yet). Folks in the Philly suburbs did expect to live comfortably off such assets.

It seems to me that this hypothesis might be generalizable to McCain's weaknesses in Colorado, Virginia, and North Carolina - where wealthier suburbanites have taken a huge hit in the last month.

Barone notes another problem for McCain in Philly - as the above chart makes clear, the trend-line has been bad for the GOP. George H.W. Bush did quite well in metro Philly - but since then it has been downhill for the Republicans. George W. Bush lost the state twice in part because he twice lost 4 of the 5 counties in metro Philly. Additionally, as the primary data indicates, Obama did quite well here. He carried Philadelphia County thanks to strong support from African Americans. He also won Chester and Delaware counties, and he split Bucks County with Hillary Clinton. Clearly, the problems Obama had in the northeast and the southwest were not present in the southeast.

There might be an additional complication for McCain - the fast-growing counties surrounding metro Philly. Since 2000, the Census Bureau estimates that Berks, Lancaster, and York counties have grown anywhere between 5% and 10%. Most recent estimates indicate that more than 1.2 million people live in these places. Bush carried Berks County by about 6 points in 2004, and he dominated Kerry in Lancaster and York - winning both by near 2:1 margins. So, for McCain, victories in these places are already built into a statewide Republican loss. He must hold the line here. This could be problematic if Barone's hypothesis about the political implications of the financial crash is accurate.

So, all in all, Pennsylvania is a very tough challenge for McCain-Palin. Barone is skeptical that the GOP can win the state, and I share that skepticism.

That being said, I will be interested in examining the data after the election. I suspect the emphasis on Pennsylvania recently is due to the fact Obama is weak somewhere - either in the northeast, the southwest, or both. If that turns out to be the case on Election Day, Pennsylvania might exhibit a sharper urban-rural divide than it has in any recent cycle. As Barone notes - that would make for a very interesting electoral coalition for Obama, one based upon the wealthy and the poor in big cities like Philadelphia.

-Jay Cost

More on the Polls

On Friday, I noted that the differences among the national polls is large enough to suspect that something other than random variation is causing the disagreements.

I'd like to expand on this point by examining today's Pew poll, which pegs McCain's share of the vote at 38%, with a margin of error of 3.5%. That means that Pew predicts with 95% confidence that McCain's true share of the vote is somewhere between 34.5% and 41.5%.

While we don't know McCain's true share of the vote, we do have an estimate of it - the RCP average. Right now, it puts McCain at 43.6%. This figure is far outside Pew's 95% confidence range. So, if we use the RCP average as our estimate of McCain's true share of the vote, we would conclude that Pew is an outlier.

The question then becomes whether it is outlying due to random variation, or some non-random cause. We can never know for sure, but we can make a few points.

First, the level of disagreement between the Pew poll and the RCP average is great. Indeed, if we assume that the Pew poll has an accurate read on the electorate, the chance that McCain's true share of the vote is 43.6% is less than 0.5%. Given the number of polls that cycle in and out of the RCP average, we should expect at least a few outliers. However, it would be pretty rare to find one that disagrees with the RCP average by such a large amount.

Second, the previous Pew poll, which had McCain at 39% of the vote, was also an outlier when compared against the RCP average. So, Pew has twice in a row pegged McCain's number at significantly less than the RCP average. It is very unlikely to see this kind of result if random variation is the only cause.

Does this mean that Pew is wrong? No. We could only conclude that Pew is wrong if we know McCain's true share of the vote right now. We don't know that. Instead, what we can conclude is that the difference between Pew and the RCP average is likely produced by something other than random variation.

Pew is not the only poll behaving in this fashion. Today, the Gallup traditional model pegs McCain's number significantly higher than the RCP average. It has done this several times over the last three weeks - and every day since it began it has shown McCain doing better than the RCP average. It is unlikely that random variation would produce these effects. Today's Rasmussen poll shows McCain significantly higher than the RCP average, and it has consistently been higher than the RCP average for the last three weeks. IBD/TIPP frequently pegs Obama's number significantly lower than the RCP average, and it has shown him lower than the RCP average every day since it began. The GWU/Battleground poll has shown McCain consistently higher than the RCP average for 10 of the last 10 release dates, frequently at significant levels.

None of this is consistent with what we would expect from random statistical variation. These considerations reinforce the point I made on Friday. In all likelihood, something else is going on here. The pollsters have different "visions" of what the electorate is, and these visions are inducing such divergent results.

This is why I would urge caution when interpreting all this polling data. We're talking about disagreements among good pollsters. I take all of these firms seriously whenever they produce new numbers. They are disagreeing with one another in ways that can't be chalked up to statistical "noise." That gives me great pause.

-Jay Cost

A Note on the Polls

I've received several emails from people asking about the polls. The national polls do seem pretty variable, so I thought I would toss in my two cents on them.

First, we need a short primer on basic statistics. Real Clear Politics offers an unweighted average, or mean, of the polls. As long as there is more than one poll in the average, we can also calculate the standard deviation, which is one of the most important concepts in inferential statistics. The standard deviation simply tells us how much the polls are disagreeing with one another.

For instance, suppose we are testing the strength of Candidate A. We have 32 polls, which we can arrange graphically in what is called a histogram. Our horizontal axis shows the electoral strength of Candidate A. Our vertical axis shows how many polls we found with Candidate A pulling in that much of the vote. Let's say it looks like this:

Scenario 1.jpg

The average is 50%. The standard deviation is 1.6, which basically implies that the typical distance between a given poll and the average is 1.6. That's a pretty small number, and it squares with how concentrated the polls are around this average.

Now, suppose we have a distribution that looks like this.

Scenario 2.jpg

We get the same average, 50%. However, this time the observations are more dispersed around it. Here, the standard deviation is 3.0. That's higher, and we can see why. The individual polls vary more with one another. That's what the standard deviation shows us - how much the polls vary around the average.

A final point to get us ready. We might examine the spread between the two candidates - Obama is up 7 versus up 1 or what have you. This is certainly a valuable number to look at. Indeed, that's what we all care about! However, I am going to look at a candidate's share of the vote - not the spread. Ultimately, our analysis is going to rely upon each poll's reported margin of error. Those numbers do not refer to the spreads, but to each candidate's individual numbers. So, horse race polls actually have two margins of error - one for each candidate. Because the spread is the difference between them, it will be more variable than either candidate's individual numbers.

With this stuff in mind, let's focus on some hard numbers. As of this writing, Barack Obama's share of the vote in the RCP average is 50.3%. His standard deviation is 2.7. For McCain, whose average is 42.5%, the standard deviation is 2.3. For comparative purposes, I looked at the polls RCP was using from its 2004 averages. For roughly the same time in that cycle (10/17/04 to 10/24/04) Bush's standard deviation was 1.8; Kerry's was 1.7. This means that there is more disagreement among pollsters now than there was in 2004.

We can push this analysis further if we examine the distribution of each candidate's poll position. We'll first create a histogram of Obama's polling.

Obama.jpg

As we can see, most of the values cluster around the 49-54 range. However, there is a "tail" on the left-hand side. That's called a negative skew. That's a bit surprising. It's different from what we had in our stylized pictures for Candidate A.

Now, let's examine distribution of McCain's support.

McCain.jpg

There's no tail here, but the picture is still somewhat surprising. They are spread out fairly evenly across a broad range of values, with little clustering in the center.

Of course, a visual inspection can only take us so far. When we have only a few observations - and here we "only" have 15 - the true shape of the picture might not be clear. If we were to add another 5 or so polls, we might see something more like those stylized pictures presented above.

So, let's push the analysis a little bit further by looking at specific polls. We can test to see if the polls are separated from the average by a statistically significant amount. Again, since we're dealing with each candidate's individual poll positions - we'll test each candidate's number in an individual poll against the RCP average. To make sure we dot all our "i's" and cross all our "t's," we'll supplement the RCP average with a weighted average of the polls, which takes into account the number of observations when averaging the polls together.

Of the fifteen polls in the RCP average, four fall significantly outside the average for Obama and five do so for McCain. Meanwhile, three polls are right at the boundary of significance (one for Obama, two for McCain). The rules of statistics being what they are, we should expect a few polls here or there to fall outside the average by a statistically significant amount. But this is a lot. 40% of all our tests produced results around or outside the acceptable range.

So, we have made three observations: (a) relative to 2004, the standard deviation for Obama and McCain's polls are high, indicating more disagreement among pollsters at a similar point in this cycle; (b) the shape of the distribution of each candidate's poll position is not what we might expect; (c) multiple polls are separated from the RCP average by statistically significant differences.

Combined, these considerations suggest that this variation cannot be chalked up to typical statistical "noise." Instead, it is more likely that pollsters are disagreeing with each other in their sampling methodologies. In other words, different pollsters have different "visions" of what the electorate will look like on November 4th, and these visions are affecting their results.

Think of it this way. Suppose there is a bag of 130 million red and blue marbles that all the pollsters are sampling from. One pollster will pull a sample of 750 marbles, another a sample of 2,500, and so on. Oftentimes, they are going to pull different results from the bag. One pollster might pull 53% blue, another might pull 52%, and so on. However, as long as they are all pulling marbles from the same bag, the results will probably not differ too wildly. And after enough time, the distribution of those pulls should look something like those idealized pictures of Candidate A.

However, what if each pollster had a slightly different bag s/he was pulling from? In that situation, we should find more divergent results. That's basically what I'm suggesting here - that the bags the pollsters are pulling from are different. That's producing some of these larger-than-expected variations.

Now, I want to be clear: I am not making any claims about which pollster has the better sample of the electorate. I'm not singling anybody out for being right or wrong because frankly I do not know. I'm just pointing out that there seems to be disagreements among them that cannot be explained by random variation.

Importantly, there is one thing that the polls do not disagree on, the fact that Obama has a lead. All the polls show that. Also, we might begin to see convergence here soon. If pollsters have different methods for predicting what the electorate will look like, those methods might produce similar-looking "electorates" by the time we get to Election Day. At least for now, though, there is disagreement - not about who has the lead, but about how big that lead is.

-Jay Cost

The State of the Race

The current Real Clear Politics national average gives Barack Obama a 5.2-point lead over John McCain. This makes a comeback for McCain quite difficult, but not inconceivable.

The election of 2000 provides a good reminder of this fact. Like 2008, that was a year in which there was no incumbent on the ballot. Political observers were treated to some wild swings in the polling, right up to the very end. The following graph makes this clear by charting a daily average of nonpartisan polls up to November 6th. It also includes the final results from Election Day.

Bush v Gore.jpg

By this metric, Gore was down by 5.5 points on October 21st. Even as late as November 5th, he trailed by 4.7 points. However, Gore finished well. Though he was as low as 42% in late October, he pulled in an extra 6.5% of the vote in the last week to sprint ahead of Bush by Election Day. Meanwhile, Bush's final share of the vote was only a point or so higher than what he polled in the final week of the campaign.

We should not expect the 2008 election to evolve like the 2000 contest. Presidential elections are all unique, and each plays out in its own peculiar way. For starters, that DUI story was certainly no help to Bush. Another big difference between 2008 and 2000 is the Nader factor. Nader was polling about 4% of the vote prior to Election Day, and he ultimately won 2.7%. That's an indication that, at the last minute, some of the Nader voters switched to Gore, thus enhancing his rally. So, to win the popular vote, McCain would have to surge better than Gore did. That would be no small feat.

Instead of being a strict parallel, the election of 2000 offers two lessons. First, October can be a volatile month, as up to 30% of the electorate is making its final choice. Where you are on October 20th could be quite different than where you are on October 31st. Second, Obama must focus on "closing the deal." That is, he must keep his soft supporters on his side, and convince enough of the remaining undecideds to go for him. The above graph shows that Bush failed to do this eight years ago. What appeared to be a solid win for the Texas governor ended up as a kind of technical victory.

Obama had a very hard time closing the deal in the primaries. Fresh off his win in the Iowa caucus, he headed into the New Hampshire primary with an 8-point lead in the RCP average. Yet Hillary Clinton won by 3 points. Either all the polls were wrong, or there was a big shift to Clinton just before the primary. My bet is the latter.

Obama, of course, rebounded from his New Hampshire loss - and held his own on Super Tuesday. He then went on a fantastic run for the rest of February, winning the caucuses in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, and Hawaii. He crushed Clinton in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia primaries on February 12th. He followed that up with a big win in Wisconsin a week later. Clinton's back was up against the wall heading into the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4th. It seemed like it was over. Undecided Democrats would see Obama as the one bound to win, and they'd rally behind him. In a word, it seemed like Obama would finally pick up some momentum.

It didn't play out that way. Clinton held Texas and won a decisive victory in Ohio. Despite Obama's delegate lead, and word from pundits everywhere that the race was over, he never developed any momentum. Even after his surprisingly large win in North Carolina on May 6th, Clinton won decisive victories in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Puerto Rico. On June 3rd, when everybody knew it was over, South Dakota favored Clinton over Obama by 10 points.

In fact, during the three final months of the primaries, Hillary beat him 52-48. Obama never scored a knockout against her. Instead, he won the nomination by lining up the party establishment and securing oversized victories in the caucuses, for which the Clinton campaign was unprepared.

Obama's weak finish in the primaries serves as the subtext for these next two weeks. Republicans are wondering if voters will again have second thoughts about him now that he's the clear frontrunner. Meanwhile, the Obama-Biden campaign is clearly taking no chances. Here in Western Pennsylvania, as in most swing states, Obama is virtually omnipresent on television. That's the mark of a campaign that learned a tough lesson in the primaries: there will be no coasting to victory.

Many of the Obama advertisements running here are actually autobiographical, taking snippets from his convention biographical video and repackaging them in 30-second spots, with a distinct emphasis on his American roots. That's not what we should expect so late in the cycle - but Obama is no typical candidate. The point of such ads is to make voters feel comfortable with the idea of him as President. I think this ultimately kept him from landing that knockout blow against Hillary. Those late-breaking primary voters felt more at ease with Hillary instead of Obama. That's what Obama wants to avoid next month.

Obama's advertising edge might be moving numbers in individual states, but his national number has stayed pretty constant in the last few weeks. Here's a track of the RCP average from October 1st through today.

McCain v. Obama.jpg

As we can see, Obama's numbers have been been stable between 48.8% and 50.2% this month, with an average of 49.4%. McCain's numbers have been more variable, ranging between 42% and 44.3%. Obama jumped out to a 6-, 7-, even 8-point lead not because his support base was growing. Instead, McCain's was shrinking - though it appears to be coming back a bit.

Meanwhile, the undecided share of the electorate seems to have been pretty constant at about 7% of all voters. There are plenty of reasons to expect these people to decide late, regardless of how intense the electioneering becomes. So, even if Obama's ad blitz has not moved these people yet - it could eventually move them. And again, it might be moving undecideds in some states.

If Obama's job between now and November 4th is to make these remaining undecideds comfortable with the idea of him as President - McCain must make them feel uncomfortable, casting himself as a safe alternative. How will he do that? It won't be via Jeremiah Wright. McCain has ruled that out. [Update: Maybe not?] He might continue to push William Ayers or others from Obama's Chicago past, but I doubt they will be front-and-center. We're hearing the "s word" - socialist - from McCain surrogates these days, and that will probably continue to be a refrain his campaign sings.

My hunch is that McCain's closing argument will focus on Obama's relative inexperience. There are three reasons to think this. First, this attack seemed to work for Hillary in late February. When Obama was poised to win the nomination, she released that "3 AM" ad, which many took to be quite effective. Second, unlike Wright and Ayers, it is not in the least bit radioactive, so there is little risk of backlash. Third, it's Obama's principal weakness. By conventional metrics, Obama is to be counted as one of the least "credentialed" nominees we have had in a long time, ranking with Thomas Dewey and William Jennings Bryan.

Remember this web ad? McCain dropped it during Obama's convention, but then it disappeared from view. My guess is we'll see more stuff like this before November 4th - especially the last segment where Obama talks about whether he would run in 2008.

-Jay Cost

Notes on Last Night's Debate

Last night's debate was a great demonstration of how different the political styles of these two candidates are. I'd wager that one's opinion on who "won" depends on the style one prefers.

John McCain comes across as a direct man who is inclined to speak the thoughts that come into his head. He relies upon short, blunt sentences unadorned with adjectives and adverbs. This makes him seem like a man who lacks guile. This is a good quality for a politician to have, and that showed through last night.

But this style carries with it some problems. His answers to questions last night had a tendency to be unconnected from one another (as they have been generally in these debates). He's wont to toss in a reference to energy independence when the discussion is health care or housing or whatever. All in all, his responses tend not to hang together terribly well - thus diminishing their forcefulness.

Another problem for McCain is that he often references things that might go over people's heads. For instance, when talking about killing defense spending, he'll reference "DOD." That's a bit of an insider term, something that he's familiar with, but something that swing voters might not get. Similarly, he'll often talk about "reauthorization" and so on. He's been in the Senate for a long time, and he's picked up the language of its culture. This also diminishes his rhetorical thrust. Several times last night, notably during the abortion debate portion, McCain offered a retort to Obama, but he couched it in technical language, I was left thinking that it didn't work.

Barack Obama's style is quite different. He speaks in paragraph form. He gives lists and categories when answering his questions, and he's frequently inclined to place a specific subject in a broader context. More than anything, this has helped him ameliorate concerns that he's unprepared. This speaking style makes him seem like he knows what he is talking about.

However, his speaking style makes him seem professorial. I'd contrast him with Bill Clinton, who also relied on paragraphs, but who used them as a way to "talk." Obama doesn't talk so much as he "lectures." For sure, he's more "talkative" now than he was during the primaries - he had quite a number of good, foksy lines last night - but he still sounds like he's giving a college lecture.

He also sounds a little lawyerly. His paragraphs often contain "fine print" that needs to be considered. That means that, for as knowledgeable as he sounds, its difficult to identify his precise position. For instance, last night he spoke about how he would involve the federal government in local schools - but he introduced those comments by praising local control. It leaves one wondering exactly what his vision for public education is.

One thing that these two men seem to have in common: they don't like each other so much. This was a striking episode from last night:

Scheiffer: All right. Would you like to ask [Obama] a question?

McCain: No. I would like to mention that...

Obama gave as he good as he got on that front. Several times he chuckled at some point McCain was making. I noted this in particular during the back-and-forth about who's running the dirtier campaign. McCain closed one response by saying that his campaign is "about getting this economy back on track." Obama chuckled at that.

I think that neither man helped themselves with such behavior.

-Jay Cost

On the "Palin Effect"

A reader writes in with a question:

A few of my friends have said almost in the same words, "I was thinking of voting for McCain until he chose Palin. After that, I'm voting for Obama." Packer's article in the New Yorker on Ohio also quotes someone saying the same thing.

So I was wondering if you have any insight into the Palin Effect. Any polls out that are getting to this issue somehow?

This is a good question.

One thing we can say is that the electorate's reaction to Palin has been polarized. Rasmussen finds that 35% of voters have a very favorable view of Palin, compared to 33% with a very unfavorable view. For Biden, those numbers are 25% and 21%, respectively. LA Times/Bloomberg finds that Republicans overwhelmingly like her, Democrats overwhelmingly don't, and Independents are split evenly, 41-41. This ambivalence among Independents might be due to perceptions that she is not prepared to take on the responsibilities of the presidency. The Diageo/Hotline poll finds that by a 44-53 margin, voters don't think she'd be ready for that role.

LA Times/Bloomberg also finds the following:

Last month's poll showed that slightly more voters were more likely to vote for McCain because of Sarah Palin's presence on the ticket. This poll shows that the Palin rock star status has waned (except with the Republican's core base). More voters are less likely to vote for McCain because of her presence on the ticket. Independents have flipped their allegiance. In September 38% said they were more likely to vote for McCain because of Palin - now just 19% say that. Women were split last month, but now lean toward less likely, as do men.

The polls show movement consistent with what the reader hypothesizes, but we have to be careful. Media polls have a habit of oversimplifying public opinion - and the write-ups of the news outlets who commission them only exacerbate this tendency. Frankly, I don't think these "more likely, less likely, no difference" questions have much value. The reason is that it matters who you are likely to support to begin with. Suppose you're a solid Obama supporter, and you say Palin makes you less likely to vote for McCain. That isn't really accurate. You're likelihood of voting McCain was already 0%. You can't go any lower. So it goes for McCain supporters, too. That means that these results don't reflect voter sentiment on the precise question, but something slightly different.

So, if enhanced anxiety about the economy has pushed you from leaning McCain to undecided, or from undecided to leaning Obama, how will you answer this question about Palin? If you're feeling more negative about the McCain-Palin ticket these days, you might say "less likely" even if she is only an ancillary factor in your decision-making. If that's the case, and the analyst is not careful, he will draw your causal arrow in the wrong direction. It's not that your aversion to Palin makes you less likely to vote for McCain. It's that you're less likely to vote for McCain so you're more averse to Palin.

I'm not saying this is what's really going on. I think this is a reasonable alternative hypothesis to the reader's "Palin Effect" theory. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Some voters might be moving from McCain because of Palin. Other voters might be moving away from McCain because of the economy, and that's eroding Palin's numbers. There might be other explanations, too - so overall we have a tricky situation on our hands.

With that in mind, let's look at the LA Times/Bloomberg breakdown:

Palin Effect.gif

The LA Times was right to note that Palin's "less likely" number among Independents has increased by 13%, but they fail to note that the overall number of Independents who are unmoved either way has increased by 9%. Democrats also see her as less relevant to their vote choices, while she has become slightly more so to Republicans.

This might be a problem for the Palin Effect theory. If she's a major factor in McCain's drop-off, why is she becoming less salient? It seems to me that if she's pushing some voters away from McCain, she'd be more relevant to the thinking of voters generally, and we'd see a decrease in the number who say "No Difference."

Another issue - in most cycles, voters don't make a choice based on the veep selection. The veeps have a big, splashy rollout - but afterwards they become part of the backdrop. Should we really expect, with everything else that is happening this cycle, Palin's effect will be substantially different?

Unfortunately, media polling does not probe deep enough to give us final answers. So, I'll offer my guess about what is going on. I think there might be a Palin Effect among some Independent voters, consistent with what the emailer is finding among his friends. Some group of Independents might still be with McCain had he picked Pawlenty, but Palin has turned them off.

However, I'd wager this effect is pretty marginal. Above all, I think there is something bigger going on this cycle, influencing voters in ways that the personalities and events of the day don't. This is the alternative hypothesis I offered above. A rising tide lifts all boats, but a falling tide lowers them - and Palin's numbers have slid as the GOP ticket has run into bigger trouble. I'd note that LA Times/Bloomberg shows McCain has suffered a broad erosion in his support among Independents. In September, McCain led Independents 49-34. Today Obama leads 44-39. That's a 20-point swing, a sign that something more dramatic is happening in this race.

I'd note also that when we talk about a Palin Effect, we should remember that what matters is the net effect. Even if Palin has hurt McCain a bit among Independents, I think she is keeping morale up among Republicans. In the LA Times/Bloomberg poll, 49% of Republicans had a very positive view of McCain while 35% had a somewhat positive view of him. For Palin, 61% of Republicans had a very positive view compared to 23% with a somewhat positive view. This squares with the evidence we've seen from the McCain-Palin rallies. It also squares with the RNC's fundraising in the wake of the Palin pick. These are benefits to be counted against any Independent voters who have peeled away from McCain because of her.

Given the situation the GOP currently finds itself in, the fact that she rallies the base might help the party on Election Day. McCain's poll position has slipped, and most people now believe that Obama will win. If this belief persists through Election Day, Republicans might be less likely to come to the polls, thereby damaging down-ballot candidates. If Sarah Palin can give Republicans a reason to come out and vote, that might make her presence a net benefit even if she is driving away a few Independents from the GOP ticket.

-Jay Cost

To The Public, Obama Looking Like a President

I think this is McCain's key problem right now. Here's a sample of some recent poll data.

First, Obama's net favorability is through the roof. Rasmussen has him at +13, Hotline/Diageo at +14, but others like Fox and ABC News have it at something larger than +25.

Second, most of the public polls give a sense of how the country views the candidates, and these show Obama doing very well. An overview:

-Hotline/Diageo has shown McCain's advantage on "who's most prepared to lead" vary between 3 and 8 points this week. On a question so crucial to the central logic of the McCain candidacy, this is no advantage at all.

-ABC News/WaPo shows that Obama has a +14 advantage over McCain on who's the "stronger leader." Obama has a +3 advantage on who would better handle an "unexpected major crisis."

-Fox asks an interesting question. If you had to make the "toughest decision" in your life, who would you go to? A month ago, McCain had a 16-point advantage. Now, it's -1. Fox also shows Obama with a +7 advantage on who has "better judgment."

These numbers are horrible for McCain. All of them speak to core qualities we expect a President to possess - not to mention the central premises of the McCain candidacy. Strong leader, able to handle a major crisis, somebody you'd go to for the toughest decision in your life because you know he has good judgment. Right now, that man is Barack Obama - not John McCain. This is a clear indication to me that, as of today, the country is comfortable with the idea of Obama as President. If it remains comfortable with that idea come Election Day, he will win.

This is an extraordinary turnaround. I know there is a lot of disagreement over why this has occurred. My opinion is that something like this is what happens when a major economic event fundamentally favors one candidate over the other, which is exactly what we have seen. This is a banking crisis that started at the end of an unpopular Republican administration. It's not surprising that the public's opinion of the Democratic challenger has significantly improved. Through their actions, both candidates have probably reinforced the dynamic - but those actions were largely induced by that crisis. It's easy to look cool, calm, and collected when you have the wind at your back; it's much harder when it's blowing in your face.

McCain's job over the next three weeks is to change this perception. If he is to have any chance of victory in an anti-Republican year like this, he needs to be seen as the one "ready to lead" and Obama "unready." Generally speaking, there are three ways to do this. First, he can make himself look more presidential; second, he can make Obama look less so; third, he can employ a combination of the two.

The third way is ideal, and has been done in the past. Bill Clinton did it in 1992 and 1996; George W. Bush did it in 2004. However, despite its many attempts over the last few weeks, the McCain campaign has not hit upon a strategy that does this.

-Jay Cost

On Gallup's Two Likely Voter Models

There have been reams of paper dedicated to reporting on the Obama campaign's voter mobilization efforts. This is what the Washington Post wrote on Sunday:

In 2004, Democrats watched as any chance of defeating President Bush slipped away in a wave of Republican turnout that exceeded even the goal-beating numbers that their own side had produced.

Four years later, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign intends to avoid a repeat by building an organization modeled in part on what Karl Rove used to engineer Bush's victory: a heavy reliance on local volunteers to pitch to their own neighbors, micro-targeting techniques to identify persuadable independents and Republicans using consumer data, and a focus on exurban and rural areas.

But in scale and ambition, the Obama organization goes beyond even what Rove built. The campaign has used its record-breaking fundraising to open more than 700 offices in more than a dozen battleground states, pay several thousand organizers and manage tens of thousands more volunteers.

What effect will this massive effort have at the ballot box?

Don't ask Gallup. On Sunday the polling outfit began offering its likely voter (LV) model (in addition to its registered voter (RV) model). But this year, there's a twist. Gallup is offering two LV models.

Obama's current advantage is slightly less when estimating the preferences of likely voters, which Gallup will begin reporting on a regular basis between now and the election. Gallup is providing two likely voter estimates to take into account different turnout scenarios.

The first likely voter model is based on Gallup's traditional likely voter assumptions, which determine respondents' likelihood to vote based on how they answer questions about their current voting intention and past voting behavior. According to this model, Obama's advantage over McCain is 50% to 46% in Oct. 9-11 tracking data.

The second likely voter estimate is a variation on the traditional model, but is only based on respondents' current voting intention. This model would take into account increased voter registration this year and possibly higher turnout among groups that are traditionally less likely to vote, such as young adults and racial minorities (Gallup will continue to monitor and report on turnout indicators by subgroup between now and the election). According to this second likely voter model, Obama has a 51% to 45% lead over McCain.

So, I guess it's up to us to decide which one is best. This puts us in a tricky spot - because the relationship between extra get out the vote (GOTV) efforts and extra votes on Election Day might be complicated.

In a 2002 article in the Journal of Politics, Charles Bullock, Keith Gaddie and Anders Ferrington investigated "voter falloff" in runoff primaries for the House of Representatives. Their interest was in what factors influence turnout in the second round of voting (which happens in a multicandidate field where nobody wins a majority of the vote). Unsurprisingly, they found that campaign spending is related to voter mobilization: the more dollars a candidate spends between the primary and the runoff, the better turnout the candidate enjoys at the ballot box. However, there's a twist.

They wrote,

The impact is nonlinear. If we assume $100,000 spent between the primary and the runoff, the net impact on the change in voter turnout is just 1.6 points; at $250,000 spent, the impact is an increase of 23.8 points; at $500,000, the impact is a net increase of 30.0 points, all other influences being constant. In a voting system that requires voters to turn out more than once, more campaign spending provides continuous stimulation, and apparently encourages participation, up to a point. With runoff spending averaging less than $100,000, it does little to spur turnout in a number of contests. Spending substantially affects turnout in the 26 runoffs in which more than $150,000 was spent. Diminishing returns from spending begin at about $950,000, and further spending is linked to falling rates of participation. [Emphases Mine]

This means that the relationship between spending and turnout might be a bit more complicated than some pundits have made it out to be. Of course, Bullock et al. looked at congressional runoffs, which are very different from presidential elections. So, we can't draw any inferences about the presidential election from this analysis.

However, this should induce some caution this year. The relationship between Obama's GOTV expenditures and his additional voters might be nonlinear, similar to what Bullock et al. find. That would be a situation in which some law of diminishing marginal returns conditions the relationship.

This makes some sense. If voting is positively related to social connectedness, money would have a decreasing marginal effect. After all, your first "$100k" will bring in people with greater social connections. They're probably paying more attention to political messages and maybe feel a greater social responsibility to vote. You'll get a good response from your GOTV efforts. But after those people come in, your next "$100k" will have to work on pulling people with fewer connections into the system. These people might be paying less attention, which means it will be more expensive to communicate with them, and they might feel a diminished sense of responsibility, which means that it might take more persuasion to get them to actually vote. It would therefore not be surprising that your second "$100k" pulls in fewer voters than your first. How many fewer depends on the precise nature of the law of diminishing marginal returns that governs the process.

I'm not saying that this relationship holds. I'm saying it might. If it does, you can't just look at how much money you're spending, you also have to know a thing or two about this law of diminishing marginal returns. This makes it difficult to estimate the effect of Obama's enhanced GOTV efforts. After all, those efforts are enhanced relative to Kerry's unprecedented efforts. So, that law of diminishing marginal returns, if it exists in this case, might be tamping down on the effect these extra resources have.

The operative word is "might." Contrary to what anybody might tell you, political outsiders can't answer this question - at least not right now. For all the discussion of Obama's GOTV efforts, it's all been about his campaign's inputs - the dollars spent, the organization created, the number of contacts made, and so on. There's no talk of what this is producing in terms of output. How could there be at this point? These contacted voters have not voted yet, so how can we know how efficacious this unprecedented effort will be?

This is where I find myself frustrated by Gallup's approach.

It is polling some 6,000 people per week. If the Obama campaign's unprecedented efforts were producing so many new voters that Gallup's old LV model will be rendered inoperable, we should begin to see some evidence of that in its data. After all, this is October. This would be the point at which Team Obama is really beginning to push these prospective voters into becoming actual voters. If its efforts ultimately prove successful - we should see begin to see that now.

In other words, the correct questions and a proper analysis, combined with a 6,000-person data set, should give us some insight into what kind of output we should expect from all this mobilization input. For instance, what about all those voters who are being excluded by the first LV screen but included by the second? Are they being contacted by the Obama campaign? If so, how frequently? In what way? What effect has this had on them? How has this influenced their thinking relative to voters who are not being contacted? With 6,000 respondents and a good empirical model, it should be possible to provide preliminary answers to these questions. That would give us some sense of which LV model is better.

Instead, Gallup has decided not to arbitrate between its models, leaving the question up to us. But I don't think we can answer it. We don't have the data to make a precise determination, and the relationship between mobilization efforts and new votes is too complicated to spitball.

-Jay Cost

Why No Traction for McCain?

One week ago, the House of Representatives passed the financial bailout bill. At the end of that day, the RCP average stood at: Obama 49.2%, to McCain 43.4%. As of this writing today, the RCP average is essentially unchanged: Obama 49.2%, to McCain 42.9%.

Why has the Republican gotten no traction in the last week? After all, the congressional spectacle was supposed to be damaging his prospects because (as the story went) Obama looked so cool and McCain too hot. Now that it's over, shouldn't his numbers be on the rise?

No. That was never McCain's problem. McCain's problem a week ago is the same as his problem today, enhanced anxiety about the economy. The deal failed to sooth any nerves, so McCain is still in a weakened position.

We can see this with crystal clarity by looking at what average voters are looking at. Here are the above-the-fold portions of my hometown newspaper for the last five days.

PG.jpg

Jennifer Rubin had a very thoughtful take on what McCain should do to get himself out of his current polling slump. I'd suggest, however, that so long as headlines like these persist, there is nothing he can do. This race will become close again only if these headlines disappear.

For such a big and diverse country, the essence of America can be summarized fairly simply: it's all about development. Bigger and better, that might as well be our motto. Most of us are probably not just worried about the economy, we're also a little pissed off about it. This contraction seems vaguely un-American, doesn't it? We don't contract, we grow!

That is what is harming McCain right now.

So long as the newspapers and the televisions are full of stories about contraction, which as you can see dominated every day this week here in Pittsburgh, John McCain's poll position will be weak. That's all there is to it. Conservatives can criticize McCain for not doing this, that or the other; liberals can praise Obama for doing this, that, or the other. But the fact remains that, as of today, the state of the race is pretty simple: this was an even-steven contest until the markets started to sputter and people started really worrying about the economy. Now Obama's up 6 points.

This is infuriating conservatives. If you peruse the conservative blogs or listen to talk radio - you can almost feel their anger. There's plenty of blame to go around, they argue. And of course they're right - both parties are to blame - but it doesn't matter.

The average voter doesn't understand the intricacies of economic policy. Heck, when you think about it, nobody really understands the economy. So, voters often rely on simple yet sensible metrics to make political decisions about the economy. One of them has been more or less operative since the election of 1840: if the economy tanks during a Republican administration, vote Democrat. If it tanks during a Democratic administration, vote Republican. Applying this rule to 2008, we get the following. McCain, because he is of the incumbent party, gets the political harm. Obama, because he is of the out party, gets the political benefit. That's all there is to it.

This rule might not be just, but remember justice is a matter of law. This is a matter of politics, a space where the law does not exist. This rule might not make for the best choice every time, but in the long run it does have some beneficial effects. Above all, it makes the party in charge work hard for growth, which is what the country really wants.

Does that mean this race is over? No. If the bad news dissipates and some good news manages to creep back into the papers and onto the television, McCain's position should improve at least a bit. But that means that his fortunes are out of his control (the same goes for Obama). A retooled message might help him at the margin, but to change things he's first going to need some better headlines.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on the Second Debate

In Is Anyone Responsible?, Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar tackles the implications of media "framing:"

At the most general level, the concept of framing refers to subtle alterations in the statement or presentation of judgment and choice problems, and the term "framing effects" refers to changes in decision outcomes resulting from these alterations.

Most television news is framed in an "episodic" manner:

The episodic news frame takes the form of a case study or event-oriented report and depicts public issues in terms of concrete instances...For example, television news coverage of mass-protest movements generally focuses more closely on specific acts of protest than on the issues that gave rise to the protests...The identical pattern is observed in television news coverage of labor-management disputes, where scenes of picketing workers received more airtime than discussions of the economic and political grievances at stake.

Episodic framing is how the mainstream media tends to frame presidential campaigns. Here is the opening paragraph of MSNBC's First Read:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Part three of the four-part debate series is now over, and the one big conclusion is that nothing changed. And nothing changing isn't a good result for McCain. In need of a trajectory-changer (we're trying not to use the word "game"), McCain didn't get it. This now puts pressure on him to make the most of the final debate next week. However, McCain might have lost before the debate ever started -- at 4:00 pm ET Tuesday, when the final curtain fell on another horrible day on Wall Street. And now the Fed has just cut a key interest rate by half a point to 1.5%.

This is an episodic frame. McCain did not get a debate moment yesterday, so now he has to wait until his next opportunity to get one.

I think that this is the wrong way to understand the American electoral process. Think about what this assumes of the average voter. Suppose there was such a "moment" last night - like Barack Obama peeked at his watch, causing the talking heads to chatter about how out-of-touch he is with the concerns of regular people.

At this point, there are tens of millions of people who are, to some degree, undecided. They are right now making up their minds. Do we really believe that they would be so shallow as to make a decision on something as trivial as that? I don't. I know an undecided voter or two. They aren't shallow. They understand they have a responsibility to make a good decision - not based on the "gotcha" moments or other trivialities that capture the imagination of media types.

If we leave the episodic frame behind, how should we look at last night's debate? As a contest that one candidate wins and the other loses? I don't think so. I look at these debates as an opportunity for both candidates to provide persuadable voters with information that they might not yet have heard. So, of course this debate bored the pundits and junkies to tears: they've heard all this stuff already. But people in the middle might not have. The good folks over at Politico might consider it the worst debate ever, but people in the middle might have thought things like, "McCain has an interesting idea on subprime mortgages," or "I didn't know Obama's mom died from cancer. Health care reform must be very important to him."

And it's not that those folks made up their minds in that instant. [In all likelihood, plenty of people had positive thoughts about both candidates through the course of the contest.] Rather, those thoughts are data points that, along with other data points collected over the course of the month, help them make a decision at some point prior to Election Day. So, the debate is not best understood as a moment, but part of a process.

This is why my analysis of the first debate focused on who controlled the agenda. For what it was worth, I thought McCain did, and I received emails from Obama supporters who - after quoting this, that, and the other poll - told me I was nuts. Clearly, they said, Obama "won" and McCain "lost." But I dispute the electoral relevance of those terms. I think people's vote choices hinge on more substantive concerns, and they are formed not in a single moment but over time. So, I don't think it much matters who wins and who loses. I do think it mattered that the first debate focused on subjects where McCain has the "better" argument, like spending.

Last night's debate was different. McCain did not control its agenda. That was good for Obama, who was able to talk more about subjects where he has the "better" argument, like health care. The first debate passed without a single discussion about health care, but many about spending. Last night, there was more balance. The Obama campaign should be pleased about that.

What does this mean for last night? It doesn't mean McCain lost an opportunity to "change the trajectory of the race" or whatever episodic frame you heard your local journalist pushing. Here's the reality: barring some unprecedented meltdown from Barack Obama, John McCain was never going to have such a moment. That's not how the American public makes up its mind. Last night was not an episode, like some boxing match to be scored. It was one part of a bigger process, one that happens in October every four years as the broad middle of this country makes up its mind.

-Jay Cost

Follow Up

I wanted to post a follow up to today's column. Ross Douthat over at the Atlantic was kind enough to mention it today. He writes:

Jay Cost makes the strongest possible case for campaigning on Ayers, Wright et. al. in the waning weeks of the election. He thinks that an issues-based campaign, pegged to McCain's bipartisan brand, made sense before the bottom dropped out of the economy; now, though, it's character or nothing. He notes that the sharpest, steepest drop in Obama's favorable numbers all year came during the initial wave of Wright-related coverage, and argues that this is the only avenue of attack that has a chance of shifting the race's dynamics...

I do think an "issues-based campaign, pegged to McCain's bipartisan brand" is probably not going to work for the McCain campaign anymore - but that does not mean I think "it's character or nothing." I think McCain needs to try to redefine Barack Obama. Does that mean running on "character"? Possibly, yes - though I don't know if that's the best word choice. Redefining Obama could mean many things, including issues. Taxes, spending, national security, and so on - that might all be part of it.

However, to try to engage Obama in a straightforward policy discussion on the financial crisis does not seem like a winning strategy anymore. Average voters are probably not going to be able to determine from the back-and-forth who is correct. I certainly don't have the capacity to do that. So, I'd expect voters to go against the party historically identified with banking.

I didn't make any suggestions about the particular redefinition McCain should offer. I mentioned the tactical advantage he has on the subject of William Ayers in light of the fact that his campaign has already begun to mention him. Similarly, I brought in the polling data on Wright because he is being mentioned again. I did not say that Wright is the "only" way to go. I suggested that McCain might go there if other lines of attack do not work.

-Jay Cost

The McCain Campaign and the Financial Crisis

If Niccolò Machiavelli were to envision an economic crisis that would cripple the Republicans prior to Election Day, he couldn't do much better than one precipitated by the banking industry.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 as one consequence of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That measure divided the Whig Party into sectional factions and so destroyed it for good. The GOP was formed mostly from the remnants of the northern Whigs - and, unsurprisingly, the party picked up many Whig principles, which it has retained even after 150 years. The Whig Party stood for expanding American industry (hence its support of protective tariffs, burdensome to American business in 2008 but quite helpful in 1854), individual enterprise, the social utility of wage labor, the "man on the make," and infrastructure improvements.

Above all, the Whigs had a pro-banking reputation. The Whig Party formed partially in response to the actions of President Jackson against the Bank of the United States. Believe it or not, banking was a big issue in the 1830s - and the Whigs were for a strong, central bank. The Republican Party, having inherited much of the pro-business sentiment of the Whig Party, has been pro-banking in spirit for 150 years. Your average voter might not know the historical reasons for why the GOP is a pro-banking party, but s/he understands that it is.

That could be hurting the GOP as much as anything right now. If this were an economic crisis precipitated by a massive labor union strike - akin to what Harry Truman had to put up with after World War II - I'd wager the horse race numbers would be reversed right now. After all, the Democratic Party is identified with labor. But this is a crisis precipitated by the banks. Combine that with the fact that George W. Bush is at the helm, and it's unsurprising that the public has assigned the blame to the GOP.

This has put John McCain in a terrible spot. McCain's key electoral strength (at least relative to GOP also-rans like Mitt Romney) is that he is not an orthodox Republican. His relationship to the GOP is a bit like Diet Pepsi's relationship to Pepsi. That's why he had such stiff competition for the GOP nomination - lots and lots of people in this country are still big fans of the GOP (we call them Republicans), and they weren't tickled with the idea of a Diet Republican winning the nomination. But in the broad middle of the country, there is disaffection with George W. Bush and, by extension, the Republican Party. McCain's maverick label was his best hope for overcoming those sour feelings.

This banking crisis does not diminish McCain's maverick bona fides, but it makes them less relevant. Already uncomfortable with the GOP, the current economic predicament has probably made the public more so. Conservatives have thought for a while that McCain should hit back against the Democrats for their previous stands on Fannie and Freddie. However, McCain might be smart to drop that subject altogether. A Republican who runs against the banks might as well pee into the wind.

So where does McCain go from here? Mike Murphy has this advice:

Palin should drop the braying attacks on Obama's aging hippie bomber pals and start connecting to her cherished hockey moms on the one issue they = (sic) are actually worried about; a quickly slowing economy. Chuck the hacky and ineffective negative ads and switch to man on the street spots with real people voicing their real doubts about Obama; too weak to stand up to Washington's mighty special interest cartel or the newly empowered Democratic bosses of the Congress and Senate, too liberal to know how to fix the economy, too inexperienced to handle a dangerous world. On Tuesday, McCain should look into the camera and connect to the 80 million scared and worried Americans who will be watching him.

McCain is losing. To regain a chance to win, McCain must run as who he truly is; pragmatic, tough, bi-partisan and ready to break some special interest china to get the right things done in Washington. Fix the message, and you will fix the states.

Prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I would have agreed with this wholeheartedly. Today, I think this is nothing more than a way for McCain to lose. Lose with grace and dignity, lose in a way that inspires the good folks over at Swampland, but lose nonetheless.

Average voters do not have anything approaching perfect information. They are probably not keenly aware of how McCain is different from the average Republican. I think they have a sense that he is - and in a vaguely anti-GOP year, that might be enough. However, this banking crisis means we are no longer in a vaguely anti-GOP year. We're in a year when one of the groups the Republicans are thought to stick up for gets the blame for screwing up the economy. That changes things. To return to the soda metaphor - it isn't enough to be Diet Pepsi when the country really wants a Coke.

So, don't expect Mike Murphy to be singing the praises of the McCain-Palin team anytime soon. It is probably not going to follow his advice. Or perhaps better put, it's not going to follow his emphases. "Pagmatic, tough, bi-partisan and ready to break some special interest china to get the right things done in Washington..." That will still be a theme on the Republican side, but don't expect it to be the dominant theme. McCain will keep singing this tune, but most of his surrogates are going to go on the attack.

Relative to past presidential nominees - Barack Obama has little relevant experience. His résumé is comparable to past "phenom" candidates Thomas Dewey and William Jennings Bryan. As a political matter, this means two things for Obama. First, as everybody knows, it is a direct weapon to use against him, which the McCain campaign has been doing for some time with its "Ready to Lead?" attacks.

Second, it means the definition of "Barack Obama" is more open to interpretation than other past nominees. The Obama campaign has used this vagueness to great effect. Simply put, because Obama has a slender record, he can be many things to many people. He can be the prophet of a new age to the chi tea crowd in Hyde Park, and a hardy Jacksonian fighter to the black coffee crowd in Youngstown. Politicians have been doing this dance routine for centuries. The fact that Obama's story is hardly conditioned by a paper trail enables him to do this with more facility than most contemporary politicians.

But this does not mean that Obama "is" only who he says he is. His thin record is potentially a double-edged sword because anybody can try to define him. With the mentioning of William Ayers, the GOP has just now begun the process of offering its alternative definition of the junior senator from Illinois. It waited until October because, as I noted last week, anywhere between 20% and 30% of the electorate is now making up its mind. This is the time to begin this process.

What McCain and the Republicans will try to do is the opposite of what Obama and the Democrats are trying. The Democrats want to fold McCain into the generic Republican because they know that a generic Republican would be hard-pressed to do better than 45% this year. The Republicans, knowing that the country is in a mood to elect a generic Democrat, will speak specifically about Obama, trying to make him seem quite worse.

Can they succeed at this? Perhaps. Again, Obama is less "credentialed" than most major party nominees in a hundred years. Public opinion of him is based largely upon political claims about him, as opposed to an immutable record of accomplishment or even a long history on the national scene. That means that the perception of who Obama is might be alterable.

Obama certainly did himself no favors by associating with people like William Ayers. This gives the Republicans a tactical advantage. They don't need to link Obama to Ayers; rather, they need to give specifity to the vague term "associate."

And if focusing on William Ayers doesn't work, expect to see a return of Jeremiah Wright, the most provocative of all Obama's past "associations." It was not noted at the time, but Wright might have done real if temporary damage to Obama's reputation back in March. The following is a track of Obama's weekly net favorable rating, according to Rasmussen.

Obama's Net Favorability.jpg

Note the dip that his numbers took after March 13th, the day ABC News reported on Wright's "God Damn America" sermon. It lingered at or below zero until March 28th, a full 10 days after Obama gave his "More Perfect Union" speech in Philadelphia. His numbers rebounded a bit in April, only to fall back down in May. Ultimately, it was not Obama's speech on Wright that resurrected his numbers, but his victory over Hillary Clinton on June 3rd. This indicates that, as a political matter, the Wright controversy might not be finished. Even if media types were satisfied with Obama's speech in Philadelphia - there is evidence that the mass public was not.

Ultimately, the GOP might end up using it even if McCain "prefers" it isn't used. The state and national party committees can go forward without his blessing. This is one side effect of the campaign finance "reform" that politicians from both parties have supported (and McCain has championed). Lines of accountability are quite blurry in the current regime. In many respects, the national and state committees are independent of candidate committees. Even though McCain gave a boatload of cash to these outlets immediately prior to his convention, and even though he is allowed to coordinate with them to some degree, he does not have control over the way many of these resources are used.

This means that a candidate can have the best of both worlds: he can enjoy the effectiveness of a negative attack while condemning it at the same time. The end result is therefore similar to what we saw in the early age of American electoral politics when the presidential nominees didn't take an active part in politicking, but their affiliates nevertheless went for the jugular.

I'd bet every dollar I have that this is going to offend the sensibilities of Democrats nationwide. But I'd also bet every dollar that, if the shoe were on the other foot, the Democrats would not hesitate to do likewise. One party's vicious smear is the other's vital truth. That's just the way it is.

I'm again reminded of Old Hickory. During the 1828 campaign, his surrogates accused John Quincy Adams of acting as a pimp for the Czar of Russia. Adams's supporters accused Jackson of murdering his own soldiers during the Creek War. Politicos don't level attacks like that anymore, but that's because such attacks wouldn't work anymore. However, we should always expect them to do what they think will work - the denunciations of their political opponents notwithstanding.

-Jay Cost

Nebraska and Maine?

I noted with interest stories today discussing McCain and Obama opening up campaign offices in some far-flung places: McCain in Bangor, Maine and Obama in Omaha, Nebraska. Maine and Nebraska do not have reputations as swing states, so what the heck are these guys up to?

Part of it is to head off the possibility of something like this occuring:

269-269.jpg

What you see here is a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. So also is this:

269-269 B.jpg

What happens when there is such a tie? We go to Amendment 12, which states:

The person having the greatest Number of [Electoral College] votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.

That's right, the House of Representatives - which acquitted itself so beautifully over the last week! - gets to make the choice, but with a twist. Each state gets one vote. That makes things a little dicey, for both campaigns.

For McCain, the problem is obvious: the Democrats control the Congress. Not only that, but they currently control 27 of the 50 state caucuses. The GOP controls 21 and 2 are split.

But Obama has a problem here, too. In this scenario, McCain will have won more states, which means that to win, Obama will have to convince some Democrats to vote against their states. A few unfortunate souls would probably have to vote against their own districts. In 2004 George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts to Kerry's 180. A 269-269 tie like this implies that McCain will probably have won more districts than Obama, which would complicate matters for the Democrat.

Why is it that Maine and Nebraska are relevant to this scenario? Most states allocate electors on a winner-take-all basis. Maine and Nebraska do, too - but they also dole out electors depending upon who won which congressional districts. If McCain were to win Maine's second district, he'd get an elector. If Obama were to win Nebraska's third (Correction: second), he'd get an elector. That could make the difference.

That would be especially helpful because here's how the Vice-President is selected.

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice.

Again, the same tension would exist. Biden would have more Democrats. Palin would have more states.

Note that the House picks the President, the Senate picks the Veep. That means it's possible to see a split in the executive branch - one party wins the top job, another wins the second job!

So, a spare elector from Maine or Nebraska could be quite useful.

-Jay Cost