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By Jay Cost

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Maybe She Doesn't Want To Be President

According to the Census Bureau, there were about 160 million people in the United States who were at least 35 years old last year. My rough count of declared presidential candidates in 2008 sits between 150 and 200. Factoring out the foreign born, and dividing the latter by the former, we can say that about 99.9999% of those constitutionally eligible for the presidency did not seek the job. Additionally, 95% of all sitting senators, 98% of all sitting governors, and 99% of all sitting representatives did not seek the presidency last year. I didn't calculate the numbers on former senators, governors, and representatives - but I am sure they would be even larger. From this, we can reasonably infer that most people don't want to be president. It's the life ambition for some - but not for most of us.

I mention this because in all the analyses of Sarah Palin's decision to resign from the governorship of Alaska - it's often been overlooked that maybe she is one of these people.

The classic treatise on political ambition was written by Joseph Schlesinger more than 40 years ago. In Ambition and Politics, he argues cogently that there is a stable "opportunity structure" to electoral politics that governs the ambitions of office-seekers. Two implications of this concept are relevant here.

First, there is a hierarchy of political jobs in this country such that serious candidates for a given office tend to hold one of several lower-order positions. As Schlesinger writes, "American political careers do not proceed chaotically. There are patterns of movement from office to office." When it comes to the presidency, credible contenders typically come from the vice-presidency, the Senate, governors' mansions, battlefields, and so on. In light of this, Palin's resignation strongly suggests that she has no intention of running in 2012. It is hypothetically possible, I suppose, that somebody could resign a governorship after only 32 months of service yet still win the presidency without having held any other immediately qualifying position. But then again, it is hypothetically possible that the Detroit Lions will have a winning season this year. I wouldn't hold my breath for either.

Second, politicians do not advance up the ladder via some overarching strategy. Though of course many have a general desire to move upwards, they all must take opportunities as they present themselves. Assessments of risk and reward must govern their choices. This makes sense: one of the worst things that can happen to professional politicians is electoral defeat; if they don't win, they have to find another line of work! Accordingly, they need to pick their battles, which basically prohibits them from developing some grand scheme. So, for instance, I'd guess that in 2004 Barack Obama did not have designs on a presidential run in 2008. He surely wanted to be president - but he probably planned to wait until an opening presented itself, which happened to come pretty quickly for him. As regards Sarah Palin, this suggests that while she might like to run for the presidency in 2016 or 2020 - those dates are so far off that nothing she did on Friday counts as appreciable movement in that direction. Anyway, the previous point implies that she'd have to run for another office other than president between now and then - and that would have to be her principal focus.

Thus, I'd suggest that perhaps Governor Palin has no designs on the presidency. Her resignation on Friday is certainly consistent with this thesis. Perhaps she has a mind for 2016 or 2020, but that is so far away that there is little planning for it now.

I do not think this theory is all that implausible. My guess is that Palin had not seriously considered a run for the top job when McCain came calling last August. After all, the governorship of Alaska is a lousy perch from which to start a run for the White House. In fact, of the 150 governorships and Senate seats - I'd say that being governor of Alaska is the worst place to begin. It's a thinly populated state - raising inevitable questions about whether the job is sufficient preparation. Plus, it's terribly far away. The distance from Wasilla, Alaska to Ames, Iowa is 3,354 miles, suggesting that the logistics of a candidacy would be extremely burdensome.

It's important to remember that it was John McCain who invited her to the national stage. He plucked her out of obscurity because he thought Joe Lieberman was a bridge too far and Tim Pawlenty didn't have enough pizzazz. She was there by his request. Since her introduction to the nation - it hasn't gone all that well for her. Her performance generated mixed reviews. That's a bad position from which to start your own run for the White House. You don't want to have half the country disapproving of you when you begin. Worse, she and her family have become fodder for wild speculation from irresponsible bloggers, salacious stories from celebrity magazines, groundless ethics complaints from political opponents, lousy jokes from late-night comedians who should have retired a decade ago, and criticisms from former McCain flacks looking to deflect blame for the haphazard, incoherent campaign they ran. You would have to really want to be president to press forward in the face of the headwind she has faced.

It's hard to blame her for doing what she did on Friday, although many critics still managed. If I were in her shoes, having been asked by my party's nominee to accept the vice-presidential nomination, then having been put through the wringer the way she and her family have, I wouldn't want to run for the presidency. I wouldn't want to run for reelection as governor. And I too would be inclined to resign altogether. One difference between her and me: I would not have been as gracious as she was last Friday.

-Jay Cost

It's better to give than to receive!

Obama Taxes.jpg

-Jay Cost

Public Financing Is Dead

In a recent interview with the Washington Times, John McCain made the following point:

Sen. John McCain, an architect of sweeping campaign-finance reform who got walloped by a presidential candidate armed with more than $750 million, predicts that no one will ever again accept federal matching funds to run for the nation's highest office.

"No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that's dead. That is over. The last candidate for president of the United States from a major party that will take public financing was me," the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

The subtext of McCain's comment is a criticism of the Obama campaign. Much of this is valid, as the President explicitly promised to negotiate a deal with Senator McCain on public financing, but never did. However, the death of public financing cannot be pinned solely, or even mostly, on President Obama. It was a long time coming. In fact, I'd wager that some of the other '08 Republican contenders would have refused public financing if they had won the GOP nomination.

Ultimately, the big trouble with public financing is that it is not keeping up with the realities of electoral politics. There are two specific problems.

The first problem is timing. Senator McCain does not mention it (at least in the clip provided by the Washington Times), but one half of public financing has been finished for eight years. Presidential candidates are entitled to public financing in the primaries in the form of "matching funds." However, there is a catch. The government matches a portion of the money you receive from individual donors, but it also places a spending cap on you for the primary seasion, which does not technically end until the conventions.

This greatly damaged Bob Dole in 1996. Dole was stuck in a tough primary battle against Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander - and to win, he had to spend through most of his primary funds. This left him running on a bare-bones budget for months. Meanwhile, President Clinton was flush with cash, thanks to the fact that he was unopposed in his primary. The DNC, labor groups, and the Clinton campaign spent the spring and summer blasting Dole, who was unable to offer a response.

The primary financing system fails to account for the fact that the general election campaign now begins well before the conventions. After Dole was shellacked because of the system's antiquated notion of the general campaign, it was only a matter of time until the serious contenders balked at primary funds. George W. Bush refused them in 2000 and 2004 - as did John Kerry.

The second problem is quantity. John McCain - who also declined financing for the primaries - received $84 million in public money at the beginning of September. This is a paltry sum compared to how much a presidential candidate can potentially raise. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which tracks fundraising by the national party committees back to 1988.

Fundraising by National Party Committees.jpg

What is really amazing about this chart is that eliminationg soft money in 2004 did not reduce party fundraising. It slowed down its rate of growth, for sure, but in 2004 both parties raised more than they did in the last presidential cycle where soft money was allowed (2000).

You can chalk this growth up to increased party capacity to raise cash. The parties have become much more professional over the last twenty years, and thus more able to raise dollars. They also have access to new communications technology like the Internet. Another factor is likely the polarization of the electorate, especially among political elites who have the money to donate to politics. Now more than any time since the Great Depression, there are clear ideological differences between the parties. This distinctiveness gives people a greater stake in the outcome of the election - and possibly an enhanced incentive to contribute to the cause.

I'd also note that this chart only captures a fraction of the total federal dollars raised. Factor in the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by candidates for the House and Senate - which have also been on the rise over the years - and we can appreciate just how many potential dollars are out there. Above all, consider that Obama and Senator Clinton raised a combined $880 million during the 2008 campaign, and yet that did not stop the Democratic Party from smashing its previous fundraising records. Bottom line: the parties have found many new sources of money over the years, and the evidence implies that there are sources yet to be found.

So, why would a presidential candidate accept $85 million when s/he instead has the opportunity to raise hundreds of millions? Only a guy like John McCain - who had a hand in creating the current finance regime and who was honor bound to participate - was so obliged.

Ultimately, these two problems point to the same malady: the public financing system is outdated. It has not kept up with the evolving dynamics of the electoral campaign. The basics of public financing were created during a different era of presidential campaigning (via the 1974 amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act). The electoral campaign has changed drastically since then, but the financing system remains essentially the same. Its inability to fit the times has been evident for the last fifteen years or so - thus, it was only a matter of time before it would finally be discarded.

Until Congress updates the basic structure of public financing and/or the system is made mandatory, presidential candidates will skip it. It is so antiquated that it no longer serves their needs. A candidate who follows it will surely be made worse off if his opponent does not.

-Jay Cost

New Progressive America? A Response to Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira has published a new report at the Center for American Progress (CAP), entitled "New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority."

Here is the gist of Teixeira's argument:

Obama's 53 percent of the popular vote is the largest share...received by any presidential candidate...[since] George H.W. Bush...So, separated by 20 years, we have two elections that are practically mirror images of one another...

How did conservatives do so well in one election but progressives so well in the other? The answer: In those intervening 20 years, a new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.

Let me say at the outset that I will not argue that Teixeira's thesis is wrong. Instead, my position is that it is underdetermined: the facts support alternative conclusions not consistent with his assertion.

Generally, I approach arguments like Teixeria's with a high burden of proof. Electoral history over the last forty years indicates a norm of divided government in which both parties share control. Furthermore, for the years when there was unified party government - the majority party lost power relatively quickly in a decisive, broad-based defeat.

Thus, even well constructed arguments about enduring majorities are going to have a tough time convincing me. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. I count three, significant difficulties.

First. Teixeira makes use of long-term estimates of population change to argue for a "new demography" that will "reshape our country in a fundamentally progressive direction." He cites projections in growth among Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans so that by 2050, "the country will be 54 percent minority." It is outside my technical expertise to dispute those estimates - though I am generally skeptical of predictions about anything that is such a long way off.

I would dispute the political implications of these demographic projections. Teixiera's argument about future political demography assumes a static quality to American politics that is ahistorical.

For instance, consider that while John McCain lost the nationwide popular vote by seven points, he won the white Catholic vote by five points. From a historical perspective, this is remarkable. John Kennedy won 81% of non-Hispanic white Catholics, Lyndon Johnson 79%, and Hubert Humphrey (who lost in a three-way race) still won 55%. Forty years ago, any liberal analyst would have concluded that the white Catholic vote belongs to the Democrats. Yet today, we see the GOP holding white Catholics amidst a popular vote wipe out.

Similarly, who would have ever thought that the "white working class" - the backbone of the New Deal coalition for decades - would support the Republicans by 18-points as the nation supported the Democrats by 7? That is the most dramatic proof that voting coalitions are not static - and that we cannot extrapolate future alignments from current ones.

Electoral politics is not akin to Newtonian physics, where you derive your equations and then predict everything from here to eternity. Instead it's unpredictable. Why? One reason is the parties. They select issue positions and emphases to steal the other side's wavering voters and undermine its voting coalition. Again, recent electoral history has demonstrated that both parties are quite adept at this game. In light of that, how can we know whom Hispanics, Asians, "professionals," young voters, or anybody will support in 2048? I'd suggest we cannot. Using demographic estimates to predict long-range political preferences is an impossibly difficult task.

Second. Teixeira cites election data from the last 20 years without introducing the appropriate context. For instance, he writes:

[P]rogressives have been gaining strength among white college graduates. In 2008, Obama only lost white college graduates by four points, compared to an 11-point deficit for Kerry in 2004 and a 20-point deficit for Dukakis in 1988.

I do not dispute these numbers, but I disagree that this is evidence of a "new progressive America." There are many reasons voting results change from cycle to cycle. Though the concept has been vastly overworked, some of that change is due to "realignment." However, much of it is clearly not - and if the appropriate electoral context is excluded, you're bound to overestimate the extent to which realignment is a factor.

Return to the previous quotation. Democrats have gained 16 points in 20 years among white college graduates. Is this realignment, or the ebb and flow of non-realigning factors? I'd suggest the latter explains much of the difference. Consider the following chart. It tracks the average growth in the economy in the third and fourth quarters, the incumbent president's job approval in the pre-election Gallup poll, and the incumbent party's share of the presidential vote.

National Conditions and Incumbent Party Performance in Presidential Elections.jpg

Clearly, non-realigning factors play an extremely powerful role. This is why political scientists can build accurate predictive models of presidential elections based on a few simple variables.

Without this context, it is prohibitively difficult to tease out realigning factors between 1988 and 2008. The former is a year in which the economy was growing and the Republican President was popular. 2008 reflects the inverse. This makes it hard to conclude that realignment is accounting for the change among college educated voters, or any subgroup. I'm open to the idea that realignment is at work, because I think to an extent it is - but that means you must control for the non-realignment factors known to influence presidential elections. Teixeira does not do that, which means his statistics do not support his conclusion.

We can see this problem again when Teixeira argues about the increasing liberal tilt of the "growing areas of the country." He writes:

By and large, progressives received their strongest increases in support in the fast-growing, dynamic metropolitan areas of states, particularly the largest ones...The result is a political map with a distinct lean toward progressives, a lean that should increase in coming years.

Again, maybe. But is it not also plausible that the growing areas of the country were especially affected by the sudden, dramatic contraction in the economy that was occurring on Election Day, and that they responded (as the country as a whole typically has since 1840) by swinging to the out party in especially large numbers?

In other words, without the necessary context, every increase in the Democratic Party's share of the vote last cycle becomes a sign of growing liberal strength. This is an underdetermined inference.

Third. Teixeira argues that "the American people's views on what government can and should do" are changing. Again, I am not going to disagree with this per se. Instead, I'll suggest that the evidence Teixeira cites is unpersuasive.

Specifically, he references a series of polling questions (many done by CAP) whose wording is so vague it is impossible to infer any political implications. Here is a sample:

(1) "Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights."

(2) "A positive image of America around the world is necessary to achieve our national security goals."

(3) "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves."

(4) "Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers."

(5) The government should "invest in alternative energy like wind, solar and bio-fuels to create jobs, and reduce dependence on foreign oil."

Unsurprisingly, these questions elicited a high degree of public support, sometimes up to 75% in the CAP survey.

These sorts of questions would indeed damage the Republican Party...if it were a silly, oversimplified caricature of what it actually is. The problem is that these questions present a false choice, implying that one side is in favor of these items, and the other side opposed. Not really true - the actual political divides are much more subtle. The fact of the matter is that many Republicans are at least partially sympathetic to all of these assertions. Certainly, no mainstream Republican politician would suggest, for instance, that Social Security disability payments should be eliminated, or that workplace safety regulations should be done away with. I recall that John McCain talked frequently about biofuels on the campaign trail last cycle, and one major goal of the surge was to gain the trust of local Iraqi populations.

These questions do not directly capture the salient political cleavages in the country. Thus, they cannot be taken as evidence of a "new progressive America." Certainly, they hint at such cleavages, but they are worded in such a non-specific, general way that they do not reflect the actual debate, which is why they can garner such broad support.

Of course, there are answers to several questions that Teixeira cites that genuinely show liberal leanings on actual policy matters (like universal health care). Then again, as Teixeira notes, the CAP Study also found decidedly conservative responses to questions like this:

(1) "Limited government is always better than big government." (55% agree)

(2) "Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth." (57% agree)

(3) "Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient." (61% agree)

(4) "Government programs for the poor undermine individual initiative and responsibility." (48% agree, 21% neutral)

(5) "Social Security should be reformed to allow workers to invest some of their contributions in individual accounts." (57% agree)

Liberals can argue that there is an incipient liberalism in the data, and conservatives can argue that there is an incipient conservatism. However, I'd suggest another idea: the country is in many respects non-ideological.

One characteristic of ideology is issue constraint. An ideological thinker decides his positions based upon abstract principles, which therefore constrain the policy options he can endorse. For instance, an ideologue who thinks that the free market is better than the government would be constrained on his views of health care. To be ideological, he must oppose government managed care.

This data - as well as many surveys - suggests that a large segment of the country does not have such constraints on their views. The CAP study finds 55% of the public advocating limited government, and 65% advocating that the "government guarantee affordable health coverage for every American." There is substantial overlap here, which indicates that some subset of the population is answering in inconsistent ways, which implies non-ideological thinking.

In conclusion, I'll recapitulate my main points. Generally speaking, I am skeptical of arguments like this - even those that are well executed. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. He uses oversimple assumptions about the links between future demographics and politics; he fails to separate realigning forces from the normal back-and-forth of electoral politics; and he relies on inconclusive polling data to argue that there has been an ideological shift in public opinion.

This is not to say that Teixeira is wrong. He may be right, and we may be entering 10, 20, even 40 years of a "new progressive America." My point is that he fails to make the case. Other theories - such as one that predicts continued, heated party competition amidst a substantially non-ideological public - are just as consistent with the evidence he cites.

-Jay Cost

Electoral Polarization Continues Under Obama

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned as a "uniter, not a divider." It didn't pan out that way. In four years time, the electorate was evenly divided, with about half the country favoring his reelection and the other half opposing it.

This year, President-elect Obama campaigned on moving the country past its political divisions to focus on what unites it. The results from this month's election suggest he might have his work cut out for himself on this front. While his popular vote and Electoral College victories were decisive, there are indications that the electoral polarization we have seen in the Bush years persists.

To begin, we need a way to measure polarization, which is simply the accentuation of differences. So, the greater the differences among factions in the electorate, the more polarized we can say the whole electorate was. We'll put forth two ways to measure this concept.

First, we'll take an unweighted average of Obama's share of the vote from every state plus D.C. We'll use this as a baseline to calculate the standard deviation, which is a measure of the variation around the average. That's what we're really interested in. The greater the standard deviation, the more the states varied around the average, the more accentuated were their differences, and so the more polarization there was.

We replicate this method for every presidential election going back to 1948, which enables us to compare this cycle to the last fifteen:


First, notice how the graph confirms widely-held beliefs about polarization. We see that it was higher in the 1960s than the '50s or '70s. Note 1964 in particular. While Lyndon Johnson won a large nationwide victory, the South swung heavily against him. He won 61.1% of the national popular vote, but just 12.9% in Mississippi. This is polarization.1

Second, notice that it was up in 2000 and 2004. Between Nixon's reelection and Clinton's reelection, polarization was as low as it ever was in the 20th century. However, it jumped up in 2000, and remained steady in 2004. Again, this squares with common knowledge of the last eight years - which holds that there has been more polarization recently. Now, turn to the final point on the chart, 2008. Polarization was about the same this year as in 2000 or 2004. In fact, by this metric, it actually ticked up a little bit.2

This metric uses an unweighted average of a victorious candidate's share of the vote in all states as a first step in calculating polarization. This means that, regardless of population, each state plus D.C. counts for 1/51 of the victor's average. So, it might be helpful for our second metric to use the nationwide popular vote as a first step.3

We'll do that by taking the victor's share of the nationwide vote, and then by counting the number of states where his share of the statewide vote was at least ten points higher or ten points lower than his nationwide vote. This can tell us how many "polarized" states there were that year. Again, we'll replicate this method going back to 1948, and graph the results:

Polarized States.jpg

While there are some minor differences, this chart generally squares with the previous one. We again find polarization peaking in the 1960s - by this measure 1968, not 1964, was the peak year. From the 70s through the 90s, it again settled down, only to rise again with George W. Bush. Once again, we see it go a little higher with Barack Obama.4

Let's push this analysis forward by examining which states have been polarized. We'll use our second metric for this. Instead of counting the states, we'll color code maps. The following picture does this for all elections going back to 1976. States shaded blue are pro-Democratic "polarized" states. Those shaded red are pro-Republican.5


Typically, strong Republican states can be found in the Mountain Region. Utah is consistently red. Idaho and Wyoming are frequently so. We also see states in the West North Central region tilt red with some frequency: Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. George W. Bush's elections were especially polarizing because he swung all of these states into his column, rather than just a few. Meanwhile, four states in the northeast swung strongly against him: Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Many of these states again showed a high degree of polarization in 2008. This time, however, they were joined by most of the remaining states in the South Central regions: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Never before have we seen these states vote so heavily against a victorious Democrat. Ditto West Virginia, which went for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

So, by both metrics, we find that polarization did not decline this cycle. It was about where it was in the 2000 and 2004 cycles, a point that's higher than anything we have seen in the last 30 years.

Before we discuss the implications of this, there are some important caveats to note. To start, any argument about a concept like polarization is only as good as the empirical metrics for it. We have two metrics that are pretty good, but any limitations they have will inevitably limit the conclusions we can draw. For instance, these are not metrics for ideological polarization - so we're not discussing that concept here.

Another caveat. We have operationalized the concept of polarization such that we're measuring divergence around some central number, be it the average vote across all 50 states or the national vote. However, we have not yet taken into account the central number itself. It's pretty important. By these metrics, polarization was about where it was in 2000. However, Bush won 47.9% of the vote in 2000 to Obama's 52.7% in 2008. That puts President-elect Obama in a stronger position than his predecessor. President Bush won a polarized election in 2000 with less than half the vote. President-elect Obama won more than half. That makes a big difference.

With these caveats down, what conclusions can we draw from this analysis? First, it is fair to say that this indicates that the political polarization we have seen in recent cycles cannot solely be chalked up to the personality of George W. Bush. Instead, it appears as though there might be a systemic cause, one that accounts for the elections of 2000, 2004, and 2008 displaying polarization regardless of who is on the ballot.

There's a second conclusion to draw. Pundits have been giving a lot of free advice to the President-elect, drawing heavily upon the experiences of exceptional presidents from years gone by. FDR and Lincoln seem to be the most widely referenced. If I were to suggest a previous Chief Executive the new President-elect should study closely, I'd recommend George W. Bush.

The essential job of the President is to be the leader of all the people. He is the only official we all select; accordingly, he's the only one who can claim to represent all of us. That poses a special challenge when the people are polarized, and this has been a problem for the 43rd President. Regardless of one's opinion of George W. Bush, it is fair to say that he has not governed with an eye to those who have strongly opposed him.

When you consider Article II of the Constitution against what past Chief Executives have actually done, it becomes clear that the President's greatest powers are informal, not written down. In many respects, the President does what the people allow him to do. Accordingly, if he begins his tenure with a faction that is disinclined to him, and proceeds to antagonize it - his power can be diminished. That faction can rise in opposition to thwart him, which is easy to do in our system of "checks and balances" that intentionally protects minority rights. I think something like this has happened to Bush over the last few years. What was perhaps a mere disinclination to him in 2000 became much more salient in the subsequent years. This opposition had eroded his informal power by 2005, put the Democrats in control of Congress by 2006, and delivered Obama a sweeping victory by 2008.

Given the data presented here, I think this is a cautionary tale for the President-elect. This does not mean, of course, that he must govern like a Republican from Kentucky. Far from it! It just means he should be aware that there are factions in the country that strongly opposed him, and he should be careful with how he manages these groups. He does not have to do what they want him to do, but he should not overly antagonize them.

The political consequences of that could be harmful. For instance, in the states shaded red in the 2008 picture, there are about 20 white Democratic Representatives and 7 Senators who will stand for reelection at least once in the next eight years. President-elect Obama has to be mindful of them - otherwise, they could go the the way that the New England Republicans have gone in the Bush years.


[1] Prior to 1948, polarization was much higher by either metric. The reason is that the South was a one-party region, voting overwhelmingly Democratic in most every cycle. Occasionally, Republicans who won large nationwide majorities could snag a few Southern states. However, by and large, Republicans ran into the same trouble that Teddy Roosevelt faced in 1904. TR won 56% of the nationwide popular vote that year, but pulled in less than 5% in South Carolina. Conversely, FDR won about the same share of the nationwide popular vote in his four victories while winning 85%-99% of the vote in South Carolina.

[2] The value for 1964 needs to have a metaphorical asterisk placed next to it because Lyndon Johnson was not on the ballot in Alabama. The standard deviation for that cycle is calculated by taking no value for the state. If he had been on the ballot, he probably would not have done much better than he did in Mississippi, which typically votes in tandem with Alabama. The same goes for 1948 when Harry Truman did not appear on the ballot in Alabama. Including Alabama would increase the standard deviation for both years.

[3] I also calculated weighted standard deviations (where each state is factored according to its share of the nationwide popular vote) and tracked them over time. The results were quite similar to the unweighted standard deviations:

Weighted Polarization.jpg

Again, we see polarization drop in the 70s, 80s, and 90s - only to make a comeback with the elections of George W. Bush and now Barack Obama.

We also see that, overall, polarization is lower by this metric - even though the ratios from year to year are about what they were using the unweighted metric. The reason for this is that a lot of sparsely populated states - Alaska, the Dakotas, D.C., Wyoming, etc. - tend to exhibit polarized behavior in most cycles. In our unweighted average, each of these places counts for 1.9% of the total. Now that we're weighing each state for population - they count for less, typically between 0.2% and 0.3%. This has the effect of pushing the metric down across all years. Of course, because these places always tend to vote the same way cycle after cycle, weighing them does not alter the ratio between cycles, which is what we are really interested in.

[4] We can tweak our cutoff point, maybe make it +/- 8 points or 12 points, instead of 10 points. That would change the number of polarized states in each cycle, but the crucial point is the same: the last few cycles have seen polarization go up, and in the most recent cycle it is as high as it has been in many decades.

[5] The picture doesn't capture it, but Washington D.C. would be shaded blue in every election. Alaska would be shaded red in most of them, and Hawaii in many of them. This should condition how we interpret the previous graph. Alaska first voted in a presidential contest in 1960. The District of Columbia voted for the first time in 1964. Since polarization is typical in both places, that essentially inflates the number of polarized states from 1960 to the present by at least one and sometimes three units.

-Jay Cost

Is 2008 a Realignment?

Barack Obama's decisive victory last Tuesday has some wondering whether this was a realigning election.

"Realignment" is an overused term, and some scholars have questioned whether it is a profitable category to apply to elections. Temple University's Robin Kolodny wrote this a few years ago:

Realignment has been in trouble as a theory for explaining party identification and electoral behavior for some time. The most obvious problem is that there has been no full realignment since 1932, and no consensus has emerged on what, if any, partial realignment has taken place in 1968, 1974, 1980, or 1994.

Yale University's David Mayhew wrote a cogent critique of realignment theory in 2004, arguing that the facts don't fit the story so well.

So, let's lower our sights a little bit. Let's put aside the terminology and compare 2008 to three times that, regardless of whether they were realignments, were definitive moments in American electoral history: 1860, 1894-96, and 1932. Realignment or not, it should be profitable to see how today compares to these past times.


Upon James Polk's election in 1844, the Union was equally balanced between slave and free states. The addition of so much territory during his term disrupted that balance. The South wanted to extend slavery to the Pacific. A growing segment in the North wanted to limit it to existing slave states.

The government tried two solutions in four years. The first was the Compromise of 1850. The deal ultimately split the Whig party into regional factions. By 1856, it was gone. The second was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, implemented in 1854. It allowed popular sovereignty to determine whether the Kansas and Nebraska territories would be slave or free, precipitated a violent conflict in Kansas, split the Democrats, and effectively created the Republican Party.

By 1860, the stage was set. The Republicans nominated Abraham Lincoln. Southern Democrats nominated Vice-President John Breckinridge on a pro-slavery platform. Northern Democrats nominated Senator Stephen Douglas on a popular sovereignty platform. Finally, a group of old Whigs and "Know-Nothings" formed the Constitutional Union Party, nominated former House Speaker John Bell, and called for saving the Union.

The following picture shows how this played out. As usual, Republicans are in red and Democrats are in blue. Also, Whigs are in brown, Southern Democrats are in gray, and Constitutional Unionists are in purple:

Taylor Pierce Buchanan Lincoln.gif

Lincoln won less than 40% of the popular vote, not having appeared on the ballot in most Southern states, but his Electoral College victory proved how politically powerful a unified North could be: 180 for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas.


By the 1880s, the Democrats had returned to electoral competitiveness by accepting many of the political premises of industrial development. The end of Reconstruction and the Panic of 1873 ultimately gave them control over the House for eight of the next ten Congresses. The lone Democratic President of the era - Grover Cleveland of New York - favored the gold standard, which was good for industrial interests in the East but hard on farmers in the South and Midwest.

The grievances of farmers and rural people found expression via the Populist Party (shaded yellow in the subsequent picture), which had become a regional political force by 1892. The economic crisis precipitated by the Panic of 1893 brought these tensions to a head. The midterm election of 1894 saw the GOP pick up 130 House seats, based on big gains in the Northeast and North Central regions.

This was the beginning of a change that would manifest itself on the presidential level in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan captured the Democratic nomination, promising "free silver." His opponent, William McKinley, supported the gold standard. The election of 1896 was fought over the currency issue, and the result produced a sharp industrial-agrarian divide.

Cleveland Harrison McKinley.gif

Though the South is joined this time by the Mountain West and the Great Plains, the divide again favors the North. McKinley won 271 electors to Bryan's 176.


This was a significant election not simply because the Depression began under the GOP's watch. It also had to do with the party's response. President Herbert Hoover failed to address the crisis to the public's satisfaction. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt, who had a great last name and a solid reputation of his own, having mobilized his government to fight the Depression in the Empire State.

Hoover Roosevelt.gif

Unlike in 1860 or 1896, a very broad transregional consensus emerged. As famed newspaper editor William Allen White later observed, the election of 1932 signaled "a firm desire on the part of the American people to use government as an agency for human welfare."


While the particulars of these elections are different, they tell a similar story about the political parties. In all three, the parties had to manage issues of great importance that could not be ignored. This is why we remember Lincoln's "House Divided," Bryan's "Cross of Gold," and Roosevelt's "New Deal." They each took clear stands on issues whose resolutions would determine the course the nation would set.

What's more, there was little room for common ground those years. Either slavery would expand or it wouldn't. Either the government would authorize the free coinage of silver or it wouldn't. Either it would take a more active role in the economy or it wouldn't. Practically speaking, the differences could not be split.

So, these issues upset the normal functioning of the parties. By their nature, parties select issue positions and emphases in pursuit of electoral majorities. Obviously, no party can undertake a full-scale reinvention of itself. However, in pursuit of a majority, it can frequently "finesse" matters. It can slightly alter some positions, it can equivocate or obfuscate on others, and it can emphasize particular issues or personalities depending upon the audience. The goal is to string together an electoral majority among the diverse elements of our large Republic.

In these years, this process was disrupted to some degree. Issues of great salience dominated the political discourse and forced the parties to stake out relatively clear positions. There was little room for finessing. Thus, votes from those years can be seen as opinions on the critical issues more directly than votes from other years.

So, examining the parties and the issues they handled this cycle might help us understand how 2008 stacks up against these three elections. Did the parties behave similarly this year as they did then? Were the issues similar?

I think the answers to both questions are negative, which cuts against the hypothesis that this election was a "realignment." For starters, there was no central, defining issue that disrupted the normal party process. Instead, both candidates covered a variety of issues, few in any depth. There was also a scarcity of clear contrasts between Obama and McCain. Indeed, on the subject that might have emerged as a realigning issue - the financial bailout - they voted the same way.

Relatedly, both candidates made the search for common ground a defining feature of their candidacies. McCain would cite Hillary Clinton just as often as Obama would mention Richard Lugar. There was no House Divided, no Cross of Gold, no New Deal. There was the promise of pragmatic governance and a change in tone toward bipartisan conciliation.

This evidence disfavors the idea that 2008 was like these previous elections. Now, it might be that 2008 was a kind of realignment - perhaps a "partial" one. However, I would return to the above quotation from Robin Kolodny. Adding a qualifier like this strikes me as the sort of inelegance that is tolerated when a theory is losing its explanatory power - like adding epicycles while waiting for the Copernican revolution.

None of this is to claim that the GOP isn't in trouble. For the Republicans, much depends on how well Obama governs. If he governs to the public's satisfaction - the GOP could be in the minority for a while. If he does not - it's return may be speedier.

-Jay Cost

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.


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 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:


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.


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).


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:


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.


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.


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.


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:


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

The Politics of the Bailout Bill

The results of Monday's vote on the bailout bill, HR 3997, contain some illuminating patterns. A few people have noted that members of Congress facing competitive elections tended to vote against the bill. This is true, and significant. The roll call yielded some other important tendencies.

The following picture examines how Republican members of Congress voted by state: red indicates a nay vote, green a yay vote, and yellow a split result.

Republicans Vote.jpg

Let's break GOP support down by region.

For what it's worth, the remaining New England Republican, Chris Shays, voted in support of the bill. Support in the mid-Atlantic region was mixed. Pennsylvania and New Jersey Republicans voted against the bill. Opposition in the Keystone State among Republicans was particularly strong. However, New York Republicans were more supportive, with every member except Randy Kuhl voting in favor.

Republicans in the South Central region showed mixed support. GOP caucuses in Arkansas (aka John Boozman), Mississippi (aka Chip Pickering), and Alabama supported it. However, that was balanced by strong opposition in Tennessee, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Only four Republicans from the President's home state supported the bill.

South Atlantic Republicans also exhibited mixed support. Mike Castle of Delaware supported it, the two Republicans in Maryland split, and South Carolina voted in the affirmative. However, the bill was strongly opposed in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Opposition was very stiff in the Midwest, where ten of ten Republican caucuses voted in the negative. There was unanimous opposition in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Even in Ohio, home state of Republican leader John Boehner, seven Republicans voted against the bill.

Republican support in the West was split: there was opposition in Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, but more favorable results in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

What about the Democrats?

Democrats Vote.jpg

The leadership was able to extract a reasonable amount of discipline from Democrats on the east coast - with only Vermont, New Hampshire, and Georgia defecting from the party line.

Meanwhile, the bill again ran into trouble in the Midwest. Midwestern Democrats were more amenable than their Republican counterparts - particularly in the upper midwest. But Indiana Democrats voted nay, and Democrats in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan all split their votes. Mountain West Democrats voted heavily against the bill. And in California, Nancy Pelosi's home state, 15 of 36 Democrats voted against the bill.

The maps don't show it, but of the 19 members of Congress who represent New York City, parts of Long Island, or Westchester, there was just a single defection, José Serrano of the Bronx. The bill also received very strong support from members whose districts are near Washington, D.C. However, support was mixed in Los Angeles and Chicago, where all three South Side members (Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dan Lipinski, and Bobby Rush) voted in the negative.

A final note on the bill. The vote among members of the House Financial Services Committee broke along party lines. 25 of 37 Democrats voted in favor, while just 8 of 33 Republicans supported the bill. If members on the floor rely upon fellow partisans in the relevant committees for voting cues - perhaps it is no surprise that House Democrats followed Financial Service Democrats, and Republicans followed Financial Service Republicans.

This data presents an interesting perspective on the politics of the current financial crisis. Certainly it demonstrates the accuracy of the hackneyed "Main Street versus Wall Street" cliché . While metro Washington and New York members were strongly in support, the bill was hard pressed to find supportive members in the Midwest.

And yet both presidential candidates are running through the heartland advocating its passage. That's somewhat surprising when you think about it. It indicates to me that the politics of this issue do not directly favor one candidate over the other. Certainly, neither candidate is on the "right" side of public opinion. Remember: while the polls show mixed support for the bill, they do not measure intensity - which can matter in situations like this. If 30% is lukewarm in its support, 30% is uncertain, and 30% is dead-set against, as a political matter, the public is opposed.

So why have McCain's numbers been sliding? The mainstream media will tell you it is because of his foolish political gamble. He headed back to Washington and looked bad doing so. I don't think that's it at all, though I agree he did not look good. This argument assumes that average voters poured over every word of press reports (written by mainstream media people!) and carefully meditated upon every keenly insightful utterance on the Sunday talk shows (dominated by the chatter of mainstream media people!) to tease out who made the politically smart move. I don't buy that (self-serving!) explanation for a minute. [N.B. Ever notice how MSM political analysis always seem to place the MSM in the center of the battle?]

I think McCain has suffered a deterioration in his poll position for a simple reason: he's the Republican. George W. Bush is the President of the United States. He is responsible for the state of the nation. He's not held in good esteem right now, and he's a Republican. From a public opinion perspective, it does not matter so much that the Democrats control Congress. The buck stops with Bush; Bush is a Republican; McCain is a Republican; McCain suffers.

A related factor could be that Bush is simply more noticeable than he was a few weeks ago. The President has done a good job hiding himself during the presidential campaign. Presumably, he knows that his presence hurts McCain, so he's taken himself out of the public's view. But now he's back on the television, on the front pages, giving prime time speeches, and so on. I think this has hurt McCain's numbers as much as anything.

Here's a thought experiment to mull. Take 100 undecided voters and expose them to an hour of clips of George W. Bush talking. How many of them will lean Obama at the end of the hour? More than half, I'm guessing, which is why McCain needs this issue, and George W. Bush, off the front pages as soon as possible. McCain's trajectory to victory has always relied upon Bush falling out of public view. Up until this crisis, Bush seemed happy to oblige the Republican nominee. But this has put Bush front-and-center, which inherently helps Barack Obama.

-Jay Cost

On the State of the Race

In this post, I'd like to chart the effect the financial crisis has had on each candidate's standing in the polls. The following graphs the RCP average from 9/7 to yesterday.

RCP Average.jpg

As of this writing, the average of the most recent polls shows McCain at 43.3%, which means he has suffered a 3.4-point slide in the last three weeks. Barack Obama stands at 47.9%, an increase of 2.7-points.

For reference, I've included the key events in the last week in the chart. You'll see that McCain lost ground in the wake of the events of 9/14 through 9/16: Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy, and the rescue of AIG. McCain also suffered after the bailout deal was announced. Obama saw his biggest increase in the middle of the month; his numbers have not changed much since the bailout was announced.

Immediately prior to the start of the Democratic National Convention, Obama led in the RCP average 45.5% to 43.9%. In June, he had an average lead of 47.1% to 42.4%. So, from June to the beginning of the conventions, McCain whittled down Obama's lead from 4.5 points to 1.6 points. The Republican National Convention put him ahead of Obama, but recent events have wiped that lead away. Currently, the race stands roughly where it did in June, though McCain is in a slightly better position.

It stands to reason that the financial situation has been a campaign "moment" that has favored Barack Obama. So far, its effect is similar to him winning the nomination in June or heading to Europe in July.

A additional few points are worth noting.

First, the number of undecided voters has increased in the last three weeks, from a low of 6.3% of the electorate on 9/8 to 8.8% last night.

Second, the polls themselves have been very volatile this month. The Gallup tracking poll had a crazy week last week, and individual pollsters are disagreeing with each other quite a bit. Much of the disagreement has to do with McCain's share of the vote. The standard deviation of McCain's share in the current RCP average is 2.8%. Obama's is 2.0%. [The standard deviation is the average distance between an individual poll's result and the average of all polls.] By comparison, the final RCP average in 2004 had John Kerry's standard deviation at 1.7% and Bush's at 1.3%. This is a sign of volatility in the current race. Pollsters are finding fairly divergent results.

Third, there is a good subset of the electorate that claims to make up its mind in October or November. That might be hard for political junkies who have been following every twist and turn for 18 months to believe - but it's true! In 1996, 30% of respondents claimed to make up their minds a day to a month before the election. In 2000, that number was also 30%. In 2004, 21% of the public made that claim.

These three points indicate that caution is required in projecting the state of the race forward. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty out there. Practically speaking, average voters are probably more focused on the economy than on politics. As noted above, the number of undecideds has ticked back up, there has been a lot of volatility in the September polling, and we know a lot of people will make up their minds next month. The events of the last 20 days could be the break Obama and his supporters have been waiting for - something that induces the remaining undecideds to abandon the status quo and embrace "Change That Works For You." But it might also be the case that this is just another turn on a very windy road - something that, like the trip to Europe, loses much of its effect after it drops from the news.

What really matters is if, when, and how this financial situation resolves itself. It is fair to say that, on a purely political basis, McCain needs a resolution more than Obama. His numbers have taken a hit - and, despite his best efforts, he has not successfully gotten in front of this issue. That's not to say that he needs this particular bill to pass - the fact that members of Congress in the most competitive districts voted against the bill tells us something. Rather, McCain needs this issue to become less immediate, less salient. Nothing else is getting through right now. McCain needs this to drop off the front page as a first step to recover the ground he has lost in the last 20 days.

-Jay Cost

McCain Controlled Agenda In First Debate

Friday's debate was an enjoyable, engaging contest. These candidates have such sharply different styles - there were reasons to expect a good show. I for one was not disappointed.

Barack Obama's initial answers to Jim Lehrer's lead questions were strong. He typically contextualized individual issues into a broader framework. Overall, I think this made him seem knowledgeable, which is how he needed to come across, given that the subject of the debate was foreign policy. However, it also made him seem a bit professorial. Watching the debate sometimes reminded me of a college class, as if I should lean over to my wife to ask, "What was number two in his four-point plan on Afghanistan? I missed it." It would be best for Obama to seem knowledgeable without seeming professorial - but above all he needs to seem knowledgeable.

McCain's initial answers to questions tended to be as strong, though not he did do very well in his response to the opening question about the financial situation. Where McCain had a persistent edge was in controlling the agenda of the debate.

Oftentimes, there's something to be said for not engaging the other side in a discussion. On many issues, one candidate is going to be a loser and one a winner. It's a matter of issue ownership. For instance, on Iraq, if the public decides that the crucial test is the surge, then Obama loses the issue. If it decides that the test is the initial decision to invade, McCain loses. So, rather than try to change voters' minds, each candidate should try to change the topic to more favorable ground. This is one reason partisan talking heads always seem to speak past one another.

Obama did not do this as well as he could have. He often tried to engage McCain on the latter's best subjects, which meant he ran into some trouble. Here's what I noticed:

(1) In the second question of the night, Jim Lehrer asked the candidates an open-ended question about "fundamental differences" between them. Both candidates focused largely upon spending and corruption, which are two of McCain's best subjects. They also spent a lot of time talking about taxes, which meant Obama had to deflect accusations that he'll raise taxes, something that voters might already be suspicious of.

(2) The very next question, about what new spending programs would have to be scaled back in light of the financial situation, also ended up about spending. All in all, while Obama did much better on the opening question, the next 25 minutes were spent on domestic issues that McCain has an advantage on.

(3) On Iraq, McCain opened with a discussion about the surge. Obama opened with a discussion about how it was not wise to go into Iraq in the first place. So, both candidates began saying things about Iraq that favor them. However, in the back-and-forth that followed, the discussion drifted to the surge, which is favorable ground for McCain.

(4) We'd expect Afghanistan to be Obama's best moment in a foreign policy debate. After all, the situation has deteriorated there, making McCain susceptible to the "Republicans took their eye off the central front" claim. However, it turned into a discussion about Pakistan, and whether Obama should have said what he said about inserting soldiers into the hinterlands to track down al Qaeda.

(5) On Iran, the subject turned to whether it is appropriate for the president to meet with "preconditions" or "preparations."

Five of the eight lead questions were fought largely over points that tend to favor McCain. The remaining three - the first question on the financial situation, the question on Russia, and the one on post-9/11 security - were fought on more neutral ground. Obama easily won the question on the fiscal situation, and he turned an impending loss on the Russia question into a tie. McCain tried to shift the conversation to Obama's initial response to the Georgian invasion, but Obama forced it to energy independence, a more neutral topic. Good defensive maneuver there - I would like to have seen more deflections like that. On the final question, both candidates gave similar answers on post-9/11 security, then quickly moved to prior points they had made on Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama was not thrown off base, which was good, but McCain was helped because his prior points had been made more clearly in those preceding questions.

The net effect of this was that McCain's performance resembled an argument - Senator Obama lacks "the knowledge or experience" and has "made the wrong judgments" - backed up by specific examples. Obama's performance did not create such an impression, at least not as strongly.

Why did this happen?

The answer can be found by recalling the last Democratic primary debate. At the time, I suggested that Obama did poorly because he frequently refused to let Senator Clinton have the last word on a subject, even if dropping it was best for him.

Something similar happened on Friday night. For instance, McCain would bring up pork barrel spending. Rather than let McCain have the point and move on to a more favorable subject, Obama would respond to McCain on pork barrel. That meant that McCain controlled the conversation, which therefore wasn't about health care, college tuition, job retraining, falling wages, or another subject that favors Obama.

McCain was also able to hamper Obama's rhetorical delivery. It wasn't just that Obama was debating on McCain's ground, at times he was not debating terribly well. Frequently, he was so eager to "correct the record" that he'd become a little too animated by the end of a McCain monologue. A few times, McCain even induced Obama to waste precious time responding to trivialities, as he did here:

MCCAIN: Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program, he said it exceed our wildest expectations.

But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, incredibly Senator Obama didn't go to Iraq for 900 days and never

LEHRER: Well, let's go at some of these things...

MCCAIN: Senator Obama is the chairperson of a committee that oversights NATO that's in Afghanistan. To this day, he has never had a hearing.

LEHRER: What about that point?

MCCAIN: I mean, it's remarkable.

LEHRER: All right. What about that point?

OBAMA: Which point? He raised a whole bunch of them.

LEHRER: I know, OK, let's go to the latter point and we'll back up. The point about your not having been...

OBAMA: Look, I'm very proud of my vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and as he explains, and as John well knows, the issues of Afghanistan, the issues of Iraq, critical issues like that, don't go through my subcommittee because they're done as a committee as a whole.

But that's Senate inside baseball. But let's get back to the core issue here...

McCain is making a broad point that the proper test of judgment is where each candidate stood on the surge. That's a point that could matter for voters. At the end of his answer, he impishly inserts an aside about Obama's subcommittee. Nobody is going to vote on that. Obama is right to note that this is "Senate inside baseball," yet he nevertheless takes the bait. Why bother? Why not allow McCain his snarky comment, and move immediately to discuss the wisdom of the initial invasion?

By contrast, McCain was rarely taken off message by Obama. When he did respond to Obama's points, he would occasionally laugh them off, as he did in this exchange:

OBAMA: He even said the other day that he would not meet potentially with the prime minister of Spain, because he -- you know, he wasn't sure whether they were aligned with us. I mean, Spain? Spain is a NATO ally.

MCCAIN: Of course.

OBAMA: If we can't meet with our friends, I don't know how we're going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism.

MCCAIN: I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet.

In other instances, McCain would use Obama's point to pivot instantly to a talking point of his own, as he did here:

OBAMA: I just want to make this point, Jim. John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.

LEHRER: Quick response to Senator Obama.

MCCAIN: It's well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on - on Guantanamo Bay. On a -- on the way that the Iraq War was conducted. I have a long record and the American people know me very well and that is independent and a maverick of the Senate and I'm happy to say that I've got a partner that's a good maverick along with me now.

Finally, McCain would occasionally ignore Obama and make an entirely different point, as was the case here:

MCCAIN: I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.

LEHRER: Would you go for that?

OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn't make sense.

Let me tell you another place to look for some savings. We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close.

MCCAIN: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We have to have wind, tide, solar, natural gas, flex fuel cars and all that but we also have to have offshore drilling and we also have to have nuclear power.

Senator Obama opposes both storing and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. You can't get there from here and the fact is that we can create 700,000 jobs by building constructing 45 new nuclear power plants by the year 2030. Nuclear power is not only important as far as eliminating our dependence on foreign oil but it's also responsibility as far as climate change is concerned and the issue I have been involved in for many, many years and I'm proud of the work of the work that I've done there along with President Clinton.

This pattern did not hold all the time - as with Obama's effective maneuvering on the Russian question. However, generally speaking, this is how the debate went. Obama showed up to debate. McCain showed up to say what he wanted. This meant that Obama was left debating on McCain's best topics, but McCain hardly ever debated on Obama's best topics.

Does this mean that McCain won the debate? Not necessarily. If we define "won" as the immediate reaction of the public, the polling evidence is mixed, and not especially helpful. LA Times, Gallup, CBS, and CNN showed Obama winning. Rasmussen, with a tighter Republican-Democrat mix, showed a closer 33-30 Obama victory. SurveyUSA found a clear Obama victory in California, but a one-point McCain victory in Washington State. Interestingly, SurveyUSA found McCain even with Obama on the economy in Washington, and with leads on who "understands" Iran, Iraq and above all Russia. Many of these polls found a strong contingent of people who considered it a draw.

So, putting aside the polls, I think it was politically beneficial for McCain to control the agenda of the debate. I think that meant he advanced his message more effectively than Obama. If McCain can manage the agenda of the next two debates as well (a big if), the final effect could be quite helpful to him. It will keep the conversation on subjects he prefers - especially useful for when we shift to domestic issues, which broadly favor Democrats this year. Also, it might give the impression that McCain is in charge of the discussion. That would enhance his "doer-not-a-talker" image, which would be good for him.

Given that this is similar to the problem Obama had when squaring off against Senator Clinton back in April, I think that this is something he should work on before the next debate. He should learn how to strategically ignore McCain, so that the conversation does not drift into subjects that favor the Republican nominee. In other words, Barack Obama needs to talk less to John McCain, and more to the television audience.

-Jay Cost

McCain Plays It Like McCain

There has been a lot of discussion about McCain's decision to suspend his campaign. I'll toss in my two cents.

I do not think it is a purely political move, a stunt or ploy designed only to advance McCain-Palin's message. The politics of it are too complicated for anybody to predict what will happen - which means that McCain is taking a risk. Few stunts are actually risky; they just appear to be.

I see two serious dangers for McCain. The first is with the images. The second is with the tricky assignment of credit.

First, one reason members of Congress do not typically get elected to the presidency is that, whereas the President seems big, Congress seems small. Congress is not a national body, per se. Rather, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various parts of our nation. Nobody in Congress is responsible to the nation at large. Instead, each is responsible to just a small slice of it. It's a fallacy of composition to believe that because each member of Congress tends a parcel of the nation, the whole Congress tends the whole nation.

This invariably shows through in the images we see of Congress in operation. Contrast your mental pictures of Congress with your pictures of the President, and you'll see what I'm driving at. Congress is not the place you want to put your presidential candidate 40 days before the election. The images might work for McCain if Congress had a prime minister position that McCain could effectively inhabit for the period of this "crisis." But there is no such role. So, by going back to Congress, McCain runs the risk of looking like he belongs there and not in the White House.

Second, an important element to the congressional dynamic is the assignment of credit and the avoidance of blame. Why is it that all of the legislators who have had a hand in this mess can preen about how awful it is? It has to do with the way Congress is organized. Blame is very diffuse - not just in terms of appearances, but also in actual governance. You can never blame just one member of Congress for bad policy. You have to blame dozens, sometimes hundreds, in both chambers and both parties. That means that individual members can avoid taking blame.

The same goes with credit. When Congress does something good, it is often because of a "team effort" across chambers and parties. There is rarely one person who demonstrably makes the difference. The causal chain is quite blurry. This is an important point to understand when teasing out the implications of McCain's situation. Because the assignment of credit is fuzzy and subjective, it is political. So, members of Congress can find themselves in a fight over who gets it. This is not the case all the time. Frequently, there is enough credit to go around. But sometimes there isn't enough - which means that you're likely to see a political fight, with opposing factions looking to take credit for themselves or assign the blame to others.

This is where McCain might run into trouble. By going to Washington, he has injected himself into this process, and thus opened himself up to the rhetorical attacks we are now hearing from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi. They are setting the stage for denying McCain credit for any deal that is brokered. If they are successful, McCain could be seen as an impediment regardless of whatever real help he might have given. Of course, just as the Democratic leadership will be working to keep McCain from getting credit, the Republican leadership will be doing precisely the opposite.

Accordingly, we should appreciate the risk in McCain's move. It is a benefit to him if and only if he is seen to have been a positive force. So, McCain's fortunes rest in part on the results of the unpredictable partisan back-and-forth over who should have the credit. And even if McCain does accrue some credit, he still runs the risk of seeming like a "small" member of Congress again.

The uncertainty of this situation makes me suspect that this was not done exclusively for strategic campaign considerations. Some have called it a desperate hail Mary - a risky gambit taken because the "bottom is dropping out." But that requires a pretty tendentious look at the polls. Five of the ten polls in the RCP national average show McCain down by three points or less. Gallup has a tie today. That is not consistent with the "bottom dropping out."

Instead, I suspect that, as with the Palin pick, this is McCain being McCain. He didn't like the situation. So, he did something. We've seen him do stuff like this again and again over the years. Lieberman gave the best description of McCain at the Republican convention: he's a restless reformer. I think that McCain being McCain, he felt restless - so he went to Washington to do something.

Regardless of how we might feel about his decision - we can agree that McCain has once again affected the race by his actions. This is the second time he has done this in a month. It's become an ironic feature of this campaign. While most agree that the election will hinge upon public considerations of Barack Obama, so much of the campaign itself has hinged upon the actions of John McCain.

-Jay Cost

Joe Biden Steps In It

I'm not one who typically puts a lot of stock in campaign gaffes, but this one is different.

Is he trying to lose western Pennsylvania?

Somebody please forward this picture to Joe Biden.

Pennsylvania Coal.gif

There are 7,400 people in Pennsylvania who work in coal mining (not including all of the people in industries that depend upon coal). About a quarter of the miners work in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Greene County is in the very southwest corner of the state. Its loyalty to the Democratic Party stretches back to the 19th century. It has voted Republican just twice since 1932: first in 1972, then in 2004 when George W. Bush eked out a 50-49 win.

Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama in Greene County by 49 points - 73% to 24%. If it is the Obama campaign's goal to get back in the game in Greene County by talking up economics - this is probably the last thing Biden should say.

Somebody get Ed Rendell some aspirin.

-Jay Cost

Does McCain Have a Rural Problem?

I have covered in some detail Barack Obama's "rural problem," which manifested itself in poor performances in primary battles east of the Mississippi. My sense - based on the poll data, press reports, and people with whom I speak in Western Pennsylvania - is that it is still present.

Does John McCain have a rural problem, too?

What tipped me off to the possibility is McCain's poll position in Indiana. In its most recent report, the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project showed that McCain is not spending money on television in the Hoosier State. But the polls have been tight - which has been contrary to my expectations. I figured that, with the conventions and the realization that this is a close race, the partisanship of Indiana would induce the state to swing McCain's way (an inverse of New Jersey's quadrennial flirtation with the GOP). According to recent polls, this has not happened. McCain retains a lead in the RCP average, but it is much less than what George W. Bush pulled in 2004. Why?

Pundits have often referenced Obama's proximity to the state. That's a positive reason to explain the tight race: Indiana likes Obama because he's the friendly neighbor. But what if part of the answer is negative: Indiana doesn't like McCain so much.

Why would Indiana not like John McCain? After all, he's a Republican who has stood up for party reform and good governance. For example, he has opposed government subsidies for ethanol, and the good Republican folk in Indiana should really respond to that, right?

Maybe not.

Indiana is a major producer of ethanol - number 5 in the nation, capable of producing 1.2 billion gallons of ethanol per year. Indiana also ranks number 5 in corn production, generating 760 million bushels per year. Corn producers love ethanol because it's another use for their crop, which means corn prices go up.

Could this be why McCain is doing poorly relative to George W. Bush's performance in 2004? It might be. Granted, only a small slice of Indiana's workforce is classified as agricultural. Like western Ohio, Indiana's workers are much more focused on manufacturing and tech than agriculture - despite the vast acres dedicated to farming. However, corn production is still a crucial aspect of the state's economy - especially in the productive farmland along Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and...Chicago!

I'd note that McCain is also doing poorly in Iowa, number one with a bullet in both corn and ethanol production. He's also had problems in Minnesota, number four in ethanol and corn.

This ethanol issue might explain this peculiar bit of news that crossed my sight line last week.

OMAHA, Neb. - Reliably Republican, Nebraska has been giving the GOP all its electoral votes in every presidential election since 1964. Democratic candidate Barack Obama is trying to take just one of its five votes this year by focusing on Omaha, the state's biggest, most diverse city.

Why would Obama be angling for Nebraska? It could be in part that it's number 3 in corn and number 2 in ethanol. Of course, Omaha is a large city - not a farm. However, it is tied to the economy of the state, and therefore to corn and ethanol. Maybe the Obama campaign's theory is that disinclination to McCain among ethanol-friendly voters, plus the 10% African American population, plus the 6% Hispanic population, plus the tight geographical boundaries of the district (favorable for organizing) will enable him to eke out a win.

Meanwhile, Illinois ranks second in corn production and third in ethanol. If there is something going on here, it is unsurprising that a candidate like Obama - an urban politician who must appeal to a large rural electorate - would note it. If you want to win statewide in Illinois, you have to know a thing or two about the downstate economy. That might have tipped his team off to the potential of Iowa, Indiana, and even Nebraska.

There are two other states that Obama has angled for that might be explained by McCain's anti-pork stands: North Dakota and Alaska. Again, it is strange to expect to vote against the Republican nominee. But is it strange to expect them to vote against John McCain?

Again, maybe not.

John McCain has a reputation as a pork buster. This year Alaska received the most pork per capita - $555.54 per person. North Dakota ranks third - $207.72 per person. This might even explain why the Obama campaign recently tossed a few bucks in advertising at West Virginia, which received $179.80 per person this year.

Unfortunately, we don't have the kind of polling data that could push this analysis to the next level. We'd need to link individual attitudes about McCain to proximity to ethanol and/or pork barrel spending. We can't do that. All we can do is suggest that McCain might have a problem.

If he does, it would be a lesson in why Congress still rolls the log: it helps members win reelection. People might not like the profligacy of the process, but many of them like getting goodies from the government. Some people in some places more than like it - they actually need the assistance. If you stand in their way, then give them an opportunity to vote you down, they might just do that.

What's this mean electorally? McCain only needs Indiana to go for him by a single vote. He can sacrifice some votes there. More than some, actually. Bush won the state by 20 points in 2004. It's one thing to talk about Obama shaving that lead down. It's another thing entirely to talk about him taking the state. Ditto for Nebraska's second congressional district, which went for Bush by 22 points in 2004. I would be surprised if Obama took either. And recent reports indicate that Obama has bailed on North Dakota and Alaska.

So, outside Iowa, it's unlikely that any Electors are going to be moved. Nevertheless, based on the data available to us in the public, we'd have to peg the likelihood of Obama winning Indiana at some non-zero number. That's pretty unique for a year that probably won't be a Democratic blowout.

I don't know if the McCain campaign needs to do engage Obama in Indiana. After all, it has reams of data that those of us in the public simply do not possess. We have just a handful of public polls. It has so much more than that. Team McCain might be looking at that three-point lead in the Hoosier State and feel pretty good, given how much Obama has spent. We can't know.

Nevertheless, it is fair to suggest that it consider tightening it's message to farmers. A quick Google search betrays McCain's soft underbelly on this front.

Farmers for McCain - Google Search.gif

Compare that to what we find searching "Farmers for Obama." This is not what John McCain should want an undecided Indiana farmer to see when trying to make a decision on whom to support.

-Jay Cost

The State of the Race

There's been a lot of talk about this dynamic race - "game changers" and "moments" and things of that nature. Regular readers of mine know that I don't subscribe to the view of politics inherent to that kind of analysis.

As an alternative to discussing Fannie, Freddie, lipstick on pigs, hacked emails, and patriotic 1040 filers - I thought I would put some simple numbers on the board to give us a sense of exactly what has changed since June 3rd.

I've broken the national polling into two sorting categories. First, we sort by pollster. We group the Gallup polls together, then the Rasmussen polls, then the remaining polls.

Second, we sort by date. We group the polls for June, then for July, then for August prior to the conventions, then for today.

Here are the results.

McCain v. Obama.gif

Let's analyze the data by one pollster category at a time. Rasmussen had fewer undecided/other voters to begin with, and this group has declined in size over time. Since June, the gain has been to McCain - though Obama is currently better positioned than he was in July or August.

We find something similar with the other pollsters (and the "today" category reflects the polls in the current RCP average that are not from Gallup or Rasmussen). Today, Obama is basically where he was in June while McCain is 4 points better off. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of undecided has dropped by 3.7 points. Combined with Rasmussen, this suggests that McCain's convention helped him solidfy his core electorate. My general rule of thumb is that candidates should receive at least 45% of the vote in an open, two-way race. With the completion of a successful convention, McCain has now reached this floor.

Gallup shows something different. It had Obama performing more weakly at the beginning of the summer - and today it has him up. Meanwhile, McCain has barely improved since June. This implies that Obama, not McCain, has benefited from the drop in undecided voters. Of course, Gallup has moved very dramatically over the last three days. Such movement has not been uncommon for Gallup's daily tracker. It bounced a good bit for Obama's Europe trip, then the Democratic convention, then the Republican convention. Each time it has slowly made its way back toward a tighter race. Obama's recent bump in Gallup might correspond to market jitters, and it will be interesting to see if, as the jitters subside, Gallup finds a tighter race.

Let's analyze the race from a higher altitude. What do we see?

We see remarkable stability. Contrary to what one might think if one's only source for information was the political class - there has not been a lot of movement. The movement we have seen seems to have been pretty orderly - with McCain solidifying his Republican base.

We also see a group of undecided voters who have not yet made a choice. They will probably be decisive. In a race with only two salient candidates - the goal is to hit 50%-plus-one. Both McCain and Obama can still do that via the undecided voters, who are becoming the critical voting block.

I am not surprised by the fact that neither candidate has yet obtained enough support to win. This is an open election with no incumbent to evaluate, nor even a candidate from the incumbent administration. This is a bad year for the Republican Party, but the GOP nominated a guy who has built a reputation opposing his own party. The Democrats nominated a candidate with a background dramatically different from any major party nominee in American history. Between 4% and 8% of the country still does not know what to make of it yet. They were probably part of the 7% to 12% that were undecided in June.

My intuition is that this group is going to sort itself out late. I'd guess that they are the true independents, i.e. those without strong party attachments. [Many people say they are independent but they actually behave like partisans.] I'd also wager that they have not been paying a lot of attention yet. The debates might move them, but I wouldn't be surprised if these folks sort themselves out in late October.

It is not unreasonable to expect a close race. Some perspective is called for here. We have in our collective memory the blowouts of 1984, 1972, and 1964. However, presidential elections in the 19th century were persistently close. Between 1876 and 1896 - all five presidential elections were decided by 5% or less. The country was also closely split in the ante-bellum period. Between 1836 and 1860, only William Henry Harrison was able to pull substantially more than 50% of the vote. Typically, one saw multi-candidate fields, as the two major parties (Democratic and Whig) were unable to organize politics into the binary choice we have today. So, sustained periods of close elections and even splits in public opinion are as much a norm as anything in this country - and we might have recently re-entered such a phase.

-Jay Cost

Reflections on the State of the Race

Walter Shapiro's article on the state of the race in Ohio is interesting and very much worth a read. I want to talk specifically about Ohio later in the week. For now, I'd note that he is right say when he states the following:

Those who live with cable news droning in the background or check out the rolling national poll averages at Real Clear Politics three times a day can easily lose sight of the reality that many voters take a casual interest in the campaign this far from the election.

I agree wholeheartedly. Political junkies must remember that this election will not be decided by fellow junkies, but rather by people whose attention to and interest in politics is quite different.

It's unsurprising to me that the race is so tight, or that such a large portion of the electorate is still undecided. This is an open election, in that the incumbent president is not running. That can make a big difference. When the incumbent is running, people have four years worth of impressions about him to help them make up their minds. They don't have that this year.

This is compounded by the fact that the incumbent party is not running a member of the incumbent administration. Obama argues that there is no real difference between McCain and Bush - and he might convince the country of this. However, McCain makes the opposite argument, asserting that he's the change candidate. This probably enhances the uncertainty in some quarters of the electorate. Does McCain represent incumbency, or doesn't he? For many, the answer is probably not obvious.

It's also compounded by how different a candidate Barack Obama is. His resume does not have much in common with previous nominees. That means that, apart from determining which candidate is offering the desired amont of change, voters also must disentangle which candidate will do a better job actually changing things.

So, there is a lot of uncertainty. When we examine the polls from a higher altitude, we can see it pretty clearly. In the summer, Obama was under 50% with a small lead over McCain. Today, McCain is under 50% with an even smaller lead over Obama. The candidates have been close to each other in terms of support, and neither has crossed that magic halfway point for any extended period of time.

It is reasonable to expect this tightness to persist for several more weeks, with neither candidate moving substantially beyond 50%. The debates might move the electorate - especially if one side does substantially better than the other. However, we might not see a decisive break until right before Election Day.

As I indicated, the key word is uncertainty. For most voters, the choice is obvious. If you're a Republican, you vote Republican. If you're a Democrat, you vote Democrat. Easy enough. This is how about 85% or so of the public generally behaves. However, that leaves about 15% with either no partisan attachments or only weak attachments. They do not make as much use of "partisan cues" to determine their votes. With no decisive link between either candidate and the incumbent administration, they lack another obvious cue in a year like this. The fact that both sides are contesting the idea of "change" makes it even more difficult. Toss in the fact that the Democratic candidate does not have the kind of experience they are used to seeing - and we are looking at a very uncertain group of folks.

My guess is that they will remain this way for a good bit longer.

-Jay Cost

Politics or Paddycake?

Question: In politics, what's the difference between a vicious smear attack and a tough but fair ad?

Answer: Depends on whose side you're on!

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Vicious smear, or tough but fair?

Some might say both are vicious smears. They'd follow up that high-minded conclusion with complaints about how this diminishes the debate and the American people deserve better and blah blah blah.


Let's put this nasty, mean-spirited, dishonest, cruel, wicked, grim election of 2008 in context.

The year is 1796. The first contested presidential election in American history pits two authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. So, it must have been a restrained, erudite discussion about the future of the young Republic. Right?

No way!

Writes historian Paul Boller:

The first real presidential contest in American history turned out to be exuberantly venomous. On both sides handbills, pamphlets, and articles in party newspapers denounced, disparaged, damned, decried, denigrated, and declaimed. There were plenty of issues. For the Federalists there was Jefferson's sympathy for the French Revolution despite the guillotine and the Terror; and there was also his religious heterodoxy. The Republicans had Adams's lack of faith in the people to harp on as well as his preference for high-toned government...

Adams and Jefferson themselves remained on good terms during their contest and neither deigned to take an active part in it. But their followers throughout the land filled the air with charges and counter-charges.

That's right. The campaign of the partisan papers (the original 527s!) was exuberantly venomous.

I can just imagine the television advertisements.

France. Tens of thousands brutally executed in what the Times calls the Reign of Terror.

Jefferson's response? Celebration. He says he'd rather see "half the earth desolated" than watch those fanatical tyrants fail.

Half the earth desolated?

Jefferson. Radical. Dangerous. Wrong.

"I'm John Adams and I approved this message."

The entrance query - vicious smear or tough but fair? - was actually a trick question. There really is no such thing as "fair" in American politics - at least not in the sense that we typically mean it. Fair is simply what you can get away with. Always has been.

Final point. By the end of their days, Adams and Jefferson were once again best buds. That's a lesson to all of us not to take this stuff so seriously.

-Jay Cost

Update on Obama's First Advertising Buy

Back in June, the Obama campaign announced an 18-state advertising strategy. The states in the list were mostly your traditional swing states - but the Obama campaign had about half a dozen surprises on the list, states that George W. Bush carried overwhelmingly in 2004.

At the time, I opined that the ad buys were very indicative of the Obama campaign. It was noteworthy that it thought it could compete in a state like North Dakota, which hardly ever votes Democratic. But it was equally noteworthy that it did not feel that way about Kentucky, which has supported every victorious Democrat except John F. Kennedy.

It's been a while since Obama's initial ad buy, so it might be worthwhile to check in on the status of the horse race in those states. The following chart does that by noting the state where Obama bought advertising time, Bush's margin in 2004, McCain's current margin in the RCP average, and how much money the Obama campaign had spent on television ads as of July 30.

Status of Obama's Initial Target States.gif

If you look at those deep red states, those that Bush won by 10+, you'll see that Obama is currently running closer than John Kerry did in 2004. However, in all of the states except Indiana, he is not running close. Now that we are in the home stretch, and it is time for the Obama campaign to make tough choices about how to allocate scarce resources (money and, just as important, the candidate's time) - some of those deep red states should probably be jettisoned.

Was it worth running advertisements in these states?

That's a difficult question to answer. It appears unlikely that Obama will win any of them - and as of July 30 he had forced McCain to divert just $77,000 (to North Dakota). However, nobody knew for sure back in June. For a state like North Dakota, $150k seems like it was a good investment, even though it has not panned out. On the other hand, it is hard to justify the expenditures on a state like Georgia. The state's closeness in 1996, Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, and Obama's expectation of enhanced African American turnout probably justified some investment. However, $1.8 million is a lot to lay down on a state that's overwhelmingly favored the GOP in the last two cycles. I'd note that this figure doesn't include the costs of more than 100 paid staffers and 30 field offices.

Plus, advertising in places like North Dakota inflated expectations of Obama's electoral prospects. Now that these places seem out of reach, expectations are being corrected - which might be contributing to the unease among many Democrats. If the Obama campaign had done a better job managing expectations back in June, its supporters might not be so nervous today. [My own perspective is that the race is essentially unchanged since June. At the time, mine was a dissenting view.]

It is notable how the map this cycle largely resembles the map from 2004. The only state that clearly appears to have moved to battleground status this cycle is Virginia. Meanwhile, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appear less competitive. This should please Democrats, but it doesn't tell the full story. The map favors the Democrats more this year than it did in 2004 - but relative to 1996 (the last year Democrats won), several states seem out of reach. Bill Clinton won six states that year that are not really being contested in 2008: Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, West Virginia. He also kept the margin under five points in four other states: Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota. So, my judgment is that this is a mixed bag for both parties.

The caveat with this analysis is that a lot of the RCP averages listed above are based on polls conducted prior to either convention. We'll have a much better sense of the state of the map in a few weeks.

-Jay Cost

Obama On His Heels

This campaign has taken a surprising turn since the Democratic convention. Everybody is still talking about the Republican vice-presidential nominee.

Who would have predicted this just two weeks ago?

When I say everybody is talking about Governor Palin, I mean everybody. It's not just that Palin has excited the Republican base and intrigued the press corps. She's also gotten the notice of Barack Obama. The Democratic nominee has singled Palin out for criticism on earmarks in general and the "Bridge To Nowhere" in particular.

This is peculiar. Typically, a presidential nominee does not criticize his opponent's veep. This becomes doubly peculiar when we consider that just a week ago the Obama campaign indicated plans to ignore Palin altogether:

The Obama campaign has no silver bullet to use against the Palin (sic). Instead, Obama has decided to largely avoid directly engaging her and will instead keep his focus largely on John McCain and on linking the Republican ticket to President George W. Bush. The Obama campaign will leave Palin to navigate the same cycle of celebrity that Obama has weathered, and the same peril that her nascent image will be defined by questions and contradictions from her Alaska past.

The reason for the change must be what the ABC News/Washington Post poll found - a huge swing toward McCain-Palin among white women. This is a very important voting bloc, as the following chart makes clear:

1996 to 2004 Demographics.gif

The GOP improved it's showing among white men by 17 points between 1996 and 2004. Among white women it improved by 16 points. This is how an 8.5-point Republican defeat transformed into a 2.4-point Republican victory.

The ABC News poll that set tongues wagging has McCain up 12 among white women - about the same margin as the final result in 2004. I had been inclined to write those results off, as I figured a post-convention poll like that is not indicative of where the race is heading. However, the course correction of the Obama campaign inclines me to believe that there might be something going on here. On September 4th, his campaign said that it was not planning to directly criticize Palin. On September 8th, it released an ad directly criticizing her. You don't do that kind of 180 unless something is up.

The Obama campaign's decision to attack is a risky one. Negative campaigns are always tricky, but this one is especially so. To some degree, Palin has been treated unfairly since her debut as McCain's vice-president. What the McCain campaign wants to do is tie all criticisms of Palin to the unfair ones, and ultimately remind people of how Hillary Clinton was treated. Team McCain is especially eager to do this for anything that comes out of Obama's mouth - hence the "lipstick on a pig" spot, which in turn induced a response from Obama.

We can assign winners and losers in this little skirmish; we can decide who has truth on his side and who does not. But that misses the point. Here we have yet another day when the focus is on the GOP's youthful, smiling, attractive, witty, female vice-presidential nominee. And for yet another day our ears are filled with the sounds of the Democratic nominee decrying how unfair the Republicans are - as if only one side hits below the belt.

Ultimately, I'm not a huge believer in the importance of "winning" news cycles. I do think, however, that the battle for the news cycle is an exhibition of a campaign's ability to move its message. And it has become clear that the McCain campaign is better at this. This "lipstick on a pig" incident will probably not affect a single vote - but it shows that the McCain campaign is ready and able to defend any real gains it might have made among white women. Once again, it's doing a better job getting its message across.

Nobody would have predicted this on June 3rd. That was the day Obama boldly stood in the Xcel Energy Center and proclaimed an exciting new moment in American politics. Meanwhile McCain, sweating profusely, stood in front of a green screen and gave a rambling, disjointed speech. The contrast in messages was stark. Three months later, it's just as stark - but now it's Obama that's sweating and McCain that's exciting. What a turnaround.

-Jay Cost

Thoughts on McCain's Speech

I typically do not engage in exegesis of candidate speeches, but given the reaction to McCain's address from many quarters, I think a dissenting view might be worth hearing. That plus the uniqueness of the speech's substance inclines me to make a more fuller comment than I otherwise would.

On the first viewing of McCain's speech, I was pretty much in line with Tom Bevan's thoughts on it: it was good enough, but far from great.

Later in the evening, though, I felt compelled to go back and review it. I couldn't get a few of the lines out of my head, which made me wonder if I had misjudged it.

I have to say that it grew on me by leaps and bounds. Over two weeks of speechifying and politicking, it was my favorite.

Obviously, McCain is not an eloquent speaker. He's a plain speaker with a blunt, flat delivery. The speech was written for a man with that kind of style, which made it extremely direct. So, everybody got the gist of the McCain candidacy last night. That's a very good thing for any candidate: his message got across.

The speech also had its charming moments. His ad lib in response to the protesters was just great. With that third interruption, I really thought McCain was going to lose the crowd. His "please, please, please" seemed plaintive and desperate for a moment, but then he wowed me: "Please don't be distracted by the ground noise and the static." He then cracked a big, genuine grin, and followed it up with, "I'm gonna talk about it some more, but Americans want us to stop yelling at each other...OK?" And then another ear-to-ear grin. That was pure McCain. Good humored and bipartisan. As moments go, that was the best of either convention.

And we simply have to give McCain credit for this kind of gutsiness.

On an October morning, in the Gulf of Tonkin, I prepared for my 23rd mission over North Vietnam. I hadn't any worry I wouldn't come back safe and sound. I thought I was tougher than anyone. I was pretty independent then, too. I liked to bend a few rules, and pick a few fights for the fun of it. But I did it for my own pleasure; my own pride. I didn't think there was a cause more important than me.

Then I found myself falling toward the middle of a small lake in the city of Hanoi, with two broken arms, a broken leg, and an angry crowd waiting to greet me. I was dumped in a dark cell, and left to die. I didn't feel so tough anymore...

A lot of prisoners had it worse than I did. I'd been mistreated before, but not as badly as others. I always liked to strut a little after I'd been roughed up to show the other guys I was tough enough to take it. But after I turned down their offer, they worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.

Who does this in a nomination speech?

Typically, presidential candidates use their time in combat to reinforce the warrior virtues. Recall, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!" McCain basically turned that on its head last night. It was not his heroism or leadership in war that shows he's ready to command. Instead, it was the horror of war that made him understand how great our country is, and why it is worth fighting for. He was a cocky jerk prior to his captivity, but the brutality of that experience broke his selfish, independent spirit. It was the idea of America that saved him, and - per the speech - he was reborn her humble, imperfect servant.

Delivered in his blunt style, these passages reinforced the idea of McCain being honest even when it isn't expedient. He's willing to talk straight about anything, including his own frailties.

But this was not confession for its own sake. Last night - McCain did three things: (a) Reminded us that he's a maverick; (b) Told us what the maverick would do if we elect him; (c) Told us why he's a maverick. [So, contrary to some pundits, it was actually a very well-organized speech.] The confession at the end was the "why." He fights for the country, not for a party, because it was in Hanoi that his country saved him. Country first, party second.

This might not resonate with strong partisans who see their party as the protector of the national interest, but there is a huge subset of voters who see politics the way McCain describes it. Get average people talking, and sooner or later you'll hear them say, "Nobody stands for all of us. Everybody stands for their narrow faction."

Ultimately, this speech was very Jacksonian to me. It was Jackson, as much as anybody, who made the president the representative of all the people. This notion can be oversimplified, for sure, but at its root it is accurate. The president should not speak for a mere faction, but should articulate the true public voice. I don't know whether McCain can actually do that, but he clearly sees this task as his top priority, which puts him a notch or two above many previous nominees of both parties.

Final point. Contrary to some critiques I read, McCain's middle "laundry list" section of the speech definitely defied Republican orthodoxy at key points. There might be plenty of reasons not to like this speech, but lines like this are not the things we hear from Republicans:

-I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy and it often seems your government hasn't even noticed. Government assistance for unemployed workers was designed for the economy of the 1950s. That's going to change on my watch.

-We will prepare them for the jobs of today. We will use our community colleges to help train people for new opportunities in their communities.

-For workers in industries that have been hard hit, we'll help make up part of the difference in wages between their old job and a temporary, lower paid one while they receive retraining that will help them find secure new employment at a decent wage.

That middle one is actually quite noteworthy. Just a few months ago, I heard the exact same policy proposal...during a keynote address of a Democratic think tank! I thought to myself, "Now...that's a good idea! Why doesn't somebody do that?"

-Jay Cost

A Strange Night

Watching the events of last night's GOP convention, I was reminded of an old John Lennon diddy:

Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Nobody told me there'd be days like these.
Strange days, indeed.
Most peculiar, mama!

Last night Joe Lieberman spoke to a crowd of 15,000 diehard Republicans. Just eight short years ago, he was known to those people as "Loserman" - as in "Sore/Loserman," the nickname given to the Democratic ticket in 2000. Lieberman, whose rating from Americans for Democratic Action was 70% in 2007, must have noted the strangeness to himself. His speech was directed not to the audience, but to Democrats at home. He did not linger afterwards.

Meanwhile, as Jake Tapper wrote last night, Fred Thompson and Lieberman managed to get the crowd to applaud for McCain over the very things that have infuriated Republicans. Immigration reform, campaign finance reform, and even the "Gang of 14" were all mentioned last night - not to boos, but to cheers.

And then there were those placards. They struck me more than anything else. The logo was simple - "Country First" - but the implication was profound. Country first, party second. It was amazing to me to see Republican delegates holding these signs.

Most peculiar, mama!

I'm sure everybody understands what is going on here. The goal of McCain-Palin is to elevate John McCain - his reputation for honor, service, and independence - as a counter to the reputation of the Republican Party. So, Joe Lieberman gets the prime time address, the crowd applauds everything that annoys them, and holds up placards implicitly diminishing their own party.

What will likely not be commented upon is how weak the political party is in this drama. Our political parties are the creations of strategic politicians who use them to pursue electoral victory. The parties serve the ends of office-seeking candidates. And nowhere in America is the supremacy of candidate over party more apparent than in the modern presidential campaign. The national committee becomes little more than an extension of the presidential candidate in an election year. If the candidate wins, he captures the committee, owning it completely for his tenure in office. If he loses, the committee waits four years to be captured once again. Accordingly, the convention is the candidate's. Assuming that there are no other candidates standing in his way, he can do with it what he wishes.

It wasn't always like this. The state parties used to run the show at the national conventions - but due to changes in campaign finance laws, election processes, and the social mores of political activists, the power of the state parties has dissipated. Today, the state parties are little more than legal money-laundering outlets, doling out money and campaign services to statewide candidates, supported by a national committee that is fully responsive to the needs and interests of the presidential candidate.

The party as it was no longer exists. The "party" we saw last night was simply the product of the McCain-Palin marketing campaign. The audacity of that marketing campaign highlights just how servile the contemporary party is to the candidate. John McCain has essentially asked the Republican Party to disavow itself at this quadrennial convention. But has the party revolted? Not at all! It's happy to oblige. Frankly, what could it do even if it wanted to revolt?

The only bit of real party business that occurred this week was the following, noted by Marc Ambinder and Michael Barone (who is quoted here):

As part of the rules it adopted, the convention authorized the party to appoint a commission with authority to change the delegate selection rules. This is a departure from past Republican practice. Up to and including 2004, the Republican National Convention was the final authority on delegate selection rules, and the party had no legal authority to change them over the next four years, as the national Democratic Party has had.

So, the RNC has empowered its version of the BRAC panel to figure out who wins and who loses in the 2012 nomination schedule. There's more from Barone:

Republican National Chairman Mike Duncan has been in touch with Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean on this issue. They understand that changes in party rules can only be effective if state legislatures act, and at this point both Democrats and Republicans control a significant number of legislatures--and in many states governors and one or both houses of the legislature are controlled by different parties. So changes in the calendar need, broadly speaking, to be bipartisan.

This highlights the limits of party power as well as anything. The Republican Party cannot establish its own nomination rules without coordination with The Democratic Party and state governments.

-Jay Cost

What the Heck is McCain Up To?

That seems to be the question this Labor Day. The Palin pick surprised everybody, and the reaction to it has not been moderate. Analysts tend either to be pleased or pissed.

I want to move beyond their back-and-forth. Too much of it seems to depend implicitly upon whether picking Palin makes McCain a hypocrite, given his attacks on Obama. I don't think that is a particularly helpful discussion, as everybody will probably answer it based upon which candidate they had been supporting. So, in an effort to analyze the Palin pick without getting into the scrum, I offer a few considerations.

First, this pick is not a Hail Mary pass, as was Bob Dole's selection of Jack Kemp. Kemp fit on a Dole ticket as well as Ronald Reagan would have fit on Gerald Ford's '76 ticket. Unlike the '96 ticket, there is a natural affinity between McCain and Palin. Both stand athwart the same forces in their party, both do so for the professed sake of the public interest, and so both are insurgents. Palin challenged the powers that be in the Alaska Republican Party. McCain challenged the powers of the national GOP.

In other words, Palin appears to be a younger, female version of John McCain. She embodies his best qualities. This is why the pick cannot be dismissed as mere pandering. There are compelling reasons to pick Palin in addition to her being a woman. Was her gender a factor? Sure, but I don't think it was the principal factor. If it were, he would have gone for Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Kay Bailey Hutchison, or others.

In fact, of all the candidates mentioned at various points in time for McCain, only Bobby Jindal fits the maverick/reformer image as well as Sarah Palin. This is why Jack Kelly - an incisive columnist at my hometown paper and certainly no fan of identity politics - was trumpeting her back in June.

Second, the issue of Palin's qualifications is complicated. The left is enthusiastically attacking her credentials. The right is just as enthusiastic in its defense. There's no clear-cut winner here. If she were clearly unqualified, McCain would not have selected her. If she were clearly qualified, she probably would have been the GOP's presidential nominee.

Here's my take on her qualifications. Historically speaking, she has enough experience to be veep. We can talk about what happens if McCain drops dead on day one, but that sounds tendentious to me - like asking what President Obama would do should Vladimir Putin declare World War III on the day of Obama's inauguration. It sounds smart to people already set upon voting against Obama, but everybody else will probably just roll his or her eyes.

Does this mean her qualifications will be a non-issue? Not necessarily. She has fewer qualifications than most veeps, that's for sure. Her thin resume could hurt her if and only if she performs badly on television. This, and nothing else, is what matters. The people who could vote Republican this year will give her a chance. Jonathan Alter, Andrew Sullivan, and other pro-Obama commentators in the MSM are not going to sway these people, at least not directly. These analysts could frame the persuables' reactions should they decide they don't like her. So, it's up to Palin.

For those who are skeptical that she can pull this off, remember - Obama did! While Obama might be special, he's certainly not singular. Lots of people can give good performances on television, even if they have had little practice. Furthermore, unlike Obama as of a year ago, Palin has already been through a real statewide election. Two, in fact - first against incumbent governor Frank Murkowski, then against former governor Tony Knowles. Obama managed to look so poised without such practice.

The key word for Palin, as it was (and is) for Obama, is poise. She appeared poised at her announcement, which was her most important day. If she appears poised during her nomination acceptance address, poised on the stump, and poised in the debate - her qualifications should be a non-issue, and she'll help McCain deliver his message.

Third, I think many people are surprised to discover that McCain intends to carry a positive message into the fall. Many of us had assumed that this election would be a referendum on Barack Obama, with McCain serving as an inoffensive backup for those too unsure of the junior senator from Illinois. Just a few weeks ago, I used this logic to argue that McCain should select Mitt Romney, as he was the best among the viable picks to go after Obama.

John McCain clearly does not share this view of the race. By picking Palin, he is signaling that he intends to win this election not just by attacking Obama, but by offering an affirmative message of his own.

What is that message? It is that he represents change, too. It's not the "drastic" change that Obama represents, but rather "common sense reform" (scare quotes reflect what we will hear from McCain-Palin, not non-partisan reality). McCain is indicating that he, too, is a candidate whose election would alter the status quo - not as much as Obama's election would, but alter it nonetheless.

Indeed, it is interesting to consider the two tickets. The fresh but inexperienced candidate is at the top of the Democratic ticket; the experienced pol who, even after all these years, "calls it like he sees it" is at the bottom. With the GOP, it's reversed. These tickets are mirror images of one another. The message to voters from McCain? If you're unhappy with the status quo in Washington, but are worried that Obama-Biden would be too drastic a change, vote McCain-Palin.

So, the public gets a pretty sophisticated choice this year. It's not a choice between change versus more of the same. It's a choice between degrees of change. I like this. And while I have no idea how Palin will play, I like that McCain believes he has to offer something positive and new to win.

I still think Obama would have been best served by selecting Hillary Clinton as his nominee. However, given the choice not to select Hillary, I think he made a wise move by picking Joe Biden. As I noted above, Biden is a guy who tells it like it is. So, he adds heft without damaging Obama's core message. The Democrats have a well-balanced ticket. John McCain responded by balancing his ticket well, too.

All things considered, I like these tickets. Together, they give the public a clear choice. Plus, neither offers the public what it certainly does not want, the status quo. People complain all the time about how our two-party system stifles real debate and fails to offer the public a distinct choice. I am optimistic that, when all is said and done, Obama v. McCain will be one that the naysayers won't point to. When they whine about our "failed politics," they'll have to conveniently forget 2008.

-Jay Cost

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

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

On Obama's Message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Banner.jpg

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

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

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

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

Obama Progress Poster.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the conclusion of his June 3rd speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama's Chicago Campaign

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

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

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

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

Obama Advertisement.gif

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, why advertise in these places?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Obama is ignoring all of them.


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

Updated Map of Appalachia.gif

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

A Frame of Reference for the General Election

Hillary Clinton's concession speech on Saturday marked the end of an amazing primary nomination contest.

Now, for the general. What to expect?

Political scientists have shown that "macro conditions" - presidential job approval, the state of the economy, how many terms a party has been in office - are extremely influential determinants of election outcomes. This year, if we were to adopt a strict "macro perspective," we would conclude that the Republicans are going down, and it will not be pretty.

Of course, these models are retrospective in character. Predictions for the future are based entirely upon past results, usually dating back to at least the 1948 election. Thus, almost all of the observations upon which the models are built occurred prior to the information age.

This fact may be of relevance this cycle.

Nowadays, partisan actors are aware of these macro models. Even if they have never read the scholarly articles where the models are offered and tested - they get the gist. They know which factors matter and how they matter. What is more, they have instant access to key points of data, receiving "real time" updates on everything from Bush's job approval to the unemployment rate. This is just one consequence of the explosion of information technology.

It points to a question. What does widespread knowledge of these models imply? Since political actors know how macro forces structure and condition political outcomes - can they use that knowledge to gain leverage over those outcomes? Can they master the political winds just as sailors have mastered the seas?

Both parties seem to be trying. Both seem to have changed their typical electoral strategies in light of extensive knowledge of the macro environment. These changes might be sufficient to alter the expected outcome.

Let's consider each party in turn.

The Republican Party seems to understand that it faces a bear market. After all, it has nominated a bear market candidate. John McCain is not the first, second, or even third choice of most Republicans. However, they believe he has cultivated a stable image as an anti-Bush Republican. Whether this belief is accurate, we do not know for sure. What we do know is that there is a non-trivial probability that it is accurate. Therefore, we can conclude that nominating McCain was the safe choice for the party, given the macro environment and the party's goal of electoral victory.

I would highlight the uniqueness of this behavior. Contrast the Republicans this year to the Democrats in 1920 and 1968. In 1920, the Democrats ran behind the League of Nations and, by extension, Woodrow Wilson. They were shellacked at the ballot box. In 1968, Lyndon Johnson's vice-president won the nomination on the first ballot despite the fact that his boss's job approval rating stood at just 35%.

How could the Republican Party behave in a different manner? After all, the party's organization is nothing like a Wall Street firm. Ideally speaking, a firm is structured so that relevant information is efficiently provided to decision-makers who formulate strategies to achieve the firm's goal. Republicans do possess a shared goal - electoral victory - but their party is not organized for the sophisticated pursuit of that goal. Instead, the party organization is a federated hodge-podge full of obscure procedures that nobody has heard of. How did it make a decision like this?

We might conclude that it was just dumb luck. The party got lucky with McCain. I find that explanation insufficient - though luck might have played a role. I would point to how knowledgeable people in the party are nowadays. Republicans of all stripes - party leaders, party activists, and even average partisans - know a great deal about the position the party is in. Organizational inefficiency should not matter as much when people generally feel the same way.

My sense is that most Republicans intuited that they might well lose the upcoming election, and so were less inclined to take unnecessary chances. In other words, their extensive knowledge of the macro structure made them relatively risk averse. They would take a candidate who, as president, will give them a lower expected "partisan payoff" if it means a higher probability of that candidate winning. The Republicans also knew that, though they didn't much like McCain, he had a seemingly good image among independents, who are the voters they need in a year like this. All in all, the party exhibited a kind of grudging unanimity in both its aversion to risk and its assessment of the situation: "McCain is a safer, but less satisfying, bet for us; in an ominous time such as this, he is the best choice."

We can tell a similar story about the Democrats, though they are quite different from their Republican counterparts. In many respects, they remain a more heterogeneous group. They are also in a much different situation than the GOP, and so their aversion to risk seems to have been different.

In the last seventy-five years, there has been a method by which Democrats have won. Victorious Democrats have succeeded by making (whom we inefficiently refer to as) "working class whites" comfortable that the party was "on their side." Even Kennedy did this. That is why his primary victory in West Virginia was so important. Rarely have victorious Democrats won white voters outright. Instead, they split them with the Republicans. This has been a crucial component of Democratic victory.

This year, the Democrats nominated a candidate who seems less able to do this than his former opponent. Obama lost the white vote in most primaries, often by lopsided margins. In light of the history of the party, he seemed not to be the safer candidate.

As we all know, there were two factions in the Democratic electorate that were equally divided. The superdelegates had to break the tie. They sided with Obama. Why did they do this? Why not go with the safer bet?

My sense is that it occurred for many reasons, including the following two. First, the party elite (and the intellectual class of the party, broadly defined) preferred Obama to Clinton. Either because of his appeal, or lingering Clinton fatigue, they wanted him over her. Second, thanks to easy access to relevant data, they believed they could afford the additional risk he might bring. Their knowledge of the macro environment made them more willing to take on a candidate with a possibly lower likelihood of victory because they expect a higher expected partisan payoff should he win. This is known as risk-accepting or risk-tolerating behavior; it is different from the GOP's orientation. The Democrats generally expect to win, so they are inclined to take a little electoral risk to get a candidate they really like.

So, both parties manifested signs of sophisticated thinking in pursuit of a goal - even though the manifestations were quite different. In both cases, information made a crucial difference. Party actors had up-to-date knowledge of relevant variables, and acted in light of that knowledge. The Republicans were aware of their dire straits and, accordingly, made a risk-averse choice. The Democrats were aware of how favored they are and made a risk-accepting choice. An important precondition of all this is the information age. It is simply easier for people of all classes to acquire information nowadays, and thus easier for them to make sophisticated choices like this.

Interestingly, while they are pursuing different goals in different manners, both parties are putting the same kind of stress on the electoral system. Republicans looked at the macro structure and determined that McCain might turn a probable defeat into a possible victory. Democrats looked at the same structure and determined that while Obama could probably not pull off an enormous win, he could still win in a year like this. Both candidates were thus selected with an eye to having the final result closer than the macro models predict. Both are testing the tensile strength of the macro structure of electoral conflict. Republicans picked a guy they don't like but who might pull the upset. Democrats (with the final say) are trading a possible landslide for their first choice.

What does this mean for November?

Ultimately, it comes down to whether human agency can affect processes that are largely governed by macro conditions. Presidential elections are one such process. We know they are governed in part by vague, impersonal forces. To what extent are they also governed by the actions of human beings? We have seen both parties try to influence this election. Both have positioned themselves in light of what they know. Will their positionings make a difference, or is the outcome already written in the stars?

That's a big question when you think about it - and it is one that we only have a weak understanding of. Personally, I have read but a handful of books that integrate structural forces with individual endeavor into a cohesive narrative of political change. Most works are either stories of personalities or stories of structures. Rarely does anybody look carefully at both.

So, I don't know what all this strategic positioning means for November. It could mean nothing. It could mean everything. We'll have to wait to see.

Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. The surprise is part of the fun!

-Jay Cost

A Bad Choice for Veep

That is how I would characterize the thought of putting Condi Rice on the Republican ticket.

I am sympathetic to the idea that McCain needs a veep candidate to satisfy conservatives. I expect most self-identified Republicans will ultimately vote for him in November, but their enthusiasm would be an asset. It would be good if he can firm them up with his veep choice.

However, McCain should not nominate anybody with strong attachments to the Bush administration.

George Bush's job approval rating is in the cellar. It has been in the cellar for two years, and there seems to me to be no reason to think that it will be anywhere but the cellar come Election Day. This means that the "median voter" - the guy or gal right smack dab in the middle of the electorate who will essentially decide the whole thing - disapproves of George W. Bush. If McCain wants to win this election, this is the person whose vote he must win. And nominating Bush's Secretary of State will hinder, rather than help him with this peron.

I can just imagine the announcement of Condi Rice as the nominee at the GOP convention. The next week, the media will revisit all of the foreign policy controversies of this administration. Democrats will supply them with plenty of handy-dandy sound-bites to populate the airwaves. That will be the week after Labor Day - the traditional start of the campaign. This is not what the Republican Party needs then.

The same goes for pretty much any Bush official - even somebody like Colin Powell. In that case, the media will revisit that speech he gave to the UN on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Does the GOP really want to have another pre-election conversation about those non-existent WMD's?

After all, nominating a Bush official plays against McCain's natural strengths as a general election candidate. He won the nomination in large part because Republicans who disapprove of George W. Bush supported him. The following chart makes that clear:

McCain's Performance in Early Primaries.gif

Voters in the Republican Party upset with Bush tended to prefer McCain to any other candidate. This is thanks to the image that McCain has cultivated over the last eight years. If McCain were to nominate Rice or any Bush Administration official, he would be acting contrary to this image. This would be a mistake. It is upon this image that the GOP's hope depends. The only way to win with an incumbent president at 33% in the polls is to run away from, if not against, that president. Nominating Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell or Rob Portman or any other Bush official would impede that strategy.

Another bad idea when it comes to veep choices is the idea of nominating one of the Republican also-rans. I have heard Thompson, Huckabee, and Romney's names trotted out at varying points. All of these are poor selections. Each candidate this year manifested glaring political weaknesses. Thompson was a lousy campaigner. Huckabee was not a believable fiscal conservative. Romney seemed willing to say anything. McCain himself was weak. Above all, his campaign grossly misread the party's mood on immigration reform last year. Luckily for him, the Senate took that issue up last summer, not last fall.

Unfortunately for McCain, the Republican bench is a little old. The pool of Republican politicians has not been thoroughly refreshed since 1994. That's a long time. If McCain were young and inexperienced, this might be an asset, as the vice-presidential nominee would provide gravitas. But he's old. He needs vigor. That limits his choices considerably. In McCain's perfect world, Jeb Bush would have a different last name. But then again, if he had a different name, he'd probably be the nominee.

-Jay Cost

An Impediment to Paul?

Yesterday's news that Ron Paul took in $4 million prompted Steven Stark to speculate that this means that, should Paul run as a third party candidate, he could be a viable force.

Steven and I discussed this publicly last month. He wrote a column arguing that the GOP would be devastated by a third party run. I didn't disagree with this outright, but I did assert that it remains to be seen whether Paul could obtain a non-negligible share of the vote (and I argued against expecting a religious right candidate to be able to do that).

At the time, I received an email from somebody who noted that Paul could run into trouble with "sore loser" laws. Those are laws that prohibit a candidate who runs for a party's nomination for a given office in the primary from running for the same office with another party's nomination in the general election. I had heard about this for the first time last year - as it was what might have kept Joy Padgett from running in OH 18. She had tried, but failed, to win the GOP's nomination for Lieutenant Governor. And so, there was, for a time, a question as to whether she could run as the Republican in OH 18.

Padgett was ultimately allowed to run as the GOP nominee in OH 18 because she was running for a different office. Paul would be running for the same office, and so I wondered whether this reader was on to something.

It turns out that he was, but not to a great extent. I did some digging and found this article from Ballot Access News, whose relevant points I will quote here.

If Paul fails to win the Republican presidential nomination, he could then seek the Libertarian nomination (which he would be virtually certain to obtain) and run in November as the Libertarian nominee. John Anderson established the precedent in most states that "sore loser" laws do not apply to presidential candidates. John Anderson ran in two-thirds of the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, and he also won a place on the November 1980 ballots as an independent candidate in all 50 states. In some of the states in which Anderson happened not to run in the 1980 Republican presidential primary, there is still a precedent that "sore loser" laws don't apply to president, because others set such precedents. These include Lyndon LaRouche (who ran in Democratic primaries and then as an independent in 1984, 1988 and 1992) and David Duke (who ran in Democratic presidential primaries in 1988 and then ran in November 1988 as the Populist Party nominee).

Only four states maintain that their "sore loser" laws apply to president: South Dakota, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. After LaRouche won in court against Ohio in 1992, Ohio amended its "sore loser" law in 1993 to specifically apply to presidential candidates. No precedents have been set in Mississippi or South Dakota. In Texas, unfortunately, in 1996 the Constitution Party filed a lawsuit against Texas to get a ruling that the "sore loser" law doesn't apply to president. The federal judge who got the case, James Nowlin, refused to enjoin Texas' interpretation that the "sore loser" law does apply to president. The denial of injunctive relief is reported as US Taxpayers Party v Garza, 924 F Supp 71 (1996).

However, the opinion does not discuss the fact that the true candidates in November are running for presidential elector, not president. A presidential candidate's name is not listed on the November ballot in his or her role as a candidate. Instead, the name is an identifier for specific slates of candidates for presidential elector.

Of the four states where sore loser laws are still in at least nominal effect for presidential elections, only Ohio is a swing state. And even in those four states, Paul may be able to get on the ballot. So, by and large, it looks as though Paul would be relatively unimpeded should he decide to run as the Libertarian Party nominee (though I do not know nearly enough about Libertarian Party politics to know whether Paul would be "virtually certain" to obtain the nomination if he sought it). I still think there are other potential impediments to a Paul third party candidacy - but it appears ballot access is not one of them.

-Jay Cost

Should We Expect a Third Party Candidate?

Steven Stark had an interesting column today on third party candidacies. As per usual with him, it was quite good - and it gives me an opportunity to offer some additional thoughts I have had on the prospects of such a candidacy.

Stark writes:

Every 12 years or so, a new independent or third-party candidate gains momentum during an election cycle. Almost always, when these candidacies arise, it's the incumbent party that loses the election. In 2000 with Ralph Nader, in 1992 with H. Ross Perot, in 1980 with John Anderson, in 1968 with George Wallace, and on back through modern-American political history, the lesson of third parties is twofold: they never win and, because their ire is often directed at the status quo -- thus the party holding power -- they damage the candidate of the incumbent party.

First off, I have a mild methodological quibble. I object to the implication of a third party cycle. Third party candidacies are not like Haley's Comet. Generally, I do not think cycles should be referenced when discussing politics. The reason is that there are two potential explanations for a cycle. It is either caused by some set of factors, or it is the product of random variation. Take this proposed third party cycle. There is either a reason why third parties emerge every "12 years or so," or there is not. If there is no reason, then we should not expect a third party candidate next year based solely upon the date. If there is a reason, what really matters is the reason itself. That is what we should discuss - because it may or may not be in play this cycle. After all, politics is not Newtonian physics. The political environment is stohcastic. Causal processes can be and often are interrupted by random variation - and so, even if there is a third party cycle that is caused by something, the cause may very well be "off" this year.

That aside, I think the column is quite good - and it brings to my mind a few additional historical lessons that can further shape our expectations for this cycle.

First, third party challengers have historically tended to be one of two types. On the one hand, they have been representatives of people with sectional grievances that the two major parties have failed to satisfy. Think of the Populist Party of the 1890s, the Dixiecrats in 1948, and the American Independents in 1968. These are concentrated groups of people who feel that neither party has something to offer them, and therefore are susceptible to a third party challenge. On the other hand, if they have not been sectional in nature, they usually tend to spring up momentarily around a relatively famous personality. Ross Perot comes instantly to mind. John Anderson does, too. Head back a few decades and you'll see that the best third party challengers who were non-sectional were TR in 1912 and "Fighting Bob" LaFollette in 1924.

This pattern makes intuitive sense. A third party can sustain itself if it has a geographical base to work with because our elections are geographically based. So, it can win some states and develop some viability in that way. Barring that, it needs some kind of big personality to drive the campaign, to use media attention to reach its group of potential supporters, who are dispersed across the country. Without such a personality, the party lacks the resources to communicate its message - and it goes nowhere.

Second, Stark notes correctly that third parties have always lost. I think this has some wide-ranging implications for the possibility of such a challenge. If we assume that voters are generally rational, and therefore prefer not to waste their votes, how do we explain support for third party candidates? I think that you tend to see such support when a significant bloc of voters sees no difference between the two major parties - at least as far as their interests are concerned. A vote for a third party is therefore like a vote of no confidence in the two party system. Some voters who vote for third party candidates are probably irrational - they would be better off supporting a candidate in one of the major parties. But the rest of them are indicating that, as far as their interests are concerned, the two major parties offer no differences. I do not see any other way to explain the Nader vote in 2000. Nader voters of course knew that he stood no chance. So, why did they support him? It was because they saw Bush and Gore - to quote Nader himself - as "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Their votes were statements about the two party system.

Occassionally, third party candidates can become electorally viable. It is true that they have always lost, but it is not true that in every year everybody expected them to lose. Think of Perot in 1992. One could have possibly made an argument that he would win on election day. Ditto TR in 1912. These years the logic of supporting a third party candidate changes. One might be pulling the lever expecting that the guy might go to the White House.

Having teased out these additional observations, let's continue with Stark's column.

It certainly won't help matters for the GOP that this year's splinter candidates will probably come from nominally Republican ranks. The media has focused on New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he's actually the unlikeliest of the three to make a third-party bid. The likeliest is current GOP candidate Ron Paul, who already has one independent general-election run under his belt as a Libertarian (in 1988, when he garnered just 0.5 percent of the vote) and would have no trouble making another. As this year's version of Perot, Paul's already shown unexpected grassroots appeal and fundraising ability. And he's so far refused to say he would support the party's nominee, which is always a telling sign.

Then there's the Religious Right, some of whose adherents have put the GOP on notice that, if Giuliani -- the party's strongest general-election candidate -- receives the nomination, they, too, would consider going the independent route. (Some later backed off the threat, but it's still there.)

Given what we observed above, I think we can say that it is more likely that Ron Paul would be a significant third party threat than a Christian right candidate. Paul and his supporters fit both of the observations that we made. He is certainly a media personality at this point - and he has garnered a very loyal and devoted following. This can serve as a substitute for the fact that he does not represent a sectional interest. What is more, even though he is campaigning as a Republican right now - his arguments could translate to a third party candidacy. What is the difference between the GOP and the Democrats, from the perspective of a Paulite? Very little.

Compare this to the situation on the Christian right. At present, there is no personality who has expressed interest in a political campaign. And, as the Christian right is a diffused interest group, a no-name cannot rely upon a strong geographical basis for support. The story would be different if James Dobson himself were thinking of running - rather than thinking of backing a third party candidate. But, at present, there is nobody of his notoriety pondering a run to the GOP's right. Furthermore, while Christian conservatives might be unsatisfied with Rudy Giuliani as their presidential candidate, they nevertheless would perceive a difference between him and the eventual Democratic nominee. This perception of difference would increase should the Democratic nominee turn out to be Hillary Clinton. This makes a vote for a third party candidate much more difficult. It is one thing to argue that there is not a dime's worth of difference between the major party candidates. It is quite another thing to argue that we should effectively support the opposition to punish our side for not listening to us.

That leads me to think that Paul is more likely to be viable. But there are complications with such a candidacy. While it is certainly possible that Paul could command a non-negligible share of the general election vote - that remains to be seen. It all depends on how great his "not a dime's worth of difference" pitch would be. And bear in mind that primary voters for Paul would not necessarily translate to general election voters. A lot of those people might very well support Paul today, but in the general election could see a difference between Giuliani and Clinton. Relatedly, Paul is running for reelection as a Republican in TX-14. This might make it difficult for him to develop a broader base of support - as it begs the question, "If the parties are so similar, why are you a Republican?"

Now - don't get me wrong. I am not predicting that there will be no significant third party candidate emerging. My argument is simply that, at this point, several useful metrics are not indicating that such a candidate will come forth. I say that while at the same time ceding that there is potential for a third party candidate. A lot of people, especially on the right, are disgruntled by both major parties. The catch with this disgruntlement is that it has to be translated into political action. That requires the work of political leaders. And, at this point, nobody seems to be positioning themselves to translate this aggravation into support.

I would certainly agree, though, that an eye should be kept on Ron Paul. There would be difficulties for him to establish himself as a third party contender - but the problems I see with the challenge might be surmountable. He may be able to translate his primary support into general election support, and the fact that he is running for reelection as a Republican might not bother the kinds of voters who would support him.

-Jay Cost

The Futility of the Campaign?

Mike Murphy and Mark Mellman offered an interesting take on the early 2008 presidential campaign in yesterday's LA Times.

They gave some much-needed pushback to all this polling data that has been overtaking us. They wrote:

Although the political and media elites may think the campaign is in full swing, with the fortunes of each candidate rising and falling with every new poll, the truth is that voters -- the ones who are really going to decide this race -- don't start the campaign until much later.

Because voters are not required to make a decision until election day, they remain open at this stage in the race to new information, alternative perspectives and late-breaking developments -- all of which render today's poll results, to one degree or another, meaningless.

Consider this: More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn't decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. In 2004, 54% of New Hampshire Democrats decided within a week of the primary. It's no surprise, then, that in the 2004 election, John Kerry was lagging in third place until only a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Kerry then more than doubled his vote in Iowa and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire -- all in less than 20 days.

Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are no different. In 1996, nearly a quarter chose their candidate on caucus night or in the preceding two days; fully 42% decided in the last 10 days. And in New Hampshire, only 12% of Republicans decided in 2000 who they would support in the primary before Jan. 1 of election year.

Ahhh...music to my ears!

Unfortunately, this is a note that is not sustained so perfectly. To my chagrin, Murphy and Mellman join the ranks of those who have abused the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to make a rhetorical point. As anybody who has undergone the graduate school experience in the social science or humanities will attest, this is the bane of every introductory data analysis course. It is inevitable. Some newbie grad student - working from 90% enthusiasm and 10% learning - is all flushed with excitement after having read his first postmodern treatise on the power-relations inherent to "knowledge"
(probably Foucault's Discipline and Punish) and - not realizing how it nullifies his entire purpose for being in graduate school - trots out good old Werner Heisenberg to obliterate the whole project of studying. Whoops. I guess it's off to business school (although he never seems to go)!

Anyway, Murphy and Mellman write:

Meanwhile, the press ignores Heisenberg's principle -- that the measurements themselves, printed in bold type on Page 1, create their own distorted results, inaccurately advantaging some while disadvantaging others. By creating a potentially illusory sense of momentum or of failure, these pseudo-measures affect the extent of media coverage, fundraising, endorsements and the willingness of volunteers to engage.

I am not so sure that I agree with this. My intuition is that the polls are simply reflecting the elite dialogue in the nation. Average voters hear that Hillary or Rudy is "up" amidst the dribs-and-drabs of news analysis they acquire, and they toss their support to one of them when queried by a pollster. The source of the response is real - it is just not from the respondent. It is a "sampling" of the elite dialogue. So, I don't think that the poll results are "illusory." They are just something other than what they appear to be at first blush. They do not reflect the views of the electorate per se. Rather, they reflect the elite dialogue on the candidates.

I would agree with Murphy and Mellman if they argued that the elites systematically create a fictitious, actively-engaged, Jeffersonian public so that they can think that they are analyzing the average voter - rather than analyzing themselves. What is more, I'd like to see this process end. Minimally, it hampers the elite dialogue. It creates what is essentially an echo chamber effect. The polls are an echo of the elite conservation, but elites falsely take them as fresh voices joining the discussion. This makes elites less susceptible to alter their views when new, valid data presents itself.

Nevertheless, elite analysis is not idle. It has real value. Political elites of all stripes are trying to gauge these candidates to see who will be the most competitive in both the primary and the general elections. In so doing, they are narrowing the choices down for the voters. This is a needed and valuable civic service.

Thus, I think that Murphy and Mellman's basic hypothesis is close to accurate, but a little off. They argue:

Don't get us wrong -- an awful gaffe at this stage could be deadly, and there's no question that early money is crucial. But let's be honest. The absurdly early start of this primary season has a lot more to do with entertaining bored political elites than with persuading actual primary voters.

I don't think that the early contest is for the sake of entertaining the elites. Rather, I think it is a campaign designed specifically for their consumption because they serve an important function in this - and any - presidential election. They decide who is, and who is not, politically viable. They set the agenda. This is not to say that I think this uniquely early start date is an efficient way for elites to accomplish this civic task. They do not need so much time to make up their minds. However, I think it is appropriate and inevitable for the campaign season to begin at least a few months before the average voter starts to give a damn. Elites have a role to play - and their role comes before the average voter's role.

As I have indicated in prior posts, I think that this agenda-setting power of the elites is actually inevitable in a democratic system such as ours. Political elites have almost always set the agenda in our elections. Take elections to Congress. The party convention system for nominating candidates was replaced by the primaries in the hopes that it would "open up" the process and give the people a greater say in who would be a candidate for office. What happened? The parties turned from the conventions to candidate recruitment so that, once again, they still retain power over who does and who does not make a viable run for Congress. Why is it that some congressional elections are contested and others, while there is a nominal opponent, are uncontested? Much of it has to do with the actions of the Washington-based congressional committees, who set the agenda.

There is something similar going on right now with the presidential election system. The difference is the breadth of elite participation in the presidential election, which is at an all-time high. Elites of all stripes - journalists, pundits, Washington power brokers, donors, and even the well-informed who chime in via the blogosphere - are actively engaged in determining the agenda for the 2008 election, i.e. who shall and who shall not be a candidate worthy of the average voter's consideration.

I do think that Murphy and Mellman are accurately intuiting that political elites are engaged in what amounts to a fairly robust lie to themselves about exactly what they are doing. They consider themselves to be analyzing when in fact they are judging. But this process is not without value.

So why has this contest to woo the elites started so early? My guess is that the candidates themselves are to blame. Nobody wanted to be last to the campaign. It's similar to the strange social process I see every time I fly Southwest (which is ridiculously cheap to Pittsburgh from Chicago). Southwest does not have assigned seating. In advance of the boarding, everybody is seated in the lounge. Inevitably, when an attendant goes to the booth, everybody starts to form a queue - even though there is obviously 10 minutes to go until boarding starts. Why the queue? Somebody misread the actions of the flight attendant, and got in line. As none of us wants to be last in line (remember: no assigned seats!), we all start to queue up. Thus, we are left standing in line for 10 minutes with all of those comfy lounge seats going unoccupied. So inefficient, and yet so predictable! Similarly, my intuition with this campaign season is that most candidates felt that being last to start would be political suicide. So, when the first ones jumped into the race, the rest felt compelled to do likewise.

My feeling is that the campaign is just like the Southwest queue. It is not futile. The queue serves a necessary purpose because there are no assigned seats on the plane. However, its timing is inefficiently early. We could all have been seated for a bit longer.

-Jay Cost

Why the Fascination with Bloomberg?

Why is the media so fascinated with the potential candidacy of NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg? Jonathan Alter argued the following over the weekend:

Mike Bloomberg is a long shot to be the next president. Even a trillion dollars couldn't change that. But Bloomberg's vast fortune and reputation for competent management may yet make him vice president.

Alter suggests that he would be a good fit on the Democratic ticket, which makes absolutely no sense to me. First off, as he notes, the 12th Amendment bars Hillary Clinton from picking him because they are both from New York state. So, he'd only be the veep if Obama selected him. And what of Obama? Alter writes:

And while an Obama-Bloomberg ticket would be Archie Bunker's worst nightmare, the presence of a highly successful manager as the chief operating officer of the United States would prove a big asset for Obama, Edwards or anyone else at the top of the ticket.

This seems to me to be a very bad fit. Regarding what Alter might call the "Archie Bunker Factor" - we can write it off, if we like, but that does not mean it would not be a factor. So, does it not strike you as a little risky for Obama? What's more, would this pick not alienate the left? How disappointed would the left - whose hard work in the field will be a requisite for a Democratic victory next November - be? Would this not alienate everybody in the Democratic Party - if Obama went outside the party to find a veep? And, more generally, are there no Democrats who have reputations as "highly successful managers?"

Here's a question I can't help but ask: who the hell cares about this guy Bloomberg? Is there anybody with a zip code that does not begin with "10" or "20"? I'm out here in 60614, and I gotta tell ya: I don't feel it. The fascination with him seems to me to be entirely with the media.

Why are they so nuts about this guy? I think that it comes from their perception that he has been successful in New York City, and their expectation that he could perhaps come to Washington and get things done. Return to the Alter quotation: "a highly successful manager." That is what they think Bloomberg brings to the table. He can manage the federal government and get things done, just as he did the NYC government.

I think this is a naive view. Washington is "not working" not because it lacks strong and effective managers. Washington is "not working" because it was designed not to work when there is an absence of political consensus, which there is right now. Washington "fails to work" more often than not because ours is a diverse nation with many competing interests, and our Founders feared the possibility that one interest might railroad another. They thought that the best way to preserve our republican form of government would be to make political change next-to-impossible without a political consensus.

Mike Bloomberg is not going to "fix" any of this. He would probably make the government less capable of "doing things" because he is not affiliated with either of the country's best chances for consensus building: a political party. Journalists and DC pundits, for as much as they love having stuff get done in Washington, ironically seem to despise the parties - which serve as the centripetal forces in our centrifugal system. If our Constitution disperses power across different branches of government, a major purpose of our parties is to organize and cultivate a caucus of similarly minded people so that coordination across branches might be possible. The parties offer, without question, our best chance at the kind of coherent, responsible government that journalists and pundits claim to love. Their purpose is precisely to build consensus - first among like-minded officials across branches, second among the voters in an electoral campaign, and third among a majority in government. By making a third party candidate president of the United States, you put a temporary end to the possibility of this kind of coherence. After all, everybody in Congress would want President Bloomberg defeated in the next election. Just how much does anybody think he would get done?

This whole Bloomberg fuss honestly does not surprise me. I have long thought that journalists and pundits systematically overemphasize the role of individuals in our system, and systematically underemphasize the role of impersonal forces like our federal structure. If our system is "broken" (which, incidentally, is an ideological point of view), it must be because the men and women currently running it are incapable; thus, we must find a new person to run it. What about all of the impersonal forces that have induced this "brokenness?" Why do we never see journalistic accounts of these?

And, more broadly, have journalists not thought that maybe Bloomberg has been as successful as he has because these forces, which are in plentiful supply on a national level, are not present on a city level? Our national politics is much more diverse than local politics, even the local politics of a diverse metropolis like New York. I know New York is diverse - but only the Congress is a place where a representative from San Fransisco, CA and Provo, UT come to work out their differences! What is more, the objectives of government at the local level are essentially agreed upon. Largely gone are the days when big cities like New York endeavored to be agents of social justice. Now, the goal of most governing officials is to run the city efficiently. On a national level, there are differences of opinion about basic governmental goals, let alone how to achieve them.

-Jay Cost


Since he's back in the news, I thought I would flag my previous essays on his prospects. Here, here, and here.

-Jay Cost

A Follow-Up To Today's Column

In response to today's column, a few people have written to point out:

(a) Bill Clinton's job approval was somewhere between 55% and 60% at the end of his term.
(b) George W. Bush lost the popular vote.

Both of these are true. I was aware of both of them - but did not think that they offered fundamental challenges to my point that the public in 2000 was "tired of President Clinton['s mode of representation]."

I think the real issue is whether - when the law mandates that a new person take the office - the public would prefer somebody who acts differently. The fact that it approved of Clinton is not relevant. It is also not surprising, considering how he so consciously tacked to the median. You can enjoy your vacation, but still feel - when it comes to an end - that you are glad to go home. The fact that the public largely voted for his vice-president is not necessarily relevant, either. It might have been that the vice-president was conscious of the public's feelings about the Clinton Administration, and took steps to inoculate himself. Indeed, Gore did precisely that.

You see, the evidence that I had in mind was the actions of the political elites. George W. Bush made the argument that he did in his convention address only because he perceived that it would resonate with the public. Obviously, this perception was predicated upon knowledge that his campaign derived from polling and focus group testing. Meanwhile, Al Gore made essentially the same argument as Bush! Gore - like Bush - felt the need to argue that we need to do something socially positive with all of this prosperity. He chose to run a "populist" campaign rather than a "let's keep the good times a'rollin'" campaign. He could have said, "I'm Clinton minus the sexual indiscretions." But he chose not to.

A parallel I had in mind was the election of 1960. Kennedy did not win just because Nixon was a relatively poor candidate, though Nixon was. Kennedy won in part because he promised that we would do something. His "New Frontier" was a contrast to Eisenhower as much as it was a contrast to Nixon. Thus, even though people loved Ike - the election of 1960 should be viewed, at least in part, as a rejection of Eisenhower's way of governing (which was, in many respects, to do very little). The public embraced change that year, even though they loved and supported the outgoing President.

-Jay Cost

Is There a Third Term Curse?

I like to think that I have two tasks for this blog. The first is to clarify aspects of our politics that are cloudy. The second - which, I must admit, is nearer and dearer to my heart - is to clarify ways of thinking about our politics that are confused. In other words, I have both substantive and methodological goals for the Horse Race Blog.

Many times, methodological mistakes lead to substantive mistakes. Methodological mistakes can be subtle, and often times they are the product of over-enthusiasm. That is, analysts and pundits are so eager to offer something of substance that they commit some kind of methodological error that, in turn, leads to an erroneous conclusion.

One such error that I often see is a kind of correlation-as-causation fallacy. To be a little cheeky, we might call it the fallacy of the historical curse. I often read pundits who cite historical trends and then use those trends as an argument for why something will happen. For instance, last year, pundits, in their attempts to analyze the congressional elections, were wont to offer a litany of reasons to expect the Republicans to do poorly. One of those reasons was something to the effect of, "Parties of the President always do poorly in their sixth years." While it is essentially true that the party of the President does poorly in the second midterm, it is not a reason, or a cause. It is a tendency, or a correlation. Thus, it cannot be in one's litany of reasons. You cannot cite a tendency as a reason. Correlation is not causation. When you treat historical data that way, it is as if you are implying that there is some kind of curse - that is, an unexplained causal factor that can be explicated only by reference to the pattern that the factor creates. Of course, pundits are not actually enthusiasts of the occult. I imagine they are as "modern" and "naturalistic" as the rest of us. The effect, I am sure, is accidental.

This mistake can take several forms. In one form, the past reasons for the pattern might not be in effect in the current time period. This would be most likely to occur in an instance where your only reason to expect an event is the historical pattern. For instance, suppose that all identifiable metrics about last campaign cycle - except the "sixth year" tendency - favored the Republican Party. How wise would it have been still to predict GOP disaster? Not very. The historical pattern has a cause; if you cannot identify a cause to suspect disaster this year, you should not use just the pattern to predict a Democratic victory - though the pattern might inspire you to dig more deeply to see if potential factors might indeed be influencing the election.

In another form of this mistake, you overstate your case. If you give five reasons to expect something to happen, but one of the reasons is a historical trend that was caused by another of the reasons, then you really only have four reasons to expect something. In this instance, you have over-argued, which is not to say that we should divide your conclusion by some factor. It is simply to say that you have offered a bloated, and therefore imprecise, argument. It might still be the case that, when your argument is brought back down to its appropriate weight, you can still argue what you wish to argue. However, because of the imprecision - we cannot know until we have brought forth a clear version of your argument.

This latter error was on display yesterday in an otherwise excellent article by Frank Donatelli at Politico.com. Donatelli writes,

It is the worst of times for Republicans. President George W. Bush's approval ratings barely top 30 percent. Democrats have opened up as much as a 15-point lead in party identification, a gap not seen since the Nixon-Ford days of the 1970s. Key issues such as immigration and Iraq are causing major fissures in the Republican coalition. The GOP suffered a top to bottom defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, a leading political indicator that a change in party control of the White House will follow in 2008.

History also tells us that 2008 should be a Democratic year. Third terms for the in-party in power are notoriously difficult to win. The only nonincumbents since the middle of the 19th century who achieved this -- Republicans William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- all succeeded enormously popular presidents.

Let me say at the outset that I essentially agree with Donatelli's thesis. This is going to be a very tough election for the Republicans. I am not critiquing his argument so as to promote some kind of GOP bullishness. I am, rather, trying to make a somewhat more subtle point - methodological errors can reduce our substantive precision. Let me also say that his article is otherwise a sound analysis of what the GOP needs to do to make itself as competitive as possible. I am not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Nevertheless, Donatelli does indeed commit the second form of the fallacy that I have described above.

It should be clear here that Donatelli offers a trend as a cause. Anytime you read, "History tells us," you can be near certain that this is what is coming next. Indeed, in his litany of GOP woes, he mentions: low job approval, low GOP party identification, issues that cut against the Republicans, previous electoral disaster, and history.

[N.B. His preferred phrase, "History tells us," is one of those non-sequiturs that is like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. History, speaking either literally or metaphorically, does not tell us much at all, at least not anything that was not self-evident to begin with. Unlike Newtonian physics, history does not present to us clean, crisp, and clear laws of human behavior. History is a messy subject. Historical insights are almost always matters of interpretation and disputation, conjecture and refutation.]

Mr. Donatelli offers a bloated list of reasons for Republicans to be dour. He should not include the historical pattern that he references. This can be seen more clearly if we unpack this historical trend - an action which, I believe, has some utility that goes beyond offering a response to this article. It can help us understand the importance of historical patterns in understanding this upcoming election, and it can offer us some general guidelines on how we should - and should not - use history in our analysis.

Mr. Donatelli writes, "The only nonincumbents since the middle of the 19th century who achieved this -- Republicans William Howard Taft in 1908, Herbert Hoover in 1928 and George H.W. Bush in 1988 -- all succeeded enormously popular presidents." First of all, another major sign of approaching correlation-as-causation is when you read a historical trend that sports an arbitrary cutoff date, as he offers here. What is so special about the middle of the 19th century? That seems a little "suspicious." Another "suspicious" element is that he does not factor in FDR, who of course won three terms (four, as a matter of fact!). His initial argument is about the perils of a party winning a third term. FDR was, of course, a member of the same party as FDR. So, he would have to be counted as an exception. Similarly, he fails to factor in TR, who won his party a third term in 1904. Taft's term was actually the Republican's fourth consecutive term.

Indeed, if we go through the whole history of the Republic, we can appreciate just what a limited pattern this is.

Between 1800 and 1824, the Democratic Republicans won seven consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1828 and 1836, the Democrats won three consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1860 and 1880, the Republicans won six consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1896 and 1908, the Republicans won four consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1920 and 1928, the Republicans won three consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1932 and 1948, the Democrats won five consecutive presidential elections.

Between 1980 and 1988, the Republicans won three consecutive presidential elections.

This would be seven successful attempts to win at least a third consecutive term. How many times has one party or the other failed to win a third consecutive term after having won two? Six: 1860, 1920, 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000. It is interesting to note that in three of these five failed attempts - 1960, 1968, and 2000 - only a fraction of the vote separated the two parties.

Take a closer look at those failed attempts. Three of the five came within 20 years of each other - and they all occurred during a turbulent time in American political life. Many have argued that this period was one of a dealignment that was due to the parties' inability to deal with recurring problems of national scope: race, crime, Vietnam, economic stagnation, Communism, and so on. In other words, it was the presence of tough issues that the party in power had failed to resolve that ultimately damaged their capacity to retain office. Interestingly, issues were the Democrats' problem in 1860, when they had failed to resolve the burgeoning sectional crisis; and 1920, when the nation had grown tired of their idea of America's role in the postwar world.

The historical pattern now makes intuitive sense, which is to say that we have now identified a reason for its existence. Why should we expect a party to lose in its quest for the third term? Our system is very hard to govern over a sustained period of time. We can generally expect that a governing coalition might be worn out by the time the opportunity for a third term presents itself. It has already acted on many of the issues that favor it. So, the issues that linger tend to be issues that hurt it and help the other party. A change seems called for - certain issues need to be addressed and the country no longer trusts the ruling party to address them. So, what happens? The party is saddled with declining partisan identification, declining presidential job approval, and a loss in the next election. This is why parties so often lose elections in attempts for their third go-arounds. Issues induce the pattern.

So, we should be able to see clearly now that Donatelli is "double-dipping." By mentioning issues, he has already accounted for what creates the pattern that he mentions. The pattern itself is thus not another reason to be added to the list. It is not an independent reason - it is, rather, a tendency that one of the reasons explains.

Again, let me stress that my point here is not to engage in Republican boosterism. As you should be able to tell by now, I am in general argument with Mr. Donatelli - 2008 looks to be trouble for the Republicans. I actually might be more bearish about Republican prospects than he because I think there is only a very narrow band of opportunities for the GOP to take up his third recommendation - namely, to separate itself from President Bush. What is more, my intention here is not to single out Mr. Donatelli as being the sole perpetrator of this argumentative fallacy. All in all, I thought his article was well written and well argued. And, anyway, I have seen many analysts make this kind of mistake generally - and I have seen a good number make this particular mistake about third terms.

My point here is simply two-fold: (a) on a methodological level, we should be mindful of committing the fallacy of the historical curse; (b) on a substantive level, the historical fact that parties have recently had trouble acquiring a third term is not, in itself, a reason to be bearish about Republican prospects. The reason to be bearish is the cause that induces the pattern seems to be present in this cycle for the GOP.

-Jay Cost

The Billionaire's Dementia

It is probably the case that, at least at this point, a Bloomberg candidacy in itself does not deserve the attention I have been giving it. However, I have found my time thinking about it worthwhile because it elucidates some key features of our two party system, many of which are rarely noted because they are constants. It is not hard to notice something when it disappears and comes back again. But if something is always there, you can find yourself taking it for granted. And when you take something for granted, it is easy to misunderstand it.

When it comes to the two parties, its permanence makes it easy for us to fail to appreciate its deep roots in the American system, and we might start deluding ourselves that a little focus, effort, good faith, and - of course - cold, hard cash could break through it. We might call this the billionaire's dementia. Ross Perot developed it 15 years ago, and Michael Bloomberg looks like he's about to catch it, too.

Late last month, he appeared on CNN and made some sly statements about whether he would run for President. Reported The Politico's David Kuhn:

Michael Bloomberg's appearance on CNN Tuesday was ostensibly to detail his announcement that all 13,000 New York City taxis will be hybrids in five years.

When the topic - inevitably - shifted to his possible third-party candidacy for the White House, Bloomberg waved off the idea.

But then he added: "There's nothing magical about two," referring to the typical number of nominees in the general election.

There's nothing magical about two?

Yes there is!

Continue reading "The Billionaire's Dementia" »