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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> 2008 Presidential Election - The Primary

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

Obama's Liberal Moment

Last week, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the Obama administration's legislative strategy.

Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the president's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes...

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Yet Senator Obama writes this in The Audacity of Hope:

There's an instructive story about the negotiations surrounding the first round of Bush tax cuts, when Karl Rove invited a Democratic senator over to the White House to discuss the senator's potential support for the President's package...[The senator] suggested a few changes that would moderate the package's impact.

"Make these changes," the senator told Rove, "and not only will I vote for the bill, but I guarantee you'll get seventy votes out of the Senate."

"We don't want seventy votes," Rove reportedly replied. "We want fifty-one."

Recently, I noted my concern that the President is willing to engage in tactics he made a name opposing. This Washington Post story indicates this is not limited to rhetoric, but extends to legislative maneuvers as well.

Why has the President adopted such a highly partisan posture, one he was decrying just three years ago?

The following graph might help answer this question. It outlines the median ideological scores of the House and Senate from 1932 to 2008 (-1 is liberal, 1 is conservative). It runs from FDR to George W. Bush. It shades periods blue for liberal government (both chambers have a liberal tilt and there is a Democratic President), red for conservative government (both chambers have a conservative tilt and there is a Republican President), and purple for an ideological mix (one chamber or the President is of a different ideological bent than the others).

Ideological Scores.jpg

This graph likely understates the extent of ideologically mixed government. The median senator is not the critical vote in the upper chamber. Instead, the 60th (filibuster) senator is. Thus, practically speaking, the Senate has been more moderate than pictured here.

Notice the historical power of Southern Democrats. Though Democrats held the House from 1954 to 1994, an alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats could often check liberals.

Clearly, "realignment" has some explanatory power, but it oversimplifies a great deal. Overall, there are not really extended spans of liberal or conservative government; instead they are more like moments, lasting a few cycles until they are "corrected" by the other side.

Scanning to the present day, we can appreciate why Senator Obama would plead for bipartisanship in The Audacity of Hope. That book was written during the most conservative government in more than 75 years. Additionally, the GOP seemed by then to have over-reached. Preaching the virtues of bipartisanship was smart politics for an ambitious Democratic pol in 2006.

But notice the leftward swing in that year's midterm, which was extended in the current Congress (not pictured in the graph). Add in a new Democratic President, and the country is now in another liberal moment.

Three observations about these moments are relevant.

They have been short. FDR's moment basically lasted six years - the longest of all. Johnson and Clinton's were extremely brief, followed by conservative "corrections."

They have not necessarily yielded policy innovations. FDR won major programmatic changes, as did Johnson. However, Carter had nothing to show for his moment, and Clinton had little.

They have been rare. Not reducible to the grand ideological march of history - they have been partially contingent on historical events, like the Great Depression and Watergate.

So, President Obama has a unique opportunity. He cannot presume that it will last long, that it will assuredly yield significant changes in policy, or that he'll have another chance.

Thus, bipartisanship is of little political use to him now. As a rallying cry against the Bush administration, which pulled the policy needle to the right, it was extremely helpful. However, not any more. When the "old categories" suddenly give you an opening, why "transcend" them? Why court the other side, which will only slow you down and moderate your programs? Instead, the politically savvy move is to do exactly what Obama has done: stuff bipartisanship, see how much you can squeeze out of Congress before the next "correction," and get your name into the history books.

I expect politicians of both parties to do this. Their commitment to bipartisanship is typically situational: they praise it when they're in the minority, then forget it when they're in the majority. Of course, Obama promised to be above politics as usual. That's why he pursued his party's nomination against Hillary Clinton, whose experience was greater but who had the "taint" of politics on her. Obama didn't have the taint, and assured us he never would.

So much for that.

-Jay Cost

Obama Wins On Points

Last night's events were a microcosm of this whole nomination battle. Barack Obama obtained the endorsement of a sufficient number of superdelegates to clinch the nomination. This was despite the fact that he and Clinton - once again - split the contests at stake. Clinton carried South Dakota easily. Obama carried Montana easily.

In the wake of the 1968 convention in Chicago - the Democratic Party opened the nomination process to the public at large. The Republicans followed suit a few years later, and today there is a wide and deep sense that what V.O. Key called "the party in the electorate" chooses each party's presidential nominee.

This year, the Democratic party in the electorate has split right down the middle. We saw that last night, just as we have seen it all season long. If you count up the votes from all contests where both candidates were on the ballot, and include caucus estimates, you come up with Obama having a lead in the popular vote of 151,844 votes out of nearly 36 million cast for the two of them. However, that excludes Michigan, a state with up to 2.3 million Democratic voters that did choose between the two candidates. So, as it stands there is no way to know whom the party in the electorate generally prefers.

This speaks to an important point. There is a thing called public opinion. It is what it is, whether we are aware of it or not. It is "out there" somewhere. We only have imperfect ways to measure it. We have public opinion polls, which as we all know are imperfect. We also have elections, which like polls are metrics for gauging public opinion. These can be imperfect, too. When the difference between support for candidates is very small, it may be that the electoral process cannot determine which candidate's support is greater. After all, the electoral process is the creation of human beings with their own interests and agendas. It is possible for measurement problems to occur. Something like this happened this year. There was an excruciatingly close division between the candidates - and the imperfection of the Democratic nomination process, wherein Michigan was not fully included in the contest, means that we are unable to determine who actually had the greater support. As far as we know, the vote was split.

Thus, Obama has won the Democratic nomination not because his voting coalition is larger than Clinton's. As best we can tell, they are of equal size. Instead, Obama has won because his coalition is more efficient at producing delegates than Clinton's coalition. Obama's relatively narrow vote lead has produced a relatively wide pledged delegate lead, which has in turn produced an even wider lead in superdelegates. The following chart indicates this point by measuring the number of votes per pledged delegate. The idea here is that, the lower the number of votes per pledged delegate, the more delegates a single vote produces for the candidate, and therefore the more efficient a candidate's coalition is.

Votes Per Pledged Delegate.gif

As we can see - Obama's voters are worth more delegates. Put precisely, there are 10,237 voters for every Obama pledged delegate and 10,807 voters for every Clinton pledged delegate. That's a difference in Obama's favor of 570 voters per delegate. That might not seem like it would make a big difference, but it most certainly has. If the "votes per pledged delegate" metric were equal for Clinton and Obama - Obama's pledged delegate lead would drop from 106 to 12.

[Note that the popular vote used in the above chart does not include the Michigan vote while the delegate counts do include the Michigan delegates. This was done to account for the fact that the Rules and Bylaws Committee did not use the Michigan vote to estimate the delegate allocation. If we were to include the Michigan vote by allocating to Obama the uncommitted, Obama's voters actually become more efficient.]

Does any of this mean that Clinton, not Obama, "should" be the nominee? No. By our imperfect metrics for measuring the opinions of the public, we must conclude that there is no clear public choice.

So, Obama has scored what amounts to a win on points. He did not score a knockout. Clinton's invocation of "18 million votes" last night reminded me of Jake LaMotta's taunt of Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull, "You didn't get me down, Ray!" Indeed, Obama won the nomination on a night that Clinton still managed to win another contest.

From this, I would suggest that, as a prelude to unifying the party, both sides need to be a little modest.

The Clinton people need to recognize that it is not coincidence that Obama's vote was more efficient. I have discussed this before. Part of this had to do with the fact that the delegate allocation system contains biases that happened to favor Obama. However, part of it had to do with the fact that the Obama campaign had a better understanding of the system. It found the possibilities and made the most of them. What's more, the Clinton campaign let it do this. Simply put, Obama out-maneuvered Clinton. Clinton supporters need to respect this.

Meanwhile, Obama supporters need to recognize that their candidate is the victor not because he put together a majority coalition, but because he out-maneuvered Clinton. This was a highly intelligent strategy, but it was not a grand feat of majority building. Obama supporters need to recognize that their candidate won not because "the people had their say," but because his campaign out-smarted her campaign. Accordingly, they need to respect the candidate whom they could not beat in a straight-up fight for votes.

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part IV

I'd like to bring my analysis of Obama's voting coalition to a conclusion today by tying together two points made last week. On Wednesday, we observed that voting groups tend to vary their support for one candidate or the other according to region. On Thursday, we noted that Clinton has performed better in the swing states.

The assertion I would like to make today is that this is not coincidence. It is not that Clinton has won the border states, the industrial Midwest, and the swing states. It is that because she has won the border states and the industrial Midwest that she has won more swing states. She is not uniquely capable in swing states. Instead, swing states are clustered in regions that favor Clinton. As we move into regions known to be more favorable to Obama, above all the Pacific West, we find him doing better in those swing states.

To demonstrate this, let's break down demographic groups in just the swing states by region. This time, we'll use broader Census Bureau definitions of region - Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. We'll also take a broad definition of swing states. We'll include all states that have held primaries in 2008 that Bill Clinton won in 1996, and that the Democrats either lost in 2004 or won by less than 5%.

We'll start with gender and age among whites.

Whites By Gender and Age.gif

Three observations are of note.

First, within regions, we see differences in support by demographic group. For instance, white seniors in the Northeast are much less partial to Obama than white youths in the Northeast.

Second, within demographic groups, we see differences in support by region. White voters in any given group are most likely to support Obama in the West, least likely to support him in the South, with the Northeast and the Midwest coming in the middle. We saw something like this for all states in Part II; now we see that it applies to the swing states just as much.

Third, notice that the Midwest appears to be in the middle. This is a deceptive position because there is a wide variation within the region. The following chart has the details for the Midwest.

Midwestern Swing States.gif

What we see here is that Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri tend to fall between the South and the Northeast. The region as a whole is "pulled" toward Obama by the fact that he performed strongly in Wisconsin.

With this caveat in mind, let's examine Obama's swing state performance by region and socioeconomic status.

Socioeconomic Status.gif

We find the same type of results. There is intra-regional variation by demographic groups - e.g. voters in a given region with college degrees are more inclined to Obama than voters in the region without college degrees. There is also intra-group variation by region. The college educated in the West are more inclined to Obama than the college educated in the South.

Once again, we see the regions fall in the same order. Holding socioeconomic status constant, the South is least inclined to Obama, the West the most, and the Northeast and Midwest falling in the middle. If we broke the Midwest down by states, we would again see Wisconsin most favorable to Obama, Ohio and Michigan least favorable to him, Missouri in the middle.

Finally, let's look at voters by region and type of area (urban, suburban, rural).

Residential Area .gif

Again, we find that within a region, type of living area has an effect on vote choice. We also find that within a type of living area, region has an effect. As per usual, the West is most partial to Obama, the South the least, and the Midwest and Northeast fall somewhere in the middle. The only exception is urban populations, all of which seem equally inclined to Obama. This is probably due to the fact that African Americans tend to be concentrated in urban areas regardless of region.

So, what can we conclude? While it is truthful to assert that Clinton has done better in the swing states, this seems to be largely due to the fact that swing states are in her best regions. Regional differences seem to account for a great deal in the variations in vote choice - be it in swing states or otherwise.

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part III

Today, I would like to continue my review of Obama's voting coalition - by examining the swing states and counties. I think that this can offer some insights into the upcoming general election battle.

Before we dive in, we need to be confident that we are engaging in a probative activity. Context is a concern. Hillary Clinton is arguing that she is more competitive than Obama in the swing areas - and that this is a reason she should win the nomination. So, we need to be careful. We do not want to be chasing an idea that overlaps with a candidate's talking points if there is little analytical value to be gained from the pursuit. That being said, we would be unwise to overlook such a data source without good reason. After all, the preferences of a portion of the electorate have been revealed - without the mediation of public opinion polls. Rarely do we have access to such information prior to a general election.

I think a careful review of the primary data from the swing states can offer limited analytical purchase on what to expect in November. If voters in an area have consistently articulated a preference for Clinton over Obama - the fact that they have done so gives us some insight into each candidate's relative position. We could, based on such results, reasonably conclude that Clinton would be stronger than Obama in those areas. This is the "purchase" that this analysis can provide.

However, primary results simply cannot indicate whether Obama would be strong enough. In other words, the primary results give us an ability to draw an inference about the general election - but not the one inference we would really like. We can only gauge relative strength - not absolute strength. This is the "limitation" of the analysis.

I would make four additional points.

First, I am skeptical of the argument that the primaries have merely been an internecine battle among Democrats who will eventually rally behind the nominee. I certainly agree that self-identified "strong Democrats" will come home to the nominee in November. This is what strong Democrats do. For instance, Walter Mondale still won 89% of voters who identified themselves as strong Democrats.

However, turnout has been so great in these primaries that I think the electorate has been broader than the strong Democrats. Since the Potomac Primary, turnout has averaged about 85% of Kerry's 2004 general election vote - and it has been steadily increasing. This implies that there could be a large number of what we could call "weak Democrats" or "independent Democrats" participating. These voters are more prone to general election defections.

Second, Democrats in swing states and counties might all eventually come home in the fall. However, they are the friends, neighbors, and even relatives of the swing voters in that area. If Democrats in a region are articulating a preference for Clinton over Obama - this should make us wonder whom their independent-minded associates will prefer.

The preferences of these independents might not show up in current public opinion polls. Some analysts have noted that Obama is running about as well as Kerry and Gore did with some groups. This is a worthwhile observation; however, we have to be careful. After all, the polls also indicate that 8-15% of the public remains undecided. It stands to reason that many of the undecided voters are these independent-minded folks. They might not decide until late in the season. Others might be registering support for one candidate or another that is based upon very little reflection or information - and so even some of the 85-92% who claim to have a preference might ultimately change their minds.

Third, once upon a time we were not inundated with polling. It's hard to believe it, but it is true! There was also a time when primaries were not used principally to allocate delegates, but they were still conducted. Occasionally, they were used as a test of electoral strength. [Of course, the winners of the non-binding primaries always argued that their victories were a sign of strength!] Think of John Kennedy in 1960. He won the West Virginia primary, and showed that he could hold a crucial segment of the FDR coalition. Lyndon Johnson, after barely defeating Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary, dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.

Fourth, most us are already using the primary results to estimate general election outcomes. Nobody would argue, for instance, that Clinton is stronger than Obama in Wisconsin or Oregon. Similarly, nobody would argue that Obama is stronger than Clinton in Kentucky or West Virginia. If anything, people have come to believe that Obama's poor showings in both states strongly indicate that he cannot win either in November. All of these claims are based on the primary results. I think these claims are largely valid because I think we can use the primaries in this way.

So, let's use them.

Let's begin by identifying the states we are going to examine. We'll take the states that have had primaries to date and divide them into four groups: states that Bill Clinton won in 1996 and Kerry won by more than 5% in 2004 ("Safe Democratic"); states that Clinton lost and Kerry lost ("Safe Republican"); states that Clinton won and Kerry won by less than 5% ("Swing Democratic"); and states that Clinton won and Kerry lost ("Swing Republican").

Let's see how Obama and Clinton have performed in each type of state.

Obama v. Clinton Primary Vote Share By Competitiveness.gif

These are some intriguing results. Obama and Clinton have basically split the vote in the safe and swing Democratic states. The swing Democratic states are interesting for their high divergence from the median, which is roughly New Hampshire. Oregon and Wisconsin swung heavily to Obama. Pennsylvania and Michigan swung heavily to Clinton.

Meanwhile, there has been wide divergence in states George W. Bush won. In the safe Republican states - Obama has crushed Clinton. What you see on the chart is a 9.8% margin of victory. Clinton has only won three of these nine states - Oklahoma, Texas, and Indiana. However, in the swing Republican states - the situation is opposite. Clinton has posted a 14.4% margin of victory, winning 8 of these 10 states.

Let's push this analysis a step further to confirm that we are not about to commit some kind of ecological fallacy. While Clinton is winning the swing states, it may be that Obama is winning the swing counties in those states. In that case, Clinton's apparent strength would actually belie her weakness.

The following chart examines Clinton's average share of the two-candidate vote in the "swing counties" in the swing states (be they Democratic or Republican). The swing counties are defined as those that voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004.

Clinton Share of Vote, Swing Counties in Swing States.gif

This chart indicates that Clinton's statewide strength in the swing GOP states is not illusory. It also underscores a point made yesterday: Obama has done better west of the Mississippi River. Of the seven states below the average for all swing counties, five them fall at least partially on the western side of the Mississippi. Only one of the eight states above Clinton's average share falls (partially) on the western side of the Mississippi. That is Louisiana, where about 72% of Obama's total vote was African American.

The inference I draw from this is the following.

Bill Clinton forged a winning voting coalition in the 1990s that harkened back to the coalition that Jimmy Carter created in 1976. It was built in large part on the border states and the states of the industrial Midwest. George W. Bush was able to slice off a large portion of this coalition, which is why he won the White House for the GOP. Between 1996 and 2004 - he flipped more than 400 counties in these 15 states.

Based upon these results, it seems that Clinton is better positioned than Obama to flip these counties back to the Democratic column. The basis of this inference is that Democratic voters in those counties seem to widely prefer Clinton over Obama. We can take this as a limited indication that voters in these areas would also be more partial. This is not to say that Obama will be unable to win the (Bill) Clinton coalition, only to say that (Hillary) Clinton appears more able to. Remember, the value of the primaries is not that they divulge absolute general election strength, but relative strength.

Let's return to those Republican-leaning swing states to see if the exit polls confirm what the voting data is indicating. Our expectation, based upon the vote data, is that Clinton will have made inroads with the voting groups we typically associate with Obama. Let's see if exit polls bear this out.

We'll start by breaking the race down by racial/ethnic lines. Because we know that white voters often diverge by gender, we'll separate whites accordingly.

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Racial:Ethnic Groups.gif

These results are clearly consistent with what we found in the voting data. White males have been a kind of swing vote nationwide, but Clinton has performed extremely well with them in the Republican swing states. Unsurprisingly, she also won Hispanics and white women. Obama, per usual, carried the African American vote.

What about white voters by age? We know that, nationwide, young whites are partial to Obama, older whites partial to Clinton. What about in the Republican swing states?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Whites By Age.gif

While Obama did better among young whites, Clinton still carried them. Furthermore, she carried whites of all age groups.

What about partisanship? We know that white Democrats are partial to Clinton, white Independents are partial to Obama. Does this apply to the Republican swing states?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Whites By Partisanship.gif

The answer is yes and no. While Obama did better with white Independents, Clinton still won them.

What about income groups?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Income Groups.gif

Again, we see that while Obama did better with wealthy voters than with poor voters - Clinton won all categories.

What about our other metric of socioeconomic status, college education?

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share Among Education Groups.gif

Clinton won those without college degrees comfortably, and the two basically split the college educated.

Finally, what about votes by type of living area? We can break these into three categories - city, suburb, and small town/rural. Let's see how each candidate did.

Obama v. Clinton, Primary Vote Share By Area.gif

While Obama carried the cities, Clinton won the suburbs by a solid margin. The results from the rural areas are particularly noteworthy. What you see there is a 40-point Clinton victory.

All in all, the exit poll data, the statewide votes, and the countywide votes point in the same direction: Clinton was stronger in the areas that have swung presidential elections in the last decade. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that she would be relatively stronger at recreating the voting coalition that has provided victory to the Democrats in years past.

Again, this does not say anything about whether Obama would be strong enough in these places, or whether he would be able to acquire the White House in a new way. The Obama campaign has hinted that it intends to do precisely this, to forge a new majority voting coalition.

Unfortunately, the primary results cannot give us much insight into whether this is possible. We have two problems. First, three of the states that the Obama people believe could be an integral part of that coalition (Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada) had caucuses whose turnout was so low that we can derive little knowledge from the results. The other state his campaign seems optimistic about is Virginia; however, Obama's coalition there was not very diverse. By my (rough) estimate - African Americans, young whites, and whites who make more than $100,000 accounted for more than 2 out of every 3 Obama voters. So, he may very well build a majority coalition in Virginia - but we do not yet know what that coalition could look like.

The second problem is more broad. We are on better ground when we are using the "old" Democratic coalition as a baseline for interpreting the primary results. We have a better sense of the voters we are looking for. The coalition the Obama campaign may hope to build has never existed before - so we do not know exactly which voters to look at just yet. Indeed, it may very well be that a new Obama coalition does exist right now - but the polling cross-tabs, which have been designed based upon experience with previous elections and old coalitions, are actually cutting through it, obscuring its presence.

That's the problem with new things - they're hard to spot in advance!

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part II

At the conclusion of yesterday's essay, we noted an interesting trend in Obama's share among white males: it seems to depend in part upon socioeconomic status. That is, as socioeconomic status rises, so also does Obama's performance among voters in this demographic group.

We examined white males in detail because we had noticed that Obama has sometimes won this group, sometimes lost it. Perhaps the next question we should ask is: why must this trend be limited to white males? Could it not also apply to group that he consistently wins (e.g. young white voters) or consistently loses (women)? Of course it could. The margin of victory or defeat might vary systematically with socioeconomic status - even if the fact that he wins or loses does not.

Let's look at this in more detail. To start, we'll conduct a visual investigation of his performance among several key groups across regions. We'll examine Obama's performance among white women, white young voters (ages 18-29), and African Americans. Since we are interested in whether Obama's performance among them varies according to socioeconomic status, and we know that the white male vote varies by socioeconomic status, let's include Obama's performance among white males as a kind of control. Our expectation is that, if socioeonomic status is having an effect on his performance with white women, white youth, and African Americans - we will see his margins with them rise or fall as his margins with white males rises or falls.

We'll start east of the Mississippi River.

Obama's Performance Among Select Groups, East of Mississippi.gif

This indicates that white females and white youths seem to vary systematically with the white male vote. The difference is that Obama always does better with white youths than with white males, always does worse with white females than with white males. Still, the three groups move in tandem. As one rises, the others rise. As one falls, the others fall.

The same cannot be said for the African American vote. Clinton did relatively well with these voters in the northeast, but otherwise the African American vote seems to vary without regard to the other groups. Actually, it does not seem to vary much at all, instead remaining constant around 85% outside of the northeast.

Now, let's look west of the Mississippi.

Obama's Performance Among Select Groups, West of Mississippi.gif

Again, we see the same essential pattern among white groups in the west - although it is not as well defined. In particular, the Upper Midwest seems to be an exception. However, recall from yesterday that we have only one state (Missouri) in the Upper Midwest region with usable exit poll data. So, while the Upper Midwest does not seem to fit perfectly well, this is not really a problematic piece of evidence.

Once again we see that the African American vote seems largely unresponsive to whatever is altering the other three groups.

So, both east and west of the Mississippi River, we find that the white male, white female, and white youth vote vary together, while the African American vote does not follow along. We know from yesterday that the white male vote varies according to socioeconomic status. Thus, it stands to reason that the white female and white youth vote do as well.

We can confirm this, as we did yesterday, by regressing the white female vote and the white youth vote on our metrics for socioeconomic status, which are the number of voters earning more than $100,000 and the number of college educated voters. When we do this, we find that socioeconomic status is a statistically significant predictor of both the white female and white youth votes, though it does a better job for white youths.

Given what we saw in the above charts, our expectation is that socioeconomic status should have no effect on the African American vote. Indeed, statistical testing confirms that it probably does not. To date, the only significant factor affecting the African American vote that I have been able to identify is time. Obama has done better with these voters as time has passed.

What is the implication of this? It is that, among white voters, socioeconomic status permeates the Obama v. Clinton contest. It seems that one's inclination to vote for a candidate does not depend simply upon age and gender, but age and gender in the context of socioeconomic status. These factors interact with one another to produce (ultimately) a vote choice. White youth are more likely to vote for Obama than white women or men of all ages, but the particular likelihood that a white youth will vote for Obama also depends upon his or her socioeconomic status. Ditto white females. They are less likely to vote for Obama than white males or white youths, but the likelihood increases with socioeconomic status.

All in all, Obama's coalition seems to depend in large part upon African Americans, white youths, and upscale whites generally. The follow-up question is: just how much does his voting coalition depend upon these groups?

We cannot answer this question directly because the exit polls are simply not comprehensive enough. However, we can put together a rough estimate if we follow a simple, intuitive strategy.

First, we take the states that have useful exit polls. Our goal will be to determine what proportion of Obama's coalition in these states has been composed of the groups we just described - African Americans, white youths, and upscale whites. Our metrics for these groups should be as separate from each other as possible. For instance, we can easily count white youths and African Americans because these two groups are by definition independent of each other. The trick is that we believe that socioeconomic status is having a great effect among whites - but the exit polls do not sort socioeconomic status by race. Thus, we need to select a socioeconomic variable that overlaps with white youths and African Americans as little as possible. The best one available is probably voters who make more than $100,000. While it is obvious that some young whites and African Americans make more than $100,000 - in all likelihood most of these income earners are older than 30 and not black. Thus, we will have some overlap, but a tolerable amount.

So, this gives us a target. For each region, we'll develop an estimate of the proportion of Obama voters who are African American, whites under 30, or wealthy voters. Because we know they are wholly independent of each other, we'll combine white youths and African Americans into a single bar on our graphs. We'll use a solid line to separate the two groups, with white youths placed atop African Americans.

We'll against start east of the Mississippi.

Estimated Share of Obama's Vote Coalition East of Mississippi.gif

In New England, these groups probably fail to account for a majority of Obama's voting coalition - in large measure because his victories in Connecticut and Vermont were broadly based. However, outside of New England, these three groups account for a solid majority of his total vote. If we assume, for instance, that 3/4ths of voters who make more than $100,000 are not black and over the age of 30, we have accounted for anywhere between 55% and 82% of his total vote in the Mid-Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the North Central, and the South Central regions. If we assume that a larger proportion of $100k earners is white and over 30 - these estimates would increase. If we assume that a smaller proportion is white and over 30 - they would decrease.

Generally, we can conclude that for the part of the country that is east of the Mississippi River and south of New England - African Americans, young whites, and wealthy whites account for a sizable majority of Obama's total vote.

What about west of the Mississippi River?

Estimated Share of Obama's Vote Coalition West of Mississippi.gif

Clearly, things look very different here. Take the same assumption that 3/4ths of voters who make more than $100,000 are white and over the age of 30. In that scenario, these voters made up about 54% of his coalition in the Upper Midwest (i.e. Missouri), and 65% in the Lower Midwest. That is about what we found east of the Mississippi River. However, as we move farther west, these voters are less integral to Obama's coalition, making up just 2 out of every 5 Obama voters in both the Mountain West and the Pacific West.

What inferences can we draw from this?

I would suggest that, east of the Mississippi River, Obama's coalition has been relatively narrow. It has not been built upon a broad cross-section of the electorate, but rather the intense support of a few, loyal demographic groups. There are exceptions, of course. But by and large, these three groups account for a very large segment of his voting coalition. When we go west, we see that matters are different. Obama's coalition is somewhat broader - drawing less heavily upon these groups.

In a sense, he has been like two different candidates. In the west, his candidacy has been broadly based and relatively diverse (though he has lagged behind with Hispanics). In the east, it has been more narrow, largely failing to build a real cross-section of the electorate, at least outside New England.

The next question we might ask is how Obama has performed in the parts of the country that have swung the last three presidential elections? We'll investigate this tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

A Review of Obama's Voting Coalition, Part 1

Today I begin a review of the voting coalition Barack Obama has built. I will integrate statewide electoral returns, countywide returns, and exit poll data to provide a coherent, and hopefully comprehensive, narrative of how the junior senator from Illinois has (almost) acquired the Democratic Party's nomination for president. I will also take some tentative steps to infer what might happen in November, given the results we have seen to date.

Today's essay will be a broad overview of the nationwide landscape.

We all know the details of the RealClearPolitics delegate and vote counts. However, these national totals belie interesting variation in different regions of the country. To begin to capture this, let's make use of the Census Bureau's nine regions of the United States. We'll examine regions east of the Mississippi first.

Obama v. Clinton, East of Mississippi.gif

As we can see, Clinton has won more regions in the east. Built on her strong win in Massachusetts, she carried the New England region by about 10 points. She swept all three states in the Mid-Atlantic region - Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey - carrying the whole region by about 12 points.

The North Central Region is interesting. Obama won the region on the whole by about 8 points. However, this margin obscures significant variation within the region. Obama crushed Clinton in Illinois and Wisconsin, while Clinton posted strong wins in Ohio and Michigan, computed here by allocating all undeclared votes to Obama [I know this is a hot controversy these days - but remember our purpose here is to analyze voting coalitions, not to allocate delegates!].

A similar pattern exists in the South Central region. She won Tennessee and Kentucky. He won Mississippi and Alabama. Her wins were bigger - and so she won the region by 6.5 points.

The South Atlantic has perhaps been the difference-maker for Obama. What we see there is a 14-point victory for him. This is, by far, the largest margin in any region. It has made a huge difference. If we exempt the South Atlantic from our vote tallies, Obama would go from a 450,000 lead to a 425,000 deficit. In other words, he has netted nearly one million votes in the region. He has also netted a huge cache of delegates - 103 to be precise. Given that his overall pledged delegate lead is 158, this is very significant.

Now, let's move on to the west.

Obama v. Clinton, West of Mississippi.gif

First, we notice that Obama cleaned Clinton's clock in the Upper Midwest. This is built exclusively on caucus events. He's enjoyed 2:1 results in North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas - plus a solid victory in Iowa. The only primary to date in the region was Missouri - and that state was basically a tie.

Clinton won the Lower Midwest. This 6.5-point victory is built around her win in Texas, supplemented with big wins in Oklahoma and Arkansas. For his part, Obama won Louisiana by a large margin, thanks to overwhelming support from African Americans.

The candidates have basically split the Mountain West, which spans from Arizona and New Mexico to Idaho and Montana. Obama won the caucus states in the north. Clinton won the primaries in the south. They split the states in the middle - with Obama winning Utah and Colorado, Clinton winning Nevada. What you see on the chart there is a 3.5-point Obama victory.

Clinton's victory in the Pacific West is due entirely to her win in California. She lost every other state in the region. Once again, Obama performed extremely well in the caucus states - racking up huge wins in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. He also won the Oregon primary by a significant margin.

We know by now that Clinton has consistently won white females and Obama has won African Americans. However, there has been variation in how each candidate has performed among white males. Let's try to explain this. We'll start by looking at how each candidate has performed with white males in each region, beginning with the east.

Obama v. Clinton Among White Males, East of Mississippi.gif

As we can see, there is some significant variation here. Obama won the white male vote in New England, thanks to his wins among them in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut.

In the mid-Atlantic region, Clinton won white males in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Overall, she won them in the South Atlantic, though the figure here obscures some real variation in how the white male vote played out. Clinton won them comfortably in Florida, and overwhelmingly in North Carolina and West Virginia. Obama won them in Maryland and Virginia. They split them in Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina. Of course, Edwards actually won the white male vote (by 17 points) in South Carolina; my sense is that if he had not been in the race, they would have voted similarly to white males in North Carolina.

In the South Central, what we see is an eye-popping, 40-point victory for Clinton among white males. Once again, the tie in the North Central region obscures significant variation. Clinton won white males by 15-20 point margins in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. Obama won them by 20-30 points in Wisconsin and Illinois.

What about west of the Mississippi?

Obama v. Clinton Among White Males, West of Mississippi.gif

Clearly, there is once again a lot of variation among white males - though this time the overall trends do not favor Clinton as much.

First off, I would not put much stock in that Upper Midwest number because it depends solely upon Missouri - the only state in the region with exit poll data on race by gender. Nevertheless, Clinton posted a solid victory among white males in the Show Me State.

In the Lower Midwest, Clinton also carried white males. Though she split them 50-50 with Obama in Texas, she won them comfortably in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

In the Mountain West and the Pacific West - Obama won the white male vote. In fact, the only state in the region where Clinton won the white male vote outright was Nevada. Her wins in Arizona, New Mexico, and California were provided by white females and Hispanics, not white males.

All in all, we find some intriguing variation among the states. What explains it?

My sense is that a partial explanation is socioeconomic status. Obama is probably winning upscale white males; Clinton is probably winning downscale white males. This, I think, accounts for his victories among white males in places like Oregon, California, Wisconsin, Texas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia. Each state has sizable populations of upscale whites - and I think that these are the types of white males Obama is winning. Meanwhile, Clinton does better with white males in places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, etc. - all of which have significant populations of downscale white males inclined to see themselves as Democrats.

Unfortunately, the exit polls are not specific enough to allow us to check this directly. They do not provide socioeconomic data by race and gender, which is what we would need to make a straightforward inquiry. However, we can confirm this trend indirectly. Let's regress Obama's share of the white male vote in a state on two variables: (a) the percentage of voters with a college degree, and (b) the percentage making more than $100k. These are the two best variables we have for socioeconomic status. Our expectation is that, if Obama is winning upscale white males, these two variables will be positively related to his share of the white male vote.

Indeed, that is precisely what we find. Both the income and college variables are related to Obama's share of the white male vote. Combined, they account for 40% of the variation in Obama's share of the white male vote. From this, we can infer that socioeconomic status makes a difference with the white male vote. The wealthier and more educated the population, the better Obama does among white males.

We'll continue our analysis tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

Not Quite Yet

Elite opinion on the Democratic race has congealed around the idea that it is over. Clinton has no chance whatsoever to win the nomination now. There is a minority of analysts out there - maybe 5%, maybe even less - who see her path to the nomination as much narrower than it was four days ago, but who still see a path.

I'm with the minority on this one. I think she is nearly finished, but not quite yet.

As those who know me in personal life can attest, I am a contrarian. For better or worse, when I see everybody looking right, the first thought in my head is, "What's over there on the left?" So, the following might just be a product of my contrarian instincts, but I have to say that I just can't get to where most everybody is on this race.

Two things are holding me back: West Virginia and Kentucky.

The conventional wisdom has it that Clinton did herself major damage Tuesday night by getting blown out in North Carolina. I completely agree. This hurt her with the pledged delegate count. Much more important, I think, is that it hurt her with the popular vote count, which she must win to press an argument with the superdelegates.

However, it is possible that she could counter Tuesday's blowout with two big blowouts of her own in the next two weeks. This could undo most of the damage done by her big loss in North Carolina, and put her back on track.

West Virginia is 95% white, and one of the poorest states in the nation. Demographically, Pennsylvania's twelfth congressional district is a decent proxy of it. Clinton won Pennsylvania's twelfth by 46 points. A recent Rasmussen survey put her up 29 points in the Mountaineer State, with 17% undecided. Another poll had her up 40 points, with Obama under 25%.

Kentucky is not as poor or as white as West Virginia, but it is nearly so. Demographically, Kentucky falls somewhere between Ohio's sixth congressional district, which went for Clinton by 45 points, and the seventeenth, which went for her by 28 points. A recent Survey USA poll of the Bluegrass State had her up 34 points - with a staggering 72 point lead in the east, where Obama was winning less than 20% of the vote. Rasmussen recently had her up 25 points with 13% undecided.

Courtesy of the perspicacious Sean Oxendine, here's a graphical representation of how Appalachia has performed. The deepest blue represents countywide Clinton victories of 30+.


As Oxendine says in his analysis of Indiana and North Carolina: "Appalachia didn't budge [on Tuesday]. She is going to absolutely blow him out of the water in West VA and KY."

So, here's my question. What happens to "It's Over" if Clinton pulls a 40-point victory in West Virginia on Tuesday, then follows it up a week later with a 30-point victory in Kentucky? If these states turn out in the same margins that states since March 4th have averaged, that would imply a net of about 290,000 votes for Clinton. That puts her within striking distance of a reasonable popular vote victory. "Over" will be over as we turn our attention to Puerto Rico.

There are good reasons not to take Puerto Rico lightly, even though the press has continued to do exactly that. I would note: (a) Puerto Ricans vote in large numbers (2 million in the last gubernatorial election); (b) Puerto Ricans have never had this important a role in United States presidential politics; (c) Puerto Rico's politics is focused at least partially on how (if at all) to adjust its relationship with the United States; (d) Puerto Rico's is an open primary, and the residents of the Commonwealth, who are United States citizens, do not see themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

The inference I draw is that Puerto Ricans could turn out in huge numbers. If they do, and they swing for Clinton in a sizeable way, the popular vote lead could swing, too. Add 290,000 votes from West Virginia and Kentucky to 250,000 votes from Puerto Rico, account for expected losses in Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota, and you get Clinton leading in many popular vote counts, some of which are really quite valid. If she has one of those leads when the final votes are counted on June 3rd, the race will go on to the convention.

Am I predicting that all of this will happen? No. That would be quite presumptuous. The problem is not that any of these incidents is individually unlikely. It is not unlikely that Clinton will get a huge victory in Kentucky, West Virginia, or Puerto Rico. Theoretically, I would wager at least one of the three will happen. The problem is that she has to do all three. What's more, she has to keep it competitive in Oregon (just how competitive depends on her margins in the other states). That's a tall order - four big things to do with no margin for error. I'd never predict that she could do all four. I may be a contrarian, but I am not an idiot!

Her biggest impediment might be the development (finally!) of some momentum. With the crush of stories touting the end of the race, will her vote be depressed in Kentucky and West Virginia? I doubt her voters would actually go for Obama - but they might stay home, thus diminishing both her overall margin of victory and/or her net vote score. Incidentally, I did find some good news for Clinton: finals week at WVU ends on Saturday.

My point is that those in the media who are declaring this race to be over are necessarily predicting that she can't do all of this. That's a conclusion I can't go along with. It's quite unlikely, but it is still possible - and it is more possible than the "Obama might have a meltdown" scenario.

Minimally, I will predict that West Virginia will be either her best or her second best finish, behind only Arkansas. Kentucky should come in right behind the two. This alone should be enough to induce some caution. I think it is too hasty to declare her finished just days before two of her three best states.

Am I on to something here, or is this merely my contrarian streak running amok? I'll let you decide. In fact, I'll help you make an informed decision! I have updated my vote spreadsheet to include all contests through Tuesday. I encourage you to play around with the numbers yourself. Follow this link to Predict the Race for Yourself, Version 2.0.

At the time of its initial publication, I had not put much thought into Clinton's vote margins in Kentucky and West Virginia. I merely used the results from Tennessee as a rough baseline. I think this was a bit naïve, given what we now know about the white vote in Appalachia. So, those numbers have been updated. I also updated the turnout projections, based on new data. Once again, you can adjust these figures however you like.

-Jay Cost

How Obama Beat the Line

Last night, Barack Obama beat expectations in both Indiana and North Carolina. Let's look carefully at how he managed this feat. We'll begin with Indiana. Let's compare the results from Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Ohio among select demographic groups.

Clinton in IN-PA-OH.gif

As you can see, Clinton did about as well in Indiana as she did in Pennsylvania and Ohio with white men, white Protestants, and seniors. However, beyond this, she suffered a decline among her best groups. Notice in particular her decline among white women, white Catholics, and union households. Basically, the core of her voting bloc was still with her, but Obama picked off a larger portion of it than he did in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Why did this happen? It wasn't because of southern Indiana. All of the counties south of metro Indianapolis went for Clinton except Monroe County, where Indiana University is located. Clinton won almost all of these counties in the south by at least 10 points. In some instances, her margins were 30 and even 40 points. All in all, the region bore a resemblance to southern Ohio, where Clinton did really well.

One big problem for Clinton came in metropolitan Indianapolis. Obama beat her in metro Indy by 17 points. Much of this came from Marion County, where a large number of African Americans live. However, discounting Marion County, she only won about 51.6% of the vote. Factor that in with her losses in Fort Wayne, South Bend (home to Notre Dame, and thus a reason why she underperformed among white Catholics), and Gary, and we approach an answer to why the final result was so close.

What about North Carolina? It is instructive, I think, to compare the results from North Carolina to those of Tennessee and Virginia. For the sake of perspective, let's add some basic demographic features of the three states - namely median white income as of 2000 and the percentage of African Americans in the state. We'd expect a priori that as both figures fall, Clinton would do better.

Clinton in NC-TN-VA.gif

As you can see, North Carolina performed roughly as we might expect, falling in between Virginia and Tennessee. Nevertheless, it is surprising that the results were closer to the Virginia end (i.e. Obama +29) than the Tennessee end (i.e. Clinton +13). What might explain the difference?

Unlike Indiana, it doesn't come from Clinton's core voting group. She did extremely well among white voters in North Carolina. Obviously, she didn't do as well with them as she did in Tennessee. However, she still trounced Obama among white men and white women, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Clinton's problem was with the African American vote, which came in at about 33%. Her trouble in North Carolina, as well as the South in general, is that white voters are more likely to be Republican than in decades past. This has given Obama a demographic edge in the region - one that has actually grown in the past few months. Note that African Americans in North Carolina went for Obama more strongly than they did in either Tennessee or Virginia. In fact, we can see a general trend in the African American vote toward Obama - not just in these states, but nationwide. It has not been much commented upon - most likely because African Americans have been supporting Obama more strongly than any other group. Nevertheless, as time has gone on, the African American vote has clustered around Obama much more tightly.

The following chart has the details. It delineates Obama's margin of victory among African Americans over time. The states are divided into the South and non-South, then arranged chronologically.

Obama Performance Among African Americans.gif

We have to be careful not to over-interpret these results because they are relatively small sub-samples of each exit poll. Nevertheless, there is a discernible trend in these numbers toward larger and larger Obama victories. The African American vote now goes much more heavily for Obama than it did at the beginning of the cycle. In fact, if we take Clinton's margin among African Americans in Tennessee and apply it to North Carolina, keeping all else equal, Obama would have barely defeated her.

So, we can conclude that Clinton's narrow victory in Indiana was largely because she didn't do as well with her strong groups as in Ohio and Pennsylvania. However, she did do just as well in the south. It was in metro Indy and in the north that she didn't do as well. On the other hand, Obama's extremely large victory in North Carolina was due to his strength among African Americans, a group with which he has improved over time.

-Jay Cost

Reflections on the Democratic Race

Having returned from Princeton, I'm back "on the grid," and wanted to offer a few reflections on the current state of the Democratic race.

(1) Many people with whom I spoke at the conference were interested in Obama's performance among working class whites. Nobody seemed to have an answer as to whether his poor results are a sign of electoral trouble in the fall. I still do not. Nevertheless, the conversations I had inspired two thoughts.

First, I would intuit that, based on these primary results, voters in these places are at least going to give John McCain more of an audience than they otherwise would in a year like this. That's not to say they will ultimately go for him, just that they will consider him more than usual for a year when the macro conditions favor the Democrats so heavily. I think Obama is not yet resonating with them. So, even if he wins the strong Democrats among them who have voted for Clinton - those soft Democrats, Independents, and soft Republicans might give McCain a harder look.

Second, if Obama were to carry a state like Ohio - there is a possibility he will do so in a new way. To appreciate what I mean by this, open the following links. From David Leip's Election Atlas, here are geographical representations of the Ohio results from 1976, 1992, and 1996 - the three elections in the last 40 years the Democratic Party has won. Every time, the nominee carried Ohio. Counties the Democrat won are in red; counties the Republican won are in blue. Note the similarity between the three. The counties that Carter and Clinton won form an inverted "C." Both Democrats did strongly along Lake Erie, strongly down the Pennsylvania-Ohio border, and then they carried many of the counties in the Ohio River Valley. Now, compare these Democratic victories to the party's losses in 2000 and 2004. What is missing? Gore and Kerry won fewer counties around Lake Erie, and they did notably worse in the Ohio River Valley. Bush won almost all of those counties.

It is in the Ohio River Valley where Clinton beat Obama on the order of 30, 35, even 40 points. These are the kinds of voters I expect to give McCain more of an audience than he would otherwise receive. If they ultimately back McCain (again, a big "if" in a year like this!), and Obama wins the state anyway, he will have won with a voting coalition we haven't seen before. Perhaps he will have pulled in upscale, suburban Republican-leaners around Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

(2) I am very interested in next week's election in West Virginia. Everybody expects Hillary Clinton to win, but I can't help but wonder if they'll be surprised by the size of the margin.

We can reasonably expect it to be enormous. From a socioeconomic standpoint, West Virginia is almost entirely comprised of the sort of counties that Obama has done poorly in. The median white income in West Virginia is about $30,000 per year. African Americans comprise roughly 3% of the state's population. This puts it somewhere between Belmont County, Ohio and Greene County, Pennsylvania. Clinton won 72% of the vote in Belmont and 75% in Greene. From another angle, we see a similar situation. If we take the counties of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia that border West Virginia, we see that Clinton won on average 63.5% of the countywide vote. However, if we exempt the counties in Maryland and Virginia that border the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, her share of the vote jumps to 70.1%.

So, how would this be surprising? To date, you'd have to look closely to see Obama's poor results among working class whites in Appalachia. If you only take the 55-45 margins in Ohio and Pennsylvania, without drilling down a bit deeper, you might think, "That's not so bad." That probably will not be possible next week. The whole state of West Virginia should mimic what we saw in southern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia.

How will the press and the superdelegates react if Clinton wins by 30 points, 40 points, even 50 points? Remember that John Kennedy essentially wrapped up the 1960 nomination with a win in West Virginia because it proved that he had crossover appeal. What happens if Obama "proves" the opposite? Psychologically speaking, are people prepared for a loss of this magnitude, having fully absorbed the countywide details of previous results, or will this come as a shock to them?

Obama's impending loss in West Virginia might reinforce the previous point - an Obama electoral college victory might look different than anything a Democrat has ever put together. A Democrat has won the White House having lost West Virginia just once. Woodrow Wilson did it in 1916. Again, this is not a sign of any impending electoral doom for Obama should he win the nomination. States can and do move into and out of a party's voting coalition. Take Delaware and New Jersey, for instance. Both usually supported the GOP when it won the White House, but this is no longer the case. The point here is simply that an Obama victory might look like something we've never seen before.

(3) Despite his loss in Pennsylvania and the reemergence of Reverend Wright, Obama continues to close Clinton's lead in superdelegates. Why?

I think it has to do with his pledged delegate lead. The last few weeks have exposed some weaknesses in Obama. However, from the superdelegates' perspective, this does not mean that Clinton is the superior choice. She has her own problems, of course. More important than this is the fact that Clinton's path to the nomination is necessarily "dirty." She must out-muscle Obama at the convention. That's the only way. After all, Obama's lead in pledged delegates is 154. Even if the superdelegates rally around Clinton, Obama would not disappear, nor should he! He could and surely would take the fight to the convention, and try to win there.

Let's try a counterfactual thought experiment. Reduce Obama's pledged delegate lead by 139, so that he currently has a lead in pledged delegates of just 15. What would the superdelegates be doing now in response to the Wright controversy? How would they have reacted to his losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania? I imagine they'd be moving to Clinton, possibly in large numbers.

But why 139 delegates? That is precisely the number of delegates he has netted from the caucuses, which have all been low-turnout affairs. That's a key point. Even in states where Obama held a demographic advantage - there were presumably enough Clinton supporters in the state to level the playing field. Kansas is a good example. Obama won Kansas by about 18,000 caucus votes - out of only 37,000 or so cast. This is a state that gave Bill Clinton 388,000 votes in 1996. Surely, she could have found another 18,000 Kansans to support her.

So, why didn't she?

The answer is simple. He prepared for the caucuses. She didn't. He was organized. She wasn't. This enabled Obama to rack up huge delegate victories, all of which occurred (at the time) under the radar. We were looking at California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, he netted 24 delegates in Minnesota, 26 delegates in Washington, 15 delegates in Colorado, 15 delegates in Idaho, 14 delegates in Kansas.

I think his foresight to organize the caucus states has served him doubly well. Not only has it given him a large delegate lead compared to a modest popular vote lead - it has served as protection against political peril. My sense is that with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and then Wright - superdelegates would be flocking to Clinton if it were not for his caucus victories.

Above all, this highlights a stark contrast between the Obama and Clinton campaigns. The Clinton campaign formulated a poor nomination strategy. When it fell to pieces, the campaign essentially began improvising. To this day, it lives week-to-week, one "do-or-die" primary after another. This has diminished its capacity to take advantage of political opportunities. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, formulated a superb nomination strategy, which it is still following even after 14 months of campaigning, and which has minimized the damage from a major political controversy.

-Jay Cost

The Party System and the 2008 Campaign

The following is the text of the address I delivered on Thursday, May 1st at Princeton University, at a conference entitled "The American Electoral Process," sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

First of all, I'd like to thank Professor Larry Bartels and the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics for extending an invitation to me to participate today.

I'd like to respond to our headline question, "2008: Where We've Been and Where We're Going," by discussing the national party organizations - and their capacity to manage an election like this.

This has been a terrific nomination contest. Edifying, exciting, a few sharp elbows thrown, but not too many. Above all, it looks like the public will have a clear choice between two distinct political visions come November. Hopefully, this campaign will yield meaningful election results from which the victor can claim a mandate to move the country forward.

However, this process has also exposed some weaknesses in our democratic institutions. Specifically, it is clear that the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee have been unable to manage their nomination processes. The RNC will probably pay no consequence for its impotence this year, but the DNC might. Its weakness might ultimately contribute to a brokered convention that would diminish its nominee's capacity to conduct a spirited fall campaign.

Let's step back and think about these national committees in general terms. This should provide some context for understanding the drama that has unfolded on cable news.

The purpose of these primaries is to secure the party's nomination. However, the nomination itself is only a means to an end - namely, victory in November. If a nominee has acquired the prize by a Pyrrhic victory, he or she might be at a disadvantage in the fall - and all who value the party's success will be worse off.

This implies that everybody in the party has a collective interest in a nomination battle that is efficient - one in which the nominee is selected with minimal cost to his or her general election prospects. The goals are therefore speediness and bloodlessness. The nominee should be chosen reasonably quickly so that he or she may pivot to the general campaign. Furthermore, the nominee's reputation should not be unduly damaged by the nomination battle.

Of course, the collective interests of a group often conflict with the personal interests of those within it. In those instances, individuals might pursue their immediate and tangible personal interests over the distant and hazy group interests. Thus, it is helpful to have a central authority with the power to induce individuals to support the collective good.

Ideally, this is the task of the RNC and the DNC. They are charged with managing their conventions, and by extension the nomination processes, to an efficient conclusion. However, they lack the power to constrain the actions of those within their respective parties. Instead, candidates, state parties, state governments, miscellaneous politicians, and interest groups can and do choose their personal good over the party's public good.

The national party organizations have never been powerful - and in the modern nomination era, their powerlessness has rarely been a problem. In most years, a frontrunner acquires an early, insurmountable lead, and the interests of the candidate and the party merge. In this candidate-centered age of politics, the presumptive nominee typically has the power to ensure that his interests are secured. This is essentially what has happened on the GOP side this year.

Meanwhile, there is no nominee on the Democratic side. There is instead a close race that the DNC cannot manage. The movers and shakers in the party have acted for the sake of their own interests, rather than the party as a whole. And so, the Democrats face the possibility of a brokered convention.

A few examples illustrate this point.

Last year, the DNC mandated that states and territories schedule their primaries or caucuses between February and June. However, it lacked the authority to enforce the mandate efficiently. When Michigan and Florida defied the DNC - the committee stripped them of their delegates. Unfortunately, this did not induce them to re-schedule, nor did it induce all candidates to remove themselves from all relevant ballots.

Obviously, Florida and Michigan were not motivated by the collective good of the Democratic Party. Quite unsurprisingly, they acted out of their own best interests. They wanted more influence in the process, as well as the economic benefits that accrue to the states with that privilege.

In another year, this story would have been an inconsequential footnote. The nominee would have been chosen quickly, and Florida and Michigan's delegates would have participated in the meaningless festivities of the convention. But there is no nominee yet, and there might not be one before the convention. In that case, there might be a showdown in the DNC's credentials committee over Michigan and Florida.

This poses two problems. First, this controversy might be enough for Clinton to perpetuate her fight to the convention - especially if she finishes strong. This, in turn, would distract Obama from preparing for the general election. Second, there might be confusion over who is the legitimate choice of the Democratic Party. Obama currently has a lead in pledged delegates and votes. However, factoring in Florida and Michigan will reduce the former and might eliminate the latter. It is conceivable that, after Democrats finish voting, both Clinton and Obama might be able to claim that they are the true choice of the party.

So, the DNC has been unable to manage the state parties, the state governments, and the candidates efficiently. Each has angled for its own good - and the good of the party is now in jeopardy.

Another difficulty comes with the superdelegates. These are elected Democrats, party luminaries, and party committee members who are guaranteed votes at the convention.

Ideally, there is some utility to the superdelegates. They effectively imply that a nominee must win a "super majority" of the pledged delegates to acquire the nomination. Thus, they can serve as a certification of the primary results.

However, the DNC places no constraints upon them. They are free to do whatever they like whenever they like. This year, this poses three distinct problems.

First, there is nothing to induce them to decide at any time prior to the first ballot on the convention floor. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have seen a large portion of them hold back from endorsing one candidate or another. They seem to be waiting to move when the personal risks are minimal. As a consequence, the nomination battle drags on - and the last month has been very rough on the front running Obama.

Second, there is nothing that binds them to their endorsements. We saw this morning that former DNC chairman Joe Andrew switched his endorsement from Clinton to Obama to bring about a speedy end to the nomination. Ironically, Andrew's ability to switch his support might prolong the battle. Obama is closing Clinton's superdelegate lead now. If Clinton is ultimately able to make a credible claim that she is the choice of Democrats nationwide, what is to stop these superdelegates from returning to Clinton?

Third, there are no rules to guide the choices of the superdelegates. They can decide on whatever grounds they like. Thus, they could make the nomination process even more incoherent than it already is - as the collective choice of the superdelegates is merely an aggregation of irreconcilable individual motivations. If some choose based on electability, some choose based on legitimacy, some choose based on constituent instructions, and some choose based on personal preferences - the party risks a nominee who has acquired the nomination by seemingly arbitrary means.

All three of these issues imply confusion and delay. Howard Dean has said that he wants the superdelegates to decide by early June. This may in fact happen. Unfortunately, the absence of boundaries placed upon them mean that it might not happen, or that - even if it does happen - the event will be meaningless, as the apparent loser vows to try to flip the superdelegates to his or her side.

None of this implies that the convention will necessarily be brokered. There is a good chance it will not be - that Obama will find a way to push Clinton out prior to August. The point is that, for Democrats, the risk that it will be brokered is far too high. What is more, this is needless risk. There is no benefit the party receives for the risk of a brokered convention.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is too late for this cycle to intervene. Events will play out however they will - little can be done. However, I think this cycle provides an opportunity for both parties to think proactively about the next cycle, to consider strengthening their national party committees. Why not grant them the authority to control their own destinies, to manage their collective interests? It seems to me that such self-control would be a marked improvement over what we have now. I certainly think that - if Howard Dean had some real power to control those within his party's coalition - the Democrats would be in much less jeopardy.

Minimally, I would make the following suggestion. At its core, the current nomination system is a disjointed hybrid of the old, state party-centered way of choosing nominees and the new way that places power with rank-and-file partisans. The reforms of the 1970s did not amount to root-and-branch changes, but rather 20th century updates to a 19th century system.

Perhaps this accounts for the powerlessness of the national committees. They are tasked with bringing coherence to an incoherent system. I would suggest that whatever changes are made - whether the national parties are strengthened or not - the goal should be to impose coherence of form and purpose. Right now, both processes have one foot in the past and one foot in the present. This is, I think, unsustainable in the long run.

Thank you.

-Jay Cost

Questions without Answers

There is a continuing conversation about whether Barack Obama can win working class whites in November. Some, such as John Judis, have argued that perhaps he cannot. Like McGovern, he will cede those voters to the Republicans. Others have argued that disaffection with Bush and the GOP will overcome any problems Obama might have with these voters.

So, who is right? I do not know. In fact, I don't think the question can be answered.

Before we get into this, we should probably be more specific. After all, it is wrong to assert that Obama cannot win the white working class. He did exactly that in Wisconsin. His problem has been the white working class in certain geographical reasons. The following graph, provided by Sean Oxendine, tells the tale.


Obama's weakest performances among whites have been in Appalachia, which is traced in solid black. Oxendine has put counties that Obama won in green, counties that Clinton won in blue. Note the expanse of deep, dark blue that moves from Mississippi to New York. This is where Obama has had his greatest problems. This is why Clinton will not drop out next week, even if she loses Indiana. West Virginia comes the week after, and Kentucky the week after that. She's bound to win both, and candidates do not drop out immediately prior to impending victories.

In all likelihood, weak general election performances in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia will not cost Obama the presidency - though he would be the first Democrat ever to win the White House having lost all three. The trouble comes with southern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

To appreciate Obama's potential dilemma, consider the following chart. It examines Clinton's primary victories in the counties of metropolitan Pittsburgh compared to the general election performance of Republican candidates dating back to 1972.

Clinton and the GOP in Pittsburgh.gif

The first thing you'll notice is that the term "Reagan Democrat" is a bit of a misnomer here. In fact, Reagan barely improved over Ford, and his landslide reelection was nothing compared to Nixon's. Aside from Nixon, George W. Bush has performed best in metropolitan Pittsburgh.

Next, notice the wide variability in vote returns. Outside Allegheny County, where the African American vote provides a solid base for the Democrats, we see twenty-point swings in these counties.

Finally, turn to the primary results from last week. Obama did very poorly across the entire metropolitan area. Allegheny County was the sole exception. Interestingly, Fayette County is the poorest county in all of Pennsylvania, and no Pennsylvania county supported Clinton more strongly.

This is what John Judis is worried about. Even if you allocate most of Clinton's voters to Obama in November, he still might face trouble in metropolitan Pittsburgh. It might be that metro Pittsburgh Democrats, by swinging so heavily to Clinton, have indicated that the region as a whole is unimpressed by Obama and will therefore back McCain. Even if strong Democrats support Obama - weak Democrats, Independents, and persuadable Republicans might not.

What happens if counties like Fayette swing against Obama? It depends on how big the swing is. Would it be on the order of 1984, 2004, or (worst case scenario) 1972? Depending on the size of the swing, Pennsylvania could become trouble for him. After all, Obama had problems not just in metro Pittsburgh, but also in the northeast. He lost Lackawanna County by 48 points, and Luzerne County by 50 points. Kerry won both counties in 2004. Obama should pull a big victory out of Philadelphia, but trouble in the northeast and southwest would put more pressure on metro Philly to perform.

Ohio could also be trouble. Bill Clinton won the state in 1996 largely because he won the same counties that gave Obama just 30% of the primary vote. These are the counties that hug the Ohio River Valley in the second, sixth, and eighteenth congressional districts. Again, Obama might be able to improve on Kerry in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus - but trouble in the southeast would put more pressure on these areas.

Obama might also have trouble in Missouri. Oxendine's map does not indicate it, but he was very weak in southern Missouri, especially in the seventh and eighth districts. Many of these counties split their votes in 1996, which is one reason why Bill Clinton won the state twelve years ago.

In all, these results have been so lopsided that people have begun to wonder about Obama. Can he hold the line in these places? If he can't, will that cost him these states, and therefore the presidency itself? Some people see this happening. Some do not. This is what has brought about this discussion. His poor showings in these places is a bit of a puzzle, and has induced a debate.

What I find interesting about the conversation over places like Fayette County is that people from there are not really participating in it, at least on their own terms. Their role in the discussion is mediated by the public opinion survey. They merely answer the questions the pollsters ask them.

So, if you think about it, the voters' ability to influence the conversation is really quite constrained. In a statewide survey of Pennsylvania, you might get three or four residents from Fayette who answer "yes" or "no" to a handful of questions. That's it. No amplification permitted.

This makes me wonder about these competing theories. Just how much do they depend on the theorists, and how much on the voters?

What is more, the candidate in question happens to be black. This further limits the utility of the polls. There has been a heated debate in political science for a quarter century over whether white America has become less racist, or whether its racism has become less transparent. Researchers have found that whites now tend to answer straightforward questions about race in a much less racist way. However, some researchers claim to detect racism in responses to seemingly unrelated questions. Others vehemently disagree. Putting aside the merits of the arguments pro and con, the point is that polls have failed to arbitrate the dispute. Researchers look at the same answers to the same questions, yet see two different opinions.

Those outside the academy have been struggling with similar difficulties as regards the "Bradley Effect." Like so-called "latent racism," the issue hinges on whether public opinion surveys give us a clear read on the thinking of the American voter.

Unfortunately, they probably do not. They are limited, imperfect tools for understanding him - especially on the issue of race. Above all, they tightly restrict his role - and therefore limit his ability to influence our conclusions about him. It is very possible for a researcher or pundit to approach the polls with erroneous preconceived notions, and have the data's ambiguity "validate" the false theory.

The problem is that we are exclusively dependent upon the polls for our understanding of public opinion. Nobody is really going "out there" to interact with average people, to find out what they are thinking. We have the polls, and that is all we have. So, we only know as much as they tell us. When they are silent, ambiguous, or misleading, we are ignorant.

They did not always monopolize our knowledge base. While studying for my qualifying exam in American politics several years ago, one of my favorite reads was a dusty old book called Political Ideology by Robert Lane. Unfortunately, it is no longer part of the canon. I only read it by mistake. My department gave me an outdated reading list to study from, and I read it before the error was corrected. I'm glad I did. It is a fascinating read, not so much for its conclusions, but for its methodology. Lane engaged in detailed, dialectical conversations with a group of fifteen men from "Eastport, USA." His study was certainly not wide, but it was very deep.

For better or worse, public opinion researchers have not embraced Lane's method. Today, research is dependent upon survey data. Academics develop abstract theories of how voters think, and test them via these surveys. While some academics interact with their subjects, this is by no means required for publication. The same goes for analysts outside the academy. Extended, dialectical conversations are not required for opining on the average voter. Instead, the latest readings from Gallup are.

There are good reasons to go with the public opinion survey over Lane's methodology. If I were only going to select one method, I'd select the former without thinking twice. Lane's methodology is simply too subjective. However, the objectivity of the survey comes at a great cost - namely, distance from our subjects. This distance gives the answers to the survey questions ambiguity, and thus an opportunity for subjectivity to weasel its way back in. Ideally, both methods should be employed. The public opinion survey, with its objective and quantifiable answers to specific questions, should be supplemented with extensive conversations with our subjects.

Practically speaking, this kind of methodological pluralism rarely happens - though there are exceptions. Instead, most researchers rely exclusively on the polls. This is a very unfortunate development. It is particularly debilitating when it comes to understanding Obama and Appalachian whites. As should be clear from the discussion of "latent racism" and the "Bradley Effect," polls are particularly unhelpful here. Race is a hard topic to explore from thirty thousand feet, which is essentially what the polls do.

What we need, then, is somebody like Robert Lane. We need an expert who is up-to-date on the latest scholarly research, and who has spent time soaking-and-poking in places like Fayette County to see whether people there are willing to vote for Obama. As far as I know, there is no such expert.

And so, we have no answers, just questions.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Success in Central Pennsylvania

On Wednesday, I offered an initial analysis of the Pennsylvania primary. In it, I argued that Clinton did roughly as well with her core demographic groups in Pennsylvania as she did in Ohio.

Yesterday, I was corresponding with a friend of mine who noted that Clinton's performance among certain groups worsened relative to Ohio, and that she made up the difference because her best groups were more populous.

The most striking instance of this was Clinton's victory among the elderly. Clinton won the elderly by 46 points in Ohio, but by just 26 in Pennsylvania. According to this hypothesis, what made up the gap is that the elderly constituted 14% of the electorate in Ohio, compared to 22% in Pennsylvania. The upshot of this is that if you take Clinton's vote margins in Pennsylvania, apply them to the demographics of Ohio, the latter would have been much closer.

However, there is a catch. Can we take the Pennsylvania results and place them with the Ohio demographics? The validity of that action depends upon how similar the two states are. I argued in March that Ohio could give us a rough estimate of what to expect in Pennsylvania. In a situation such as that, where there is not much data and we have to use what we can find, bringing Ohio into a discussion of Pennsylvania was very useful. However, as noted at the time, there are real limits to this line of analysis. Pennsylvania is a very diverse state. Some places have a lot in common with Ohio. Some places do not.

So, this offers us an interesting analytical question. Did geography play a factor in the Pennsylvania race? More specifically, how close were the results in certain parts of the state to the results in Ohio?

An easy way to test this would be to carve up the exit polls by region to create more detailed cross-tabulations. We'd look not only at how Clinton did among the elderly statewide, but the elderly in the southeast, the southwest, etc. Unfortunately, we cannot do this. We do not have access to this kind of data.

We can approach this in another way, using the countywide vote results. In March, we used linear regression to build a predictive model for countywide Ohio results based on median white income, the percentage of African Americans in a county, and the percentage of residents aged 20 to 24. We can tweak this model to work for Pennsylvania. In fact, we can build a model to explain Pennsylvania and Ohio at the same time. We'll use the three variables mentioned above, plus the percentage of senior citizens among all whites in a county.

Remember that our analytical question is whether voters in certain parts of Pennsylvania behaved like Ohio voters. Accordingly, we'll divide Pennsylvania into five segments: southwest, northwest, central, southeast, and northeast. Our predictive model will include a factor for each of them. The idea behind this is that if Obama did better in a given Pennsylvania region relative to Ohio - controlling for race, income, and age - it will be picked up by one of these variables.

We might expect Obama to have improved relative to Ohio in the southeast. However, this does not appear to have been the case. When we control for race, income, and age, we get roughly the same results in Ohio and southeast Pennsylvania. The same goes for southwest Pennsylvania.

What is significant is the variable that captures counties in central Pennsylvania. This was surprising. The model indicates that, controlling for race, income, and age, Obama performed better in central Pennsylvania than he did in Ohio. Additionally, there is a modest statistical significance to the variables for the northeast and northwest segments of the state. However, when we use a more expansive definition of central Pennsylvania, re-classifying the counties in the northeast and northwest segments that abut the center segment as part of the center, this significance washes away.

What is the upshot of this? Obama did not improve relative to Ohio in Erie, Pittsburgh, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, or even Philadelphia. However, he did improve in the "Middle T" of the state. This improvement was not puny. If we compare a county in Ohio to one in central Pennsylvania with similar racial, income, and age demographics, we should find Clinton's margin to be 7 to 17 points smaller in the Pennsylvania county.

Let's enliven this with a graphical illustration.

First, let's build a simple predictive model of Ohio countywide returns based upon median white income. We know, of course, that other variables are important factors. We just finished building a comprehensive model, after all. However, median white income is the best predictor, and our task here is just to illustrate the point.

This model gives us a line to graph. It looks like this.

Ohio Predictions.gif

The idea here is that we plug in the value of median white income for an Ohio county, and we get a prediction for Clinton's margin of victory in the county.

Next, we place on top of this graph a scatter plot of the counties in each segment of Pennsylvania.* What we are looking for is whether the Pennsylvania observations systematically fall above or below the line. We expect that there will be no systematic pattern for the counties of the southwest, southeast, northwest, or northeast. They will fall above or below the line randomly because each segment of the state behaved roughly similar to Ohio. However, we do expect a systematic difference between this line and central Pennsylvania counties. In particular, we expect the observations to fall systematically below this line because Clinton's margins should be smaller in central Pennsylvania.

Let's check the northeast, northwest, and southeast first.

OH and PA 1.gif

There seems to be no pattern here. The counties in these segments of Pennsylvania do not fall systematically above or below the line. Next, let's check the southwest and the center.

OH and PA 2.gif

Notice how the counties of southwestern Pennsylvania fall very tightly along the line. No part of the state mimicked Ohio more closely than southwest Pennsylvania.

Next, notice the two counties toward the bottom. One of them is Centre County, home to Penn State. The other is Union County, home to Bucknell University. So, the fact that Clinton "underperformed" here should come as no surprise.

Placing them aside, we can notice that the remaining central counties fall systematically below the Ohio prediction line. This means that Clinton's margins in central Pennsylvania were smaller than they "should" have been. This is exactly what we found above. Controlling for race, income, and age, Obama did better in central Pennsylvania than he did in Ohio. We can't say that about any other part of Pennsylvania.

This is not to imply that he did particularly well in central PA. Clinton still won the counties by an average of 25 points. The point is that, if this area were behaving like Ohio or the rest of Pennsylvania, she would have won them by something closer to 33 points.

What might explain this result? It is hard to say, though it is noteworthy that central Pennsylvania is the most Republican part of the state. We have found again and again in this primary season that, outside of the South, white Democrats in heavily Republican areas tend to prefer Obama more than other areas. It is unclear what has caused this trend, but the observations in central Pennsylvania are consistent with it.

Finally, we should note the irony of central Pennsylvania's support of Obama. These are the locations where you can find many of the "small towns" about which Obama was speaking in San Francisco - and yet they seemed to be tilted in his favor. In a certain sense, small town Pennsylvanians preferred Obama more than the rest of the state!


[*] We'll display only the counties where the African American population is less than or equal to 10%. The reason for this is that, as the African American population increases, the tightness of the dispersion of the data points decreases. Remember that this is only for the purposes of illustration. Our linear regression model accounted for this perfectly well.

-Jay Cost

A Review of the Pennsylvania Primary

Hillary Clinton won a strong victory yesterday in Pennsylvania. As expected, her voting coalition was quite similar to the one she had in Ohio and in previous non-southern contests. This is another sign that the basic demographic divide separating Obama and Clinton remains in place, some three and a half months after voting began.

The following chart details this by comparing Clinton's performance among the select demographic groups in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

OH and PA Demographics.gif

By and large, we can see why Pennsylvania and Ohio produced similar results in the aggregate. Clinton did roughly as well these groups in both states. Obama, for his part, improved here and there on her best Ohio groups. For instance, he trimmed her lead among white men. However, Clinton minimized this by doing slightly better with some of Obama's best groups - like, for instance, the college educated. Overall, it added up to a roughly similar result. Clinton won Ohio by 10.3%. She won Pennsylvania by 9.4%.

What we see, then, is what we have seen again and again in this contest. Clinton continues to do well with "downscale" whites. Obama does well with "upscale" whites and African Americans. What is intriguing about this result is not just that it is similar to Ohio - but also that it is similar after seven weeks and millions of dollars in campaign expenditures. Clearly, these voting groups are entrenched.

Let's amplify this analysis with a look at how both candidates did in each region of this diverse state.

Clinton Share of PA Vote By Region.gif

These results are as we might have expected. Clinton dominated the western portion of the state - winning Erie in the northwest and Pittsburgh in the southwest. What is more, if you look at the counties in the far southwest corner of the state, you'll see that Clinton's margins were quite lopsided. For instance, Fayette County gave Clinton 78.9% of the vote. This, I think, is an indication of how West Virginia will go. Expect Clinton to win the state overwhelmingly. A 40-point victory does not seem unimaginable to me.

She ran strong in the northeast - winning Scranton and its surroundings. Furthermore, while the chart does not indicate it, Clinton performed extremely well in the "Middle T" of Pennsylvania - the great rural expanse that stretches across the center of the state. Obama only broke her winning streak in Centre County (home to Penn State), neighboring Union County, and Dauphin County (home to Harrisburg).

In the east, Obama ran strong in Philadelphia County, but the two split the five suburban counties. Clinton also won the Lehigh Valley. Additionally, the two split fast-growing York and Lancaster counties in the southeast.

All in all, it was a strong, and generally predictable win for Hillary Clinton. But what does it mean?

We can say the following. If the superdelegates had grown concerned after Ohio about Obama's ability to win lower income whites in the general election - these results will not alleviate their worries. Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Erie all swung decisively for Clinton. If Ohio had them worried, so will these results.

As for whether it will serve Clinton's short-term goal of spinning herself as still having a chance to capture the nomination - that remains to be seen. That will be a matter up to the media, potential Clinton donors, and superdelegates. As of this writing, she was up by 9.4% in the Pennsylvania vote. Whether this is "enough" is not a question I can answer.

Nevertheless, I can say the following. As of this writing, Clinton has netted 216,000 votes from the Keystone State. Last month, when working out my "Predict the Race for Yourself" spreadsheet, I inserted values that seemed to be favorable numbers for Clinton that were also doable. These were not meant as predictions, but rather as an illustration of how Clinton might come back to win at least one valid popular vote count. The number of votes inserted for Pennsylvania was 211,000. I took that to be a reasonably optimistic outcome for her. She basically met that goal last night. This implies that she is "on track" to catch Obama in one of the more valid vote counts. It won't be easy, but she can still do it. If she does, this could be a compelling argument for the superdelegates.

I hope to return later in the week with a more comprehensive analysis of how Pennsylvania voted. Stay tuned!

-Jay Cost

Unconventional Thoughts on the Democratic Primary

A lot of analysis on the Democratic campaign has depended on a few key points that have become the conventional wisdom. While many of them are on the mark, some strike me as incorrect. In what follows, I outline where I think the consensus view is mistaken.

For the good of the party, the Democratic primary battle needs to end. It is providing no benefit whatsoever.

I think the primary battle has actually been quite helpful for the Democrats. It has exposed weaknesses in both campaigns that might not have been identified until October. This has given both an opportunity to strengthen themselves.

Consider a few examples. We have learned that the Clinton organization was plagued by pro-Clinton myopia. Operating under the assumption that she could not lose, it failed to do everything it could to ensure victory. This included small things like mismanaging Bill, to big things like leaving caucus states unorganized. If Clinton had won Iowa and New Hampshire, knocking Obama out, it might not have discovered its myopia until it was too late. Learning in October that its basic assumptions were fundamentally flawed would have been disastrous.

The Obama campaign has learned several important lessons about "elitism." It has learned that Republicans are quite attracted to this idea. This is a good thing. Now it knows how the Republicans will come after him. Furthermore, thanks to last week's debate, it also knows it must have a better response ready for the GOP. Suppose Obama had won Texas and Ohio, knocking Hillary out. Flash forward to the fall debates, when Obama is asked about William Ayers. Not having the benefit of having been asked in April, he gives a tepid answer like the one he actually gave last week. This time, his debate opponent is not Hillary Clinton, whose spouse pardoned members of the Weather Underground, but John McCain, who was in the Hanoi Hilton when they were engaging in terrorism. Obama would have been in much more jeopardy.

The problem is not that the campaign has gone on this long. Rather, it is that there is no obvious terminal point. There will be a point at which the benefits to the campaign are outweighed by the costs. I do not think we are there yet, but we are getting close. The trouble is that there is nothing to stop the race when that point is reached.

Put another way, when does Clinton meet her Waterloo? It probably won't happen today. It probably won't happen on May 7. Even if she loses Indiana and North Carolina, she can still limp to West Virginia the next week and Kentucky the week after that. What's to stop her then? If she can limp to West Virginia and Kentucky, can't she limp to Puerto Rico, and then to Denver? Remember - no candidate who has won as many votes and delegates as Clinton hasn't taken the fight to the convention.

Of course, it is easy to overestimate the likelihood that Denver will be a mess. There are two distinct ways I could see the nomination battle ending, even if Clinton doesn't get knocked out in a specific contest. First, the superdelegates could grow tired of the race and swing Obama's way. In response, Clinton could work to flip them. However, if her endeavors to do so are met with strong assurances that no, in fact, they are not interested in changing their minds - there will be strong pressure on her to drop out.

Second, she could run out of money. This is why many presidential candidates drop out. They can no longer afford to put fuel in the plane. Clinton is not yet at this point. Pundits who frequently mistake the race for cash as a proxy for the race for votes have been hung up on the fact that Obama has outraised her so far this year. This emphasis misses the point. At least as of March, Clinton was raising enough cash to subsist. In fact, she could still put forward a real campaign. Nothing on the level that Obama could, but she could still advertise and do mailers and get-out-the-vote activities.

If this changes, that could be the end for Clinton. And it might change. In the last six weeks, we have had just two primaries. In the next six weeks, we will have eight. It will become more expensive to subsist, let alone put on a real campaign.

This prolonged campaign is damaging the party's prospects by dividing the base.

Any poll you look at will indicate that the Democrats are divided. However, I think these numbers belie the relative ease the nominee will have in stitching the core coalition back together.

According to the American National Elections Study, the last time "strong Democrats" defected in significant numbers was 1984, when 11% went for Reagan. In an election like this one, where the Democrats face better-than-even odds, it is quite unlikely that this will occur. Barring extraordinary circumstances, the two parties are going to pull 95% of their strong partisans. In that case, this election will be determined by the question that has decided all recent ones: who wins that middle chunk of the electorate, the weak partisans and the Independents?

Here's how I think it could work out. Suppose that the nomination battle continues to Denver. It will be messy and divisive. However, when it is over, the general election campaign will begin. McCain will attack Obama or Clinton, and Obama or Clinton will attack McCain. This should unify the Democratic base. Disappointed Democrats will begin to perceive the vast differences between their side's nominee and McCain, and they'll feel affinity for the candidate they currently oppose. The rhetoric will re-activate their partisanship. By November, they'll be ready to go.

That being said, I think the Democrats could suffer some damage if the nomination battle continues to Denver. The problem will involve the nominee's campaign organization, rather than his or her core voting group. I see three potential difficulties.

First, the nominee will have spent the summer angling for the nomination, rather than preparing a general election strategy. A good strategy is going to be harder to develop than it might first appear, given that the Republicans have put forth John McCain. He needs to be tied to the Bush administration - but this will not be as easy as Democrats might think. The guy has a reputation for being a thorn in Bush's side. So, the strategy that links him to Bush has to be a clever one.

Small example. I was watching Hardball last week. Chris Matthews had Joe Biden on. He was critical of McCain, but he couldn't resist complimenting him at several points. As an individual incident, it was pretty trivial - but if Democratic surrogates can't help but say nice things about McCain amidst their attacks, the forcefulness of those attacks is going to be muted.

Second, there are organizational tasks in the swing states that might be delayed because the nominee's campaign is distracted. I'm talking about the little stuff like hiring staff, getting office space and supplies, preparing a get-out-the-vote strategy, etc. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the DNC does not have the funds to make up the difference while Obama and Clinton are wrapping up their nomination fight.

Third, there is the simple matter of fatigue. I'd wager that John McCain is getting more and better sleep than Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Over the course of four more months, this could make a major difference - for the candidates and the staffs. Obama seemed a bit drained in last week's debate. How drained will he be if he has to fight Clinton all the way to Labor Day, only to turn around to face McCain?

The only reason this pointless, self-destructive race persists is Hillary Clinton. She's a hyper-ambitious pol who won't do the high-minded thing and drop out.

I have three problems with this argument.

First, while it might be that Clinton is more ambitious than Obama, both of them get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and think to themselves, "I should be the next President of the United States." This makes them more ambitious than 99.999999% of the nation. The difference between them, if there is any at all, is in the barest of degrees. It is certainly not in kind. If the shoe was on the other foot, Obama would probably remain in the race, too.

Second, what exactly are we talking about here? Is it hyper-ambition that is driving Clinton, or is it simple scrappiness? I would submit that it is scrappiness, which is actually kind of admirable.

The Clintons are a scrappy crew, and most Democrats have appreciated this at one point or another in the past. Most were grateful for their scrappiness when the bottom fell out in 1994. In just two years, Bill Clinton went from defending his relevancy to trouncing Bob Dole. That's the thing about the Clintons. They play until the buzzer sounds. If you watch C-Span late at night, as I do, you'll see people crowd around Bill and Hillary after their speeches are over. At least half of the intelligible phrases I hear are, "Thank you!" I think this is what they're thanking them for. The Clintons hang in there. They don't quit.

Third, blaming Clinton just obscures the real problem, which is that the Democrats' nomination rules are socially inefficient. They are not designed to secure the collective good of the party, i.e. maximizing the chances of electoral victory. Instead, they are a hodge-podge of rules designed to satisfy the personal interests of politicians, state governments and parties, and interest groups. Each group gets a slice of the pie; all the while, the party's collective good remains unsecured. Why? Nobody is really in charge of the party.

Take a simple example. Super Tuesday saw 51% of all pledged delegates allocated. This was a bad idea. It greatly enhanced the likelihood that the Democrats would face the problem they currently do: no decisive tiebreaker. It would have been better to hold back several more significant states - California, Massachusetts, etc. - to serve as tiebreakers. In fact, the only reason Pennsylvania can serve as a modest tiebreaker is that the Pennsylvania legislature refused to go along with Rendell's idea to move the primary forward.

This is thanks to the state governments. They saw all of the attention and money that campaigns and media organizations devoted to Iowa and New Hampshire in 2004 - and they wanted a piece of the action. Never mind that these individual choices added up to collective peril for the party. That wasn't their concern, nor should we expect it to have been. It is unreasonable to expect California to submit willingly to a diminished role so that there might be a tiebreaker in case one is needed. Instead, what is necessary is some central agent who could force states to behave in a way consistent with the party's collective good.

Nobody like that exists. Nobody has the power to make sure that the rules are made to give the Democrats the best chance of winning in November. You can thank the party reforms of the 20th century for his. When progressives reformed the plutocratic party system of the 19th century, they chose not to make them wield power responsibly. Instead, they chose to disempower them. The power of the parties, which was once concentrated among the state organizations, was disseminated downwards - to state governments, interests groups, and politicians. The parties retain many of their old functions - like nominating presidential candidates - but they lack the power to ensure that those functions are performed efficiently.

There's nobody approaching a "party boss" these days, and the Democrats are paying the price for his absence.

-Jay Cost

The Pennsylvania Polls Look Familiar...

Over the last few weeks, I have been intrigued by the movement in the Pennsylvania polls. It has had a striking resemblance to how the Ohio polls moved.

To confirm this, I graphed Clinton's lead in the RCP averages of the Pennsylvania and Ohio polls over the 21 days prior to each state's primary. The horizontal axis represents the number of days before the primary. The vertical axis represents Clinton's lead. The blue line is for Pennsylvania; the red line is for Ohio.

Clinton's Lead in PA and OH.gif

Clearly, the polls in both states have behaved similarly. The only significant difference is that Obama closed Clinton's lead much earlier in Pennsylvania than he did in Ohio. He moved to within 10 points 19 days before the Pennsylvania primary. This happened about 12 days before the Ohio primary. Other than this, Clinton's lead in one state has fluctuated almost identically with her lead in the other state.

We can check this via another direction. Let's graph Clinton's performance in Ohio and Pennsylvania against Obama's performance in both states. We'll keep red for Ohio and blue for Pennsylvania. We'll use triangles for Clinton and squares for Obama.

Clinton and Obama in OH and PA.gif

This confirms what the initial graph indicated. Here we see that perhaps Pennsylvanians have been a bit more undecided than Ohioans. However, as of yesterday in Pennsylvania, Clinton and Obama were essentially where they were at that point in the Ohio cycle.

What does this mean moving forward? I have no idea! Clinton could improve relative to Ohio. She could worsen. Yesterday gives us no assured indication of today or tomorrow. But it does put the Pennsylvania race to date in context.

Of course, it should not come as a big surprise that Pennsylvania and Ohio have behaved similarly to date. There are reasons to expect them to move in tandem. For those interested in an in-depth review of the Keystone State primary, I think this analysis I wrote last month is still largely valid. If you haven't read it already, you might find it worth your while.

-Jay Cost

Delegates to Dean: Make Us

Howard Dean was on Wolf Blitzer's show yesterday, and Drudge picked up his admonition to the superdelegates with the splashy headline: "Dean To Delegates: Decide Now." In the interview, Dean says that he wants the superdelegates to begin "voting" now. "We cannot give up two or three months of active campaigning and healing time," he said. "We've got to know who our nominee is."

Unfortunately for the party, Dean is in no position to tell the superdelegates when to decide. The reason? The chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee carries with it very little political power - certainly not enough to sway superdelegates.

It has been this way for a very long time. Fifty years ago, political scientists thought of the political parties as "truncated pyramids." The idea behind this metaphor is that it was the state parties that were really in charge. The national parties were powerless organization that few paid attention to. In fact, while digging through the scholarly literature on the parties from the 50s and 60s, I could only find two major works on the national committees. One of them is Politics Without Power. In it, Cornelius Cotter and Bernard Hennessy argue that the DNC and RNC were basically ad hoc entities without coherent organizational structures. They were there to be used by the president for his electoral purposes and, when the President was of a different party, to host the national conventions. That's it.

Flash forward to the 1970s. There's a convergence of two trends in electoral politics. First is the rise of television and the mass media campaign. This induced a great need for campaign cash. Second is the imposition of the Federal Elections Campaign Act (FECA) of 1972, and the 1974 amendments that limited the amount of money that candidates could collect from individuals. This gave the national parties a new task - legal money laundering. This is their essential function today. All six national party organizations (the two national committees plus the four Hill committees) collect large sums of cash by waving the party banner, and then distribute this money to candidates. The Hill committees help candidates for the House and the Senate. During presidential elections, the national committees primarily help the presidential candidates - which is exactly what John McCain and the RNC are working out right now.

The key word is "help." The consensus among political scientists is that the national parties do not impose some kind of "party will." My research has found that this consensus, while essentially true, is overstated. The national parties do exercise some political power over candidates. However, it is only a modest amount.

Relevant to the issue of the Democratic nomination, there is no formal mechanism for Dean to exercise power over superdelegates. Nor, for that matter, is this a power the DNC chairman has ever typically had. He has not been a party strongman. As noted above, in the days when there were party strongmen, the state parties ruled the roost. They supplied the smoke for the smoke-filled rooms.

Dean, of course, might have some informal power - perhaps thanks to the "50 State Strategy," which has tried to rehabilitate atrophied state parties. Some superdelegates might owe him a favor or two. However, I doubt that this would imply influence over the congressional superdelegates. Furthermore, Dean is a bit of a lame duck. His term is up next year. If the Democrats win the election in November, what we will likely see at the DNC is an adjustment to fit the needs and preferences of the President. This is typical. For instance, David Wilhelm, Clinton's campaign manager, became DNC chair in 1993.

Here we can appreciate how the national committees are still a bit like the powerless organizations that Cotter and Hennessy found. Unlike the Hill committees, they are "captured" by the President for his term in office. This makes it difficult to develop long-range institutional goals, and therefore difficult to exercise real power. Ironically, if the Democrats do win the election in November, that might mean the end of the "50 State Strategy." If President Obama or President Clinton doesn't buy into it, we can be confident that the new chairman will discontinue it.

To understand this nomination battle, we need to adjust our image of the national parties. The best way to think of them is as little more than guidance counselors with bank accounts. The candidates are in charge. Contrary to what Blitzer says in the aforementioned interview, Dean is not the "leader of the Democratic Party." That's a mischaracterization of the role of the DNC and its chairman.

It is instructive to contrast the changes in the parties with the changes in the government. The 20th century saw a federalization of many governmental tasks. Matters previously entrusted to state governments were turned over to the federal government. The parties had a completely different experience. The powers of the state parties were handed over to candidates for office, not to the federal parties. The role of the parties now is essentially to serve the electoral needs of those candidates.

This is why the "Democratic Party" cannot stop this nomination race. There is no party entity with the power to say, "OK, you two. Enough is enough." In keeping with the "candidate control" model of electoral politics, the only two who can stop it are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That's the modern party system for you. 20th century reformers thought the parties were meddling institutions that corrupted the political process. So, they stripped them of their power. Accordingly, the Democrats are at the mercy of their candidates.

Footnote: if you listen to Dean's interview, he says that some superdelegates have already "voted," and that he wants the rest to "vote" soon. This is not how the superdelegate system works. Dean knows that, and I think what he is trying to do is spin things a little bit. The fact is that the superdelegates have only endorsed candidates so far. They vote in Denver. Not before. What they say today does not necessarily constrain their votes in Denver. So, we should expect that, if the race remains close through the summer, both Obama and Clinton will work to "flip" superdelegates.

-Jay Cost

Obama Takes the Bait

Like many, I thought the questions at last night's debate were tough and sometimes a little small.

That being said, I disagree with the suggestion that this is a new feature to these debates. Hardly. This is par for the course. I recall the debate on October 30, 2007 - hosted by MSNBC - that focused relentlessly on Clinton. When the focus was off Clinton, the questions were weak.

What connects these debates? Both were focused on the frontrunner. In October, Clinton was in the lead. So, she took the heat. Today, Obama is the frontrunner. So, it's his turn. The media being the media, it asks hot questions not about policy - but about the silly campaign soap opera. That's what it does.

Unfortunately, Obama did not help himself. In fact, the hard time he received was partially his fault. There were two critical instances of this.

The first came near the beginning of the debate. After the moderators asked each candidate about the veep slot, Gibson gave Obama an opportunity to clarify his "bitter" comments. He did a good job. He said:

Well, I think there's no doubt that I can see how people were offended. It's not the first time that I've made, you know, a statement that was mangled up. It's not going to be the last.

But let me be very clear about what I meant, because it's something that I've said in public, it's something that I've said in television, which is that people are going through very difficult times right now and we are seeing it all across the country. And that was true even before the current economic hardships that are stemming from the housing crisis. This is the first economic expansion that we just completed in which ordinary people's incomes actually went down, when adjusted for inflation, at the same time as their costs of everything from health care to gas at the pump have skyrocketed.

Good answer.

Gibson then gave it over to Clinton for a response. She hit Obama, but not terribly hard. She said:

I don't believe that my grandfather or my father, or the many people whom I have had the privilege of knowing and meeting across Pennsylvania over many years, cling to religion when Washington is not listening to them. I think that is a fundamental, sort of, misunderstanding of the role of religion and faith in times that are good and times that are bad.

And I similarly don't think that people cling to their traditions, like hunting and guns, either when they are frustrated with the government. I just don't believe that's how people live their lives.

Now, that doesn't mean that people are not frustrated with the government. We have every reason to be frustrated, particularly with this administration.

But I can see why people would be taken aback and offended by the remarks. And I think what's important is that we all listen to one another and we respect one another and we understand the different decisions that people make in life, because we're a stronger country because of that.

Now, let's get real. That's not too hard. I mean, Obama really stepped in it with those "bitter" comments, and he should expect to pay. He should have let this be the last word. Let his people do the serious pushback, but get the debate off this subject. Take this hit - it wasn't that bad! - and just move on.

For their part, Gibson and Stephanopoulos seemed satisfied. They moved on to a tough question for Clinton. Stephanopoulos asked: "Senator Clinton, when Bill Richardson called you to say he was endorsing Barack Obama, you told him that Senator Obama can't win. I'm not going to ask you about that conversation. I know you don't want to talk about it. But a simple yes-or-no question: Do you think Senator Obama can beat John McCain or not?"

Stephanopoulos boxed Clinton in here. Either she says something that she can't say in public, or she looks two-faced. She chose the latter, thus yielding a free point for Obama.

They then turn it over to Obama for a rebuttal, which would have been a great opportunity to talk up his electability. What did he do? He returned to the "bitter" comments. He said:

Let me just pick up on a couple of things that Senator Clinton said, though, because during the course of the last few days, you know, she's said I'm elitist, out of touch, condescending. Let me be absolutely clear. It would be pretty hard for me to be condescending towards people of faith, since I'm a person of faith and have done more than most other campaigns in reaching out specifically to people of faith, and have written about how Democrats make an error when they don't show up and speak directly to people's faith, because I think we can get those votes, and I have in the past. [SNIP]

So the problem that we have in our politics, which is fairly typical, is that you take one person's statement, if it's not properly phrased, and you just beat it to death. And that's what Senator Clinton's been doing over the last four days. And I understand that.

This wasn't a convincing hit. He certainly didn't say anything that he hasn't said many times already. Of course, since he attacked Clinton, Gibson gave her a chance to respond. This was when she really nailed him:

Well, first of all, I want to be very clear. My comments were about your remarks.

And I think that's important, because it wasn't just me responding to them, it was people who heard them, people who felt as though they were aimed at their values, their quality of life, the decisions that they have made.


Obama was hit later on when Gibson went after him for his staff's petty emails about Bosnia. So, his response actually induced two clean counter-punches. The frustrating thing watching this is that his initial response was great. He should have let that be the end of it. Instead, Obama chose not to let this go. Rather than take the hit and move on, he hit back - and he was worse off for it.

This happened again, immediately after this exchange ended. Gibson moved on to ask Obama about Jeremiah Wright.

Senator Obama, since you last debated, you made a significant speech in this building on the subject of race and your former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. And you said subsequent to giving that speech that you never heard him say from the pulpit the kinds of things that so have offended people.

But more than a year ago, you rescinded the invitation to him to attend the event when you announced your candidacy. He was to give the invocation. And according to the reverend, I'm quoting him, you said to him, "You can get kind of rough in sermons. So what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public." I'm quoting the reverend. But what did you know about his statements that caused you to rescind that invitation?

This was a fair question. Obama, for his part, gave a good response. He didn't answer Gibson's question directly. Instead, he pivoted to a nice discussion of how his campaign is a people's movement. So, two times he did well with the initial response. His problem, once again, came in his follow up.

As per usual, Gibson gave Clinton a chance to respond. But he asked her a tough question about what she said:

There are 8,000 members of Senator Obama's church. And we have heard the inflammatory remarks of Reverend Wright, but so too have we heard testament to many great things that he did. Do you honestly believe that 8,000 people should have gotten up and walked out of that church?

Clinton being Clinton, she wriggled out of this in a single sentence. "I was asked a personal question, Charlie, and I gave a personal answer." Then, Clinton being Clinton, she hit Obama for the Wright thing. It was a good hit - about Wright's post-9/11 comments. It was harder than her first hit on him about "bitter."

Once again, Obama could have responded or moved on. Once again, he chose to respond. I would have chosen to move on. The Wright thing has not done any appreciable damage yet, so why belabor it? For some reason, that's what he chose to do. Gibson, who apparently didn't like that Obama had not answered his initial question, would have none of it. This was the exchange:

SENATOR OBAMA: Well, let me just respond to -- to two things. Absolutely many of these remarks were objectionable. I've already said that I didn't hear them, because I wasn't in church that day. I didn't learn about those statements until much later.

But --

MR. GIBSON: But you did rescind the invitation to him --

SENATOR OBAMA: But that was on -- that was on something entirely different, Charlie. That -- that was on a different statement. And I think that what Senator Clinton referred to was extremely offensive, to me and a lot of people.

This response was poor. It inclines one to ask, "Well - what 'entirely different' remark were you worried enough about to uninvite him?" Not a good exchange for Obama, who continued with a broad point about Wright. Stephanapoulus then asked him a tough-but-trivial question about whether his pastor loves America. By this point Obama was a little dazed. He went on to say that he had "disowned" Wright. Of course, he had done precisely the opposite, but he knows that. He was simply off his game by now.

[Update, 3:40 PM. Upon prompting from an emailer, I took a closer look at the relevant passage, and found that Obama does not actually say he had "disowned" Wright. I thought he had accidentally said that, and had just flubbed it. He didn't. Instead, his sentence was just awkward and his word choice poor. The relevant sentence is, "And, you know, the notion that somehow that the American people are going to be distracted once again by comments not made by me but by somebody who is associated with me, that I have disowned, I think doesn't give the American people enough credit." This is what induced the request for clarification from Gibson, after which Obama stated that he meant the remarks, not the man. The first problem is the choice of word, "disown." The second problem is placing the "I have disowned" clause after "somebody," not after "comments." Both injected some ambiguity, and were thus signs that he was off.]

I would have been, too. By this point, he had taken some serious blows from Clinton and the moderators. But who is to blame? We can, and perhaps should, give Gibson and Stephanopoulos a rough time for hitting him, though it is silly to say that this is unique. The only unique thing about this is that Obama, not Clinton, was taking the shots from the moderators.

What's more, Obama clearly committed some tactical errors here. He chose to get into it with Clinton on both subjects. He had an opportunity to take his lumps and move on - but he refused. And what happened both times? He was hit even harder.

This is Clinton's territory. She's completely comfortable down there in the muck. She even seems to like it. Journalists like it, too. It gives them an opportunity to seem smart and tough. So, unsurprisingly, Clinton, Gibson, and Stephanopoulos were all trying to draw Obama into it. Obama is not comfortable down there, and it showed. His mistake was being tricked into going down there.

Clinton often reminds me a bit of George Foreman. She has one mode in these debates: pound the crap out of everything in her path. You'd think that this would give Obama an opportunity. Like Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, he could bide his time until she over-extends herself, then nail her. But that didn't happen. Last night, Clinton managed to draw Obama into a slugfest.

For her part, Clinton knew she had gotten the better of Obama, and chose to back off. This was the most incredible moment in the debate. It came after the Ayers exchange. Obama had just responded with the comment that her husband had pardoned some members of the Weather Underground. Then:

MR. GIBSON: And Senator Clinton, I'm getting out of balance in terms of time.

SENATOR CLINTON: I've noticed. (Laughs.)

MR. GIBSON: And you're getting shortchanged here. And so if you want to reply here, fine. If you want to wait, we'll do it in the next half hour.


-Jay Cost

What Does "Bitter" Reveal?

The commentary on the few sentences Barack Obama uttered in San Francisco has clustered around two extremes. Roughly half see them as the revelation of his previously secret disregard for the beliefs of the mass public. The rest see them as self-evidently true, even if the words were poorly chosen.

My feeling is that we don't know what he meant. All of this analysis is based on brief, off-the-cuff remarks made behind "closed" doors. It is difficult to tease out a man's inner philosophy from such a slender data set. At best, we can only hope to have a vague sense of the thoughts that inspired the words. So, the quotation has been a bit of a Rorschach test. Commentators have seen what they are inclined to see.

This is one reason why, politically, it was a stupid thing to say. Candidates should not say vague things unless there is an identifiable benefit, like evading a journalist's direct question. Otherwise, clear and concise is the way to go. Vagueness implies interpretation. Interpretation implies discussion. Discussion eats up precious news cycles a week before the Pennsylvania primary.

And, of course, vagueness invites opponents to interpret, and therefore define. This is what we've seen. Clinton smartly chose to put her interpretation in the mouths of ordinary Pennsylvanians - and Obama was forced to respond by using the "boo's" at the Alliance for American Manufacturing meeting as the alternative interpretation. In one sense, this has already been a victory for Clinton. What is Obama spending money and airtime on? His comments in San Francisco! The Obama campaign seems to have learned one lesson from the Kerry/Edwards debacle. It doesn't let accusations go unanswered. However, it has not yet learned the other one. It needs to be more proactive in managing the definition of its candidate.

The other big problem with his comment is that Obama presumed to explain the behavior of the voters he is courting. We might not know for sure exactly how he was explaining them, but we know that he was trying to. This is something that is best left to political scientists, not candidates. They should never speak of voters in any but the most flattering terms. Otherwise, there is a risk of alienating them. When you analyze people, you are signaling that you are separate from them. You are an "other." What is more, nobody likes to feel that they are being analyzed. The analyst can come across as haughty. "Who the hell does he think he is to explain me?"

This is not the first time Obama has done this. His Wright speech sought to explain the behavior of the voters - black and white - he was courting. He really needs to knock this off. It is not the job of the candidate to analyze the voters. His job is to court them, to form a bond with them. He must have them believe that he understands them on their terms, not on some set of abstract principles derived from a book they've never heard of.

This is one reason "Bubba" and "Dubya" have won the last four presidential elections. Nobody ever tied those two to Theodore Adorno.

Of course, Obama did not analyze just any group of voters. He analyzed the ones Democrats need: whites who don't make a lot of money. In 1992, Bill Clinton and Herbert Walker essentially split the white vote. Clinton got 39%, Herbert Walker got 40%. This is all Democrats need. They don't need to win white voters outright. They just need to split them. Flash forward to 2004. Bush beat Kerry among white voters, 58% to 41%, and won a solid victory.

You can tell the same story again and again. When Democrats break even with white voters, they win, as in '60, '64, '76, '92, and '96. When Republicans win them decisively, Democrats lose. This happened in '52, '56, '80, '84, '88, '00, and '04.

So, what Obama really did last week was analyze the group that will swing this election.

I'm beginning to wonder if analysis is a problem for candidate Obama. All candidates have quirky "ticks" that impede them from being perfect campaigners. George W. Bush has a habit of mangling words. John Kerry has a habit of going off script. Al Gore has a slightly condescending tone to his voice. These are all basically knee jerk responses that candidates do without thinking. They don't mean anything by them; they're just "ticks." But they still distract people. Obama might have a knee jerk inclination to analyze. Maybe I'm wrong, but we have seen this happen enough to make me wonder. After all, he did publish an autobiography when he was just 34. Maybe he is an analyst by nature.

In a lot of other contexts, this is a highly desirable trait. But not in this one. He needs to stop this. So does his wife, who should never again tell us that we have a "hole in our souls." If this kind of stuff continues, Clinton and the Republicans might just get that "elite" label to stick.

There is some good news for Obama in all of this. The Pennsylvanians whom Obama was analyzing were mostly going to vote for Clinton, anyway. So, it's unlikely that the comment will damage him on Tuesday. It might cost him a point or two, but that's probably it. Of course, the reason this nomination battle is continuing through Pennsylvania is Obama has failed to woo lower income whites, the same voters he'll need in the fall.

-Jay Cost

Obama, Small Town Whites, and the Super Delegates

Hillary Clinton has not won many news cycles of late. Reverend Wright helped her win a few. Ditto Obama's San Francisco comments. But these are exceptions. By and large, her press has not been good.

When not questioning her memory of Bosnia or her chief strategist's conflicts of interest, people have been asking how Clinton can actually win. Few think she is likely to. Those who give her a chance, such as myself, can only imagine her winning "dirty" in Denver, muscling her way to half-plus-one via the super delegates. No Democrats, aside from Clinton's most ardent supporters, want that. It implies a nominating campaign through the end of August and a debacle on national television.

Of course, there is a group who can stop this from happening - the uncommitted super delegates. If they swung to Obama in large enough numbers, they could effectively kill Clinton's campaign. If 50 or more of them endorsed Obama in a short span of time - Clinton would have a very serious viability problem.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we've read a bunch of stories suggesting that Clinton has a "super delegate problem." But by and large the super delegates haven't budged. Most of those who were undecided in early March are undecided as of today. According to Dem Convention Watch, Clinton had a 97-delegate lead on February 10th. By March 9th, Obama had cut that lead to 39. But since then, despite all of these stories about Clinton having no real chance, Obama has netted just 13 super delegates. As a group, the super delegates have not moved. More than 40% remain uncommitted.

I think this is curious. They surely do not want a bitter convention battle, so why haven't they brought an end to this? I think their reticence has to do with Obama's terrible performance in Ohio. He not only lost, he was roundly defeated - even after his great victories in Wisconsin, Virginia, and Maryland. The nature of his defeat might be giving the super delegates pause.

Specifically, Obama's problem in Ohio was with white voters. Consider the following chart:

Obama's Share of White Voters.gif

As you can see, Obama did worse in Ohio among whites than in these other major states. Again, what is so intriguing about the Ohio result is that it came amidst stories of how Clinton was finished. That curiosity continues. Analysts give Clinton very long odds - but Pennsylvania Democrats haven't hopped aboard Obama's bandwagon.

Unfortunately, the exit polls only tell us so much. Nevertheless, we've seen enough data to know which socioeconomic groups he's having trouble with: rural/small town whites who do not make a lot of money. We can confirm this by looking at the counties in Ohio's sixth congressional district, which makes up most of the Ohio River Valley. This is the premier swing district of the 21st century. Bush won it by 5,000 votes in 2000 and 2004. Obama did horribly there last month, as the following chart details.

Clinton's Performance in OH 06.gif

As you can see, Obama got blown out in the sixth. The only exception is Athens County, where Ohio University is located.

There are several Ohio districts that tell a similar tale. In the west, Obama did quite poorly in the fifth and the eighth. In the northeast, he did poorly in the fourteenth and the seventeenth. He actually did worse in the second and eighteenth than he did in the sixth. What's more, in geographically large congressional districts, you can always find at least a county or two where Clinton beat him by 25 points.

Beyond Ohio, Obama seems to have had this problem again and again, as Sean Oxendine illustrates in this incisive essay. Big wins in places like Virginia and Mississippi often belie a weakness with the same types of voters.

This could be a potential problem for Obama come November, but the reason is not obvious. Democrats should not worry about whether the primary voters who supported Clinton last month will support Obama in November. They probably will. Voting in a primary election is a sign that the voter is a strong partisan, and therefore unlikely to support the opposition in the fall. Nor, for that matter, are they likely to abstain from voting.

Rather, the concern for Democrats is whether Obama's poor performance among white, strongly partisan Democrats is a sign he will be weak among white, persuadable voters. We're talking about weak partisans and Independents. They're the ones who swing elections in Ohio. Obviously, they differ from strong Democrats in terms of partisanship - but they still have many socioeconomic characteristics in common with them. The weak partisans and Indies are the relatives, friends, neighbors and coworkers of the strong Democrats who voted so overwhelmingly for Clinton last month. While the persuadables do not share their strong partisan orientation, they might share the same disinclination to Obama. The strong partisans expressed it in March by voting for Clinton; the weak partisans and Independents might express it in November by voting for McCain.

The operative word here is might. This is only a possibility. Nobody knows whether these primary results are indicative of the general election. To argue they definitely are requires an inferential leap that we simply cannot take. These primary results could signal trouble for Obama in November, but they could just as easily signal nothing at all.

In other words, these primary results only raise the questions. They don't provide the answers. But when we're examining the super delegates, that's exactly the point. These questions might be holding them back. Perhaps they want the nomination battle to continue so they can get some answers. Perhaps what Obama needs to do is simply improve his showing with these voters in other states. That would show the super delegates that, when it comes time for the general election, he can compete in places like Ohio's sixth district.

He'll have plenty of chances - what with Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia all coming up. There are lots of these types of voters for him to win over, and thus lots of chances to show that the Buckeye State was an outlier, that it just takes him longer to catch on with these folks.

This is why his comments in San Francisco were so unfortunate. If they are going to turn off anybody, it's the people we've been discussing. Will they? It is too early to say. We should know in a day or so. If they do, they'll impede his cause in Pennsylvania. He needs to do just one thing in the Keystone State, and it isn't win. He just needs to pull in some respectable numbers among white voters. They don't need to be as good as they were in Wisconsin - just something closer to Maryland and Texas. Failing to do that in Ohio meant that he failed to deliver the knockout blow to Clinton then and there. If he fails again in Pennsylvania, the race will go on. And the longer it goes on, the better chance she has of coming from behind and taking this nomination.

-Jay Cost

What Went Wrong with the Clinton Campaign

With the demotion of Mark Penn, it is appropriate to take stock of the Clinton campaign.

There is no doubt that it has been a poorly run campaign. But what has been so bad about it? We could point to a lackluster message, or Bill's various gaffes over the last three months, or the staff that couldn't stop watching soap operas long enough to pay the bills. There's something to all of these things, but I think they are symptoms of an underlying malady.

As you well know, Obama has a huge lead in pledged delegates. But you might not know that nearly 90% of this lead comes from caucuses. Obama has netted 147 delegates via the caucuses alone.

It need not have been this way. Caucuses have exceedingly low turnout - and so victory depends upon organizational prowess. Clinton was poorly organized in the caucus states, and it cost her. For every caucus state she has lost, Clinton could have found enough supporters in those states to at least tied Obama. This is the case even in states where Obama would win a broad-based primary. In Kansas, for instance, Obama had about 18,000 more caucus supporters than Clinton. Grant that Kansas is a state Obama would win in a primary. Shouldn't Clinton have been able to find 18,000 more people? She received less than 10,000 votes for goodness sake!

Even more amazingly, Obama crushed her in states where Clinton probably would have won or barely lost a primary. Obama netted 15 delegates on her in Colorado. He netted 6 in Maine. I'd put the odds of Clinton winning primaries in those states at no less than 50-50. Clinton won the Texas primary outright, but Obama walked away with 9 more delegates in the caucus. Obama won 26 more delegates than Clinton in Washington state. One week later, he beat Clinton in the Washington state beauty contest by just 4 points. Clinton won a clear plurality of voters in the Nevada entrance poll, but Obama walked away with a net of one delegate.

This is an organizational failure of monumental proportions. There is no other way to put it. The question is why did it happen?

There is no great skill that the Obama campaign possesses that the Clinton campaign lacks. Organizing caucus states still has a lot in common with 19th century politicking. You need a friendly smile, a good handshake, and a sturdy pair of shoes. Obama didn't develop a new way to organize. He just chose to organize while the Clinton campaign chose not to.

The only reason it would choose not to organize is if it did not think it was worth the cost. More than 400 pledged delegates have been allocated through caucuses. So, it wasn't worth it because it was insignificant. Then why didn't her campaign organize? I believe it is because it never thought Obama would mount this kind of challenge. It never thought it would have to scrap for every spare delegate. Instead, it thought the race would be over before Super Tuesday.

In other words, the Clinton campaign did not see Obama coming. It underestimated him.

Of course, much of the Washington press corps didn't see him coming, either. But that's not terribly surprising. Washington is their beat, and many of them don't have a great read on how politics outside the Beltway works. But politicians are different, or at least they should be. They should be in touch with life outside the Beltway, and they should know better than journalists. The Clinton campaign should not have underestimated Obama. There were warning signs that it should have picked up on.

First and foremost, Obama raised a gazillion dollars last year, none of which came from PACs. This was an early warning of many things. First, his campaign operation was going to be awesome. It could basically match Clinton dollar-for-dollar without the benefit of a former President. If it could fundraise that well, the Clinton people should have expected it would campaign that well, too. Second, this was an early indication that Obama was resonating with people out there. Political donors are a miniscule subset of the electorate, but in terms of demographic and socio-economic characteristics they have a lot in common with a broader set of people - namely, upscale voters who can figure prominently in primaries. Unsurprisingly, Obama has been winning upscale voters coast-to-coast.

The media wrongly turned the race for money into a proxy for the race for votes. But the Clinton people should have known better. They should have said, "Holy crap! This guy raised a gazillion dollars! We better get things locked down!" I don't think the Clinton people ever said that. They certainly never got things locked down.

Her campaign also overestimated its own position. Once again, the media did this, too. Journalists looked at the summer and fall polls and bought into the inevitability argument. Again, this is par for the course - many journalists do not know the difference between good polling data and bad. Candidates should know the difference. The Clinton campaign should have known. It should have suspected that those eye-popping leads were merely a consequence of her superior name recognition, which would not hold after Obama unloaded his gazillion dollars. I don't think it suspected this. I don't know how else to explain Penn's snide memos touting Hillary's inevitability.

Why did it make these mistakes? Is it because it doesn't understand electoral politics? Unlikely. After all, Bill won two national campaigns.

I think its mistake was its starting point. It bought the same inevitability line it sold to the press. It began with the assumption that Clinton could not lose the nomination. If you assume this a priori, you will inevitably interpret all of the evidence in a way that reinforces your preconceived notions. It's like adding epicycles. If she cannot lose, there is no reason to worry about Obama's money, no need to anticipate that this might be an early indication of his appeal. If she cannot lose, those summer polls are not mere artifacts of her name recognition; they are critical pieces of evidence that demonstrate how the race is over before it begins. If she cannot lose, there is no need to organize in the caucus states because the race will be over by then.

What we are talking about here is plain old arrogance. I think this is the central mistake of the Clinton campaign. It presumed that the nomination was Clinton's. Not Clinton's to lose. Just Clinton's. Period. As a consequence, it behaved in an unduly confident manner. Mark Penn is to be blamed, for sure. So is Patti Solis Doyle. But so also is the entire upper-echelon of the campaign. Above all, it's Hillary's fault. She's the candidate. She sets the tone.

-Jay Cost

Predict the Race for Yourself

Political analysts have been scaling down Hillary Clinton's chances of victory. Many have taken to offering up numerical odds of her success. A source for the Politico affiliated with the Clinton campaign pegs it at 10%. David Brooks puts it at 5%. The InTrade market has it higher - at about 20%. Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei do not offer a number of their own, but they claim she has "virtually no chance of winning."

I agree that Clinton is more likely to lose than win. I also do not necessarily disagree with these low estimates. However, I disagree with the way these estimates are occasionally presented. There is sometimes an implication that these are precise predictions - when in fact a prediction like this must be very imprecise. This is why I was so vague in offering my own estimate last week.

There are reasons to expect imprecision in this kind of situation. Precision depends in part on the number of variable factors that create that which we are predicting. The more things that must happen for the prediction to come true, the less precise it is. Take an example. Suppose we are predicting whether a pitcher will strike out a batter. We can be reasonably precise. After all, there are just two factors to account for - the pitcher and the batter. Suppose, on the other hand, we're predicting who will win the World Series. Precision is very difficult here. After all, our prediction depends on thousands of factors shaking out in a certain way.

The situation is similar in this election. We can make a prediction of what will happen, and we should predict that Obama is more likely to win than Clinton. However, there are so many factors that will go into who wins the nomination that speaking more precisely than this becomes quite problematic.

Let's examine this in detail. A key issue in determining the nominee is who is seen to have won more votes. Many important factors will go into this perception. They can be organized under three questions. How shall the votes be counted? Who will win the remaining contests, and by how much? What will turnout be? Varying our answers to just a few of these questions can dramatically alter which candidate is favored in the popular vote count. This makes prognosticating a very imprecise endeavor.

First, there are many reasonable ways to count the popular vote. None is obviously superior to the rest. Of course, it does not matter which we think is most appropriate. What matters is what the superdelegates think, as they will be the "tie-breakers" in the nomination battle.

They could approach it in many ways. They could take the basic vote count and choose to exclude or include Michigan, Florida, or caucus estimates. Assuming they want to include the Michigan results and the caucus estimates (for IA, ME, NV, and WA, whose state parties do not supply actual vote totals), they could account for them in different ways. With Michigan, they could (a) give Obama the "unaffiliated" vote, (b) not give Obama the "unaffiliated" vote, or (c) reallocate the vote based upon whom voters claimed in the exit poll they would support if all candidates had been on the ballot. If they include caucus estimates, they could (i) count the non-binding Washington primary instead of the caucus, or (ii) count the Washington caucus instead of the primary.

This implies more than a dozen ways to count the votes. Different counts would achieve different goals - beyond favoring one candidate or another. For instance, the "Exclude Michigan and Florida" counts hew closely to the position of the Democratic National Committee. If the superdelegates think the DNC's posture to the delegates should also apply to the votes, they might prefer those counts. If they have the normative principles of McGovern-Fraser in mind, and want to include as many votes as possible while being fair to both candidates, they might account for Florida, Michigan (giving Obama some share of the vote there), the caucuses, and the Washington state primary.

Importantly, changing the count could turn this from a close race to an Obama blowout, and vice-versa.

Second, what results should we expect in the remaining states? It seems to me that we have very little purchase on this question. Personally, I have been "lost" for the last few days trying to get a handle on North Carolina. It is a highly complicated state that cannot be predicted easily. Yet it will be incredibly determinative. A swing of 5 points in a state like North Carolina could make a difference of more than 60,000 votes.

It's easy to get an illusive sense of certainty on these state contests. An example can be found in this article on Indiana by Anne Kornblut. She sees Obama and Clinton as being "roughly equal" in the Hoosier State - but her reasoning is unpersuasive. One of Obama's big advantages is that he is from a neighboring state with an overlapping media market - but this did not help Clinton in Connecticut or Romney in New Hampshire. In Clinton's favor is the fact that Evan Bayh has endorsed her, but Ted Kennedy's endorsement did Obama no good in Massachusetts. Generally, it seems to me that this estimate is so "rough" that we should not make too much of the perceived "equality."

The biggest problem is with Puerto Rico. We are literally without precedent there. It's never voted in a presidential election of any kind. It is therefore extremely difficult to get an idea of who will win, let alone by how much. An even bigger question with Puerto Rico is turnout. Puerto Ricans are some of the most active voters in the world, and turnout could be very high. But how high? 100,000, 500,000, 1 million, 2 million? Again, we have no precedent for it.

Turnout stateside is more predictable than in Puerto Rico - but there are still limitations. We know that turnout has risen since Super Tuesday. In open primaries, it averaged 66% of the 2004 Kerry vote on Super Tuesday. On March 4, turnout averaged 83%. Will it level off, taper off, or increase? What about closed contests? On Super Tuesday, turnout in those was much lower than in open contests. But Maryland and DC (the last two closed contests) voted at about the same rate as Virginia (an open contest held on the same day). What will happen next?

Once again, varying our answers can dramatically affect the results. For instance, if Clinton wins Pennsylvania by the same margin she carried Ohio, a 10% increase in turnout will provide her a net of 29,000 votes.

Here's the broader point. We have a large number of unknown factors. For many of them, we have very little idea what values they will ultimately take. What we do know is that small changes in several of them could induce large changes in the vote count. This makes it extremely difficult to be as precise as many commentators have been. We need to be wary of all the uncertainty we face here.

It is for this reason that I offer for public consumption the following Excel spreadsheet. It is set up to enable you to plug turnout and vote margins in, and see what effect the changes will have on the different vote counts. It seems to me that, rather than have Politico, the Times, or the Post outline which outcomes are possible, all of us should just take a look for ourselves.

So, predict the Democratic race for yourself.*


* - Note that the initial values in the spreadsheets are not to be interpreted as my predictions. Instead of making predictions, I decided instead to publish the spreadsheet! The initial values are only meant to illustrate the effect that a not-unbelievable swing in the popular vote toward Clinton could have on the race.

-Jay Cost

A Review of the Pennsylvania Primary

The Pennsylvania primary is in four and a half weeks. The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton has an edge in the state. Does this intuition bear out on closer inspection? I have spent the last few days soaking and poking in the available data - and I think it reasonable to favor Clinton in Pennsylvania.

We have talked on this site before about the demographic variables that seem to be driving the election results. The two that I think are the most powerful are the number of African Americans in a state and how "upscale" white voters are.

A state's African American population has a curvilinear relationship with election results. In states with few African Americans, Obama does very well. In states with many, he also does well. Clinton does well in states with a middling amount - say 5% to 15%. Our working hypothesis on this page is that this is due to the fact that Obama is perceived differently by white voters depending upon the racial demography of the state. The "upscale" variable captures the differences in the socioeconomic status of the whites in each candidate's coalition. Clinton is winning "Mondale voters," and Obama is winning "Hart voters." We measure this via median white income.*

These variables are not comprehensive explanatory factors. Other causes are definitely influencing vote returns. However, these two can account for upwards of 60% of the vote results we have seen. Thus, they give us a good starting point to analyze Pennsylvania.

If these are the two variables we shall use to understand Pennsylvania - how shall we employ them? The best approach is to contextualize Pennsylvania in the larger mid-Atlantic region. Comparing Pennsylvania's to its five neighbors that have already voted can give us a sense of which neighbor might best serve as a guide.

Mideast Region Demographics.gif

It appears that Ohio is our best bet. While Pennsylvania is whiter than all its neighbors, and its whites are poorer - it seems to have most in common with its neighbor to the west. Comparing Ohio to Pennsylvania should offer us a plausible baseline expectation for what will happen next month.

Let's push the comparison a bit further. After all, it is possible that Pennsylvania and Ohio appear similar on a statewide analysis, but this similarity is belied by countywide differences. To confirm that this is not the case - let's examine these two variables for all Ohio and Pennsylvania counties. In the following graph, the horizontal axis measures the median white income per county. The vertical axis measures the percentage of African Americans per county. We'll put Ohio counties in Buckeye red and Pennsylvania counties in Nittany blue.

Income and African American.jpg

The chart generally confirms the similarity we found in the statewide comparison. Pennsylvania and Ohio counties have similar distributions - they tend to have median white incomes of less than $50,000 and an African American population of less than 10%.

There are two notable exceptions. First, the blue dot in the top-left portion of the graph is Philadelphia County. As you can see, it has a higher proportion of African Americans than any county in Ohio. This favors Obama - and it is highly likely that he will carry it next month.

The second exception is that, generally speaking, Pennsylvania counties are more homogeneous than Ohio counties. Notice the cluster of blue dots in the bottom-left, and how the rest of the graph seems to be dominated by red dots. Part of this is due to the fact that Ohio has 21 more counties than Pennsylvania. However, this cannot explain the entire pattern. In fact, 67% of all Pennsylvania counties have median white incomes less than $40,000, and a white population of at least 90%. The same is true of just 45% of Ohio counties. This implies that we might see less variation in county-by-county results in Pennsylvania than we saw in Ohio.

By and large, however, it appears that Pennsylvania and Ohio have similar values for these two variables - both on a statewide and countywide basis. Using Ohio as our guidepost, we can make a rough, baseline estimate for what will happen in Pennsylvania.

First, we use ordinary least squares regression to build a simple yet powerful predictive model of the Ohio returns using the two variables listed above, plus one more. To account for Obama's strong showing in the youth vote - which can "upset" the "typical" result in a county with a large college-aged population - we include the percentage of residents aged 20 to 24.

Here's what our hypothesized, generic model looks like:

Clinton's Margin of Victory (Or Defeat) In a County = Baseline + Median White Income in County + Percentage of African Americans in County + Percentage of Residents Aged 20-24 in County + Unaccounted for "Error"

The regression method assigns specific weights to each predictive variable - thus giving us a mathematical equation.* In the end, the model accounts for 70% of all variation in countywide vote returns in Ohio. All three variables are statistically significant, which means it is very likely that we have found a causal relationship between Clinton's margin of victory (or defeat) and these three factors.

We can take this model and apply it to Pennsylvania. Here's what we do. We plug the values of percentage of African American, median white income, and percentage of young residents for every Pennsylvania county into this model. This generates a prediction of how Obama and Clinton will fare in all counties. Next, we take a weighted average of these counties. Counties with more registered Democrats (as of November, 2007) are weighed proportionally heavier than counties with fewer registered Democrats. This provides us not only with a prediction for each county, but also for the whole state.

This model predicts that Clinton should do roughly as well as she did in Ohio. Obama does well in metropolitan Philadelphia, but the model predicts Clinton to be strong through the rest of the state. Ultimately, the basic intuition of this prediction flows from the similarities between Pennsylvania and Ohio. These variables were found to be important factors in Ohio; Pennsylvania and Ohio have roughly similar distributions for these variables; and so, unsurprisingly, Pennsylvania performs similarly to Ohio.

We must not over-interpret these results! This is just meant as a rough, baseline gauge for what will happen. There are important reasons to anticipate differences between this estimate and the final result. Data limitations prevent us from accounting for these differences, and thus inhibit further refinements. Endeavors like this are inherently about doing the best we can given the data we have. Thus, it is important to understand what we have done and what we have not done. Please see this footnote.

Pennsylvania is, of course, a large and diverse state. What might we expect region-by-region? Let's review this by breaking it down by congressional districts. We'll start in the east and work our way west.

Obama should do well in PA 01 (the state's only minority-majority district) and PA 02, which together comprise most of the city of Philadelphia. There are four affluent congressional districts - PA 6, 7, 8, and 13 - that comprise most of the Philadelphia suburbs and portions of the city itself. These are the wealthiest districts in the entire commonwealth - so Obama should be relatively strong here. But how strong? Keep an eye on Bucks and Montgomery counties. Frequently, Philadelphia and its suburbs report their returns before the rest of the commonwealth. If that holds true for the April 22nd primary - the results here should give us a sense of what kind of night we are in for. If Obama scores big wins in one or both, the final results might be close. If Clinton pulls roughly even with him, or beats him outright - she should have a good night.

The fast-growing southeast corner of the state - PA 16 (Lancaster) and PA 19 (York) - should be competitive. As a point of comparison, Carroll, Hartford, and Cecil counties - directly to the south in Maryland and demographically/economically similar - split their votes between Clinton and Obama last month. Of course, it is hard to see these areas having a major influence in the overall outcome of the election. Both districts are heavily Republican. As this is a closed primary, neither district should be a big factor.

Another potentially competitive area could be the Lehigh Valley (PA 15). Historically, this area has been identified with big industries, whose workers we would expect to prefer Clinton. However, in the last twenty years there has been an influx of new jobs here. This might favor Obama. One wild card will be the relatively high share of Hispanics in the district. Will they come out to vote?

As we move north and west across the state, Clinton's margins should improve. The state becomes whiter and poorer. She should do well in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre (PA 11), Harrisburg (PA 17), Altoona (PA 9), and Johnstown (PA 12). She should do well in expansive PA 10, the rural northeast section of the state. Of course, this area is heavily Republican in its presidential politics, so its effect should be limited. Ditto the even larger PA 5 in the center of the state, though Penn State will help Obama in Centre County .

The western portion of the state heavily favors Clinton. In the northwest is PA 3, which stretches from Erie to the northern edge of metropolitan Pittsburgh. Clinton should do as well here as she did in Youngstown, just over the state line. For his part, Obama should do well with some of the wealthier suburbs of Pittsburgh, like Fox Chapel and Mt. Lebanon, which help comprise PA 4 and 18. He should also do well in exurban locations like Cranberry and North Huntingdon townships.

However, greater Pittsburgh is not nearly as prosperous as greater Philadelphia. Expect Clinton to hold her own in these congressional districts, and to do well in Washington, PA in the south (PA 12). Though there are some "upscale" white communities that will aid Obama - on balance, the economic situation of white voters in greater Pittsburgh should incline them to Clinton.

The city of Pittsburgh itself - namely PA 14 - should be a study in the racial divisions we have seen in this contest. There is a large African American population here, but whites in the city outnumber African Americans 2.5 to 1. On balance, Clinton should have an edge. African American neighborhoods like East Liberty and the Hill District will probably go heavily for Obama. White neighborhoods will probably divide by income. Shadyside will probably go for Obama, while Brookline and Bloomfield will probably go for Clinton. The trouble for Obama is that the kinds of voters in Brookline and Bloomfield are more typical than those in East Liberty or Shadyside.

Another advantage for Clinton in metropolitan Pittsburgh is that it is older than the rest of the nation. People aged 65 or older comprise about 12% of the nationwide population. Of the seven counties in greater Pittsburgh (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland) - the elderly make up 17% of the total population. All in all, greater Pittsburgh is older, poorer, and whiter. So long as Hillary Clinton does not insult Ben Roethlisberger or Sidney Crosby, she should do well.


[*] Socioeconomic status can be complicated to capture because it is composed of many, interrelated factors. We have used median white income to measure it on this site. Obviously, using a single variable to gauge a multi-variable concept like this is not always optimal. On the other hand, using many, closely related metrics to explain a relatively small amount of marginal variation isn't either. Accordingly, we use white median income. As individual variables go, it can probably capture most of the effect that socioeconomic status is having on these vote returns.

[*]Actually, we build two models. The first uses the percentage of African Americans as an independent variable. The second uses the percentage of whites. The two produce essentially the same results, although the first is slightly (but not significantly) more precise. Diagnostic tests indicate that both are "BLUE."

[*] I am not going to offer an actual number for fear that it might be misunderstood. I have employed this method only to provide a rough gauge of what to expect. I cannot stress this enough. The more I apply these kinds of quantitative methods to election results, the less confident I am that such methods can supply anything more than a basic understanding of the dynamics. The dangers is that the methods themselves often seem to offer real precision. If you do not approach the results with care and caution - you can run into trouble. In particular, OLS regression is a predictive tool that can offer dangerous illusions of precision.

In this instance, there are two important problems.

First, the model's predictive power in Ohio - 70% - is at same time impressive and insufficient. The fact that three variables can explain 70% of the changes in over 80 counties is a sign that these are crucial factors in understanding how the Buckeye State voted. However, 30% of the variation in Ohio is left unexplained. In a primary election, this can make all the difference!

Second, and as noted above, this model is a baseline. It was constructed around the results in Ohio. Thus, we have assumed that there are no statewide differences between the two states. As we allow for such differences between the two states, this estimate becomes inaccurate.

In fact, we know that there are such differences. The problem is that we cannot measure them very well. For instance, Pennsylvania's primary is closed while Ohio's was semi-open (i.e. Independents were allowed to vote). This could shift the vote margin in Pennsylvania in one direction or the other.

Another important factor that simply cannot be captured is the possibility of momentum. That's not to say that there will be a momentum effect that shifts Pennsylvania one way or the other - it is only to say that there might be. If momentum were to make an appearance, it would by definition imply a shift in the voting patterns of these demographic groups.

Another potential factor is changes in median white income. The income data we have is from the last census. This could create fuzziness for both the model itself and its predictions for Pennsylvania. Recall that the model was built via Ohio. If Ohio counties have experienced changes in median income relative to one another since the census was conducted, our income variable is not picking up it up. In this is case, the model does not perform as well as it would if we had current data. There could be trouble applying the model to Pennsylvania as well. If Pennsylvania counties are now systematically wealthier than Ohio counties - this would shift Pennsylvania closer to Obama. Of course, the size of the shift would probably be small. If growth in median white income in Pennsylvania has outpaced growth in Ohio by $1,000 in the last eight years (in 1999 dollars) - you would only see a statewide shift of about 1.4%.

Joel Kotkin suggested another potential difference at the Politico the other day:

[B]eneath the similarities (between Ohio and Pennsylvania) lie important and perhaps critical differences. Sen. Clinton's new message of old style pessimism not surprisingly played well in Ohio in large part because it is stronger ties to an old-line Great Lakes auto industry now in free-fall. [snip]

In contrast, Pennsylvania's three percent job growth since 2003 - admittedly below the national average - has been jackrabbit fast compared to the Buckeye State's pathetic .5 percent. Most importantly, no place in Ohio remotely corresponds to the size, scale and complexity of the greater Philadelphia region, with its large concentrations of high-end technology and business service employment.

This is an intriguing suggestion, and it could be of relevance. What might be operable here are perceptions of the statewide economy. If Pennsylvania Democrats are more bullish than Ohio Democrats about their personal prospects - Obama might be aided. Of course, median income probably captures at least some of this phenomenon. Wealthier counties probably view the economy more favorably than poorer counties, regardless of the state. Nevertheless, Kotkin's point here is intuitively plausible. As this model fails to account for this difference in perception, we would see a shift from the baseline toward Obama.

There may be other important statewide differences that complicate an effort to make a precise prediction. Thus, we should only use this model to enhance our baseline understanding. If we make it out to be more than this, we run the risk of having a false understanding of the dynamics of the contest.

-Jay Cost

Is This Race Over?

Last week, I received an interesting email from John in Seattle:

I'm amazed that Hillary's NPR interview, in which she flat-out stated that Michigan's election results would not count, does not get more attention in the press. I'd bet that 98% of the electorate does not know about that earlier, contradictory statement. Instead, she's allowed to argue for a Michigan revote with no one calling her out on the NPR interview. You're a prime example. Even though you're widely regarded in the blogosphere as a stalwart for Hillary, could you please acknowledge her NPR interview in some fashion in an upcoming piece?

I am a "stalwart for Hillary?" That's news to me! A few other readers have made the same suggestion - so I think maybe I need to clear things up a bit.

I can assure you that my opinion on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton is not clouding my ability to evaluate its chances of success. Actually, I can do better than that. I can offer several falsifying instances of this theory. A quick perusal of the archives of this page from September and October will show that I was very bullish about Obama's prospects. Again and again I wrote things like this:

Bottom line: Obama's Q3 report is probably going to show at least $30 million in cash on hand. Maybe more. Let us pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of that money ( I can't believe we need to take a moment and do that, but apparently we do). Let us not get overwhelmed by a WMUR poll and lose our cool. Let us remember that $30 million can buy a lot of stuff. One of the things it can buy is a shift of frame in a political campaign. Let us remind ourselves, while we are paused here for a moment, that this freshman senator has something like two billion individual donors and has taken no money from political action committees. This guy is the real deal, ok? He's the real deal. And Clinton is going to have a race on her hands.

I wrote this on September 28, 2007 - when the journalists who now think Obama is inevitable thought Clinton was inevitable. For other examples of my bullishness on Obama's prospects - see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Back then, I received more than a few emails from Clinton supporters calling me a stalwart for Obama!

This serves as a good opportunity for me to review exactly what I think about the current state of the Democratic race. I have written a lot of columns on the subject in the last three weeks, but have failed to tie them together into a coherent argument. So, it may be understandable that readers like John have misunderstood me.

The argument I have been developing bit-by-bit is not that Clinton is likely to win the nomination. Far from it! In fact, I think she will probably lose it. The difference between others and me is that I think she stands a chance to win. It's not greater than 50%, but it is non-trivial.

Let me review the various points that have brought me to this conclusion. Again, I have talked about these separately, but I have never brought them fully together.

(1) Obama will almost assuredly have a lead in pledged delegates when the primary phase ends. However, by itself this does not count for anything. The nominee must win an outright majority of all delegates to acquire the nomination.

(2) Obama will not likely be able to do this via pledged delegates, which means that the decision will be left to the super delegates.

(3) This means that both candidates will have to make an argument to the super delegates.

(4) There are many ways to make an argument to the super delegates. Ultimately, both will have to assert that he or she is the legitimate choice of the party.

(5) One way to do this is via the pledged delegates. Obama can say: "I have won more pledged delegates, so I am the choice of the party." However, the pledged delegate allocation system has biases that seem to favor Obama.

(6) Another way to make the legitimacy argument is via who has won more votes. I think that this could be at least as persuasive as the pledged delegate argument.

(7) There are many ways to count the votes. No single way is obviously the fairest.

(8) Clinton could take a lead in a seemingly fair vote count.

These considerations imply a plausible, but unlikely, path to the nomination for Clinton.

What she first needs to do is take a lead in at least one of the reasonable tallies of the popular vote. This means that she needs to pull a big win in Pennsylvania in April. It is not enough for her eke out a win - she must win by a large margin. After that, she'll need to fight North Carolina to a rough draw. Both tasks will be difficult. I think she could win Pennsylvania big, but I think North Carolina could be tricky.

In fact, I think North Carolina could be the make-or-break state for both campaigns. A big win by Obama should put the race away; a tie would dramatically help Clinton in her quest to take a lead in the vote count. At this point, I am not sure what to expect in the Tar Heel State. It is an issue I am still working on. The second most important question (and second only because it will be relevant only if Clinton survives North Carolina) is what Puerto Rico will do and how people stateside will react. I have no idea how to get any purchase on this one.

If she does take a lead in one of the vote counts, she'll have to persuade the super delegates. In a certain sense, this will be harder for her to do because of his lead in the pledged delegates. For every additional pledged delegate Obama has over Clinton - that is one fewer super delegate he will have to persuade. There is another difficulty for her. Obama will probably have a lead in at least one vote count - which means that, in the best case scenario for her, she will have "won the votes"...and so will he.

Come back to win a popular vote total, and use that to persuade the super delegates. That's her angle. I think it is a tough one, but I don't think it is impossible. I can imagine him ending the race by winning big in North Carolina - but I can also see her winning big in Pennsylvania, keeping it close in North Carolina and winning big in Indiana (held on the same day). That would leave Kentucky, West Virginia, Puerto Rico, Oregon, Montana, and South Dakota. There is promising terrain there for her.

I am going to spend the next few days and weeks reviewing this math in a bit more detail. Tomorrow, I will offer an in-depth review of what to expect in the Pennsylvania primary. Next week, I'll try to quantify exactly what kind of vote margin's she'll need, and hopefully (if I can get my mind around the topic) offer something of substance on North Carolina.

-Jay Cost

On Obama's Speech

It took me several reads through Barack Obama's speech to digest its full meaning. The man possesses a sharp intellect that cannot be encountered casually. Though I found myself disagreeing with his assertions at several points, I was mostly struck by the insightfulness of his thinking. My sense is that, for these reasons, the speech will help him in the short run by staunching the bleeding of the last few days.

While I was impressed by his argument, I could not help but return to the central question of his candidacy. He is a man endowed with impressive intellectual capacities - but what public goods have these capacities helped secure? To my mind, the speech points inevitably to this question, which existed long before the Clinton operation decided to exploit it for political advantage. And so, I am left wondering whether the speech will have any net benefit in the long run.

Here is how I read his speech.

Obama opened by arguing that the Framers had a radical vision for "America's improbable experiment in democracy." This vision was partially captured in the Constitution - but was incomplete. The first generation left it to subsequent ones "to continue the long march - for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring, and more prosperous America." What is required for this journey is a recognition that out of many people, we are one nation - "that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction." It is by unifying around common goals that America can achieve prosperity.

Obama understands this deeply. It is part of him, a vision "seared into (his) genetic makeup." The fact that his candidacy has been so successful is a testament to "how hungry the American people (have been) for this message of unity."

Unfortunately, it is easy for this country to be side-tracked by what divides it, and nothing divides it more than the effects of slavery - the "original sin" of the nation. Sadly, both sides have either intentionally or unintentionally made comments to divide the nation during this campaign. Obama identified Geraldine Ferraro by name and Bill Clinton by implication as those who have done this.

Reverend Wright has done this, too. His comments "were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."

So, why hasn't Obama "disowned" Wright? The answer is because Wright is part of him. As a man who stands at the nexus of black and white - Obama understands the deep complexity of a man the media has cast as a one-dimensional caricature. His vitriol is unacceptable, but there is so much more to him than this. He is a good man who has worked hard for his community, who has inspired many to faith in Christ and given them confidence to work to mend a tattered community. Having grown up when "segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted," his incendiary opinions are understandable, but not excusable. In all, he is a man of deep conflict - much like the African American community of which he is a part. Wright "contains within him the contradictions - the good and the bad - of the community that he has served diligently for so many years."

Wright and the African American community are not alone. This duality of good and bad is identifiable in the white community. He can see it in his grandmother, who "sacrificed again and again for (him) - but (was) a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made (him) cringe."

Because of who Obama is, both Wright and his grandmother, with all of their contradictions and conflicts, are part of him.

The persistence of these contradictions is a testament to the fact that "we've never really worked through (the complexities of race) - a part of our union that we have yet to perfect." This tension exists not only because African Americans have not been made fully equal partners in the American dream, but also because many poor whites, Latinos, and Asians have been left out, too. It is easy to fall into patterns of blame and recrimination when everybody is left wanting.

The question is what to do about it. We could focus on the salacious spectacles that divide us. Or we could acknowledge that both sides are profoundly correct and profoundly incorrect - that their grievances are real, but they have failed to understand that progress can only be made by trying to achieve the Framers' vision, e pluribus unum. Each of us needs to recognize that "your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper." This is what his candidacy is about. Obama wants to make real progress by uniting a divided America around a resolution to achieve the nation's common good.

Here is my reaction to the speech.

As an argument as well as a campaign position, I find it to be subtle yet powerful, which is not to say that I am in full agreement with it. I think Obama offers a generally liberal interpretation of the Constitution and the Founding. I also think his prescriptions for the common good are plainly liberal. Accordingly, I think this unification will be harder to achieve than he is inclined to recognize. While most of us see the same "more perfect union" when we close our eyes, we are deeply divided over how to make the vision a reality. Obama's biography, personality, and Hamiltonian enthusiasm for unity will not alter what remains a simple Madisonian fact: power is divided and changes are hard to make. Still, I think these are reasonable, defensible opinions. Usually, we do not see this kind of sophistication in contemporary campaign rhetoric.

I saw where Obama was going by creating the parallels between whites and blacks. You might say that he thinks both groups are "half right" and "half wrong." Again, these are surprisingly insightful comments, given that we are in the fifteenth month of a presidential campaign. I find myself more in agreement with his evaluation of the state of race relations than his conviction that dramatic progress can be achieved by "unifying" the nation. Above all, I was mightily impressed by the courage required to make this argument. He challenged blacks and whites to do better, and he didn't sugarcoat it. This is not a safe political tactic.

I thought it was a bit of a strain for him to compare Wright to his grandmother. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble. Obama was making a rhetorical point about his personal identification with both group's internal contradictions. It seems to me that, on that level, the comparison was valid - though I do think that this might be grist for his critics' mill, which is why he should have been more careful on this point.

My concern with the speech is the following. I am not sure what I think about Obama's claim that he never heard Wright make incendiary comments. I think that hinges on the definition of "incendiary." More importantly, I have always thought this was a moot point. Incendiary comments make for great television - but the bigger concern, especially for somebody as smart as Obama, is the philosophy that undergirds them. Obama clearly understands Wright's philosophy - even if he never heard Wright say what has generated this firestorm. If nothing else, yesterday he contextualized Wright into the broader narrative of the American racial division. He would not have been able to do that so ably if he had only learned about this philosophy last week.

This philosophy is divisive, and Obama was aware of it even if he had not heard its most extreme articulations. At the same time, this philosophy is clearly not the core mission of Trinity United Church of Christ. Jeremiah Wright does not wake up every morning dedicated to dividing people. However, the antipode of this divisiveness is the core mission of Barack Obama. He wakes up every morning dedicated to uniting people. This is why Obama thinks Wright is not just wrong, but "profoundly" wrong. Wright's divisiveness constitutes a grievous mistake on what Obama takes to be the central question of American identity - are we one people or are we not?

Accordingly, this inclines me to ask what Obama did about this profound philosophical error. He has been a parishioner for twenty years, and he has been a strong believer in this philosophy of unity for at least four years, since his keynote address in 2004. I appreciate that he cannot walk away from Trinity because the church speaks to who he is. However, I must ask whether he worked to persuade Wright and the parishioners who applauded so jubilantly at his divisive words that they were wrong on a matter of existential importance. If he did, what was the consequence of those efforts? Did he succeed in bringing about change at Trinity?

These are reasonable questions to ask. They speak to the implicit warranty that a candidate offers when he or she runs for any office. Candidates make all kinds of promises about what they will do, and voters need to find some way to gauge whether they will keep their word. One way to do that is to look at what they have done. By contextualizing Jeremiah Wright in the broader dilemma of American divisiveness, Obama has identified his experience at Trinity as a small instance of a larger problem that plagues the country, the problem to which he intends to dedicate the 44th presidency. It is therefore reasonable to ask what he did - empowered as he was as a high-profile, long-standing parishioner - to change the viewpoint of Wright and Trinity, and whether those efforts were successful.

The essential problem of the speech is that it gives no answer to these queries. Obama recognizes the problem with Wright's viewpoint, feels strongly that it is part of a problem in society that needs to be corrected, but offers no evidence of his work to correct it. Instead, he says, "Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed." But there are many ways to "disagree." Did he merely shake his head quietly in the pews and complain to Michelle on the drive back to Kenwood? Or did he do something about it? Many parishioners in many churches or synagogues would do something if their pastors, priests or rabbis went astray on an important issue. Many more would expect a future president to do something.

What could be political trouble for him is that these are specific versions of the general question Hillary Clinton has been asking for weeks. Can't you just hear her now, in the back of your mind, say in response to this speech what she has said dozens of times before? "I have been working on these issues for 35 years. My husband and I made real progress in the 90s. You can identify the problems, but what have you done about them?"

Hillary Clinton did not invent this question. She is just exploiting it. The question is a real one that each voter must answer and weigh for himself. That would be the case regardless of whether Mrs. Clinton ever uttered "35 years" or not. Thus, the speech returns us to the essential gamble of the Obama candidacy. It is simply true that his résumé is thin. It is not the thinnest of our past presidents. Chester Arthur probably gets that prize. However, it is thinner than what most Americans typically expect from a president. Obama is betting that voters have the same reaction to the Wright speech as they do to his candidacy itself: they are so persuaded by his insightful diagnosis of the national ailment that they are not bothered by the fact that he has done little to date to cure it.

-Jay Cost

What Will Happen with Florida?

It looks like the Florida re-vote plan is not going to happen. This is from the Miami Herald.

Florida law prohibits election officials from authenticating votes cast in the Democratic Party's proposed do-over primary by mail, state officials said Thursday, a potentially fatal blow to the increasingly embattled plan.

''There's no authority under Florida law that would allow county supervisors of election or the state to verify signatures in an election of a state party,'' said Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Florida's secretary of state and Division of Elections.

Verifying the identity of anyone who votes by mail -- either through a conventional absentee ballot or in the Florida Democrats' proposed and unprecedented statewide mailed election -- is considered a key bulwark against electoral fraud.

In addition, the plan floated Wednesday by state party chief Karen Thurman lacked a key requirement to protect the anonymity of voters -- an inner ''secrecy envelope,'' though aides said Thursday that the envelope would be included if the proposal gains momentum.

So, if there will be no vote-by-mail, what will there be? My sense is that the most likely result is no action at all.

The question at hand is whether the status quo - which is no re-vote - will be retained, or whether there will be a switch to some alternative. There are, by my count, four actors who have a say in whether there will be a switch: the Florida Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee, and (by virtue of DNC mandate) the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign. Of course, the lines between these four groups can get blurry. For instance, members of Congress could be affiliated with a campaign as well as a party organization. Also, other entities are involved in setting the rules of the game - e.g. the governor decided that a re-vote will not come on the government's nickel. But you get the idea. These four entities are the major players.

Each of them has different interests or goals and, in true Madisonian fashion, all of them are entitled to a veto. Nobody is going to get railroaded here. Either these four entities agree to a solution, or the status quo wins.

This complicates a re-vote.

When different entities have closely related goals, a compromise can often be found. For instance, if this were simply up to the DNC and the Florida Democratic Party, a compromise would probably happen. After all, both groups are principally interested in maximizing participation.

It is also possible to find a compromise when actors have different goals that do not necessarily conflict. This is akin to killing two birds with one stone. For instance, if this were up to the DNC, the Florida Democratic Party, and the Clinton campaign - a compromise might be found. The Clinton campaign wants to maximize its share of votes/delegates, which is quite different than what the DNC or the Florida Democratic Party wants. However, neither side really opposes the other. So, there might be some proposal that accomplishes both goals at once.

However, it is hard to reach a compromise in which actors have mutually exclusive goals and both are empowered to check the other. This is like giving the Road Runner a veto over Wile E. Coyote, and vice-versa. The cartoon would consist of the two of them just sitting there.

That is pretty much where the Democrats are. Consider the following.

Let's assume that the goal of the Clinton campaign is to maximize its share of the delegates without diminishing its share of the popular vote. It anticipates that the Florida delegation will not be seated as it is. It also anticipates that it will have to make an argument to the super delegates, and that these delegates will be at least somewhat persuaded by her popular vote victory in January. So, while it wants to net delegates coming out of Florida, it does not want to do so at the expense of the 295,000-vote margin it won in January.*

Accordingly, the Clinton campaign's decision rule for any proposed re-vote would be:

SUPPORT the re-vote if:
(Expected Total Votes Cast in Re-vote) X [(Clinton's Expected Share of Vote) - (Obama's Expected Share of the Vote)] >= 295,000 votes,

OPPOSE the re-vote if:

(Expected Total Votes Cast in Re-vote) X [(Clinton's Expected Share of Vote) - (Obama's Expected Share of the Vote)] < 295,000 votes,

An example will enliven this. Suppose that 4 million Democrats receive mail-in ballots, and the Clinton campaign expects that 3 million voters will mail ballots back. It also expects to beat Obama 55 to 45 in the vote count. Thus, it expects to net: (3 million votes) X (55% - 45%) = 3 million votes X 10% = 300,000 votes. Accordingly, the Clinton campaign would support the re-vote.

However, Obama would surely oppose it. Why? It helps Clinton! She nets 5,000 votes and at least a few pledged delegates. Plus, the re-vote eliminates the vote count that favors him the most (i.e. excluding FL and MI). It's a loser for him. Generally, any plan that is good for her is probably bad for him, and vice-versa. The two are engaged in a zero sum game. If the probability of Clinton winning the nomination increases, the probability of Obama winning necessarily decreases. This makes a compromise unlikely.

Unlikely - but not impossible. Remember that to delineate this basic logic, we had to make some assumptions. They might not hold. As they fail to do so - it becomes possible for a re-vote to happen. I see three potential ways that we might see a re-vote.

First, it might happen if both sides think they will come out better. Obviously, both of them cannot. Obama's gain is Clinton's loss. Clinton's gain is Obama's loss. However, our above logic assumes that Clinton and Obama have the same expectations. They might not. They might have different estimates of expected turnout as well as different estimates of how each will fare. So, Clinton might think it will favor her. Obama might think it will favor him.

This is not implausible. Predicting election results is tricky - especially primary elections where you do not have the preferences of 85% of the electorate "anchored" by partisanship. Each side might honestly expect that it will benefit from a re-vote. In that situation, both could support it.*

Second, it might happen if one side or the other becomes desperate. Our model assumes that both candidates see themselves as having some chance of victory without the re-vote. If they see themselves as standing no chance - they might be willing to embrace the re-vote even if they expect to do badly.

Remember that expectations play an important role in this kind of interaction. Both sides have to make assessments about what will happen in the re-vote. So, they will have an expectation for turnout and for each candidate's share, but they will also have a range of values in which each number could fall (from best-case to worst-case scenarios). If one side were to assess that it would assuredly lose the nomination under the status quo (or at least that a loss is very likely) - it might agree to a plan under which it expects to be harmed, but under which there is a small chance of great success. In football, they call this the Hail Mary.

Third, social pressure might be a factor. Our above model assumes a kind of "closed system." That is, nobody pays a price for acting in their own interests. This might not be the case - especially in a sensitive situation like this.

There are two types of interests at stake. The party organizations have an interest in openness and/or fairness. The candidates have an interest in maximizing their own electoral advantage. However, they cannot be honest about their interests. Neither candidate can be seen to be "disenfranchising" voters for the sake of electoral victory. That would be a public relations nightmare. So, each must somehow argue that a proposal is not free and fair, even if all that matters to it is victory.

This means that a candidate might be forced to accept a proposal that would leave it less well off. If the proposal seems to everybody to be an open and fair re-vote, how could the candidate squash it without seeming ruthlessly ambitious? That might be what is moving things forward in Michigan. One candidate or the other is going to be better or worse off from a Michigan re-vote. The one that will be worse off (assuming that he or she expects to be worse off) will not want the re-vote. However, if the deal seems to create a free and fair election - the expected loser will have little wiggle-room.

I think this last exception is the most plausible of the three. Maybe somebody will come up with a proposal that creates an obviously open and fair vote. Of course, that has not yet happened - and the fact that it hasn't happened despite the attention of national and state Democrats to the situation does not augur well. Perhaps a successful compromise in Michigan will put sufficient pressure on Florida to hammer out an agreement.


[*] Matters are may be more complicated than this. We have taken these assumptions to illustrate a simple decision rule, which we shall do presently. The assumptions might not hold in "minor" ways, i.e. ways that make the decision rule more complex, but essentially the same. For instance, the Clinton campaign might accept a lower vote margin in Florida if it knew it could net some pledged delegates via a re-vote. This would make her computation more complicated than what we have outlined - but the same basic pattern would hold (her win is his loss; so, whatever she will support he will oppose). The assumptions might not hold in "major" ways, i.e. ways that might actually foster a compromise solution. These are discussed below.

[*] Note that the disagreement might not involve the actual primary results, but what those results imply down the line. Both candidates might predict exactly the same result in the primary itself - but that the primary will have different implications on the broader nomination battle. For instance, Obama might expect to lose a Florida re-vote, but will ultimately have his hand strengthened because it will take the issue from Clinton, who also expects to be stronger by virtue of the primary. In that situation, there is a disagreement about broader expectations that makes a compromise possible.

-Jay Cost

The Puerto Rico Wild Card

Word came last week that Puerto Rico will switch from a caucus to a primary. I did not see much commentary on this switch, but I think it could be a significant wild card in the race.

Two questions come to mind. Just how many Puerto Ricans will turn out to vote? Whom will they support? I personally do not know enough about Puerto Rican politics to answer either question. However, I do have a few comments.

Turnout could be very large. There are four important points to keep in mind. First, Puerto Ricans tend to be better voters than those of us stateside. In the last four presidential elections, our participation rate has been about 39% of the total population. About 2 million Puerto Ricans voted in 2004, or about 52% of the public. Bear in mind that they did not get to vote for president. Those are votes for governor and resident commissioner.

Second, the Republican and Democratic parties do not organize political life in Puerto Rico. The two major parties are the New Progressive Party (PNP) and Popular Democratic Party (PPD). Elected officials in Puerto Rico often align themselves with the Democrats or the GOP - but there the alignments are not systematic. For instance, the current Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico is Luis Fortuño-Burset. He is a member of the PNP and is aligned with the Republicans in Congress. From 1993 to 2001, Carlos Romero Barceló was resident commissioner. He is a member of the PNP as well, but was aligned with the Democrats during his time in Congress. So, "Republicans versus Democrats" does not have nearly the same salience in Puerto Rico as it does in the United States. Instead, the PNP and PPD divide over the issue of Puerto Rico's status vis-à-vis the United States. The PNP is for statehood. The PPD supports a modification of commonwealth status toward greater sovereignty.

Third, and unsurprising considering the above comment, party registration is not a relevant factor in determining eligibility for the upcoming primary.

Fourth, Puerto Ricans are United States citizens, but are not entitled to a vote in the presidential election. This will therefore be the first time that Puerto Rico has had an opportunity to play a major role in a presidential election.

I think that, all in all, this implies high turnout. Puerto Ricans actually vote. Their political questions often involve the commonwealth's relationship to the mainland. The primary is open. And they have not had this chance ever before. That is a potent combination.

The comments of Kenneth McClintock, a DNC member from Puerto Rico, is consistent with the prospect of high turnout:

The rationale [for the switch]? There's no way we could handle more than a few tens of thousands of voters in eight district caucuses, while we can handle a million voters (at least 500 voters between 8am and 3 pm per polling place in each of 1,800+ barrios) in a primary.

By the end of the delegate selection season, we would normally have a pro-forma vote that could fit into caucuses. This time around, it was increasingly obvious that we'd have a turnout well in excess of caucus capacity.

As for whom is favored - I think it is hasty and oversimple to ascribe the same Hispanic versus African American divide to Puerto Rico that we have seen in the United States. Racial perceptions and relations in this country are quite different than those in the Caribbean. I do think a lot could depend on how both candidates orient themselves to the politics of the commonwealth. A lot could also depend on the fact that New York state has a large Puerto Rican population - around 1/4 the size of the commonwealth itself.

What could be really interesting is if there is high turnout that favors one candidate over the other. If we look at the remaining states - we see that a rough draw among the popular votes is plausible. What happens if Puerto Rico breaks the tie? Last February, Michael Barone discussed the implication of Hillary Clinton winning all 63 of Puerto Rico's pledged delegates. He wrote:

My guess is that most American voters, no matter how many times they are reminded that Puerto Ricans are our fellow citizens and that Puerto Rican volunteers in disproportionate numbers have shed their blood for their and our country, would consider it absurd for Puerto Rico to determine the presidential nominee of a major party. And that Hillary Clinton's managers (or Barack Obama's, if you alter the scenario) would not want to have this appear to be the case.

Things are quite different now than they were when Barone wrote this. Puerto Rico's governor endorsed Obama, which was expected to mute if not eliminate Clinton's advantage in the caucus. Delegate selection has switched from a caucus to a primary. Obama has a lead in pledged delegates that Clinton could not overcome even if she won Puerto Rico's all of delegates. And both candidates now have to make appeals to the super delegates. Nevertheless, the situation on June 1st might be strangely similar to the one outlined by Barone. What happens if Puerto Rico puts one candidate over the top in the popular vote? How will the mainland react? How will the super delegates react? Will that help (or harm) the candidate for whom Puerto Rico made the difference?

-Jay Cost

Overworking the Primary Data

In the many discussions of the Democratic nomination on this page - we have talked about the fact that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama must make arguments (or, as Bob Shrum has said, moral claims) for the nomination. Such claims will have two general points - legitimacy and electability. Each candidate will argue why he or she is the true choice of Democrats, and why he or she is more likely to prevail in November.

We have not heard a lot of squawking from Clinton about legitimacy just yet. Part of this has to do with the fact that, by any reasonable metric, Clinton is in second place. Be it pledged delegates or the vote count - Obama has at least a slight lead. If the primary process were to end today, he would likely be seen as the legitimate nominee. This precludes Clinton from making a claim to legitimacy. She will be able to make a claim for legitimacy if she pulls ahead in votes, but until then it behooves her to avoid discussing legitimacy altogether. Why establish a rhetorical standard that she might not be able to meet?

So, much of the back-and-forth between Clinton and Obama's flacks has involved electability. Unsurprisingly, we have seen both sides making claims that do not stand up to strict scrutiny. For instance, a reader writes in with the following question:

I've been hearing a lot lately that since Hillary won battleground states of OH, FL, and MI (and will probably win Pennsylvania) then she is better positioned to win those states in the general election. But is this actually true?

Not necessarily. Clinton's flacks can indeed be seen on the airwaves arguing this point - but in so doing they are committing an inferential error. What they are assuming is that because partisan Democrats (her core support group) in a given state support Clinton over Obama - the entire state will. This need not be the case. It could just as easily be that Independents and persuadable Republicans would prefer Obama to Clinton in those swing states. So, in an ironic twist, Clinton would win the primary but not the general. Perhaps the Clinton campaign wishes to argue that Obama could not win in the general the voters she has won in the primary. Maybe - but the primaries alone do not indicate whether that is the case.

Obama's supporters have made their own errors. For instance, one can often find them arguing that his primary strength with self-identified Republicans is evidence of an advantage in the general. By themselves, primary results cannot indicate this. The only data we have on these voters is their self-identification. We do not have histories of how they voted in general elections. To argue that Obama's margins among self-identified Republicans is a sign of strength in the general, they would have to show that these voters are typically reliable votes for Republicans in the general who are being wooed away from their party. We cannot assume that this is the case. Remember that there is always a portion of each party that votes for the other side. So, these voters might actually be reliable Democratic supporters who see themselves as Republicans (lots of people see themselves that way..."I vote for the person, not the party" - but it always seems to be that the better person is of the same party!). In that case, their support for Obama does not necessarily portend general election strength. [Though I think Obama is on better ground to point out that, according to the opinion polls, Independent voters seem to like him more than they like Clinton. Likability is a major prerequisite for vote choice - and so this might be a sign that Obama is stronger than she among this group. At the same time, the big question - how much stronger is he? - cannot really be answered in polls conducted eight months before the election.]

Take an example of the difficulty in using the primary returns to argue about strength with Republicans. Last month in Wisconsin, 9% of all Democratic primary voters claimed to be Republican. That works out to be about 100,000 voters. Obama won about 70,000 of them. In the 2004 general election, John Kerry won 8% of self-identified Republicans, according to the exit polls. That implies about 240,000 self-identified Republican voters who supported Kerry - roughly 170,000 more than Obama won last month. So, is Obama expanding the base of the party to voters who typically vote Republican, or is he "merely" enthusing self-identified Republicans who tend to support Democrats? The primary data alone cannot answer this question.

Now - here's the caveat. The point is not that these arguments are untrue. It is that they are underdetermined, which is another way of saying that we just don't know either way. Personally, my intuition is that both might be correct. But that's all I have right now - an intuition. These theories are plausible, and worthy of testing (I am working on a way to test the Clinton camp's argument right now) - but that's it.

Nevertheless, we shouldn't be too tough on the Clinton and Obama flacks for overworking the primary data. Sometimes, you have to throw a lot of arguments against the wall to get a few to stick. And anyway, the primary results have been overworked by lots of people. For instance, some Democrats - and many in the media, for that matter - are pointing to the relatively high turnout in the Democratic primaries as evidence of an enthusiasm gap that advantages the Democrats. Without commenting on who has an advantage in November, I will say that this particular argument is problematic.

Roughly 62.2% of all primary votes have been cast in the Democratic primary. This is an impressive statistic. However, by itself it does not count as evidence of a Democratic advantage. The reason is that Democrats typically out-perform Republicans in the primaries. The following chart compares the Democrats' share of primary turnout against their share of the two-party vote in the general election.

Primary Versus General.jpg

As you can see - 62.2% is far from extraordinary. Even when we exempt the years in which the Republican Party had non-competitive contests (1972, 1984 and 2004), the Democrats typically out-perform the GOP. Pulling in 62.2% of the primary vote is no unique feat for the Democrats. 1996 is telling. Bill Clinton had no serious challenge while Bob Dole faced a protracted battle against multiple opponents. And yet the GOP still only pulled in 55% of the primary vote.

Another key year is 1988. This is the best apples-to-apples comparison of 2008 that there is. That year, both parties had open nomination battles. The Democrats out-performed the GOP by a margin larger than what they have done this year, pulling in a little more than 65% of the total primary vote. Did it do them any good in the general? No. George H.W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis, 54% to 46%.

So, there is apparently no connection between Democratic primary turnout and the Democratic vote in the general. Why not? I would suggest two reasons. First, higher turnout is in many respects a consequence of drama rather than enthusiasm. In years past, the Democrats have had more dramatic primary battles that have intrigued and engaged voters. This year is no exception. Dramatic races might actually have a negative effect on the party because it drains time and money from the eventual nominee.

Second, our system does not weigh votes according to enthusiasm. I think it is clear that there is an enthusiasm gap this year. I also think that part of the vote difference between the GOP and the Democrats might be a consequence of this gap. However, enthusiasm can only do so much for a candidate. If Voter A can't decide whom to support on Election Day, and breaks the tie by flipping a coin - his vote counts as exactly one vote. If Voter B is so excited to support his beloved candidate that he can't sleep the night before - his vote counts for exactly...one vote!

Where enthusiasm has an effect is in the relative likelihood that Voters A and B will vote. Voter B is almost assured to vote while Voter A is much less likely. This is the benefit that accrues to the candidate with enthusiasm on his side. However, the likelihood of Voter A actually voting increases as the competitiveness of the contest increases. Competitive elections generate attention and interest, and therefore participation. This is why, for instance, turnout was down 8 million votes between 1992 and 1996, was back up in 2000 and even higher in 2004. What's the difference? 1992, 2000 and 2004 were intense elections that captivated the nation. 1996 was not.

Where I think enthusiasm could have the biggest effect is in the money both candidates are able to bring in. This is probably one reason McCain is going to press Obama to take public financing. Obama's enthusiastic voters count for just one vote apiece, but they can give him a financial edge over McCain that public financing would nullify.

-Jay Cost

Are the Chickens Coming Home to Roost?

A few emailers have written to ask what the pledged delegate count would look like if the Democrats were to allocate delegates as the Republicans do. This is a good question. Of course, the Republican delegate allocation scheme is a hodge-podge of rules determined by state parties. Nevertheless, Republicans are notorious for allocating their delegates on a statewide winner-take-all basis. Accordingly, I reassigned Democratic delegates on a statewide winner-take-all basis, and found that Clinton, not Obama, would have a pledged delegate lead.

This is not an argument for the way things should be. Rather, it is meant to indicate that we can get a different result depending on how we change the rules.

The Democrats' delegate system is designed to aggregate the individual preferences of Democratic voters into "the choice" of the party. Speaking technically, we would call the nomination scheme a social choice mechanism. Democrats individually declare their preferences, and the nomination process tells us whom Democrats as a group prefer. The above math shows that altering the particulars of the mechanism can change the social choice, even as individual preferences are held constant.

This implies that we can evaluate the Democrats' nominating scheme as a social choice mechanism. We can ask whether it does a good or bad job at aggregating individual preferences into a social choice.

In my opinion, the Democrats' nominating system stinks. It doesn't stink as much as the Republicans' bone-headed scheme, but it still stinks. Before I get into my list of grievances against it - I have to clear away a bit more theoretical underbrush. As I said, a nominating system such as this translates individual preferences into a social choice. Depending upon the quality of the system, it may do a better or worse job.

We might think of it this way.

Preferences of the Voters ->

Social Choice Mechanism ->

Social Choice + "Systemic Influence"

The "Systemic Influence" would be the influence that the system itself has on the outcome. So, for instance, assume that 70% of all voters prefer Candidate A. There is some kind of nominating system that determines who wins the nomination - and Candidate A gets 95% of the vote. The difference of 25% could be called the "Systemic Influence." Importantly, we can never reduce the expected value of systemic influence to zero. There is no perfect way to translate individual preferences into a social choice. However, that's not to say that the Democrats couldn't do a better job than what they do.

The problem for the Democrats might seem small at first. Obama has won about 53% of the delegates, and about 51% of the popular vote. That is a pretty small difference. The problem is that the difference is systemic. The nominating system seems to contain several biases that favor Obama.

First, there is a "small state" bias. This exists in the Electoral College: small states have a proportionally bigger sway than large states. The Democrats have imputed this bias into their delegate allocation scheme. We can appreciate this via the following graph. It compares the number of voters per state who voted Democrat or Republican in 2004 against the number of 2004 Kerry voters (our rough measure of Democrats per state) per pledged delegate to the convention. Don't be confused by this latter statistic. It is really straightforward - Kerry voters divided by pledged delegates. This is meant to give us a sense of how well Democrats in a state are represented at the convention. The smaller the number, the better represented they are.

Graph 1.jpg

This is the small state bias at work. Small state voters are better represented at the convention than large state voters. Notice that the relationship between the two is logarithmic. For sparsely populated states, a small increase in the number of voters yields a big increase in the number of Kerry voters per delegate. With the more populous states, a big increase in population yields a small increase in the number of Kerry voters per delegate. Thus, we see a big difference between Wyoming and Hawaii, but a small difference between New York and California.

We can "linearize" this relationship by taking the natural log of each state's total vote. What this does is essentially turn the r-shaped relationship into a straight line. This might help us pick up on some details that the above graph is hiding.

Graph 2.jpg

As we can see, the basic relationship remains. Voters in larger states are not as well represented as voters in smaller states. Thus, the states form a band that move from the bottom-left to the top-right. Look carefully at it, and you'll notice a curiosity. States at the top of the band are almost always strong Kerry states, while the states at the bottom are almost always strong Bush states.

This implies that Bush states are better represented at the convention than Kerry states, independent of population. For instance, examine the vertical cluster of observations about a third of the way across the graph - Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, West Virignia, Nebraska, and Utah. All of these states had roughly equal numbers of voters in 2004. Look carefully at their ordering. There is a general pattern there. The stronger a state goes for Bush, the better representation the Kerry voters in the state have at the convention. Maine has one delegate for every 16,500 Kerry voters. Nebraska has one for every 10,500 Kerry voters.

This pattern persists across the whole graph - states of equal size get more or less delegates depending upon how strongly they went for George W. Bush. This implies a Republican state bias. Let's examine this directly by comparing Kerry delegates per state with Bush's share of the two-party vote.*

Graph 3.jpg

This data is strongly consistent with the theory of a Republican state bias. Of course, there is evidence of the small state bias here as well. Smaller states tend to be in the bottom-right, and larger-states in the top-left. But the tight band of observations that go from the top-left to the top-right as Bush's share of the vote increases demonstrates this Republican bias very clearly. A few examples can amplify this point.

-Note the states we discussed before - ME, NV, NH, NM, WV, NE, and UT. They are arrayed from the top-left to the bottom-right - with voters in Bush states getting more representation at the convention. Maine and New Hampshire are in the top-left, Nebraska and Utah are in the bottom right.

-Note the distance between Idaho and New Hampshire - both of which have 4 electoral votes and roughly equal populations. There is one pledged Democratic delegate from Arizona for every 16,000 Kerry voters. There is one pledged delegate from New Hampshire for every 10,000 Kerry voters.

-Compare Texas to Illinois. If there was just a "small state bias," Illinois Democrats should be better represented than Texas Democrats. After all, Illinois is smaller than Texas. In fact, the opposite is true.

-Compare Alabama and Connecticut, and you will see the same relationship. Connecticut is smaller, but Alabama Democrats are better represented.

Finally, there is the caucus bias. We already know about this. Caucus participation is much lower than primary turnout - but the DNC does not take this into account when it allocates delegates to states. Accordingly, caucus state delegates have fewer Democrats "behind" them. For instance, for every one pledged Obama delegate from Minnesota, there are 2,862 pro-Obama caucus-goers. For every one pledged Obama delegate from Wisconsin, there are 15,381 Obama primary voters.

This has the effect of enhancing the Republican state bias. Bush's average share of the vote in the 15 states with a caucus process was about 57% (compared to 53% across all states). So, most caucus states get a boost anyway, just for being Republican. When we factor in the caucus bias - we have to conclude that the relatively few Democrats who participate in caucuses are much better represented at the convention than other voters.

The small state bias makes sense to me. The Electoral College has a small state bias in part to protect against regional candidates from winning the White House on a sectarian campaign. It makes sense for the Democrats to have similar protective measures. However, the Republican and caucus biases seem difficult to justify. Why do they exist? Of course, there is a mathematical answer to the question (that is explored in an endnote). Delegates are allocated according to formulas that embody these biases. However, referencing the formulas only begs the question. What we are interested in is why the party has arranged matters in this manner.

I think it is due in part to the fact that politicos have taken lousy care of the parties. The best and brightest of both parties haven't cared enough to manage the nomination process with an eye to the future. They just don't think much about the process, or about the party organization generally.

At its core, the nominating system is a logically inconsistent hybrid. Both parties changed their fundamental orientation to how nominees should be chosen in the 1970s - but they did not bring fundamental change to their nomination systems. Instead, they added openness requirements to the old scheme. State parties still send delegates to a convention that decides on a nominee. The difference now is that they must have open selection methods. What we have then is a Progressive Era variation of a Gilded Era system. There is no internal logic, no answer to the question: if the voters should decide, why retain delegates and conventions?

As a matter of fact, the system has barely been refined since the alterations of the 1970s. Forget redesigning the system to match the times. We're talking about tweaks to improve it at the margins. These don't really happen, either. Politicos created this hybrid with no internal consistency, and never returned to evaluate carefully whether further reforms would be needed to avoid a "perverse" result.

And what is a "perverse" result? Let's return to our initial schema:

Voters Prefer Candidate A ->

Nomination Rules Aggregate Individual Preferences into Social Choice ->

Candidate B Wins Due to Systemic Biases in Nomination Rules

This is "perverse." Candidate B has effectively gamed the system - which is not to say that he intended to, but only that he was the systematic beneficiary of the biases. And so, we see voters preferring one candidate and the process conferring the nomination on another.

This year, Barack Obama is benefiting from several of these biases. So, there is the potential for this kind of "perverse" result. It could happen that Clinton wins the votes while Obama wins the pledged delegates. It need not be this way. No system is perfect, but if Democrats had been forward-thinking about their system - they might not be in such a bind.

This relates to a point I have made before on this page. Our country has done a poor job maintaining its political parties. We pay dearly for our negligence. Every two years, we complain about non-competitive congressional elections. In between elections, we complain that members of Congress are irresponsible and unresponsive. We ask, why is Congress broken? Perhaps it is because the parties - the greatest mechanisms ever invented for managing governmental agents - have been stripped of their power. They have been given over to what scholars call "candidate control." Candidates are not responsible to the parties and the voters they represent. Instead, the parties are in service to the candidates. There is no doubt that the parties of the 19th and early 20th centuries were malfunctioning, corrupt, and irresponsible. But rather than reform them, we decimated them.

I think this nomination debacle is, in part, the fault of our disregard for the political parties. They are these hollowed-out husks that cannot handle the simple task of resolving a two-way dispute. And so, many Democrats want this robust and healthy debate to end because they are worried about chaos, and rightly so. If Clinton comes all the way back, this unrefined, antiquated, foolish system is going to have to settle the matter.

The Democrats' hope is that Clinton or Obama humbly accepts the vice-presidential nomination (you know, the one not worth a bucket of "spit"). I find this indicative of the times. As the Democrats stare down chaos, their hope hinges upon the personalities of the candidates. That's candidate-controlled politics in a nutshell.


[*] For the sake of visual ease - I have excluded the District of Columbia from this graph. DC only gave Bush 9% of the vote in 2004 - including it would expand the horizontal size of the graph and thus reduce the ability to see individual data points in the main cluster distinctly.

[*] Let's take a moment here to discuss the DNC's delegate allocation formula. In particular, how is it that there is a "Republican bias" in it? The DNC computes a state's base number of delegates via an "allocation factor," which is:

Allocation Factor = 1�?�2 × ( ( SDV ÷ TDV ) + ( SEV ÷ 538 ) )

SDV is a state's vote for the Democratic presidential candidates from 1996, 2000, and 2004, TDV is the total vote for the Democratic presidential candidates from those years, and SEV is a state's electoral vote.

I see at least three sources of Republican bias.

First, it does not include a "discount" factor for 1996. Bill Clinton won 12 states that year that John Kerry lost in 2004. That gives the count a slight pro-Republican bias.

Second, and relatedly, it takes no account of turnout by year. Turnout was up drastically in 2000 and 2004 over 1996. This can create "perverse" quirks in the formula. For instance, John Kerry's 13-point loss in North Carolina in 2004 is counted about as heavily as Clinton's 18 point victory in New Jersey in 1996.

Third, and most important of all, partisan differences between states get squashed. The "allocation factor" is actually just the average of a state's contribution to the party's national vote and its contribution to the Electoral College. This favors states that favor Republicans, which can be see if we take a example.

Let's look at Indiana, Missouri, Tennesse, and Washington - all of which have the same number of Electoral College votes (11). We'll examine their share of the Democratic vote, their share of the Electoral College vote, the average of the two (i.e. the allocation factor), and the difference between the average and their share of the Democratic vote.

Republican Bias in Allocation Factor.gif

Look at what happens. Republican states get a boost, Democratic states get a burden. So, Washington state contributed 0.8% more to Democratic victories than Indiana, but its allocation factor is just 0.4% larger. Interestingly, the size of the boost or burden depends upon how Republican or Democratic the state is. A state with no votes for Democrats and 11 electors would enjoy a boost of 1%. A state that contributes 4% of the total Democratic vote and 11 electors would suffer a burden of 1%.

The small state bias also plays a role here. Larger states make up a proportionally smaller share of the Electoral College than small states (for instance, California's population is 72 times the size of Wyoming's, but its Electoral College delegate is only 18 times Wyoming's). Thus, all small states would get some boost, regardless of how they voted. Similarly, all large states face some kind of burden. But the size of the boost or the burden depends upon partisanship. Republican states are treated better than Democratic states.

-Jay Cost

An Email from a Smart Reader (And an Update to Today's Column)

Earlier today - I made the following point:

The Obama campaign is proclaiming they won the Texas caucus by double digits. Indeed, that seems to be the case. Nevertheless, they need to be careful not to proclaim this too loudly. How will it look if Clinton wins a majority of the more than 2.5 million Texans who voted in the primary, but Obama wins the caucus in which about 100,000 people participated? That might help Clinton because it is evidence that the caucuses are not a good gauge of voter preferences. Obama needs to talk up his pledged delegate lead, without reminding people of how it is heavily dependent upon the caucuses. The Clinton camp is going to start attacking these caucuses.

In response to this, a perceptive reader of mine wrote me to correct the "100,000 people" estimate, which I derived (reasonably, I thought) by extrapolating from the results as they appeared at the time I wrote the original essay. He notes that 100,000 is actually the number of precinct delegates going to the Senatorial Conventions. My Texas reader elaborates:

For example, my precinct had about 150 show up for the Precinct Convention, but our precinct was allocated only 13 delegates, which were divided 8 for Obama and 5 for Hillary. These 13 are part of the 100,000 total. Roughly 8,000 precincts in TX, with avg of 12-13 delegates = 100,000. If my precinct were "average" (it may not be) that means over 1 MILLION participated in the TX Primary Conventions.

This is why it pays to publicize your email address. Rob in Houston, I thank you.

This reduces the severity of Obama's caucus "problem" in Texas, but it does not eliminate it. Obama wins a caucus that has a turnout of less-than-half of the primary vote (caucus participation seems likely to me to be less than 1 million - Houston precincts probably "over-performed" - which would be about 36% of the primary vote) - and so walks away from the state with more delegates than the primary vote winner. There is an argument there for Clinton to exploit. Obama needs to have a good rebuttal prepared.

-Jay Cost

How Clinton Won TX and OH

After the Wisconsin primary - there was evidence of pro-Obama momentum. There is no evidence of this from yesterday's two big contests in Ohio and Texas. In fact, Clinton not only regained ground she lost with her best groups, she made marked improvements among key portions of Obama's best groups.

To begin, let's look at Clinton's performance among her best demographic groups. The following chart reviews Clinton's net margin among these groups in non-Southern states through February 18th, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

Clinton in Ohio.gif

As this makes clear, Clinton came roaring back in Ohio last night - winning voters that she had won through February 18th (i.e. the contests through the Potomac Primary), but that she had lost in Wisconsin.

What about Obama? He under-performed in his key groups in Ohio last night. The following chart reviews Obama's net margin among his strongest demographic groups:

Obama in Ohio.gif

Clearly, Obama had the exact opposite experience in Ohio last night. He improved in Wisconsin relative to his prior results, but Ohio was a slide - not just relative to Wisconsin, but relative to his performances prior to it. It was Clinton, not Obama, who won white males, non-union households, the wealthy, and white Protestants. This was a change from past contests.

One constant we saw again in Ohio last night was that Clinton did well among late deciders. She won those who decided the day of the primary by 11 points, about what she won the entire vote by. She won those who decided three days before by 26 points. This is actually an improvement for Clinton. Normally, Obama performs better among voters who decide three days prior. Clinton also did better among voters who decided a week ago. Again, this is a change. Usually, Obama does better with them. All in all, it appears that Clinton again closed well. This time, she started closing a little earlier than she has in the past.

And what of Texas? We see the same basic narrative - although Texas did not favor Clinton as strongly. Let's take a look at the numbers for Clinton in her best groups.

Clinton in Texas.gif

These numbers are roughly consistent with what we have seen in the South to date. Clinton did roughly no better and no worse than she has in other states in the region.

As for Obama, here is how he performed in Texas:

Obama in Texas.gif

Typical for a southern contest - Clinton won white men (here Obama did better among white men than he has in other southern contests) and white Protestants. She did enjoy notable improvement in her standing among wealthier voters and Independents - two groups that Obama typically wins in the North or the South.

What of minority voters, namely Hispanics and African Americans? They performed largely as we have come to expect. In Texas, Obama won African Amerians 83-16, which is about what he has done time and again. In Ohio, he won them 87-13. Clinton won Hispanics 67-31 in Texas - again consistent with how she has performed to date.

What can we conclude from all of this? It should be clear that Texas and Ohio performed in a manner roughly consistent with the states prior to Wisconsin. From this, we might infer that any momentum that Obama developed after the Potomac Primary was not carried through yesterday. Wisconsin did not help him in Texas and Ohio - as Virginia, Maryland, and DC seemed to help him in Wisconsin. The states voting yesterday seemed to vote "normally." Over the next few days, I'll explore this in a bit more depth - making use of the vote totals as they become finalized.

Another point. Last night Clinton made only modest gains among the pledged delegates. As of this writing, no estimate for the delegate allocation in Texas was available, but through the other three states Clinton only netted 26 pledged delegates. This bodes well for Obama, and it is consistent with what we had expected.

However, with some votes left to be counted in all four states, Clinton netted about 330,000 votes on Obama. Those RCP popular vote counts have shifted. Clinton cut Obama's lead that excludes Florida and Michigan by more than 30%; she cut the lead that includes Florida by more than 50%; and (as of this writing) she seems to have erased Obama's lead in the count that includes Florida and Michigan.

This definitely puts her in striking distance of the popular vote lead that includes Florida. She has to win the remaining vote by about 6 points to draw even with him on that count. While it is far from assured that she will do this, it is quite plausible. [She'll have to win by about 10 points to draw even in the count that excludes Florida and Michigan - so that remains more difficult for her to achieve. I'll offer more precise estimates on all these figures after the votes have been fully tabulated.] If she does eliminate it, I think she will have an argument to take to the super delegates. That's not to say it is the more compelling argument; Obama will have a good one of his own. The point is that if she catches him in the vote count that includes Florida, she will have an angle on victory. She took a big step toward catching him last night.

Final point. The Obama campaign is proclaiming they won the Texas caucus by double digits. Indeed, that seems to be the case. Nevertheless, they need to be careful not to proclaim this too loudly. How will it look if Clinton wins a majority of the more than 2.5 million Texans who voted in the primary, but Obama wins the caucus in which about 100,000 people participated? [See My Update to this Point Here] That might help Clinton because it is evidence that the caucuses are not a good gauge of voter preferences. Obama needs to talk up his pledged delegate lead, without reminding people of how it is heavily dependent upon the caucuses. The Clinton camp is going to start attacking these caucuses.

-Jay Cost

Clinton's "Moral Claim"

Sunday's Meet the Press featured a spirited debate between James Carville, Mary Matalin, Mike Murphy, and Bob Shrum. Shrum made a very insightful point, noting that Hillary Clinton has to find some kind of "moral claim" to the nomination if she hopes to take it from Barack Obama.

This is a concise version of an argument I made last week - that Clinton needs to assert that she is the "legitimate" candidate of her party. I particularly like the use of the word "claim" because it underscores how legitimacy is contestable. Both she and Obama will make claims to the nomination that the super delegates will arbitrate.

I talked briefly last week about the specific claim Clinton could make. Today, I want to outline it in more detail. Essentially, Clinton is going to assert that Obama's plurality victory among pledged delegates does not necessarily entitle him to the nomination. Counting up the pledged delegates is one way to measure popular support, but it is not the only one. I don't even think it is the best one - at least from the standpoint of persuading the super delegates.

The most persuasive method is to count the votes. This is why the Obama campaign needs to be careful. Clinton could acquire a powerful argument for her nomination. Obama currently has a slight lead in the popular vote (52% to 48%), excluding Florida and Michigan. However, if Clinton wins Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania - his lead will be under threat. This is also where Florida and Michigan come into play. I get the sense that few neutral Democratic politicos are interested in seating the Michigan and Florida delegations while the nomination is up for grabs. That's good for Obama. But what about factoring their voters into the counts? I think Obama can convincingly argue against factoring Michigan in, as he was not on the ballot. However, he'll have a harder time arguing that super delegates should ignore Florida voters.

This means the race is tighter than many people believe. While Clinton has to win something like 75% of the remaining pledged delegates to overtake him in that count - she only has to win about 53% of the vote to overtake him in the count that includes Florida. That's not so much a royal flush as a three-of-a-kind.

If Clinton pulls ahead of Obama in this count, she could make a compelling moral claim. I think her argument would consist of a positive and a negative component. First, she can assert that, as the popular vote winner, she is the rightful nominee of the party. She can remind super delegates that the last Democrat who won the nomination without a popular mandate was Hubert Humphrey in 1968. The debacle that followed convinced Democrats to open their process to the public. Nominating Obama would thus be inconsistent with the party's forty-year commitment to openness and inclusiveness.

Second, she can run against the nomination process itself. As I noted last week, this is a procedure that few politicos have paid attention to. So, there is little emotional investment in it, which makes it easier to attack. Imagine a split in the popular vote and the Electoral College - only this time the Electoral College does not have the Constitution conferring upon it moral legitimacy. Which count will people prefer? Similarly, Clinton can argue that Obama indeed won a plurality of pledged delegates - but that is merely a testament to the fact that the party's process is not as open as they thought. They shouldn't let the vagaries of the party's antiquated, undemocratic system determine the nominee.

In particular, Clinton can run against the caucuses. Caucuses have much lower turnout than primaries. For instance, the populations of Minnesota and Wisconsin are roughly equal. About 200,000 Democrats participated in the Minnesota caucus, compared to 1.1 million in the Wisconsin primary. Clinton, who has done very poorly in the caucuses, can argue that they are too exclusionary. There's some basic arithmetic to exploit here. "Each pledged delegate in Minnesota is worth 2,800 voters. Each pledged delegate in California is worth 12,700 voters. How is that fair?"

I think this is an argument that super delegates might find persuasive. Like the delegate system generally, there is no emotional investment in the caucus process. Caucuses are utilized because they are cheap and because they enable state parties to build their mailing lists. Nobody is particularly committed to the idea that they are right and good. Super delegates might be willing to listen to a Clinton argument against them.

We caught a glimpse of an anti-caucus argument a few weeks ago on Fox News Sunday. Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and Ohio Governor Ted Strickland were debating the nomination process - and Strickland, a Clinton backer, made the following argument:

Caucuses elect some delegates. And you know, in caucuses, many people are totally shut out. Anyone serving in the active military can't participate in a caucus. People who are sick and confined to their homes, older people who can't get out at night, can't participate in caucuses. But that's part of the process.

Some delegates are elected through the primary system, which I hugely prefer, a primary system like we're having here in Ohio, where everyone has a chance to participate.

If Clinton ultimately wins the popular vote - expect to hear a lot more of this line.

Of course, Obama will have a powerful moral claim, too.* My discussion of Clinton's claim is not due to a personal inclination toward it. Personally, I have no strong feelings either way. I'm discussing Clinton because people are assuming that the pledged delegate lead is all that matters. I think this is untrue.

Ultimately, the strength of Clinton's argument depends upon the popular vote, which in turn requires wins in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.* So, if she wins tomorrow, we will see another pivot in the race. We'll stop asking who can knock out whom, and start asking who has the better "moral claim."

What will this look like? First, there will be a lot less action than the last few months. Between tomorrow and the Pennsylvania primary - there is the Wyoming caucus next Saturday, the Mississippi primary next Tuesday, and then six weeks of nothing. Second, the super delegates are going to become an important target of campaign activity. Neither candidate can hope to win enough pledged delegates to capture the nomination - so they will start courting the 795 super delegates quite actively.

This means that the press will suddenly be more important than it has been in months (not as important as it thinks it is, of course!). Genuine news events are not going to drive the daily cycle. Instead, it will be driven by the talk of pundits and journalists. The super delegates, all of whom are hyper-connected elites, will probably be paying close attention. So, the candidate who charms the media might be able to charm the super delegates.

This puts the Clinton campaign in a better position than it has enjoyed recently. Minimally, it will be back in its element. We all know that the Clintons are good at spinning straw into gold. Recall the rhetorical versatility of the Clinton Administration during the Lewinsky scandal. Bill Clinton's flacks did a good job framing the matter for the press, which in turn framed it for the American public. And, of course, Hillary Clinton's campaign was able to bewitch the press into believing that she was inevitable - despite Obama's record-breaking fundraising hauls through 2007. Their problem for the last few weeks is that they haven't had anything to work with. With wins tomorrow, they'll have straw to spin, time to do it, and an audience of super delegates watching them.

The Obama campaign must be ready for this. It needs to have an argument for why he should be the nominee, as well as an argument for why Clinton's argument is bunko. The next stage of the nomination could hinge upon these arguments as much as anything.


[*] I talked about Obama's argument last week. He can argue that Clinton is only complaining about the caucuses because she was unprepared. He can also turn the caucus argument against her. "So," he might ask, "what would happen if we turned all the caucuses into primaries? I would still win them all. My pledged delegate lead would shrink, but because there are more voters participating, my popular vote lead would grow." Again, my point here is not that Clinton's argument would be stronger than Obama's. It is just that her argument is strong.

[*] What happens if she wins Ohio but loses Texas? It appears that she'll stay in the race. In that case, she could ultimately articulate a compelling moral claim, but it becomes much harder. Clinton needs to eliminate the vote gap. If Obama wins Texas, Clinton will have to close a larger gap with fewer states. She still could, and she might try. However, it will be more difficult.

-Jay Cost

What's So Bad about the Super Delegates?

Last week I wrote an essay in praise of the Democratic super delegates. I argued that in comparison to the Republicans - they offer real advantages. They serve as a kind of "majority maker" for the party. When a candidate has not won a 3/5ths majority of pledged delegates, the super delegates break the "tie." The Republicans have a "majority maker" solution, too: most states free their pledged delegates after a few ballots. The Democrats' solution is better. Super delegates are free to negotiate whenever they like; they have an interest in finding a candidate who is best for the party; and they have the capacity to engage in the difficult process of negotiation.

However, there are problems with the super delegates. Democrats clearly sense this - perhaps this is driving their desire to wrap the primary up. From a certain perspective, this is a strange preference. Isn't this robust contest helping the party think about its future? Isn't it helping the candidates sharpen their skills? And yet, neutral Democrats would probably be glad to see the race end on Tuesday. From another perspective, this is a highly reasonable thing to desire. While the Democratic process is preferable to the Republican one, it is still inefficient. Democrats have reasons to doubt they can trust the super delegates to do a good job concluding the contest.

The core problem is that the Democrats have empowered the super delegates to break a tie, but they have not empowered anybody to manage the super delegates. There are no rules that demand the super delegates convene and discuss with one another. There is nobody in charge of regulating the debate. There is nothing to punish the super delegates who are small-minded, nothing to reward the big-minded. There are no time restrictions that require them to make up their minds prior to the convention. They are wholly unfettered.

Thus, the super delegates have a great deal in common with a mob. They're a mob of experienced, qualified politicos who care about the party. If the Democratic Party were to be put at the mercy of a mob - this is the mob you'd want. But it is a mob nonetheless. This is why large institutions - like the House and the Senate - have reams of rules governing member behavior. If the members of those institutions are to do their jobs ably, they need a framework for interaction. Otherwise, their talents may be squandered amidst the chaos.

Let's look in depth at one potential problem.

Earlier this week, I argued that each super delegate has a personal interest and a public interest that could factor into their decisions. For instance, each House Democrat has an opinion about who is best for the party. This would be his or her public interest. Each also has a personal interest in being reelected, and this might include placating constituents by voting as they did. This would be his or her personal interest. For many super delegates, there would be no conflict. Their constituents voted the way they prefer. But for some, there will be a conflict - as seems to have been the case with John Lewis. These super delegates face a version of what is known as the dilemma of collective action. Do they pay personal costs for a public benefit, or do they sacrifice the good of the party for their own good?

Let's take a look at a simple, stylized interaction that teases out some implications. Assume there are just two super delegates, both of whom face a conflict between their public and personal goals. Each gets a choice to go one way or the other. Additionally:

- Suppose that if both delegates do what is best for the party - the party appears to be responsible to the public. So, both delegates get a benefit of P. But doing so sacrifices their personal interests, so they pay a cost of -C.

-Both delegates also have an option of doing what is best for themselves. If they do this, they get a benefit of C (regardless of what the other does). However, if one of them chooses to elevate himself above his party, the party will not appear responsbile - and both will pay a cost of -P.

-Accordingly, if both do what is best for the party, both get a benefit of P - C. If both do what is best for themselves, both get a benefit of C - P. If one works for the party and the other for himself, the first gets a benefit of -C - P, and the second gets a benefit of C - P.

These payoffs can be modeled in a two-by-two matrix. One actor "plays" the rows. The other "plays" the columns. Both choose whether to do what is best for the party or best for himself. The actor playing the rows gets the first payoff in each cell, the actor playing the columns gets the second. The generic form of the interaction would look like this:

Game 1.gif

Let's set C = 5 and P = 7. This implies that both candidates enjoy a greater benefit from helping the party than they do from helping themselves. In other words, this is what Democrats would want from the super delegates. What would the interaction look like then?

Game 2.gif

At first blush, one might think that there is a simple solution: both candidates do what is best for the party in the top-left cell. While this is a possible solution (or equilibrium), and it is socially efficient, there is another solution. The bottom-right cell, in which both candidates do what is best for themselves, could also be the outcome of the interaction. This one is socially inefficient. In other words, this interaction could result in the efficient outcome where both support the party or an inefficient outcome where neither does.

This is where some kind of institution could come in handy. That is, some rule or person could alter the payoffs to ensure that the delegates choose what is best for the party. How might this work? Suppose that the super delegates knew that if they support the party, they would be personally reimbursed for their loyalty. This might come in the form of flattering publicity, policy considerations down the line, campaign contributions to offset any electoral danger they may face, or whatever. The point is they know that supporting the party would offer some side benefit that is just theirs. They also know that this benefit is theirs regardless of what the other delegate does. That would change the game to the following by inserting a loyalty (L) factor for delegates who support the party.

That is:

Game 3.gif

Let's set L = 12 and re-run the interaction, retaining C = 5 and P = 7.

Game 4.gif

There is a single solution/equilibrium to this game. Review the options of the row chooser. Note that regardless of what the column chooser decides, he is best off serving the party. If the column chooser goes with the party, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 14 going for the party. If the column chooser goes for himself, the row chooser gets -2 going for himself or 0 going for the party. So, his rational move is always to go for the party. The same goes for the column chooser. Thus, both delegates will choose what is best for the party. The difference here is that loyalty factor. What it did was reward the delegates for supporting the party regardless of what the other does. This shifted their strategies.

This sort of personal payoff is actually quite common. If you have ever received a tote bag from PBS, you have received a personal payoff for helping a broader goal. This is what institutions can do. They can offer personal benefits to individuals to guide interactions to the socially efficient outcome. It need not be benefits. We could inverse the above interaction. Instead of a +12 loyalty benefit, we could have a -12 disloyalty penalty. It would have the same effect. This is one reason why the government is empowered to penalize tax cheats.

Mechanisms like this do not exist with the super delegates. They are in an institutional vacuum where there are no rules to govern their behavior, let alone dispense personal benefits if they put the party above themselves. Now, it might be that the preferences of the super delegates are arranged in such a way that an institutional mechanism like a tote bag is not necessary. Indeed, you could reassign the values of C and P in the first game so that both super delegates choose to support the party (e.g. re-run the first game setting C = 0). The preferences of super delegates need not be arranged in a socially inefficient way. But that misses the point. The point is that they need not be arranged in a socially efficient way, either. And if they are not - there is no "tote bag" provision to induce a socially efficient result.

One way or the other, the super delegates will make a choice, and the party is going to have a nominee. The question is how costly it will be to get this nominee. And this is what efficiency is all about - achieving an outcome while minimizing costs.

What are some of the costs that the Democrats will face because there are no rules? So far, we have hinted at the specter of illegitimacy. That is, one candidate wins because he or she is good for particular super delegates, not the party. Another cost could be delay. Because they are not required to do anything until Denver, they might not do anything until then. This would mean that Democrats will face a primary battle that ends six months from now. While I think most would agree that it would do the party no harm to have the primary last another two months, six months would be genuinely harmful. Waiting until Denver also means making a decision under intense, worldwide scrutiny. Party politics is not meant for such a close look. It's inevitably narrow-minded: personal concerns always come to influence what non-partisans think is a strictly public matter. Party deal-making is an illiberal part of any liberal society such as ours, but that does not mean the public will accept it. On the contrary, it will probably turn off the average voter who sees the deal go down on live television.

There are all sorts of other costs. None of them derive from the super delegates themselves. As I argued last week, the super delegate provision is a good "majority maker" solution. The problem is that they are free to do whatever they want.

Personally, I find this lamentable. It seems to me that the Democrats are in the midst of a robust, valuable debate about the future of their party. The fact that it does not involve sharp policy differences is a non sequitur. One need not discuss policy to be substantive. If the RCP average is any metric - it is an argument that neither side has won. And yet, lots of worried Democrats want it over. They doubt the capacity of the party organization to resolve the conflict. They are wise to have these doubts. Because they are unbound by rules of any kind, the fact that the super delegates will break the tie is a disaster waiting to happen.

But why are the super delegates so free? The Democrats have lousy rules that nobody cared to revise in the last quarter century because the best and brightest in American politics don't give a damn about the party organization. This is part of a decades-long trend in American politics. The party institutions have been taken for granted. They no longer play a vital role in daily American political life, so they are left to decay - until we need them. At which point, they are incapable of doing their job.

Americans like to think that strong parties are an impediment to democracy - and so, the weaker they are the better we are. They are wrong. Strong parties are an asset to democracy. The happenings on the Democratic side indicate what can happen when the parties are weak. The Democrats are in the midst of a animated discussion that many of the conversants want to end because the party organization is incompetent. What a shame.

-Jay Cost

Who's the Better Closer?

Last week on Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume made an interesting point:

(Clinton) closes well, you know. Late deciders tend to break for her. So she's got a chance here. The question is will she carry that over into the way she keeps campaigning and will she carry it over to these debates, which are very widely watched.

I have heard this point before. She probably earned that reputation after New Hampshire. Of course, we have had many contests since the New Hampshire primary. Is she still a good closer?

There are two ways we could answer the question. First, we could look at the polls that precede a given contest to see whether Clinton improves at the end, or does better than the polls predict. Unfortunately, this is only practical for states like New Hampshire. For the rest, we do not have enough polling data. Second, we could use the exit polls, which include information on when voters decide. If we exclude each candidate's home states (expecting voters to think about the race differently in those states) - we have 21 states to examine. This is the approach we shall take.

The exit polls ask voters if they decided the day of the election, three days prior, a week prior, a month prior, or sometime earlier. If Clinton closes well, we should expect her to do better among "day of" deciders, as well as perhaps "three days prior" deciders. However, there is a complication. What about a state like Utah? We might expect Obama to beat her among all voters, regardless of when they decided. After all, he won the state by 18 points. So, she might do better with "day of" deciders than with the whole electorate, but we will not pick up on the improvement if we examine the raw data.

Our response will be to "standardize" the results. That is, we won't just examine how Clinton did with a particular type of voters, we'll examine how she did with those voters relative to the state's electorate. For instance, Clinton won 42% of the vote in Alabama. She won 58% of "day of" deciders. So, she did better with them than with the whole electorate - consistent with the "closing well" theory. We'll capture this by dividing her "day of" share by her total share to get a standardized score of: 58 / 42 = 1.38. Conversely, she won 55% of the vote in Oklahoma, but only won 50% of day of deciders. So, her standardized score is: 50 / 55 = 0.91. This procedures enable us to see that she did close well in Alabama, but not as well in Utah.

This gives us a handy decision rule. A value less than 1.0 indicates that the candidate did worse with a group than with the whole electorate. A value greater than 1.0 indicates an improvement. So, if Clinton "closes well," we should expect values of greater than 1.0 for the late deciders. These scores will help us see how each candidate's voting coalition solidifies over time.

We can also develop a measure that compares the candidates to one another. For instance, we know that Clinton lost by 14 points in Alabama. However, she beat Obama among "day of" deciders by 19 points. This means that Clinton did 33 points better with "day of" deciders than with the whole electorate. This is a kind of "Clinton improvement factor." A positive value indicates that the type of deciders in question prefer Clinton to Obama more than the whole electorate, a negative value indicates that they prefer her less.

This gives us three statistics - Clinton's "standardized" score, Obama's "standardized score," and the so-called "Clinton Improvement Factor." We have all three statistics for each type of voter in each state. We average them by type across states and report the results in the following table:

All States.gif

Clearly, Clinton does better with "day of" deciders than Obama. Her score of 1.05 indicates that her share of the vote among them is usually greater than her share of the vote among whole electorate. Obama's 0.88 score indicates that his share is usually less than his share of the whole electorate. We also see that Clinton does about 8 points better relative to Obama with "day of" deciders than she does with the whole electorate. So, we can conclude that: (a) Clinton does better with "day of" deciders than with the whole electorate; (b) Obama does worse; (c) "day of" deciders favor Clinton over Obama more than the whole electorate.

Now, let's examine voters who decide earlier. Obama's position improves markedly. He does better with "three day" deciders, "week" deciders, and "month" deciders than he does with the whole electorate. Clinton does worse with each of these groups. What is more, the negative "Clinton Improvement Factor" values show that these groups favor Obama over Clinton more than the whole electorate. If we move back in time, we see that the "earlier" voters favor Clinton a little more strongly than the "day of" voters do. This is when most of Clinton's voting bloc forms.

All in all, we see evidence to support Hume's conclusion. Clinton does well with voters who decide early. Obama then does very well, but Clinton slowly closes the margin. This general trend holds up when we divide the states into subsets. If we look only at states Clinton won*, states Obama won*, states before Super Tuesday*, states on Super Tuesday*, and states after Super Tuesday* - we see the same pattern: Clinton does well far from the election; Obama does well about a month before to the day of the election; Clinton closes the gap on Election Day.

What could explain this pattern? Many theories could - one that I am partial to takes into account the pre-campaign knowledge voters have of Clinton and Obama. Namely, most voters know a lot about Hillary Clinton. They do not require a campaign to learn about her. So, voters who are "predisposed" to support Clinton make a decision early on that is not overturned once they learn about Obama, which happens during the course of the campaign. On the other hand, voters who are "predisposed" to Obama generally do not know enough about him to make a decision before the campaign begins in earnest. When it does, they learn that he's the candidate for them. What about voters who decide very late? They probably either have paid so little attention to the campaign that it has had no effect on their thinking, or they have been paying attention but remain genuinely ambivalent. Either way, Clinton does better among them because she is so well known; both go to the candidate they know more about. My sense, then, is that Clinton does not so much "close well" - a phrase which implies that the shift is a consequence of her own efforts - as she benefits from having been a national figure for nearly two decades.

As of now, this is just a theory. The exit polls by themselves cannot tell us whether this theory, or some alternative, is more likely. We'll have to wait for the release of more detailed data that probes voter psychology in some depth, like the National Elections Study. I think this particular theory is consistent with what we know about voter information levels as well as Clinton and Obama's relative positions in the electorate. I also think it does a good job explaining the variation we have seen. But this just makes it reasonable. We'll know for sure when we have more data.

A final observation. This argument places less importance on the effect of political campaigns than what many media pundits would accept. Too bad. Campaigns matter, for sure - but the fact is that many pundits fail to understand how they matter because they misunderstand the voters. They seem to believe that voters pay as much attention as pundits do - and therefore shifts in the horse race polls imply shifts by voters who are paying a lot of attention and changing their opinions. While it is true that some voters behave in this manner - what we might call "schizophrenic Jeffersonianism" - the vast majority does not. Note the large number of voters who claim to decide late in the exit polls cited above. This is inconsistent with the idea most pundits have of the voters. It also implies that their analytical emphases - i.e. parsing the day-to-day nuances of the campaign to distill their impact - are misplaced.

This will become relevant as we move forward. We should expect the media to analyze the early part of the general election campaign just as they analyzed the early part of the primary, which is this incorrect way. Expect them to over-estimate the importance of the day-to-day events, only to forget them a few days after they occur, and above all to over-emphasize the value of the opinion polls conducted months before November. When they do that, we should remember these exit polls. Despite the fact that the primary campaign lasted something like 13 months - most voters claimed to wait until the last month or later to make a choice.


[*] States Clinton Wins (9 States)
States Clinton Wins.gif

[*] States Obama Wins (12 States)
States Obama Wins.gif

[*] Pre-Super Tuesday States (4 States)
Pre-Super Tuesday States.gif

[*] Super Tuesday States (13 States)
Super Tuesday States.gif

[*] Post-Super Tuesday States (4 States)
Post-Super Tuesday States.gif

-Jay Cost

Is It Over?

Jonathan Alter has a thought-provoking article in the latest Newsweek. He writes:

If Hillary Clinton wanted a graceful exit, she'd drop out now--before the March 4 Texas and Ohio primaries--and endorse Barack Obama...

Withdrawing would be stupid if Hillary had a reasonable chance to win the nomination, but she doesn't. To win, she would have to do more than reverse the tide in Texas and Ohio, where polls show Obama already even or closing fast. She would have to hold off his surge, then establish her own powerful momentum within three or four days. Without a victory of 20 points or more in both states, the delegate math is forbidding. In Pennsylvania, which votes on April 22, the Clinton campaign did not even file full delegate slates. That's how sure they were of putting Obama away on Super Tuesday.

The key word is "reasonable" - as in Hillary doesn't have a reasonable chance to win the nomination. While I agree that Obama stands a much better chance of winning the nomination than Clinton, I think Alter's conclusion is hasty. If she loses either Texas or Ohio next week - the race will end. Nevertheless, let's assume that she wins both, though not by the large margins Alter says she needs. What happens next?

Neither Clinton nor Obama can expect to win the nomination by virtue of the pledged delegates alone. Obama would have to win more than 75% of the remaining delegates. Clinton needs more than are available. Thus, the nominee will have to fill the gap via the super delegates.

This is critically important. The nominee will be the one who makes a compelling argument to a sufficient number of the 795 super delegates. This is the first reason not to be so quick to declare the race finished. Do we know what these delegates are thinking? We have no survey data on them - nothing that gauges their preferences or beliefs. We can easily track how candidates are doing when their audience is the American public. That's what opinion polls are for. We have nothing of the sort for the super delegates.

Even though we do not know what these super delegates will decide, we can draw a general outline of how they might decide. Doing so should demonstrate just how complicated matters could become. Their decision will hinge upon their answers to two general questions:

(A) Which candidate is better for the party?

(B) Which candidate is better for me?

Super delegates are free to answer these questions however they like. They are also free to weigh the answers however they like. They can be selfish or sefless - whichever they prefer. That's what makes them super. This adds another dimension of uncertainty. Not only do we have few indications about their thought processes, we know that their thought processes are unconstrained by any party rules.

Let's take a closer look at each question, beginning with the "What's in it for me?" query. In the 19th century, presidential candidates could use patronage to offer all kinds of perquisites. They cannot do this any longer. So, personal interests will hinge on answers to the following questions:

(1) Which candidate do I prefer?

(2) Which candidate do my constituents - whose support I need for reelection - prefer?

Question (2) will matter less to the super delegates who do not hold elective office. However, it could matter a great deal to those who do, and answers to it could be quite different.

Suppose that House and Senate Democrats, all of whom double as super delegates, decide that they shall reflect the will of their constituents. How would they vote? It depends. Obviously, senators would follow their states. But what would House members do? They might ask:

(a) Do I follow my state's vote?

(b) Do I follow my district's vote?

Their individual answers could have a sizeable cumulative effect. If all Senate and House members follow their state results, Clinton would have 108 super delegates (so far) to Obama's 88. If, on the other hand, House members follow their congressional districts, Clinton would have 86 to Obama's 110. That's a 44 delegate swing - over what is a tiny distinction.

Obviously, some will follow their districts, some will follow their states, and some will support the candidate they personally prefer. Some might not even be moved by personal concerns - and will instead support who is best for the party.

But who the heck is that?

It seems to me that there are at least two ways for a delegate to consider who is best for the party. They could ask:

(1) Which candidate is more able to defeat John McCain?

(2) Which candidate is the legitimate choice of Democrats nationwide?

These two questions are probably not exclusive. The candidate who is perceived to be the choice of the Democratic electorate will probably be better positioned for the general election. That being said, we can still look at each question individually. It is here that the candidates will begin to make real arguments. Each delegate is going to have to make and weigh decisions about their personal interests by themselves. Where the Clinton and Obama "spin" machines can have their greatest effect on the delegates is persuading them that their particular candidate is best for the party.

What could each candidate argue vis-à-vis McCain? Obama can point to his lead in the head-to-head polls as well as the "Obama-mania" that has overtaken part of the country. He can assert that his supporters are more dedicated, and will give him a better donor and volunteer base. Clinton has a good argument, too. She can reference the old adage that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Sure, Obama enjoys this enthusiasm now, but it only matters if it is there in November. Will the Republicans tear him down the way they "Swift-Boated" John Kerry? Clinton can argue that they won't be able to do this to her. They have been trying to no avail for sixteen years.

The second question - who is the "legitimate" candidate? - will be the most important. As of now, Obama has a clear advantage. He leads in the delegate count as well as all tabulations of the popular vote. This is why Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are must-wins for Clinton. She has to make a compelling argument that she is the legitimate choice of the party. This will require victories in all three.

Assuming that she wins them, what would an argument for Clinton as the legitimate nominee look like? It probably will not include the claim that she leads the pledged delegate count. Alter is correct: she probably won't. Her objectives must be to close the gap by a good amount (victories in the big states should help), and diminish the importance of the count. There are several ways she could accomplish the latter task. First, she could say that Obama's strength is in red states that John McCain will carry in November, while her strength is in the heart of Democratic territory. Second, she could say that she wins Democrats while Obama wins Independents - and the delegate allocation process does a poor job excluding the latter from a process that should belong to the former. Third, she could argue that the delegates for Michigan and Florida should be seated - that the nominee of the party should not hinge on a Carl Levin power play that backfired.

Fourth, and most important of all, she could attack the fairness of the caucus system. This will be her best bet, I think. Obama has won most of the caucus states overwhelmingly. Clinton could assert that the caucus favors Obama by unfairly excluding voters who happen to favor her - namely, "downscale" Democrats who cannot take off work to attend and elderly voters who are unable to. Clinton will have some evidence to buttress this claim. The Washington state caucus allocated 68% of the state's delegates to Obama on February 9th. Ten days later, on February 19th, the state held a non-binding primary in which Obama won 51% of the vote. Texas might yield a similar result. If Obama beats Clinton in the caucus, and she beats him in the primary - Clinton can argue that the caucus system unfairly skews toward him.

None of this will matter, however, if Clinton does not have a lead in a nationwide vote count. I cannot see her arguing for legitimacy without this. RCP is keeping track of the vote leader by three metrics: including Florida and Michigan, including Florida, and excluding Florida and Michigan. Clinton needs to be the leader by one of these. Her legitimacy case will be stronger if she leads by more than one. In that case, she could try to paint Obama as a Democratic version of George W. Bush - somebody who lost the popular vote but nevertheless "won" by virtue of the quirks of an outdated, unfair system that is still around because nobody cared enough to get rid of it before it created trouble.

Can she take a popular vote lead? Possibly. The average turnout in the primary contests that have already occurred has been 12.4% of the total population of those states. If we assume that the remaining primaries will have the same turnout - we can make the following observations:

(a) She would have to win more than 54.7% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes Florida and Michigan.

(b) She would have to win more than 53.2% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes Michigan.

(c) She would have to win more than 51.5% of the remaining vote to take a lead in the count that excludes nothing.

This is why Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are important. Combined, they make up 60% of the remaining population left to vote. If Clinton wins all three by solid margins, her burden will be greatly diminished.

Of course, Obama is currently much better positioned for a legitimacy argument. He has all three vote leads - and he is closing fast in Texas and Ohio. Clinton can only threaten him if she finishes strong enough to eliminate one of the popular vote gaps. Even then it might not be enough. It will be hard for her to win 54.7% of the remaining vote. If she does not, Obama will have at least one lead. If the best she can do is win 51.5% of the vote, Obama will be well-positioned to argue that including Michigan is completely unfair because he was not even on the ballot. What is more - the three metrics necessarily exclude a few caucus states like Iowa that do not report actual votes. This would help Obama rebut Clinton's claim to be the "choice of the voters" if she were to take the lead.

Obama can respond to most of Clinton's other arguments. For instance, he could argue that the pledged delegate count is what matters, and that the super delegates should not presume to alter the outcome of the primaries/caucuses. He could assert that Clinton's anti-caucus argument is just the bellyaching of a candidate who failed to prepare adequately for the contests on and after Super Tuesday. This could even pivot into an electability argument. Sure, Clinton cannot be "Swift-Boated," but she was unprepared for the primary process. Shouldn't this worry the super delegates?

What should be clear from all of this is that, if Clinton does well on March 4th and in Pennsylvania next month, things could get very complicated. Let's review our outline of the questions the super delegates will answer. Remember that each must formulate his or her own answer, and must weigh the answer to each question for himself or herself.

(A) Which candidate is better for the party?

(1) Which candidate is more able to defeat John McCain in November?
(a) What are the chances Obama's reputation will be diminished by Republican attacks?

(b) What are the chances Clinton will under-prepare for the general election?

(2) Which candidate is legitimate choice of Democrats nationwide?

(a) Who has a lead among the pledged delegates?

(b) Does it matter what types of states and voters each candidate has won?

(c) Is the caucus system sufficiently democratic?

(d) Should I care about the popular vote leader...

(i) ...including Michigan and Florida?

(ii) ...including Florida?

(iii) ...excluding Florida and Michigan?

(B) Which candidate is better for me?

(1) Which candidate do I prefer?

(2) Which candidate do my constituents - whose support I need for reelection - prefer?

(a) Do I follow my state's vote?

(b) Do I follow my district's vote?

This set of questions is surely not comprehensive. There are others that will factor into each delegate's decision. This will make their decisions all the more complex.

You probably have opinions on all of these points. So do I. But here's the kicker - our opinions don't matter. We're just spectators. It's up to the super delegates, and we have no idea how they will decide.

I think it is hasty to say that Clinton lacks a "reasonable" chance to win the nomination. If she wins Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania - the race will hinge upon how each super delegate answers and values these questions. I'm not saying that I favor Clinton to win. At this point, I don't. She stands a chance if she wins the three big states that remain. He stands a chance regardless. This tips the scales in his favor. He also has an advantage due to the pledged delegates - the more of those you have, the fewer super delegates you need, the less pressure there is for you to argue a case. Nevertheless, Clinton still has a reasonable shot if she can win next week.

-Jay Cost

Momentum in the Democratic Race

Is there momentum in the Democratic race? If there is, when did it begin?

This is a question that has been on my mind this week. On Wednesday, I argued that there is evidence that Obama developed momentum in Wisconsin. I also asserted that this did not seem to have been the case in Virginia and Maryland. It was this latter claim that went against the grain. Many thought that Obama did indeed develop momentum for the Potomac primary. I did not.

How could we determine whether momentum has indeed taken root? The most direct way would be to use the exit polls to look at key demographic groups. If Clinton seems to be doing worse with groups she was once strong with - we might conclude that momentum is playing a factor. Many commentators concluded this after Maryland and Virginia. They found that Obama was doing better among Catholics, union workers, women, and "downscale" voters. Accordingly, they declared that he was benefiting from momentum.

But hold on. Demographic groups are not hermetically sealed off from one another. There is a lot of overlap. Any discussion of voting blocs would have to take this into account, especially in a state where one candidate's strongest group is in large supply. In such a situation, the other demographic indicators might be "overwhelmed." This seems to have been the case in both Maryland and Virginia. In fact, Obama had two of his best groups in large supply: African Americans and wealthy voters. This makes a big difference. We need to remember that they too can be union workers, women, etc. Their strength at the ballot box might make it look like Clinton is suddenly losing her groups, but these were never actually her groups.

Compounding this is the fact that there probably was not a great deal of overlap between the two. Obviously, they are not mutually exclusive. Many African Americans make $100,000 or more. However, whites in Maryland make 39% more than African Americans in Maryland; in Virginia, they make 57% more. So, while there is surely some overlap, it stands to reason that African Americans plus wealthy whites made up about half the vote in both states. So, it seems likely that momentum was not a major factor. A careful reading of the exit polls indicates that Obama probably did not "steal" votes from Clinton, but won on the strength of his typical voters.

Of course, we cannot know for sure. As it is, the exit polling data is just not detailed enough to answer our question directly. What to do? One solution is to use more detailed cross-tabulations of exit poll results. Unfortunately, the media does not provide them. We could also wait. We should know in a year or so; when the PhD's who work for outfits with money to do detailed polling publish their write-ups on the Democratic race, we'll get some answers.

A practical, if imperfect, solution for right now is to combine this limited data set with another limited data set. Namely, we can use the exit polls in conjunction with countywide vote returns. This cannot give us a definitive answer (ultimately, momentum has an effect on individual voters - so we would ultimately need survey data to know for sure). However, it can give us something better than what we have now.

Unfortunately, we cannot use the returns by themselves. The biggest problem is with something known as the ecological fallacy. Specifically, our knowledge of how a county voted cannot give us direct knowledge of how individuals in that county voted. This is a real problem. We would have to make an assumption that, for instance, the observation of a poor county voting for Clinton implies that the poor individuals in that county voted for her, too.

This is where the exit polls can be helpful. If the exit polls imply that "downscale" voters are supporting Clinton, this assumption becomes much more reasonable. Conversely, we can use the aggregate voting results, imperfect as they are, to "firm up" the tentative read we get from the exit polls. The idea here is that, while both types of data present inferential problems, we are on fairly solid ground if the exit polls and the aggregate results point in the same direction.

Before we dive into the countywide returns, however, we have to specify matters a bit more. In particular, we face a problem with racially diverse counties. Their returns cannot help us. Consider, for instance, King and Queen County, Virginia. The median income of whites there is about $41,000. Presumably, this favors Clinton. On the other hand, African Americans constitute 35% of the population. This favors Obama, who the county by 44 points. Was his win due to momentum? Or was it due to his voting bloc overwhelming Clinton's bloc? We can never know. So, this type of county is of little use.*

So, we will look at counties where the African American population is small, say less than 5%, to see whether they varied their support according to median white income. Our expectation, following the exit polls, is that because momentum did not seem to exist - Clinton will do well in the "downscale" counties, and Obama will do well in the "upscale" counties.

Let's look at Maryland first. There are three Maryland counties with an African American population of less than 5%. Clinton won Cecil and Garrett counties by more than 20 points. She won Carroll County by just 3 points; however, this is explicable by the fact that the median white income of Carroll County is more than $60,000 per year.

In Virginia, Clinton generally did well in the homogeneously white counties. We find a tight relationship between income and countywide returns, and it is in the direction we expect. The following graph tells the tale. It examines Clinton's margins of victory in homogeneously white Virginia counties according to median white income.


First, note the distribution of the data points. It indicates a strong relationship between income and Clinton's margin of victory.* Note also the small number of homogeneously white counties. Virginia has more than 70 counties (or cities) - and about 40 of them have African American populations of some size. Clearly, Clinton had an uphill battle in this state.

Our real interest is in the four quadrants divided by the black lines. The horizontal line separates Clinton wins (top) from Clinton losses (bottom). The vertical line separates counties where the median income is less than $40,000 (left) from counties where the median income is more than $40,000 (right).*

The array of the data points on the graph is roughly consistent with what we might expect.* We see a large number of observations in the top-left quadrant, and most of the observations on the right-hand side are in the lower-right quadrant. In other words, Clinton is generally winning the counties where voters make less than $40,000; Obama is generally winning the counties where whites make more than $40,000. Both candidates "take" just a few counties that "belong" to the other. Again, by itself this tells us nothing because it provides no indication of how individuals are behaving. However, taking it in conjunction with the exit polls, we have a good indication that momentum was not driving the results in the Potomac primary. Instead both candidates were doing well among their core groups; Obama's groups happened to have been more populous.

Now, let's turn our attention to Wisconsin. As we discussed on Wednesday, the exit polls indicate that Obama may indeed have developed momentum. Specifically, they showed that Clinton seemed to do worse-than-expected among lower income whites. But, again, we cannot be sure because the exit polling cross-tabulations are limited. The aggregate data might be able to supplement it. The following chart reviews returns by median white income for homogeneously white counties.


First, notice that income and county returns still have a reasonably tight relationship, one that moves in the direction we expect (i.e. Clinton does worse as income increases). Second, it appears that Obama benefited from the fact that homogeneously white counties in Wisconsin tend to be wealthier than those in Virginia - we have many more observations to the right of the horizontal line than we had in Virginia. Not surprisingly, they are in the lower-right quadrant. Third, when we look at the four quadrants, we see a pretty significant shift. Obama wins a much larger number of poor counties than he did in Virginia, where Clinton took most of them. We can see this in the large number of observations in the lower-left quadrant. These are counties that, if Wisconsin were following the pattern in Virginia, would be in the upper-right and going for Clinton. Taken in light of the exit polling data, this is strong evidence that there was a shift among "downscale" whites in Wisconsin.

I think this shift is hard to account for without hypothesizing a momentum effect. Consider the following. We know that the Hispanic population, Catholic population, and union population are important factors in how each candidate performs. The difference in the Hispanic population between Virginia and Wisconsin is negligible (4.7% in Virginia to 3.6% in Wisconsin). There are big differences in the Catholic and union populations between the contests, but these should have favored Clinton. The explanatory variable that is not accounted for above that favors Obama is racial homogeneity. It is possible that lower income Wisconsin voters are more amenable to Obama because race is perceived differently in Wisconsin than it is in Virginia. However, I do not think this could explain the whole of this shift. Momentum might have been the critical ingredient.

All in all, the exit polls and the aggregate vote results seem to point in the same direction - a shift in Wisconsin, but not in Virginia and Maryland. Momentum may have been a factor. Again, the best way to approach the question is as we have here - through a combination of the exit polls and the aggregate vote data. In both states, they move together. Neither gives a definitive indication, but both give the same indication. It might be that the indications of the exit polls and the aggregate returns are both wrong, but this is unlikely.


[*] This is not to say that voters in these counties are not following the patterns we have hypothesized. They may be. The trouble is that we just cannot make any determinations because voters in counties like these are probably going strongly in opposite directions.

[*] However, the relationship is tighter or weaker depending upon Clinton's margin of victory. The clustering is very tight in the top left, but the data points slowly disperse as we move to the bottom right. This property is known as heteroscedasticity, and it would complicate drawing a naïve prediction of a county result based on income. Our purpose here is more modest; so, we need not concern ourselves with this.

[*] Why $40,000? The Census Bureau only releases income data for the decennial census. Accordingly, the county-level income data is eight years old. To account for this, I have adjusted the line on the graph for inflation. Specifically, this year's exit polls tend to show Clinton winning white voters who make less than $50,000. In 1999 dollars, this works out to about $40,000.

[*] The key word in this sentence is "roughly." There are three factors that complicate any simple inferences.

(1) As indicated above, we are dealing with inflation-adjusted income statistics. The difficulty here is that we must assume that voters in these counties are making the same real income now as they were eight years ago. This might not be the case.

(2) Party identification and income might be related. For instance, Democrats make less than Republicans in these counties. In this case, the median income for Democrats in a given county would be lower.

(3) Factoring out African Americans does not eliminate our inferential problems. It only reduces it. Specifically, simply because we know the median income of a county does not mean that we know how individuals are voting. It might not be the case that a poor county has gone to Clinton because the poor voters voted for her. We discussed this problem above, and decided that our solution would be to look at the aggregate returns in conjunction with the exit polls.

-Jay Cost

How Obama Won Wisconsin

Hillary Clinton suffered a stinging blow last night, losing Wisconsin by 17 points. What is most worrisome for her is that Obama seems to have broken into several of her core voting groups. This is the first real evidence of momentum we have seen on the Democratic side.

After the Potomac Primary last week, some argued that Obama had already begun to build momentum because of his large victories in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. I thought this talk was hasty. Given the large number of African American voters in each contest, and given that white voters in all three primaries were quite wealthy - Obama's sizeable victories did not come as a surprise. In particular, 37% of Maryland voters and 30% of Virginia voters were African American; 39% of Maryland voters and 39% of Virginia voters claimed to make $100,000 or more per year. So, it is hard to argue that Obama's success was due to him peeling off portions of the Clinton coalition. What seems more likely is that he won handily because his best voting blocs were in good supply that day.

The same cannot be said for Wisconsin. Just 20% of Wisconsin Democratic voters claimed to make $100,000 or more per year. Only 8% of the electorate was African American. So, Wisconsin did not favor his strongest groups so heavily. Nevertheless, he still had an outstanding day. Consider the following chart, which uses the exit polls to compare Obama's margin of victory with key groups in the non-southern states to his performance with those same groups in Wisconsin last night.

Obama Margin of Victory.jpg

So, for instance, Obama won white males in the non-South by 8 points. Last night, he won them by 26 points, yielding a net increase of 18 points.

As you can see, Obama enjoyed significant expansions in three of his four strongest demographic groups. Though it appears he did worse among white Protestants - the difference between the two is possibly due to statistical sampling error. So, all in all, Obama did not do significantly worse with any of his groups - and with most of them he did significantly better.

Meanwhile, he was able to peel away portions of Clinton's core electorate. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which compares Clinton's margin of victory over Obama in the non-South among the groups that have typically favored her.

Clinton Margin of Victory.jpg

These numbers tell the tale succinctly. Clinton suffered significant losses across many of her core constituencies. White women, Democrats, union workers, downscale voters, and white Catholics all drifted to Obama last night - some so much that Obama actually won them.

Let's cross-reference the exit polls with a look at the actual vote returns. The following chart reviews Wisconsin counties according to median white income. Specifically, it divides 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties into three tiers according to wealthiest, poorest, and middle. It then looks at Obama's performance in each tier - calculating his average share of the vote across the counties in the tier, and then his share of the vote for the whole tier. [Note that no returns were available for Clark County by the time I had to put this chart together. Most counties had complete returns, and the ones with partial returns were all mostly reported. So, these numbers will probably be different when all the returns are in, but only slightly so.]

Obama Performance by Income.gif

As you can see, Obama did better as whites get wealthier. However, he does very well across all tiers. This confirms what the exit polls indicate: Obama retained his own strengths while cutting into Clinton's strengths. We would have expected her to win the poorer counties, but in fact she lost them.

I was also interested in looking at vote returns according to population density. If Clinton was doing well with economically "down scale" voters - it stands to reason that her strength in a state like Wisconsin would be with counties that are sparsely population. Obama, on the other hand, would do well with counties with dense population centers. This dichotomy probably would not work in a state with large minority populations because of Clinton's strength with Hispanics. However, in a state like Wisconsin, we might expect Clinton to do better in rural areas and Obama to do better in urban ones.

I tested this hypothesis by again dividing counties into three tiers, this time according to population density. The following chart reviews the results.

Obama Performance by Density.gif

Again, we see a similar phenomenon. While Obama did best in the dense counties like Dane and Milwaukee, he also won a majority in the middle-density counties and the sparse counties. There seems to have been no urban-rural divide. The state went to Obama regardless of population density. This is another indication that Obama cut into strengths that Clinton has enjoyed in previous states.

Is this a momentum effect? The word "momentum" has been tossed around way too much this cycle, which is funny because prior to tonight there has really been little evidence of momentum at all! So, what of last night? Are these bona fide expansions in his voting coalition, or was Wisconsin following the same pattern that the previous states have followed? It is impossible to be sure. On the one hand, I have found that Obama does well with whites in states where there are few African Americans. Duke's Brendan Nyhan has found the same trend. White voters in homogeneously white states seem to be more amenable to him than whites in diverse states. Wisconsin is a state with few African Americans. This probably gave Obama a boost last night. If this was a major factor - perhaps some of this apparent momentum effect would "wash out." On the other hand, could the racial homogeneity of Wisconsin alone really account for these huge shifts? That's a tough pill to swallow.

Unfortunately, we simply do not yet have enough data to give a definitive answer. Ideally, we could answer the question if we had enough observations to make a prediction of how Obama should have done in Wisconsin, given the results in past states. We could then compare the actual results to the prediction and see whether the difference between the two is statistically significant. That difference, if it is significant, could be a momentum effect.

My sense is that a momentum effect of indeterminable magnitude emerged last night. That is, Obama's victories - most recently last week in the Potomac Primary - contributed to the size of last night's victory, though he would have done very well if there had been no momentum. This is the first Democratic contest where I think a case like this can be made. Until last week the typical ebb-and-flow of each candidate's demographic strengths could probably account for the actual results.

This surprises me a little bit. As I noted last week - it is rare for a front running candidate like Obama to develop momentum like this. It is not unheard of (e.g. George H.W. Bush had something like this in 1988), but it is rare. Usually, candidates like Obama are "launched" with a splashy win in New Hampshire. That is different from what seems to be happening here. Obama seems to have built upon his latest wins.

If there is a sizeable momentum effect, Clinton should be very nervous. Demographically, Texas has a lot in common with California, except that there are more African Americans. This bodes well for Obama - and if momentum is now in the equation, Clinton could be in real trouble. If you take the margin of her California victory, factor in the larger African American base, and factor in a 5 to 7 point shift in the white vote to Obama - that win might become a loss.

-Jay Cost

What's So Great About the Super Delegates?

With the Democratic race as close as it is, analysts are paying attention to the so-called "super delegates" - namely, the 800 or so party leaders who get to vote however they want, regardless of any primary or caucus result.

What should we make of these delegates? Many analysts seem to approach them with a critical, negative assumption. I think that is presumptuous. I'd like to approach them from a neutral starting point to delineate the strengths and weaknesses that they bring to the nomination process. Tomorrow, we'll look at the weaknesses. Today, let's review the strengths.

At the outset, we should note the super delegates could only be a factor when no candidate wins an outright majority with pledged delegates. This indicates one way the nomination battle differs from most American elections: a plurality of votes is insufficient for victory. A corollary is the Electoral College. If no candidate wins an outright majority of electors - the House of Representatives decides the race.

Just as the Constitution uses the House in the absence of a majority winner, the Democrats use the super delegates. This demonstrates the need for a contingency plan in a majority rule election. Most of us usually never think about this because, outside Louisiana, American elections are decided by plurality rule, i.e. where the winner is simply the person who gets the most votes. There are costs and benefits to both rules. Obviously, with majority systems you need some sort of mechanism to sort out the mess when nobody wins a majority. Plurality systems do not require this - and so they may seem less arbitrary. On the other hand, plurality systems can and often do yield a "perverse" result - a candidate whom most voters opposed nevertheless wins.

One might respond that the Republicans have no such contingency plan for their nomination - even though their nominee is also selected by majority rule. So, why must the Democrats? In fact, the Republicans do have a plan. Theirs is just informal. The Republican solution is that most delegates become like super delegates after a few rounds of balloting. Some Republican delegates are obligated to their candidate as long as he is in the race - but most of them are free to vote their consciences after a few rounds.

This offers a different way to understand the super delegates. Perhaps they seem more reasonable than they first appeared. Every majority system must have some kind of contingency plan for when nobody has won a majority. If we accept the legitimacy of the majority requirement (and why wouldn't we?), we necessarily accept the need for a "majority maker" clause. The Constitution uses the House. Louisiana uses a run-off. The Republicans create de facto super delegates out of the rank-and-file. The Democrats give that power to party leaders.

So, the real question is how good is the Democratic solution? I think it has several advantages over the Republican one.

First, I think that if you are going to make any type of delegate "super" - it is best to make it the party leaders. They are most likely to have the interests of the party as a whole close to heart. To appreciate this, imagine what would happen if there were a knockdown, drag-out fight between McCain and Romney. The only concern on the minds of McCain delegates would be getting the nomination to McCain. Ditto the Romney delegates. But who is looking out for the party? Which delegates will calmly recognize that the elevation of their man would require a nasty battle that might do damage to the party's prospects? Neither. The McCain delegates would probably prefer a nasty floor fight that McCain wins to a cordial process that he loses because their paramount concern is the success of their candidate. Ditto the Romney delegates.

Of course, it is possible that no Republican delegates would behave in such a "narrow" fashion. The trouble for the GOP is that it is also possible that all of them would. This chance is much reduced on the Democratic side because party regulars are intimately involved. They are more likely to care deeply about the party's broader interests. Thus, they can help broker a deal that brings peace to the convention, which is good for the party.

Second, party regulars are more "qualified" to handle a situation in which a deal must be brokered, and making them super delegates gives them the power to do it. To appreciate this, consider the relationship between the House and the Senate. The House was originally envisioned to be the body with the direct link to the public. Accordingly, all tax bills must originate in the House. On the other hand, the Framers gave the Senate functions like ratifying treaties, and confirming officers of the executive and judicial branches. The Senate was ideally to be populated with wise men who could negotiate situations that might be too sensitive for the more raucously democratic House.

We can see a similar logic differentiating the pledged and super delegates. Pledged delegates are certainly politically active - but they need not be professional pols, schooled in the ways of political horse-trading. The super delegates, who are professional or retired political operatives, are well-suited for the negotiating what would have to happen if no candidate wins a majority of delegates. This kind of wheeling and dealing might not be as easy as it appears. If no candidate has a majority, somebody is going to have to switch their votes. They are not going to do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They will need some kind of consideration in return. This type of situation requires a deft touch, which a professional politician is more likely to possess. If the job was left entirely to rank-and-file delegates, all of whom are passionately committed to their candidate - it is easy to envision one faction alienating or offending another due to their inexperience at negotiation or their enthusiasm for their cause.

Third, the super delegates are free to coordinate well in advance of the convention - whereas pledged delegates are not. To appreciate the value of this, it is again instructive to compare the Democrats to the Republicans. Modern communications technology has altered the role of the convention. Party members no longer need to gather in one place to determine whom they prefer. This, in turn, enables them to coordinate long before the convention. That being said, most Republican delegates face an impediment to early coordination that the Democratic super delegates do not. Most Republican delegates are usually bound to one candidate or another for at least a few ballots. This surely complicates pre-convention deal making. It would be hard to work out an arrangement that cannot take effect until the third (maybe even the fourth) ballot. Participants in the deal might have to vote insincerely for the first few rounds to prevent an undesirable result. This enhances the likelihood that a mistake, misunderstanding, or just a shifting situation will kill the deal. It is just a level of complexity that gets in the way of a quick, easy resolution. The Democratic super delegates do not face this problem. They could begin working on a deal right now that could be put into effect on the first ballot.

These three traits are all strengths because they enhance efficiency. That is, they help secure the party a nominee while minimizing the "transaction costs" inherent to any kind of mass gathering. This is an important characteristic for a process like this. Being the nominee brings nobody - be it the candidate or the rank-and-file - any real benefit. It is simply a means to an end, which is victory in November. The more efficient the nomination process, the better positioned everybody in the party is for the general election. Nobody in the party has an interest in a tortuous convention that takes a long, painful time to find a nominee. The super delegates serve as a preventative measure. By virtue of their interest in the health of the party, their experience with deal making, and their freedom to maneuver - they can help the party avoid a messy floor flight.

All in all, I think the Democrat's "majority maker" solution is much more efficient than the Republican's. Of course, it might not seem to matter in a year like this. This is not a three-way race; thus, one candidate might be able to win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. However, it all depends on how strict the definition of "majority" is. I think the Democrats have a stricter definition of "majority" than the Republicans, and this is a prudent move.

To win the nomination without the intervention of the super delegates, a candidate must win 62.25% of all pledged delegates. [i.e. He or she must win a bare majority, or 2,025, of the total delegates. There are 3,253 pledged delegates; thus, a majority that comes through only the pledged delegates would be 2,025 / 3,253 = 62.25% of pledged delegates.] So, winning the nomination through the primary/caucus route is more like getting a bill passed in the Senate than in the House. You need a super majority of pledged delegates.

The prudence of this requirement can be seen if we imagine the process without the super delegates: all a candidate must do is win a bare majority of the pledged delegates. Now, factor in all of the quirky twists and turns we have seen this cycle. Start saying aloud all of those questions you have been whispering for a few weeks. Should we seat the Michigan delegates? What about the Florida delegates? Is the caucus system appropriate for selecting delegates, or should we stick with the primary system? What happens if a candidate wins the big states but loses the little states? What happens if a candidate comes on strong at the end, but does not win enough delegates? What if the party as a whole starts to feel buyer's remorse after a candidate has won a bare majority of pledged delegates? There are all sorts of ways in which a simple majority of delegates might not be sufficient to give the impression of legitimacy, which is a very important value for a nominee to possess. By requiring a candidate to win 62.25% of the pledged delegates - you greatly reduce the likelihood that all of those lingering, partisan-twinged (don't forget the Republicans are watching!) questions could influence perceptions of legitimacy.

And what happens when there is less than this super majority? The decision is left to the super delegates, who - by virtue of the three aforementioned qualities of interest, capacity, and freedom - are in the best position to disentangle which candidate is the "legitimate" nominee. The super delegates are majority makers if we take the definition of majority a bit more strictly. This, I think, points to a counter-intuitive advantage that they offer. Whereas most analysts seem to assume that they are inherently de-legitimizing - I think the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, there are problems with the super delegates. While they might be an improvement over the Republican way of doing business, they present some difficulties that might cause real headaches for the Democrats. We shall discuss this tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

The Democratic Race Moving Forward

Today's column is a continuation of yesterday's essay. Thus, it is appropriate to review exactly what was accomplished yesterday. Using two distinct data sets - the exit polls to date supplemented by the statewide vote totals - we formulated a basic outline of the set of groups that seem to be influential in the Democratic primary race.

The exit polling data indicates that several variables are factors in determining who wins a given primary or caucus: union workers, Catholics, Hispanics, African Americans, party identification, geography, and gender. In particular, we noted yesterday that southern whites tend to support Clinton, while northern whites split their support between Clinton and Obama according to gender.

We supplemented this analysis with an OLS regression model whose purpose was fairly modest. It was designed to confirm some of the observations made on the micro level as well as test whether some other factors might be influential. It was helpful in this regard. In particular, we found that caucus states, states with high white median income, and "homogeneously white" states all tend to support Obama.

What I would like to do today is use this knowledge to estimate where the race goes from here.

Hillary Clinton has been on a bit of a losing streak lately - and that streak continued last night. Clinton lost all three contests in the so-called "Potomac Primary" by large margins. Unsurprisingly, there have been stories about the bottom dropping out of her campaign - and we should expect them to continue given last night's results.

However, I respectfully submit that all of this talk is a bit hasty. Not necessarily wrong. Just hasty.

Of course, she has lost the seven contests since Super Tuesday - the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington have all gone to Obama. However, if we understand the Democratic race as the mobilization of demographic groups - none of these losses should come as a surprise, including the states she lost by a large margin. Each of the seven post-Super Tuesday states played heavily to at least one of Obama's several strengths.

For instance, the following chart reviews the African American population per state, the median white income per state, and whether the contest was a caucus.

Chart 1 2-13.jpg

These contests are tailor-made for a candidate that fuses the coalitions of Hart and Jackson, and one who inspires tremendous enthusiasm among his supporters. Given the voting coalitions that have formed over the last month and a half, Clinton never really stood a chance in any of them. African Americans drove Obama's victory in Louisiana. In the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, African Americans combined with wealthy whites to secure him victory. In Maine, Nebraska, and Washington - Obama took advantage of largely homogenous white populations and caucus contests to secure victory.

In other words, it is hard to identify a momentum effect here. Clinton's losses in the contests are as explicable as any of her losses before or on Super Tuesday. Obama has systematically won states that play to his particular strengths since the Iowa caucus. So has Clinton. Her problem has been that she has not had any good states in the last week.

This is not to say that momentum is not playing a role. The point here is more modest: if it is playing a role, it is currently undetectable. Relatedly, this is not to say that momentum will not develop as we move forward. It very well could. If it does, what we will see is Obama doing better among Clinton's strong groups, or him consolidating his position among his strong groups. However, I noted back in December that this the kind of momentum - where a contest in moment one influences a contest in moment two - tends not to describe candidates like Clinton and Obama. Front-running candidates with high name recognition, secure bases of support, and money to spend usually win or lose depending on how much money they spend and whether the state plays to their strengths. The most immediate results tend not to be factors for front-runners (though there are exceptions, e.g. George H.W. Bush in 1988). If front-running candidates benefit from momentum, it is usually via a process similar to what has aided McCain: they are launched by big wins in one of the early states (usually New Hampshire).

What can we expect to happen in the future? It is difficult to say. We can make a few modest statements if we assume that what has generally been true in past past cycles holds true this cycle. Namely, let us assume that momentum does not develop, and that both candidates face a hard slog through the sixteen remaining contests.

The following chart reviews the remaining sixteen states according to several of the variables we outlined yesterday.

Chart 2 2-13.jpg

The final two rows are worth particular attention. These are averages, weighted by total pledged delegates per state, of the African American population, the Hispanic population, median white income, and the union population for contests that have yet to occur (top row) and and those that have already occurred (lower row).

A comparison of these rows gives reason to think that the remaining contests will be as tight as the past ones. Note first of all that the median income of whites drops from here on out. This augurs well for Clinton, who seems to do better among "downscale" white voters - and it stands to reason that as the median income of all white residents in a state declines, so also does the median income of white Democratic voters (this is presumably why this factor was shown to be statistically significant yesterday). More good news for Clinton, though it is not represented in the above chart, is that there are just two caucus states left. Obama, however, is advantaged because the number of African Americans remains roughly constant, and the number of Hispanics and union workers declines. What is more, there are about as many "homogeneously white" states to go as have already occurred.

Examining matters from another direction yields the same basic point. Looking at the above states, we could easily envision Obama doing well in states like Hawaii, Montana, Oregon and a few other smaller ones. Clinton, for her part, should do well in states like Kentucky, Rhode Island, and West Virginia. Texas and Ohio play to many of her strengths, and she should be quite competitive in Pennsylvania. Though she seems down now, and though there are reasons to favor Obama in several of the above states, Clinton has real strengths in several small states and many of the big ones.

All in all, this implies a rough parity from here until the end of the primary season. Approximately speaking, neither candidate seems to have an advantage in the remaining contests. So, my suggestion to readers is not to get caught up in the "Obama is inevitable" storyline. Minimally, we should all remember how well the "Clinton is inevitable" storyline worked out five months ago!

Again, these considerations assume stable voting coalitions, and therefore an absence of momentum. This assumption might not hold. If it does not, what we will see is Clinton start to lose portions of her strongholds, or Obama consolidating support in his. Unfortunately, the exit polls in Virginia and Maryland do not provide much of a clue about whether momentum is coming into play. Obama's best groups are heavily represented in both states - and the exit polls do not really dig deep enough into voter demography to offer a clear answer as to whether Clinton is hemorrhaging parts of her core constituency. For instance, the exit poll shows Obama winning white men in Virginia by 14% and Clinton winning white women by 9%. The white gender gap remains, but it favors Clinton less. In Maryland, the story is the same. White men break more heavily to Obama than they have in the past; white women break less heavily to Clinton. Is this simply a function of wealthy voters, male and female alike, going for Obama? Amazingly, 39% of Virginia Democrats and 41% of Maryland Democrats reported incomes of $100,000 or more - this plays to a major strength of Obama. If income is causing these changes in the gender gap, it is hard to see momentum as a factor. If it is something other than income, Obama might indeed be benefiting from momentum.

-Jay Cost

On the State of the Democratic Race

The Democratic race is as tight as can be. Clinton and Obama currently split the pledged delegates as well as the popular vote. Why is this the case? What types of voters are coalescing around these candidates? Prior to Super Tuesday, I offered several essays on the matter (see here, here, here, here, and here). However, I was not able to offer conclusive statements. There simply had not been enough contests. Thanks to Super Tuesday, matters have changed. It is now possible to submit something more complete.

Since the publication of Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee's Voting in 1954, the study of groups has been a cornerstone of voting analysis. Voters frequently behave similarly to the way that others with similar relevant characteristics behave. If we know what those characteristics are - we can understand voter behavior better.

Currently, we have two types of data available for understanding group behavior in the Democratic race. We have micro-level survey data that comes to us in the form of the exit polls. We also have macro-level data that comes from the statewide results. We shall use both sets to understand group behavior. This puts us in a good position: because neither set is perfect, one can supplement the other. In particular, the exit poll data is incomplete. The media only releases select results from the exit polls - so that limits its utility. The media also tends not to poll caucus states, which have favored Obama to date. Thus, our analysis of the exit polls will "skew" somewhat toward Clinton. We should account for this when we interpret the data. We should also use the macro-level data to confirm the conclusions we draw from this micro-level set.*

Methodological considerations aside, what can the exit polls tell us about the coalitions of Clinton and Obama?

On the one hand, they confirm much of what we already knew. Consider the following chart, which reviews Obama and Clinton's share of several relevant groups weighted by their share in the population across all the voting states*:

Chart 1.jpg

At first blush, we see the same picture we have seen since New Hampshire. Clinton is winning a "traditional" Democratic voting coalition. It is centered around women and Hispanics - and includes voters with lower incomes, self-identified Democrats, union workers, and Catholics. Obama, for his part, is drawing a combination of the Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart voting coalitions - African Americans, wealthier voters, self-identified Independents, non-union workers, and white men.

However, there are some peculiar features here. In particular, Obama wins African Americans overwhelmingly, yet Clinton wins voters who make less than $50,000. This is noteworthy, given that nationwide African Americans make less than whites. Notice also that he loses white voters even though he wins Independents decisively. Again, Independents tend to be white. This implies that there might be some distinctions that the data as it is presented is simply not picking up.

Accordingly, I reexamined the same demographic groups, this time dividing the data according to southern and non-southern subsets. The results are arrayed in the following table:

Chart 2.jpg

As you can see, splitting the data according to region uncovers some intriguing divergences. Note first that Obama wins all demographic groups except whites in the South. He wins voters regardless of sex, income, party registration, or union affiliation. Why? African Americans. They have comprised about 41% of the southern vote to date - and they have broken for Obama by 69 points. In the South, we can also see the racial gap we saw in the earlier chart grow larger. Clinton wins all white voters by 13%. She wins southern whites by 28%.

Look outside the South - to the two columns on the right. In the non-southern states, we find a fascinating twist. The racial gap transforms into a typical gender gap. Obama wins white men by 8 points. Clinton wins white women by 19 points.

This implies that race is playing a different role depending upon the location of the contest. In the South, there is a racial divide. Clinton wins white voters. Obama wins African American voters. When African Americans make up a strong share of the vote (e.g. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina), he wins. When they do not make up a strong share (e.g. Oklahoma and Tennesse), she wins.

In the non-South, matters are more complicated. African Americans still go heavily for Obama - but whites are split. White men prefer Obama, white women prefer Clinton. By itself, this favors Clinton because white women go more strongly for Clinton than white men go for Obama; what is more, white women consistently make up a larger share of the vote. Of course, if the groups among which Obama does well are populous in a given state - he overcomes this gender gap. If Clinton's groups are strong, he doesn't.

Remember that we have excluded many caucus states that broke heavily to Obama. This implies that Obama probably does better than the above results suggest. Where he specifically does better, and how much better he does - we cannot know. However, the macro-level data can offer a way to confirm the demographic trends we have found.

Accordingly, I have run an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression analysis based upon the statewide results. OLS regression is a statistical tool that tests whether an explanatory variable accounts for variation in an dependent variable, controlling for other explanatory variables.* It thus provides a way to determine if certain demographic groups are separately influencing statewide results in a given state. Our dependent variable is the difference between Obama and Clinton's share of the results. We shall test several independent variables:

(1) Median income of whites per state. Obama's strength among non-southern white males, Independents, and higher income voters suggest that white voters break for Clinton or Obama by economic lines. The theory tested here is that as white voters make more money, they become more inclined to vote for Obama.

(2) Whether the state is a primary or caucus. Obama seems to do better in caucuses - perhaps because it takes more dedication to attend a caucus, and his voters seem to be more intense.

(3) Number of candidate visits. This is designed to measure campaign effects per state. It stands to reason that the more candidates visit a state, the more money they have poured into the state. This might influence vote turnout and therefore state results.

(4) Whether a state is "homogeneously" white. This speaks to an intuition I expounded after the South Carolina results. My theory is that white voters in states with large white majorities see Obama as an insurgent, independent-minded candidate. Meanwhile, voters in more diverse states see him differently. It was noted above that Obama picks up pieces of the coalitions won by Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Perhaps white voters tend to see Obama as Jackson or Hart depending upon the racial demography of their environment. Accordingly, "homogeneity" is measured via whether Hispanics and African Americans together constitute more or less than 10% of the population.

(5) Whether the state is a Southern state. There seems to be a unique effect among white voters depending upon the region. According to the exit polls, Clinton does better among southern whites than she does among northern whites. This variable will catch distinctions that show up on the macro level.

(6) Percentage of union workers per state.

(7) Percentage of Catholics per state.

(8) Percentage of African Americans per state.

(9) Percentage of Hispanics per state.

Again, these variables were used to predict the difference between Obama and Clinton's returns per state. The results are interesting. The model accounts for 69% of all state-by-state variation between the two candidates [that is the "adjusted r-squared" value]. What is more, eight of the above nine variables were found to be statistically significant at the 95% confidence level (or greater). The only exception was the percentage of Hispanics per state.* This means that we can be confident that all but one of them have influenced the state-by-state results.*

What exactly did we find?

(1) As the median income of white voters increases, Obama does better. This is consistent with the hypothesis offered above: wealthier whites are attracted to Obama, poorer whites are attracted to Clinton.

(2) Obama does better in caucuses than in primaries. This was the strongest predictor of all explanatory variables, which is not surprising in light of Obama's large victories in the caucus states.

(3) Clinton does better as the number of candidate visits increases. This was a bit of a surprise, but it is good news for her. Campaign effects seem to incline the electorate to her.

(4) Obama does better in states that are "homogeneously white." This is consistent with the hypothesis we offered: white voters in "homogeneous" states see Obama differently than white voters in heterogeneous states.

(5) Clinton does "better" as we move to the South. This might sound counter-intuitive. However, remember that we included this variable to account for the inclination of southern whites to go for Clinton. Obama's strength in the south is accounted for by the African American variable.

(6) As the union population increases, Clinton does better.

(7) As the Catholic population increases, Clinton does better.

(8) As the African American population increases, Obama does better.

Regression models like these have two important uses. First, they enable us to predict what will happen in the future. That was not the intention here. The point was not to offer predictions about what will happen next - and rightly so. The model's predictive power (69%) is very high from a certain perspective. From another perspective, though, its accuracy is not great enough to admit of "publishable" predictions - not when candidates are often separated by tiny margins. Tomorrow, I hope to take some tentative steps toward reviewing what to expect in the upcoming contests. The model (refined by today's results) will serve as a foundation for this analysis - but it will not be used for simple divination. It is simply not precise enough.

Another use of regression models is that they isolate and identify influential factors. This model definitely serves this purpose - it confirmed much of what the micro-level analysis showed and it elucidated some new trends. All in all, we have made some important steps - especially when we combine the macro analysis with the micro analysis. We have found that both candidates are putting together diverse voting coalitions that differ according to region. There is evidence that Obama wins Independents, African Americans, white males in the North, "upscale" white voters, and white voters in homogeneously white states. He also seems to do well in caucus states where enthusiasm is a factor. There is evidence that Clinton wins Democrats, Hispanics, white females everywhere, white males in the South, "downscale" white voters, Catholics, and white voters in heterogeneous states. She seems to do better in a state the more attention is paid to it.

As I said, it is not clear which candidate's voting coalition will be larger when all is said and done. Both of them are diverse and quite large. We will talk tomorrow about what to expect from these coalitions moving forward.


[*] Another caveat is appropriate to mention here. We have exit polling data from twenty-three states. Data from eighteen of them is used - excluding Florida and Michigan because the states were not contested. Also excluded are Illinois, New York, and Arkansas because each of them voted heavily for the "favorite son" or "favorite daughter." Our goal is to draw an inference from this data to the rest of the contests. We cannot do that if our data has major exceptions that will not recur between now and the convention.

[*] These figures were computed in the following way. A given demographic group in a state was weighted first by its contribution to that state's electorate, and second by the number of pledged delegates the state has. This method is different from a simple unweighted average of each statewide result, which would diminish the importance of bigger states and enhance the importance of smaller states.

[*] A difficulty here is that several caucus states report state or county delegate results, not raw votes. The model counts these delegate results as though they are raw vote results. This is obviously not ideal - but the inferential damage from this choice seems minimal. It does not appear that there are any differences from caucus-to-caucus, depending upon whether they report delegates or votes. Obama tends to win a large share of both. So, it does not seem to have a particular effect on caucus states - and the difference between caucuses and primaries is captured via the corresponding dummy variable. An alternative approach would be to exclude the delegate-reporting caucus states from the analysis - but this would exclude several observations, thus reducing efficiency. There are often judgment calls like these to make when dealing with non-experimental data - choosing between running a risk of bias or a risk of inefficiency. Since the bias effect seems to be minimal, and the inefficiency seems to be more sizable - it seems best to include the delegate-reporting states.

[*] Why was our Hispanic measure found to be insignificant? One reason might be that there is not a lot of state-to-state variation in the Hispanic population. Some states have large Hispanic populations, but most of them have uniformly low populations. As an explanatory variable stops varying, it becomes harder for OLS regression to pick up on its effect.

[*] One possible objection to this analysis is that previous results influence subsequent results - and therefore this kind of "cross-sectional" investigation is missing a key explanatory variable. This possibility was tested, and it was found to be unlikely. In particular, the outcome of the immediately prior statewide result was temporarily included as an explanatory variable. This factor was found not to have any influence. A test was also conducted to see whether the model does a better job predicting results prior to Super Tuesday versus results afterwards - which might be the case if the early "beauty contests" influenced the states of February 5th. The model seems to predict both types of states equally well. The upshot of this is consistent with the conventional wisdom that the Democratic race has been bereft of momentum to date.

-Jay Cost

The Romney Campaign, RIP

With Mitt Romney's withdrawal from the Republican race yesterday, it is time to take stock of his candidacy.

It is fair to say that Romney was a polarizing candidate. Few candidates rouse such strongly divergent feelings among his fellow partisans. All campaign cycle, my email inbox has been full of people telling me Romney was the GOP's best hope and people telling me he would ruin the party.

We can state this a bit more formally. The following chart details net positive/negative feelings for the GOP candidates among the general electorate, according to the last few Pew polls. It also lists the percentage of people who could rate the candidate.

Favorability 1.jpg
As you can see, Romney's numbers fell as the campaign wore on. Also, note that they went down as the percentage of voters willing to rate him went up. Of course, they did not drop as precipitously as Giuliani's numbers - but unlike Giuliani, Romney was not plagued by personal scandal during the period these polls cover.

The same basic story holds when we look at Romney's numbers among Republican voters:

Favorability 2.jpg

These are probably the more critical numbers to review, even though they exclude self-identified independents who ultimately voted in an open Republican primary. Here we see that Romney lost all the ground he would lose on net favorability among Republicans before the first votes were cast - i.e. before momentum became a factor. This distinguishes him from Giuliani - whose numbers, as I noted last week and as can be seen above, fell before and after the contests began.

If Romney's favorability rating fell first, did this harm him at the ballot box later - when voters started to focus on the race, undecideds started to decide, and losing candidates started to drop out? Unfortunately, we cannot approach this question directly because we just do not have sufficient data for 2008. However, we do have data for years past that provides a clue. Consider John Geer's Nominating Presidents: An Assessment of Voters in Presidential Primaries. Geer's work examines the attitudes of Republican and Democratic voters in Los Angeles, CA and Erie, PA during the 1988 presidential nomination season. He asked voters why they supported a candidate, and these are the results he found:

Justification for Primary Candidate.jpg

Clearly, personality has a significant effect on vote choice. This should not come as a big surprise. Remember that these are primary voters choosing among candidates of the same party. It is surely difficult for them to see significant issue or ideological differences between candidates - and so it makes sense that personality would be a critical factor.

Of course, Pew's "favorability" and Geer's "personality" do not overlap completely - but they are obviously related. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that Romney's dropping favorability rating hurt his vote totals. It surely did not make all of the difference. Romney - like the rest of the field - was hurt by McCain's victory in New Hampshire, which will be remembered as the critical moment of the race. My point is more modest. Favorability did not make all the difference, but it did make some.

All of this might seem strange, given that Romney was viewed quite favorably by the Republican electorate. The critical point is that McCain was viewed much more favorably. That is the key - not Romney's absolute favorability, but his favorability relative to McCain's. Here I would also recall his national unfavorable rating, which includes strongly unfavorable reviews by independents, who were factors in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and some states on Super Tuesday.

How is it that the balance of the general electorate, and a sizable minority of Republican voters, came to dislike Romney? Unfortunately, there is only so much we can say on this front because Pew (and other pollsters for that matter) did not probe why voters did not view him favorably. Some, like Howard Fineman, would argue that it was due to his insincerity. Maybe. Maybe not. The polling data does not provide much of a clue. It is problematic to assume that the average Republican primary voter noticed what a journalist like Howard Fineman noticed, let alone whether he had the same reaction that Fineman had.

I do think we have enough evidence to make a case that Romney's negative (or "contrast") advertising had an effect on his favorability. If we dig a little deeper into the available data - some interesting trends emerge.

First and foremost, it is simply true that Romney's negative campaign against Huckabee and McCain was risky. I discussed the risks of negative campaigning in December. At the time, I noted that the research of Rutgers' Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper shows that going negative is a tricky task. In 2002, they looked at incumbent senators who attacked their opponents, and concluded, "A full accounting of the evidence suggests that, as often as not, attacking the opponent is a counter-productive campaign strategy to follow."

How might these negative attacks have hurt Romney? My sense is that it likely kept him from winning over those who supported McCain or Huckabee. That is, at its most basic level, it backfired; not only did it fail to convince Huckabee or McCain voters to back Romney, it alienated those voters from him. Pew found that Romney's net favorability rating among McCain voters was just +7 in January and +1 in February; among Huckabee voters it was -9 in January and -4 in February. The only candidate who had so much trouble with another candidate's voters is Giuliani, who was not liked by Huckabee voters. This is different - Rudy's divergence on social issues and his scandal-plagued autumn can explain most of that disregard.

I think the fact that Romney was viewed so poorly by McCain and Huckabee voters, but not Giuliani voters is a consequence of his attacks on McCain and Huckabee. I see no other plausible way to explain this pattern - especially in light of the fact that Romney worked for most of 2007 to woo the social conservatives who comprise Huckabee's base. Why else would the first two sets of voters dislike him, but the third like him?

These low ratings may have done electoral damage to Romney. First, consider Huckabee voters. As Huckabee's prospects declined, we would expect some of his supporters to switch to other candidates. Indeed, Huckabee has fallen about four points in the last month. Romney's negative numbers among Huckabee voters implies that if they were going to leave Huckabee, they would probably not go to Romney. Instead, they would probably go to McCain - who enjoys strong positive numbers among Huckabee voters. Minimally, this should dispel the notion that Huckabee's decision to stay in the race hurt Romney. If anything, it probably helped him.

Second, Romney's negativity might have kept him from picking up Giuliani voters during and after Florida. I would note that McCain had a +69 favorability rating among Giuliani supporters in the January Pew poll. If Rudy supporters were predisposed to like McCain - can we expect them to have reacted positively to Romney's attacks on the Arizona senator? Probably not. Of course, McCain and Giuliani share so much common ground that the former would probably have picked up most of the latter's supporters, anyway - but my sense is that Romney's attacks on McCain did not help him with Giuliani supporters who liked both McCain and Romney.

Ultimately, these considerations remain sketchy due to the limitations of the data. Perhaps at some point, an outfit like Annenberg or Pew will release some detailed analysis of how the supporters of various candidates responded to changes in the race. With the data available, the best I can do is argue that the theory of Romney's negative attacks backfiring is intuitively plausible and consistent with what we know. I would like to say more, but am limited by the numbers I have.

Regardless of whether the negative ads had an effect on his favorability rating - it remains true that it was quite low for a candidate hoping to win a nomination. We know from previous cycles that favorability and vote choice move together quite closely. So, we can conclude that Romney's campaign would have been well served by a more careful maintenance of his public image. It should have been more mindful of how voters felt about him, and it should have taken more decisive steps to win not just votes, but also affection, which makes a difference in a primary campaign.

-Jay Cost

On McCain's Voting Coalition

An argument being proffered by Romney supporters is that McCain's victories in the early states have been due to the conservative vote being split among many candidates. By this thinking, McCain would have lost South Carolina and maybe Florida if conservatives had coalesced around a single anti-McCain candidate. Michael Medved commented on this theory yesterday. I would like to toss in my two cents, as this sort of matter is up my alley.

At first blush, this theory might seem compelling. However, if we take a closer look at the exit polls in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, we can see that this is actually a problematic assertion.

First of all, we have to clear away some of the theoretical underbrush. What we are talking about here is the idea that the electoral results to date display social irrationality. Is this possible? Absolutely.

Suppose that you prefer ice cream over pizza, and pizza over hamburgers. If you were given a choice among all three, you would choose ice cream. If you were given a choice among just ice cream and hamburgers (with pizza excluded), what would you choose? Again, it would be ice cream. The choice between ice cream and hamburgers is independent from your feelings about pizza, which are irrelevant. So, your choice is independent from irrelevant alternatives.

This is a characteristic of individual rationality. Can we expect society as a whole to act rationally in this way? If we all take a vote on ice cream, pizza, and hamburgers - would we prefer ice cream to hamburgers regardless of whether or not pizza was an option? If pizza does change the preference between ice cream and hamburgers, can we say that society has chosen rationally?

These questions are part of a general subject known as "social choice." It has been of interest to smarty pants for centuries, especially French smarty pants. In the 18th century the Marquis de Condorcet and Jean-Charles de Borda argued over how to design voting systems that avoided irrational outcomes like the one highlighted here. Of course, leave it to an American to prove that the French were wasting their time! This is exactly what Kenneth Arrow did in 1951 with his impossibility theorem (a.k.a. Arrow's Theorem). Arrow later won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his achievement.

What Professor Arrow did was devastatingly simple. He identified a handful of basic criteria that we would expect any rational voting system to meet - and proved that no system could meet every criterion every time. We just finished talking about one such criterion - independence from irrelevant alternatives does not always hold when we move from individual choice to collective choice. Depending on how we conduct the vote, society could change its preference from ice cream to hamburgers because pizza was included or excluded as an option.

Romney supporters are using this concept to argue for their candidate. The final result in Florida was McCain > Romney > Giuliani > Huckabee. According to their argument, if Giuliani and Huckabee were not on the ballot, the collective choice between McCain and Romney would have been reversed. Irrelevant alternatives were not independent - as this argument goes. Take the other conservatives off the ballot, and Romney would have defeated McCain.

Let's dig into the exit polls from New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida to see exactly whether this claim bears out.

As I argued last week, feelings about the Bush administration have been influential in determining primary vote choices to date. We should note two distinct features about the vote distribution of Bush/anti-Bush voters. First, McCain consistently wins those with negative feelings toward Bush, and consistently loses those with positive feelings toward Bush. Second, most Republican primary voters have positive feelings toward the Bush administration.

So, for instance, in Florida:

- 68% of Republican voters claimed support for the Bush administration; 32% did not.

- McCain won 31% of Bush supporters, 45% of Bush opponents.

- Romney won 35% of Bush supporters, 23% of Bush opponents.

- Giuliani won 16% of Bush supporters, 12% of Bush opponents.

- Huckabee won 15% of Bush supporters, 10% of Bush opponents.

This seems to bode well for the anti-McCain argument. If you fold up the pro-Bush vote into a single candidates in Florida, the pro-Bush candidate might well have beaten McCain. Perhaps McCain has been winning only because the pro-Bush vote has been split among multiple candidate. This would violate the independence from irrelevant alternatives criterion. Taking all but one of the conservatives off the ballot, by this logic, would flip the results in Florida.

This conclusion is hasty. Romney surely won more pro-Bush voters than McCain, but he did not win that many more. McCain, for his part, won many more anti-Bush voters than Romney did. This could make a big difference.

Let's drill this down with some mathematical analysis:

(1) Suppose a two-way Florida race between Romney and McCain in which (following the exit poll) 68% of voters are pro-Bush and 32% are anti-Bush. Also, suppose that the key variable in determining where the voters of the now excluded candidates go is their feeling about Bush.

(2) In the actual race, McCain beat Romney among anti-Bush voters in a multi-candidate field, 45% to 23%. In a hypothetical two-way race, the proportional result would be 66% to 34%, McCain.

(3) In the actual race, Romney beat McCain among pro-Bush voters in a multi-candidate field, 35% to 31%. In a hypothetical two-way hypothetical race, the proportional result would be 53% to 47%, Romney.

(4) In a hypothetical two-way race with proportional distribution of pro/anti-Bush voters, McCain's vote share would be calculated as: 66% X 32% + 47% X 68% = 53%; Romney's vote share would be 100% - 53% = 47%. Thus, McCain would win a hypothetical two-way race determined under these conditions.

The same goes for South Carolina and New Hampshire. I'll spare you the mathematics and just conclude that if you turn those races into two-man contests following the same rules I used with Florida, McCain would still win both states against his strongest opponents.

Perhaps using feelings about Bush is not the best way to re-allocate votes in a two-man race. Perhaps the best way is via ideology. Accordingly, I re-ran these calculations dividing the electorate into four ideological groups: liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative, very conservative. Once again, I folded the actual race into a hypothetical two-way match up, allocating voters by ideology proportional to how they supported McCain and Romney (or, in South Carolina, Huckabee). Once again, I found that McCain wins all three states.

I would also note that if you wanted to reallocate the vote based upon professed second choices - you would find the same result in Florida. Most Huckabee voters there claimed McCain as their second choice. Romney and McCain were essentially tied among Giuliani voters. Unfortunately, the same question was not asked in New Hampshire or South Carolina.

As I hinted above, this does not necessarily mean that the anti-McCain theory is wrong. Take a look at the Florida example. Among pro-Bush Florida voters who actually supported McCain or Romney, 53% went to McCain and 47% went to Romney. So, that was how all pro-Bush voters were split in the hypothetical two-way match up. However, maybe pro-Bush voters would have broken more heavily to Romney. That could alter the results, depending on how they go. If they go by at least 58/42 - Romney would defeat McCain.

While this is possible, it is hard to argue that it is likely. If anything, voters might break more heavily to McCain than my baseline model implies. According to the latest Pew poll, Huckabee voters have a +36% favorable rating of McCain, but a -4% rating of Romney. It is hard to argue that Romney would take more Huckabee voters than McCain, which is actually what the baseline predicts. The same goes for the Giuliani voters - who in the January Pew poll were more favorable to McCain than to Romney. So, if we alter this assumption to reflect the Pew results - we might see McCain's lead grow.

And so, I do not think one can argue that McCain's wins have been dependent on a divided field. Independents, moderates, and Bush disapprovers have certainly formed the core of McCain's voting coalition. However, McCain has done what most winning candidates do: win his base by large margins while stealing plenty of voters from the other guy's base. McCain does not win conservatives or Bush supporters outright - but he has done well enough with them that he could probably win New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Florida in a head-to-head match up.

I think the Romney supporters are on better empirical ground to argue that their candidate's problem has been that Bush supporters and strong conservatives simply have not made up a sufficiently large share of the vote - and that "true" Republicans need to "wake up." Accordingly, their goal should be to turn out more of their voters. Maybe they will be able to do this in California today.

Relatedly, this highlights McCain's potential weakness. While it is difficult argue that a narrower field would turn any of McCain's wins into losses, the fact remains that each race would probably have been tight. Under my assumptions, McCain never would have won more than 54% of the vote - and his victory in South Carolina over Huckabee could have shrunk to a little less than one-half of one percent. So, McCain has been building a voting coalition that can trump the coalitions of other candidates - but not by much. If the anti-McCain forces could have turned out more of their voters in the other states, they might have won.

-Jay Cost

The Giuliani Campaign, RIP

It is easy to criticize the Giuliani campaign, but it is also easy to overdo it. Rudy did not play the hand he was dealt very well, but the fact is that he was not dealt a terribly strong hand.

First, the criticism. Late last year, the Giuliani campaign pinned its hopes on no single candidate emerging from the early contests as a clear frontrunner. It got exactly what it wanted. Huckabee checked Romney in Iowa. McCain checked Romney in New Hampshire. Romney returned the favor in Michigan and Nevada. McCain checked Huckabee in South Carolina. Five states. Three winners. This was basically what Rudy wanted (though he might have preferred a Huckabee win in South Carolina).

So, what happened?

The Giuliani campaign correctly figured that this scenario would not give a single candidate overwhelming momentum. This in turn meant that there was not a prohibitive favorite going into Florida. However, Rudy's operation ostensibly failed to understand that momentum works in the other direction, too. Viability, likability, and vote choice move together - in both ways. Voters flock to winners, and they flee losers. Loss after loss after loss - and Rudy started to look like a loser. As he seemed less viable, his numbers nationwide (and in his "firewall" of Florida) dropped.

This account is as relevant as the media's (somewhat self-serving) explanation that his numbers dropped because he was not in the news. While there is much truth to this, it fails to account for the fact that, insofar as he was in the news, it was negative coverage of him withdrawing from race after race. There were also many opinion pieces that questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Stories like these damage a candidate's viability. The Giuliani campaign thus experienced the awful process of negative momentum that Larry Bartels outlines. Voters come to see the candidate as a loser, they like him less, and they start to abandon his candidacy, thus making him look like a loser all the more.

The Giuliani campaign had other problems. Bernard Kerik was indicted on November 8, 2007 - and an examination of the GOP national chart shows that shortly after this event Giulaini's numbers began to fall. In fact, if you look at his trend line, you see two distinct periods when his numbers dropped. The first is this post-Kerik fall in November. He fell from the high twenties to the low twenties. The second occurred in January, after the start of the early contests, when he fell from the low twenties to the tweens (presumably) because of the negative momentum. So, I think it is reasonable to argue that Kerik's legal troubles contributed to Giuliani's political troubles.

Speaking impressionistically, my sense is that the Giuliani campaign had message difficulties, too. Good campaigns begin with good biographies. Rudy has an impressive professional biography. However, good campaigns use these biographies to develop coherent, compelling messages. For the best campaigns - there is a point at which biography and message become indistinguishable. We saw this with Clinton-Gore '92. We are also seeing something like this with Obama. I do not think the Giuliani campaign ever approached this level. It never had a message that emanated forcefully from its candidate's biography. It surely tried to create one. That is what its "Twelve Commitments" were all about. So also was its rather silly line, "I don't hope for miracles. I expect them." But none of these attempts caught on.

Rudy probably had to do more work with message than other candidates. Consider that nobody has ever won the presidency having most recently been mayor of a city. This is important. Forty years ago, Joseph Schlesinger argued that there is an "opportunity structure" to American political careers. In Ambition and Politics he asserts, "American political careers do not proceed chaotically. There is a pattern of movement from office to office." Holding a given office yields opportunities for promotions to some higher offices, but not others. To date, a mayoralty has never yielded the presidency. So, in a sense, Giuliani was jumping the line.

Did this have an effect? Perhaps. Like everything in electoral politics - the structure of opportunities influences and is influenced by voter perceptions. I know a few voters who looked at Giuliani and said, "He was mayor of New York. How does that qualify him to be president?" I am not sure if this was a widely held opinion, but I reckon that it might have been. And if it was - it was a problem. I think he could have mitigated it with a more compelling message, one that vividly connected his success in New York to his agenda for Washington. He never developed this. His attempts to do so seemed rote, uninspired, and based on the assumption that voters would make the connection themselves. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that more Florida voters saw McCain and Romney as better prepared to be commander-in-chief.

That's enough picking on Rudy for me. Like I said, it is easy to take this too far. For Giuliani had a real disadvantage that most (including myself) failed to perceive until afterwards. Simply put, the early states were on friendly territory for Huckabee, McCain, and Romney - but not really for Giuliani. The three winners could make niche appeals that Rudy could not. Huckabee has a connection with evangelicals, who made up a large chunk of the Iowa electorate. Romney and McCain have connections with New Hampshire. Romney grew up in Michigan, and he could rely on strong Mormon turnout in Nevada. As Tom Bevan has pointed out, each victor won his respective state by running as a candidate for "governor." At best, Rudy had an angle in New Hampshire - but it was a relatively slight one, given McCain and Romney's ties to the state.

Also, we must remember that Giuliani's Florida firewall plan was a strategy borne of necessity. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Rudy competed in Iowa early on. He made 43 appearances there. He spent money there. He pulled out in August - when it became clear he could not win. That goes double for New Hampshire, where he held 87 events (almost as many as he held in Florida) and spent loads of cash on advertisements. He pulled the plug when it appeared he could not win, and perhaps did not want to impede McCain from beating the well-heeled Romney. So, it is simply wrong to suggest that his Florida strategy was his first choice. It was, in fact, a fall back.

All in all, Giuliani was not in nearly as strong a position as last year's polls implied. Instead, he had some real disadvantages vis-à-vis the early schedule. Unfortunately, his campaign did very little to help itself. It wrongly thought it could abstain from the early states without suffering a penalty. It never found a way to handle the Kerik indictment. It never developed a compelling message - something of great importance for a candidate with Giuliani's particular biography.

-Jay Cost

How McCain Won

John McCain won Florida by putting together the same basic voting coalition he forged in New Hampshire and South Carolina. What is impressive is that he did it in a closed primary. Registered Independents and Democrats were not allowed to vote, but McCain still won. Let's take a look at how he did it:

-McCain once again won those who are disenchanted by the Bush presidency. Most Florida Republicans (68%) approve of the Bush administration. Romney won them, 35% to 31%. McCain, however, scored an overwhelming, 22-point victory among the 32% of voters who disapprove. I think this is one of the evolving stories of the Republican contest. If you like Bush, you are inclined to Romney (or one of the other candidates, all of whom but Ron Paul do better among Bush supporters than Bush opponents). If you dislike Bush, you are inclined to McCain.

-From a certain perspective, this is an ironic feature of this campaign. McCain has been campaigning, in part, on the surge - the hallmark of the Bush presidency for the last year. Romney has been campaigning on fixing Washington. But the results do not follow these pitches. Why? I think one reason has to do with the long memories of voters. McCain's reputation as an anti-Bush maverick is still quite ingrained in their minds. So, those who disapprove of Bush are "naturally" inclined to McCain, despite Romney's anti-Washington pitch. Meanwhile, voters supportive of Bush recall how many times McCain has been a thorn in the president's side, and so are inclined to Romney.

-There is a lesson in all of this about the limitations of political campaigns. They only do so much to shape the thinking of the American voter. Those who have held opinions about political figures for a long time are not going to be easily disabused of them, despite how many political ads are run or adjustments in messaging are made. I think this hints at a mistake the Romney campaign made - it pivoted too late to a message about fixing Washington.

-McCain won voters for whom the economy is their top concern, 40% to 32%. Remember that McCain won them by a nose in New Hampshire. Isn't that strange, given Romney's message? Not necessarily. If we step back and look at it from a broader perspective - this can start to make sense. While it is true that Romney's campaign message has been about fixing the economy - Romney won voters who think the economy is healthy. McCain won voters who think the economy is sick. So, it should come as no surprise that the voters for whom the economy is tops went for McCain, given these divisions. If you think the economy is healthy, it is probably not your top concern.

-McCain won the ideological coalition he won in the previous states. He won liberals and moderates by a large margin. He split those who consider themselves "somewhat" conservative. And he lost those voters who consider themselves "very" conservative by a wide margin. We saw this in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

-My sense is that there is some causal connection between evaluations of Bush, evaluations of the economy, and ideological orientation. They influence one another - though we cannot say which opinons are primary and which are secondary (or if there is something else entirely that is driving all three). And, of course, we have to acknowledge that there are exceptions (e.g. the good number of Bush supporters who went for McCain). But I think that these three characteristics are somehow related to one another - and so many voters fall on one side or the other. McCain, as the candidate with a long history of being the anti-Bush "maverick," has an advantage with voters on one side of the divide, despite Romney's electoral pitch. Unfortunately, I can do little more than theorize about this relationship, though I think it is inherently reasonable. If I had more comprehensive exit poll data, it would be pretty easy to test whether these opinions are indeed related.

- Of course, elections can never be reduced to single causal narratives. There are several factors that do not fit into this story, but were nevertheless important.

First, like any winning candidate, McCain did well among many of the factions he lost, including Bush supporters. He lost them by just 4% last night. It was his 22-point victory among those who dislike Bush that is the noteworthy result.

Second, McCain was perceived by more Floridians as the most electable, edging Romney out by 13 points on that quality. As I have said time and again on this blog, there is a strong connection between perceptions of electability and vote choice.

Third, Romney won voters who said that cutting taxes was the higher priority, 35% to 29%. McCain won those who said reducing the deficit was more important, 42% to 27%. This, I think, shows the potential of a campaign - Romney has definitely developed some tax cutting bona fides with the Republican electorate.

Fourth, McCain won a decisive victory on the question of who is most qualified to be commander-in-chief, beating Romney by 18 points. He beat Giuliani by 30 points, which is unbelievable considering Rudy's "Test. Ready. Now." slogan. Relatedly, he beat Romney among military vets by 7 points.

Like I said, these cannot be brought under the narrative I developed above - though I think that each of them was important.

-What about the geographical distribution of the vote? Florida has four large metropolitan areas: Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale. Romney won decisively in Jacksonville, 42% to 29%; he won a slight victory in Orlando, 33% to 32%. McCain won Tampa, 37% to 30%; he won big in Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, 45% to 22%. Unfortunately for Romney, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale/Tampa out-voted Orlando/Jacksonville by better than 2:1.

-A final point on the exit polls - bad news for Mike Huckabee. He won Iowa on the back of self-identified evangelicals. However, he only split them with Romney and McCain this time around. What is more, he garnered a measly 4% among those who do not identify themselves that way. He goes on to Super Tuesday, and I think he could be a factor in the South. But clearly his voting coalition is shrinking, not expanding.

-Jay Cost

How To Read the Early Results

The following is an email I received last week from a Romney supporter:

How do you call McCain the front runner when Mitt Romney has more delegates and has won more republican votes in all the primaries?

That's a good question, one that several emailers have asked me. To be fair, I have been very cautious in my approach to McCain's candidacy. I think he faces some serious opposition in the Republican Party. Unlike previous nominees, McCain is not a consensus candidate. Instead, he has inspired a faction of the party to oppose him. And in a system like ours, factions are often able to prevent things from happening. So, they might be able to stop him.

Beyond this, I think the emailer asks a fair question. After all, this is a race to win a party nomination. This means it is about delegates. So, shouldn't they be our focus? Aren't we wrong to focus so relentlessly on who has won which states? Doesn't that obscure the true dynamics of this race?

Well - yes and no. I think that the proper way to look at the race is somewhere in between. Yes, the delegate count is important. But who is winning and who is losing is important, too. What we need to do is find a mode of analysis that integrates each into a coherent scheme.

But first we should define our terms. We are contrasting two different ways to look at the nomination process. The first is the competition for delegates. This is what Giuliani was stressing prior to his December collapse. His campaign was saying something like, "It's all well and good who wins Iowa, but the fact of the matter is that Iowa's delegates to the convention will not be chosen until the summer." This was similar to the Romney camp's basic line after Michigan - "We are focusing on Nevada more than South Carolina because Nevada has more delegates."

The second is the "beauty contest." Up until the 1970s, that is all that primaries were good for. They did not factor into delegate allocations. They were used simply to get a read on the preferences of the party rank-and-file. So, those who view these early elections as beauty contests care only about who wins and who loses. At its extreme, this form takes primary elections like general elections. The winner is the candidate who wins the most votes. The rest are losers.

So, which of these is the better way to look at these early contests? I think both of them are insufficient. Both miss a big part of what is happening.

On the one hand, it is too hasty to start looking at delegate counts. Doing this is like identifying a vote leader after 6% of precincts have reported. Right now, Romney has a 19-delegate lead. However, there are 2,380 delegates who will decide the Republican nomination. So, Romney has 2.48% of the total delegates. Huckabee has 1.6%. McCain has 1.35%. This is a negligible lead - especially in light of the fact that Super Tuesday will allocate about 39% of all delegates.

What is more, following the delegate count is simply not the way the press looks at these races. And, regardless of how narrow its view of things is, the fact is that the press' perspective matters. When you get right down to it, many voters are essentially ambivalent when it comes to the candidates. They can be swayed by positive or negative media coverage, which almost always follows a win or a loss. We call this momentum, and its presence can make a state more important than the delegates it offers. New Hampshire is a great example. The Granite State has just 12 delegates at this year's GOP convention - but the way the results were covered launched John McCain to the front of the national polls. We can debate whether or not it should be this way; but the fact remains that it is this way.

On the other hand, looking at these early states just as beauty contests - with one candidate deemed the winner and the rest deemed losers - brings a different set of problems. Focusing exclusively on who won a plurality of votes obscures two important features. First, it matters how a candidate wins the votes he wins. What was the voting coalition that he put together? This is an important feature to know before we generalize from the state in question to the nationwide electorate, which is what is really important. Second, it also matters who he ran against. It might be the case that Candidate A beat Candidates B and C - but by the time the next state rolls around, C will have exited the race, giving B an advantage over A.

These considerations point to how we should examine the early contests. We alter the metaphor a little bit: we take the early states not as beauty contests, but as exhibition games. We look at the voting coalitions the candidates are forming in the early contests, and infer how they will factor when delegates are awarded en masse on Super Tuesday. This means that it matters who wins a plurality of votes, but this is surely not all that matters. Candidates can lose and still show signs that they are putting together a voting coalition that will deliver the nomination. This also means that we take the early contests seriously, but we do not make them out to be more than they are. When they are properly understood, they are our best indications of how candidates will do on Super Tuesday. No more, no less.

On the Republican side - this helps answer the emailer's question. As of today, Romney simply cannot be seen as the GOP frontrunner. Though this might change tonight, John McCain is currently the candidate who has put together the larger voting coalitions in more competitive states. Romney essentially bowed out of South Carolina - where three other Republicans were competing. He won Michigan, but it appears that his victory was based in part on his deep roots with the Wolverine state. On the other hand, McCain is at best a tenuous frontrunner. His voting coalitions have sampled heavily from Independents. Without them, it is questionable whether he would have won New Hampshire or South Carolina. In many Super Tuesday states, he will not be able to rely on them. And, while he has great appeal with moderates and some appeal with conservatives - he has failed to win a plurality of strong conservatives in any state. Whatever happens today in Florida, the results will probably be too close to be determinative. So, the five states to date indicate that no candidate has yet won a sustained voting coalition that could carry him to victory on Super Tuesday.

-Jay Cost

Demography and the Democratic Race

There is a simple explanation for Obama's victory last night: he won African American voters. They constituted 53% of the vote, and 80% of them went for Obama.

This is an incredible result. Of this there is no doubt. But it invites a question - can Obama win white voters?

Since he lost Nevada, pundits have been suggesting that he cannot. But I think the picture is much more complicated than it first appears.

First of all, we have to acknowledge that Clinton is currently beating Obama in the polls among white voters nationwide. The latest LA Times/Bloomberg poll tells the story pretty succinctly. Clinton leads Obama among white voters by 19 points. Compare this to Clinton's 9 point lead among all self-identified Democratic primary voters - and it should be clear Clinton is doing better with white Democrats than with the Democratic electorate at large.

So, the more precise question is: can these numbers change, or has Obama "maxed out" among white voters?

Let's take a look at recent results to see if we can get an answer.

Obama won Iowa by a decisive margin. And, as Iowa is 93% white, it should come as no surprise that he won white voters by 6 points. Clinton won white women in New Hampshire; Obama won white men; and, as more women voted than men, Clinton won the state. But both of these states indicate that Obama can win sufficient numbers of white voters.

But wait a minute - what about Nevada? Clinton beat Obama by 18 points among whites. She even won white men by 6 points. Doesn't that indicate that the dynamic of the race has changed, that Obama has perhaps been marginalized as the "black candidate?"

Well...not so fast.

Clinton won white voters statewide. Of this there is no doubt. But we might ask which white voters did she win? The Nevada entrance poll clearly indicates that she won white voters in and around Las Vegas - but that she and Obama at least split them outside Vegas:

NV Region.jpg

These results are really intriguing. Consider that, according to the Census Bureau's 2006 population estimate, Clark County (where Vegas is) is home to about 93% of the state's African American population. So, if Obama won Reno and split the rural counties, he must have been strong among white voters outside Vegas. There are simply not enough African American voters outside Clark County for Obama to do so well having lost white voters.

Let's expand on this. Unfortunately, the Nevada Democratic Party does not release raw vote totals. But we can look at delegates, which are a sufficiently unbiased estimate of how the votes went in each county. The following table reviews counties in Nevada according to: the percentage difference in delegates between Obama and Clinton, the percentage of whites, and the estimated population from 2006.

NV County.jpg

Obviously we cannot know the exact votes per county. These are delegate totals, not raw vote totals. Above all, we do not have breakdowns of vote by race per county. Nevertheless, this should make it clear that the entrance poll was certainly on to something. Obama won Reno (Washoe County), which is largely white. He won Carson City, which is largely white. And he did very well in the rural counties, which are also white.

It should be clear from this that it is insufficient to say that Clinton won "the white vote" in Nevada. It is better to say that she won a certain type (or types) of white voter. But what type? Why did white voters in Vegas break for Clinton so heavily while voters outside Vegas did not? Obviously, the ideal explanation is one that accounts for not just Nevada, but also Iowa and New Hampshire. I see three hypotheses that could connect these dots:

(a) It is a matter of GOTV organization. Obama beat her in Iowa. Clinton beat him in New Hampshire and Las Vegas.

(b) It is a matter of income. Whites who make more money tend to support Obama. Whites who make less money tend to support Clinton.

(c) White voters in racially uniform areas are more attracted to Obama that white voters in racially diverse areas.

Any of these could be true. Each of them has evidence to support them, and none of them excludes any other. I am sure that there are other potential explanations as well. Unfortunately, we cannot arbitrate between them. We could if the media chose to release raw exit data numbers, or at least more detailed cross-tabs. But they don't, so we can't. [The biggest difficulty is with the second explanation. We clearly saw income play a role in Iowa and New Hampshire - but we would need to see data on income controlling for race in Nevada, which is more racially diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire. The media does not provide that kind of data.]

The situation in South Carolina is not nearly as mixed as it was in Nevada. The fact of the matter is that Clinton won a strong plurality of white voters. Once again, gender was a critical factor. The entrance poll shows that white women broke decisively for her (42% to her, 36% to Edwards, 22% to Obama). Edwards won the white male vote, and Clinton and Obama were in a statistical tie for second. So, Obama's victory was dependent upon black voters. We can confirm this with a look at the county-by-county results. I ran an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression analysis on the South Carolina results. This is a way to predict a dependent variable based upon an independent variable. I tested whether the percentage of white residents per county could explain the percentage spread between Obama and Clinton per county. It does. In fact, it explains about 70% of the difference between Obama's share of the vote and Clinton's share. As the white population in a given county increases, Obama's margin of victory over Clinton decreases.

This lopsided result among white voters is consistent with the second and third hypotheses I listed. It could be a matter of economics. South Carolina as a whole tends to be less wealthy than Nevada, Iowa or New Hampshire. It could also be an issue of racial mixing. Counties in South Carolina are much more heterogeneous than the other three states. But that does not mean that either theory is true. All it means is that they are consistent with the data we have. These two theories help us link the results of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. But I am sure there are other plausible theories that could do the job.

The bottom line - this is a real puzzle, and it does not admit of any easy answers. White voters in Iowa and New Hampshire embraced Obama. White voters in South Carolina did not (though he tied Clinton among white men). And in Nevada, what they did depended on where they were located. Minimally, it should be clear that Obama can win white voters - so, the answer to our initial question is yes. Accordingly, breaking this race down by a simple dichotomy of white and black is oversimple and empirically unsatisfactory. There is more going on here than what appears at first glance. What it is, we cannot know.

This is what we do know. Clinton has done well among Hispanics. Obama has done well among African Americans. Depending on where and when, white voters vary their support. How will that play out on Super Tuesday? We can get a sense from the following table, which reviews the states on Super Tuesday, their pledged delegates, and the percentage of their residents who are white, African American, and Hispanic:

Super Tuesday Demography.jpg

The final row is worth taking careful note of. This is an average of each demographic group weighted by the delegates per state. As you can see, white voters make up a majority of the Super Tuesday population - but African Americans and Hispanics are important minorities. And remember that in most states the electorate will probably oversample from African Americans and Hispanics, who tend to vote Democratic more than whites.

And so, it seems to me that Super Tuesday depends upon three variables:

First, will white voters follow the pattern they followed in Iowa and New Hampshire, in Nevada, or in South Carolina? And remember that viability, favorability, and vote choice can go go hand-in-hand in the primaries. The current polling that shows Clinton with a large lead among whites could change as a consequence of Obama's South Carolina win. After Obama's victory in Iowa, Clinton's margin among white voters shrunk to just 8 points, according to ABC News/WaPo.

Second, will African Americans "out perform" Hispanics? This is an interesting question. The Nevada entrace poll found that African Americans and Hispanics each comprised 15% of the total electorate. But Nevada as a whole is 6.6% African American, and 19.7% Hispanic. If Super Tuesday African Americans "out perform" Hispanics as they did in Nevada - then Obama will be in a better position than what the above table suggests.

Third, what happens to Edwards' voters? It is unclear what they will do if Edwards drops out. It is also unclear whether Edwards can sustain his current support. Voters can be brutal with their evaluations of viability. If they see Edwards' candidacy as hopeless, it is quite possible they will abandon it even if he stays in. If they do, where do they go?

-Jay Cost

What's Happening in the GOP Race?

We're just five days from the Florida primary - the last "beauty contest" before Super Tuesday. Here are my thoughts on where the race stands at the moment.

(1) While the race in Florida is tight - it appears today that Giuliani is not in the lead. So, a question worth asking: if he can't win, whom does he hurt? Survey USA's recent poll of Florida Republicans is helpful for answering this question. [Bear in mind that SUSA found McCain with a larger lead than other pollsters, and Romney at a lower point than the others. Also, see the footnote at the end of the post.] Unsurprisingly, it found that Giuliani was cutting into one of McCain's strengths: moderates and liberals. However, it also found Rudy in a tie with Romney among self-identified conservatives. Even if Romney's strength is underestimated in this poll - it nevertheless remains that Rudy is drawing a good chunk of conservatives into his camp. So, it is unclear who, Romney or McCain, is at a greater disadvantage because of Rudy's presence in the race.

(2) SUSA's cross-tabs on voters' top concerns are also worth noting. The top three issues, in order, are the economy, terrorism, and immigration. Giuliani has the edge on terrorism. No big surprise there. Romney has the edge on immigration. Again, no surprise. But McCain has an edge on the economy. And remember that McCain won voters whose top concern was the economy in New Hampshire and tied them with Mike Huckabee in South Carolina. Romney won them in Michigan, and the recent LA Times/Bloomberg national poll showed Romney with a statistically significant, six point lead over McCain as to who is best equipped to deal with the economy. Interestingly, preferences on this question break along self-identified ideology - moderates/liberals and independents split between Romney and McCain, conservatives go for Romney; furthermore, the poll found that moderates/liberals and independents were more concerned about the economy than conservatives. All in all, I think the data tells a mixed tale about the political effects of the economy. I think it is fair to say that Romney's background gives him real potential with voters concerned about the economy - but he has not yet broken out with them in the early states beyond Michigan.

(3) I find it hard to make an argument about where Fred's voters will go. I thought the low-profile nature of his withdrawal was quite intriguing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Insider Advantage's latest Florida poll, taken after Fred dropped out, shows 7% supporting "Other." Rasmussen has that figure at 6%. Any guesses as to who this "other" candidate is? It seems to me that at least some portion of Fred's voters will not learn that he is out until after they vote for him. Assuming the Fred Heads do learn about his departure - it is hard to guess whether any candidate will enjoy a significant gain. Most of Fred's voters are conservative - and as I indicated above, there seems to be a rough tie among conservative voters, with Giuliani and Romney out front by a few ticks over McCain and Huckabee. My guess is that the tie among conservatives between Giuliani and Romney is in part a function of the particulars of the SUSA poll - so I think that Romney stands to gain the most. But Fred's voters will probably spread themselves out among the rest of the field - and between this and those who stick with Fred, I am not sure that Fred's departure will have a big effect in Florida.

(4) As of now, the Florida race is as tight as any we have seen this cycle. It might be tight to the end, or it might break in one direction or the other over the weekend. The RCP average shows the candidates separated by just a few points. From poll-to-poll you see candidates trading different positions (although none at this point show Rudy in first, and only one has him in second). And, of course, 8 to 10% of the public still claims to be undecided (not including the lingering Fred Heads).

(5) I am not convinced that Florida will alter the dynamics of the race in a significant way. Of course, it might. New Hampshire - as it often does - catapulted its winner to a national lead. And Michigan seems to have given Romney a boost in Florida (and maybe nationwide, too). Florida might have a similar effect. But there are reasons to think that Florida's effect will be modest. Consider:

(a) Races like this do not end with a multi-candidate scrum - with the winner of the state in question claiming the nomination, and the opposition all falling off. They are better characterized as a war of attrition - with the field being whittled down bit-by-bit. Florida might help to whittle the field down, but we should see more than two candidates walk away from the race with a claim to viability.

(b) What is more, Florida might not whittle at all! McCain, Romney, and Huckabee have either the resources or the poll standing (or both) to stay and fight through Super Tuesday. So, the only candidate who could be whittled away is Giuliani. And, if he wins, he's still in.

(6) So, looking ahead to Super Tuesday - what do we see? One noteworthy feature is the large chunk of Republican delegates coming from blue states. Blue states don't out-number red states on that day, but they are delegate rich: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York combine to offer up 465 bound delegates. That amounts to 36% of the total number of delegates that a candidate needs to win. The delegates in all of these states except Illinois and Massachusetts are chosen via some kind of winner-take-all procedure. By contrast, twelve red states will offer up 456 bound delegates, and five of these states have some form of proportional allocation to dole them out. A strong show in the blue states was the linchpin of Giuliani's strategy - his plan was to stay viable through Super Tuesday and perform well in the blue states. Can McCain do the same if Rudy falters? He could. And, as a feather in his cap, Arizona offers up 50 bound delegates that day, winner-take-all. All in all, this could produce an interesting dynamic on Super Tuesday. What happens if the moderate McCain wins the blue states, and the conservative Romney wins the red states?

* - Historically speaking, I have not been the biggest fan of SUSA. Upon reflection, I do think it is to their credit that they offer so many cross-tabulations. That's a sign that they are not afraid of people taking a close look at their numbers. Nevertheless, it is less than ideal to have just SUSA for cross-tabulations. But to my never ending frustration, few other pollsters are so generous with their data. This makes sophisticated analysis of these races very difficult. I used SUSA to draw these inferences because theirs is the only data set available. This amounts to a real caveat. Just like the drunk who looks for his keys under the streetlight - I am dealing with the data that is available, not the data I would love to have.

-Jay Cost

Fred '08, RIP

The poor guy never had a chance.

He was caught in the Catch-22 that has bedeviled so many presidential candidates in the modern era. He was right on all the issues - but he could not get anybody to vote for him.

They won't vote for you because they don't see you as viable, his advisers told him. So, he asked, how do I appear viable? Simple, they explained, get people to vote for you.

I am speaking, of course, about Duncan Hunter.

Fred Thompson's candidacy is a completely different matter. Fred landed in the same Catch-22 that plagued Hunter (and Biden and Dodd and Richardson) - but he was the only one of the bunch who put himself in that spot.

Fred had two great angles on the Republican nomination. This is really rare. Most candidates do not even have one. Fred actually had two.

First, he hit every item on the conservative checklist - without contortions. In this year's Republican field - with Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, and Romney - this was a boon. Fred was no apostate. He was the "consistent conservative."

Second, he pulled off a great coup in the late summer. This year's frontrunning candidates thought that, to get enough cash to compete, they had to begin campaigning in January of last year. They had to hold rallies, release endless position statements, and help the media perpetuate the fiction that they were actually persuading "undecided" voters. Donors, you see, have come to expect candidates to entertain them with the trappings of a campaign, even if there was no real core to it all.

But Fred found a way around this inanity. He correctly figured that if he was the last candidate to enter the campaign - he would garner so much instant attention that he could compete as if he had been campaigning for a year.

This is the sort of "cheating" that makes a rat choice guy weak in the knees. To appreciate just how clever this was, consider this analogy. These days, telephone companies offer unlimited packages - you pay a flat fee and you call as much as you want. Suppose that you know that all of your friends and family had these packages - what is the rational thing to do? Get the cheapest plan you can, and let your friends call you! Fred did something like this. The endless campaigning of all his competitors created an environment that would be conducive for a late entrant to steal the limelight. His competitors created it with their time and money. Fred, by coming in late, could reap all of the rewards without paying the cost.

I was mightily impressed by this move. I still am.

All in all, this was a great place to be. Fred was so well positioned when he entered the race that Romney took a shot at him in his first debate: "[The series of debates is] a lot like 'Law and Order,' Senator. It has a huge cast, the series seems to go on forever, and Fred Thompson shows up at the end." Congrats, Fred. When Romney hits you - you've made the big time.

So what happened? Fred squandered this incredible opportunity. Lackluster speeches, lackluster debate performances, lackluster campaign stops. We saw it happen in slow motion through the fall - the drip-drip-drip of stories about him half-assing his campaign appearances corresponded with his plummeting poll positions. Apparently, Fred just doesn't like to campaign - and the voters took notice. Forget the hyper-kinetic campaign of 2008, where candidates make endless pleas for votes. Fred probably would have disliked McKinley's front porch campaign of 1896. "What...another group of people are out front? Give me a break!"

Personally, I don't hold this against him. Campaigning seems like it would be a drudgery, doesn't it? Watching C-SPAN on the weekends has been instructive for me. They show unedited feeds of campaign speeches, and the glad-handing that follows. I would not want to do what those candidates do. They give the same speech day in and day out. They facilitate the traveling press corps - a pack of jackals who would delight in tearing them to shreds. They talk endlessly with voters, which I wager is more of a chore than it might first appear. Americans are mind-bogglingly opinionated when it comes to politics. We are convinced of the veracity and rectitude of our preferences, and we have no problem giving others an earful of our consequential utterings. Especially candidates. It's our right, damnit - and we have no bones about exercising it.

Fred obviously had no taste for any this. So, he half-assed it. He didn't campaign in a new way, via new media and all that. Instead, he campaigned the old way, but did a lousy job by it. Eventually, we all caught on. And his numbers dropped. And dropped. And dropped.

And one day late last year, he realized that voters no longer saw him as viable. They agreed with him on the issues, for sure - but they weren't going to vote for him. He went from frontrunner to another victim of the Catch-22! He responded by campaigning non-stop - but by then, he was already in that horrible circle. He couldn't win over voters because they thought he couldn't win over voters. That is how a man of his conservative bona fides could meet his end in South Carolina.

Or as an astute emailer put it: "I was a Thompson supporter. Unfortunately, I supported him more than he did."

All in all, I think Fred embarrassed himself a little bit. Not by running and losing. Lots of people run for the presidency, lose the race, and retain their reputation. But his decision to run was ill-advised. He did not have it in him - and he wrongly thought he did.

Final point. While many things are possible in politics - I think it is extremely unlikely that Fred will be chosen as a vice-presidential nominee. Can the Republican nominee be certain that Fred will do what it takes to win? Of course not. Sure, Fred could help bring the party together. But lots of people can do that from a vice-presidential spot. So, why take the risk?

-Jay Cost

Is McCain Inevitable?

James Madison had nothing to do with the Republican nomination system. Nevertheless, it bears his imprint. Madisonianism is deeply ingrained in the American political consciousness. When we invent new political institutions, as both parties did in the 1970s when they redesigned their nominating schemes, our inventions often bear the mark of the Father of the Constitution.

Madison saw the government as a mediator of factions, none of which can be expected to have the national interest at heart. Therefore, a true republican government must prevent one faction from imposing its narrow interests upon the whole. This is why our system has so many "checks and balances." They enable one faction to stop another when its interests are threatened. Madison's thinking was that this kind of system would ensure that the national interest was never sacrificed for factional gains.

The rules governing how the Republican Party selects a presidential nominee reflect this Madisonian objective. Consider:

(1) A broad base of people may factor into the nominating system. In some places, anybody can vote. In other places, only Republicans can.

(2) Voters have an important, but limited, role in selecting the next nominee. They do not directly choose the nominee. Instead, they choose delegates who choose the nominee (in some states, they choose delegates who choose delegates who choose the nominee!). In most cases, delegates only have limited obligations to the votes of their states. Many delegates have no obligation at all.

(3) The manner of choosing delegates is diverse. Some are chosen based upon the primary/caucus results in congressional districts, and some based upon statewide results. Some are selected by winner-take-all rules, some by proportional rules, some by state conventions, and some by virtue of their role in the RNC.

(4) A candidate must win an outright majority of delegates to become the nominee. Nobody can win by appealing to a narrow slice of the party - be it ideological, demographic, or geographical.

(5) This is largely a bottom-up system. State parties and governments have the biggest say in how delegates are chosen - the RNC simply establishes basic guidelines.

So when we look closely, the seemingly quirky nature of the nomination process reveals its Madisonian roots. Candidates need to build broad coalitions to win. When they fail to do that, disenchanted minorities can slow or even stop the nomination of a candidate who lacks universal appeal.

Now that he is the frontrunner, this is the problem that confronts John McCain. In every previous cycle in the modern era - the Republican who wins South Carolina wins the nomination. A big reason is that the victory in the South, the heart of the Republican's general election strength, signals who the favored candidate is. The rest of the candidates eventually recognize this, and they bow out. McCain won South Carolina, and he is better positioned now than he was a week ago - but the race is not over.

McCain is staunchly opposed by a vocal group of conservatives who view him as an unreliable maverick. You can hear their most prominent advocate on the radio every weekday from noon to three eastern. You can see them in the exit polls, which show that McCain has not yet won a (statistically significant) plurality of Republican voters, nor those who consider themselves "very conservative." In years past, opposition to the Republican frontrunner tends to fade away after South Carolina, with the supporters of the loser accepting that their guy can't prevail and reconciling themselves with the victor. But that does not seem to be happening this year. There is a faction of the party that seems unwilling to accept McCain. It might be able to stop him.

It should be clear from the nomination rules that somebody could find enough delegates to oppose McCain on the convention floor - even if he did not offer a serious challenge early in the process. From the unpledged delegates, to the delegates allocated by conventions, proportional allocation, and the congressional district delegates - there are a lot of ways to win convention support even as somebody else "wins" states. Eventually, an opposition candidate would have to break through with outright victories. He cannot win the Republican nomination underground - but the way delegates are allocated could keep the race close until he breaks through. Importantly, about 65% of South Carolina voters preferred somebody other than John McCain. This tracks with his standing in the national polls. So, the anti-McCain faction might have an audience - if it can find a candidate to rally behind. Also of importance: 95% of all delegates have yet to be allocated. And even after Super Tuesday, 45% will remain to be allocated. The faction has time to make its case.

I am not saying it will be successful. McCain has a very strong chance to win the nomination. One feather in his cap is that opposition to him does not cut cleanly along any ideological line. Rick Santorum is vehemently opposed to him, but Tom Coburn just endorsed him. Another asset is that the Republican delegate allocation system is much less charitable to losers than the Democratic scheme - this gives the opposition less time to get its act together.

My point is simply that the opposition to McCain could prove to be important. For better or worse, the old maverick from Arizona has inspired intense opposition in some quarters. In a nomination system such as this - that opposition might ultimately be able to stop him.

With McCain as the frontrunner - the way to look at this nomination battle should shift. Most of us had written McCain off last summer - so we were not expecting him to precipitate an ideological battle. If anything, we were expecting some kind of bottom-up opposition to Giuliani - with party elites accepting his candidacy, and rank-and-file pro-lifers rejecting it. The rise of McCain scrambles all of this. There is an ideological conflict brewing in the GOP - but not the one we thought we would see. This means that the way we have looked at nominations over the last few cycles does not hold. I think this contest could be longer than many have intuited - and the results in Florida could determine exactly who emerges as the "anti-McCain" candidate.

Do not expect the press to catch this dynamic. It understands the here-and-now of contemporary politics much better than the forces and institutions that have guided it for decades. One effect of its misunderstanding will come on Super Tuesday, which it will treat just like the general election. That evening, it is going to focus relentlessly and exclusively on who wins which states - as if delegates are allocated like Electoral College electors. Do not get caught up with this, regardless of how splashily it is staged. With the prospect of a McCain candidacy, and the ideological divergence it implies - this is not the best way to analyze Super Tuesday, even though it is an important aspect. We also need to wait until the next day to see how the delegates are meted out - that will indicate just where this race is going to go.

If McCain were a consensus candidate - like Bob Dole in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2000 - I would say that his victory in South Carolina, combined with his lead in the national polls, would be sufficient for the nomination. Florida would offer a final validation - and that would be it. But McCain is not this candidate. He has serious, entrenched opposition - and in a system such as ours, entrenched oppositions are given opportunities to stop something from happening. I do not know if it can stop McCain, but I expect it to try.

-Jay Cost

On Yesterday's Results

Democrats in Nevada

How did Hillary Clinton win Nevada? We'll look at the Nevada entrance polls to get a sense. Note that these show a slightly larger margin of victory than the results you have seen on television and the Internet. There are three reasons. First, the published results are really counts of delegates to the state convention. The Nevada Democratic Party is not releasing actual vote counts. Second, there was a 15% viability threshold that might have influenced delegate counts; for instance, caucus goers who came to vote for John Edwards might not have had a chance to win their guy some delegates. Third, the entrance poll is exactly that - a poll. It has a margin of error just like any other.

With these caveats, there are some interesting observations we can make about the Nevada results. Generally, Clinton won in Nevada because she retained the voting coalition that she formed in New Hampshire.


- Once again, Clinton carried a strong majority of female voters, who also constituted an overwhelming majority of caucus-goers. She won them 51% to 38%, and they made up 59% of the vote. This basically mimics her success in New Hampshire.

- She expanded her lead among Catholic voters. In New Hampshire, she won them by 17 points. In Nevada, she won them by 27 points. In Nevada as in New Hampshire, Obama and Clinton split Protestants.

- She won voters who consider the economy their top concern by 9 points in both Nevada and New Hampshire. She once again won a solid victory among voters who make less than $50,000. In New Hampshire, it was by 15 points. In Nevada, it was by 12 points.

As she won the vote by a larger margin in Nevada than she did in New Hampshire - it stands to reason that she expanded upon this basic voting coalition. Indeed, she did. Here is how:

- She cut into Obama's share of the male vote. Obama defeated Clinton among men by 11 points in New Hampshire. In Nevada, he beat her by just 2 points.

- She did well among Hispanic voters, winning them by 38 points. But Obama won African Americans by 69 points. Interestingly, Hispanics and African Americans both constituted 15% of entrance poll respondents. So, Clinton's win among Hispanics was more than matched by Obama's win among African Americans.

- Older voters seemed to have comprised a larger share of the vote in Nevada, and Clinton won them by a larger margin than she did in the Granite State. Voters 60 and older were 36% of the electorate in Nevada, and Clinton won them by 29 points. In New Hampshire, voters 65 and older made up 13% of the vote, and Clinton won them by 16 points.

- Clinton won a much larger share of white voters. In New Hampshire, she won them by just 3 points. In Nevada, she won them by 18 points.

- Clinton improved her totals among voters who make more than $50,000 per year. Obama won them by 5 points in New Hampshire; Clinton won them by 5 points in Nevada.

Once again, it appears that Hillary Clinton won by turning out a traditional Democratic voting coalition: Catholics, women, and "downscale" Democrats. This time, she added to this coalition with strong showings among Hispanics, whites, men, and "upscale" voters.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that Obama is able to take a solid portion of the core Democratic vote - notably African Americans. This is good news for Obama in the short term. If you take these demographic preferences to South Carolina, Obama will probably win because each group's share of the vote shifts. For instance, Hispanics are not a major factor in South Carolina, and African Americans are a much greater factor. This alone would probably yield Obama a victory next week.

But in the long run, my feeling is that a replication of Nevada's result would give Clinton great success on Super Tuesday. The real concern for Obama should be the shift of white voters to Clinton. It remains to be seen whether this is sustainable (we saw nothing like this in Iowa or New Hampshire). If it is, Obama is in real trouble.

Final point. I mentioned in my write-up of the New Hampshire results that we do not yet have a handle on union voters. They broke for Clinton in New Hampshire, but they split equally between Clinton and Obama in Iowa. Nevada reflects the Iowa results. Clinton won voters from union households by 9 points in New Hampshire. She won them by just a point in Nevada. Much of the difference here surely has to do with Obama's endorsements from big Nevada unions - but that is precisely the point: we don't know whether, or even if, union voters are going to break one way or the other on Super Tuesday.

Republicans in South Carolina

If demography has been key in the Democratic races, ideology seems to be the difference maker in the Republican contests. This should come as no surprise, given that the differences among Democrats have been tonal and the differences among Republicans have been issue-based.

How did McCain win? Simple. He did exactly what he did in New Hampshire. Namely:

- He won a big victory among voters who disapprove of the Bush administration. In South Carolina, he won them by 13 points over Huckabee. In New Hampshire, he won them by 14 points over Romney.

- He put together a coalition of moderate and slightly conservative voters. He won moderates by 30 points in South Carolina, and by 17 points in New Hampshire. He won those who call themselves "somewhat conservative" by 2 points in South Carolina, and by 3 points in New Hampshire. Huckabee won those who are "very conservative" by 22 points in South Carolina; Romney won them by 25 points in New Hampshire.

- He split self-identified Republicans with Huckabee. He won 31%, Huckabee won 32%. In New Hampshire, the results were basically identical. Romney won 35%, McCain won 34%.

- He won self-identified Independents by 17 points in South Carolina. In New Hampshire, he won them by 13 points.

Huckabee's strength was clearly among self-identified evangelicals. They made up 55% of the electorate, and he won them by 16 points. Unfortunately for him, he lost non-evangelicals by 25 points. He actually finished fourth among non-evangelicals, behind Romney and Thompson (though the differences among the three are statistically insignificant). This is a sign that Huckabee's campaign has not successfully expanded beyond the core voters that it first wooed in Iowa. The following was a telling indicator of that. Despite the fact that Huckabee has run on a "populist" message, he and McCain split voters who identify the economy as their biggest concern, 32% to 32%.

Another point. It is hard to argue that a more vigorous campaign by Romney would have stopped McCain. It appears that Huckabee took over the position Romney had in New Hampshire with strong conservatives and Bush administration approvers. As a matter of fact, Huckabee's loss was probably due in part to the fact that Thompson was in the race. Thompson did relatively well among those who support Bush and among the "strong conservatives." Adding another candidate who makes the same appeal probably would have only helped McCain.

What we thus have in the Republican Party is the makings of a plurality coalition in which a prominent portion - namely, strong conservatives - is not fully a part. McCain has managed to win twice even though he has not won over strong conservatives. Can this continue? I am not sure - though I surely think South Carolina's confirmation of the New Hampshire vote strengthens his hand.

It will be interesting to see how high-profile conservative leaders react. I am sure they will not take this victory as the end of the race. They can hang their hats on this: if there had been a single "conservative" candidate in South Carolina, he might have defeated McCain. There was a split between McCain, Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson among "very conservative" voters. If there had been just a single "conservative" candidate to oppose him - McCain might have lost.

-Jay Cost

Can Mitt Catch On?

Romney's win in Michigan keeps his candidacy alive - but what are the odds that he will win the nomination? I'm not sure, but they are much reduced from what they were six months ago.

Early last year, the Romney campaign put together a plan that - if it panned out - would probably have won him the nomination. The idea was for Romney to build a huge war chest that would enable him to compete everywhere. He would then win Iowa and New Hampshire, emerge as the consensus Republican candidate, and overwhelm the rest of the field.

But the plan backfired. Romney lost Iowa, and then he lost New Hampshire. Accordingly, he is not the consensus candidate of the party. Far from it. While he has a toehold in the GOP electorate, that's all he has. The recent Pew poll offers cross-tabs that tell the story in vivid detail. Even though the poll was completed before the Michigan primary, there is still a good bit to learn from it:

Pew Poll.jpg

Huckabee's strength is with evangelicals. McCain's strength is with self-identified moderates and liberals; he is also strong among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Romney wins a solid portion of self-identified conservatives - but he is in a three-way statistical tie with Huckabee and McCain for their support. Clearly, he has not yet broken through with either demographic - be it ideological or religious. You could also slice the party by income - and you would see the same result. McCain dominates; Huckabee has a fair share; Romney has not broken through.

I think this is why Romney is skipping South Carolina. With the current alignment of the vote - Romney cannot expect to win a sufficient slice of the South Carolina electorate. His victory in Michigan might have shifted things in his favor (we'll know in a few days) - but obviously not enough to put South Carolina in play for him.

So, what is Romney's angle on the nomination? He heads to Nevada and wins that state's uncontested caucus. This keeps him viable until Florida, regardless of what happens in South Carolina. He then gives Florida everything he's got.

Will it work? I don't know. He has another potential problem.

Why is it that most primary candidates refuse to run sustained, intense negative campaigns? The answer is that everybody is basically on the same side. An attacking candidate has to be careful about his opponent's core supporters. He runs the risk of alienating them - and they might ultimately refuse to support him after their guy drops out of the race. Romney might find himself in that situation. His attacks on McCain and Huckabee have been as sustained and intense as any this cycle. And there is evidence that this has damaged him with the Mac and Huck factions.

The Pew poll found that Romney's net favorable rating among these voters is not very strong: just +7% among McCain voters, and a whopping -9% among Huckabee voters. Of course, the sample sizes informing these statistics are small - but they are large enough to validate this modest conclusion: Romney is relatively weak among Huckabee and McCain supporters. For comparative purposes: McCain is +30% among Huckabee supporters; Huckabee is +15% among McCain supporters; Giuliani is an eye-popping +69% among McCain supporters, and +33% among Huckabee supporters. [A problem Romney will confront if he wins the GOP nomination: he has a net -12% favorable rating among the general electorate. I'd wager this is also a consequence of the negative tenor of his campaign in recent months.]

This could create problems for Romney in Florida, depending on how things turn out in South Carolina. Following Pew, it does not seem that Romney is the second choice of a plurality of Huckabee voters or McCain voters. The situation in Florida might be different than what Pew finds on the national level, but I doubt it is significantly so. My sense is that if Floridians bolt Huckabee after he loses South Carolina - a plurality will go to McCain, not Romney. Similarly, if they bolt McCain - a plurality will go to Giuliani, not Romney. Generally, Pew and other pollsters have found Romney in third or fourth place when it comes to second choices. Pew also finds that 20% of Republicans will never vote for Romney, making him more "unacceptable" than McCain or Giuliani.

In light of this, I think that what Romney needs is a nominal Huckabee (or Thompson) victory in South Carolina. It would keep the field as open as possible. If the Florida electorate is split four or five ways, Romney might be able to pull out a victory based on his current coalition - thus giving him an opportunity to expand it in advance of Super Tuesday.

Ironically, Giuliani is in the same position. This is one of the strangest features of this year's race. Romney has competed everywhere, Giuliani has competed nowhere - but they are both stuck in the middle and in need of an open field.

-Jay Cost

On the Michigan Results

Romney's victory last night was decisive. Let's dig into the exit poll results a little bit to see how he pulled it off.

First off, Romney won in Michigan the same groups he won in New Hampshire. The difference was that he won them by wider margins. Consider:

- In New Hampshire, Romney won voters who support the Bush administration, 37% to 32% for McCain. In Michigan, he improved upon that margin, 45% to 24%.

- In New Hampshire, he split Republicans with McCain, 35% to 34%. In Michigan, he won them decisively, 41% to 27%.

- Independents went for McCain last night, 35% to 29%. But they went for him more strongly in New Hampshire, 40% to 27%. Plus, Independents made up just 25% of the vote last night, compared to 37% in New Hampshire.

- In New Hampshire, Romney won those who identified themselves as "very conservative," 43% to 18%. In Michigan, he won them, 48% to 11%.

- Romney improved upon his support among those who identified themselves as "somewhat conservative." McCain won them in New Hampshire, 38% to 35%. In Michigan, Romney won them, 35% to 32%.

But not all the news is fantastic for Romney.

Last night, the McCain campaign was spinning its loss as a consequence of the fact that Romney is a "favorite son." There is evidence to support this claim. 42% of respondents in the exit poll reported that Romney's ties to the state were important factors in their vote choice. Romney won those voters decisively, 58% to 17%. Meanwhile, 56% of voters said that his ties to the state were not important factors. Interestingly, McCain won those voters, 39% to 23%.

I think this data should induce restraint. We should be careful not to over-interpret these results. Clearly, Romney's win was decisive enough to keep him in the race. But it is also clear that he received a sizeable boost from his ties to the Wolverine State. How much of a boost - we cannot know for sure. Accordingly, we cannot say whether these results are an omen of things to come.

Another factor of critical importance in Romney's victory was the economy. Romney's message in the last few days was tailored to the economic concerns of Michigan. It seemed to work. In New Hampshire, McCain won voters who said the economy was their most important concern, 41% to 21%. In Michigan, Romney won them, 42% to 29%.

This probably gives the Romney team some insight on what to say next - perhaps this economic message will work in the other states. John McIntyre's essay from December seems prescient to me now: with Huckabee on his right flank, and McCain on his left - Romney can run as the down-the-middle conservative. His message? The economy.

Of course, Michigan voters were more concerned about the economy than others. For instance, 31% of New Hampshire exit poll respondents listed the economy as their primary concern, but in Michigan it was a whopping 55%. And, what is more, Romney's appeal on the economy might be limited to Michigan. He ran on an explicit promise to revitalize the auto industry.

I wonder if there is a connection here. Does Romney's specific, auto industry pitch connect his Michigan ties to his strength on the economy? Was the average Michigander thinking, "I'm concerned about the economy - and I'm voting for Romney because I know he won't forget us!" This would be an easy hypothesis to test if the networks provided raw data - which they don't. So all we can do is speculate.

We can approach the economy issue from another angle. According to the exit poll, Romney won areas outside metro Detroit, 35% to 33%. He won metro Detroit, 42% to 29%. Most of his strength came in Oakland and Macomb counties. The exit poll reports that he took them 46% to 28%. In 2000, McCain beat Bush in Oakland and Macomb - 50% to 45%. Metro Detroit is the area hardest hit hit by the auto slump - and thus most susceptible to Romney's economic appeal.

What can we conclude from this? Clearly, Romney won a decisive victory. Just as clearly, some portion of this win was due to his special connection with the state as well as its special economic circumstances. Unfortunately, it is not possible to quantify exactly what portion this was. Thus, I think the fair conclusion is that Romney's win keeps him viable moving forward, but it probably does not give him any special advantage. As Tom Bevan has pointed out on the RCP Blog - the same can be said for Huckabee's win in Iowa and McCain's win in New Hampshire. They were, in many respects, consequences of "specialty" appeals that are not necessarily generalizable. I think the same goes for Romney's victory last night.

A final point on the Republican results. The exit polling data offers some counter-intuitive evidence about who is being helped by the conduct of the Iraq war. In New Hampshire, Romney won voters who approve of the Iraq war, 37% to 33%. McCain won those who disapprove, 44% to 19%. These basic results were replicated in Michigan. Romney won approvers, 42% to 27%. McCain won disapprovers, 36% to 29%.

These results are, I think, a blow to the idea that McCain did so well in New Hampshire because of the surge in force levels. They also may foretell trouble for McCain in South Carolina - even though he was an early and strong supporter of the surge, he does not seem to be getting a great deal of credit for it.

As for the Democratic side - the big story is Hillary Clinton losing the African American vote to "uncommitted." The exit poll pegged African Americans going against Clinton, 68% to 30%. It appears that opposition by African Americans induced a split in Wayne County (where Detroit is), 50% to Hillary, 45% to uncommitted. People in the media are going to connect these results to the racial kerfuffle of the last few days - and they are partially right to do so. But I think there is more to it than this. Since his Iowa victory, Obama's numbers among African American voters have been trending upward. Tonight's results are another indication that African Americans are breaking his way. The Clinton campaign should be worried about this. It appears as if Obama might be able to take an important part of the traditional Democratic coalition. He is thus moving beyond the relatively narrow appeal of previous "insurgent" Democratic candidates like Bill Bradley and Gary Hart. This is bad news for Clinton.

-Jay Cost

Looking ahead to the Republican Convention

As the Republican race is still wide open, I thought it time to review how delegates to the Republican National Convention will be allocated this year. There has been talk about a "brokered convention." And while I think that there will probably be a clear nominee come September 1, 2008 - the probability of a convention fight is much greater than it has been in the last thirty years. Accordingly, we are well advised to get a lay of the land, to see exactly how the GOP convention might proceed if there is no clear winner.

We will look at three relevant features: how delegates to the convention are chosen, what are the factors that could cause a brokered convention, and how a deal could be worked out if there is no clear nominee.

Delegate Selection

First off, the Republican presidential nominee is chosen by delegates who vote by ballot. These delegates have been selected to attend the national convention - most of them are directly determined by state primary and caucus results. To win the nomination, a candidate must win a majority of the 2,380 delegates in attendance. That means the first to get 1,191 delegates wins.

There are four types of delegates to the Republican National Convention. The first type consists of elected members of the Republican National Committee (RNC). Each state is allocated three such delegates. Second, each state gets three delegates for every congressional district. Third, each state gets ten "at large" delegates. Fourth, each state gets "bonus" delegates added to their at large delegation based upon how Republican the state has voted recently. [Note that United States territories like Puerto Rico and Guam also receive at large and RNC delegates.]

So, put all of these rules together - and we get a result like the following.

California has 173 delegates to send to the convention. That is:

- 3 delegates from the RNC

- 10 at large delegates

- 53 congressional districts X 3 delegates per congressional districts = 159 district delegates

- 1 bonus delegate because it reelected Governor Schwarzenegger in 2006

Pennsylvania has 74 delegates to send to the convention. That is:

- 3 delegates from the RNC

- 10 at large delegates

- 19 congressional districts X 3 delegates per congressional district = 57 district delegates

- 1 bonus delegate for U.S. senator + 1 bonus delegate because a majority of its House delegation from 2004 through 2007 was Republican + 1 bonus delegate for state house control + 1 bonus delegate for state senate control = 4 bonus delegates

A convention would be "brokered" if, on the first ballot, no candidate wins a majority of delegates. In that situation, another ballot would be taken to find a majority winner. And another ballot and another and another until one candidate has won a majority. The term "brokered" refers to the need for a settlement to be brokered among candidates, delegates, and party leaders. If no candidate is the majority winner, a deal will need to be worked out to induce some delegates to change their votes.

What Could Cause a Brokered Convention?

Obviously, the critical factor for a brokered convention is a situation in which no candidate has a majority of delegates. This is why I would wager the Republicans are more likely to have a brokered convention than the Democrats. If delegates are split in just two ways, between Clinton and Obama, then there is only one situation in which a brokered convention could occur: a strict numerical tie. Of course, if Edwards has delegates - there would be other ways for a stalemate to occur; however, the fewer delegates he has won, the less likely such a situation would be. If, on the other hand, delegates are split between Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson - a brokered convention is much more likely to occur.

Another important factor is how delegates are allocated. An interesting development in the Republican Party over the last few years has been a movement from winner-take-all delegate allocation schemes to proportional allocation. This makes a big difference - in a winner-take-all contest, the winner of the primary or caucus wins all of the delegates. The losers win nothing. Accordingly, the probability of a brokered condition decreases as the gap between winners and losers increases.

This year, however, the Republican Party has twelve states where at large and congressional district delegates are chosen by proportional representation. What is more, seven states have a mix of winner-take-all and proportional rules. For instance, Alabama's delegates are allocated winner-take-all if the winner receives over 50% of the vote. If he does not, the delegates are allocated proportionally. Meanwhile, twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia allocate their at large and congressional district delegates on a winner-take all basis, and eleven states select their delegates at state conventions or something similar. This means that, in many states, candidates who lose the statewide vote can win delegates - thus giving them a better chance to scrap together enough supporters to make a run at the nomination.

A third factor that could contribute to a brokered convention is the fact that many states allocate congressional district delegates based on who won the congressional district - not who won the state. Ohio, for instance, allocates its 10 at large and 21 bonus delegates based on who wins the most votes in Ohio. But it allocates its 54 congressional district delegates based on who won which congressional districts. So, once again, a candidate who lost the statewide vote could still win a few delegates from Ohio because he won congressional districts.

Resolving the Dispute

Suppose that these factors make it so that no candidate wins a majority of delegates. What would happen next? Obviously, a deal would have to be worked out between candidates, party leaders, and delegates - but the contours of such an agreement would probably not resemble the ones brokered in the "smoke-filled" rooms. In the modern era - many delegates are bound to primary and caucus votes. That is, they are sent to the convention forced, in one way or another, to vote the way their state voted.

Out of the 2,380 delegates sent to Minneapolis St. Paul - 1,729 of them will be bound in some formal way (this figure excludes Ohio, Washington, North Carolina, and the Virgin Islands, whose delegates are "morally bound," "unofficially bound," or "requested" to vote for their candidate). These break down in the following way:

- 463 delegates will be bound through the convention.

- 565 delegates will be bound through one ballot. That is, they have to follow the results of the state election on the first ballot. After that, if no candidate has a majority of delegates, they are free to vote as they please.

- 383 will be bound through two ballots.

- 318 will be bound through three ballots.

The remaining 651 are not bound in a formal way. They can vote however they want from the first ballot.

What effect will this system have? My intuition is that it might make it harder to resolve a dispute prior to the convention. The Republicans will finish allocating delegates sometime in late June. So, we should know by then if no candidate has won a majority of delegates. However, how could the various factions work out an agreement that can be implemented before the convention? They might be able to - but it will be harder because many delegates actually have to cast at least one ballot for their initial candidates (unless they are released by a candidate who withdraws - and it is unlikely that a candidate with a significant batch of delegates would withdraw before the convention). What is more, candidates might be interested in waiting to see how the unbound delegates behave in the first few ballots to get a sense of their full strength. They might also be willing to wait until the fourth ballot to see if they can pick up any of the formerly bound delegates. All of this could complicate a pre-convention deal in a whole host of ways: strategic candidates might prefer to wait for a few rounds of balloting to see where they stand.

Another complicating factor is that patronage is no longer an emollient. For instance, how would you "buy off" 500 or so die-hard Romney delegates? In this age, the party lacks patronage resources to give them consolation prizes. And, for that matter, Romney delegates would probably not want anything except a Romney nomination. It is unclear to me how one candidate could negotiate any deals except by offering the vice-presidency to one of the losers - which probably would do little good if the delegates are split roughly equal among three or more candidates. It is easy to envision a cycle. The Romney people buy off the Guiliani people by making Guiliani the vice-presidential nominee. That leaves the McCain people out in the cold, so they offer Guliani the presidential nomination if he makes McCain the secretary of state. The Romney people respond by offering McCain the top spot if Romney can have the veep position. And so on.

All in all, if there is no clear delegate winner in the summer, and a deal needs to be brokered - I expect it to look very different from those hammered out in the classic brokered conventions of the past.

-Jay Cost

How Do You Solve a Problem Like McCain?

Update, 1/21/08: John McCain's win in South Carolina has placed him in a strong position to win the Republican Party's nomination. However, he still faces an important obstacle: opposition from conservative leaders. I think this opposition could create an interesting dynamic over the coming weeks. Accordingly, I thought it worthwhile to republish this essay, which was originally offered last week.


Since his win in New Hampshire, many have come to view John McCain as the Republican frontrunner. He has a lead in the RCP national average, and he is the favorite at InTrade's future's market.

I think this talk is a bit hasty. Most obviously, McCain and Romney are tied in Michigan - and the polls over the last three weeks have been largely conditioned by who has won. So, who knows how the Michigan results will influence South Carolina and the rest of the nation.

There is another reason I am hesitant about this bandwagon. I think that the problem that nearly destroyed his candidacy last summer is still there - and it could yet do him in. The problem? Conservative leaders do not care for his candidacy.

Before I get into this, I need to clarify a common misconception. Many people wrongly assume that average voters are as ideological as party leaders (broadly defined to include elected party members, prominent personalities in the party, and ideologues on op/ed pages and in opinion journals). They are not. In fact, the highest estimate I have seen for the percentage of the public that thinks ideologically is 30%. And many of those people think in an effectively ideological manner - e.g. they use the information they get from trusted opinion makers to formulate opinions on inter-related issues.

This means that McCain is probably more acceptable to rank-and-file Republicans than we might initially think. For instance, according to the New Hampshire exit poll, McCain won voters who identified themselves as "somewhat conservative," 38% to 35%. Romney won those who identified themselves as "very conservative," 43% to 18%. These results are consistent with the previous paragraph. Romney won the strong ideologues. McCain won the weak ideologues.

McCain's problem has more to do with conservative leaders than the rank and file. You probably have picked up on this impressionistically. National Review endorsed Romney. Rush Limbaugh has been openly critical of McCain's candidacy. Human Events is no longer the significant intellectual force it was three decades ago - but I thought it was telling that it endorsed Thompson after McCain won New Hampshire.

If you examined McCain only on paper, this would surprise you. By many metrics, he is the classic Republican frontrunner. He has been in Congress for more than 25 years. He was on Bob Dole's vice-presidential short list. He was the runner-up in the 2000 contest. He has a lifetime American Conservative Union (ACU) rating of 82.3. Above all, he has great credibility on two issues that will be important in November, the Iraq war and the war on terror.

Nevertheless, opinion makers do not much care for his candidacy. Apparently, neither does the Republican congressional caucus. Examining congressional endorsements for McCain and Romney, excluding in-state supporters (as they often act more out of home state pride than ideological proximity), we find some interesting results. 34 Republicans have endorsed Mitt Romney, while just 24 have endorsed McCain. Furthermore, Romney's supporters are more in line with conservative opinion. Their average 2006 ACU rating was 84.1, and 26 of them come from states Bush won in 2004. Meanwhile, the average 2006 ACU rating for McCain's supporters is 70.7, and just 12 of them come from Bush states. In light of McCain's résumé, this is consequential. He should have locked up most members of the Republican caucus, but he has not.

I believe that McCain's long-standing disagreements with conservative leaders could hurt him moving forward, just as it hurt him in the summer. One of his big problems is that viability is partially a subjective assessment. It has a complex relationship with likeability: people tend to view candidates they like as more likely to win the nomination, and they tend to like candidates the more they think they can win the nomination.

I think this contributed to the McCain "implosion" last July. The demise of his candidacy was quite overstated. Lots of campaigns have staff shakeups and money problems. But McCain's troubles were taken as a sure sign he was finished. I think that shows how likeability can affect viability. Conservative leaders were more inclined to write McCain off because they do not like him. They stopped talking about him, and the voters stopped considering him a viable alternative.

As we all know, McCain stuck it out - and New Hampshire delivered him a big win. He is now back at the top of the polls. But, I wonder whether he will once again be undone by the tense relationship with conservative leaders. I see two potential problems.

First, should McCain lose Michigan on Tuesday, he might be criticized more harshly than a mainstream conservative candidate would. Look, for instance, at Romney - who, despite having lost Iowa and New Hampshire, is still considered viable by many leaders. It is unlikely that McCain would enjoy that kind of charity should he lose Michigan or any subsequent state. This gives him a smaller margin for error.

Second, I think the prospect of a McCain nomination gives his mainstream opponents a wider margin for error. I do not think that McCain can end the nomination battle with wins in Michigan and South Carolina. Because conservative leaders dislike him, I think they might "rediscover" a viable alternative to him. Romney, Thompson, or even Giuliani could be brought back to life in a final effort to stop McCain. This would not happen if he was more acceptable to conservative leaders. Again, I think this is a big part of what is keeping Romney alive right now. No candidate in the modern era has made such a try for Iowa and New Hampshire, lost them both by wide margins, and gone on to win the nomination. The fact that many leaders are still holding out hope that Romney can win is, I think, a testament to how much McCain rubs them the wrong way.

By themselves, conservative leaders cannot stop McCain. The liberalization of the nomination process has left the upper echelons of both parties less able to determine directly who wins. However, they have indirect power. They can influence which candidates are seen by the voters to be credible candidates. Through their dialogue with one another as well as their direct communications to the public - they help establish voter expectations, and therefore the range of viable alternatives voters perceive. The more they talk up a candidate's viability, the more viable he becomes. The less they talk it up, the less viable he becomes. This is the power to set the agenda. Conservative leaders could help take McCain off the agenda if he falters, or they could help to place an opponent on the agenda to stop him.

Final point. Everything that has been written here applies to Mike Huckabee all the more. Huckabee is even more unacceptable to conservative leaders (he has the endorsement of only three out-of-state Republican members of Congress). His campaign even seems to be courting their contempt. McCain, to his credit, has worked hard since the immigration bill not to thumb his nose at conservative leaders. But not Huckabee. And I think that they would only accept Huckabee's nomination after he has won a majority of delegates. Until then, they'll find somebody, anybody to oppose him.

-Jay Cost

Clinton v. Obama: Moving Forward

I have been doing some digging into the numbers out of Iowa and New Hampshire - and the data I have found indicates that the Democratic nomination battle could be extremely tight.

It is common for scholars, academics, and number-crunchers to review vote results by demographic category - and to construct a story about how the winner actually won. I engaged in a bit of this on Wednesday, arguing that Clinton won New Hampshire by pulling together a traditional Democratic voting coalition. This is how most frontrunning Democrats have won the nomination - and, so I labeled it the "FDR Coalition" or the "Mondale Coalition." This is the coalition you learned about in your civics classes. Union workers, Catholics, African-Americans, lower-income voters, etc. Clinton pulled a good-sized chunk of these voters together, combined it with her overwhelming success among female voters, and got a solid win in New Hampshire.

A very impressive one, I hasten to add. New Hampshire is a quirky state. It has a habit of voting for insurgent candidates who appeal to more upscale, educated, professional class Democrats. I'm thinking in particular here of Gary Hart, who won New Hampshire in 1984. For Clinton to win in New Hampshire with the "Mondale Coalition" is something that Mondale himself did not do!

A quick review of the upcoming states can give us a sense of just how powerful this coalition can be.

The following table reviews the union members by percent of working population in the Super Tuesday states, plus Iowa and New Hampshire thrown in for comparative purposes. It excludes New York and Illinois, presuming that they will go heavily for their home state candidates. It also lists "pledged" delegates, i.e. those delegates who are allocated based upon performances in the primaries/caucuses. Finally, it includes an asterisk to identify caucus/conventions, and a plus sign to identify closed primaries not open to Independents.


As you can see, unions will matter on February 5th. Remember that union members tend to be Democrats. They also tend to be reliable voters. So, the actual percentages of union voters in each contest will be higher than those listed here. Note that they are more prominent in delegate-rich states like California, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. If Clinton can win unions as strongly as she did in New Hampshire, she will be in good shape.

A similar story can be told about the Catholic population, which also broke decisively for Clinton in New Hampshire. The following chart delineates Super Tuesday states by the percentage of the population that is Catholic.


Note the same features. Delegate-heavy states tend also to have many Catholics. And, once again, Catholics tend to be disproportionately Democratic - so their numbers in the primaries will probably be greater than those represented here. The candidate who wins a plurality of the Catholic vote will be well positioned indeed.

And what about lower income voters? The follow table reviews Super Tuesday states by the average median income for '05 to '06.

Median Income.jpg

As you can see, New Hampshire is wealthier than most Super Tuesday states. So, a candidate who wins voters whose incomes are less than $50,000 per year will probably do better overall than Clinton did in the Granite State.

This indicates to me that if Clinton can replicate the voting coalition she enjoyed in New Hampshire - she will all-but-clinch the nomination on Super Tuesday. I would expect her not just to win most states, but to win them by a wider margin. One of the big reasons is that, while Independents were a feather in Obama's cap in New Hampshire and Iowa - they are barred from voting in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, New York, and Oklahoma.

The key word in the last paragraph is "if." We cannot simply assume that Clinton will replicate this coalition. After all, she failed to do it in Iowa. This is actually one of the most interesting dynamics of this primary contest so far.

If we compare the New Hampshire exit polling data with the Iowa entrance polling data, we find a curious divergence. Consider the following table, which reviews the difference between Clinton and Obama among key demographic groups. So, for instance, Clinton won 46% of the female vote in New Hampshire to Obama's 34% - thus yielding the 12% statistic in the corresponding cell. Numbers that favor Obama are in boldface; numbers that favor Clinton are in itallics.

Clinton v Obama.jpg

This, to me, is truly stunning. Clinton won New Hampshire by winning groups that she lost in Iowa. This implies that it is over-simple to categorize Obama as an insurgent candidate who appeals to a wealthy-but-narrow slice of the Democratic electorate (ala Bill Bradley). Obama can win union voters, lower income voters, and women. He did it in Iowa. His victory there demonstrates that he has the capacity to put together a voting coalition composed of traditional Democrats.

Another important question: how will Obama do with African-Americans voters? They are of critical importance in the Super Tuesday states, as the following chart delineates (data courtesy of the 2006 Almanac of American Politics).

African American.jpg

African-American voters have been the most loyal members of the Democratic voting coalition for the last forty years. If Obama can win a strong portion of this vote - he could seriously damage Clinton's prospects.

Can he? We do not know yet. The African-American populations in Iowa and New Hampshire are, as the above chart shows, quite small - too small to infer how the nationwide population will break. Recent polling data suggests he may well be able to bring African-Americans into his coalition. Insider Advantage's recent poll of South Carolina found Obama beating Clinton among African-American voters 48.2% to 36.8%. Survey USA found Obama with an even larger lead. Both of these polls were conducted before the New Hampshire primary - so, it remains to be seen whether these leads are sustainable. [Unfortunately, Rasmussen's post-New Hampshire poll of South Carolina does not offer cross-tabs by race for cheapskates like myself!]

This indicates that South Carolina will be a crucial test of each candidate's viability ahead of February 5th. If Clinton can win the African-American vote - she will be well on her way to the nomination. On the other hand, look out for Obama if he wins that vote. There are some states on Super Tuesday where it could make an important difference.

South Carolina could also be a good test among lower-income white voters. It is a relatively poor state - and so it will be interesting to see how lower-income whites break.

Similarly, Nevada will be an important indicator. Clinton won the union vote in New Hampshire. Obama split it with her in Iowa. Nevada is a relatively unionized state - 14.8% of Nevada workers are unionized. This means that the Nevada returns could give us a clue as to how both candidates will do with union workers on Super Tuesday. The fact that Obama won the endorsement of Nevada's culinary workers' union, as well as the state's service employees union, is a testament to the fact that Obama does have the potential to carry large chunks of the traditional Democratic coalition.

The bottom line: Iowa and New Hampshire diverged in the fullest sense of the word. Not only did Iowa vote Obama and New Hampshire vote Clinton - identical demographic groups broke in opposite directions! This implies that the nomination contest is very much up in the air. The big question is who can put together more of the traditional Democratic voting coalition. Obama did in Iowa. Clinton did in New Hampshire.

There is, of course, an X-factor - momentum. The nomination is a dynamic process. What is interesting from these results is that voters may be slightly indifferent when it comes to these two candidates. That could explain why similar groups voted in different ways - and so the candidate on a "roll" might be the one to win over these groups. Thus, the outcome of February 5th might depend heavily upon the results of Nevada and South Carolina.

If you are interested in digging deeper into the primary battle (and, if you have gotten to the end of this essay, I'll wager you are!) - I encourage you to check out my two-part "Primer on Momentum" if you have not already. It can be found here and here. Unfortunately, it will not give you any hard answers. We just do not know enough about momentum to know when and where it will work. But it should give you a sense of how momentum can operate.

-Jay Cost

How Clinton Won

Hillary Clinton won last night by putting together the voting coalition that has held Democratic frontrunners in good stead for 75 years. Take a look at these numbers - all of which come from CNN's cross-tabulated exit polls. What you'll see is that Hillary Clinton won many elements of the traditional FDR coalition.

-Self-identified Democrats made up 54% of the electorate. She won them, 45% to 34%.

-She won voters without a college degree, 43% to 35%.

-She won voters with incomes less than $50,000, 47% to 32%.

-She won voters over the age of 65, 48% to 32%. She also won voters in their 40s (44% to 33%) and their 50s (39% to 30%).

-She won Catholics, 44% to 27%.

-She won urban voters, 43% to 35%. She won suburban voters, 42% to 35%.

-She won voters from union families, 40% to 31%.

-She won voters who said they have been "falling behind" economically, 43% to 33%.

-She won long-time voters, 38% to 33%.

Obama, on the other hand, had a very different electorate - one that has a bit in common with the insurgent candidacies of Gary Hart and Bill Bradley.

-He won Independents, 41% to 31%.

-He won voters with at least a college degree, 39% to 34%.

-He won voters who make more than $50,000, 40% to 35%.

-He won college age voters, 60% to 22%. He split voters in their late 20s, 35% to 37%. He won voters in their 30s, 43% to 36%.

-He split Protestant voters, 36% to 36%.

-He won rural voters, 39% to 34%.

-He split voters from non-union households, 39% to 38%.

-He won voters who said they were "getting ahead" economically, 48% to 31%.

-He won first time voters, 47% to 37%.

An additional ingredient to Clinton's success was a victory among female voters, 46% to 34%. Obama won male voters, 40% to 29%. But female voters outvoted male voters, 57% to 43%.

As I said, Clinton's is the type of electorate that has delivered Democrats the nomination again and again. These results remind me a great deal of the electorate that delivered Mondale the nomination in 1984 - noting, of course, the irony that Clinton won New Hampshire with this bloc and Mondale did not.

This suggests the model for Clinton moving forward: win by appealing to the traditional Democratic electorate. If she must fight Obama state-by-state, she would do well to reformulate this "Mondale Model" again and again.* This bloc of voters is more sizeable in other states.

Of course, what we do not yet know is whether Obama will be able to win one of the most loyal and potent parts of the traditional Democratic coalition, black voters. My intuition is that black voters will be absolutely critical to the prospects of Obama and Clinton.

Some pundits will probably reference Saturday's debate or Clinton's near-crying moment as reasons she surged late. The exit polling does not back this up. Obama won voters who decided sometime between a month and three days ago. And the two split voters who decided today - 39% to Clinton, 36% to Obama. Clinton dominated among voters who said they decided earlier than a month ago, 48% to 31%.

This supports the idea that Clinton won by mobilizing the traditional Democratic coalition that is demographically inclined to her. You don't just win elections by persuading people you're the best candidate. You win elections by getting those people out to the polls. This appears to be what Clinton did. Accordingly - the implication is that the polls were wrong not because of last-minute shifts. They were wrong because they underestimated Clinton's ability to draw out her base.

Final point. Clinton did something last night that most successful frontrunners have managed to do: use a reliably partisan voting coalition as a counterbalance to an opponent's momentum.

* - The idea of a "Mondale Model" should be taken only as reference to this particular primary strategy - using traditional Democratic groups to hold back an insurgent who appeals to upscale Dems. As Mondale beat Hart, so perhaps Clinton has found a way to beat Obama. I'm not making any arguments about the general election. I certainly am not predicting a 49-state sweep for the GOP should Clinton win the nomination!

-Jay Cost

Clinton's Plan B

New Hampshire Democrats appear to have tipped their hand. They like Obama. He has a lead in all of the major polls, and he is about 7 points up on Clinton in the RCP average.

If Clinton loses New Hampshire - as you, me, and everybody else expects her to - many pundits will declare her candidacy finished. This conclusion will be hasty. Not as hasty as declaring her nomination inevitable, but hasty nonetheless. Clinton still has a viable path to the Democratic nomination.

As I indicated yesterday, she has two real disadvantages that prevent her from reacquiring momentum before Super Tuesday. First, her opposition is not divided. While Edwards might hang around - he probably will not win any states. So, Clinton's loss is Obama's gain. Second, she does not have a geographical firewall. The race is not coming "home" to her.

So, she has lost Iowa. She will probably lose New Hampshire. Many expect her to have trouble in South Carolina and Nevada. Having been stripped of their delegates, Florida and Michigan are non-factors. This means that Obama will probably go undefeated before Super Tuesday. Accordingly, he will be a major force on that day. The latest Gallup poll of the nation's Democrats, which shows a remarkable turnaround for Obama, gives us an indication of just how competitive he will be on February 5th.

What the Clinton campaign needs to do is build a new nomination strategy around this expectation - though it should still work like the dickens to eke out a win in South Carolina or Nevada. But I do not think her campaign can count on these states rescuing her.

It needs a strategy that does two things. First, it appeals to the Super Tuesday states so as to at least split that day's vote with Obama. Second, and what I will talk about today, it borrows from the thinking of the Giuliani campaign: it is all about delegates.

As you probably know, voters do not directly elect nominees. They register their preferences for presidential candidates - either through primaries or caucuses - and those preferences determine how many of a candidate's delegates go to the national convention. The nominee is the person who wins a majority of delegates. Strange indeed - but delegates, just like the conventions they attend, are holdovers from the era of state party dominance.

There are two features of the Democratic nomination process that could help Hillary.

First, Democratic primaries and caucuses allocate delegates proportionally. Candidates win "pledged" delegates based not on whether they win a state - but on how many voters support them. So, for instance, even though Clinton and Edwards lost Iowa, they still won a few delegates.

Second, about 20% of all delegates to the Democratic convention are "super" or "unpledged" delegates. This quirky provision - which does not have a corollary on the Republican side - has its origins in Chicago, 1968. In the wake of that disastrous convention, the DNC formed the McGovern-Fraser Commission to recommend improvements for the nomination process. McGovern-Fraser suggested that the process be opened to rank-and-file Democrats on the principle of "one Democrat, one vote." The reforms contributed to George McGovern (the same McGovern from the commission) winning the nomination in 1972. The party establishment did not like this. So, it added the super delegate provision to serve as a check on the party rank-and-file.

This year, according to the indispensable Green Papers, there will be 798 super delegates at the convention in Denver. They include all elected members of the Democratic National Committee, all current Democratic members of Congress (including non-voting delegates), all sitting Democratic governors, and past party luminaries (e.g. former presidents). Unlike pledged delegates, who are bound to particular candidates, super delegates are free to vote their consciences.

Here is how these rules could help Clinton.

Suppose that Clinton stumbles early, but rebounds later. By the end of the nomination period - she draws even with Obama in the primaries. She wins 45% of the aggregate vote. He wins 45%. Edwards, who in this scenario dropped out some time before the end of the season, wins 10%. That could yield the following count among pledged delegates:

Obama: 1,464 delegates
Clinton: 1,464 delegates
Edwards: 325 delegates

This leaves the 798 super delegates, who can support whomever they choose. Let us suppose, in this scenario, they divvy up the way the Hill reports declared members of Congress have so far split their support between the three major candidates: 62% for Clinton, 25% for Obama, and 13% for Edwards. That would change the delegate count to:

Clinton: 1,967 Delegates
Obama: 1,664 Delegates
Edwards: 420 Delegates

A candidate needs 2,026 delegates to win the nomination. In this scenario, Clinton goes from being tied for first to having a solid lead, and just 58 delegates short of the nomination. If she could persuade about three-fifths of the Edwards' super delegates to back her, she would win.

Now, this is not a prediction about what will happen. It is simply meant to illustrate that the rules of the nomination process give Clinton two advantages.

First, the proportional allocation rule buys Clinton time to get her campaign back on track. This is critically important. Most people assume that February 5th will be the end of the nominating season. Not necessarily. Remember that 44% of all pledged delegates will not be allocated until after Super Tuesday. Clinton could use the proportional allocation rules to keep the delegate count close through February 5th - and then draw even with Obama toward the end of the season. Perhaps as the press starts to examine him with the scrutiny that they give to frontrunners, Democrats will come back to "old rough and ready" Clinton.

Second, a tie between Obama and Clinton would probably be broken in Clinton's favor, thanks to the super delegates. Note that Edwards could diminish the effect of this. If he stays strong - say around 15% of the vote through the primaries - he might have enough delegates to swing the nomination to Obama. However, I doubt that he will stay that strong. He has a hard core of supporters, but like all candidates - many of his voters are strategic. They will abandon him if they realize that he is not viable.

Of course, these advantages alone will not be sufficient to swing the nomination to her. There are caveats. For starters, Clinton needs to tie Obama in the aggregate primary vote to retain her super delegates. They are party elites who would surely recognize the peril of not nominating the candidate who won the most primary votes. She probably could not count on her super delegates to stay with her if the final primary vote is, say, 45% Obama to 35% Clinton. This means that she will have to surge at some point. Relatedly, there are probably a number of super delegates waiting to throw their support behind whoever wins more pledged delegates - Clinton would have to pull even with Obama to pick them up. Also, while delegates make the formal difference, the press, and therefore the electorate, does not see it that way. Clinton will need to win a few important contests soon so that she is still perceived to be viable. This concern may be especially acute, given news reports that she is a little short on resources.

But, the bottom line is this: the rules give Clinton some real advantages. The proportional rule buys Clinton some time to change the dynamic. It will take Obama a while to develop an insurmountable lead among delegates. The super delegate rule gives Clinton the inside track if she does manage to change the dynamic. If she pulls even with him among pledged delegates - the smart money would be on her.

Since George McGovern won his party's nomination - never once has an insurgent candidate defeated an establishment candidate to acquire the nomination. That goes for both parties. In the 220 year history of presidential nominations, insurgents have defeated establishment darlings only a handful of times. A big reason is that the establishment sets the rules. An insurgent candidate riding a wave of grassroots support still has to contend with them. This does not mean that an insurgent cannot beat an insider. It just means that it is hard. Obama will probably win New Hampshire tonight. And he is in a very good position to win his party's nomination. But don't count Clinton out. She's the insider, the candidate of the establishment - and they have a habit of winning.

-Jay Cost

Is 1992 the Model?

With Hillary Clinton's loss in Iowa, and her polling troubles in New Hampshire - her campaign has been spinning that she will soon be the new "Comeback Kid." Like her husband, she will eventually overcome early defeats to win her party's nomination. Bill Clinton himself has noted to several reporters that he did not win his first contest in 1992 until Georgia, which was held a month after Iowa.

So, the implication is that if Bill could lose early contests and bounce back, Hillary could, too.

From a certain perspective, I think this conclusion is indisputable. I do not believe this race is over - and I say that as somebody who predicted that Obama would be a real threat to Hillary a while ago. Here's my bottom line on the Dem race: Clinton has the money, the prestige, and the support to stay in the race through at least Super Tuesday, even if she loses all of the early contests. She also has, at least according to the latest national polls, much of the traditional voting coalition that has won her party's nomination in year's past. And remember - most Democratic primaries allocate delegates to the national convention proportionally, which means that losers still win delegates. So, Clinton could stay a close second through most of the season, and surge late to win the nomination. Of course, losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would seriously damage her campaign. No candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever failed to win his party's nomination in the modern era.* However, as I have argued many times, history is a limited guide for us when it comes to party nominations. Hillary remains a candidate with real strengths - and she should not be underestimated.

My quibble here is using 1992 as a model for Hillary, which is exactly what her husband and other surrogates have floated. There are two important problems.

Before we get into them, let's review the calendar of events from the 1992 Democratic primaries. As you might remember, Bill was the big polling leader heading into the fourth quarter of 1991. However, the "character issue" seriously damaged his numbers, threw the race into the air, and induced Bill and Hillary to appear on 60 Minutes after the Super Bowl. So, here is how the events went down subsequent to that:

February 10, 1992: Iowa senator Tom Harkin wins his state's caucus. No surprise here. No candidate was challenging him.

February 18, 1992: Former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas wins New Hampshire. Clinton finishes second and brands himself the "comeback kid."

February 25, 1992: Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey wins South Dakota.

March 3, 1992: Mini-Super Tuesday. Clinton wins Georgia. Former California governor Jerry Brown wins Colorado. Tsongas wins Maryland. Harkin wins the Minnesota and Idaho caucuses.

March 7, 1992: Clinton wins South Carolina.

March 10, 1992: Super Tuesday. Clinton wins six southern states: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas. Tsongas wins Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

March 17, 1992: Clinton essentially ends the contest with a win in Illinois (though Brown would briefly reemerge with a victory in Connecticut one week later).

So, what did it for Clinton? The South! The South dominated Super Tuesday, which was the reason why it was created. Super Tuesday was designed by southern Democrats after Mondale's nomination in 1984. They wanted to use their weight to nominate a more moderate candidate who would better reflect their interests. The plan backfired in 1988, as Al Gore and Jesse Jackson effectively neutralized one another, and Michael Dukakis won the nomination. But the plan succeeded in 1992 - as Bill Clinton lost seven of the first nine contests, but still won the nomination.

This points out a critical difference between Bill and Hillary. Bill won the nomination when the battle came to his home turf. The South was Clinton's firewall in 1992. It was going to get behind Bill almost regardless of where he finished in the previous contests. Hillary has no firewall that is based upon regional affinity. Of course, she is currently strong in many of this year's Super Tuesday states - California, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. However, she is not a favorite daughter. These states are not nearly as dependable for her as Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Carolina were for Bill.

Another critical difference can be noted when we look at the results of the early contests. Of the contests prior to Super Tuesday, they were split five ways: Harkin, Kerrey, Tsongas, Brown, and Clinton all won at least one contest before March 10. There was no significant consolidation of the race because the early states kept disagreeing with one another. This helped Bill. He could lose and lose and lose because no single opponent won and won and won. Hillary does not enjoy this kind of advantage. The 2008 Democratic contest is between Clinton and Obama. So, if she loses seven of the first eight contests contests, Obama wins seven of the first eight. This would create a dramatically different dynamic than in 1992.

Thus, we see here two of Clinton's relative weaknesses as a frontrunner. She has no firewall that stems from her geographical roots. She also does not have the luxury of multiple opponents.

If the 1992 Democratic contest has a parallel with this year, it is on the Republican side. And Rudy Giuliani may be Bill Clinton. Like Clinton in 1992, Giuliani's field has multiple viable candidates. Also like Clinton, he has a natural constituency upon which he might draw. Obviously, he is not from Florida - but a lot of Floridians are former New Yorkers. This gives him a real advantage in the Sunshine State. Also, several of Rudy's best states are holding their primaries on Super Tuesday: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts.

Of course, the parallels do not hold terribly well. First, Clinton placed a strong second in New Hampshire. Giuliani is unlikely to do that. This could damage him - especially if he drops behind Huckabee or even Paul. Second, this year's Super Tuesday includes seventeen states where Giuliani cannot be said to have a natural constituency. There are a lot of moderate states, for sure, but we are talking about regional affinity here. Third, you could argue that the South is much more loyal to its sons than the northeast is. I cannot imagine Louisiana voting for anybody but Bill Clinton in 1992. I could definitely see Connecticut and Massachusetts going for McCain - just like they did in 2000. All in all, while 1992 should give Rudy some comfort, it is not a tight fit with his current position.

As for Hillary Clinton - she is far from finished, even if she loses New Hampshire. But her husband's come-from-behind win in 1992 cannot be her model. Her husband had advantages that she simply lacks.

*. Update, 3:30 PM: A reader points out that Edmund Muskie won New Hampshire in 1972, and was the highest vote-getter in the Iowa caucus. In light of this observation, I have amended the above sentence to include the phrase "in the modern era." The modern era in the presidential nominating contest is usually said to have begun in 1976 - which is the first year that primaries and caucuses dominated both party contests. I apologize for the vagueness in my original piece.

-Jay Cost

On the Iowa Results

A few thoughts on the Iowa results:

(1) My initial impression, which I am sure you share, is that this is being chalked up as huge wins for Obama and Huckabee, huge losses for Clinton and Romney. This interpretation could be a big deal. Remember that is exactly what it is. The press is not interpreting this as "Clinton ties Obama among Democrats in entrance poll" or "Mormon Romney finishes strong second in evangelical Iowa." This matters. Watch how the press continues to interpret these results over the next few days. It is the source of information for persuadable voters in New Hampshire. Perceptive observers of the horse race should move beyond the nouns, and start looking at the adjectives and adverbs. They make a big difference.

(2) It's gut-check time for the Clinton campaign. Watching Chris Matthews et al. on MSNBC last night - they were talking like it was all-but-over for Clinton. No way. New Hampshire is the early state that has the biggest impact. Not Iowa. Iowa has a habit of picking losers. It is easy for media types to forget that because in its most recent outing, 2004, it single-handedly determined the winner. But historically, Iowa does not make much of a big ripple nationwide. The big question: will Iowa move New Hampshire? Obama needs it to. He is in second there right now. We don't have an answer yet - and history provides a mixed message. Sometimes Iowa does move New Hampshire. Sometimes it doesn't.

(3) Huckabee is going to get a big surge in positive press - but he has two big problems. First, everybody is gong nuts about Huckabee tonight, but on Tuesday they'll be going nuts about McCain. That limits the effect of this win. Second, the next contests are coming much too soon for this media attention to yield dollars, and the dollars to yield organizations that can help him on February 5. Huckabee wants to run a campaign reminiscent of Carter '76 (in more ways than one), but Carter had one thing Huckabee does not: a schedule that is spread out.

(4) Tonight was bad for Romney. Really bad. He lost by a lot. He lost by more than anybody expected. He lost after having led for a year. He lost after a monumental effort. This loss was bigger than Clinton's. He is not his party's frontrunner. He cannot afford to lose a state he tried so hard to win. Worse for Romney - McCain had already surged ahead of him in New Hampshire prior to tonight's loss. This will not disrupt that dynamic. I would not go so far as John Ellis - but I will say that he is in really bad shape. His future in this race is bleak.

(5) Yesterday was the first official day of Rudy going "dark." He has no real plans to reemerge until January 29th. Is this a viable strategy? Honestly - I think it may be. If he wins Florida, he surges back into the race. I think Florida could hold for him, though I have real doubts. A lot of that depends on who is still in the race at that point. At the least, I think this is the best strategy that a candidate like Giuliani could pursue. A Giuliani nomination was always going to be a close call. It was always going to be a victory over a divided party. Giuliani should be happy that Huckabee has damaged Romney because Romney has money and Huckabee does not. Rudy wants February 5th to come down to Rudy versus the anti-Rudy candidate - and the less well-funded the anti-Rudy candidate, the better. But a McCain victory in New Hampshire should make Giuliani nervous - especially if it is as big as Huckabee's in Iowa. A three-way race between McCain, Rudy, and Huckabee would be harder for Rudy because he and McCain occupy much of the same ideological space. Rudy would probably like to see Huckabee hold the line in South Carolina.

(6) Fred Thompson is finished. Absolutely, positively finished. The reason? He has no more money - which is the reason all losing candidates drop out. And this defeat tonight is not going to get him any cash. The big Thompson question on my mind: if he drops out and endorses McCain, does that swing the 14% or so of South Carolinians who currently support Thompson? [Update, 2:30 AM: As of this evening, Thompson promises to forge ahead.]

(7) The same goes for Romney. If Romney fades from view after Tuesday - where do the Romney supporters go? Who are their second choices? Are they social conservatives who will support Huckabee, or are they voters who want hyper-competent executive management and a tough stance in the global war on terror? I have no idea. Nobody does. The polls don't tell us.

(8) Edwards is also done, in my opinion. He can't have much money left. He's in distant third everywhere in the nation. And nobody will be talking about him anymore. I expect him to linger - but it is clear that he is not the anti-Hillary candidate on the Democratic side. The big question: where does the 10-15% of the Democratic electorate who supports Edwards go?

(9) Ron Paul remains a non-factor despite his money and his strong showing. The reasons are two-fold. First, he cannot win the nomination. Second, he does not hurt anybody. My guess is that he is bringing new voters into the process. Good for him - but he is not a player in his party's nomination contest. (Update, 2:11 AM: A few readers have suggested that he hurts McCain. Maybe he will in New Hampshire. Both probably appeal to independents. But McCain is not up against George W. Bush in New Hampshire this time around. He's up against Romney - and he has a lead. While Paul may take some votes away from McCain, at this point it does not appear that he diminishes McCain's chance of winning New Hampshire.)

-Jay Cost

Should Clinton Have Skipped Iowa?

On New Year's Day, Roger Simon asked:

Should Hillary Clinton have skipped Iowa?

If she loses the caucus here Thursday, will her campaign wish it had listened to the advice it got last May to take a hike on the Hawkeye state?

Back then, Clinton's deputy campaign manager, Mike Henry, wrote a 1,500-word internal memo saying Iowa was not worth the effort.

"My recommendation is to pull completely out of Iowa and spend the money and Senator Clinton's time on other states," Henry wrote.

"If she walks away from Iowa she will devalue Iowa -- our consistently weakest state."

Henry's advice was never accepted.

After the memo was leaked to the press, the Clinton campaign publicly repudiated the memo and said it would compete fiercely in Iowa, which it has.

Others have been asking this question in the wake of Simon's column.

I would argue that the answer is an unequivocal "no." Clinton's campaign was wise to have stuck Iowa out. I believe that it would be better off losing Iowa today having run a full campaign than it would have been if it had avoided the Hawkeye State altogether.

It's a matter of costs and benefits. Skipping Iowa would have provided a benefit, for sure. She would not have been as "diminished" if she had left than if she had stayed, fought, and lost. But I think this benefit is far outweighed by the costs.

First, frontrunners like Hillary Clinton do not just skip states. They compete - unless one of their opponents is from the state. They have the money - and they want to be the party's nominee, so they presumably have the message. Skipping a state that you could compete in gives a horrible impression. It rightly inclines all of the partisans and media types who have made you the frontrunner to reconsider their decisions. Any reconsideration would have hurt Clinton.

Second, the media circus that descended upon the supposedly worthless Ames straw poll should put the lie to the idea that Clinton's avoidance of Iowa would have devalued it. Journalists are desperate for news. They would have turned Iowa into a story as long as Obama and Edwards were competitive with one another - and they can take a broad definition of "competitive" when they really want a story. Taking Clinton out of Iowa might have reduced the number of credentialed people in Iowa right now - but not by all that much. The caucus results would still get basically all of the attention that they will receive - only in this scenario, all of the stories would remind voters (five days before the New Hampshire primary, mind you) that Clinton skipped Iowa because she thought she would lose.

Third, Iowa has been known to give candidates momentum heading into New Hampshire - as happened in 1976 and 2004. Ceding Iowa would dramatically increase the chances that Obama comes to the Granite State with a head of steam. With Clinton out of Iowa, all he would have to do is beat Edwards - and he could bask in the glow of stories praising him as the "alternative to Hillary" for the next five days. This would have been very bad - because New Hampshire is the critical early state in most cycles. Now, of course, by skipping Iowa - Clinton could have husbanded her resources and forced Obama to spend his cash just to beat Edwards. There would be some benefit there, but not as much as one might think - after all, Obama has lots of money. He would still have plenty to compete.

Fourth, and most important of all, she could very well win Iowa! It seems clear to me that the differences in the polling data we have seen is dependent upon the turnout models that the pollsters are using. Under certain assumptions, Clinton leads in the polling. Under other assumptions, she does not. This implies that if those favorable assumptions hold today, Clinton will win the caucus. This would be a huge boost to her candidacy. The shot at winning the first contest is worth the risk of competing.

As I said, I would agree that skipping Iowa might have mitigated some of the diminution that she would suffer upon losing Iowa to one of her challengers. But, it would have raised questions about her frontrunner status, it would not have diminished the importance of the caucus, it would have given Obama a leg up heading into New Hampshire, and it would have taken away her shot at ending this contest early. Combined, these costs are greater than this benefit.

And, here's the most important point: virtually every frontrunner who goes on to win the nomination suffers at least one setback in the campaign. Many of them suffer more than one. What makes them strong candidates is that they move forward and overcome the initial defeat. This is what separates Howard Dean from most nominees. If history is any guide, Clinton should expect to lose an important one at some point in this cycle. If she has what it takes to be the nominee, she'll bounce back - just like Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush.

Clinton was wise to stay and fight. It was her best option.

-Jay Cost

An Iowa Push?

Adam Nagourney asked an interesting question in yesterday's New York Times.

"What if Iowa settles nothing for Democrats?"

As of now, the question has no answer. It is a device for Nagourney to make the following, worthwhile observation:

What if at the end of Thursday, the three leading Democrats -- former Senator John Edwards and Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama -- are separated by a percentage point or two, leaving no one with the clear right of delivering a victory speech (or the burden of conceding)? A number of polls going into the final days have suggested that after all of this, the Democratic caucus on Thursday night could end up more or less a tie.

In truth, amid all the endless permutations of outcomes that are being discussed -- can Mrs. Clinton, the putative front-runner, survive a third-place finish, or Mr. Edwards a second-place one? -- aides are beginning to grapple with the frustrating possibility that all the time, money and political skill invested here might prove to be for naught when it comes to identifying the candidate to beat in the primaries and winnowing the top tier.

This is a great point. For months, I have asserted that an Iowa victory is a necessary condition for Obama to be nominated, but a sufficient condition for Clinton. I always assumed - unthinkingly, in retrospect - that somebody would win Iowa. But Nagourney articulates a question that a lot of us have probably been wondering: what happens if nobody really wins? How will the remainder of the race be influenced?

This question is actually all about momentum, a subject I have recently covered in depth (See Part 1 and Part 2 of "A Primer on Momentum"). I'd like to draw upon those considerations to make a few comments on Nagourney's interesting article.

First, the prospect of Iowa not influencing the race should always have been considered possible, if not likely. As I noted in Part 2, Iowa generally has not been influential in either party's nomination battle. Occasionally, it has affected New Hampshire - as it clearly did in 2004 - but this is a relatively rare phenomenon in the modern era.

Second, we must emphasize the media's role in determining who "wins" Iowa, or any other state. Nagourney punts on this subject later on when he argues that Bill Clinton, "proclaimed himself the winner after coming in second in New Hampshire." Well - sure Clinton proclaimed himself the winner. But the only way that proclamation stuck was that the media agreed with it - which goes to show that, in situations like this, the perception of the media is as good as reality. Iowa will be a push if and only if the media interprets it as such.

This is why I took Nagourney's article to be especially valuable. He raises some good points, for sure. But it is also important that he raises them. Nagourney is one of the nation's top political journalists. If he is anticipating that Iowa might be a push - that is a sign that he, and the rest of his fellow journalists, could ultimately interpret it as such. This is why I would disagree with Tom's comment yesterday that, "the idea of a "push" is antithetical to how the media operates." If Nagourney is willing to consider the idea - the press might eventually embrace it.

Third, the fact that we cannot answer Nagourney's question is indicative of a point I made in Part 1: we simply do not know that much about how momentum works. Our dataset is just too limited to infer what an Iowa push will mean this year.

Nevertheless, we can make use of our knowledge about momentum to frame the question a little more precisely than Nagourney does. We know that the effect of momentum begins with the individual voter. We also know that the next contest - and thus the one to be affected by Iowa directly - is New Hampshire. Finally, we know that the 800-pound gorilla in the room is Hillary Clinton. Ultimately, what will be of decisive importance is how voters view her. So, our precise question is: how will an Iowa push affect New Hampshire voters' views of Hillary Clinton's candidacy?

You can make a convincing case that an Iowa push hurts Clinton via several of the five types of individual-based momentum discussed in Part 1; but, you can make a similarly convincing case the other way. That's exactly the point. We do not know enough about momentum to draw a firm conclusion. Nor, for that matter, do we know enough about what New Hampshire voters are thinking at this moment. While reams of polling data have poured forth from the Granite State - most of it probes the basic horse race questions that interest the media. Hardly any of it touches upon voter psychology - and so hardly any of it helps us gauge how New Hampshire voters will react to a Hawkeye push.

At the least, though, we know what to watch for. We should watch for how the media interprets the Iowa results. If the media calls it a push, it's a push. If it doesn't, it isn't a push. Our personal interpretations will not matter - the collective interpretation of journalists and pundits will. We should also watch for any trends that appear in the New Hampshire polls. We should have time for a round or two of post-Iowa New Hampshire polls. They will be our first and best clues on how New Hampshire has reacted to the results of the caucus.

-Jay Cost

The Iowa Fallout: A Primer on Momentum, Part 2

Update, January 5, 2008: With Obama and Huckabee winning Iowa - both parties' nomination battles are up in the air. Accordingly, I thought it appropriate to re-offer this essay, which was originally published on December 30, 2007. In what follows, I review how momentum works on a statewide basis, and try to piece together what big primary victories mean for candidates later on. In light of this week's Iowa results, I hope you will find it worthwhile.


On Friday, I offered the first of a two-part series on momentum. I examined momentum on an individual level, reviewing how voters may be influenced by it. Today, I will discuss whether and how candidates with momentum can win primary and caucus contests.

There are two broad ways to characterize statewide momentum - though, practically speaking, momentum in any given year probably works through a combination of both ways. First, it can build slowly - so that a win in New Hampshire yields a win in South Carolina, which in turn yields a win in Florida, and so on. This would be like a truck rolling downhill, slowly gaining speed. Let's call this piecemeal momentum. The other way it can work is what we'll call all-at-once momentum. A candidate wins Iowa and/or New Hampshire, and everything follows from that dramatic beginning. This would be less like a rolling truck and more like a space shuttle that uses the launch pad for blast off.

At first glance, piecemeal and all-at-once momentum would look the same - but in fact the causal processes would be different. With piecemeal momentum, a win in New Hampshire would influence South Carolina, which would influence Florida. With all-at-once, a win in New Hampshire would influence South Carolina and Florida, which would really not influence one another. Again, these are broad categories that probably cannot capture specific instances of momentum perfectly. They are just meant to help us frame the conversation. In reality, we might expect a candidate's momentum to be a combination of both - perhaps a huge launch in New Hampshire and Iowa to which subsequent victories add a little bit every time.

Let's start our investigation with piecemeal momentum. Researchers have found it does exist - some candidates do build momentum slowly over time, victory-by-victory. However, Arizona's Barbara Norrander has found that this type of momentum more usually characterizes also-rans rather than nominees. Norrander tracked election returns in all fifty states between 1976 and 1988, and found that those who eventually lost nominations - like Reagan in 1976 or Hart in 1984 - often made use of this momentum. The eventual nominees usually did not; rather, their state-by-state performances were more frequently conditioned by how much money they spent. The exception was George H.W. Bush, who enjoyed the "Big Mo" in 1988 (even though he thought he had it in 1980!). While Norrander's study is somewhat dated, my intuition is that the pattern still holds. Bush '92, Clinton '92, Bush '00, and Kerry '04 did not win by slowly building momentum.

This is not a huge surprise. On Friday, we discussed the importance of the time between contests. For most of the modern era, primaries have been scheduled quite close together. This probably has limited the effect of piecemeal momentum. Norrander and others have shown that nominees win by spending money, and that early victories can bring dollars to cash-starved candidates. This provides an opening for piecemeal momentum to work: an insurgent candidate wins a big victory that he can build on because donors fill his coffers with cash. Indeed, this was one way Jimmy Carter won his party's nomination in 1976. The trouble is that - for most of this era - the next round of contests always comes too quickly for sufficient funds to be raised. Sooner rather than later, the insurgent who won an unlikely victory runs into the frontrunner's expensive firewall.

So, we might infer that, because of this year's hyper-compacted schedule, piecemeal momentum will not be decisive. However, I think such a conclusion is hasty. The case of the 2000 GOP nomination gives me pause. During the 2000 Republican nomination battle, Penn's Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a rolling survey of New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, and the Super Tuesday states. Its results are worth considering.

Bush defeated McCain in the South Carolina primary held on February 19th, 18 days after the New Hampshire primary. Interestingly, when Annenberg began its rolling cross-section of South Carolina, McCain's position in the Palmetto state was about as solid as his position in New Hampshire was on the day of his victory. His problem was that his standing eroded as time wore on. But if South Carolina was scheduled as close to New Hampshire in 2000 as it is in 2008 - 11 days instead of 18 - McCain's standing might have been strong enough to win. A win there, plus his wins in Michigan and Arizona, might have sustained the post-New Hampshire boost he registered in the Super Tuesday states.

In other words, McCain might have been just a few days away from pulling off the rare feat of riding piecemeal momentum to the nomination. And so, we cannot disqualify it from being a factor in 2008. Although, we must admit that it is unlikely. Above all, McCain's campaign in 2000 was based upon a huge, 19-point upset in New Hampshire. It was lightning in a bottle. Even if the schedule is more accommodating this cycle, lightning in a bottle is still hard to capture.

So much for piecemeal momentum. What about all-at-once momentum? This, as I said, is like a space ship launch. The idea is that a candidate wins an early state and is helped for the rest of the way.

For a long while, political scientists have known that you can do a pretty good job predicting the outcome of a nomination battle based on a few basic variables, all of which are known by the end of the pre-election year: national poll position, money raised, television exposure, endorsements, etc. Recently, however, scholars have found that when you add the results of the New Hampshire primary to these models - the predictive power jumps through the roof, from around 60% to upwards of 90% (though the effect is muted when we look at just the Republicans). The implication here is that the second type of momentum - the big win that launches a candidate - is a factor.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. These models predict final shares of the vote - not whether a candidate wins or not. If you look at matters more closely, you see that what New Hampshire has most frequently done is the following. If it backs the frontrunner, he has an easy path to victory - as with Gore in 2000. If it does not back him, he has a harder path - as with Mondale in 1984. The only exception to this rule is Howard Dean in 2004. His loss in New Hampshire (and Iowa, which we will discuss presently) effectively ended his candidacy.

Of course, Dean was a poor frontrunner by many metrics. He wasn't well known. He wasn't well liked. Voters were concerned he was unelectable. The scream. And so on. Dean was easily one of the weakest frontrunners in the modern era.

The fact that he went down in New Hampshire actually does a great deal to clarify the role that the Granite State can play. Clearly, it is a force that is independent of the factors that make up the pre-primary frontrunner (strong national polling, money, etc). When it works in concert with those factors, supporting the frontrunner, it adds to his power. When it works against those factors, supporting an insurgent, it serves as a countervailing force. Usually, the frontrunner has so much power behind him that he can overcome a loss in New Hampshire. But, when a frontrunner is not very powerful - as Dean was not - New Hampshire can stop him.

What about Iowa? Researchers have found that Iowa does not exert the independent force that New Hampshire does. This is how DePaul's Wayne Steger characterized the Iowa caucuses this year in Political Research Quarterly:

The results of the Iowa Caucuses do not significantly affect the prediction of the aggregate primary vote...That the Iowa Caucuses played a crucial role for Jimmy Carter (1976) and John Kerry (2004) is more than offset by the fact that the eventual nominees of both parties have "lost" the Iowa Caucuses in most other years. The New Hampshire primaries, in contrast, have a more consistent effect across nomination campaigns - inflating the chances of candidates who do well while deflating the remaining primary vote shares of candidates who do not.

So, Iowa does not have a direct effect. But, it could affect New Hampshire, which in turn influences the rest of the nation. To investigate this hypothesis, let's consider the following chart, which reviews Iowa, New Hampshire, and nomination victors in contested battles since 1976:

Iowa - New Hampshire - Nominee.JPG

Two observations are relevant. First, Iowa and New Hampshire frequently disagree. They only have agreed four times, which is a sign that Iowa does not usually influence New Hampshire. Two of those four times, 1980 D and 2000 D, were contests where there was a clear frontrunner, so it probably would not be fair to say that Iowa influenced New Hampshire. The other two times were 1976 D and 2004 D. Here, you could make a case that Iowa influenced New Hampshire. And what did those two elections have in common? They both lacked strong frontrunners.

Thus, the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire seems to depend upon the quality of the frontrunners. Iowa can influence New Hampshire, and New Hampshire can upend the campaign dynamic, when the frontrunners are not strong. When the frontrunners are strong - at best, they only slow the march to victory.

This gives us an angle on understanding the role momentum might play this cycle. Clearly, the Republicans have no pre-election year frontrunner - like the Democrats in 1988. This means that momentum definitely could be a factor. As I said, we probably will not see the kind of successful slow-building momentum akin to what McCain almost had in 2000, though it is still possible. What is more likely is momentum that comes from a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire - a candidate then uses those victories to launch himself beyond the rest of a lackluster field.

What about the Democrats? Over the summer, the press had built Hillary Clinton up as inevitable. Now, it sees her as particularly vulnerable. The reality has always been in the middle. She is a roughly average frontrunner with real strengths and real weaknesses - it will thus be hard, but not impossible, to beat her. Clinton's lead in the national polls right now is of middling size relative to past frontrunners: larger than what some frontrunners enjoyed, smaller than what others enjoyed. This is good for her. Furthermore, her supporters tend to be a good sample of the traditional bases of Democratic support. This is also good. But she has weaknesses. She has not dominated fundraising. If you factor out her Senate campaign transfers - you'd have to say that Obama out-raised her (without using federal PAC money). Further, Clinton's negative ratings are higher than previous frontrunners'. As frontrunners go, she is certainly stronger than Dean. But she is weaker than several past frontrunners. She is far from immune to being seriously affected by momentum. Obama could be a particular threat because he - unlike other insurgent candidates - can fight her dollar-for-dollar.

All in all, it is impossible to assign odds on whether momentum will be a factor this cycle. But there are strong indications that it could be. The bottom line is that neither party has a decisive frontrunner - which opens an opportunity for momentum to play a determinative role in who wins these battles.

-Jay Cost

A Primer on Momentum, Part 1

With the New Year upon us, the pre-election campaign is ending, and a new phase of the cycle is beginning. Candidates will battle one another from Iowa, to New Hampshire and South Carolina, and eventually to Super Tuesday and beyond. Momentum could be the critical factor - a great victory could propel one of the hopefuls beyond the rest of the pack.

For as important as it might be, people seem to know very little about momentum. The word itself is just a metaphor, and the concept it references is often understood in vague and even mystical ways - a candidate wins a primary and momentum "magically" sends him or her to the nomination.

Over the course of the next two days, I hope to offer some clarity and precision on the subject. Today, I will look at what momentum is when it occurs. Monday, I will look at the conditions in which it may occur.

Let's start with a simple definition that we can build on. A candidate has "momentum" when his or her previous electoral results influence subsequent ones. The reference to Newtonian physics actually fits pretty well. Imagine a truck rolling down hill - and you can get a pretty good sense of the "big mo." Of course, momentum can work in the opposite direction. A win can yield more wins, but a loss can yield more losses.

We usually think of momentum from a "macro" perspective. For instance, we imagine the New Hampshire returns influencing the South Carolina returns. But momentum actually has its origins in the minds of individuals. So, our investigation of momentum should begin with them. In particular, we should first ask about the context of their decision-making processes. What are the factors that might make momentum so influential in their thinking?

As we have discussed all year, this context is dominated by voter inattention and ignorance. The average voter pays little attention to politics, and so has little knowledge of it. This is how momentum can have such an effect. An electoral victory is big news to a voter who knows relatively little about the race. He undoubtedly hears about it, and so hears lots of positive information about the winner. As he did not know much to begin with, this information can be critical to his decision-making. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that momentum can have its greatest effect on those who do not pay as much attention to the campaign.

Another important contextual factor is the media. After all, it is not just the results, but also the way they are interpreted, that generates momentum. It is one thing to read, "McCain, 115,490; Bush, 72,262." It is quite another to see, "MCCAIN UPSETS IN GRANITE STATE / Trounces Bush By 19 Points." Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the press are the surprise victors. The media loves electoral surprises - and they cover successful insurgents as though they walk on water.

Another factor is the schedule. If all states voted at once, there could be no momentum as no voter would know about any prior results. On the other hand, if there were one primary every six months - there would be no momentum, either. The influence of the previous contest would dissipate before the next context. Because momentum is a temporary effect, the timing of the contests matters.

With this context in mind, how can a voter be influenced by prior election returns?

Political scientists have identified several ways that momentum can work. The operative word here is "can." Momentum is a difficult concept to study. Good data is hard to find. For starters, elections in which momentum is a major factor are rare. Another problem is that you need a special type of data to study momentum thoroughly. Simple horse race polls will not do. You either need "panel data" or a "rolling cross-section" that investigates voter psychology as the campaign progresses. These are hard to come by. So, we cannot confirm how momentum really works. At best, we can see whether the data is consistent with various types of momentum.

Five such types have some evidence to support them. The first is "strategic voting." Here, a voter switches his vote from his first preference to a latter one based on who appears to have the best chance of winning. Take a simple example. Suppose a Republican prefers candidates in this order: Forbes, McCain, Bush, Dole, Bauer. He sees that Forbes placed poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire - and that McCain won the Granite State. He decides that because Forbes has no chance, he should support his second choice. Accordingly, McCain's victory in New Hampshire has helped him win a voter he would not otherwise have won.

Another type of momentum is what Princeton's Larry Bartels calls "cue-taking." Voters, in a cue-taking scenario, lack sufficient information to know which candidate is optimal. Previous electoral results serve as signals from like-minded partisans about the candidates. Cue-taking is like heeding advice from friends, neighbors or co-workers when you can't decide for yourself. It is a way to make a choice amidst uncertainty.

The concept of "contagion" (again borrowing Bartels' language) is related to cue-taking, but it is less conscious. Instead of purposefully following the signals of previous electorates, a voter switches his preference just because the victorious candidate is mentioned more often and more positively. This type of momentum is less thoughtful than cue-taking. Bartels compares it to the spreading of a communicable disease. Voters acquire an inclination to support the candidate because those around them have it.

A fourth type of momentum is the pleasure one derives from supporting a winner. We all like to know that our favorite candidate turned out to be the winner - some voters may even switch their votes to get behind the expected winner.

These four forms of momentum were covered in detail by Larry Bartels, whose Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice remains a core text in the study of the modern presidential campaign. Arizona State's Patrick Kenney and Iowa's Tom W. Rice suggested a fifth type - which they call "inevitability." Here, voters support a candidate because he or she is bound to win. The difference between this and the previous form of momentum is that this does not carry the same psychological satisfaction. You back the inevitable candidate not to get the pleasure of supporting the winner, but because there is no other viable choice.

Again, it is difficult to confirm whether and how any of these forms of momentum operate on the individual voter. The data is just too limited. Nevertheless, Bartels found that momentum does not need to have a direct effect. A voter need not have his vote choice directly influenced by the latest electoral returns. Instead, the returns can influence his evaluations of each candidate, which then influence his vote choice. This would be a process like projection - in which a voter comes to believe that the advantaged candidate possesses all of the qualities he most wants in a leader. This positive reevaluation thus makes the candidate the "obvious" choice for the voter's support. Meanwhile, Penn's Diana Mutz found that momentum can work similar to the way that one person influences another: when a voter learns that an electorate voted differently than he would have, he is induced to reconsider his views and, "think of arguments that might explain those others' positions. By rehearsing these arguments, people engage in a process of self-persuasion whereby their own attitudes move in the direction that have been primed by others' views."

These considerations yield several relevant points for 2008.

First, the media matters. Over the course of this cycle, I have distinguished between the perpetual campaign and the real campaign. For most of the year, the media has been captivated by a drama that average voters barely noticed. This is the perpetual campaign - the endless struggle of the candidates to win the news cycle. It has little effect on vote choice - though pundits often think it does. The real campaign starts when candidates communicate directly with voters, who begin to make up their minds. During this campaign, the media can have a real influence because it interprets electoral returns for voters. The tone of the interpretation can determine whether a candidate will acquire momentum. Suppose, for instance, that Romney finishes second in Iowa. Will it damage his prospects in subsequent contests? It might. One of the factors that will matter is how the media covers it. Was Romney "stunned and decimated, spending millions only to be defeated by the insurgent Huckabee"? Or did Romney, "rally and win a good chunk of evangelicals, despite the impediment that his Mormonism presented"? Both storylines could be consistent with the Iowa results. Which one the press chooses could influence what happens next.

Second, media expectations matter - and candidates will try to manage them. The Huckabee campaign, for instance, does not want the media believing he is assured an Iowa victory. If he wins "as expected," the press might not cover it as glowingly - thus diminishing his bounce. So, Huckabee is out there saying his goal is to finish in the top three. This is why Bill Clinton said he would be amazed if Hillary Clinton wins Iowa. He knows as well as anybody that expectations matter. His second place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 effectively became a victory because of the press coverage.

Third, voters' second choices matter. They definitely matter to Iowa Democrats, who are sometimes forced to compromise at the caucus meeting. But they also matter to voters all across the country - as first choices seem like they can't win, strategic voting might induce voters to fall back on their second choices. The only poll I am aware of that asks about second choices is Cook/RT Strategies, which is currently out-of-date. But you can get some purchase on second choices in other ways. Examine candidates' favorable/unfavorable ratings - those with higher favorables are more likely to be second choices. Also, look at which candidates win on salient personal qualities (trustworthiness, for instance). This can give you a sense of who might be the second choice of a primary electorate.

Fourth, momentum can help some candidates but not others. As mentioned above, the level of information that voters possess matters when it comes to momentum. So, it stands to reason that candidates about whom a lot is known will not benefit from momentum as much. Walter Mondale received no bounce after he won the Iowa caucus in 1984. As a former vice-president, he was well known by the voters. On the other hand, Gary Hart enjoyed a huge bump after he won the New Hampshire primary because voters did not know a lot about him. So - the high profile candidates this season stand to benefit less from big wins. The low profile candidates might get a real boost. Accordingly, you should note the electorate's inability to rate various candidates in the pre-election polls. This is a sign of how much they know about them - and whether they are susceptible to momentum.

Finally, remember that our data limitations make momentum an under-studied concept. It is thus hard to predict when and where it might make an appearance. Those who talk confidently about momentum are actually just speculating.

-Jay Cost

Why Did Clinton Overlook Obama?

Most neutral observers would agree that Hillary Clinton's response to Barack Obama's rise has been bungled. Over the past few weeks, we have seen her campaign attempt again and again to attack him, only to make itself look foolish. I think the worst moment came last weekend when President Clinton was dispatched to the Charlie Rose Show to trash the junior senator from Illinois. That task was simply beneath a former president. And who did not notice the irony of Clinton arguing for experience over freshness? If any Democrat has parroted Republican talking points this cycle - it was Bill Clinton mimicking Bush-Quayle '92.

This plan was clearly put together on a spit and a prayer. It seems to me that if the Clinton campaign had anticipated that Obama would pose this kind of threat - it would have developed a better strategy for dealing with him. Its ineptitude over the last few weeks belies its lack of preparedness. I am sure that Team Clinton has a number of contingency plans in its filing drawer, but the rise of Obama is clearly not one of them.

Why was the Clinton campaign unprepared for this?

Unfortunately, we cannot answer this question directly. The only people who know are the higher-ups of the Clinton organization - and they are not going to admit that they were unprepared, let alone explain why. But I have a plausible theory worth sharing.

The way to approach the question is first to ask why we should have expected an Obama surge. It stands to reason that the Clinton campaign failed to account for at least one of the factors that make up our answer. These are the three reasons that I argued for over the summer and fall:

(1) Obama raised $70 million in nine months from half a million people. This demonstrates two points:
(a) He caters to a real demand in the Democratic electorate - intense enough to open wallets.

(b) His money can facilitate a more sophisticated campaign strategy. Obama can do more than win Iowa and hope that he magically catches fire. Instead, he can win Iowa and fight Clinton dollar-for-dollar, state-for-state.

(2) Obama is the most authentic change candidate among the top three Democrats. Hillary Clinton is not this candidate. Her principal qualification for the job is her role as her husband's advisor - so she was always going to run on the record of the 1990s. John Edwards has positioned himself as a change candidate, but he does not convey the authenticity that Obama does.

(3) Obama is organized in Iowa. He recognized that organization was critically important for an Iowa victory - and that an Iowa victory was necessary for his broader strategy. And so, he is organized and ready for the January 3 caucus.

Through the summer and the fall, journalists underestimated the importance of these because they used the opinion polls to create a horse race out of whole cloth. In reality - the opinions expressed to pollsters were not stable enough to support the idea that there was an actual race going on. Voter opinions were based on little information and even less interest in the campaign. Obama's activities were never going to register with these uninformed and uninterested voters in the summer; they were always meant to yield dividends in the winter. So, Obama was seen to be a weaker candidate than he really was. Accordingly, Clinton was seen to be stronger than she really was. She was always the frontrunner (she still is), but the overuse of opinion polls made her appear "unstoppable" and "inevitable" to the press.

Like the press, the Clinton campaign clearly underestimated Obama - it over-looked the money, the message, or the organizing. Perhaps the Clinton campaign did this for the same reason as the press. Perhaps it relied so heavily on the opinion polls that it could not see that Obama was preparing to launch a viable campaign later on.

I think this explanation has some credibility to it. I'm thinking in particular of Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist and pollster. His comments over the course of the campaign have struck me as utilizing the same erroneous assumptions that informed the press' summer horse race narrative. Consider this snippet from the Ben Smith's blog. The date of this entry is October 18. 2007:

"Republicans are not prepared for the loss of a substantial group of Republican women voters ... even in the South," he said. "I think you're going to see as much as 24% of Republican women defect and make a major difference nationwide in terms of, I think, the emotional element of potentially having the first woman nominee. And that that actually will be a major unexpected factor here that will throw the Republicans for a loop."

This is a ridiculously overconfident assertion.

First, research has shown that partisanship is a stable and powerful feature of a person's psychology. It has also shown that voters who are conflicted between their partisanship and their evaluations of the candidates often resolve the conflict by simply abstaining, rather than voting for the other party. The idea that one in four Republican women will defy these regularities is possible, but far from likely.

Second, I just cannot see how this figure can be quantified some twelve-and-a-half months prior to the election. That's just insane to me. Everything we know about the levels of voter information, voter attention, the effect of the media dialogue on transitory political opinions, the influence of question wording and ordering - leads me to suspect that Penn is committing some serious inferential fallacy. It is not that he is necessarily wrong. It is that his assertion is dramatically underdetermined. The numbers are not giving him the hard answers he thinks they are.

This is the kind of comment I expect from non-expert journalists who look at the polls and read the numbers in a naïve way. "Republican women say that they would consider voting for Clinton; ergo, they would consider voting for Clinton." Not quite. The fact of the matter is that you can't come to this conclusion so easily. Underlying all of those seemingly straightforward numbers is a complex, intricate aggregation of individual voter psychologies. This makes inferential analysis extremely difficult.

I would contrast Penn's silly assertion with the considered work of political scientists who specialize in political psychology. The best work in this subfield is the most difficult stuff I have ever read. The theories are complicated, the methods are complex, and the conclusions are always narrow and tentative because voter psychology is incredibly difficult to delineate. It is not made any easier by the fact that our best point of contact with voters is the opinion survey - which, when you think about it, is quite distant from their interior mental states.

You can find the same flippancy in Penn's strategy memos - which have come out periodically over the course of the campaign. All of them follow the same basic script as this one from July: Clinton's poll position is insurmountable; there is no need to have an election because a sample of the voting population has reported statistically significant results that Clinton will win.

In January he argued, "If Hillary leads in Ohio at this point in the race -- the key state that gave the last election to the Republicans -- then this confirms that Hillary can win and is today winning. She is the strongest Democrat in what was the most difficult state." Look at his words carefully: polling results some twenty-two months before the election "confirm" that Hillary can win and "is" winning. In February he said basically the same thing in response to the latest polling data, "As other candidates are getting more and more attention, Hillary is getting more and more support...This poll confirms that Hillary not only can win but actually is today winning."

In August, he wrote that voters had "come to see the race differently," and accordingly "concluded" that Clinton "has what it takes to be President and what it takes to take on the Republicans." It is untenable to argue that voter perceptions were changing in August, or that voters had concluded anything before Labor Day.

In October, he said that Clinton's support among women is "deep" - and that "94% of young women" will be more likely to turn out to vote for the first female nominee. Much like his comment about Republican women - there is no way to quantify how "young women" will respond to Clinton some thirteen months before Election Day. Nor, for that matter, can depth of support be easily interpreted from simple yes-or-no questions asked months before the first votes are cast.

In November, he wrote that the "leadership card" is the reason "why people are voting for Hillary Clinton." His consistent use of the present tense to describe the act of voting represents the same fallacy that polling respondents are no different than voters.

Now, there is a lot of spin going on with these memos. In particular, Penn has an incentive to play to the prior beliefs of the audience - i.e. journalists who cannot distinguish between a February poll and a December poll. However, spin alone cannot explain Penn's voluminous study of the polls. I counted upwards of 6,000 words offered in analysis of polling data since the start of the campaign - no campaign's senior adviser spends so much effort dissecting the polls simply for the purpose of spinning the press. That would be a misallocation of resources.

Spin alone also does not explain why Penn would consistently take the tone he has adopted. If he agreed that the polls could turn on a dime, he would never argue that they would not. Anybody with a lick of sense knows not to tell a falsifiable lie if it can be avoided. Generally, the fact that the Clinton campaign facilitated the idea of inevitability is an indication that it believed that it was inevitable. You don't go pushing that storyline if you believe it is not necessarily true. Otherwise, you set expectations far too high - and you run the risk of getting burned when things do not go your way.

This is actually Clinton's biggest problem right now. When the voting starts, expectations matter. Most of the electorate's information on the campaign will come from the media - whose emphasis is on the horse race. Who's up and who's down. If Clinton loses several of the first contests, she will receive more negative coverage than, say, Giuliani because her campaign once convinced the press that she couldn't lose.

So, I think that the Mark Penn and the Clinton campaign might have made the same basic mistake the press made. They over-interpreted the polls. They wrongly assumed that the opinions expressed in them were more informed, sophisticated, and stable than they actually were. I think that this, in turn, caused them to overlook Obama's real strengths.

The big question: what will this cost them? Possibly nothing. I think this race remains fundamentally unchanged. Winning Iowa is a necessary condition for Obama. It is a sufficient condition for Clinton. Clinton could win Iowa - and her numbers that have slipped in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and nationwide will rebound. The race will be over. In that case, her campaign will probably be in better shape for having learned a good lesson at no cost. But it might cost them something. There is such a small margin that separates Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in Iowa that her campaign's maladroit response to Obama could cost her victory. In that case - the race continues to New Hampshire, South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday. And she could lose the nomination.

-Jay Cost

Footnote to Friday's Column

On Friday, I wrote a column entitled "On the Republican Itinerary." Using data from the Washington Post, I tracked where Republican candidates have been spending their time since November 1 (outside debates and fundraisers). Following the Post, I noted that Fred Thompson had 14 public events, half of which had been in South Carolina.

A few hours after the article had gone up, I received an email from Paul in New Jersey - pointing me to an article written by Bill Theobald of the Tennessean, which asserted:

A review of the two-week period from Nov. 4-17 by Gannett News Service shows Thompson held 28 campaign events, making him No. 2 among the four major GOP candidates. Sen. John McCain of Arizona topped the list at 35. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney held 22 and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, 20.

Giuliani, however, had the broadest reach, visiting 10 states and Washington, D.C., during the period. He was followed by McCain with 10 states, Thompson with seven states and D.C., and Romney with six states.

How to explain the differences? Remember first of all that I excluded debates and fundraisers. But also WaPo says about its count, "This database does not include every event; fundraisers often are not announced, and some events will be updated as more details become available."

When we put the fundraisers and debates back into the WaPo count, we can make the following comparisons:

Giuliani: Gannett says 20 events in 10 states plus DC; WaPo says 18 events in 8 states plus DC.

McCain: Gannett says 35 events in 10 states. WaPo says 39 events in 8 states plus DC.

Romney: Gannett says 22 events in 6 states. WaPo says 36 events in 8 states.

Thompson: Gannett says 28 events in 7 states plus. WaPo says 10 events in 3 states.

Does this new data affect my argument? Yes - a little bit. There really are no major differences between WaPo and Gannett on McCain and Giuliani. And WaPo seems to have a more comprehensive count for Romney than Gannett. So, the effect, if there is one, would only be with Thompson.

The inference I drew about the Thompson campaign is that it had been emphasizing South Carolina, not Iowa, in its public campaign appearances - and that its pivot from the former to the latter is a recent change. The Gannett count would alter this conclusion if and only if: (a) it counts public (i.e. non-fundraising) appearances that WaPo missed AND (b) a comprehensive count of Thompson's public appearances alters the balance between Iowa and South Carolina that the WaPo data indicates. For instance, if those 18 additional Thompson events were public appearances, most of which were in Iowa and not South Carolina - that would change my conclusion.

But, the article from the Tennessean does not give a detailed breakdown of the types of events Thompson held. So, maybe the conclusion would change. Maybe not. At the least, this differing count introduces some variance into my estimate. My intuition at this point is that the differences between the two are due largely to fundraisers - that WaPo's count is basically accurate when it comes to public appearances.

Nevertheless, WaPo is clearly missing some public appearances. This is from my emailer Paul:

Here's an account of him campaigning in SC the weekend of Friday, November 24. No mention on WaPo of Fred doing anything on the 24th, 25th or 26th.

Here's video of Fred speaking at the Florida Family Policy Council on 11/16/2007. Nothing listed on WaPo.

Here's video of him campaigning in Ohio on 12/7/07. WaPo has him as "no events scheduled".

So, WaPo is clearly not counting Thompson's public events comprehensively. If the undercount is not factoring in appearances in Iowa - my conclusion from Friday would not hold. As I do not know what WaPo is missing, I am necessarily less confident about the Thompson campaign.

I certainly would have mentioned Gannett's count if I had known about it. I had assumed that WaPo's count could be considered roughly accurate - and that its numbers for public appearances are reliable. If anybody knows of another count that might enable a verification of the WaPo numbers, please let me know.

-Jay Cost

On the Republican Itinerary

A few months back I put together an analysis of Rudy Giuliani's campaign schedule. This enabled me to conclude that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Giuliani had not recently decided to campaign in New Hampshire. Instead, his strategy had been largely consistent - mixing trips to the Granite State and the states of Super Tuesday.

I would like to update and expand this analysis now. Today, I am going to review all five major Republican candidates. In so doing, I hope to tease out some insights into how each campaign organization views the race. This analysis shall cover candidate visits from November 1 through yesterday - excluding fundraising events and debates. All data was obtained at the Washingtonpost.com.

We will start with Giuliani and Romney. From a travel perspective, they are the most interesting campaigns. Not only do they have the most money, they are also viable in the most states. So, it is most interesting to see how they choose to use their time.

First, we should note that Romney simply campaigns more than Guiliani. Romney has held 78 functions since November 1. He has taken only 12 days off during this period. Giuliani, on the other hand, has held 45 functions since November 1. He has taken 19 days off.

In some respects, Giuliani's campaign schedule has closely matched his poll numbers. He tends to avoid states in which he is losing badly, as well as states in which he is winning by a large margin. So, for instance - he has made only four appearances in Iowa since November 1. His last appearance there was on November 14. Interestingly, he was in Des Moines on December 3 for the NPR debate, but he did not schedule any further events in Iowa. The same goes for this week. He was in-and-out just for the debate.

Relatedly, he has been largely absent from Florida. He has visited the Sunshine State just four times since November 1. Given the importance of Florida to Giuliani's campaign strategy - there are two inferences we might draw from his absence. Perhaps the Giuliani campaign senses that its position in Florida is strong. His lead there is as large as it has been since May. On the other hand, perhaps the Giuliani campaign intuits that Florida is not yet "ripe." Florida voters might not be paying enough attention right now to make campaign stops worth his effort. In this scenario, his time would be better spent in a state like New Hampshire. My guess is that both answers have some validity to them. The Giuliani campaign senses that it has laid a good groundwork in Florida, and so it can save its trips there for later.

But in other respects, Giuliani's campaign itinerary has left me puzzled. In particular, Giuliani has made no stops in Michigan since November 1. He is up in the RCP average, but not by a large amount. I have no answers to this puzzle. I have only questions. Does the Giuliani campaign know something that the poll numbers are not telling us? Perhaps his position is stronger than the polls show, thus enabling him to ignore Michigan. Perhaps it is weaker, thus making trips there not worth his while. Are Michiganders like Floridians - not yet on-line in the same way that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire are? Does the Giuliani campaign simply not regard Michigan as a game changer?

Just as puzzling is Giuliani's de-emphasis of South Carolina, which has merited just two appearances since November 1. South Carolina is legitimately a five-way contest between Romney, Giuliani, McCain, Huckabee, and Thompson. And yet Guiliani does not seem to be campaigning there very hard. All of the questions that we asked about Michigan can be asked once again - with one additional hypothesis. Perhaps the Giuliani campaign thinks that, regardless of what happens in South Carolina, it cannot lose. In a five-man race, it is unlikely that the winner will win by enough to develop any momentum.

So - where has Giuliani been spending his time? Essentially, he has been toggling between New Hampshire, where he has made 18 public appearances since November 1, and the Super Tuesday states, where he has made 11 public appearances. This is consistent with the hypothesis about Giuliani's campaign I made in October. It is striking a balance between the early states and the states of February 5. This strategy has come into better focus now - whereas Giuliani was largely spreading his time between Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, and South Carolina when I last wrote, it now appears that New Hampshire is the focus of his efforts.

Romney's campaign is less mysterious and much more systematic than the Giuliani campaign. It has done what it claimed all along it would do: attempt to build momentum in advance of Super Tuesday. And so, witness the near-perfect balance in Romney's campaign schedule:

Iowa: 26 appearances
New Hampshire: 22 appearances
Michigan: 5 appearances
Nevada: 4 appearances
South Carolina: 4 appearances
Florida: 12 appearances

This makes perfect sense. There are no anomalies here. The Romney campaign has balanced the early states precisely according to their prestige and their places on the calendar. Accordingly, the bulk of its efforts have been geared toward Iowa and New Hampshire (48 out of 78 appearances have been made there). Meanwhile, the minor states that separate New Hampshire from Florida have received 13 appearances in all. Florida has received 12. Whereas the Giuliani campaign itinerary leaves us with questions - there should be no doubt what the Romney campaign is attempting to do.

What interests me is whether and how either candidate's schedule will change because of the emergence of Mike Huckabee. Most of my data set covers the period before Huckabee opened up a lead in Iowa and took a strong second place in the national polls. It remains to be seen if and how Huckabee will influence the choices of Giuliani and Romney. I wonder in particular if the Romney campaign had hoped to have Iowa "locked up" by this point - and therefore could begin to invest its time in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. It is, of course, too early to do anything but speculate. I will update this analysis prior to the Iowa Caucuses so that we can get a sense of any late changes in the strategies of the candidates. In the meantime - I would note that Romney has been in Iowa for most of the week.

As I indicated above - I ran a similar analysis on the three GOP candidates whose campaigns are more regionally based: McCain, Thompson, and Huckabee.

McCain's activities are largely unsurprising. His campaign has made 63 public appearances since November 1 (excluding debates). This is more than Giuliani and almost as many as Romney - which is impressive, as McCain is the only major Republican candidate who is not unemployed! By and large, his campaign has emphasized the two states in which it is strongest. McCain has made 32 appearances in New Hampshire, and 15 in South Carolina. Prior to this week, he had not appeared in Iowa since early November - though he did schedule three events around the debate.

There is one quirk with McCain's strategy. I am surprised that the campaign has not spent more time in Michigan, which provided McCain with a big win in 2000. The Democrats, as we all know, are avoiding Michigan. Most of them will not even be on the ballot. Importantly, Michigan is an open primary. Team McCain might be able to count on independents coming to support him as they did eight years ago, given that the Democratic contest probably will not draw their attention as many expect it to in New Hampshire. And yet, it has not held a public event in Michigan for weeks.

Fred Thompson has made only 14 public appearances since November 1 - half of which have been in South Carolina. He has made but two public appearances in Iowa since Halloween. Thus, it seems to me that his decision to throw everything to Iowa is a tad ad hoc. There is no indication from Thompson's schedule that his campaign had taken Iowa so seriously. Is this a recent realization? Did the campaign once think that it could pin its hopes on South Carolina, but has since changed its mind? If it did, it was wise to do so. I do not think it can survive for two weeks and four major contests without placing.

Huckabee has made 44 public appearances since November 1 - fewer than Romney, McCain, or Giuliani. Honestly, this surprised me. I assumed that - as an upstart/insurgent candidate without much money - Huckabee would really be pounding the pavement. Not so much. I was also surprised by the distribution of campaign appearances. I assumed that Iowa would dominate his public itinerary. Again, not so. By my count, Huckabee has made just nine public appearances in the Hawkeye State since Halloween. In contrast, he has made 12 appearances in South Carolina, and 15 appearances in New Hampshire. This is not a huge surprise: Huckabee has visited South Carolina and New Hampshire many times since the beginning of the year. What is surprising is that Iowa has been deemphasized a bit. Whereas for the entire campaign season, Iowa has seen more Huckabee visits than any other state - in the last 45 days, it has received the third most.

So, what inferences can we draw from this? By and large - it serves as confirmation of our previous suspicions. But there are a few new insights to be had. I think there is no doubt that the Giuliani campaign has abandoned Iowa. I also think there is no doubt that the Thompson campaign's decision to embrace Iowa was a recent decision, largely inconsistent with its previous trips. We'll have to watch Romney's schedule this month - and see whether it is narrower because of the threat of Huckabee. Conversely, it will be interesting to see if Huckabee continues to emphasize New Hampshire and South Carolina. Does he think he can get a big boost in the Granite State from an Iowa win? Perhaps he does. Finally - I wonder about the choices of McCain and Giuliani. Hardly any trips to Michigan from either of them. That seems quite strange to me. What are those two up to? One would think that Romney's troubles in Iowa make vigorous campaigns in Michigan seem more worthwhile, especially with those two - but so far, very little attention has been paid there.

-Jay Cost

A Waste of Time

Yesterday's Republican primary debate was awful.

There was basically no "hitting" in it whatsoever. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if the only thing you knew about this debate was that there were no real shots taken by any candidate - you might guess that it was a worthwhile ninety minutes that educated voters on policy differences between the candidates.

But you would be wrong.

In fact, this debate combined the worst feature of the prior outings - questions that elucidated little in terms of substance - with none of the entertaining fisticuffs that at least made the previous debates fun to watch.

There were two major problems.

First, the questions stunk. Just plain stunk. Here are the questions I had jotted down in my notes:

"Does our financial situation create a security risk?"

"What sacrifices should Americans make to reduce the national debt?"

"Who is paying more than their fair of taxes?"

"How would you have an open White House?"

"Ron Paul, how would you get a Congress that completely disagrees with you to go along with your policies if you were elected President, which will never happen, anyway."

"Is it more important to be a social conservative or a fiscal conservative?"

"Alan Keyes, please tell us what you think because your opinion is worth hearing."

What a waste. What were these questions designed to do? They might have some value in a debate between a Republican and a Democrat - for instance, it might be interesting to hear differences between the parties on the relationship between economic and national security. But when you have candidates from just one party participating, you have to try a little bit harder to get them to differentiate themselves from one another. For how pompous the moderator seemed - shushing candidates left and right, and abjectly refusing to allow Fred Thompson to speak on global warming - you would think she was asking something better than these inane queries.

When the questions were not completely useless - the format impeded anything approaching an intelligent answer. The Des Moines Register took the same basic MSNBC format - where candidates are awarded for pithy one-offs and silly sound bite attacks - but did not ask the questions that facilitate those small-ball answers. This was the second big problem. The format. The Register wanted important answers compacted into the petty time allowances. That just was never going to happen. So, Mike Huckabee was given ten or so seconds to tell us something new about how his faith would inform not just his policies generally, but his health care and his education policies.

The last question was the best example of what seemed to me to have been an ill-conceived debate. It was basically an open opportunity to take a shot at another candidate. However, the question itself ("Name a New Year's resolution for one of your opponents") was so poorly constructed that virtually no candidate made use of it. Tancredo, no stickler for subtlety, was the only one willing to take his shot - but the moderator cut him off!

It is not surprising to me that Thompson was given a gold star for his performance. His campaign is, as I have argued, a campaign against the way the media presents politics to the voters. So, it figures that Thompson was quick to complain about the format - and win kudos for expressing what all of us were feeling at that moment.

All in all, the number of good debates have been pathetically few. The press needs to reevaluate its role in our presidential politics. At least so far this cycle, it is not performing the role we might expect of an institution protected by the Bill of Rights.

As for winners and losers - John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. They lost. Big time. The reason is that neither of them is actively competing in Iowa anymore, so they made special trips to the Hawkeye State. They lost a full day of campaigning for this waste of time. With just a month left and both of them in second place - that's a real loss. The winner was clearly Mike Huckabee. This debate could not have changed any minds in Iowa - as he has the lead right now, he benefits the most.

-Jay Cost

Debate Predictions

Tomorrow I am going to offer another analysis of "who hit whom." I did this for the last GOP debate, and I thought it gave us some purchase on how the candidates view the race.

Today, I want to lay down some predictions on how the attacks are going to come. My basic intuition is that - whereas in the previous debate, Giuliani received most of the hits - he will probably not be attacked as much today. Instead, look for Romney and Thompson to go after Huckabee. Both of them rightly perceive the former Arkansas governor as a threat.

Generally - what we should see today is part of the final act of this cycle's Republican drama: who shall be the social conservative alternative to Giuliani? This is essentially a battle between Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson. For most of the campaign season, it appeared as though Romney was the presumptive anti-Rudy. At least as far as the polls go, this position is now a toss-up between Huckabee and Romney - with Thompson a marginal player. My guess is that most of the attacks will come from Romney and Thompson - and they will be directed at Huckabee.

I will be particularly interested in two elements of this interaction. First, will Romney's attacks on Huckabee be artful? As I have argued before, I think the Romney campaign has a better grasp of the science of politics than it does the art. Today, I think Romney's hits will have to be dexterous to be effective with Iowan viewers. We know Romney can hit Huckabee. Can he hit him well? We might not get an immediate answer to this question because the Washington insiders who report and analyze these debates tend to relish the hits more than the voters in flyover country. So, we might see something akin to the first Bush v. Gore debate: what might initially be scored as a success by the pundits turns out to be a failure.

Second, how will Huckabee handle the religion issue? The question about Jesus and Satan that he posed to Zev Chafets of the New York TImes Magazine might have been innocent and accidental - but it could just as easily have been purposeful. This leaves me wondering whether and, if so, how Huckabee intends to use religion to marginalize Romney. My guess is that he lays off the religion issue - but that he does so in a way that is a de facto shot. For instance, if asked if Mormonism is part of Christianity, I would expect Huckabee to say something like, "I don't know." Generally, look for Huckabee's attacks on Romney - if there are any at all - to be passive aggressive.

Ultimately, with Huckabee, Romney, and Thompson caught up with one another - McCain will likely go unassailed today - as was the case last time. But this social conservative squabble also means that Giuliani could escape most of the hits, too. He is not really a target right now.

Accordingly, this debate should be very liberating for both Giuliani and McCain. I expect them both to do well. Not only will they likely have nobody attack them - they have fewer audience constraints, too. Romney, Huckabee, and Thompson are actually playing to two audiences. On the one hand, they have to court the undecided Iowa Republicans tuning in (and my guess is that this debate will grab their attention). On the other hand, they also have to court the Washington journalists/pundits who are going to summarize the debate for the rest of the nation. Giuliani and McCain are really just playing to the latter group - as they stand no chance in Iowa.

-Jay Cost

On Penn's Latest Strategy Memo

Hillary Clinton's chief pollster, Mark Penn, offered another strategy memo this week. This time, he discussed the polls - and suggested a way to interpret them. Today, I would like to respond to this memo.

Let's take it point-for-point.

What's happening in the Democratic primary for president?

A lot less than the headlines would suggest.

Iowa continues to be a competitive race while Hillary is maintaining meaningful leads in all the other states and in the national polls that are representative of her Feb 5th strength.

But with the plethora of polls it is becoming increasingly difficult to follow what is a trend, what is a poll without a trend, what is a screened phone poll and what is a computer driven poll. The natural tendency is for those polls that show it closer to get more attention. They are "news."

The big paragraph at the end was what got my attention, and actually induced me to pen a response. Here, Penn mixes a controversial statement with a non-controversial statement - suggesting that the latter implies the former.

I think we would all agree that the media focuses on the polls that show a closer race. However, the first sentence of the paragraph - when we combine it with the penultimate paragraph - is actually quite controversial. It seems to me that Penn is suggesting that if we select our polls judiciously, rather than doing what the headline-hungry press does, we will see that Clinton has a "meaningful" lead in "all the other states" beyond Iowa.

Ironically, the word "meaningful" is, at least for the moment, a meaningless term. Does he mean that her lead is statistically significant? Does he mean that the lead is not just significant, but durable? We cannot yet tell.

Let's see where he wants to take this.

There's yet a new case-in-point of poll confusion today with the release of a slew of Mason-Dixon polls - but a look at their past polls paints a very different story than at first glance. For example, they have Hillary ahead by 3 points today in SC and pundits suggest that this shows how the race has closed. But while other polls showed a strong lead in June, the Mason-Dixon poll had Hillary losing by 9 points in June, so this actually shows Hillary's margin up by 12 points from their last poll and surging. When you look at the facts by tracking results over time from the same poll, she is up, not down. Other polls give her a much wider lead than Mason-Dixon: the latest Pew poll has Hillary ahead by 14 points in South Carolina and the latest ARG poll has her 24 points ahead.

Because predicting primaries is extremely difficult and everyone has their own methodologies, you have to look at polls from the same pollsters to see if there have been changes.

Similarly, the Mason Dixon poll in NH shows a close race with a 3 point lead for Hillary - but their last poll in June gave her a 5 point lead - and a WMUR/CNN poll around the same time had Hillary leading in New Hampshire by 15 points. So Mason-Dixon was low in June and they actually show no statistically significant change in her margin now.

Again, Penn mixes controversial with uncontroversial statements - hoping that the latter validate the former. Here, he suggests that we examine the trend in a given poll to get a sense of the race. This is a valid idea - and it is why Tom, Blake, and Reid are always careful to mention trends when they report new polls on the RCP Blog. However, if we do what he suggests - "look at polls from the same pollsters to see if there have been changes" - we will not find what he asserts - "she is up, not down." At least not if we do it in the correct way.

Penn wants to select June as his baseline. This is not a viable selection - for two reasons. First, our interest is, as he claims, to see if there have been "changes." If we want to identify changes, we should actually look at the polls that immediately preceded the most recent batch. Second, the race was much tighter in June than it has been up until recently. The RCP average of national polls showed Clinton with a lead of less than 10% on Obama as of June 10. I think we would all agree that Team Obama would love it if the race right now resembled the race in June!

So - what we need to do is compare the latest polls to their immediate predecessors. Let's do New Hampshire first.

Zogby had Clinton up by 15 in September. Now it has her up by 11.

Marist had Clinton up by 22 in November and 22 in October. Now it has her up by 13.

Rasmussen had Clinton up by 10 in November and 16 on October 23. Now it has her up by 7.

ARG had Clinton up by 18 in October and 19 in September. It had her up by 11 in November.

CNN had Clinton up by 23 in September. It had her up by 14 in November.

What about South Carolina? It is more difficult to track trends there because fewer polls have been taken - and polling companies are surveying with less frequency. Nevertheless, there are three companies that have polled multiple times in the past few months: Insider Advantage, Rasmussen, and ARG. Insider Advantage and Rasmussen show Clinton's lead shrinking. ARG shows it increasing.

Penn only mentions the ARG poll.

Let's continue with the memo.

2nd case in point: Last week three polls of New Hampshire Democratic primary voters were released. One showed Hillary with a 14 point lead (Marist), one showed Hillary with an 11 point lead (Zogby) and one gave Hillary a 6 point lead (ABC/Washington Post). Which poll got the most attention? The one that showed the closest race - ABC/Washington Post. And poll junkies should also note that New Hampshire polling is particularly difficult because it is often unclear to the last minute which independent voters are coming to which primary - and Hillary has a strong and energized lead with Democrats.

I think Penn gives us a clue here by what he means with the word "meaningful." We learned that Hillary has a "meaningful" lead. Now we learn that Hillary has a "strong and energized" lead. It seems to me that he is not hinting at simple statistical significance. He is hinting at durability. That is - Clinton's lead now can be expected to endure to Election Day.

I would ask how he could possibly know that from the methodology he offers. The only suggestion that he has made so far is that we watch the changes in a given poll. But we will only wind up with the conclusion of meaningful, strong, and energized if we look at certain polls (ARG) and ignore others (Mason-Dixon, Rasmussen).

How do we evaluate his claim?

Penn noted above that each poll has its own particular methodology. This makes it difficult to evaluate Penn's argument - or any assertion about the state of the race. Pollsters are not like academics, who often spend pages and pages describing and defending their methodologies before they actually get to their results. Polling methodologies are treated as proprietary interests, and kept close to the vest. ARG, for instance, gives us almost no hint of how it goes about conducting its polls. Thus, all that we have are these bare numbers, with no indication of how they were created.

Which poll should we select?

Here's what I do. Let's take New Hampshire as an explicative case.

Suppose that we deem five polls to be current: Mason-Dixon, Zogby, ABC News/WaPo, Marist, and Rasmussen. Let's also suppose that we have no a priori idea which poll's methodology is the correct indicator of the preferences of the January 8 electorate (but we assume that one is indeed reasonably unbiased).


If we guessed that Mason-Dixon has the correct methodology, we would expect Clinton to be at 30%.

If we guessed that Zogby has it, we would expect her to be at 32%.

If we guessed that ABC News/WaPo has it, we would expect her to be at 35%.

If we guessed that Marist has it, swe would expect her to be at 37%.

If we guessed that Rasmussen has it, we would expect her to be at 33%.

We have five numbers, each of which comes from a different methodology. We do not know which comes from the proper method - but we do know that each has a 1 in 5, or 20%, chance of being derived from the right method.

What should we do?

We should work to minimize our expected error. What number could we select that minimizes the likelihood that we have chosen incorrectly? Penn wants you to take the 37% and ignore the 30%. That is not the way to minimize your expected error. One way to minimize your expected error is by calculating the statistical average, which is computed as:

(30 X .20) + (32 X .20) + (35 X .20) + (37 X .20) + (33 X .20) = 33.4

[Note: We would get the same estimate regardless of how many polls we believe have accurate methods - so long as we assume that there is at least one.]

This number also happens to be the current RCP average of Clinton's position.

A-ha! Now we have a way to get not just a sense of the trends within a poll, but we also get a sense of what all the polls are pointing to. It is not necessarily an unbiased estimate. After all, there may be a poll in there with an absolutely lousy methodology. If there is, our estimate is indeed biased. However, our average minimizes this bias in light of the fact that we have no a priori idea which poll (if any) has lousy methodology.

I cannot emphasize enough that this solution is not ideal. It is, rather, the most practical response to the choice of polling companies not to publish their methodologies in any great detail, and therefore to thwart a robust debate among experts as to which is superior. If pollsters had the same reporting protocols as, say, the American Political Science Review, we could improve upon this average by evaluating each poll's methodology - and selecting those whose methodologies are most sound. But, because we are not professional pollsters and cannot go "behind the veil," this is the best we can do.

So, we compute the statistical average. This is the best response to the polling environment. We can compute this average over time, graph it, and get a quick visual idea of where the race stands from this "minimize expected error" perspective.

You probably have seen such graphs before:


So, contrary to Penn's claims - we see that the race has tightened in New Hampshire. If we graph the other contests, we would see that most (but not all) show tightening of various degrees.

And therefore we see that Penn's initial uncontroversial statement about the media's reporting of polls does not validate his controversial statement that Hillary's lead is meaningful, strong, and energized. The latter conclusion comes only when one selects the polls that show Hillary at her strongest. This is not the correct way to get a sense of the race.

-Jay Cost

The Dynamics of the GOP Race in Iowa

Jonathan Martin had an interesting column in Sunday's Politico about the GOP race in Iowa. This is what he had to say:

As the battle for Iowa enters the home stretch, the race appears to be breaking down along a simple fault line: Mike Huckabee's momentum and passion versus Mitt Romney's organization.

What one has the other lacks. [snip]

All the mojo seems to be with Huckabee - a Newsweek poll released Friday shows him ahead of Romney by a staggering 39 percent to 17 percent margin.

But Iowa veterans warn that while Huckabee is all the rage, it's almost impossible to win in Iowa without an organization - and Huckabee's is skeletal. "A poll is a poll in Iowa," observes Ed Failor Jr., a longtime Iowa Republican and anti-tax leader based in Muscatine who is currently undecided. "But it's different than turning out voters on caucus night."

I generally agree with Martin's characterization of the Iowa race. However, I think there are a few important caveats to make.

First, Huckabee is still in what might be called a "honeymoon" phase. Voters are just now learning about him. This is important because when voters do not know very much about a candidate, they tend to ascribe to him the qualities that they prefer - even if the candidate might not possess those qualities. It is kind of like projection. Larry Bartels found this to be the case for Carter in 1976, Bush in 1980, and Hart in 1984. My intuition is that something like this is happening with Huckabee. If so, that would be good news for the Romney campaign - which can use its resources and its remaining time to educate Iowans about how Huckabee is not the best thing since sliced bread. And so, Huckabee's numbers might be artificially high right now.

Second, I remain unconvinced that Huckabee will necessarily need a strong GOTV organization to win the caucus. Last month's ABC News/WaPo poll found that Huckabee has a huge lead among those who have previously attended a caucus. Romney, on the other hand, was winning among those who have never previously attended a caucus. So, Huckabee might have found a core of supporters who do not need to be mobilized actively, while Romney might need to use his full GOTV efforts just to get to the numbers he's registering in the opinion polls. Relatedly, this caucus is probably the most intense in the history on the Republican side. High intensity campaigns can have the effect of increasing voter turnout. We might find, in other words, the same kind of irony that manifested itself at Ames, where Romney and Brownback worked to get people to the straw poll, some of whom supported Huckabee.

Third, I think it is wrong to discount the passion of Romney supporters. I'd wager that Romney has a floor of something around 20% in these polls - and that is an important asset in a five-way race.

Fourth, I will be interested to see what happens with Fred Thompson - who apparently has decided to make a final stand in the Hawkeye State. As Stephen Hayes wrote on Friday - Thompson has decided to spend every day but Christmas campaigning in Iowa. He does not believe that he can wait until South Carolina - whose primary is sixteen days after the Iowa Caucus - to have a decent show. This is probably a necessary move for Thompson, who will probably not win Iowa - but, this effort could make it so that he places respectably. Hayes writes:

Thompson has said publicly that he needs to finish in the top three in Iowa. Campaign officials say that a strong third place finish--presumably behind new frontrunner Mike Huckabee and former frontrunner Mitt Romney--would likely give them enough momentum to survive New Hampshire and compete in South Carolina and beyond. A second place finish would be a victory. "Just when the interest is there the greatest, is when we'll be here the most."

It will be interesting to see if this thrust yields him voters - and, if so, where they come from. The RCP average currently indicates that about 15% of Republican respondents are undecided. Thompson could sample heavily from them if this trip is successful. But he might also steal votes from Huckabee or Romney. I certainly think that the Thompson campaign hopes to take votes from both - in recent days it has attacked the Romney campaign on changing stances on social issues and it has gone after the Huckabee campaign for not knowing enough about Iran.

Finally, the Huckabee campaign gets an A-for-effort for this little gem, but I am not buying:

It's enough to delight Huckabee's camp, but also cause to make supporters worry that expectations are rising too high too soon.

"Folks need to calm down here," says Eric Woolson, Huckabee's Iowa director.

"We've said from day one, back there in January, the objective is to finish in the top three. It's always been to finish in the top three and that's still the objective today."

Nice try. I always get a kick out of campaigns trying to manage expectations - especially when they make silly statements like this (which they often do). If Huckabee finishes in third, he is finished.

-Jay Cost

On Romney's Speech

There are two ways to evaluate Romney's speech. The first is as a matter of political theory: is the logic of the speech sound? The second is as a matter of public opinion: will its logic have any force with the voters?

As a matter of public opinion, a few voters who watched the speech were surely swayed - but it will not have a direct, mass effect. Not enough people will have watched it - even in Iowa. What it might do is change the media narrative. Romney can't have people in Iowa and New Hampshire continuously hear that he is slipping in the polls. This speech can change that story, at least for a while.

As a matter of political theory, I have mixed feelings about it. Romney's basic thrust was the following. There is a common faith in this country, a "great moral inheritance" derived from the shared belief in a divine, benevolent Creator, that translates into universal political ideals: equality, service, and liberty. The American position therefore recognizes that faith is an important aspect of civil society, but that at the same time society must allow for the multiplicity of religious sentiments. This creed is what has fostered a dynamism that "has kept America in the forefront of civilized nations even as others regard religious freedom as something to be destroyed." Accordingly, what is needed is a president who appreciates and shares this basic faith. Furthermore, citizens have a duty to recognize both the importance and the limitations of the role of faith in public life: candidates should be judged on the basis of the fact that they have faith, but not on its particulars.

I think Romney has hit upon one of the original premises of American religious toleration. I thought he did the Founders' views justice - and he also made them relevant to today. On the question of how to integrate religion into the basic structure of civic life, I think Romney's reasoning was sound.

But this is the view from 30,000 feet. The purpose of this election is not to design a new constitutional system. Its purpose is to elect a president to govern over a divided nation. Romney offered a rigorous defense of the foundation of American civil society - but he never addressed the concern that induced him to give this speech in the first place.

And what is that concern? It is the same concern that always turns American unity into partisan division - the transition from questions about how to structure the government to questions about what to do once the government has been structured. Here - we are confronted with divisions, many of which have their derivations in differing religious opinions. While it is true that religious similarities yield similar political ideals - it is also true that religious differences yield different political preferences.

And herein lies Romney's essential problem. He has taken issue positions that many voters take because of specific religious beliefs. This is not to say that there are not other ways to derive those positions - but it is to say that many people who adopt those positions justify them by their particular theological beliefs. They are not, cannot, be justified by a shared religious creed. If they could, everybody who holds to that creed would be in agreement, and there would be no political issue. You can justify trial by jury or "guilty until proven innocent" by reference to this shared American religious creed. But you cannot justify opposition to embryonic stem cell research, abortion, or homosexual rights by referencing that creed (unless, of course, you want to argue that the creed is not shared by all - in which case you are just begging the question).

Romney has taken very clear positions that most who agree derive from their particular religious beliefs. He has also said very clearly that his faith informs his issue positions. However, by not discussing his religion in anything but the broadest terms - he is demurring from explaining to voters why he agrees with them. Reference to the hackneyed proposition that "every person is a child of God" does not suffice. We all think that. That does not connect with the particular campaign that he has chosen to run.

I would also note that it is not just the positions he has taken - it is the positions he has chosen to emphasize. If Romney were running a campaign akin to those of John McCain, Fred Thompson, or Rudy Giuliani - one that does not emphasize the political positions that often stem from particular religious beliefs - this speech would probably be superfluous. But, by running on the issues that animate Christian conservatives - Romney is signaling to them that he is animated by those issues in a way that his competitors are not.

Above all, he has made fuller use of the language of evangelicals than any candidate except Mike Huckabee. It is not just that he agrees with evangelicals on the issues. Through his word choices, he is intimating that he thinks in the same terms. For instance - look at his response to the question about the literal truth of the Bible in the YouTube debate:

You know - yes, I believe it's the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.

Here's what he had to say about his faith in yesterday's speech. This was the one specific point he made:
What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history.

The Boston Globe has also noted Romney's frequent reference of Christ as his "personal savior" - a term not commonly used by Mormons, but rather by evangelical Protestants. Finally, this is what he said Wednesday on Greta Van Susteren's show in response to a question about whether the campaign is physically grueling:
Oh, it's physically grueling. But, you know, at the end of the day after a few speeches and a lot of campaign stops, I'm more energized than drained. I have to read for half an hour or an hour to fall asleep. By the way, thanks to the Gideons for giving me some good material at the end of the day.

More than any candidate except Huckabee - Romney has placed rhetorical emphasis on the divinity of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. This is a signal to evangelicals.

I would suggest that the whole issue of Mormonism is actually a red herring in this campaign. The issue here is Romney himself. Remember that the Mitt Romney of 2007 is very different than the Mitt Romney of 2002 on many social issues. Five years ago, he had little to do with evangelical Christians. Now - through his positions, his language, and his emphases - he wants them to believe he is just like they are. That is all well and good - and indeed he might be. But surely he must expect those voters to be wary of the systematic changes that a 60 year old man has undergone, to want to know more about this man and what he believes, and to frame those questions in terms of religious beliefs. Is it unreasonable for those whom he is openly courting (on their terms) to inquire a bit about the origins of his policy preferences, to want some insight into his inner being, to see whether he will remain faithful to his promises once in office?

Romney seems to think so. Not only did yesterday's speech provide no positive answer - but, because it once again leaned so heavily on the non-sequitur of religious toleration, it placed the questioners on the same ash heap upon which have been placed the narrow-minded boors who drove Roger Williams to Rhode Island and Brigham Young to Utah. Romney is not the first major party candidate Mormon to run for President. He's not the second. He's not even the third. He's the fourth. Why is his religion an issue the fourth time around? It is because he has chosen to run an explicitly religious campaign that appeals to voters whose religion has political salience to them. Unsurprisingly, voters want to know a little bit more about his beliefs, but in response he transforms into the candidate of Lincoln's "political religion," deploring a religious "test," and arguing that we focus on the aspects of religion that unite us all.

The speech I would like to have seen would connect his religion to his particular political beliefs in a way that his rhetoric has been implying for a year. For instance, Mormons believe in the preexistence of the soul. They believe that families are divinely and infinitely connected. It seems to me that this forms a very sound basis for his pro-life and pro-family views. The voters he is courting are responding with questions about his beliefs. Why not answer them? He just finished saying that they are good, tolerant folk. He wants their votes. What's to fear? It seems to me to that the best antiseptic for the religious intolerance Romney fears is fresh air. He should bring his beliefs into the open - proudly and forthrightly. Explain how they connect to his politics. Tell anybody who won't vote for him because of it that he doesn't want their votes, anyway!

The contrast to Romney is George W. Bush - whose 2000 campaign is pretty clearly the model for Romney's. In 2000, Bush ran as the electable social conservative: he felt as passionately about these issues as Christian conservative voters did, and - unlike Keyes or Bauer - he could actually be elected. Romney is trying to do exactly the same. But Bush did something that Romney has so far refused to do. He explained himself to the voters. He gave them some of the particulars of the faith that informed those beliefs. He did not say much - but he communicated to voters why he took the positions he did. They were convictions, rooted in his personal conversion to Christ after years of indulgence. Romney, on the other hand, adopts all of the positions that Bush adopted, has the same vim, uses the same language - but won't explain why.

I am not arguing that government should be able to thwart the people's will and bar a duly elected person from taking office based upon his religious beliefs. I am arguing, however, that voters can vote for a person for whatever reason they choose. Furthermore, I am arguing that a candidate who has intentionally wooed a group of religious voters based upon a set of issue positions whose origin usually comes from a particular set of religious beliefs should not be surprised that the courtship breaks down because he refuses to detail his beliefs. Nor, for that matter, can he make implicit or explicit reference to bigotry as the explanation for the failed courtship.

-Jay Cost

On Clinton's Attacks

The consensus seems to be that Hillary's negativity is a bad idea.

This is what MIT's Stephen Ansolabehere - who, along with Shanto Iyengar, wrote one of the best books on negative campaigning - told Time magazine.

Clinton's harsh new rhetoric has not won much support, either from pundits or other Democrats. "I could see the desire to raise the salience of personal traits -- because her strengths are experience and strength of character," said Stephen Ansolabehere, a political science professor at MIT and author of the book Going Negative. "But her choice surprised me -- she might be emphasizing the wrong thing. Given how close this is in the polls, especially a month out, this might be a very risky strategy for her."

There are few people in this country who know as much about electoral politics as Stephen Ansolabehere. If he is as wary as Time has made him out to be - the Clinton campaign should take a second look at its strategy.

Other scholars have found that negative campaigning can, in certain circumstances, have a real "backfire" effect. Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper found the effect present in Senate campaigns. Namely, incumbent senators who attacked their challengers damaged themselves. I discussed this research last week - and I noted that, so far as I know, nobody has offered a similarly systematic treatment of presidential nomination campaigns. This, I concluded, is all the more reason for campaigns to be judicious about their attacks. Negative campaigning can be a double-edged sword - but we're not sure when and where.

Generally speaking, it is unusual for a front-running, prestigious candidate like Hillary Clinton to attack her opponents. Usually, candidates in her position wait until they are attacked - as, for instance, Giuliani did in the CNN/YouTube debate. Obama has been drawing contrasts with Clinton, for sure - but the intensity of Clinton's response was quite unprovoked. This is rare.

On one level, I can appreciate the logic of attacking Obama. One of my favorite things about the Clinton campaign is that it has essentially turned Hillary's negatives into positives. They have not tried to reshape her into a warm and cuddly politician. Instead - they have done what John Ellis noted last month. "She's a fighter. She's a scraper. She plays politics like it's a blood sport - and she fights for you, Democrats!" That's a smart campaign hook. It has the added bonus of getting the GOP all riled up, which has further helped her campaign message sink in: "Look - the Repubs are scared of her!"

In light of this strategy, doesn't she have to attack Obama? He is, after all, threatening her position. He is drawing contrasts that don't favor her. He's being subtle about it, but he is attacking her. Doesn't she have to respond to him, given the hook of her campaign? If she can't knock this featherweight around, how is she going to take on the GOP heavyweight?

I am not suggesting that Clinton necessarily feels compelled, given her image, to hit Obama. There are other, equally reasonable, suggestions that have been made. Some have argued that the Clinton campaign is simply panicking - perhaps because they know something that we don't. Others have asserted that the Clinton campaign is just relying upon its basic instincts, which is to hit and hit hard. Still others have speculated that the Clinton campaign is motivated by its hatred of Obama's presumptuousness. Any of these could be true.

While I am unsure why the Clinton campaign wants to attack Obama so intensely - I am much more confident that it has not yet found a salient line of attack. Her assault has been clumsy. I'm not a Democrat - so maybe I cannot appreciate the salience of "my health care plan is truly universal and his isn't" attack. Nevertheless, from my perspective, this seems to be a petty assault. And the shot about Obama as a kindergartener was just plain silly. You would expect the Clinton campaign to have something better than this. That's a sign to me that, for whatever reason, her campaign has been caught unawares. If they had planned to go negative on Obama - say, three or four months ago - they would have developed a better line of attack than what they currently have. Accordingly, that indicates that her campaign is, at least a little bit, off its planned script. It is improvising right now.

If it wants to attack effectively, it must find something better. Barack Obama is not just any old candidate. He's different - and the difference is what makes him such a tough target. He is the man many Democrats see when they imagine politics as it should be. He's the idealistic, post-partisan leader who can unite the country around a liberal vision of progress. Democrats might not think he can win this year - but they would be pleased if he could. This complicates matters for Clinton. It's one thing for her to be perceived as the battle-tested fighter who can fight off the Republicans. It is another thing altogether if she is perceived to be trying to destroy the candidate of the party's future.

-Jay Cost

Why I Can't Call Either Nomination

This nomination cycle has been one of the most interesting since the open era began in the 1970s. Only 1988 really compares to it.

This cycle has been a surprising one, too. Time and again the conventional wisdom has been abandoned. Guiliani was not supposed to maintain a national lead. He has. Romney was not supposed to face a serious challenge in Iowa. He does. Clinton was supposed to be inevitable. She isn't.

For my part, I have been relatively quiet in predicting what will happen. While I have my opinions about the future, I have kept most of them to myself. Readers of my 2004 blog might be surprised by this. That year, I made some pretty bold predictions while the mainstream press shrugged its collective shoulders and declared the race a toss-up. This year, it has been the other way around. Why's that?

The big difference is that in 2004, there were some solid, reliable indicators that pointed toward a Bush victory. They were not obvious indicators, but they were there. In this cycle's Republican and Democratic nomination contests, those kinds of metrics are lacking. And when you don't have good measuring sticks - you can't measure very well!

There are five reasons that I have remained stubbornly agnostic about this nomination contest. They apply to both the Democratic and Republican nominations. I have been hinting at them all cycle. Now that both races are clearly more competitive than most pundits once thought, I figure people might appreciate a more formal treatment of my reticence.

(1) Any estimation of what will happen must be predicated upon what has happened in the past. This goes for politics, physics, chemistry, anything. Empirical knowledge proceeds by trial and error. We observe the same process again and again - and in so doing, we acquire a data set that enables us to test theories about why the process occurs as it does.

The following axiom is applicable to all empirical knowledge, regardless of whether it is quantitative or not: as the number of observations decreases, the expected divergence between our prediction and the actual result increases, and the precision of our prediction decreases. Simply stated, the fewer the observations, the less confident we can be about our predictions.

The "open" era of presidential nominations began in 1976. This was the first year that primaries and open caucuses were widely used as something more than "beauty pageants." Instead, they became the decisive factors in delegate selection. This means that we only have a total of sixteen observations (eight presidential elections times two party nominations) to draw inferences about the 2008 cycle. This is the greatest problem for predicting the outcome of this nomination cycle. This small data set prohibits us from being precise.

(2) Further complicating this process is that this number has to be qualified by the type of contest. It is all well and good that there have been sixteen total nominations in the open era - but the 1984 Republican contest is practically no help for us when it comes to understanding 2008!

Scholars tend to classify the nomination contest in one of four ways:

(a) One candidate campaigns. These would include the Democratic contest in 1996, and the Republican contests in 1984 and 2004. They are nomination contests in which an incumbent president runs without major opposition.

(b) Two candidate campaigns. These are frequently campaigns where an incumbent president is challenged by an ideologically distinct opponent. So, here we would place the 1976 and 1992 Republican contests, and the 1980 Democratic contest. We would place the 2000 Democratic contest here, too.

(c) Multi-candidate contests without an obvious frontrunner. These have been exclusively Democratic until this year. These have included the Democratic contests of 1976, 1988, 1992, and 2004.

(d) Multi-candidate contests with an obvious frontrunner. Here, we would have the 1984 Democratic contest, as well as the Republican contests of 1980, 1988, 1996, and 2000.

These contests have vastly different dynamics - and so it is difficult to draw inferences about, say, the 1988 Democratic contest from the 1992 Republican contest. If we want to be strict about things, we would not make any cross-type comparisons. Minimally - it would be irresponsible of us to make cross-type comparisons without serious qualifications. After all, comparing a type (b) race with a type (d) race introduces at least some fuzziness into the picture.

We would probably place this year's GOP contest in category (c), and the Democratic contest into category (d). This means that we have only four previous observations to get a read on the GOP nomination contest, and five for the Democratic contest.

What is more, we might claim that there is an apples-to-orange quality about comparing Democratic contests to Republican contests. This means that, once again, we probably should make cross-party comparisons only with some real caveats put in place. Doing so means that, practically speaking, the number of observations drops even further. After all, there is only one other Democratic contest in category (d) - and there has never been a Republican multi-candidate contest without an obvious frontrunner before this year.

(3) Further complicating this is the fact that there has been a secular change in the nomination process itself. Namely, it has slowly become front-loaded. The path that Jimmy Carter took to acquire the nomination in 1976, building momentum slowly-but-surely via a string of small victories, is no longer possible. More than half of the country will have finished voting five weeks after the Iowa caucus. The implication is that our prior data points provide even less of a guidepost than point (2) allows. After all, they were the product of a process that is different than today's.

(4) Despite the plurality of contest types and the secular trend in the way contests are scheduled, we used to have some stable indicators we could utilize. Again, we had a paucity of data, so we had to be cautious about drawing inferences - but we once had at least a few stable indicators that seemed reliable guides despite all this uncertainty.

Namely, after 1976 candidates who had a lead in the final national polls of the pre-election year were always the best fundraisers. They also always won the nomination.

Until 2004, that is.

Howard Dean was leading in the national polls at the end of the 2003. He had also raised more money than any of his competitors by the end of 2003.

The fact that Dean lost despite his leads could be explained in one of three ways:

(a) Money and poll position were never decisive causal factors in winning the nomination. Instead, they usually correlated with some (still unknown) causal factor, which is the true reason a candidate wins. The relationship between money, polls, and victory is therefore at least partially spurious.

(b) Money and poll position are usually decisive causal factors - the result in 2004 was an aberration induced by the unique circumstances of that particular election. Like much of life outside Newtonian physics, the political environment is stochastic - and so general processes are often interrupted by unique, unpredictable factors.

(c) Money and poll position were once decisive causal factors, but the nature of the nomination process has changed such that they are no longer sufficient causes of victory. Other factors have come into play. Perhaps it is the frontloading - Dean never had an opportunity to recover from what was basically a small and potentially insignificant loss. Perhaps it is the fact that party elites (i.e. those who fund candidates and give them early boosts) have become more partisan than the party rank-and-file - so that a hyper-partisan candidate like Dean could develop an early lead only to see it wash away to a more mainstream Democrat like John Kerry.

Which one is correct? Your guess is as good as mine - though I tend to agree with Dean McSweeney. The process that connects money, poll position, and victory is more complicated than we once thought. Either it always was more complicated (point a), or the change in the cycle has introduced complicating factors (point c). Until we have some more observations under our belt - we cannot know for sure. This, in turn, means that we cannot be as confident as we once were about these metrics.

(5) Even if Howard Dean's fall had never occurred - we still would have trouble using these two metrics this year.

On the Republican side, there is a split between the money leader and the poll leader. Giuliani has led in the polls all year. Romney is the fundraising champ. On the Democratic side - while Clinton has a lead in the polls, she and Obama are essentially tied in terms of money. Obama has a small lead on her when we factor out the amount she contributed from her Senate reelection fund.


So - there it is. Five reasons not to be hasty in your conclusions. At this point, I see no metric to determine who will win the nomination. All I'm left with are my gut feelings - and I try not to publish them.

-Jay Cost

Mitt's Ham-Handed Campaign

So, Mitt is going to give that Mormon speech.

Is this a surprise? Of course not. His position in the Iowa polls explains the decision entirely. He's trailing Huckabee in Iowa. A few weeks ago he was up by 14% - and he wasn't going to give the speech. Now that he's down, the speech is back on.

This is par for the course for the Romney campaign, in my estimation. His candidacy has been the most transparently strategic this cycle. McCain is up? Go after McCain. McCain is down? Leave McCain alone. Thompson enters the race and seems a threat? Take a cheap shot about Law and Order. Thompson fades? Ignore him. Rudy is up? Go after Rudy. Huckabee is up? Go after Huck. You need to win a Republican primary? Make yourself the most socially conservative candidate in the race. And on and on and on.

If somebody asked me which candidate on the Republican side has won just a single election - I would answer Mitt Romney, even knowing nothing about anybody's biography. This kind of transparency is, to me, a sign of political inexperience. He's only won one election, and it shows.

I have written on this blog that political campaigns are a lot like movies. Movies are complete put-ons. They are not real. But movies that are well executed can communicate true themes that resonate with viewers. When they are poorly executed - when the acting is bad, the script is formulaic, or the technical production is lacking - the whole effect is ruined. Good moviemakers know that the audience is willing to suspend disbelief, but only to an extent. They need the artifice to be kept hidden.

The same principle applies to political campaigns. Political campaigns are almost completely artificial. At the same time, they speak to something real: what we should do in the next four years. For the real message to be communicated effectively, the artifice must be invisible. Otherwise, voters cannot suspend disbelief. They lose focus of the larger themes that the candidates are promoting, and instead begin to perceive them as manipulative - saying whatever it takes to get elected. And, of course, elections are competitive marketplaces, which means that there is always an opponent to point out the other side's artifice.

This creates one of the great ironies of American politics. The candidates who are the best at politicking keep it hidden from public view. They thus seem non-political. The candidates who are the worst at it either do not know to or simply cannot keep it hidden, and thus seem hyper-political.

To appreciate this, compare the Kerry-Edwards campaign to the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns. The perception that many voters had was that Kerry switched his mind as the opinion polls changed. This was due in part to his campaign's political ineptitude - in particular Kerry's penchant for rambling extemporaneously. And so, a campaign that was lousy at politicking seemed to be hyper-political. The consequence was that the thrust of the campaign message was diminished - in no small part because his opponent pointed out the "flip-flopping." Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney and Clinton-Gore campaigns were as political as any other. The difference was that they were less obvious about it - and, accordingly, seemed more authentic and natural. When Bush and Clinton spoke - voters who could be persuaded by them (i.e. fellow partisans and independents) rarely apprehended the strategic motivations behind the speeches. And so, they were more responsive to the messages themselves.

Romney's campaign is, I must say, the least authentic seeming of any on the GOP side. Only John Edwards, the other candidate with but one electoral victory under his belt, matches it in this regard. And even Edwards has been doing better lately. Unlike Kerry-Edwards, the Romney campaign knows how to stay on script. That is not its problem. Its problem is that the script changes are obviously induced by its standing in the polls. There is little subtlety to the Romney campaign. Too much of what it does is obviously strategic. The "flip-flopping" on the Mormon speech is just another example of this general tendency.

I wonder if Republican voters - who are quite worried about Hillary Clinton and her tactical "brilliance" - will punish Romney for this kind of obvious strategery. Can a one-term governor who makes such rookie mistakes be trusted to handle the Clinton "machine?" Imagine what the Clinton campaign would do in response to such a clumsy maneuver in September, 2008!

-Jay Cost

Debate Ratings

Media Bistro reported that the Wednesday night Republican debate had 4.29 million viewers. To appreciate where this fits compared with other television watching, consider the following ratings data from the week of November 19th - courtesy of Nielsen. These are the top ten network shows, and number of viewers over age two:

1. Dancing with the Stars (ABC): 22,849,000 Viewers

2. NBC Sunday Night Football (NBC): 21,810,000 Viewers

3. Dancing with the Stars (ABC): 20,955,000 Viewers

4. Desperate Housewives (ABC): 18,638,000 Viewers

5. NCIS (CBS): 17,341,000 Viewers

6. 60 Minutes (CBS): 16,134,000 Viewers

7. CSI: Miami (CBS) 15,832,000 Viewers

8. House (Fox): 16,877,000 Viewers

9. Criminal Minds (CBS): 15,884,000 Viewers

10. Samantha Who? (ABC): 14,384,000 Viewers

So - where exactly does the debate fit in? Here are the top ten shows for cable for the same week:

1. Titans v. Broncos (ESPN): 9,619,000 Viewers

2. Spongebob (Nickelodeon): 5,717,000 Viewers

3. Santa Clause 2 (Disney): 6,115,000 Viewers

4. Spongebob (Nickelodeon): 5,448,000 Viewers

5. WWE Raw (USA): 5,075,000 Viewers

6. WWE Raw (USA): 5,075,000 Viewers

7. USC v. Arizona State (ESPN): 5,134,000 Viewers

8. I Love New York 2 (VH1): 4,394,000 Viewers

9. Shot at Love: Tila Tequila (MTV): 4,198,000 Viewers

10. The Hills (MTV): 4,292,000 Viewers

So - the most watched debate of the primary campaign did about as well as the original programming on MTV and VH1. What's the lesson?

Is it that the debate changed no minds? Not necessarily. The number of primary and caucus voters in Iowa and New Hampshire is very small relative to the whole nation - and I have never seen ratings data that speaks to those sub-totals. Their numbers could be important. If 5,000 undecided New Hampshire voters were among the total viewers - that would be significant, as they would have amounted to 2% of the 2000 Republican primary electorate. In a five-way race, 2% is a big deal.

The lesson is that the number of "political junkies" in this country is very small relative to the total population. At least this week, we barely outnumber the fans of Tila Tequila. However - everybody at or over the age of 18 gets a vote, regardless of whether they were watching the debate or WWE Raw. If we want to get an advance read on this election, we must understand this context. We must understand that the average voter interacts with politics differently than we do. They are - as these numbers illustrate - exposed to a great deal less political information than we are.

Because of their numbers, they decide elections. We don't.

We amount to little more than a subculture in this country. We do ourselves a disservice if we forget this. The only way we can understand electoral politics is if we understand our place in it. So, let's remember that - while Wednesday's debate might have been consequential in some way - it was not watched by the average voter. He was watching Criminal Minds.

-Jay Cost

On the GOP Debate

I have to say that I enjoyed this debate. It must have been because journalists were not asking the questions. And so - the discussion was geared toward giving voters information about the candidates' policy positions. CNN did, of course, allow a few questions to go through that were either not designed to help the Republican electorate make their choices (e.g. will Ron Paul run as an indy?), or designed to trap the candidates (e.g. is the Bible literally true?). Nevertheless, they did not play too heavy a hand - and the debate was better off for it.

As I have said time and again, it is ridiculous to score these debates - to identify who won on debating points, and to infer from that who helped their electoral fortunes. But one thing that we can do is note who attacked whom. The reason this activity can have value is that it can give us a sense of what these candidates perceive their relative positions to be. As the primary process is essentially a war of attrition, this is valuable information indeed - especially for a race as complicated as the Republican one is (on the Democratic side...it is kind of obvious!).

This kind of count is all the more salient because CNN did relatively little to induce candidates to hit one another.

I kept rough track of the hits (defined as a specific critique of another candidate, indicated either by name or by a clear gesture) in the debate. This is what I observed.

(1) There was a total of seventeen "hits" on one candidate against another. All of them were policy based, i.e. designed to highlight issue contrasts between candidates. In particular, all of the hits were designed to indicate that a given candidate deviates from the GOP's median position, i.e. where the average Republican stands.

(2) More than half of these hits - nine of seventeen - were on immigration. Few of these were actually prompted by CNN. This is a sign that these candidates recognize the salience of the issue to the Republican electorate. Again - all of these attacks were designed to indicate that the candidate deviated from the median Republican position on the issue.

(3) Giuliani seemed like the frontrunner, at least in terms of attacks. He was attacked more than any candidate - six times. And he attacked only attacked Romney twice (as many times as he attacked Hillary Clinton). Both hits regarded immigration.

(4) Romney acted like more of a challenger tonight. He made five hits - against Rudy (twice) and Huckabee (thrice). Thus, we saw pretty clearly here that Romney perceives both Huckabee and Giuliani to be threats to his candidacy. What is more, all of Romney's hits occurred during the immigration exchanges at the beginning of the debate.

(5) Huckabee launched only one attack - against Romney. This was done in response to one of Romney's hits.

(6) Thompson was on the attack tonight - indicating that he sees the other major candidates as a challenge. He hit Romney twice, Rudy twice, and Huckabee once.

(7) No candidate attacked Thompson.

(8) McCain was also on the attack. He hit Romney and Rudy, though (quite obviously) not on immigration. Interestingly, he also hit Paul twice. I wondered about this. Was it just because McCain could not resist the low-hanging fruit? Or, on the other hand, perhaps McCain senses that Paul could steal independents in New Hampshire. It is hard to say. Paul is probably a problem for McCain in New Hampshire. But then again, McCain seems to me to be the type of guy who could not resist smacking Paul around.

(9) No candidate attacked McCain.

(10) One thing I did not mention in yesterday's column was that would-be spoiler candidates tend not to launch attacks. True to form - Paul, Tancredo, and Hunter did not attack any of the five major candidates.

All in all - the debate seemed to me to be consistent with the observations that we have made with the mediated attacks. To summarize:

(i) Romney seems to perceive Giuliani and Huckabee - but not McCain or Thompson - as threats.
(ii) Giuliani seems to perceive Romney as a threat. He saved his attacks for him.
(iii) Huckabee seems to perceive Romney as a threat - or, maybe better put, as a target. Like Giuliani, he saved his attacks for him.
(iv) Thompson and McCain seem not to threaten the major candidates. Nevertheless, both perceive others as threats.

What we seem to have, then, is a five man race. There are two leading contenders, and three long shots, one of whom is on the rise.

-Jay Cost

When Republicans Attack!

As most of us have observed this week, the Republican presidential contest is starting to get negative - although some candidates seem to be avoiding one another. This is from the New York Sun:

As the Republican presidential race devolves into a five-man free-for-all of sustained attacks and sharp rejoinders, one pair of candidates, Mayor Giuliani and Michael Huckabee, has avoided direct conflict, exchanging more compliments than criticism.

Mr. Huckabee, who has leapt to second in the Iowa polls, has drawn increasing fire from GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson, but not from Mr. Giuliani, who has described him as "wonderful."

The former Arkansas governor seemed to respond in kind yesterday when he took Mr. Giuliani's side in the former New York mayor's bitter fight with Mr. Romney over their respective records as a mayor and governor.

"I think Mitt was the one who went after Rudy more than Rudy went after Mitt," Mr. Huckabee told reporters in a conference call, when asked for his thoughts on the dispute that has played out in New Hampshire in recent days. Messrs. Romney and Giuliani have taken harsh shots at each other on a range of issues, including spending, taxes, immigration, and executive appointments.

Meanwhile, nobody thinks enough of John McCain to attack him. This is from the Politico:

'The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about," Oscar Wilde once said, and that is the problem the John McCain campaign is now grappling with.

Over the past few days, Mitt Romney has been attacking Rudy Giuliani (and vice versa), and Fred Thompson has been attacking Mike Huckabee (and vice versa), but who has been attacking McCain?

None of this is surprising. In fact - these candidates are doing what presidential candidates usually do.

First, note that these attacks are not coming through paid media. Instead, they are coming through the press. What happens is that one campaign puts out a negative press release, or makes itself available for questions so that it can slap another candidate around. The press reports the "story" - and presto! A free negative advertisement. Not only are they free of charge, they also carry with them real benefits. Scholars who have looked at these types of attacks have speculated that voters take them more seriously than negative ads because the attacks are packaged as news. Furthermore, the fact that they are on the news might inoculate the attacker from the blow back that can come from going negative.

Second, note the timing. I have written before about how pundits wrongly think it is a good idea to launch negative attacks months and months before an election. It is not. Usually, candidates save this kind of attack for when (a) there is a delegate rich state having an election soon, or (b) there is a "high stakes" event coming soon. These particular attacks are happening in advance of Iowa and New Hampshire - the events with the highest stakes.

Third, note the directions of the attacks. We have Thompson and Romney attacking Huckabee. We have Romney attacking Giuliani, and vice-versa. We have Giuliani and Huckabee explicitly laying off each other. We have nobody attacking McCain, but McCain is going after Giuliani and Romney. What explains this pattern - especially the strange détente between Giuliani and Huckabee? Some have suggested that it is because Giuliani and Huckabee are appealing to different voters. There is thus no reason for them to attack one another. Others have suggested that Giuliani and Huckabee do not see each other as electoral competitors. Giuliani is weak where Huckabee is strong, and vice-versa.

These explanations are not mutually exclusive - they may even be causally related to one another, and I would not be surprised if both were motivating the two campaigns. Both speak to the idea that the primary campaign is a war of attrition in which each candidate's goal is to eliminate his opponents. However, the research that I have seen indicates that ideological proximity does not explain why candidates attack through the media. Instead - it has to do with where they are in the polls. Researchers have found a few basic features of mediated attacks:

(a) Frontrunners tend to avoid negative attacks, except when (i) they are attacked by somebody, or (ii) a challenger is on the rise and is now threatening their position.

(b) Challengers attack frontrunners (or those who are ahead of them in the polls).

(c) Challengers are more likely to attack when given the opportunity (e.g. debates); frontrunners are neither more nor less likely.

With these generalities in mind, the direction of the attacks starts to make a lot of sense. Giuliani and Romney see each other as electoral threats, presumably because both of them want to do well in New Hampshire. In particular, the fact that Romney persists in attacking Giuliani may be a sign that the former expects the latter to close the gap. This is also why McCain is attacking Romney and Giuliani - they are in front of him in the Granite State. The fact that Huckabee is on the rise in Iowa is what has precipitated the attacks on him from Thompson and Romney. They see him as a threat in the Hawkeye State.

Meanwhile, the fact that Giuliani is not attacking Huckabee is an indication that Giuliani does not mind finishing behind Huckabee - so long as Huckabee damages Romney. Giuliani would probably not mind finishing third in Iowa if it means that Romney finishes second, or barely finishes first. Relatedly, the fact that Huckabee has remained mum on Giuliani - who is strong in New Hampshire - indicates that Huckabee is not making a significant play for votes in the Granite State. In fact, Huckabee might intend to write off New Hampshire all together - and take a victory in Iowa down to South Carolina. At that point, we could expect Giuliani and Huckabee to go after one another.

Finally, the fact that nobody is attacking John McCain is a sign that nobody sees him as an electoral threat. While it is true that he is close behind Giuliani in the RCP average of New Hampshire, his trend line has been flat for five months. It may be the case that Giuliani and Romney expect him to fade as both increase their television advertisements beyond what the cash-strapped McCain campaign can do. If this is what Rudy and Mitt anticipate, there is no reason to slap McCain around.

Now - none of these are earth-shattering conclusions. Many people (myself included) have drawn similar inferences about the state of the Republican race independent of these negative attacks. However - because we know some general trends about negative attacks (i.e. who generally attacks whom, when do they generally attack, etc) - we can draw some inferences about how these candidates view the race. This is of great value because it can confirm or disconfirm our initial impressions. Candidates are the true experts on the horse race. And, insofar as we can infer what they think about the campaign, we can understand the race better.

As this campaign unfolds - and especially as the general election begins in earnest - you will see that this is a common analytical strategy of mine. Drawing inferences about candidate perceptions based upon candidate actions is possible if you know enough about how campaigns work. And, if you read candidates correctly, you can tease out some real insights.

So - I would suggest that, while tonight's Republican debate probably will not change many minds (and therefore cannot really be discussed in terms of winners and losers), it will offer us further confirmation on who views whom as a threat, and therefore who is really competing where. So, don't worry about who is winning the debate. Don't play the same meaningless game the press plays. Instead, watch to see how the five top candidates go after one another. Who attacks whom? What are the lines of attack? Do they wait until they are attacked by somebody else, until they are prompted by the moderators, or do they just go for it without provocation?

-Jay Cost

On "Electability"

These days, electability is the talk of the town - if the town is Des Moines or Cedar Rapids. This is from yesterday's Washington Post:

Strategists for Obama said over the weekend that they see an opening for their candidate on the question of electability, and campaign manager David Plouffe also predicted a "relentlessly negative" barrage from the Clinton campaign in the days ahead.

Central to the new Clinton push will be the argument that only she can beat the eventual Republican nominee, a claim Obama is also seeking to make to voters here.

Advisers said her message will be: "You can't have change if you don't win." Her rivals, meanwhile, are moving aggressively to capitalize on Clinton's weaknesses in Iowa -- and, they hope, block her path to the nomination. [Snip]

"We're picking up a lot more on the ground on electability," Plouffe said. "What voters are looking at is: Who's got the best chance to win the election . . . and second, who can govern."

Also, Jason Zengerle offered an extended meditation in New York Magazine yesterday about electability and the 2008 primary contests. His conclusion is that the whole discussion is nothing more than a maddening puzzle with no solution. He writes:

Unlike political judgments that are based on concrete assessments of, say, a candidate's record or even something as grubby as his fund-raising prowess, those that are based on a candidate's supposed electability can change on a moment's notice. And then change again. Electability is completely ephemeral. Even those hoary and maddeningly indefinable political qualities like "character" and "authenticity" have more meat on their bones.

I think that Zengerle is on to something here - but like so many articles I read in Esquire, New York Magazine, the New Yorker or other such "upscale" mags where writers get 4,000 or more words to work with - he just ends up repeating the same basic point with different anecdotes. Zengerle never gets beyond the fact that electability is "squishy." Why is it squishy? Or, more specifically, why is it a squishy concept that we can't help but talk about? That's the question I would like to tackle today.

From a rational choice perspective - electability should be a critical factor in a voter's preference for the party's nomination. This is because winning the nomination brings about no changes in public policy. Only winning the general election will bring about such changes. So, a purely rational voter who is only concerned about public policy would have to calculate the expected policy benefits from a given candidate's election in something like the following manner:

Ideological Proximity of Candidate and Voter X Candidate's Chance of Winning Nomination X Candidate's Chance of Winning General Election

The latter two terms would combine to be a candidate's electability factor. So, electability is an important feature in the purely rational voter's preference for the nomination (although the purely rational actor might not even vote). We would call a calculation like this part of the act of strategic voting because it implicitly takes into account the choices that you expect other voters to make.

However, we confront here the problems that plagues all of us who make use of rational choice theory: people are not as good at acting "rationally" as mathematicians are at writing about it. Things get much more difficult when we are dealing with our subjective experience, and not the objectivity of a formal proof. In the real world, we might expect some interdependence between electability and ideological proximity. For instance, we might expect proximity to influence a voter's assessment of electability because, as everybody knows, what we want often gets in the way of our understanding what others want. We might also expect the causal arrow to run in the other direction: what others want can influence what we want. That would be a bandwagon effect. Princeton's Larry Bartels finds something like that in his Presidential Primaries and the Dynamics of Public Choice.

My intuition about electability is that it: (a) is an inevitable subject in a presidential primary campaign because the nomination is not an end, only a means; (b) contains some objective elements that would enable us to estimate who is more electable than who; (c) contains some subjective elements that would impede such estimates. This would explain why the conversation about it has been endless and fruitless. We can't help but discuss it because it is, after all, what a party's nomination is all about. We're also compelled to talk about it because there is something "real" to it - and so we are tantalized at the prospect of having an objective statement of who stands a better chance of winning. At the same time, we're confounded because, while there is something objective here, the subjectivity of it prevents any real consensus. Thus - we're left to debate endlessly (or, at least until the election!).

So, I have three basic assertions about electability: (a) inevitable, (b) partially objective, (c) partially subjective. Let me try to convince you that I am on to something here - for there is good evidence for each point. I think that (a) is essentially established. Common sense, rational choice theory, and polling data that shows voters are thinking about electability all conspire to put to rest any doubts of its importance. But what about (b) and (c)? Can we "unpack" the different elements that make up our conceptions of electability to see what in them is objective and what is subjective?

I think we can - but we'll have to do something that Zengerle does not: treat the work of political science with some care. He writes:

Political scientists, for their part, have taken a stab at gauging electability. At conferences and in journal articles, these academics have tried to suss out just what makes a candidate electable--or, at the very least, what makes voters perceive a candidate as electable. Physically attractive male candidates, one group of political scientists concluded, enjoy an electability advantage, but the same group could find no straightforward link between attractiveness and electability for female candidates. Similarly, some political scientists found that male politicians with hair tend to get elected more than balding ones. (There doesn't appear to be any research on the electability of balding female candidates.) And in 1994, two professors from William & Mary and the University of Colorado went so far as to come up with an actual electability formula, which looks like this:

Candidate electability = a + b1 (party) + b2 (evaluation of C) + b3 (C's proximity to R) + b4 (C's proximity to the average voter) + b5 (C's proximity to party) + b6 (C's nomination chances) + b7 (C's TV performance) + e

In my margin notes, I wrote next to this paragraph simply "Boo!" Maybe I am over-sensitive to the way that the work of political science is ignored by the punditocracy - but this seems to me to be downright rude. If you think enough of somebody's work to cite the work, you should also cite the somebody. Let me correct the oversight, and give some credit where it is due. The researchers who developed this idea are Walter J. Stone (formerly of the University of Colorado, now of UC-Irvine) and Ronald B. Rapoport of the College of William and Mary.

I also have to object to the obvious carelessness with which Zengerle read this article. It seems to me that he trolled it for a quickie rhetorical point - for he brings up this "formula" simply to compare its seeming over-complexity to the "straightforward approach" that pundits take. In so doing, he completely misunderstands what Stone and Rapoport are on about.

The point of Stone and Rapoport's equation is not an "electability formula" in the sense that Zengerle means it. This "formula" is an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression equation. OLS regression can be used for predictive purposes - a "formula." But - Stone and Rapoport would surely agree that their formula does a lousy job of predicting how electable a given voter views a given candidate. Their model has an accuracy rate of 25% to 57%. [When political scientists do use OLS regression to predict outcomes - say for congressional elections - they look for an accuracy rate of 80% to 90%].

OLS regression has another purpose, which is what they are actually utilizing in this article and which should not be characterized as the development of a "formula." What Stone and Rapoport do here is test whether some variables are significant causal factors in how voters perceive electability. The idea behind this equation is that you compare (for instance) a voter's evaluation of a candidate's television performance to a voter's evaluation of a candidate's electability. Are they related - and, if so, how strongly are they related? But you do this comparison in relation to comparisons between electability and the rest of the variables on the right hand side of the equation. That way, you can conclude whether any one of these factors influence electability controlling for the other factors. OLS regression, then, enables one to draw causal inferences in complicated situations where many variables interact with one another. This is what Stone and Rapoport are on about here.

In fact, they have a very specific question in mind. Do voters form assessments of electability based upon their perception of candidate moderation? As a candidate appears to be better able to appeal to the middle of the general electorate, will a primary voter view him as more electable? This question has great analytical importance, for obvious reasons. But it is also of civic importance as well. It would not be good for the country if small, unrepresentative primary electorates forced upon the broader public ideologically extreme nominees. So, Stone and Rapoport are interested in whether caucus goers in 1980 and 1984 perceived a link between ideological moderation and electability.

They do indeed find that proximity to the average voter is a factor in electability - but it is not as big a factor as other characteristics. They find that performance on television is a much stronger factor. That is, if we think a candidate performs well on television, we will be more likely to see him as being electable. Other factors influence perceptions of candidate electability more than ideological moderation: evaluations of candidates (the more we like a candidate, the more electable he will seem to us), nomination chances (the more we think a candidate will win the nomination, the more electable he will seem to us), and party (we are more likely to see candidates of our party as electable).

If we look at the list of variables that influence electability - we should appreciate the mixed bag that "electability" presents. On the one hand, there is a lot of subjectivity here. For instance, partisanship is a factor in evaluations of electability. Our perceptions of electability have a partisan skew to them. So also is our impression of the candidate: if we like him, we believe other people will, too. That is about as subjective as you can get! With electability being informed by such subjective evaluations - it is unsurprising that there is such disagreement among everybody about who is electable and who is not.

But, on the other hand, there is also some objectivity here, which I think helps explain why pundits (and campaign strategists) so frequently try to quantify it. For instance, television is a factor in perceptions of electability. As television is a shared experience - it probably gives the concept of electability some objective leverage. If I think a candidate does well on television, other people probably will, too. Also, as a candidate must be nominated to be elected - the fact that the chances of being nominated is a factor in electability makes it somewhat objective for a similar reason: all of us can agree on who could and who could not be nominated.

Relatedly, Stone and Rapoport found some rough parity in ideological placements of candidates among Republican and Democratic caucus goers. For instance, in 1984 Democratic caucus goers placed Gary Hart closer to the ideological center than Republicans. However, both Republicans and Democrats identified Hart as being more liberal than the average voter and more conservative than Walter Mondale. The fact that ideological positioning is a factor in electability therefore infuses the latter with an objective element because we seem to view ideology in roughly similar terms.

So, maybe we have hit upon an explanation for what Zengerle has observed: there is a debate about electability that seems to have no end. The importance of electability and the objective elements of electability compel people to debate it. There seems to be something more than just our subjective evaluations that inform the concept. However, the concept itself is still so subjective that it is quite unlikely that we could ever agree.

All of this also means that perceptions of electability are probably manipulable. This would explain why candidates - and not just analysts - are participating in the conversation. These strategy memos are not designed to elucidate the true state of the race for us. They are designed to do what all campaign actions are designed to do: persuade voters. Candidates have an incentive in creating the impression that they are electable - and the subjectivity of electability means that they might be able to create that impression.

-Jay Cost

Negativity in the Democratic Campaign

Kimberly Strassel had an interesting article on Friday that reviewed the weak spots of Hillary Clinton's campaign. It raised several points that I have wished to discuss for some time. She writes:

Until recently, the biggest thing going for Hillary is that she has appeared "inevitable." This is no accident. Mrs. Clinton may not be as naturally gifted as her husband, but she does have access to his playbook. One of Bill's more brilliant strategies when he ran in 1992 was to campaign as if he were already the nominee. It gave an otherwise little-known governor the legitimacy to sideline his opponents.

Mrs. Clinton has made this tactic a cornerstone of her campaign, and it had been working. During debates she frequently speaks on "behalf of everyone" on the stage. She chooses moments wisely to make statements no Democrat disagrees with ("George Bush is ruining this country"), leaving the competition nodding in miserable agreement. Her insistence that she and her Democratic colleagues should keep this race focused on their arch-enemy was equally savvy. With everyone piling on Dubya, nobody was piling on her.

Add to this Mrs. Clinton's stash of money, the vaunted infrastructure, the endorsements and her superstar status. The Clinton campaign has flogged all of these to leave the impression she's the only player in the game.

I agree with Strassel that this is what the Clinton campaign has done. I think that the strategy was a smart one. Research has shown that primary voters tend to view leading candidates more warmly because they are leading. They also tend to find reasons to support leading candidates. And so, campaigns have an interest in appearing to be in the lead. Mrs. Clinton's campaign has been as good as any non-incumbent campaign in the post-reform era at creating this impression.

Of course, I never thought much of the conclusion that Clinton was inevitable. It always seemed to me to require a false view of what those summer polling numbers really meant. It also seemed to be exactly the impression that Clinton campaign endeavored to create. Nevertheless, I was mightily impressed that it was able to construct such an artifice. It had most pundits convinced that a man who raised $80,000,000 was not even going to make it interesting. That was quite a feat.

Strassel notes another tactic that Clinton has used to great effect. She has endeavored to diminish the perceptions of disagreement - between herself, her fellow candidates, and the Democratic electorate. This is a common ploy with frontrunner campaigns. The fewer areas of contrast, the fewer reasons voters have for switching their support from one candidate to another. So, research has shown - unsurprisingly - that front running candidates tend to offer fewer substantive policy proposals. Why give voters a reason to disagree with you? Clinton does something akin to this every time she agrees with her opponents and pours it on Bush. Rudy Giuliani has done a very good job of this on the Republican side. He has explicitly praised some of his opponents - Huckabee and McCain, for instance - and he has taken every opportunity to attack Clinton.

What, then, should Clinton's challengers do about her? Strassel has some suggestions:

Mrs. Clinton's opponents have also got wise to her "inevitability" game, and no one more so than John Edwards. His decision to unleash the big guns on her Iraq vote and "dirty" corporate money has already yielded him a victory. She's deigned to acknowledge he's actually on the stage and even answered some of his criticisms, which in turn has suggested to audiences that she views him as a threat. [Snip]

Grateful as that nation is to Mr. Edwards for livening up the debate and unleashing some healthy Clinton criticism from other campaigns, we're also just 40 days from Iowa. The long, gentle treatment by opponents allowed Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead the attacks might now come a little too late.

They also may remain a little too little. Yes, Mr. Edwards is hitting Mrs. Clinton on foreign policy. Yes, Barack Obama is taking it to her on trade. But consider this: What none of her Democratic opponents has broached--what has so far been a super-off-limits-high-security-no-fly-zone--is any direct mention of Mrs. Clinton's ethically challenged period as first lady.

I disagree. Strassel fails to account for the fact that a negative campaign carries with it serious risks. It does. And so, when a candidate engages in negativity - he or she must be adroit. Richard Lau and Gerald Pomper - both of Rutgers University - have found, for instance, that incumbent senators who go negative in their reelection campaigns tend to lose support. This effect is independent of the competitiveness of the race. They conclude in a 2002 article on the subject, "A full accounting of the evidence suggests that, as often as not, attacking the opponent is a counter-productive campaign strategy to follow."

Note that Lau and Pomper track the effects of negativity in general election Senate races. We are talking about a presidential primary - and, so far as I know, this is a subject that has not been studied thoroughly. But that is all the more reason for candidates to be cautious. We know that going negative can be a double-edged sword, but we are not exactly sure when and where. So - the negative campaign is a weapon that should be wielded with a deft touch.

Dexterity is especially required for an attack on Hillary Clinton - and it is not because she is a woman. It is because, among Democratic primary voters, she is well known and well liked. She has been in the public eye for about sixteen years. Voter opinions of her are not based upon a dearth of information. And, according to the most recent Fox News poll, Democratic voters like her. Clinton's net favorable rating among Democrats is +58%. So, Obama or Edwards cannot just go after Clinton willy nilly. The attacks have to be subtle because they are directed at a public that knows of and is disposed toward her.

What they should not do is make use of "Republican talking points," which is precisely what Strassel suggests by exhorting Obama and Edwards to go after Clinton on ethics. Political scientists have found that negative advertising reinforces previous partisan dispositions rather than persuade the skeptical. And so, an attack on Clinton's ethics might influence an electorate composed largely of Republicans. But, obviously, the Democratic primary will have few of them involved. There will be a lot of Democrats who participate - and I doubt they would buy such an attack, especially if it was predicated on something old. As a matter of fact, I could see those voters being persuaded by the Clinton rejoinder: stop calling shots from the GOP playbook.

Personally, I like Obama's line of attack on Clinton. It is subtle. It sets up a contrast without alienating voters. The average voter gets the gist of what Obama is hinting at, but is not turned off by it.

A final point. Strassel suggests that Obama and Edwards waited too long to start drawing some distinctions between Clinton and themselves. I could not disagree with this more. This was a line that a lot of pundits were repeating prior to the Philadelphia debate - when Obama signaled that he was going to start to sharpen his rhetoric. Many said that he had waited too long. That kind of thinking rests on the false premise that voters pay as much attention to politics as pundits do. They don't, which means that candidates have to save their sharpest, most effective stuff for when they begin to pay closer attention. On their last tour - (what's left of) the Who played their new garbage in the middle of the show. They saved "My Generation" for the end. The same premise applies to campaigns.

Obama would have been unwise to start drawing sharp contrasts in the summer. It's all well and good that his reticence allowed "Mrs. Clinton to build up such a sizable lead" - but, as I have argued time and again on this blog, leads in national polls of summer and even fall are not worth much because voters are paying little attention. If having a lead in mid-November's Gallup poll was Obama's goal - then, by all means, he should have amplified his rhetoric in August or September. But his goal is to win Iowa and then New Hampshire - and ratcheting up the rhetoric 40 to 50 days before those contests is the right move.

Remember that Giuliani just started advertising in New Hampshire. The Giuliani campaign is a smart operation - and those of us who pay an inordinate amount of attention to politics should take this "lateness" as a cue to change our timetable. Remember, we political obsessives have different levels of attention and information than the average voter. Successful campaigns are built around winning them, not us.

-Jay Cost

Idle Entertainment

Today, I want to conclude an argument I have been developing over the last few days about the relationship between the media and the horse race. Up to this point, I've asserted that journalists and pundits have a false impression of how voters make their vote choices. One implication of this is that journalists have an impoverished or at least incomplete view of how electoral politics work. Another implication - one that I want to develop today - is that much of the electoral "news" that we encounter is just idle entertainment for political junkies. It is not getting at anything of real value, even if it might appear as though it is.

The media, and politicos in general, have a narrative about this campaign that they have spent a lot of time analyzing and interpreting. It is not about which candidate has the better policies or who is addressing the most important issues. It is about the horse race: who is up, who is down, why they are where they are, and where they are going next.

This is ironic. A discussion of the ins-and-outs of the horse race requires the participation of the broader public. It is implicitly about who has the edge in the upcoming election - and therefore whom the voters prefer and why. So, they have to be in the subtext of any horse race analysis. However, as far as the storyline that politicos have developed goes, it is clear that the voters are not playing along. As a consequence, the whole discussion loses much of its value.

Take, for instance, the lead of Dan Balz's Saturday article in the Washington Post:

LAS VEGAS, Nov. 16 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's strong performance in Thursday's Democratic debate here will blunt talk that she is on a downward slide and shift the focus to whether Sen. Barack Obama or former senator John Edwards can stop her march to the nomination, party strategists said Friday.

What is the object of this story's narrative? For whose benefit is all of this occurring? It surely is not the voters' benefit. Most of them did not watch the Las Vegas debate, whose record-breaking ratings still did not beat an average episode of The Biggest Loser. They do not pay enough attention to politics to dedicate two hours to such a display. And anyway, they dislike the gamesmanship of politics; even if they had watched, they would have found very little of value in a debate that focused mostly on tactical positioning and jewelry preferences.

So, with whom was Clinton on a "downward slide," the talk of which has now been "blunt[ed]?" For whom will the "focus shift?" The answer is: politicos. Balz's article is actually a story about electoral politics that does not involve the electorate at all! It just pretends to involve it. In reality, this is a story about how a very small group of people - who account for maybe 2% of the voting public, and who have in all likelihood already selected their favorite candidates - reacted to the Vegas debate. The broader voting public is injected to maintain the illusion that the stakes are higher than they actually are.

That is the way it goes for many days' horse race news. There is a false assumption that underlies much of the daily discussion - that what happened matters because it influences votes. It usually doesn't. The campaigns, the media, and the pundits are interacting with one another - but only for the benefit of each other. The voters are usually not involved in this interaction. We pretend that they are to make the story seem like it is about something real - but they usually aren't, and it usually isn't. In reality - the story is often about how political elites react to the ins and outs of the day's news, told as if the public as a whole is reacting in that way. It is a strange combination of autobiography and fiction.

Since I started this blog - I have set about to avoid this type of analysis. I think this is why my analysis of the Democratic race has been so constant. I'll say now what I have been saying for months about the Democratic race. It's basically a two-person contest. I don't think Edwards can win the nomination. It will either be Clinton or Obama. Because of her position in the public mind, a victory in Iowa is probably a sufficient condition for Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. Because of his position, a victory (or at least finishing ahead of Clinton) is probably a necessary condition for Barack Obama. He might still lose the nomination if he wins Iowa - Iowa just makes it a race. But Obama has the money, he has the organization, and he has the message to win the Hawkeye State. The Iowa polls are, as I have argued, not all that helpful in predicting who will win. So - all we can say is that Iowa is a three-person race.

All of this twisting and turning and strategizing - "Novak said this" but "Oh, he's just a GOP shill" - is all just a noisy show put on for politicos by other politicos. When you distance yourself from it - the noise dies down, you can think clearly, and you see that very little about this race has changed in the many months since it started.

-Jay Cost

Interesting Internals in the ABC/WaPo Poll

A few days back, I saw that Clinton web video called "Caucusing Is Easy." You probably saw it, too. Anytime Bill does something, it gets noticed:

At the time, I thought it was a bit strange - insofar as it did not cohere with the conventional wisdom that Clinton and Edwards were the ones winning the support of veteran caucus voters, and Obama was winning over newer "voters." It seemed to me that this kind of video would be something to expect from Obama.

That last paragraph sports some important scare quotes - because newer voters often turn out not to be voters at all. Systematic survey evidence has picked this up - and it conforms with anecdotal accounts. Remember Nader's huge rallies in 2000? How about Dean's in 2004? This is why videos like this get made: young people are unreliable voters, and often need to be charmed into voting. Many pundits have speculated that the young supporters of Obama might be his Achilles' heel - as they are sufficiently motivated to come out and see him on a cold fall day, but not motivated to support him on caucus night. The former has some curiosity value. The latter? Not so much.

So, it surprised me that Clinton was the one creating a "hip" video about caucusing. Then I saw this in the Washington Post's write-up of its latest poll:

Overall, the poll points to some strategic gains for Obama. His support is up eight percentage points since July among voters 45 and older -- who accounted for two-thirds of Iowa caucus-goers in 2004. He also runs evenly with Clinton among women in Iowa, drawing 32 percent to her 31 percent, despite the fact that her campaign has built its effort around attracting female voters.

And despite widespread impressions that Obama is banking on unreliable first-time voters, Clinton depends on them heavily as well: About half of her supporters said they have never attended a caucus. Forty-three percent of Obama's backers and 24 percent of Edwards's would be first-time caucus-goers. Previous attendance is one of the strongest indicators of who will vote.

First off - WaPo does a good job of splashing some cold water on the statistical significance of the topline results. The margin of error on this poll is +/- 4%, so a 4 point lead for Obama is not statistically significant. However, statistical significance is conditioned by the number of observations. It has a lot in common with a simple computation of the standard deviation - which has the number of observations in the denominator. As the number of observations decreases, the standard deviation increases. It's the same basic premise for the margin of error.

So, when you are dealing with a subsample of the whole poll - say, voters 45 and older - the margin of error increases. I'd have to run a statistical test to confirm it (and the internals of the poll just do not provide the data to enable it) - but my intuition is that Obama's gains with older voters is not outside this increased margin of error. An 8 point difference between this poll and the July poll would be significant with the topline results, which are based on 500 observations - but probably not with a subsample of about 200 observations. WaPo was thus wrong to identify this as a "strategic gain" for Obama. It could very well be a sampling anomaly.

That being said - there are still some interesting inferences that we can make without running an undue risk of Type I error (i.e. wrongly concluding that something is significant when in fact it is not). The poll found Clinton and Obama relying on first time voters by about equal measure. The difference between their new supporters is not statistically significant - so the conventional wisdom about how Obama is relying on new voters more than Clinton does not hold. Accordingly, we have explained how Hillary's campaign could coax Bill onto a NordicTrack.

What probably does hold is the argument that Edwards is relying on new voters less than Clinton and Obama. The breakdown is basically 50/43/24. That is, (about) 50% of Clinton supporters are new, 43% of Obama supporters are new, and just 24% of Edwards supporters are new. Again, I would have to see more data than what ABC News/WaPo is providing - but my intuition is that the difference is statistically significant. Edwards is relying less on new voters.

This conforms with what Ana Marie Cox wrote last week in Time. Most of Edwards' supporters are reliable caucus goers. This might give us some clues about what to expect on caucus night. If attendance at the caucus is greater than what it has been in years past, that might bode well for Clinton and Obama. If it is equal to or less than what it has been, that might bode well for Edwards.

Another point on Clinton v. Obama. Clinton is splitting the female respondents evenly with Obama. She pulled in 31% of female respondents. He pulled in 32%. It is surprising to me that Clinton is not pulling in more females in this poll, given the tone of her campaign of late. These results make Mark Penn's promise to pull in Republican women seem like rhetoric designed to win over Democratic voters hungry for a victory.

For comparative purposes, I would note that the recent CBS News poll also found no statistically significant difference between Clinton and Obama among first time and long time caucus attendees. It also seems not to have found a statistically significant difference between them on levels of female support (although Clinton does lead this category by 12%, it is such a small sample that I suspect the lead is statistically insignificant), and levels of support among voters aged 45-65. However, it did find what appears to be a statistically significant difference on levels of support among voters 65 and older, though there is a tie between Clinton and Edwards among voters of that age. [Again - I'm "spitballing" these conclusions of significance because none of these polls ever give you the data you need to draw more assured conclusions.] So, all in all, I would say that the results of the ABC/WaPo poll roughly conform with the results of the CBS poll.

Now - it is important to remember that there are boundaries that we have to obey when drawing inferences from these Iowa polls. I wrote about this last week. Care is important because the Iowa Democratic caucus is a poor fit with the way polls are conducted. I am pretty sure that I have managed to color within these lines in this write-up - but we need to be careful.

-Jay Cost

The View

I really can't stand these debates.

And it is not because of the candidates. I enjoy watching them debate each other, and I thought they made it worth my while last night.

No. The reason that I cannot stand these debates is the media and the insufferable assumption that frames all of its analysis: voters are exactly like journalists. They pay as much attention as journalists do. They are as interested in the tactics as journalists are. They enjoy all of the thrusting and parrying of the rhetorical joust as much as journalists do.

This view was on display everywhere last night and this morning - from CNN's pre-debate analysis to the pundit reviews that followed. Find a debate analysis or scorecard that does not focus on tactics first, tactics second, tactics third - and maybe, if there is still room, policy fourth. Said scorecard will invariably go on to draw an inference about who helped their electoral prospects by being the best tactician of the night. Implicit in this view, of course, is the assumption that voters think about politics in exactly the same terms.

This is a narrow view of politics: the press collects seven people on a stage, knowing that one of them will be the next Democratic nominee and could very well be the next President of the United States, and has no interest except in whether they slap each other around a little bit. This is a solipsistic view of politics: journalists "know" that Americans find the gamesmanship of politics to be loathsome. Nevertheless, their analysis is predicated upon the assumption that Americans like it as much as the journalists do. This is a false view of politics: this way of analyzing the electorate has no empirical basis in reality - which journalists would quickly discover if they read more widely than what their fellow journalists are writing.

Narrow, solipsistic, and false. An impoverished view of politics.

This is why I do not like these primary debates. They concentrate everything wrong about the way the media covers presidential campaigns and jam-packs it into two hours. And then you have all of the endless, mindless, group-think "analysis" that follows. As if this morning's conclusion was not wholly predictable. Provided that Clinton did not trip when she walked onto the stage - the media was gonna conclude, "The kid stays in the picture!"

Enough already! If post-debate conventional wisdom was a machine, I would throw stones at it and curse in French.

Or, to quote Gelman and King (again):

"Journalists should realize that they can report the polls all they want, and continue to make incorrect causal inferences about them, but they are not helping to predict or even influence the election. Journalists play a critical role in enabling voters to make decisions based upon the equivalent of explicitly enlightened preferences. Unfortunately, by focusing more on the polls and meaningless campaign events, the media are spending more and more time on "news" that has less and less of an effect."

-Jay Cost

Dueling Strategies

One of the most entertaining features of this cycle has been watching the candidates attack each other over campaign strategy. This is probably due in part to the fact that the media focuses upon the horse race relentlessly - and the campaigns believe that the appearance of strategic strength buys them a few points in the polls.

The most recent example of this came on Monday. Shortly after Giuliani's campaign advisers held a conference call explaining their primary strategy - the Romney campaign responded with a snarky retort.

Tom Bevan summarized the Giuliani campaign's strategy thusly:

The argument goes like this: Iowa, while important for momentum, will not award its 40 delegates until later in the cycle, tentatively in mid-June. In New Hampshire, where the Giuliani campaign says they feel good about their current 2nd place position, the Granite State's 12 delegates (half of the normal 24 thanks to the 50% penalty levied by the RNC last week for holding its contest earlier than February 5) will be allocated on a proportional basis.

In Michigan, where Giuliani also runs second in the polls, the date and method of selection for its 30 delegates (also a 50% reduction due to RNC penalty) remain up in the air until at least this Wednesday.

And in South Carolina, where Rudy is battling at the top of the polls with Romney and Thompson, the state's 24 delegates (post-RNC penalty) will be awarded on the basis of who wins at the Congressional district level with a bonus for winning the vote statewide. If the race remains tight in South Carolina, the delegates could be split among two, or perhaps more candidates.

Florida is often referred to as Rudy's "firewall," and the Giuliani campaign clearly sees this as the first state where their man can begin to break away. Even stripped of 50% of its delegates by the RNC along with the other states, Florida still has 57 delegates at stake which, like South Carolina, will be awarded on the basis of winning Congressional districts plus and for winning the statewide vote. But, their thinking goes, with more than a two-to-one advantage in the polls, Giuliani will be able to scoop up the lion's share of the delegates in the Sunshine State.

And then comes the Big Kuhuna on February 5th. The Giuliani campaign points out 1,038 delegates are at stake on Feb. 5h, nearly half of what is needed to secure the nomination, by far the single biggest day in the primary process.

Clearly, what underlies this strategy is the theory that Giuliani need not win the early contests to win the nomination. In particular, it looks as though Team Rudy is expecting to lose Iowa (at least on January 3), and it thinks it can finish second in New Hampshire and even in South Carolina. As the "firewall," Florida will not swing to Romney (or whoever wins these early states).

The Romney campaign thinks this is a bunch of hooey - and they responded on Monday with a memo that made its feelings clear. I have to admit, it reminded me a bit of Michael Scott's speaking strategy. "The most important part of a speech is the opening line. When time is not a factor I like to try out three or four different ones." And so Team Romney tries out two:

Mayor Giuliani's "momentum-proof" national polling lead, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all walk into a bar...

You're right. None of them exist.

Why the "frontrunner" label and fifty cents won't even get you a cup of coffee nowadays:

Mayor Giuliani continues to hang his hat on national polls that show him garnering around 30 percent support, yet fully 100 percent of the electorate knows who he is. That is a very big gulf to have between the number of voters that know him and the number that actually support him.

National poll samples are largely a reflection of name awareness at this point in the campaign. The polls taken of voters in the early primary states reflect the opinions of voters who are the most engaged and most informed about the candidates. For Mayor Giuliani to have 100 percent of Iowa voters know who he is, yet only around 11 percent of those voters support him...that's a major problem for his candidacy.

So - Romney's campaign strategy is exactly the opposite of Giuliani's. Romney thinks that wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and maybe a strong second (if not a first place finish) in South Carolina will swing the Republican electorate at large to the former Massachusetts governor.

Only one of these strategies can be correct. Either Romney's early wins will break through Giuliani's lead in the big states of February 5, or it will not.

So - will it?

Nobody knows.

This is my favorite part of political campaigns. They are often like JS Mill's "experiments in living." It's a matter of trial and error. Campaigns try new, untested ideas - and either those ideas succeed and they can be used again in the future, or they fail and everybody knows to avoid them next time around. We only find out after it is all over.

This is exactly where I think Mitt and Rudy are. The Republican campaign battle is unique in so many respects. We know all the reasons: no clear frontrunner, compressed primary schedule, bona fide celebrities in the race, a real ideological division within the party, and on and on and on. There is no historical precedent for us to draw on to see who has the strategic advantage. This is probably another reason the campaigns are so interested in communicating their strategies to the public - as well as attacking the strategies of others. There's a little self-consciousness on display here, dontcha think? [And, anyway, Team Rudy cannot be 100% certain about its theory of Florida and the later states. Otherwise, it would not be trying so hard in New Hampshire!]

I suppose that my only point on the viability of these strategies is that Romney's might be harder to execute. For Romney to develop the momentum that he needs to take Giuliani down on February 5 - he will have to have decisive wins in several of the early contests. This could be problematic. Huckabee is on the rise in Iowa - and a strong second might lessen the luster of Romney's win (and, of course, Romney would be in huge trouble if Huckabee bests him). Giuliani and McCain are currently both stuck in second place in New Hampshire, but both are within striking distance. Again, a Romney loss in New Hampshire (especially to Giuliani) would be a big problem for him. And South Carolina is a dead heat between Giuliani and Romney - with Thompson not far behind in third.

My feeling at this point is that this kind of mixed bag helps Giuliani. If we get to Florida with no candidate having any particular momentum over the rest - then there will not be any real pressure placed upon Giuliani's lead in Florida, and therefore on the later states. What Giuliani would need in that situation is simply to remain viable - to finish second in New Hampshire and/or South Carolina and be one of the feasible candidates. Generally, the poll positions in the early states reminds me a bit of the spate of endorsements we have seen - as various factions of the cultural conservative movement have been endorsing different candidates. The diversity benefits Giuliani - as it impedes cultural conservatives from coalescing around a single candidate in time for February 5.

But - the execution of a strategy is different from the viability of the strategy itself. If things play out as the Romney campaign would like - with wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina - we would head to Florida presumably with just Giuliani and Romney being viable. In that situation - the Giuliani campaign is betting that Florida is a firewall, the Romney campaign is betting that it is not. There is no way to know who is betting correctly. The only way to see which strategy is better is to wait and see!

-Jay Cost

Unpredictable Iowa

Two items crossed my path yesterday that underlined the unpredictability of the Iowa Democratic caucus. The first comes from Ana Marie Cox of Time:

The Edwards campaign is alive and well in Iowa. Privately, rival campaigns concede that Edwards would probably win if the caucuses were held, say, tonight. Says one organizer, "His supporters are largely previous caucus-goers; you don't have to convince them very hard to go again. Everyone else is going to need all the convincing we can manage in the next month and a half."

The second comes from Richard Wolfe of Newsweek:

Is John Edwards in trouble in Iowa? Peg Dunbar thinks so. She signed up as a county chair for Edwards in the northeastern town of Waverly earlier this year, after backing the former senator's campaign in 2004. Now she has changed her mind and switched to Hillary Clinton. "John Edwards has been in Iowa for four and a half years and he's in third place," she says. "He should be in first place. Granted, it's very, very close. But I don't see him going anywhere and I don't go with a loser."

Dunbar is one of four county chairs--essential figures in any Iowa campaign--who have backed out since being identified as Edwards chairs in a June press release. Ernie Schiller of Lee County says he's now undecided, Frank Best of Louisa County has switched to Obama and Jody Ewing is supporting Bill Richardson.

So, what is going on in Iowa? How can rival campaigns see Edwards winning as of today, but Richard Wolfe see him losing?

I think the problem is that we do not have a reliable metric to measure the state of the race. Polls are of limited utility for gauging Iowa Democrats. This is a subject I discussed earlier in the year. There are two problems. The first is devising a sample of voters. Turnout in the Iowa caucuses is difficult to measure because it takes a good degree of devotion to participate. Chris Cillizza discussed this last week, writing:

Figuring out who is going to vote is always the most basic challenge for any pollster. Past results provide a guide but can never be taken as foolproof as turnout dynamics change from election to election.

This is especially true in Iowa's caucuses where an extremely small number of registered voters turn out to participate, voters can register the day of the caucus and turnout patterns fluctuate widely from caucus to caucus.

The challenge that anyone polling Iowa must face then is how to select an accurate sample of voters. Do you use the list of registered voters as your baseline? Or do you use the far narrower caucus list, which lists those that have participated in the most recent caucuses, to create your sample?

There is a second problem that is not discussed as much. A poll of Iowa Democratic caucus goers does not really mimic the process in which they participate. In a general election - you go into a voting booth, select your first choice, leave the booth, and drop the ballot in the box. And so, a poll that asks you for your first choice and then moves on to other questions does a reasonably good job of mimicking the act of voting.

However, this is not the experience of Democratic caucus goers. Iowa Democrats begin by standing in an area designated for their first choice candidate. Then, for thirty minutes, they either persuade or are persuaded by others to switch their choices. At the end of the half hour, electioneering is halted and caucus officials count the number of supporters that each candidate has. Candidates who have less than 15% or 25% are deemed not to be viable. And so, another thirty minutes for electioneering is once again granted. The supporters of nonviable candidates must find new candidates to support, team up with supporters of other nonviable candidates to make their candidate viable, or abstain.

As far as I know, there is no poll that fully reflects this process, which speaks to two very unique elements of voter psychology:

(a) How strong is your preference for your candidate? And we are not just talking about claims of strength, which some polls measure. We are talking about whether you can withstand being cajoled for half an hour. It is one thing to claim that your support is strong. It is another thing to endure thirty minutes of the Iowa caucus. This is also where organization is extremely important. To pry wavering voters from another candidate - a candidate needs organizers who are better at politicking than the other guy's organizers.

(b) If your candidate is not viable, who's your second choice among the viable candidates? For voters who support a viable candidate - second choices only become relevant if they change their primary candidate (either before or at the caucus). For voters who support nonviable candidates, second choices are quite important. Those whose candidates are deemed nonviable might add up to a substantive number. In the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll taken last month - about 16% of Democratic respondents claimed support for a candidate who would be deemed nonviable at a caucus meeting that mimicked the statewide numbers. What is tricky here is that most polls I have seen do not tell us who the supporters of nonviable candidates support secondarily. Zogby does ask for the second choices of respondents supporting nonviable candidates - but, importantly, we are dealing with a very small subsample of such voters. The supporters of nonviable candidates would only number about 75 people per sample. This makes it very hard to estimate with any statistical confidence whether any candidate is receiving a boost because of them. [Also, Zogby might run afoul of the ecological fallacy. Just because Richardson, for instance, does not reach 15% on a statewide level does not mean that all of his supporters have to be reallocated. He could be above 15% in a given precinct - and therefore those supporters would not have to be reallocated.]

Iowa is one of the reasons I was arguing that Hillary Clinton is not inevitable (before it was popular to do so!). Polling methods do such a poor job of mimicking the caucus process that I think we have to give a wide berth to each candidate's number. The RCP Average, as of today, has Clinton at 30%, Obama at 23.6%, and Edwards at 19.6%. But the bias that the caucus system might induce in the polling is such that I do not think any statements can be made about who is actually in the lead. At best, they just give us some basic purchase on who might win.

Note that this is not a matter of the margin of error. Adding +/-3% to each candidate's total is not necessarily going to solve this problem. The margin of error is a matter of efficiency. What we are discussing here is bias, or the failure of our polling data to approach the level of support that a candidate actually enjoys. Assume no margin of error, and we might still have to "adjust" the poll results by some unknown factor. That last phrase is the trickiest part. Bias is very difficult to measure beforehand. The unknown factor may be very large. It may be zero. We just do not know.

The word "bias" actually has a technical connotation that I am relying on here. It implies that the polls are systematically overestimating or underestimating a candidate's level of support. In such a situation, it is not that our polling data reflects the random variation we see any time we try to measure a large population via a small sample. That's what the margin of error accounts for. That is a matter of efficiency, not bias. Those sorts of variations are expected to cancel each other out - and therefore, on average, our samples will correctly measure the population. With bias, the variations do not cancel each other out. Instead, they reinforce one another - and so, on average, we are left with a difference between our sample and the population. Thus, instead of being inefficient - we are just plain wrong.

Each of the factors I mentioned above could bias the polls.

First, it might be the case that the respondents who will go to the caucus have systematically different preferences than the respondents who will not go to the caucus but who are not filtered out by the pollsters' likely voter screening processes. On the flip side, it might be the case that the voters who are being filtered out by the pollsters' screening process are indeed going to attend the caucus, and their preferences diverge systematically from the voters not filtered out. Either scenario is intuitively plausible - as it is plausible that there is a correlation between candidate support and the enthusiasm measured by likely voter screens. Cox's essay was hinting at the former scenario: Edwards' supporters are more certain to go to the caucus. Therefore, the actual set of caucus goers are more pro-Edwards than the polls indicate. If this were the case, the polls would systematically underestimate the strength of Edwards' support.

Second, it might be the case that there are systematic differences in strength of support per candidate - and therefore systematic differences in levels of support before and after the time allotted for politicking. For instance, Obama's supporters are younger than the average caucus goer. And younger supporters may be more susceptible to persuasion at the caucus. If this is the case, then the polls are systematically overestimating Obama's level of support because they fail to mimic the process those supporters will undergo on caucus night. On the flip side, perhaps Obama's relatively strong organization means that it is better able to peel away supporters of other candidates, even the viable ones. In this case, the polls would systematically underestimate Obama's level of support.

Third, it might be the case that there is a systematic difference between the first choices of all and the second choices of those primarily supporting nonviable candidates. Perhaps Biden's supporters tend to support Obama secondarily at a rate that is greater than the general population's level of primary support. If 24% of the whole public supports Obama first, maybe 40% of Biden supporters support Obama second. As Biden is deemed nonviable - those supporters have to pick another candidate. The former Biden supporters go more to Obama than the general public did (40% instead of 24%) - and thus Obama's position relative to Clinton and Edwards will be systematically better than what the polls are telling us.

Will any of these biases come about? Not necessarily. That is the troublesome feature of bias. We have to know the population values before we can know whether a polling sample is biased. We do know that there are differences between the ways the polls are conducted and the way the Iowa caucus is conducted. Maybe those differences systematically favor one candidate over another. Maybe not. We will not know until after the caucus.

And so, we are left with what I think is a relatively unpredictable event. We can be sure that Clinton, Obama, or Edwards will win the Iowa caucus. And maybe if the polls come to show a large and consistent break toward one candidate or the other - we might be able to say more than this. But, at this point, with the differences between these three candidates in the RCP average being only about 10%, I do not think we can say more than the victor in Iowa will be one of these three.

-Jay Cost

Romney Abandons "The Speech?"

I have spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing Mitt Romney's prospective "Mormon Speech." As we all read over the weekend - apparently, the speech is not in the works at the moment:

HOLDERNESS, N.H. (AP) -- Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney said Saturday his political advisers have warned him against giving a speech explaining his Mormon faith.

During a house party overlooking Squam Lake, Romney was asked by voters if he would give a speech outlining his religious beliefs and how those beliefs might impact his administration, much like then-Sen. John F. Kennedy did as he sought to explain his Catholic faith during the 1960 election.

"I'm happy to answer any questions people have about my faith and do so pretty regularly," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Is there going to be a special speech? Perhaps, at some point. I sort of like the idea myself. The political advisers tell me no, no, no -- it's not a good idea. It draws too much attention to that issue alone."

I would note first off that this comment does not square with what Bob Novak reported in October. This is what Novak had to say:

Although disagreement remains within the Romney camp, the consensus is that he must address the Mormon question with a speech deploring bias. According to campaign sources, a speech has been written, though 90 percent of it could still be changed. It is not yet determined exactly what he will say or at what point he will deliver a speech that could determine the political outcome of 2008.

So - two questions are on my mind.

(1) Why not give the speech?

The basic maxim of a political campaign is similar to the maxim of the private enterprise: increase one's vote share. If Romney is not going to give such a speech - we can infer that his advisers believe that the speech will not increase his share of the vote. Indeed, they might even believe that it will diminish it. To me, this makes intuitive sense. At this point - Romney seems to be doing well with evangelicals in certain regards. He has picked up some endorsements from the religious right. He also seems to be getting some traction in South Carolina - which is the first real test of his strength among Christian conservatives. The RCP trend line shows that he has been on an upswing since about Labor Day. So - there may be no need to give the speech. On top of that - giving the speech would only draw attention to the one major difference between Romney and Christian conservatives. If they are starting to support him, why do that?

In previous posts, I have spent a good bit of time talking about Romney's speech. Of course, my thoughts on its content were always predicated upon the assumption that he would give one. I have also argued that Romney might be fortunately positioned vis-à-vis the "Mormon issue" - and therefore might not have to deliver such a speech. An issue only becomes an issue in a campaign if the media or the opponents make it one. It has been my theory for a while that neither was going to make any hay out of Romney's Mormonism. That is just not the kind of thing that the media does. It seems illiberal and insensitive. Candidates might feel a little more inclined. However, such a strategy is risky. Any candidate would face a backlash for an anti-Mormon campaign, even one done "underground." Furthermore, Romney's particular opponents would all face greater difficulty in making an issue of his Mormonism, should they be so inclined. After all - Giuliani, Thompson, and McCain have four divorces between them. Bringing up the "Mormon issue" could bring up questions about one's fidelity to the particular faith that one proclaims, and therefore one's moral constitution. Why run the risk?

So - I think there is good reason not to give the speech.

(2) Why tell people he's not giving the speech because his political advisers think it's a bad idea?

I don't know - and I think that was a mistake. Political campaigns are a lot like Hollywood movies. For them to be effective, we have to be able to suspend disbelief, if only for a little bit. So, any time we see a boom mike in the shot, the intended effect is completely spoiled. And so it goes with political campaigns. They are completely artificial - but they are most effective when they seem natural, spontaneous, and "real." I think that Romney's answer to the question makes the artifice of his campaign too apparent. This comment made him seem far too calculating. Again - it is all a matter of appearances. We know what campaigns are really about. We know that they are rational, utility-maximizing organizations whose sole purpose is to get to half-plus-one. However, when the calculations are laid bare before us - we are turned off. So, it is never a good idea to make the voters privy to them. Political advisers should be neither seen nor heard (except for the purposes of "spin").

I doubt that this will have an effect on the primary contest. In fact, I am confident that it will not. But a candidate should strive not to be so loose. It is a good discipline to acquire in advance of the general election campaign. Come next year, you don't want your nominee justifying important decisions by the fact that his preferred course of action was voted down by his "political cabal" (or whatever phrase would find its way into the opposition's talking points). This is the sort of comment that could get a candidate in some trouble in October, 2008.

I also think Romney's comment might make it more difficult for him to give the speech - should his campaign change its mind. His advisers do not want him to because, presumably, they think he is up - and thus there is no problem for a speech to deal with. If he eventually gives the speech, won't that give the impression that they think he's now down - and that there is indeed a problem? That is what the media will focus on with its typical relentlessness. I can just imagine the frame it would use: Romney changes tactics because he's in trouble with the Christian right. This will diminish the effectiveness of the speech.

Generally, it is not a good idea to be this candid about campaign strategy.

-Jay Cost

Thinking About the GOP Nomination

There was a really good conversation about the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday's Special Report panel. I want to tease an insight out from it, so I'll quote a longer-than-usual portion of it:

BRIT HUME, HOST: Our colleague Mr. Barnes here wrote an article in The Weekly Standard just the other day that said that when you get down to it and look at it with care, the Republican race is now a two man affair between Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.

And the next thing you know, Mitt Romney is moving up in South Carolina, which means that he now leads, or is close to leading, in all three of the early states. Fred, what about this?


HUME: Yes, exactly.

BARNES: Romney is scooting up.

These two, Giuliani and Romney, are the only ones that have realistic scenarios for actually winning the nomination. You have to do well in the early primaries, in Iowa and New Hampshire. And then what is after New Hampshire?

HUME: Super Tuesday.

FRED BARNES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, you have Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, and then Super Tuesday. They're the only ones that I think realistically have a scenario--

HUME: And the reason is that if somebody else were to win one of those early states that, that person, whoever it is among the rest of the field, whether it be Thompson or anybody else, lacks the organization to capitalize?

BARNES: They lack the organization, they lack the money, in particular, because you wouldn't have time to raise a bundle before getting to Florida on January 29, and then all those primaries on February 5. They really would lack that serious base.

What would happen is what happened to John McCain in 2000 running against George W. Bush. He won in New Hampshire, and then couldn't do much with it. He won in Michigan, where independents could also vote, but after that he petered out. He didn't have the money, didn't have the base of support, didn't have, among Republicans, the organization. [Snip]

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR OF THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I totally disagree. I think it is a genuine five-way race.

Fred says you can't write a credible scenario for McCain, Huckabee, or Thompson. I think I could write a credible scenario for any of them.

Let's just take New Hampshire. Say McCain went to Iowa and gave an anti-ethanol subsidy speech. I think he is going to write off Iowa, hope that Iowa fragments off into a four-way, 22, 20, 18, 15 result, which is entirely possible -- no big winner.

He is in New Hampshire, that's where he has won before. If McCain wins New Hampshire, how much is it worth? How much paid money do you need if John McCain comes back, wins New Hampshire? The next primary is Michigan. McCain beat Bush in Michigan last time.

McCain could win. Fred Thompson could win or run second in Iowa. And Huckabee, if wins Iowa, is competitive.

I wanted to quote this because I think that Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol are thinking exactly the same way about the Republican nomination contest, even if their conclusions are different. I think this is the correct way to think about it - and I want to take some time to amplify this method because it is of general applicability.

This method is one that I have been using, though I have not been as explicit about it. What they are doing here is working backwards. They are assuming a result, and trying to argue for a way that this result could happen. This is the appropriate way to examine a "game" like the Republican nomination contest because it is one that occurs over time. It is not an all-at-once process. This line of thinking has a bit in common with the method of backwards induction.

Let's take an example, a seemingly unlikely one: Mike Huckabee wins the presidential nomination. Let's start at the end and work backwards, crafting a scenario by which Huckabee could win.

(5) Huckabee wins more delegates than Giuliani
(4) Thompson and Romney drop out of the race
(3) Huckabee wins South Carolina outright, and beats Thompson and Romney in Florida
(2) Huckabee does surprisingly well in New Hampshire
(1) Huckabee wins Iowa outright

This is the first step. You outline a way in which Huckabee arrives at the nomination. Because each event is predicated upon the one immediately preceding it - it is fairly easy to work out whether this whole process can happen. You take the probability of event 1 occurring, multiply by the probability of event 2 occurring given that event 1 has occurred, multiply by the probability of event 3 occurring given that event 2 has occurred...and so on.

So - by this method - we can begin to see whether Huckabee stands a chance of winning the nomination. Let's assign some hypothetical numbers here - just to give us a sense. First off, let's assume that this is Huckabee's only path to the nomination. There may be other ways, but they would be so unlikely that they are not worth mentioning (their final effect would be to increase whatever number we uncover, but probably only by a little bit)

What are the chances that Huckabee wins Iowa? As of right now, he is trading on InTrade at 25.0. That's as good a place as any to start. Let's say that the chances of him winning Iowa are thus 25%.

What are the chances that, given the Iowa win, he does surprisingly well in New Hampshire (e.g. he finishes a close second to Romney, thus taking the luster off the latter's win ala Clinton v. Tsongas in 1992)? Let's put that at 50%. That seems reasonable to me. Romney has a firewall he has built for himself in New Hampshire. It might hold in this scenario. It might not.

So, given an outright win in Iowa and a strong second in New Hampshire - Huckabee looks like the Southern son on the triumphant march back home. I'd expect him to win South Carolina and beat the other cultural conservatives in Florida. Let's put that one at 75%.

Thompson and Romney would assuredly drop out at that point, so step (4) gets 100%.

That would leave Huckabee versus Giuliani. Let's put the odds of Huckabee winning more delegates than Rudy at 50%.

So, the final number comes pretty simply: 25% X 50% X 75% X 100% X 50% = 4.69%.

Now, I don't think that Fred Barnes would agree with the numbers I have assigned here. In his article on the subject as well as during Tuesday's conversation, Fred seems to place a higher premium on money than I do - so he might think that Huckabee breaking through Romney's firewall in New Hampshire is less likely, say only 25%. This would move Huckabeee from about 4.5% to 2.25%. And money might be an impediment to Huckabee in South Carolina and Florida, which would reduce the number even further. Personally, I am more in line with Bill Kristol on the importance of money. I do not think it matters as much after the race actually gets going.

But we should not get caught up on the specific numbers. Don't be beguiled by the two decimal points of that figure I quoted. The numbers that informed it are far too imprecise to put much stock in it. There is just too much cloudiness in all of this to enable us to assign any number.

The point here is the general method - how it works, and how it helps us understand the race. By working backwards, we have done a great deal to clarify disagreements about the Republican race. We've isolated the various steps, and now we can discuss and disagree over the various steps along the way. We've moved from "Huckabee can't win" versus "Yes he can" to "Huckabee won't have the money to break through Romney's firewall" versus "He won't need money to do that." We also appreciate that, since only a few steps (if any) are assured, there is a multiplicative effect in any multi-stage scenario. It's not just a matter of the likelihood of Huckabee winning Iowa. It's a matter of that likelihood multiplied by several other likelihoods.

This is a process that could be repeated for all five Republican candidates - and thus it can serve as a good framework for analyzing this race. This is why I think the conversation on Tuesday's panel was so illuminating. They were talking about the contest in the correct terms.

-Jay Cost

The Previous Subject, Continued: Quantifying the Debate's Effect

A piece in yesterday's Politico by David Paul Kuhn argued that the debate has had a negative effect on Clinton's national numbers:

Hillary Rodham Clinton's lead nationally and in New Hampshire appears to have slipped following her shaky performance in last week's Democratic debate, according to several polls this week.

If you read on, you'll see the author quote several polls. But he quotes the polls selectively - i.e. in a way that corresponds with the thesis that her numbers are down. This is problematic because poll results vary randomly. That is, they go up and down not necessarily because of changes in the population, but from differences from sample to sample. This is why they have a margin of error. So, you can't just quote the polls that favor your thesis. There could be other polls that fail to favor it - and these need to be factored in.

This is why it is a good idea to average the polls. As you average them, you necessarily decrease the variance of the final result. The variation from sample to sample is inversely related to the sample size. So, a larger sample - or an average that includes many polls - reduces the differences that are due merely to sampling. An average therefore gives you greater purchase on whether the population as a whole has changed.

So - let's do that. RCP has recorded five national polls taken since the Democratic debate on October 30. These five polls put her at an even 45%. So we may have an apples-to-apples comparison, let's take the five national polls that preceded the Democratic debate. These put her at 44%. So, there is no evidence that Clinton's national standing has changed.

Nor should there be. This debate was watched by 2.5 million people nationwide. That's chump change compared to the population that these polls are trying to gauge. It means that everybody else who encountered the debate did so second- or third-hand - in news reports on television, in the newspaper, or from the comments of friends and family. The effect of the debate was therefore greatly diminished for those people.

What about New Hampshire? Well - that is more complicated because there has been only one poll taken since the debate. This would be Rasmussen's poll. Before the debate, Rasmussen found Clinton at 38% in New Hampshire. After the debate, she was down to 34%. The margin of error in this poll is +/- 4%, which means that we cannot reject the hypothesis that the difference is due to sampling variation.

In my previous post, I talked about Type I error. Specifically, I talked about how the press has in place insufficient protocols to prevent its occurrence. This is a perfect example of such poor protocols. Kuhn's analysis runs far too great a risk of Type I error. He is arguing that "something is there" - i.e. there has been a drop in Clinton's support - when in fact there is a very great chance that nothing is there.

-Jay Cost

The Culture of Type I Error

This article came to me (just as it came to billions of others) via Drudge:

Even Fred Thompson doesn't think he will become president. Chatting off-air to a television reporter, a stunningly candid off-the-cuff quip from the Hollywood actor cemented the impression that his heart is not in the 2008 race.

Trying to encourage his studio to hurry up so an interview could start, Carl Cameron of Fox News said into his microphone: "The next president of the United States has a schedule to keep." Standing beside him, a deadpan Mr Thompson interjected: "And so do I."

As some Thompson aides looked bemused and others cringed, a taken-aback Mr Cameron, Fox's chief political correspondent, exclaimed: "You can't do that kind of stuff!"

I've talked on this blog about Type I error. This is the error of the false positive, or the mistaken belief that something is there when, in fact, it is not there. I've argued that political journalists, political pundits, and others of that ilk have far too great a tendency to commit this error, to turn "nothing into something." I think a lot of this has to do with the pressures of being a journalist, of finding things to talk about every day. I think there is a natural human tendency to make something out of nothing. It takes some discipline to stop yourself from doing that - and this is a discipline that journalists probably do not have an incentive to develop.

This article is probably the single greatest example of Type I error I have seen all year. To infer that headline from this quotation is patently ridiculous.

In the social sciences - at least in the quantitative social sciences - there are all kinds of protocols to prevent the occurrence of Type I error. If you want to get something published in a scholarly journal or an academic press, you really have to prove to the reviewers that you are on to something, that there is a only small chance that what you think you have found is actually nothing.

For a long time, I took this for granted. I did not put much thought into why the rules are set up the way they are. But this election cycle has been helping me understand why academics are so careful about Type I error.

The above example is a silly one. Indeed - only a Brit paper could write something like that, and I don't think even they believed that Thompson was being serious. But there have been serious examples of Type I error. The one that comes to my mind right away is this notion that Rudy Giuliani was giving up on New Hampshire. It never fit the facts well at all. Nevertheless, the press accepted it as true. But - as theories that have trouble fitting the facts so often do - this theory turned out to be false. Rudy has basically planted himself in New Hampshire this month. The journalists and pundits who argued that he was planning to quit New Hampshire had obviously been committing Type I error. They believed a false theory was true. And what was their response to this mistake? They did not go back and conclude, "Hmmm...I guess we were wrong about Rudy giving up on NH." No. Instead, their argument was, "Rudy has changed his strategy!"

This is what you have to do with a false theory when it is faced with a falsifying instance - and you do not want to reject it outright. You have to attach ad hoc addenda to it. You have to alter it so that it fits the observed facts. But the alterations do not make it true; they just make it fit the facts. That is the only reason to accept the addenda. They are not intuitive or sensible. They do not emanate logically from the original theory. They're just attachments to keep it alive. The idea that Rudy changed his strategy is obviously ad hoc. The only reason to accept it is to keep the original theory going - it makes no sense whatsoever (as it requires him to have had three strategies for dealing with New Hampshire in the month of September alone!). And so, look what has happened: they have compounded the error. Before, they were "merely" wrong about Rudy giving up on New Hampshire. Now, they are wrong about Rudy giving up on New Hampshire and Rudy changing his strategy.

This is what happens when you do not have good protocols in place to reject false theories. You accept them. But, as they eventually fail to fit the facts, you are forced to accept false addenda to the original theory. That addenda will eventually fail you - so you have to accept another. Thus, you become more and more wrong. The tendency to commit Type I error is thus like the tendency to make turns down random, unknown roads after you are already lost.

Of course, there is a trade-off her. if you put protocols in place to keep yourself from accepting false theories, sooner or later you are going to reject a true theory. I would argue, this is much less damaging in the long run. The nice thing about true theories is that they are true, which means they fit the facts yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If you have not already accepted a false theory today, you'll be looking at things tomorrow - and you'll have another chance to be persuaded by the true theory. The only damage is that you went a little while not accepting the true theory. When you accept as true a theory that is actually false - you might never correct your error.

I think avoiding Type I error is optimal. This is how I consciously try to argue on this blog. My feeling is that, in the long run, I am much better off if I am skeptical of theories. I'll probably reject a few true theories here and there - indeed, I am sure I have already done that a few times. But, by being skeptical, and by asking for sound reasoning and solid proof before I accept a theory, I think that I am much less likely to commit Type I error, and therefore go seriously askew.

Update, 2 PM EST: I have added a continuation of this post, which can be accessed here.

-Jay Cost

A Real Race on the Dem Side?

So - the press has realized that there might be a real race on the Dem side.


-Jay Cost

Policy Differences in the Republican Campaign

Yesterday, I began a two-part discussion on policy differences in the primary campaigns. The subject was the Democratic primary - and the question I tried answer was: given that there are few obvious policy differences between the major candidates, what strategies are they pursuing?

Today, I am going to look at the Republican campaign. I think that there is a fascinating dynamic between the three top candidates, Giuliani, Romney, and Thompson.

Giuliani and Romney face the same fundamental dilemma. Prior to their campaigns for the presidency, both had staked out issue positions that diverged from the median position in the Republican Party. They have pursued two distinct strategies for solving this problem.

Romney has endeavored to claim for himself the mantle of "Mr. Republican." His conversion on social issues - whether valid or not - served this purpose. (Full disclosure: I think that it was both intellectually valid and politically motivated. My theory is that Romney had a legitimate conversion on these issues while he was working out a way to deal with his divergence from the party. His need to resolve the differences between the party and him put the question at the forefront of his mind - and the problem was solved, I think, because he really did decide that conservatives have the correct answer.) So also has his use of rhetoric. Romney's rhetorical strategy has been to place himself in the center of the Republican Party. His "Republican wing of the Republican Party" line was a case in point. I think that this rhetoric is meant to blunt his previous statements that put him somewhere to the left of that wing. The idea with this is very obviously to convince Republican voters that the policy differences between them are non-existent.

While Romney has worked to reposition himself in the Republican Party, Giuliani has pursued a different path. He has not changed his issue positions like Romney. He does not deny that differences persist to this day. At first blush, this seems like a very strange strategy. Why would you not work actively to minimize the policy differences between you and the voters? Isn't it axiomatic to run to the base in the primary, and then to the center in the general?

Not necessarily! There is actually good reason for this strategy: voters might take you to be honest, respectful, credible, and therefore worthy of their votes. One of my biggest problems with popular analysis of politics - the kind that takes the primary/general two-step as axiomatic - is that it presumes a level of ideological sophistication on the part of the voting public (primary or general) that has been shown not to exist. Voters are not nearly as ideological as pundits and elites think they are. They are therefore susceptible to appeals that are not reducible to basic issue positioning.

A great example of this comes from Richard Fenno, a political scientist who wrote a fantastic series of works in the late seventies that studied the electoral behavior of congressmen in their districts. Fenno followed more than a dozen members around, recorded their behavior, and then wrote a groundbreaking book on the subject, Homestyle. One of Fenno's subjects was "Congressman C" (kept anonymous for obvious reasons). This member was a Democrat in a conservative district. His voting record therefore was a source of potential problem for him, and Fenno was interested in how he dealt with it. The following is Fenno's account of Congressman C from one of his scholarly articles that preceded the publication of Homestyle:

When I asked Congressman C if he wasn't more liberal than his district, he said:
Hell, yes, but don't quote me on that. It's the biggest part of my problem - to keep people from thinking I'm a radical liberal. How do you explain to a group of Polish Catholics why you voted to abolish the House Internal Security Committee or why you voted against a bill to keep Jane Fonda from going to North Vietnam? How do you explain that? You can't...

Later...he mused out loud about how he managed this problem.
It's a weird thing how you get a district to the point where you can vote the way you want to without getting scalped for doing it. I guess you do it in two ways. You come back here a lot and let people see you, so they get a feel for you. And, secondly, I go out of my way to disagree with people on specific issues. That way, they know you aren't trying to snow them. And when you vote against their views, they'll say, "Well, he's got his reasons." They'll trust you. I think that's it. If they trust you, you can vote the way you want to and it won't hurt.

This is clearly what Guiliani is trying to do. He admits that there are differences between the GOP and him. He's betting that this admission will build respect and trust - and therefore confidence that he will do in office what he says he will do. He has supplemented this by doing something that Hillary Clinton is also doing. Clinton's anti-Republican rhetoric has been matched only by Giuliani's anti-Democratic rhetoric. I think that Giuliani's strategy is therefore two-fold: (a) Admit that there are differences. Be candid and hope the voters will respect you; (b) Attack the Democratic Party so that voters recognize that there are many more similarities than differences.

Both of these strategies are, I think, potentially winnable. That is, Romney's movement on issues could get him the nomination. Giuliani's candor/partisan sniping could do for him what it did for Congressman C for many elections. But neither is maximally efficient. The maximally efficient position is to be a candid candidate who has been a lifelong conservative. Enter Fred Thompson. I think that this is Thompson's angle in the nominating contest. Why vote for somebody who claims to be a conservative, but who might not be honest about it - or for somebody who is honest, but who is not a through-and-through conservative? You can have both.

-Jay Cost

Policy Differences in the Democratic Primary Campaign

One of the interesting phenomena of this primary campaign is the difference between the Republican and the Democratic contests. Now, we all know that the horse races are different. The Democratic contest is basically a two-, two-and-a-half-, way race between Clinton, Obama, and Edwards. Clinton also has a clear edge in the contest. The Republican contest has more viable candidates - and the frontrunner in that contest, Giuliani, has less of an edge than Clinton.

Another interesting difference is the policy positions on both sides. On the Democratic side, you have three candidates that are essentially identical on issue positions. Of course, there are differences between each. You could probably array them left to right as Edwards, Obama, and Clinton. However, the differences between them are slight enough that average voters probably cannot apprehend the differences between them. This was the subject of an October 30 piece in the Boston Globe:

In the nine months since launching his insurgent campaign for president, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has seized on a slew of issues in trying to set himself apart from Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. But with Clinton's dominance unabated, there is little evidence Obama has made headway on any of them.

Poll after poll shows Clinton not only leading the Democratic field, but also leading on issues on which Obama has sought to gain advantage. Likely voters say that they see Clinton as the best candidate to fix Iraq. They trust her over her rivals to solve the healthcare crisis. And they believe she would bring change to Washington.

Part of Obama's problem, analysts say, is that despite how hard his campaign is working to highlight its differences - he is vowing again this week to take her on more directly - he and Clinton are simply not far apart on major issues.

"It's Wal-Mart and Kmart - they're occupying the same space," said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Obama and Edwards have, I think, endeavored to create differences between Clinton and themselves in different ways. My impression is that Edwards is trying to emphasize the policy differences. He is working to create the impression that he is the authentic Democrat in the race - and his solutions to health care, Iraq, etc., are more in line with the Democratic electorate. This is a difficult path - but I think that Professor Ginsberg might be underestimating its viability. In the early states, where primary voters are paying more attention, they might be able to apprehend real differences - just as, on close inspection, one can see real differences between Wal-Mart and Kmart (if there was no perceivable difference between the two, the former would not have driven the latter to the brink of nonexistence). Edwards is obviously hoping that Iowa sees the differences, chooses his brand, and launches him on a national campaign.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to me to be pursuing a different strategy. This is from the Globe again:

Obama has also sought to differentiate himself in leadership style and message, casting himself as the candidate best equipped to change Washington. Last month's LA Times/Bloomberg poll of primary voters in early-voting states showed that Democrats believed Obama, more than Clinton, had "new ideas." But other recent surveys have shown that voters see Clinton as more "inspiring," more likely to bring "needed change," and best able to "reduce partisanship."

"Barack has had a difficult time both identifying distinctions between himself and Hillary and then making them clear," said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who worked on Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.

Obama strategist David Axelrod insisted that the two candidates have significant differences on issues, and said that this election is as much about leadership.

"It's about an approach and a style to politics and governance," he said. "And one of the questions is, are you willing to face these things squarely? Are you willing to be straight up with the American people, or are you going to pass everything through a sort of political calculus? I think that does have traction."

Obama's strategy indicates that elections are not "one dimensional." That is, they are not simply a matter of voters identifying candidate ideological positions and choosing the candidate whose position is closest to their own. Obama's trajectory is one to create contrasts on style and personality.

What I think is really interesting in all of this is that Clinton is very clearly trying to minimize the contrasts between Obama, Edwards, and herself. This makes intuitive sense. Clinton seems to be the "default" candidate in the Democratic primary. That is, absent a vigorous campaign by her opponents to convince the voters otherwise, it appears as though they will select her. Accordingly, her goal is not so much to give them a reason to vote for her, but rather to make the reasons Edwards and Obama offer seem less compelling. In other words, she needs to minimize the contrasts. She is going to lose some "authentic liberals" to Edwards and some "change the tone voters" to Obama. But what she needs to do is make it so that a good portion of both types of voters think they can satisfy their preferences by voting for her.

Edwards poses a particular dilemma because he is running strong to her left - at least rhetorically. If she matches him word for word, she'll damage her general election viability. It seems to me that she has dealt with this by attacking "George Bush and the Republicans." This is a good strategy, I think. It does not move her to the left in terms of policy positions - but it is a good way to blur the distinctions between Edwards and herself. It signals that she is a solid Democrat, which is what those "authentic liberals" want in a candidate, without forcing her to stake out positions that she might later regret.

We saw this in the debate during the Iran discussion. She voted for Kyl-Lieberman, which was probably necessary for her to do in advance of the general election. However, the Democratic base did not like Kyl-Lieberman - which gave Edwards a line of attack. Clinton blunted this not by swearing off her vote, but by really laying it on George Bush and the "Republican sabre rattlers." The intended result of this is to make it so that the "authentic liberals" perceive few differences between Clinton and Edwards. The latter talks ideology, the former talks partisanship. The differences are blurred. The voters select Clinton.

I think blunting Obama's attack is a much trickier task. Policy positions are flexible, as we all know. And, if your opponent is outdoing you on ideology, just outdo him on partisanship. However, Obama's differentiation is one based on style - and it carries with it a subtle, yet potentially dangerous, undertone. Obama's argument is that the failure for the party to break through with the public on the substantive issues upon which good Democrats all agree has to do with the style of the leaders. Thus, so Obama's argument goes, we are more likely to achieve Democratic policy goals if we elect a leader with a different style.

Clinton seems to me to have responded to this attack by wrapping herself in the cloak of the nineties. As often as she slams Bush, she praises her husband's administration (always in the first person plural!). I think the intended effect of this is to draw upon the Democratic electorate's warm feelings about the Clinton administration. They see Bill Clinton's time in office as a success. By referencing her husband - Clinton is actually making an argument against Obama's position. She is implicitly saying that we don't need an entirely new direction. Instead, we need to get back to the way (she and) Bill ran the government.

What I really like about this whole strategy is how the two separate arguments - the one for Edwards and the one for Obama - are fit seemlessly into a neat package: "We need to get back to the way things were before Bush, who is just horrible."

Will this position prevail? I cannot say. First off, I'm not a Democrat. So, this conversation is not really "for me," if you know what I mean. I consider myself to be like a fly on the wall when I watch the Democrats converse about these matters - and I cannot presume to know what they will ultimately prefer. Second, there is no polling available that can help us gauge whether this position will play with the Democratic electorate. So, my plan is just to wait and see what they do.

I will say that her strategy for blunting Obama carries with it a potential inefficiency. Recall George W. Bush's campaign of 2000. One of the most remarkable things about that campaign is that Bush created the impression that he was a "change" candidate, despite the fact that his father was a former president - and obviously not a symbol of change. I think one of the ways Bush did that was by minimizing the role of his father in the campaign. This enabled him to market himself as "new" much more efficiently.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is not pursuing this strategy. Bill is quite prevalent in the campaign. As I said, I think the purpose of this is to take advantage of the Democratic electorate's warm feelings for his administration. But the flip side is that it might make Hillary Clinton a kind of status quo candidate in next year's general election. This, I think, could be quite costly - as the Democrats' greatest advantage right now is that the public identifies the generic Democratic brand with change.

Now - it might not work out this way. The key word here is "potential." Clinton might still be able to present herself as the change candidate. The Republican brand might be so tarnished that whoever either party nominates, the Democratic candidate will be seen as the change candidate regardless of the particulars. And, anyway, maybe the public wants a "change back to the old" rather than a "new change."

I am not sure whether or not this will flush out in a way that damages Clinton. I am more confident that the GOP will try this line of attack. My guess is that whoever is the GOP nominee will try to argue that he is the change candidate, and that Hillary Clinton represents the old politics that are no longer working. I think it is not coincidental that many Republicans took notice of Sarkozy's victory in France. My guess is that this is something they hope to replicate - and Clinton might give them an opportunity to do so.

We'll talk about the Republican field tomorrow.

-Jay Cost

A Junkie's Debate...And Nothing More

I would really like to see some cross-tabs on the ratings of last night's debate. I wonder, who exactly is watching them? The ratings are always so low [the debates have ranged from just under 1 million viewers to just under 3 million viewers, or about 4% of the first Bush-Kerry debate in 2004] that my intuition is that it is just a niche audience. And my theory about the niche is that it is mostly political junkies whose enthusiasm for politics belies their relatively small sway at the ballot box.

The reason I think this is because the debate seemed structured to further the storyline that the media has developed in the last few weeks, a storyline that only political junkies know much about or have any interest in: A Hillary has been spotted off the port bow. Attack!

Let me quantify my impressions. In the first two segments, I counted thirty-three questions. Twenty-two of them were designed to facilitate either another candidate attacking Hillary Clinton, or Clinton responding to attacks (either from another candidate or from Russert). Indeed, all of the major subjects were structured around attacks on Clinton.

Segment 1: How do Clinton, Edwards, and Obama Differ?
Segment 2: What Shall We Do About Iran? This segment could have been geared toward a more substantive policy discussion to tease out differences between the seven candidates. However, Russert and Williams framed the questions around Kyl-Lieberman, thus encouraging the six Democrats who opposed the resolution to go after Clinton, who supported it.
Segment 3: What Is Clinton's Real Position on Iraq?
Segment 4: What are Clinton's Qualifications?
Segment 5: Is Clinton Credible on Social Security?

I'd add that the non-attack questions did not seem to be crafted with much care. Russert asked whether candidates would "pledge" that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon. How the hell do you pledge a result, Tim? What kind of dumb question is that? And, of course, when it came time to talk about something that regular folks are interested, like education, Bill Richardson had to be shushed because of the time "rule." He should have figured out how to blast Hillary Clinton in his answer - they would have given him more time.

Afterwards, I could only stomach so much post-debate "analysis." Before I had to walk away from the TV to find the Tums, I watched in amazement as Chris Matthews interviewed Joe Biden and Chris Dodd - and talked about nothing more than Hillary Clinton (well - I suppose there were a few UFO-related questions in there).

There was clearly some intentionality here on the part of the debate producers. I think the intention was to get the candidates fighting one another. This is the kind of spectacle that political junkies like, but that those with a good-old-fashioned American disregard for politics find annoying and alienating. My intuition is that they would only design the debate this way if they believed a broader audience would probably not be watching. I don't know much about television program planners beyond what I learned watching Monty Python's Flying Circus ("I wanted to be in television programming, but unfortunately I have a degree.") - but I am sure a rule of thumb is not to alienate your audience.

This is why it is strange for me to watch insiders estimate how the preferences of the broader public will be swayed. This is what under girds all "winners and losers" talk - the goal of candidates is electoral victory. So, the winners must have taken a step forward, and the losers a step back. Unless we are talking about whether potential donors or elite supporters, i.e. the agenda setters, changed their minds because of the debate (which we never are - we are always talking about the mass public when we talk about winners and losers) - this seems to me to rest on a false premise regarding the breadth of the audience. My guess is that it is quite narrow, that it is not a representative cross-section of American life, that it is comprised of the people in this country who are differentiated from the rest by dint of their unusually strong interest in politics.

The only way there could be a breakthrough with the larger public is if there is a sound bite from the debate that sinks into the popular consciousness due to repetition - but I did not really see one in that debate. And anyway we always have to wait to see if something sinks in before we start judging who is better or worse off from the sinking in!

Update, 4 PM EST. Maybe a broader base of Iowa and New Hampshire was watching. Steven Stark makes that point over at his Tote Board Blog. A regular reader of mine, Willis, made the same point. He writes:

Certainly the debate plays mainly to a niche audience, but I wonder if some of that niche extends to viewers in Iowa and New Hampshire. They may not be political junkies, but they seem to take their responsibility to scrutinize the candidates seriously.

I don't pretend to know the answer, but if Iowa and New Hampshire were disproportionately represented among the viewers, the fall debates could have a larger effect than we think.

This might very well be the case. Of course, from those voters' perspective, it is a shame because surely the balance of the audience is the junkie class that wants to see some bloodletting. They were the ones who the producers seemed to me to be out to satisfy last night - so I doubt that the undecideds would have learned much of probative value.

And, another thought: if you are an undecided voter who is, as most undecided voters are, sick of the way Washington works (and all that), would you have been able to sit through even the first segment, let alone the whole thing? I barely could - and it's my job to analyze events like this! [Watching some of these debates makes me understand what Roger Ebert must feel like having to watch the Deuce Bigelow movies.]

Unfortunately for the undecided voters who thought last night might help them decide, there is a minority in this country that enjoys the sport that is "politics as usual" - and they assuredly made up most of the audience.

-Jay Cost

Giuliani, New Hampshire, and the Real Campaign

Perhaps I am running the risk of sounding like a broken record on this blog - but I think that there are some points that can still be teased out from continuing on the same subject. I have been talking for a few days now about the difference between the perpetual campaign and the real campaign.

One of my difficulties with popular media analysis of the presidential campaign is that it fails to distinguish between the two. This, I think, is a major obstacle in coming to an understanding of our electoral process. Namely, journalists and pundits fail to appreciate fully that, while candidates were busy doing stuff in the summer, there is a difference between the summer stuff and the fall stuff. In the fall, you begin to make your broad-based appeals to the voters.

The reason is quite simple: voters aren't paying attention in the summer, and so your (very expensive) advertisements will fall upon deaf ears. Oh sure - they might respond to your message in the short term. But, suppose you spend all of your advertising money in the summer, and your opponent spends all of his advertising money in the fall. Who are the voters going to vote for? Your opponent. So, you wait until the fall.

This has generally been the rule - with the exception of Mitt Romney. He spent in the summer - I believe - not because he thought he could win voters over for good. He spent because he knew media outlets would be conducting polls in the summer. If they saw him in first place in those states, they would put him in the top tier of candidates, which would guarantee him a viable spot in the fall.

Other candidates have not done this because they either did not have the money (Huckabee, for instance) - or they did not have to get their names out there (Giuliani and Clinton, for instance). These two candidates could, and should, wait until the fall.

The same goes with campaign visits. You do more visits in the fall than in the summer because - all together now! - that is when voters are paying attention.

This is precisely what Giuliani has done. And yet, we saw this article in the Politico yesterday:

Rudy Giuliani, whose presidential campaign strategy originally downplayed New Hampshire, is now making a major bid to win the Granite State primary.

The new push includes spending four days in the state this week, the culmination of an effort which had him more in New Hampshire in October than in any other traditional early state. [Snip]

Now, though, Giuliani is seeing some encouraging signs in New Hampshire and is responding with new commitments of time and money.

The fact that Giuliani is now advertising in New Hampshire, whereas in the summer he was not, is taken not as a sign that his campaign team recognizes that October is the time to advertise. It is, instead, taken as a sign that his team switched its strategy. Ditto the increased number of visits. This speaks to the point I am trying to make. You only draw this conclusion about Giuliani if you fail to see a difference between advertising in July and advertising in October, between visiting when the Yankees are still playing baseball and visiting after they have been eliminated.*

There are multiple problems with the Politico's thesis, beside the fact that it does not comport with Campaigns and Elections 101.

First, let us not forget this Giuliani radio ad, which debuted in September in New Hampshire:

MoveOn.org is the most powerful left-wing group in the country. They spent millions electing anti-war liberals. And publicly brag how the Democratic Party is theirs -- bought and paid for.

Why is MoveOn attacking Rudy Giuliani? Because he's their worst nightmare. They know Rudy is a Republican who can beat the Democrats. And they know, no matter what they say -- Rudy will never, ever back down.

This ad started airing while that CNN/WMUR poll - which showed Rudy down just 1 point - was being taken. Why is that important? This is the poll the Politico references as an explanation for Giuliani's shifting strategy! So, the advertisements caused the good poll numbers, which caused the advertisements.

Furthermore, from June 1 through August 31, Giuliani made eighteen campaign appearances in New Hampshire, twenty-six in Iowa, and six in South Carolina. By comparison, he made ten appearances in Florida, nine appearances in California, two in New York and one in New Jersey. His summer strategy emphasized the small, early states over the big, later ones by about 2:1. So, I guess the Politico's thesis is that Rudy had three campaign strategies in a single month. Around Labor Day, he still planned to play in small places like Iowa and New Hampshire. Then in early September, he shifted to the big state strategy - only to shift back in mid-September with his ad on the New Hampshire and Iowa radio waves.

Finally, just so we're clear about this up-tick in Rudy's numbers, the RCP average on June 11 had him at 17.7% in New Hampshire. Today he is at 21%. So, the Politico wants to argue that a 3.3% shift in his numbers induced a shift in the Giuliani campaign's whole primary strategy.

Oh, and it has one other problem - an explicit denial from Team Rudy:

While Giuliani aides say the moves do not reveal a major shift, his staff and supporters plainly have a new optimism about their prospects in the Granite State.

"I think you're on to something," quipped Mike DuHaime, Giuliani's campaign manager, acknowledging a "more aggressive" effort in the state since the end of the summer. [Snip]

"Everybody has mistakenly called our strategy a 'Feb. 5 strategy,' DuHaime said.

"We do have a long-term approach, but that doesn't mean it's all about Feb. 5."

He called the Giuliani plan a "mixture of both" the traditional early states and those on Feb. 5.

OK - so we have the logic of the political campaign dictating that a candidate like Giuliani amp up his pitch in the fall. We have an alternative explanation - the changed strategy theory - that makes no internal sense, that does not fit the facts, and paints the picture of a campaign team that is inconsistent (this is the same campaign team that has been run professionally and well for eight or so months). AND we have Giuliani's people telling us that the strategy has been that they were always going to amp up in the fall.

And yet the thesis of the story is: Giuliani changes strategy.

* - My wife was at NYU when Rudy was mayor, and so she knows a good deal about the way Hizzoner works. She has wondered whether Rudy can continue to campaign next fall if the Yankees make the World Series. I think she might be on to something there. What happens if Rudy skips out on campaign visits to swing states for the sake of Game Seven? What happens if the Yankees play an NL team from a swing state - like the Cardinals or the Pirates (hey...it could happen...the law of large numbers demands that the Bucs are gonna turn it around eventually)? A snarky baseball comment from Rudy could turn the whole election. Perhaps Republicans should get Rudy to sign a "No Yankees Pledge" instead of a "No Taxes Pledge."

-Jay Cost

...Without the Band

On Friday, I offered the first of a two-part column on Fred Thompson. In it, I was quite positive about Thompson's campaign. I think he is taking some calculated risks by refusing to campaign as the press presumes he "must." My point was that the "must" might not be a real must, that the rules of the perpetual campaign are fake, and that Thompson could get ahead by violating those fake rules.

As strange as it is to use a metaphor in politics that is neither war- nor sports-related (nor a mix thereof), I nevertheless forged ahead, outflanking my way around this rhetorical blockade and into the red zone of analytical insight. [The Democratic Strategist could not resist that temptation, and noted that I was "launching a stout campaign for the Most Unlikely Metaphor of the Year."] I argued on Friday that Thompson's candidacy reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan's first electric tour. Both assessed that there are fake rules in the world. That is, there are regulations that everybody thinks they have to follow - but that, in fact, can be violated without punishment.

However, I also see something that does not line up so well - and the difference does not favor Thompson. When Dylan went on tour, he found for himself the best, as-yet-undiscovered band in North America, Levon and the Hawks (soon to be known as the Band). Full of world-class musicians, they were perfect for Dylan's project. They ensured that, whatever music was played, it would be played well. There is a lesson in this, one that I do not think Thompson has learned. One of the reasons Dylan's tour was successful, at least in retrospect, was because he had the Band with him. If he had gone out on the road with a lesser band that did not play as superbly - the critics could have claimed that the lousy sound just proved the point that these rules cannot be broken.

So, if you are going to break the fake rules in music (or in politics), whatever you do instead of following them had better be damned near flawless. Otherwise, people will conflate your rule breaking with your mistakes, condemn the whole project, and conclude that those rules cannot be broken.

It comes down to execution. If you break the rules, break them well. Thompson is not breaking them very well. A case in point came last Saturday - when his speech before the Florida Republican Party was about a third of the time that the other candidates' speeches were. This was a mistake - pure and simple. If Thompson deemed the event important enough to participate, he should have participated as fully as the other candidates. He looked really bad because of that five minute speech (some reports actually offered the length down to the second...yikes). Now - personally, I think the fact that he is doing fewer events is just fine. I think he is on to something. The public is sick of this endless campaign. A candidate who rejects it could find some sympathy and support from the voters. So, it is all right for Thompson to do fewer events. However, if he does fewer, he has to make sure that the ones he does are done with vigor and verve. That Florida speech lacked both - and it was not the first time that a Thompson speech has fallen flat. We have been hearing that for much of the year - since he gave what Robert Novak called his "ordinary" debut in May.

There have been other problems with execution. For instance, his early staff changes - the ones back in the summer - are forgivable. But staff changes have continued. The most recent one was Dan Hughes, a Thompson advisor in New Hampshire who switched to McCain last week. You should not be losing supporters to McCain this late in the campaign season. Hughes told Fox News that he did not think Thompson is building a "real" campaign in New Hampshire. If Hughes is correct, this is another problem. It is one matter not to participate in an innumerable quantity of New Hampshire campaign events because you want to campaign in your own way. But if your way includes building a behind-the-scenes campaign organization, then you need to make sure it is well built.

This poor execution spoils the effect of his rule breaking. Far from courting sympathy and support from voters - you can kind of sense that he might be courting a little enmity. The critics are taking the rule breaking, combining it with the mistakes, and drawing a conclusion that is quickly becoming ubiquitous:

Thompson is lazy.

Let's just be clear. This is a patently ridiculous thing to say about any human being you do not know well. It is the kind of over-simple conclusion that is only permissible in politics or junior high gossip. But it is especially dumb to argue about Thompson, given his biography. He might not be a workaholic, "A Type" personality like some other candidates, but that is still a far cry from lazy. Nevertheless, this is how the Washington chattering classes work. They put together disparate pieces of data into an over-simple narrative (the only kind that works in sound bite format) - and they repeat it, and they repeat it, and they repeat it. Eventually, it takes upon a life of its own, as the conclusion of the chatterers becomes a fact that all and sundry have "observed." They are doing exactly this to Thompson. They have fit his rule breaking with his mistakes, combined it with a few odd comments from the mid-90s about his "lazy" Senate days, and (of all the things!) the quote in his high school yearbook.

So, this is how I see things. The intention of Thompson's campaign strategy was as I described it on Friday. The idea is for Fred to shun the modus operandi of this inane campaign process, and inject some clarity into the Republican race. However, because he has made mistakes like that Florida speech, the impression that he gives is that of a lazy man hoping to win the nomination on the cheap.

Good strategy. Bad execution. Intended effect spoiled.

But not necessarily for good. It is still early enough. And, as I observed on Friday, he is getting some traction out there. What Fred needs to do is start showing some vigor. This does not mean that he needs to make fifty billion campaign appearances in Iowa next week. I like Thompson's overarching strategy of refusing to participate in things he finds unworthy of his time. But what he needs to do is inject some vim into the things that he does deem to be worthwhile. So, for instance, the next time he chooses to speak to the Florida Republican Party - he needs to make them feel that, though he does not think every possible campaign stop is valuable, he did deem this one to be so, and his speech showed it.

-Jay Cost

Thompson Goes Electric...

Residents of the Windy City, and football enthusiasts generally, are probably quite familiar with the phrase "Good Rex, Bad Rex." The phrase really captured the essence of the 2006 Chicago Bears. Their quarterback, Rex Grossman, would occassionally show signs of absolute football brilliance. Other times? Eh...not so much. The consensus in Chicago this year is that Good Rex is gone. Bad Rex has been replaced with Brian Griese. But the "Good Rex, Bad Rex" phrase has been on my mind lately. I usually think of it whenever I think about Fred Thompson.

For the longest time, I have been of two minds when it comes to Fred Thompson's campaign. Collectively, I think the political world is, too. Compare John Dickerson's analysis of Thompson with Michael Crowley's. Both are looking at the same characteristics - and yet they come out with different conclusions.

I think that the confusion over the Thompson campaign is that what works about it is very similar to what does not work. So, at first inspection, the lines are blurry - and you can't quite tell if this campaign is genius or disastrous. Upon closer inspection, I think that there are some lines to distinguish - and we can make some sense about this very peculiar presidential campaign.

So, today's column will review what I think works about the Thompson campaign. Monday's will review what is not working. Today's column is entitled "Thompson Goes Electric..." Monday's is entitled "...Without The Band."


Fred Thompson's candidacy has been widely panned by the press, but recent reports indicate that the candidate has acquired a little traction.

The first item comes from the Politico, which reported last Saturday:

Fred Thompson may have failed to impress Beltway insiders when he finally launched his run for the White House last month, but he is winning over a critical segment of the Republican coalition, new polling suggests.

Conservative Christians favor Thompson by a 10-point margin over his closest rival, Rudy Giuliani.

It's a sharp reversal for Giuliani. The putative GOP front-runner had been winning social conservative backing despite his history of support for abortion rights and gay rights.

Thompson has changed that.

Giuliani leads Thompson 29 percent to 21 percent among Republicans generally, the new national CBS News poll suggests.

But weekly Republican churchgoers back Thompson by a margin of 29 percent to 19 percent for Giuliani -- roughly tying John McCain.

Next, Bloomberg reported last Friday:

Fred Thompson hasn't dazzled many political professionals with his early stump appearances, yet when it comes to building a base of small campaign donors he's showing the potential to keep pace with better-funded rivals.

Thompson, 65, a former Tennessee senator who's running for the Republican nomination as a Ronald Reagan-style populist, tapped 74,217 individuals for an average gift of $125 between July 1 and Sept. 30, the first fundraising quarter of his presidential bid.

That's more than double the contributors Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani signed up during their first reporting periods. If Thompson keeps adding donors at this clip, he may be competitive in early primaries even though he trails Giuliani and Romney in cash raised.

Both of these stories beg the question: how is Fred Thompson doing well, given that he has not impressed "political professionals" and "Beltway insiders?"

I think that the answer has to do with a subject I have been discussing for the last few weeks. I have argued that there are two campaigns. On the one hand, there is the perpetual campaign - which is reducible to each party's attempts to win the daily news cycle. On the other hand, there is what I have been calling the real campaign. This is the quest for votes during the few weeks before Election Day.

The value of the perpetual campagin is that it sets the agenda for the real campaign. It is a show put on by candidates for the benefit of leaders of political constituencies, donors, and media personalities. Doing well in the perpetual campaign gets you noticed, and therefore gets you a spot in the real thing. The trouble with the press is that it treats the perpetual campaign as an end. It is not. Instead, it is a means to an end - namely, a shot to win the voters over. Candidates who excel in the perpetual campaign get the money and the attention that is necessary to make appeals to the voters during the real campaign.

The media is the arbiter of the perpetual campaign. This is for good reason. Candidates like to keep the cost of the perpetual campaign low. The media offers advertisement to them - through news coverage, talk shows, debates, and so forth - that costs candidates no money. But, as nothing in life is free, the candidates pay a price. Everything they say and do is analyzed and categorized by the talking heads. So, the heads set the rules of the perpetual campaign. They tell us who does well and who does poorly, and why.

According to the heads, Thompson has done poorly because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing. He is breaking too many of the rules. A case in point is Dick Morris's rant from last month about all of the problems with Fred Thompson.

•He skipped and is skipping the first two debates of his presidential candidacy and said he was looking forward to attending the Oct. 14 New Hampshire debate -- the one that was cancelled weeks ago;

•He is taking this week off from presidential campaigning;

•He does not know enough about the details of the Terry Schiavo case to comment.;

•He is also unfamiliar with the proposal to lower soaring insurance premiums Floridians must pay for home storm coverage since the hurricanes

These are the sorts of sins that leave the media arbiters cold. These are their rules. And he is breaking them. In the perpetual campaign - you are supposed to campaign non-stop. You are supposed to remember all of the minutiae of your campaign schedule. You are supposed to know the details of symbolic events that happened over a year ago. You are supposed to know the specifics of local political issues so you can pander to the residents. Those are the rules. Thompson isn't following them.

And yet, he seems to have some real signs of viability. How is that possible?

Let's approach this indirectly. Consider the Thompson organization. It has some top notch people either directly or indirectly affiliated with it. Meanwhile, Thompson himself is a good actor. He does not have much range - but, so long as the character is within his range, he plays it convincingly. And a presidential candidate is definitely within his range.

So, he has the talent. And he has the brain trust. But he is still not dazzling the arbiters. In light of this, I would suggest that Thompson's missteps might be intentional. His rule breaking has been purposive because he thinks it can get him the traction he seems to be getting.

But that does not make any sense. There are rules. The rules need to be followed. If they are not followed - punishments will be doled out and you will be sorry. You'll end up like John McCain - whose ticket to the real campaign was invalidated back in July due to his anemic fundraising and poor money management.

Well - maybe. But maybe not.

There are two types of rules in the world. On the one hand, there are real rules. These are the rules that you need to follow, or you will be in big trouble. Stay in school is one of them. You can't do much without a high school diploma - so that is a real rule. On the other hand, there are fake rules. These are rules that most people follow because they think there are negative consequences for disobedience, but actually there are not. In fact, the ones who break the fake rules are often celebrated as trail blazers.

Bob Dylan comes to my mind when I think of those who break the fake rules. In the mid-60s, there was this rule that songs could only be three minutes long, and they had to have three verses and a chorus. But Dylan did these six minute songs that had five plus verses and no chorus. And whose ears don't perk up today when they hear the first bars of "Subterranean Homesick Blues?" Another rule said that folkies could not play rock. That just did not happen. But Dylan hired Levon and the Hawks, and went electric. At first, he was booed everywhere he went (except in the South). Eight years later he went on tour with the exact same group - now called the Band - and received 6 million ticket requests for 600,000 seats.

If you have the intelligence to see which rules are real and which are fake, the respectfulness to follow the real rules, and the guts to break the fake rules - you can get ahead in this world. In fact, people will love you for breaking the fake rules.

I think Thompson might be breaking what really are fake rules. As I mentioned above - the perpetual campaign is only a means to the real campaign. You play the game by the rules of the media to earn your way into the real contest. But there may be other ways to get to the real campaign. If there are, the media's rules are indeed fake. There are no consequences to breaking them. If you find another way into the real campaign, you can break them all you like.

This is what Thompson seems to be doing. In fact, I think Thompson and his campaign have assessed that breaking these media rules will actually help him get to the real campaign. They might be right. Two benefits seem to be accruing to Thompson.

First, breaking the rules has earned him notice. This is ironic, as most candidates follow the rules of the perpetual campaign for precisely this reason. They do a lot of stump speeches to get on the evening news. They do the Sunday morning show circuit. They take any opportunity to appear on Hardball that they can get. And so on. But not Thompson. So, is the media ignoring him? Hardly! Instead, his rule breaking has earned him more attention. My favorite example of this so far was Thompson's declaration of his candidacy. The fact that he announced his candidacy on Jay Leno was taken as rule breaking. But consider the net result. Thompson announced on Leno - and got the Leno audience. And then the next day, all the talking heads did was talk about Thompson! Far from being punished, Thompson was rewarded for his defiance.

But much more importantl, I think Thompson has assessed that breaking these rules could win him support. People outside the Beltway, whose daily lives are not regimented by the news cycle, appreciate that the perpetual campaign has reached a point of asininity. Accordingly, a candidate could win supporters over in the real campaign by claiming that he ignored all of these rules, which essentially mandate twenty-two months of nonstop campaigning. This is a twist on running against Washington. It is running against the Washington press corps. A Republican candidate can do this all the more. After all, the perpetual campaign is mediated by the press, which conservatives loathe. Instead of saying that he broke the media's rules, a candidate instead can say that he broke the Drive By Media's rules. That is a great way to win conservatives over: run against the Drive By's.

I think that Thompson is taking a calculated risk here. As somebody who thinks that the rules of the media's prepetual campaign are inefficient and irresponsible (how much time are we going to spend talking about a damned haircut?), it is one that I admire. He is betting that all of the rules of the perpetual campaign, and the praise one earns from the talking heads for following those rules, is just one way to get to the real campaign. He is betting that there is another way - instead of following all of those rules, he can thumb his nose at them.

-Jay Cost

More on Clinton v. Obama

I received an interesting email yesterday from a reader named George, who wrote in response to my column on Gallup's analysis of the Democratic primary race. George had obviously read my column with great care and attention - and so I was struck when he wrote the following: "In my opinion there are some strong arguments for the notion that you appear to be underestimating Clinton's current advantage, that indeed Gallup is closer to the true picture on this."

I have been dissatisfied for a while about the end result of my writings on Clinton v. Obama. I have been concerned that I might be giving a wrong impression. It seems that I am. Smart readers like George seem to be inferring something about my position that I do intend.

I think that one of my problems has been that I have not approached the issue with the correct vocabulary. For instance, yesterday I led off my column with the following statement: "Regular readers of mine know that I am not at all inclined to write off Barack Obama. This is not to say that I think he is the likely nominee of the Democratic Party. My point has simply been that people are underestimating his chances." This is a true statement. However, it is not worded nearly as precisely as it should be. In particular, I meant the word "estimate" in a way that differed from the way I think that George meant it. This is, of course, my fault - and I intend to clarify my position today.

Here is how I would characterize my feeling about the Democratic primary. I am not in disagreement with pundits or analysts who argue that Clinton is expected to be the nominee. I would estimate that as well. But estimates such as these have two relevant features. There is the expected value. Namely, exactly what do you think will happen? That is your expected value. But there is also the variance - which is not really discussed much by pundits. The variance is a measure of your confidence that the real value will match your expected value.

The higher the variance, the less confident that you are the real value will match your expected value. Take a simple example. A person who says that the Bengals will score just six points against the Steelers next Sunday is expecting, obviously, just six points to be scored. But he also sees no potential for variation around this prediction. In other words, he sees no variance. On the other hand, a person who predicts that the Bengals will score between three and nine points against the Steelers is also predicting that six points will be scored. However, he sees some potential variation around this estimate. The expected values are the same. The difference is in the variances.

So - my point is that I agree with pundits on the expected value of the Democratic primary. I expect Clinton to win the nomination. The point where I disagree has to do with the variance. My argument is that it should be higher than pundits have been making it out to be. That was my intended point in yesterday's column. Gallup's arbitrary cutoff point obscured a problematic data point, 2003/04. It therefore made the variance seem lower than it actually is. Gallup was therefore committing Type I error. That is, they were identifying something as being true that might not be true.

Hopefully, you'll appreciate the conundrum that I have been facing in working through this issue in my own head. I have not seen anybody explicitly discuss the variance of their estimate. This is not something that pundits do. But the variance does get mentioned - but it is usually in a sideways fashion. You'll see it come through in the word choices that pundits use - specifically in the adverbs or adjectives. Is Barack Obama "trailing" or is he "trailing badly?" The latter is a statement that inclines one to lower the variance - i.e. not only is Obama trailing now, but this trailing makes it extremely unlikely that he will be able to catch up. Is Hillary Clinton "leading" or is she "unstoppable?" Again, the choice of word implies a different variance - the former allows for some variance, the latter obviously does not. This is what has sparked a kind of visceral reaction from me over the last weeks and months. I have been searching for the right way to articulate it - and until today, I have been left unsatisfied with my various attempts.

Let me just briefly review why I am inclined to a higher variance, even though I expect the same result:

(1) Public opinion is often susceptible to instability. On the national level, voter preferences for candidates have not really been formed by any kind of electoral campaign. Instead, they have been formed by the media dialogue on the campaign - of which average voters are only marginally aware. That is, most voters don't watch Meet the Press, the debates, read the Horse Race Blog ;-), etc. They only pick up the dialogue in dribs-and-drabs. They are capable of "regurgitating" this dialogue back to the press - thus giving the latter the impression that these positions are more well-formed and stable than they actually are. So, as events change, we might expect public opinion to change as well. Generally, we need to be wary of putting too much stock in the stability and foundation of public opinion. You can call this my "John Zaller Hang Up."

(2) We saw something like this happen in 2004. A candidate who was at about 10% for many months suddenly and dramatically jumped to 50%. He went from fourth to first overnight. This is a sign that public opinion before the first primaries can indeed be susceptible to change.

(3) Even if public opinion is less susceptible to modification this time around - it seems sufficiently susceptible to alter the dynamics of the race. This is what yesterday's thought experiment was intended to demonstrate. That is, a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire would probably not give Obama a 40% boost. However, it could give him a 20% boost, some of which would come at Clinton's expense.

(4) Obama is a good candidate and could very well win Iowa. He has lots of money, a strong organization, and a message that I think could sell. It will be interesting to me whether his media blitzes in New Hamphsire have any effect - because I think he could play there, too.

(5) We have very few previous observations to draw inferences about this year. It is a mathematical fact that as the number of observations decreases, the variance increases. The fact that we only have seven data points - all of which have great differences from one another - makes it more difficult for us to infer what will happen in January based upon what the October polls are saying.

So, the bottom line: there is a difference between what we believe will happen (expected value) and how confident we are that we will find what we believe will happen (variance). My disagreement is over the variance, not the expected value. Put another way, I do not disagree with the conclusion of pundits and analysts. My disagreement is more with the confidence with which they offer these conclusions.

-Jay Cost

Clinton v. Obama, Gallup, and Historical Precedent

Regular readers of mine know that I am not at all inclined to write off Barack Obama. This is not to say that I think he is the likely nominee of the Democratic Party. My point has simply been that people are underestimating his chances.

The reason I think this is three-fold:

(a) The guy has a real message that he has honed over the last few months. It could resonate with Democrats, who presumably are the most desirous of a national course correction. As evidence of this, we cannot overlook the fact that he has had donations from more than 300,000 individuals.
(b) He has raised $80 million to date. He will be able to compete as well as any presidential candidate ever has.
(c) He is fully staffed in Iowa and New Hampshire. He'll be blitzing both states with advertisements. He could win one or both states and turn those national numbers upside down.

Most pundits who are favoring Hillary Clinton so heavily (and remember - I am not saying that she is not favored; my objection is that people are favoring her too heavily) are using the polls - most often the national polls - to support their point. I have argued that this line of analysis is problematic because the national polls are too volatile.

The Gallup organization offered a rejoinder to this argument this week. Their basic assertion is that Democratic candidates with leads greater than 20% at this point (or later) in the election cycle have never lost the nomination. This gives them a modicum of stability in the national numbers, which therefore enables them to conclude:

By now, it is obvious that Clinton is extremely well-positioned to win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Her status as the front-runner seems to be strengthening at an opportune time with the Iowa Caucuses less than three months away. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that she could stumble and not win the nomination as did Kennedy and Hart, but those cases occurred under rather extreme circumstances. Also, those candidates held their large leads long before any votes were cast.

I have a lot of respect for Gallup as a polling organization. Furthermore, I have a lot of respect for the analysts they have over there - Frank Newport and Lydia Saad in particular. However, I have to say that this line of analysis is misleading (though I am sure unintentionally so). This is one of those instances where the strength of the conclusion is driven by the cutoff point, which is largely arbitrary.

What do I mean by that? I mean that Gallup has based its analysis on a cutoff point of 20% or more. In other words, they look at candidates who had leads of 20 points or greater at this stage in the campaign. And from this they can argue (correctly) that no candidate has lost if they had that size of a lead at this point in the cycle.

Methodologically, though, this is not as straightforward as it seems. We are in what a salty statistical guy such as myself would call "small n territory." In other words, we do not have very many observations of Democratic primaries - especially open ones. By my count, this is just the eighth open primary since 1972 (when the primary system was implemented more widely). When we have just seven observations to draw inferences about this eighth - we have to be very conscious of observations that do not fit our hypothesis. They factor in a lot. Accordingly, we cannot impose a priori cutoffs that obscure problematic data points.

So - I'll just ask the question: what happens if we switch the margin in the polls to, say, 16%? In that case - we find that Howard Dean did have such a lead in mid-December, 2003 - over Joe Lieberman , the second place candidate at the time! His lead over Kerry was 19%. Kerry, at that point, was in fourth place - behind (in order) Dean, Lieberman, and Wesley Clark. John Edwards, who ultimately finished second, was actually in sixth place - behind every major national candidate. He was just a point above Al Sharpton.

This indicates that anybody who wishes to use the national polls to infer what will happen must advertise loudly and clearly just how wrong they turned out to be in 2003/04. Between mid-October and the end of January, we actually saw three distinct trends in the Democratic contest. At this point in 2003, Clark and Dean were essentially tied for first place. Dean overtook Clark in early December - and surged ahead through Christmas. His lead began to taper off after New Year's. And Kerry surged after the Iowa Caucus.

The problem with Gallup's analysis is that it misses all of this because of the standard that it sets. The problematic nature of 2003/2004 is never brought to bear on its analysis of 2007/08.

So, does this mean that Clinton's lead is as tenuous as Dean's? No. In fact - and here is one reason why I regard Gallup as generally great not only at polling but also at polling analysis - they rightly note that Democratic primary voters this year claim to be much more stable in their candidate preferences than they were in 2003 and early 2004. In the latest Gallup poll, 57% of Democratic primary voters with a preference say they are "certain" to vote for their candidate. This number is at 67% among Clinton supporters. By contrast, only 35% of respondents said they were certain back in early January, 2004.

This favors Clinton. There is no doubt about it. It is one of the reasons I do not think this race is a toss-up. I think that she has an edge in this contest. But I do not yet see this edge as being decisive - or as being great enough to enable us to call the race right now. Return again to that swing to Kerry. At the beginning of January, he was at about 10% in the polls. At the end of January, he was at about 50%. Edwards, for his part, doubled his support from about 7% to about 13%. Where did this support come from?

First, let's make some simplifying assumptions, none of which contradict common sense. Assume that (a) Kerry or Edwards supporters at the beginning of the month were Kerry or Edwards supporters at the end of the month; (b) Voters who initially supported candidates who dropped out, or undecided voters who decided, went to Kerry or Edwards; (c) A candidate's "uncertain" voters will stop supporting a candidate before his "certain" voters; (d) The "certain" supporters of Clark and Dean followed the national trend, i.e. 35% of their respective supporters claimed certitude.

From these assumptions, we can claim the following. First, Kerry or Edwards picked up the support of the Gephardt, Lieberman, and Braun supporters. Second, about two-thirds of the undecided voters decided for Kerry or Edwards. Third, they picked up about 70% of Dean and Clark's "uncertain" supporters. Again, these are all based upon my assumptions. I cannot be certain because the data I have is aggregate, and therefore I run afoul of the ecological fallacy if I claim certitude. But some process akin to the one outlined here most certainly happened. After all, at least 50% of the Democratic electorate switched their preference from the beginning of January to the end. The specifics might have been a little different (my intuition is that Dean and Clark kept more of their "uncertain" voters but lost some of their "certain" voters) - but it would basically have been a process like this.

Now - let's flash-forward to 2008 and run a scenario similar to the one that occurred in 2004. Let's assume that Obama scores a huge win in Iowa that begins a shift akin to the one in 2004. It knocks out all of the candidates except Clinton, Edwards, Kucinich, and Gravel. Let's again assume that Edwards does well enough to benefit, too. But again, like 2004, he is not the prime beneficiary. Further, let's assume that Clinton's "certain" voters are indeed certain - but that she loses 70% of her "uncertain" voters. This gives Obama and Edwards a chance to split amongst themselves 24% of the Democratic electorate - 11.5% of which had previously supported Clinton in an "uncertain" fashion.

In 2004, the split among the new supporters between Kerry and Edwards was such that Kerry accrued 85% of the benefit. Let's assume that this happens again. Obama gets about 85% of this new vote up for grabs, Edwards gets about 15%. This means Obama increases his share of the vote by about 20% to go to 41%. Edwards increases his share by about 5% to go to 17%. Clinton loses her 70% of her "uncertain" supporters - 11.5% of her total support - and thus falls from 50% to 38.5%.

So, we have at the end of January 2008: Obama 41%, Clinton 38.5%, Edwards 17%, Undecided/Other 3.5%. This would be an electoral pivot that is, by my estimate, about as dramatic as the one that occurred in 2004. The difference - an important one - is that Clinton would obviously not be knocked out. Instead, the contest would continue on to Super Tuesday, with Obama being the leader in the national polls.

Do I think that this is what will happen? No. Not really. The point is simply the following. Something like this did happen once, out of just seven trials. This makes it highly problematic to draw inferences about what will happen in January based upon October polling. That "falsifying" observation diminishes our level of certitude to a great degree. This would not be the case if we had, say, 40 or so primary cycles to review. But we don't. We have seven. And one of them was just plain nutty. This limits our ability to infer what will happen.

And remember the initial cause of Kerry's 2004 turnaround. It was essentially because Kerry won the Iowa caucus by 6%. Think about that. That is amazing in retrospect. The actions of 6% of caucus-going Iowa Democrats induced about 50% of the entire nation's Democrats to begin to support John Kerry or John Edwards. That is incredible.

I'll put it another way: the reason that all of these states are jockeying for an early position is exactly the reason why none of us should be putting anything but the most rudimentary of odds on either party's nominating contests. These states are tripping over each other to break party rules because they think these early contests could be pivot points. The reason that we are all following these state actions is because we agree with them. We know that these early contests can be pivot points. So why are we implicitly claiming that the Democratic contest will necessarily not have one?

Like I said - rudimentary analysis is really all that is valid right now. So, here is mine. Clinton and Obama both have a ton of cash. They both have good messages that could appeal to the Democratic primary electorate. Both of them stand a chance at victory. I would estimate that Clinton has an advantage over Obama that is probably due to her greater name recognition as well the fact that she is a known quantity from a family of proven electoral winners.

If you want to argue that Clinton has an advantage because of the size of her national lead - you are simply on unsolid ground. Recent history has demonstrated quite clearly that these national poll numbers are far from stable. They are subject to sudden, dramatic, and decisive changes because of tiny shifts in the early contests.

-Jay Cost

Giuliani's Primary Strategy

There was a very strange article that appeared in the Washington Times on Saturday. It had to do with Giuliani's primary strategy. Joseph Curl wrote:

Republican presidential contender Rudolph W. Giuliani is counting on surviving the four early primary states and then implementing a national primary strategy that starts in Florida and explodes across the country, from New York to California, campaign analysts and consultants say.

While Iowa and New Hampshire are almost always the bellwether contests, and often the kingmakers, the former New York City mayor is "turning upside down the laws of political gravity," one strategist said.

"It looks like they're going to try to survive early, and he's got 16 million bucks in the bank, more than anybody else but [Mitt] Romney, and they'll try to roll through this thing, get to the big states on January 29 and Super Tuesday," said Scott Reed, a former Bob Dole campaign strategist who is not working for any presidential campaign this year.

Well - this starts off sensibly enough. We all know by now that Giuliani is planning to take the nomination by doing well on February 5. Unfortunately, the author takes things a bit too far - and uses comments from strategists in place of some simple fact checking.

"His strategy is centered around Florida plus February 5th and having enough money to do advertising campaigns in those big states," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist close to the Bush administration who this campaign is working for Sen. John McCain. [Snip]

Mr. Reed said that tracking the movements and media-time purchases of Mr. Giuliani gives a window into his strategy.

"Look at where he's spending his time; look at where he's spending his money -- they're not camping in Iowa and New Hampshire; they're not spending a lot on advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire."

He, too, expressed doubt about the strategy.

"I just think it's difficult for Giuliani to lose the first four main events and think everybody in Florida is still going to be hanging on. ... I wouldn't say it's a losing strategy, but it's never been done," Mr. Reed said.

I, too, would express doubt about this strategy. The trick is - it does not seem to be what the Giuliani campaign is doing. The Washington Post has a handy-dandy website that keeps track of candidate visits - we can use it to verify the claims made in this article. Since the beginning of the year, Giuliani has visited New Hampshire more than any other state. Iowa comes second. Florida, California, and South Carolina round out the top five.

Now - maybe Giuliani has altered his campaign strategy. Indeed, we might expect any candidate to do this as his position in various states shifts, and he must deal with the problem of resource constraints. To check this, I examined his campaign trips since October 1, 2007 through yesterday. I excluded the debates. The results I found were inconsistent with the claims of the article. Giuliani has made eight campaign appearances in New Hampshire, four in Florida, four in South Carolina, three in Iowa. He has made six appearances in states that will come on Super Tuesday.

Not only has Giuliani spent the most time in New Hampshire - he camped out there for two complete working days. October 3rd and October 14th were dedicated exclusively to New Hampshire.

I think it is certainly true that Giuliaini is banking on doing well on the fifth of February. I also think that he may not be trying to win any of the early states. Instead, he may be trying to retain his viability until Florida. But it is just wrong to claim that Giuliani is not spending his time in the early states.

Relatedly, we can debate whether he is thinking about writing off Iowa. He may be. After all, his trip last week was his first in about two months - and his position in the Iowa polls has been weakening. But it is just ridiculous to argue that he is writing off all the early states. He clearly is not. He has been spending a good bit of time in both New Hampshire and South Carolina - and he has visited both states at least one time every month since July. What's more, his poll positions in New Hampshire and South Carolina are both fairly strong. Our average shows him in second place in New Hampshire, and tied for first place in South Carolina. Giuliani's frequent trips to both states reflect those positions.

-Jay Cost