Obama's Playing Small Ball

(cross-posted at www.KungFuQuip.com)

Last week the Obama campaign released a list of states where it was going up with advertising - Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

An odd grouping of states, no doubt.  I saw a couple of posts that could explain most of those choices, but te authors always had trouble with Alaska, North Dakota and other outliers. Most posts simply suggested this was a combination of three things; trying to expand the map, normal targeting choices, and pipe dreams.

I disagree and I'd like to propose a new theory - one that I believe explains every choice very clearly.

At about the same time this list was released, I was listening to a presentation regarding state legislative bodies and places where the partisan control of chambers was razor thin.  What surprised me was the striking similarity between the two lists.

State Democrats Need To Gain Democrats Hold Target State?
Alaska +3, +1 House, Senate Neither N
Colorado     Both Y
Florida +6 Senate Neither Y
Georgia +6 Senate Neither N
Iowa     Both Y
Indiana     House (+1, trying to hold) N
Michigan +2 Senate House (+3) Y
Missouri +3 Senate Neither Y
Montana +1 House Senate (+2) N
Nevada +1 Senate House (+6) N
New Hampshire     Both Y
New Mexico     Both Y
North Carolina     Both N
North Dakota +3 Senate Neither N
Ohio +4, +5 House, Senate Neither Y
Pennsylvania +5 Senate House (+1) Y
Wisconsin +3 House Senate Y
Virginia +6 House Senate (+1) N

The states that would not normally be target states, but in which he is spending money have one of two common characteristics.  They are either states in which the Democrats are exceptionally close to controlling one or both houses, or states where they control one or both houses by slim margins.

Essentially, Obama (a former state legislator himself) is playing small ball. He's using the vast sum of money he's going to raise to set up the rest of the team for scoring runs.  He understands the role of state legislatures and is helping them increase their numbers.

Why?  Because Obama and his team are looking to pull a Tom Delay.  By setting up the Democrats to win these legislative bodies, he'll be able to stymie (or dominate) the redistricting process and be able to not only elect more Democrats, but use it to put even larger majorities in place after 2010.

Will the Democrats have enough money to compete in 2010 and win the seats then?  Maybe. Maybe not.  However, it's generally harder to raise the funds to compete in state legislative races, reagrdless of the top of the ticket.

In 2008, however, if Obama can actually raise and spend $500 million, that allows for a huge amount of leeway.  By spending money on uplifting ads like his first, in states where he's not likely to win statewide, he can still move numbers on a district by district basis.  He can use vast sums of money to help them now, and focus next year on the few remaining seats necessary to seize power

What this all means for Republicans is scary.

Whether John McCain wins or not is almost irrelevant.  If Obama does what I think he's doing, even if the Republicans are successful at challenging Democrats in 2010 and win back some seats (I'm working under the assumption that 2008 is a wash at best for us), the legislatures the Democrats control after November can erase those gains in redistricting.  We could be looking at a minority for a long time to come.

While we fret about the chances of J-Mac or our ability to reclaim congressional districts, we should be looking a lot closer at state legislative races and how to make a difference in these states.  We should be looking for ways to beat back Team Obama and prevent them from relegating the GOP to a long time in the wilderness.

Update: Thanks to Ben Smith at Politico and Obama's Deputy campaign manager for confirming my hypothesis in today's Politico.

But winning the White House won’t be his only goal, deputy campaign manager Hildebrand told Politico: In an unusual move, Obama’s campaign will also devote some resources to states it’s unlikely to win, with the goal of influencing specific local contests in places like Texas and Wyoming.

“Texas is a great example where we might not be able to win the state, but we want to pay a lot of attention to it,” Hildebrand said. “It’s one of the most important redistricting opportunities in the country.”

Texas Democrats are five seats away in each chamber from control of the state legislature, which will redraw congressional districts after the 2010 census.


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Alaska & North Dakota

This is all true, but there is no redistricting in Alaska and North Dakota. They are at-large seats.

Virginia and Georgia make more sense.

I don't see it.

First, I should point out that the Obama campaign expects to have a significantly larger war-chest (the May numbers notwithstanding) and much better organization, GOTV and otherwise, this autumn.  So they can afford to play McCain into the back court, if not full court press, and tempt/force McCain to spend time/money on states he'd otherwise consider safe.

But as for the state-by-state logic of "small ball"...

Alaska: McCain's not actually ahead by that much.  The last Rasmussen poll (16 Jun) puts McCain up by only 4 points, which is down from 7-9 points a month earlier.     And again, no redistricting, although I'm sure the Dems wouldn't mind holding more state legislatures.

Colorado has been "purpling" and is in play.  'Nuf said.

Florida has been purple for a while now and is more in play every week.  'Nuf said.

Georgia is very close per the latest Insider Advantage poll.  Obama thinks he can get out the black vote.

Iowa has purpled so much it's looking quite blue.

Indiana is within the margin of error in recent SurveyUSA polls.  They may have convinced themselves that they can press McCain there.

Michigan was looking at-risk in May of going to McCain.  A little defense there might not hurt.

Missouri went purple in late May/early June.

Montana would make sense if there was any possibility of redistricting, but like Alaska and North Dakota, it has only one district.  Maybe Obama thinks he can expand the map there, too, or perhaps he just feels generous and wants to help out the state houses.

Nevada is in play; it's within the margin of error lately.

New Hampshire seems to like McCain more than it likes other Republicans, so this may be a case of playing defense.  And, they already control both state houses.  (It's only a two-district state anyway; how much gerrymandering can they do?)

New Mexico is in play, again.  At least margin-of-error, favoring Obama.

North Carolina has only a thin lead for McCain.  Again, Obama may figure he can win this one, perhaps in part by getting out the black vote.

North Dakota I don't even know about.  Haven't seen a poll from there in months. But again, only one district.  No gerrymandering.

Ohio is once again in play, favoring Obama at the moment.  Definitely a state to fight for.

Pennsylvania is a state no Dem wants to lose, for obvious reasons.  Some pundits have said it's in play for McCain, but... eh.

Wisconsin isn't quite a lock for Obama, and it's been close in the last couple of elections, so that's probably a bit of defense.

Virginia is considered in play, margin-of-error favoring Obama.


The more likely explanation, to me, is that Obama is simply fighting on the battlegrounds and expanding the map where he smells blood in the water.

1. With the exceptions of Oregon and Connecticut, every state that was within 4 points in 2004 or is within 5 points in the latest poll is being targeted with advertising.  (*Edit: I guess Minnesota was within 4 points in 2004, barely, but is looking more secure this time around.)

2. Montana, North Dakota, and Indiana were all strong Republican in 2004 but are polling as only likely-Republican now.  The same goes for West Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but when it comes to the south, Obama's probably looking for verifiable weakness; only North Carolina and Georgia are close now.