InTrade currently has the candidates roughly tied. As of this writing, McCain is at around 49 and falling, while Obama is at around 51 and rising. Still, that’s basically a tie. The question is, where do we go from here?
The arguments for why Obama will ultimately win this have been explored ad nauseum over the last several months in a variety of contexts. They are straightforward: Parties rarely win third terms, President Bush is unpopular, Obama is charismatic (while McCain is not), the country is ready for change (which McCain does not embody), and Obama’s cash and ground game advantages will translate into a massive surge in Democratic support on election day, which will improve Democratic performance up and down the ticket.
Less has been said about why McCain will win. Maybe this is because the possibility seemed so absurd to many viewers of the political process not two weeks ago, that little commentary has been done on the actual scenario for a McCain win, or why things look different than they looked a few months – or even weeks – ago.
Let me be clear from the outset though – this isn’t to say I think McCain will win. I actually still think Obama is the favorite by reasonable odds -- probably 55-45. What I’m interested in is this: If we wake up the morning after election day looking at a McCain Presidency, and people talk about the “shocking” result, what were the warning signs? What should we have been looking at in order to see this coming?
I think a good way to approach this is to take a look at all of the supposed Obama advantages, and look at the evidence why they won’t play out the way that we have expected that they would
Money advantage – This is probably the number one reason that Obama was expected to win this, walking away. Remember back in June, when people thought that Obama would have $500 million to spend against McCain, to spend on a top-notch get-out-the-vote operation and enough money to completely swamp McCain’s paltry spending? (Indeed, if you google obama swamp cash mccain, you get about 160,000 hits).
Of course, it hasn’t worked out quite like that, with some dangerous consequences for Obama, as Patrick explains here. Obama’s fundraising has been strong, but it hasn’t been anywhere near $500M territory. Moreover, McCain’s fundraising has picked up considerably, weakening the advantage Obama has had. And of course, the DNC is getting killed in fundraising by the RNC. Newsweek’s Andrew Romano breaks it down like this:
In August, the McCain campaign managed to net a record $47 million for its coffers and another $22 million for the party, finishing the month with more than $100 million on-hand--money that it has now turned over to the Republican Party. It has also accepted $84.1 million in public financing from the federal government. Combined with the RNC's $100 million projected haul over the next two months--all Republican cash now goes to the party, not the campaign--that should leave McCain with about $300 million to spend before Nov. 4.
Obama's situation is a shakier. After spending approximately $55 million in August--advertising during the Olympics isn't cheap--the Illinois senator finished the month with $77 million on hand. The DNC chipped in another $17.5 million. That brought the Democratic nominee's bank account to about $95 million at the start of September--or about half of McCain's $184 million. To keep pace with the Republicans, Obama and the DNC must rake in another $200 million or so before Nov. 4, which divies up as $100 million per month--or $17 million more than the $83 million they raised together in August.
Obama is also spending cash in places he’s not expected to win, and not getting much in return. Which brings me to a question I’ve asked many times before: If Obama has already spent an ungodly amount of money promoting his candidacy – over $300M between the primary and the general so far – and he hasn’t closed the deal, when is he going to close it?
Regardless, there is certainly an argument to be made that Obama’s cash-on-hand doesn’t give him the huge advantage that many had anticipated (and yet you hear it repeated again and again). If he loses, I suspect the decision to reject public funds will be seen as culprit number one.
The argument here is that youth/African American turnout as the result of the Democrats’ improved ground game and Obama’s candidacy will make the difference. Much of this stems from the antiquated notion of low African American turnout is a relic from the arguments of the 1960s and 1970s; Jesse Jackson fixed that problem, and today African Americans already turnout at a very high rate. Regardless, I’ve covered this to some extent here, with the salient point being this: yes, Obama will likely increase African American turnout, but the states where this could make a real difference – with the exception of Virginia – are either so deeply red or so deeply blue that it is unlikely that AAs will be game-changers. Improving Obama’s vote share in Mississippi from 40% to 43% doesn’t do him a lick of good. Add in the fact that there might be an equal-and-opposite reaction (see the Bradley effect below), and I just don’t see this being a huge factor. (also, see this estimate, showing that AA turnout in GA would have to be up 81% to put Obama over the top, something that would require almost every eligible black to vote).
Which brings us to the youth vote, the dream of every insurgent Democratic candidate since McGovern lost by over twenty points. The problem, as Jerome Armstrong has pointed out, is that the youth vote isn’t a growing share of the electorate. The 60+ vote is growing. This makes sense of course, given everything we know about the graying of America. Again, there might be a surge in youth turnout – there was, after all, in 2004. The question, though, is whether this will be part of a general surge in turnout, as it was in 2004.
Four more years
Presidential parties almost never win the fabled third term. They are 1-6 in the post-war years. That’s a pretty bad track record.
But let’s dig down a little deeper. 5 tries is a mighty small data set, and we know in the pre-war years, it was fairly common for Presidential parties to win such terms. In the post-war years we have: 1952, 1960, 1968, 1976, 1988 and 2000.
Obviously 1988 was a third-term win for Republicans. And 2000 was a popular vote win for Democrats, and 250 voters changing their minds in Florida from being an electoral win for Democrats. 1976, 1968, and 1960 were close elections. But for a debate gaffe in 1976, Poor makeup in a debate in 1960, and a better Democratic convention in 1968, we might be talking about how the rule was that parties win third terms.
Plus, there is one important difference here. The candidate of the incumbent party is not of the Administration. Although Democrats have exerted heroic efforts to tie McCain to the Bush Administration, it is much more difficult under these circumstances.
Which actually brings me to 1952. It is fitting that for an incumbent who draws so many parallels to Harry Truman, Bush leaves a political landscape similar to the one that Truman left Stevenson. But there is an important difference. That year, Republicans nominates Dwight Eisenhower, a conservative who ran on a moderate, pragmatic platform, and governed accordingly. Democrats nominated someone who tries to talk like Ike, but just . . . isn’t. They have nominated someone much more like Robert Taft, Jr., the also-ran to Ike. But most polls showed that, had Republicans nominated Taft, we very well may have seen Adlai Stevenson elected in 1952, allowing the Democrats to tie the Republicans’ record of six consecutive wins (from 1860 to 1880).
Republicans coming home/enthusiasm
This is pretty simple. The conventional wisdom has been that Republicans have been despondent, and are unlikely to turn out at 2004 levels – the primary had pretty low turnout. In the meantime, Democrats shattered the previous turnout record of . . . 1988. But the Palin pick seems to have changed that, and there is at least some chance that Republicans’ enthusiasm will survive into November.
This, I think, is where the ballgame is for McCain. The Bradley effect is actually much simpler then the press accounts of voters nefariously lying to pollsters. Its about voters lying to themselves, and telling pollsters that they are undecided when they actually are not.
Consider the polling averages for the primaries, compared to Obama’s eventual performance:
The first column is obviously the state. The next two show either the final RCP average or, if I couldn’t find that, the average of the polls from the last few days before the respective primary. The next two columns show Obama’s final tally and Clinton’s final tally. The final column shows how much or how little Obama over- or under-performed the polls. A few states that only had one or two polls like AR, OK and SD are removed from the set. Not too much of a trend here:
|State||Obama Polls||Clinton Polls||Obama Final||Clinton Final||Obama Trend|
But let’s take out the states of the Old Confederacy:
|Obama Polls||Clinton Polls||Obama Final||Clinton Final||Obama Trend|
Outside of the South – where he was buoyed by unusually high African American turnout that will be mitigated once the Republican vote is mixed in – Obama performed on average 2 points behind the spread the polls predicted. And look how frequently Obama gets what he gets! In AZ, CA, CT, KY, MA, NH, OH, PA, RI, TX (left in the data set, because AAs are a fairly small portion of the population here, so it isn’t “Southern” in the sense that the other states in the dataset are), VT and WV, his final result was three points or less above where he ended up in the poll average. That’s almost two-thirds of the total states in this dataset!!!
In the RCP average for these states, Obama’s current RCP average (or Pollster.com, if RCP is unavailable), with how much Obama overperformed his final polling by in the primaries, is:
AZ: 40.1 (+2)
CA: 51.3 (-2)
CT: 55.3 (+3)
KY: 37.9 (+.5)
MA: 53.9 (+.3)
NH : 48 (-1.9)
OH : 45.1 (+1.1)
PA : 45.5 (+2)
RI : 57 (+1.5)
TX: 38 (+1.9)
WV: 42 (+1)
That’s an awful lot of electoral votes that, if the same pattern that affected Obama in the primaries affects him here, are going to be very much endangered. And given that we have a pretty good suspicion what that pattern is caused by, and given that the cause hasn’t changed (and is unchangeable), he has something to worry about here.
Note also that in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan we are beginning to see the same polling trend that we saw in those states that we saw in the primaries: Obama has relatively little variance in his polling numbers. In the polls in the RCP average for Ohio we see the following numbers for Obama: 46, 41, 49, 44, 45, 45, 42, 47, 44, 44, 49. Before the primary his RCP average results were: 45, 42, 40, 42, 44, 44, 44. He got 44.1 percent. His numbers in PA since August 1 are: 46, 46, 48, 49, 48, 47, 47, 48, 47, 45. Before the primary they were: 41, 44, 44, 42, 49, 44, 41, 42. He got 45 percent. (Note also that Biden mentioned Scranton three times in his acceptance speech, and that Obama is diverting some resources from Virginia to Pennsylvania, which tells me his polling is showing something he doesn’t like there). And in MI we see, since August: 49, 46, 43, 47, 45, 49, 51, 44, and 48.
In other words, if the pattern we’ve seen in the primaries holds up, Obama’s ceiling is dangerously close to 50%.
Now, all of this is speculation. It’s a different race in the general election. But also consider the internals of the most recent SUSA polls. In Ohio it tells us that the undecideds are disproportionately over the age of 65 (currently 54-41 McCain), moderate (slightly pro-Obama), and from the Toledo area (52-42 McCain). Again, we must be careful with this, as there are huge error margins for subsamples. In Virginia they are 50-64 (50-47 Obama) and 65+ (51-43 McCain), and independent (48-44 McCain). In Florida they are actually younger (49-44 Obama) and Hispanic (55-36 McCain), perhaps demonstrating the split in young Cuban voters who are less likely to vote like their heavily Republican parents. In New Mexico 0% of voters younger than Obama are undecided, but 4% of those older than McCain are (53-43 McCain). I won’t bore you with the details, but the other pollster who shows detailed crosstabs – PPP – shows similar results.
In other words, the undecideds are voters who are from demographic groups that are currently breaking toward McCain. And, incidentally, they are the people who are probably the least likely to be truly comfortable with a black President, even if they are convinced that they are not the least bit racist.
Anyway, like I said, I think Republicans are likely to look back at the two weeks post-Convention in the same way that Bogart and Bergman looked back on Paris. But if McCain does pull this off, I think the serious analysis of why he wins will look something like this.