Monthly Archives: October 2008

Has Obama Really Run the Better Campaign?

By now, it is almost universally accepted that Obama has run the better general election campaign; the media has constantly contrasted Obama’s ability to stay on message with McCain’s struggle to find a coherent campaign theme. More recently, of course, news accounts based on unnamed sources depict internal bickering within the McCain campaign organization.  It may surprise you, then, to hear that I find little hard evidence that Obama’s campaign has been run significantly more effectively than McCain’s. Indeed, I find that both organizations have made mistakes in campaign strategy.  If I am right, what accounts for the media narrative that suggests Obama has run the more effective campaign?  I believe it is driven by three misleading factors:

First, Obama is ahead, and has been, according to almost every poll since the credit meltdown began in late September.   Second, Obama has a more visible campaign presence in most states, as indicated by more campaign offices and a bigger ad campaign.  Third, Obama has stuck to a single campaign theme, rarely straying from that central message in which he is portrayed as an agent of change, and McCain depicted as a Bush clone.

Upon closer inspection, however, none of these necessarily indicates that Obama has run the better campaign in terms of strategy.  To begin, our forecast models predicated on the fundamentals indicated back in August – before the general election campaign began – that Obama would win this election by about 4%.  To date, his lead is within this margin in most polls.  So Obama is not doing significantly better than we thought he would – at least according to the polls.  Second, Obama’s heightened campaign visibility is a testament to his huge fundraising advantage. But it doesn’t prove that he has used his much greater resources more wisely than has McCain.  Finally, the reason that Obama has proved so effective at staying on message is because he has the easier message to send:  “I’m not Bush.” Period.   As long as he is ahead in the polls, there’s no reason to change that message. In contrast, McCain has started with the harder sell – he’s had to position himself as an agent of change in the context of running as the incumbent party’s nominee.   In this respect, he has faced the more difficult challenge, which explains his search for a winning narrative that might more favorably frame an otherwise inhospitable political context.

When a campaign is perceived to be losing, invariably the long knives come out, as unnamed sources begin to assign blame, aided and abetted by a media that is determined to find a reason for the loss that is based on personalities and daily strategy, rather than on the fundamentals that actually drive elections.  But these media analyses are almost always after the fact, driven by hindsight, and with very little concrete evidence that they are correct.

I write this post in part because I believe Obama recently made another campaign error – not a fatal one, to be sure, but one that undoubtedly will be overlooked by the press. Rather than marshal his resources in key battleground states, he evidently has decided to put money into buying television ads in Arizona in the hopes of winning McCain’s home state.  In my view, this is a mistake because the chances of winning Arizona’s 10 electoral votes do not merit the effort there.  He would be far better off using that money in Florida, Ohio, or North Carolina, all tossup states that McCain must win to have a chance to be president and in which polling currently shows that both candidates are running neck and neck.

Now, in Obama’s defense, it may be that he has enough wealth to buy television time in Arizona without weakening his effort in the important battleground states. And if he turns Arizona blue and wins the election, his strategy will be proven correct. But at this point, from my perspective, I am hard-pressed to make the case that the money isn’t better spent in other battleground states.

My broader point is that too often we judge campaign effectiveness by superficial indicators that do not adequately measure what we are trying to assess.  I  think this is the case to date in comparing the two campaigns’ overall strategy.  In my view, each campaign has made about an equal number of mistakes, and neither has clearly outshone the other.

Undecideds and Persuadables

Here are two more articles relevant to my recent post regarding undecideds. (See here and here.)   According to the AP/Yahoo poll, almost one in ten voters remain undecided – a slightly higher number than what many of the other surveys are reporting.  As the second article indicates, and as I alluded to in my earlier post, the difference is due in part to the question wording that pollsters use when asking respondents for whom they are likely to vote.  As David Moore points out in the other article cited above, pollsters routinely push undecideds to make a choice.  They also tend not to highlight in their stories the number of respondents who say they might change their mind. Why does this matter?  Keep in mind that pollsters ask people who they would vote for if the election was held today – not who they think they will vote for on Nov. 4, the actual election day.  In other words, there is room for voters who say they are leaning toward someone to change their mind even this late in the process.  Consider that the 2004 exit poll found 9 percent of voters saying they had made up their minds in the three days before the election.  In short, looking only at undecideds in any given poll may understate the number of persuadables remaining in the electorate.  For example, the most recent ABC poll suggests that there are only 2% undecideds remaining. But in the fine print of the poll, you find an additional 3% who say there is a “good” chance they will change their mind.  Among McCain supporters, 4% say they there is a “good” chance they might change their mind, but only 1% of Obama supporters say as much.  In the CBS poll, fully 7% of Obama supporters and 9% of McCain supporters say their minds are not made up.  In the Fox poll, 17% of Obama and 22% of McCain supporters indicate that they support their candidate only “somewhat.”  None of these voters are considered “undecided”, however.   But it suggests that there may be more room for movement in support for both candidates than the top-line survey results suggests.

The Undecideds, Take Two

We are on the homestretch and I will be posting shorter posts quite frequently leading up to Tuesday’s night Election Eve coverage, which I will try to blog while doing double duty with election night coverage at the Grille here at the College.   In this post I want to revisit an issue I discussed in an earlier blog, and during my talk yesterday at the College: who are the undecideds, and for which candidate will they vote?

In the earlier post, I drew on data presented by a Pew poll to show that the undecideds are slightly more white, less affluent, less educated and less politically aware than voters as a whole, and therefore were more likely to break for McCain than for Obama.  I also suggested, however, that with only 6-8% of voters still undecided, that they would all need to break for McCain to make a difference in this race.  However, using data from a study discussed by Mark Blumenthal at, I estimated that the undecideds might only break for McCain by a slight margin, say 53-47, which would net him only about 1% in the overall vote.  That might be enough to push him over the top in some tossup states, but probably not enough to change the outcome of the race.

However, using tracking poll numbers provided by my crack research assistant Kaitlynn Saldahana, I decided to take a second look at the estimates of the number of undecideds to see if they jibe with Pew’s numbers.  Remember, each pollster has a different policy for dealing with undecideds – some “push” them to make a choice, thus folding more uncertain voters into the overall column for a particular candidate.  Others allow the undecideds to stay undecided.  In looking at the data from the various tracking polls, we find that estimates of the number of undecideds range from a low of 2% in Rasmussen and Zogby to 9% in the IBD poll.  Here’s the latest data on the race, including undecideds, for each tracking poll, (first number McCain, second Obama, and third is the undecideds. Note that because Rasmussen doesn’t list undecideds, I categorize the unaccounted vote as undecided):

Rasmussen       47        50        2

Zogby              43        50        2

Gallup              45        50        4

Hotline             42        48        6

Battleground     45        49        6

IBD/TIPP:        43.9     46.9     9.2

Additionally, here’s data from the major news surveys which come out more intermittently (same format – McCain, Obama, Undecideds)

ABC                42        51        6

FOX                44        47        6

CBS                 41        52        5

What does this suggest?   The average for pollsters showing 5-6% undecideds is McCain 42.8%, and Obama 49.4.  The average for pollsters with 2-4% undecided is McCain 45% and Obama 50%.  What this suggests is that when pollsters push the undecideds to make a choice, they appear to break for McCain by a roughly 5 to 1.  This is a very crude estimate, of course, based on a small number of polls with a lot of uncertainty, but it is entirely consistent with my read of the demographics of these voters.  So, let’s assume there are still about 3% undecideds out there, and they do break for McCain at 5 to 1.  This gives McCain approximately 2.4% while Obama gains maybe a half percent. This will make the final tally closer to  51.5 Obama to 47.5 McCain, with about 1% going to other candidates.   This is all back of the envelope calculations, of course, and is subject to revision as more polling data comes in.  Most importantly, it doesn’t tell us much about the key battleground states.  But, if my reasoning is correct, it suggests that we should see the race tighten at the national level in the next few days, if the undecideds become decideds.  However, on Election Day last year, 3% of those surveyed still claimed to be undecided.  If that holds true this year, we won’t see the McCain gain until the votes are counted.


A Second Look at Pennsylvania

What’s up in Pennsylvania?  I have noted in previous posts that I don’t see much chance that McCain can win Pennsylvania, a state that went blue for Kerry in 2004, and which has generally voted Democratic in recent elections.  And yet McCain and Palin have spent more time in this state than almost any other in the last two weeks. What explains this decision?  My best guess is that it reflects three factors:

  1. The undecideds in Pennsylvania mirror those in the national survey by Pew: more religious, less educated, less affluent and thus more likely to vote for McCain.
  2. Internal polling in McCain’s camp shows that polls are overestimating support for Obama, and that existing support for him is “soft.”
  3. McCain simply doesn’t have many alternatives for reaching the magic 270 mark, given the likelihood that he will lose Virginia, Iowa and New Mexico – all states won by Bush in 2004.

So, is the extensive campaigning by McCain and Palin having an effect?

Yes it is.  Based on RCP’s average of polls, McCain has sliced 4% off Obama’s lead in the last two weeks. The problem, however, is that McCain remains behind by more than 9%  – an almost overwhelming deficit with a week left in the campaign.  Either he knows something that the rest of us don’t, or he sees no other route to getting an Electoral College majority.  If McCain’s campaign is going to pull the upset, it will likely require a huge turnaround in the Keystone State.

Analyzing the Undecideds

With a week left in the campaign, all eyes are on the “undecideds” – the 7-10% of voters who say they as yet do not know for whom they will vote. Keep in mind that if current polling averages are accurate, McCain would need to win a significant chunk of these undecideds to make this race competitive, assuming that he can’t peel off existing Obama supporters.  So, how should we allocate these undecideds?  Keep in mind that as late as a day before the 2004 presidential election, fully 3% of people remained undecided.  And pollsters made different decisions on how to allocate those undecideds when projecting the final vote. For example, Gallup indicated that in previous years undecideds almost always break for the challenger. So in 2004 they allocated 2% to Kerry, 1% to Nader, and none to Bush.  Obviously that rule of thumb doesn’t apply this year, since there is no incumbent running.  Assuming that at least 3% remain undecided in the remaining days, how are they likely to break on Election Day?

It would help if we knew who the undecideds are. Fortunately, Pew has provided some demographic information in their latest survey ( Subject to all the usual caveats about polling uncertainty, what do the data show?

Based on demographics , the undecideds look more like potential McCain voters than Obama supporters.  Not surprisingly, the undecideds show a generally lower level of interest in the election than do Obama or McCain supporters. More than half (51%) don’t call themselves either Democrats or Republicans, compared to roughly 28% of voters overall who describe themselves as independents.  And fewer than half (48%) report having voted in the primaries.  So these are not strong partisans.   But here are the key statistics in my view:  the undecideds are “less educated, less affluent, and somewhat more likely to be female than the average voter. Nearly half of undecided voters (48%) say they attend religious services at least weekly, which is same as the proportion of McCain supporters. Fewer Obama supporters (31%) say they attend religious services at least once a week.”  Yep, it’s the bitter, bible-thumpers’ vote – one that I thought was potentially susceptible to the Sarah Palin pitch.  My guess is that a greater number of them will break for McCain than for Obama in the last week.   But it will require almost all of them to go for McCain if he is to have reasonable chance of catching Obama – a very tall order.

A word of caution is in order: because of the small number of independents in the Pew sample, the margin of error – 5.5% – is quite high for this subgroup. So we need to be careful in drawing conclusions about undecideds based on this sample.

How many undecideds will break for McCain, and will it be enough to overcome the 6-8% lead Obama appears to hold right now, based on the average of daily tracking polls?   The answer depends in part on turnout among other groups. I’ll address that in the next post.