Monthly Archives: October 2008

Is the Race Over?

Many of you have asked, in various ways, whether this race is over, or whether McCain can mount a comeback. Four days ago I suggested that the almost month-long movement toward Obama in the national tracking polls precipitated by the credit crunch may have finally crested, and in fact there were potential indications that the race might tighten again.  No sooner did I write this (on October 8, referring to the previous three days’ polling) than the economic crisis reappeared on the front page, as several central banks sought to intervene to ease the credit crunch and the stock market continued to slide, with the predictable impact on the polling numbers: Obama’s lead in the national tracking polls has crept back up.  In tracking polls covering Oct. 7-9, Obama held steady in Rasmussen, and gained 5% in Diageo Hotline, 6% in Battleground, 2% in Reuters/Zogby and held at 11% in Gallup (which continues to rely on registered voters).  Most of the change in the polls was due to McCain losing support among women, with whom he already trails Obama by some 9-12% depending on the poll.

This is just another reminder of what McCain is up against, and why political scientists put much less stock than do journalists in the ability of candidates to change a campaign narrative that is working against them.  The reason forecast models are frequently so accurate is that they begin by creating measures of “reality” and then project how candidates can best frame that reality to appeal to their potential coalition.  Journalists, in contrast, often presume that candidates can create a new reality, or at least distort the existing reality, through debates, campaign advertising and other means, in ways that convince voters to vote against their own interests.  Even if this were true, it underplays the counter framing efforts of the opposing candidate which typically negate the marginal impact of the opposition frame.

The latest polls simply reconfirm my ongoing assertion that this race will be decided on the fundamentals – primarily the economy and the desire for change.  Given this, can McCain do anything to frame these fundamentals in a way that shifts voters to him?

He has, in my view, three non-mutually exclusive options, none very palatable.  The first, and most promising, was to frame the economic crisis in a way that positioned him as the candidate of change. To do so, however, he needed to take my advice and come out against the bailout bill when it was first proposed.  By suspending his campaign, coming back to Washington, and labeling the legislation a Democratic-Bush initiative that bailed out Wall St. but did little to  ease the credit crunch or the housing meltdown, he might have seized the mantle of economic reform and positioned himself to champion an alternative “rescue” bill.  This, of course, was a very high risk strategy.  But with the benefit of hindsight, my advice is looking rather good:  the legislation has not yet produced the desired effects, the world’s stock markets are in continual turmoil, and the central banks have been forced to coordinate a rate cut to stimulate the global economy.  Meanwhile, Republicans are beginning to argue that the bailout bill was a mistake.  To his credit, McCain tried again during the second presidential debate by announcing the home mortgage buyback program, but he again failed to do so in a way that would have cut through the media focus on horserace coverage of the debate (who won, rather than what was said).   Had he teased this initiative before the debate, the proposal might have gained more traction rather than being derided as not new.   With 24 days left in the campaign, McCain simply has very few remaining options to use the economy to his advantage.  His best bet is to try once more in the context of the final debate by offering a significant economic reform package centered on directly helping working, middle-income voters.  In my view, however, he has missed his best opportunity to turn this issue to his advantage.

The second option is to raise doubts about Obama’s experience by harping on his voting record (or lack thereof) and comparing it to that of other modern presidents. (In a later post I will actually compare the experience levels of all the modern presidents.)  The problem with this approach is that it does nothing to convince voters that McCain is better positioned to address the economy, and in some ways it helps Obama.  The more McCain says Obama is inexperienced, the easier it is for Obama to say he is not part of the current problem, and that he, more than McCain, is better situated to bring change.  The inexperience charge carried more weight when the public focused on national security.  However, the great irony of the success of the surge touted by McCain and opposed by Obama is that it reduces the potency of the national security argument by taking this issue off the table in the eyes of most voters. In 2004, the central issues were the war on terror and Iraq.  This year it is the economy.   That plays to Obama’s strength, not McCain’s.

The final option is to raise the Reverend Wright/Bill Ayers assertion.  Republicans are pushing McCain to do so, while Democrats are countering that this is a smear tactic that deserves no place in a presidential campaign.  So far McCain has ruled Wright off limits, because it is a question of religion, while giving muted assent to raising the Ayers issue.  The problem here is not that viewers will necessarily view this as a smear tactic or a sign of desperation (although many in the media will undoubtedly report it as such.)  It is that Obama’s association with Ayers is not relevant to the central issue of this campaign: how to deal with the economy.  As such, I think it will have almost no traction and simply takes McCain away from what he needs to do to tighten this race.

My larger point is this: contrary to what many journalists assert, candidates cannot frame issues in ways that voters feel are not relevant to the reality that they are seeing, and expect to shift voters’ support.  The Ayers issue is unlikely to be very useful because it is largely irrelevant to the reality facing voters today.  At the individual level, it is true that voters are often ill-informed about the details of policy proposals and are susceptible to media effects. But as a collective, our evidence indicates that voters are very rational and they vote in predictable ways that are in accord with their interests.

If McCain wishes to win this election, then, he must do so by convincing voters that he, and not Obama, is best suited to handle the most relevant issue facing them today: the economy.  That means spelling out in detail both what McCain will do to solve the economy, and why Obama’s policy proposals – taken in the context of his voting record in the Senate – spell trouble.  In particular, he should focus on the total cost of Obama’s budget proposals, including health care, and compare them to his tax promises, suggesting that the end result will be a huge budget deficit or the need to raise taxes.  This, in my view, is a far more fruitful avenue of attack than focusing on earmarks, such as a projector purchased for a college using federal funds, that are proportionally only a small part of government expenditures.  At the same  time he should use the final debate to roll out an economic proposal that targets lower-middle class voters struggling with the credit crunch.  This should be teased beforehand, and introduced in the debate.   Even if this is done effectively, however, the odds remain against McCain as long as the credit crunch dominates the campaign.

A final point:  Ultimately, of course, we select the president based on the Electoral College results, and not on the popular vote.  Nonetheless, I spend considerable time looking at national public opinion for several reasons: First, most political science forecast models predict the popular vote, and the popular vote is a pretty reliable predictor of the Electoral College vote.  Second, state level polling usually mirrors trends taking place nationally. Third, because of the large sample size included in national polls by Gallup and Rasmussen, we can also look at polling among statistically significant groups of voters such as women, or African-Americans.   That helps us tease out the constituent elements in each of the candidate’s voting coalitions and track trends among them.  With that in mind, I want to look particularly at how race and gender dynamics are influencing this race. It’s no accident that Obama’s campaign is placing a phalanx of white women as the photo backdrop at all his campaign rallies.  And, contrary to what many pundits are suggesting, the survey evidence suggests race may help Obama more than it will hurt him.

Do Debates Even Matter?

Why hold debates at all?  Several students have asked me this in light of my gentle chiding of the pundits for their predilection to declare a victor in the debates on the basis of dubious evidence (see, for example, the remarks of FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver here or those at the Daily Kos here.)  By now, I trust, you have read enough of my posts to understand why the partisan-colored debate reaction is misleading: instant polling results typically reflect the underlying partisan composition of those polled because most people “score” the debate through their own partisan predispositions.  It is for this reason that debates rarely, by themselves, change anyone’s vote.  For example, the CBS Knowledge Poll post-debate instapoll had Obama winning the most recent presidential debate, 40%-26%, over McCain, with 34% calling it a tie.  Putting aside for the moment that the “fine print” in the survey data indicates that an unspecified number of these “uncommitted” voters actually have expressed a preference for one of the two candidates, the results – which were widely reported in the press – obscure the more important fact that the debate failed to persuade the vast majority of viewers to support either candidate. Buried at the very end of the CBS story (literally the last paragraph!) was this: “Immediately after the debate, 15 percent of them said they are now committed to Obama, and 12 percent are now committed to McCain. But most – 72 percent – remain uncommitted.”  In raw numbers, that means of the 516 “uncommitted” viewers polled by CBS, 77 were moved by the debate to support Obama, 62 decided to back McCain, but 372 remain undecided!  Assuming that the composition of the viewing audience mirrors that reported in CNN, with Democrats slightly outnumbering Republicans, and factoring in the margin of error with the sample, we can safely conclude that the debate had almost no measurable national impact in terms of changing the balance of support for either candidate.  Presumably, that’s the statistic and related point that should have led the discussion in the Daily Kos, or in Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, but both sites conveniently forgot to even address the methodological or substantive issues I raise here.  One can forgive them, of course, because neither presumes to provide an objective analysis of the election – they are partisans who are advocating for a candidate (which is why I don’t link to their sites on my blog and why I urge caution for anyone who reads their election analyses.)  But CBS is supposed to be a nonpartisan source, and it is simply bad journalism not to lead with this statistic, never mind burying it at the bottom of the story.  (Let’s be clear here: the title of the CBS article is: “CBS Poll: Uncommitted Voters Favor Obama.”  It’s not clear to me that this is even factually accurate, never mind a serious distortion of the poll results.  Here’s the link. )

The relatively inconsequential impact, in terms of changing votes, of the three debates so far raises a more important issue than the well-documented partisan bias of the blogosphere: why hold debates at all?  Are they simply meaningless exercises?  Not at all.  The key to understanding the significance of debates is to view them as one piece of a larger mosaic that each voter must piece together before deciding how to vote on November 4.  That is, rather than a single event, to be won or lost by the candidates, debates are better understood as part of an ongoing process by which voters both become activated to pay attention to the campaign and better informed regarding the relative merits of the two candidates.  In this light, candidates aren’t trying to “win the debate” – they are using it as a forum in their continual effort to frame the campaign in a way that plays to their political interest.  Pundits may make a great deal of  Obama’s “cool” demeanor, McCain’s reference to Obama as “that one”, or his failure to look at Obama during the debate, but there’s not much evidence that undecided voters care a whit about these issues.  Instead, they are fitting the candidates’ debate performance into an ongoing internal dialogue that is based on the myriad sources of information each voter is exposed to during the course of the campaign.  Viewed in this light, debates need to be assessed not in terms of who “won” or “lost” the individual event, but rather how well each candidate did in integrating his performance into this larger campaign strategy.  That means, in particular, whether the candidate effectively contributed to their ongoing effort to frame the fundamentals that will determine the presidential vote.  The fact that over 90% of Republicans watching the vice presidential debate thought Sarah Palin cleaned Biden’s clock, while over 90% of Democrats believed it was Biden that did the cleaning, doesn’t mean the debate was a useless exercise.  There remain a vast number of voters – literally millions – who are only now beginning to pay attention to the race.  The debates are an important source of information – but only one source – that these uncommitted voters draw on as they begin to think about how to vote, and that committed partisans use to reevaluate their support and/or to decide whether to vote at all.

Debates matter – but not in the way that the punditocracy, with their focus on winners and losers – suggests. I don’t expect Nate Silver or the denizens at the Daily Kos to understand this. But you should.

Is it Random Noise, the Palin Effect, or the Bailout Bill?

In analyzing the presidential race to this point I have focused my attention primarily on national survey data.  As I noted in an earlier post, that survey data indicates that Obama increased his lead over McCain by approximately 6% in the period from Sept. 15 through Oct. 3. It now appears that the credit-crisis induced movement has crested, and there are even signs that the race is beginning to tighten again. Four of the five national daily tracking polls show a slight movement toward McCain over the last three days.  These include Rasmussen, which shows Obama losing 2% to drop to a 6% lead over McCain;  Hotline, which shows McCain gaining 4% to move within 1% of Obama, GW Battleground, which shows McCain cutting his deficit from 7% to 4%, and Zogby, which shows Obama losing 1 point to lead McCain by 2%.  Note that all these movements are within the margin of error and may simply reflect random noise rather than any real underlying movement toward McCain.  In this vein, note that a fifth daily tracking poll run by Gallup shows Obama actually increasing his margin over McCain in this period from 9% to 11%. How do we explain the difference between Gallup and the other polls?  There is always some random variation in polls so one cannot be sure why one poll seems to be an outlier. But notice that Gallup is the only one of the five tracking polls that is still sampling registered, as opposed to likely, voters.  At this stage in the race, most pollsters switch to a likely voter sample.  Gallup has not done so, and that may explain why it continues to show Obama increasing his lead.  Generally, as I noted in an earlier post, McCain does better in likely voter polling.

If – and it is a BIG if – McCain has stemmed the Obama surge, what is the explanation?  One is tempted to attribute it to Palin’s debate performance on Oct. 2. All of these tracking polls were taken on Oct. 5-7, beginning two days after the debate, or about the time that Palin’s performance had been dissected by the media and circulated among the water cooler crowd.  It may be, then, that Palin’s debate performance halted the McCain slide.

However, I think a more likely explanation is the passage of the bailout/rescue bill which George Bush signed on October 4.  That momentarily stemmed the financial panic and staunched the bleeding from the McCain campaign.  However, the recent financial turmoil that necessitated intervention by the central banks in several nations, as well as the roller-coaster stock market, threatens to erode any gains McCain may have made since the bailout bill was signed.

Whatever the explanation for the slight movement toward McCain in the latest national tracking polls, Obama is taking no chances.  I watched his speech at a campaign rally in Indiana today.  Arrayed behind him on stage were ONLY women – all white, middle-aged women.  That was not by accident.  My guess is his internals are picking up the first indications of a potential Palin effect and he realizes that married women are the key swing group in this election.  Recall his debate performance – he emphasized those issues (education, health care) that are particularly important to women.

Palin, meanwhile, has been holding rallies in key battleground states, starting with Florida where she held four rallies, and then on to North Carolina and Pennsylvania.  When she works the rope lines at these rallies, invariably she is surrounded by women, many holding babies.  But is she having an impact?  And will it be enough to push the financial news off the front page?

We should have a better answer in the next few days as the news of the financial intervention by the central banks begins to have an impact among voters. In a later post I’ll check the tracking numbers in the states Palin has visited.  In meantime, however, I want to turn to examine where the candidates stand in the Electoral College.  I’ll do that in my next post.

Another Reason Why Last Night’s Debate Likely Will Not Matter

There is another reason that debates rarely shift voting coalitions, and that is the way the media covers them.  Last night’s debate is a perfect example.  John McCain made two significant and highly controversial policy proposals and both were buried in the stories on the debate reported in the NYTimes and the Washington Post. The first was his repeat of his suggestion from the first debate to impose an across-the-board governmental spending freeze except on military-related expenditures.  Obama countered, effectively I thought, by likening it to using an axe instead of a scalpel on the federal budget.  But at this point I’ve not seen any follow up on the budgetary implications of McCain’s budget freeze, nor any detailed analysis of Obama’s budget prescriptions.

More significantly, I think, is the utter failure – beginning with Brokaw last night – to follow up on McCain’s proposal for the government to buy up mortgage loans that are on the brink of default and reissue them to homeowners on more favorable terms. This is a hugely expensive proposition but one that also gets to the heart of the effort to ease the credit crunch. I think I first heard it proposed by Hillary Clinton (I need to check this), and it was resurrected in the debate in Congress on how to ease the credit crunch. It has not, however, to my knowledge ever been advanced as a serious proposal by either of the two major candidates. As such, it deserves serious debate, but the reporters covering this story – following Brokaw’s lead – have, as far as I can see, simply buried it. Note the Washington Post title to their article on the debate: “For the New Contagion, the Same Old Prescriptions”. In fact, we didn’t hear the same prescriptions – we heard new ones. Rather than address the details of a potentially significant policy proposal, however, the media has focused instead on parsing body language, McCain’s use of the phrase “that one”, and why McCain and Cindy left the post-debate scene so quickly. Now, it may be that McCain’s campaign shares some of the blame for failing to tease this policy proposal in the lead up to the debate. But it deserves more analysis than it has so far received and certainly merits more discussion than McCain’s description of Obama as “that one.”

Live blogging tonight’s Town Hall debate

Tonight’s bets:

1. Does McCain bring up Ayers and/or Wright?

2. If he does, does Obama respond with the Keating Five?

3. Will McCain say “middle class”?  Will Obama say “victory in Iraq”?

9:00  Remember – “uncommitted” voters are not necessarily independent voters!  Many may in fact already be committed to one of the two candidates.

9:01 McCain just winked at me!

Pay attention to how the candidates move from the audience to the camera and back.

9:07 – Good opening question.  Both candidates should handle this easily.   Obama’s taking the easy route, jumping on the “golden parachute”.  Substantively meaningless, but a powerful symbol.

McCain – calls Alan by his name.  That’s a nice touch.  Notice how he bores in on the crowd.

McCain has to step up here.  And he is – this is a concrete policy proposals that viewers can understand.  Strong McCain answer.  And notice that he differentiates himself from both Obama and Bush!

Interesting question –  McCain scores again. He knows what e-bay is all about!  What old fogey?

(btw – where’s tonight’s focus group? )

9:13 – Doesn’t take Obama long to bring up the “fundamentals are sound” McCain quote.

9:15 Bailout question – gives McCain an opportunity to replay his campaign suspension…. and he does.

and now the first counterattack on Obama… this is a riff on the McCain ad linking Obama to Fannie/Freddie money.   How’s it playing when he goes on the attack.

9:18 – And now it’s Obama’s turn – it’s McCain’s fault.  My guess this exchange won’t move either side, and will leave independents still on the fence.  Nice line about “not interested in politicians pointing fingers”…

McCain’s response isn’t very detailed here beyond the plan to buy up bad mortgages.

9:22 – DId Obama just call the questioner  “cynical”?  Not smooth…

McCain should give the websites of the National Taxpayers Union and Citizen’s Against Waster.. that’d be a nice touch.

Does anyone even use overhead projectors anymore?

(Did you know that McCain has a “clear record”?)  And do you know how building nuclear plants will address entitlements (he missed a transition there).

9:29 – Just a reminder: uncommitted voters may in fact be committed to a candidate, but say they are susceptible to change.  Don’t be mislead…

9:33 – McCain uses sacrifice to attack earmarks and tout the across-the-board spending freeze.  How’s this playing?

Nice little riposte here on Obama’s “one at a time” approach.

9:35 – I guess Obama sees the handwriting on the wall for offshore drilling – that, I think, was an endorsement.   But a nice tactic more generally to tie sacrifice to the energy problem.  And a shout out to the young people – You betcha!

9:38  Very nice play here by Obama to both point out how little earmarks matter while linking McCain to tax-friendly policies to the wealthy.  Took him a while to get here, but this is nicely done.

9:39 –  McCain would be a bit more effective here if he was more specific on tax increases.

Never mind – I take it back.

John was ready for this one.

9:42  Ben Wessel picks up on the flag lapel (Obama’s wearing one, McCain’s not).

McCain has his jello line, but Obama is right back at ya with “wheels off the straight talk express”.

McCain should push back here on the dollar amount of taxes, not the percentage of income brackets getting them.    And Obama’s “solution” for entitlements leaves the door wide open.

But McCain’s no better on the specifics – hasn’t yet told us how to solve social security.  Nor for Medicare.

9:45.  Obama should bring Palin in here on the sources of global warming..

CLearly McCain has adopted the Reagan philosophy of praising American workers and maintaining an optimistic message.

Didn’t Al Gore invent the computer?

Uh oh, Obama is agreeing with McCain again…. ok, not really.

Amy – who is in the focus group? Do we know yet?

Drilling offshore is a winning issue, given the current energy climate.

Is John hogging Obama’s camera time?  What”s he doing in the background there?

10:55. Ok, health care is ripe for a good debate.

Watch Obama in the background here as McCain goes on the attack on Obama’s health care policy.

I don’t think many people in Tennessee are going to Arizone for health care, even if the plan is “better”!

A nice exchange here – substantive policy differences are actually getting aired.  This is what debates should accomplish, but rarely do.

Obama’s on a role….

10:03 – Ok, homework assignment.  Someone needs to get me the actual composition of the “uncommitted” Ohio group.

10:04 – McCain throws Obama’s words back at him (“Sen. Obama was wrong…).  McCain has to be ready to respond to Obama’s reprise of the first debate exchange on this issue.

This is an effective rejoinder by Obama here on foreign policy – notice how he links McCain back to Bush.

Actually, we did choose to standby while the Holocaust was going on….

10:08 – AGain, McCain just comes out better on these hypotheticals because he can draw on actual experiences, while – through no fault of his own – Obama simply can’t match that.  But will it change any minds?

10:12 – Katie – Great question!  When did Obama start pronouncing Pakistan with an upper-class accent?

Both Obama and McCain did about as good as they could with this question.

Ok, the “bomb, bomb, bomb” comment just doesn’t work anymore.  I’m not quite sure why Obama is going on at length here, unless his internal polls suggests McCain wins point here.  I just don’t think he wants to stay on this turf for too long.

10:22 –  One has to wonder in an election year dominated by economic issues, and with the majority of Americans, for the first time, indicating that they believe we are winning in Iraq, whether McCain (or Obama) can move any undecideds on foreign policy issues.

Ok, they agree on this one. Move on.  (Don’t you usually anticipate ahead of time?)  Obama’s slipping into platitudes here… energy is key, look around corners, be proactive, etc…

10:28 – Effective response by McCain on a nuclear Iran.

Not sure if Americans will see the link between reducing our consumption of gasoline and nuclear weapons in Iraq.  But the finish is stronger….

10:34.  Interesting question. I guess Obama is smart to ignore it and goes into the closing statement.  This is a set-piece close and he’s good at it.

Ok, dueling biographies.  McCain is reprising his convention speech here…. and he’s remembering the Tip O’Neil line: always ask for your vote!

Ok, fire away?  Did undecided in the battleground states move in either direction?

Notice Michelle working the crowd while Cindy follows John around?

NBC is currently ripping McCain on the economy, particularly McCain’s proposal to buy up home mortgages.  How’s it playing elsewhere?

On PBS, some complaints that Obama doesn’t make an “emotional connection” with viewers. On NBC, he is praised for “being cool, showing grace under pressure”.  This is why you can’t judge much by pundits.

Ok, some first impressions.  Notice not a single reference to Ayers, Wright or any personal attacks.  Both candidates stay on policy issues, with some tangential attacks on experience. But no personal character assassination.

SEcond, the McCain mortgage plan buyout is a huge policy initiative – it has to be incredibly costly – but no one seems to be paying attention.  Will the media pick up on this tomorrow?

(CBS is showing their “knowledge poll” of “uncommitted” voters which we know from previous experience is in fact not a panel of uncommitted voters, but of voters who say they may change their mind.)

Third, the impact of the “town hall” format was minimal- it wasn’t as freewheeling as some had hoped.

Fourth – we really miss Sarah Palin.  Wouldn’t you have rather seen her debate Obama?  I thought so…

Fifth – I’m guessing the audience for this debate was down significantly from the VP debate. Again, this helps Obama, doesn’t help McCain.  McCain’s really facing an uphill battle to overcome the continuing bad economic news – his best bet is to convince voters that he can address these issues. I just don’t think the media is very receptive to his mortgage housing plan.

Ok, I’m signing off. Remember my warnings: cast a critical eye on the post-debat analysis by pundits, focus groups and instant polls. Check the fine print before accepting the conclusions. It’s ok for the media to tell you who “won”, but if you are a faithful reader of this blog, you should be in a good position to scrutinize their claims.  Just because it leads the NYTimes or Washington Post doesn’t make it accurate.

Tomorrow I’ll try to get you up-to-date on the situation in the Electoral College.

Great comments tonight everyone, thanks again to everyone who participated.  We have one more to go – see you all next week!