Answering Viewer Mail (and It’s About Time!)

It’s been a while since I’ve had an opportunity to react to the many excellent comments and questions you have been sending my way, so let me take the opportunity to do so now, before the storm hits.  I’ll work somewhat in reverse chronological order…

Conor Shaw suggests that Obama’s ability to turn so many traditionally red states into pink, tossup or even blue states vindicates his decision to run a 50-state campaign.  It is true that states that have not voted Democratic in several elections, such as Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina and possibly even Georgia, are now in play and several of these (Virginia the most obvious) may in fact go Democratic.  But as I noted in my post regarding Arizona, Obama is leaving himself open to criticism if somehow McCain holds on by a narrow margin in enough battleground states to eke out an Electoral College vote win. Then the critics will be wondering why Obama didn’t concentrate his resources to seal the deal.  Andrew Piccirillo also weighed in on this topic, arguing that Obama believes his election prospects improved by expanding the playing field, in part because it forced McCain to spread his more limited resources across a larger area than he might like.  I guess we will be able to judge the effectiveness of this strategy on Tuesday.

Conor also suggests that the race would be closer if Clinton had been the Democratic nominee.  Again, we will never know. But I suspect that she would have fared better in the big ticket rust-belt states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania and in the Appalachian areas including West Virginia, as well as Florida.  She likely would have done worse in North Carolina, Georgia and perhaps Virginia.  Keep in mind that she outpolled Obama in the primary states during the nominating phase (depending on how you count Florida and Michigan).  So I’m not sure I agree she would have been the weaker candidate.  In fact, I could make a strong case that she would have done better among the very voters that are now undecided.

Jane asks what the minimum gain in the popular vote McCain needs in order to plausibly have a shot in the Electoral College.  Note that at this point he could hold onto North Carolina, Florida, Indiana and Georgia without much increase in his current level of popular support. But to keep Ohio and Virginia, and flip Pennsylvania and then win either Colorado or New Hampshire, he needs to net a minimum of 5% nationally in the next 72 hours in my view.  I don’t see it happening.

Marshall suggests that the undecideds may consist of a large portion of voters who are actually going to vote for McCain, but who are hiding their preference by characterizing themselves as undecideds in order not to be labeled racist.  This gets to the heart of the discussion on the recent posts regarding how the undecideds will go.  I think the majority will go to McCain, and that may indeed swing several battleground states to him.  At this point, however, I don’t think it will be enough to give McCain the election.  Tomorrow I hope to devote an extended post to this idea.

Olivier and Rob both think I underestimate the impact of the Powell endorsement because even if it did not persuade voters to vote for Obama, it certainly dominated the news coverage for 48 hours, or more, thus preventing more favorable (to McCain) stories from getting aired.  I don’t disagree that, all things being equal, McCain would rather not have had the Powell endorsement dominating the news at that point. My objection, however, was to the media characterization that this endorsement “dealt a body blow” to McCain’s candidacy.  The general thrust of the media coverage was to suggest that this endorsement might seal the deal for Obama.  I should add here that Olivier in particular has pushed me to more explicitly recognize the importance of a candidate’s winning the media cycle in terms of the opportunity costs it imposes on the opponent.  In part, our differences are ones of perspective driven by our professions – I’m more interested in the larger picture, while Olivier reacts more acutely to the daily narrative.  I think we agree on more than we disagree here, but I hope readers of this blog appreciate the exchange between us as much as I do.

Bhima argues that because the undecideds are less engaged and informed about the election, the fact that they may swing the election as a group indicates a weakness in how we choose the president. Andrew disagrees, arguing that undecided voters are not necessarily ignorant voters (and I apologize to Andrew if his post was somehow deleted – I remember reading it but can’t find it now).  I would note that the number of undecideds has dwindled to about 5-6%, and I expect it to be about 3% on election day.  I’m not sure if Bhima would find this reassuring or not, but I guess I lean toward Andrew on this point.  Again, I hope to do an extended post on this question tomorrow.

Finally, Jack Goodman wonders whether the relatively “smoother” polling graphs for many of the red states (and the occasional blue state like Vermont) suggests that voters in these states are simply more closeminded.  I would suggest not.  Instead, I think it simply reflects the fact that neither candidate has bothered to campaign in strongly red or blue states, and thus voters aren’t really given a choice between the two.  How many times have we seen Obama, McCain, Biden or Palin in Vermont?  Without visible signs of debate, media coverage of competing arguments, etc., opinions are less likely to change.  That’s why these states are less frequently polled as well.

As always, these are great questions and comments, and I only wish I had time to answer them all at the time they are asked.  Keep them coming, and I’ll do my best.


  1. One note on the last point – at least in Vermont we do get the campaign ads on TV due to our proximity to NH. So if ads are as effective as the campaigns think they are, we should be swinging our opinions accordingly. But in this election, at least, the trend toward Obama would have little effect here, since we were pretty well saturated blue from the get go.

  2. I actually saved my post once I noticed it didn’t show up immediately.

    Bhima, I think there are a few problems with your question. First of all, it is predicated on the idea that one segment of the electorate is more important than another. This is something pundits say all the time, but it is theoretically impossible in a system where every voter gets 1 vote. Just because the undecideds are the last to make up their minds doesn’t mean the system relies on or, as you put it, degenerates to the whim of their decisions. They are afforded no more power than any other group. They are simply the last to make up their minds. If the large majority of decided (and under your argument, superior) voters make up their mind earlier and in favor of a particular candidate, the voice of these undecided (and inferior) voters will not matter. As such, I don’t think the election hinges on the group you specify.

    Second of all, I think you have read too far into the Pew poll. No where did it say ignorant or fundamentalist. It said a slightly higher percent (10% +/- 5.5%) went to church. Your entire argument rests on the idea that people who go to church and have achieved lower levels of education are inferior voters. Somehow I never thought the principle characters of a functioning democracy were a slightly higher level of post-graduate and atheist voters. All else being equal, I would suggest a church going christian is a better voter than a christian who doesn’t go to church, but of course this is absurdly hypothetical.

    Third, the percent of undecideds has declined over time. It declined from 17.7% of the RCP average last October, to about 10% for much of this year, and it now stands at 6-7% (now down to 5-6% as Professor Dickinson says). This may reflect differences in polling questions, I am not sure, but I suspect it also reflects a decline in true undecideds.

  3. It seems to me that the reason the polling trends appear smoother in non-contested states is just that these states get polled less often. If (or some other site) has more polls to work with, the trend line will jump around more than if there are fewer, no matter how competitive or non-competitive the race is.

  4. Just to reiterate the point I made in my post, and that Bert picks up on again: if a state isn’t competitive, you aren’t going to see much debate on the issues between candidates, so there’s simply not much consideration of alternative views points. That’s why they aren’t polled – there’s not enough interest based on competing viewpoints to make it worthwhile. Simply put, competitive states get polled more often, thereby uncovering more variation in opinion. But its the relatively flat opinion that drives the less frequent polling – if the state was competitive, you’d see much more polling.

  5. I think I’m actually making a slightly different point from Matt’s. My point is that even if a state is very competitive and candidates are arguing back and forth and contesting every vote, if you only have 4 or 5 polls to go on over a period of three months, preference trends will appear very smooth and consistent. Conversely, if we invested $1,000,000 to establish three competing tracking polls of Vermont opinion over a month’s time, preferences will appear to jump around a lot, just because there are so many polls. Vermont would never be particularly competitive, but McCain’s support would vary between 30 to 40 percent, and Obama’s support would jump around between 50 and 60 percent. Stability or instability in this case is likely to be an artifact of our measurement tools.

  6. No, Bert is making the same point, only more directly. My point is that in noncompetitive states, you don’t get many polls, so polling appears flat. Bert – correctly – is saying that, hypothetically, if you paid pollsters frequently to poll noncompetitive states, you’d get the appearance of movement simply due to the random variation in polling. In reality, of course, pollsters don’t poll noncompetitive states as frequently, and of course candidates don’t make visits to these stattes.

    We are both agreeing, I think, that you can’t conclude that Vermonters are more closeminded to differing perspectives simply because the polling lines are flatter.

  7. I also wanted to weigh in again on the strategic effectiveness of the 50 state campaign Obama has run. I was originally very skeptical of this strategy. From a strategic standpoint Clinton seemed to be preferable – she had the better chance of carrying the states needed to carry the election (OH, PA and maybe FL but that would have been irrelevant after the first two). Obama on the other hand claimed would put states like VA, CO and NV in play.

    Why would a strategy which would almost certainly carry OH and PA and thereby the election be inferior to one which had a good but less assured chance of winning FL, OH, PA, CO, NV, VA? I suggest there are several reasons.

    1) The marginal benefit of spending money in a state declines as the amount of money spent increases. The first (million) dollar(s) Obama spent in OH will be less effective than the second (million) dollar(s). Some people will not be persuaded by any amount of money.

    2) Obama has more money than McCain. Obama can press his resource advantage by spending in more states. Pouring all his money into 2 or 3 states would in fact be a waste of that money because of reason number 1 (the marginal benefit declines as the amount spent increases).

    3) Limited information/unpredictable variables. Because of errors in polling techniques, statistical error, and other unknown variables the results in a state are often quite different from the polling data. Thus it was unlikely Clinton or Obama could ever really guarantee the Dems a win in OH based off polling alone. Thus by increasing the number of states or combinations of states which will carry the election, Obama has reduced the risk of false polling data associated with an individual state. Unless the polling data in ALL the battleground states is grossly overstating his support, he will win at least one of the states that will clinch the election for him. In short, 4 independent events each with a 50% chance of occurring is better than 1 event with a 90% chance of occurring. Obviously, the events are not completely independent (probably very linked) but the unknown information (ie not revealed by polls – the same reason we cannot say for sure Obama will win OH just because he is up by 4%) unique to each state makes the events somewhat independent of each other.

    (This factor is essentially the reason it is possible Obama will lose OH where he is up by 4% according to polling but will win MO or IN – independent unknown information unique to each state. The same reason Kerry actually performed below and above the margin of polling error in different states.)

    Or as other people say, ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’

    Regardless of what happens, I think it is incredibly unlikely polling data is wrong in 5 different states and McCain wins NV, CO, OH, FL, and VA (any of which would have given Obama the election). From the Obama campaign’s perspective I think it is better to be up by 4-7% in these 5 states than up by 6-9% in one or two of them and tied or losing in the rest.

    Even if he loses I think this remains true. If he loses we can’t just say ‘If he had spent more in OH and PA he would have won’ because that would mean spending less somewhere else where the marginal utility of the money was actually greater.

  8. Concerning the 50-state strategy — could it be that Obama’s internal polling has convinced him that he has the election locked up, and he is looking down the road at this point and using his remaining time and money to build on the Dean-generated DNC effort to build a viable Democratic party in every state?

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