Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The state of the race post-Convention, pre-debates

Given that there are now 42 days to go, now seems the perfect time to consider the state of the race strategically. Armed with data from polls, news reports and endless hours of vexed Subway-riding thought (not to mention the better judgement of John, Frank, Matt and Mark) here's my assessment of where things stand from candidates to voting groups.

Candidates: Voters vote for the top of the ticket, not the running mates. As this reality has reasserted itself, the Obama/McCain match-up became paramount in voters minds. Obama needs to keep it that way and not get sucked into another Obama versus Palin fight.

Veeps: Voters vote for the top of the ticket, not the running mates - except when they don't. Palin has fired up the GOP base, but hasn't made the kind of breakthrough with Inds and white women she needed to to have a significant effect in the battleground states. In fact, she may even have hurt McCain in Virginia (per PPP) and in Florida (per the Miami Herald) where the contrast to Joe Biden (nice, safe, white male that he is - grrr) seems to have been rather negative.

Message: McCain's message keeps changing (pre-Palin, emphasising C-in-C readiness and overall experience and now (post-Palin) change. As Obama campaign manager David Plouffe noted with the Palin pick at the time: “John McCain jettisoned his message and his strategy. It is now about change. We’re going to lean into that very, very hard.” Add to this the McCain campaign's inconsistent lines of attack in TV ads and there is mounting evidence that the McCain campaign is running a war room rather then pursuing a strategy.

Issues matter:
Contra Rick Davis' wishes, the turn away from 'Lipstick on pigs' nonsense was as welcome to the Obama campaign as it was inevitable. With the upcoming debates helping to focus the media's attention on matters of foreign policy (debate I), domestic issues (debate II) and the economy (debate III) this should be a net Obama advantage.

Conventions: For the Democrats, Obama shifted direction from appealing to the centre ground, to solidifying his support amongst Democrats. The Biden pick played into this approach in a way that Sebelius would not. Despite my crush on the Girl from Kansas, this is a logical electoral approach given that if Obama can simply carry 85% of registered Democrats in Ohio he almost certainly carries the state (he is currently winning 77% of Dems per the latest SUSA poll). McCain meanwhile used his Convention to lock up his base through the Palin pick. As such, as this Gallup data makes clear, the Conventions both fulfilled their task of enhancing party loyalty, reducing the number of undecideds and laying the groundwork for the final push: a base versus base clash remarkably similar to that of 2004.

Debates: Even though they tend to move less the 1% of the polls, the attention paid to them (potentially 100mn viewers this year) and the possibility that they might move more then 2% makes this the focus of the candidates and the medias world for the next 3 weeks. The Atlantic's James Fallows offers a first class essay on the candidates debating styles based on a review of all 47 of their primary debate performances. 538 offers further analysis of the debate bounce history.

Source: Tom Holbrook, Election08data

The October Surprise:
Much feared by the the poll leader after the debates this is the last remaining major event of the campaign calender. The media will annoit a major news story the 'October Surprise' and campaigns' reactions to it will be judged critically. Previous surprises have included Bush's 1976 Driving-Under-the-Influence charge in the 2000 election and the bin Laden video of 2004.

Bounces: As 538 correctly predicted, conventions give bounces and those bounces diminish over time. The Palin/GOP Convention bounce has now receded and the election is pretty much back to where it was poll-wise prior to the Dems' successful 'Party Unity' party and the GOP's seemingly successful 'Hail Sarah' pass.

Source: Nate Silver, 538.

Ground game: In Florida alone Obama is reckoned to have between over 50 field offices, 300-350 paid staff and 100,000 volunteers in the Sunshine state. This summary of field office numbers across the states is a little dated, but the fundemental concept of a significant (perhaps even 3:1) Obama:McCain field office advantage likely remains. Overall, Obama last month spent twice as much on staff as McCain did, due to the size of his ground staff payroll cost.

It's important to remember that the crucial comparison here is RNC $ + McCain $ versus DNC $ + Obama $. With McCain now taking public financing ($84mn between the GOP Convention and Nov 4) this is the current state of play in terms of campaign money, National Committee money and the all-important cash-on-hand:

RNC ($26mn) + McCain ($27mn) = $53mn
DNC ($27mn) + Obama ($51mn) = $78mn

RNC ($30.5mn*) + McCain ($53.2mn) = $83.7mn
DNC ($39.4mn) + Obama ($67.5mn) = $106.9mn

Cash-On-Hand as of the Aug 31:
RNC ($76.5mn) + McCain ($27mn) + Public funding ($84.1mn) = $187.6mn
DNC ($17.7mn) + Obama ($77.4mn) = $95.1mn

* = as extrapolated from CQ Politics based on RNC August cash-on-hand minus July RNC cash-on-hand + RNC August spending = August RNC fundraising

A note about the oft-stated concern that Obama is losing valuable time on the campaign trail by his decision to forego public financing whilst McCain is free to campaign with impunity. McCain too is heavily engaged in fundraising for the RNC and so the comparison in terms of lost time is a relative one, not an absolute one.

Conclusion: The RNC + McCain is estimated to have between $224 million and $240 million to spend in September, October and November - including public financing money. Set against this, if the Obama campaign simply raises as much in September and October as it did in August then the comparison looks pretty favourable:

Obama/DNC Sept. ($106.9mn) + Obama/DNC Oct. ($106.9mn) + Obama/DNC cash-on-hand ($95.1mn) = $308.9mn

RNC projection Sept. & Oct. ($100mn) + McCain/RNC cash-on-hand ($187.6mn) = $287.6mn

The female vote: With African Americans, hispanics and young voters breaking for Obama and white males and seniors breaking for McCain, the key remaining demographic appears to be women. Historically, Dems have seen support slipping amongst this once mainstay of the Party: Clinton carried women in general 16%, Gore by 11% and Kerry by 4%. Looking at Survey USA crosstabs, polls that have Obama up tend to have him winning the women's vote, polls that have him down amongst women, tend to have him down on the poll overall.

Independents: Continue to be split more or less 50/50. Gallup offers great data in support of the following contentions : In whatever direction prevailing political wind has blown, Ind's have allowed themselves be carried in that direction. As such, when Obama was basking in the glory of his overseas trip, they broke for him, when the GOP Convention/Palin bounce was the flavour dujour that was what tickled their fancy then. Alas, it looks like my earlier hope that they would turn against McCain because of Palin's inexperience has not actually occured. (Have I mentioned how annoying these people are from a statistical modelling perspective?) Thus I posit that if Obama wins the last major news event (either the final debate on Oct 15 or a subsequent October Surprise then he will carry Independents on Nov. 4.

Undecideds: 538 offers some excellent prediction on the way Undecideds may break based on the Democratic primaries. Set against this, Chuck Todd has frequently suggested on MSNBC that they may very well break 70% against Obama. Like Independents they are likely highly influenced by late-breaking developments such as the debates or a possible October Surprise. As such, I believe that the 4-6% of actual undecided voters that remain in play in battleground states will probably break against Obama but that this number may very well be matched if not overcome by new voters from pro-Obama constituences.

Battlegrounds: In late June, David Plouffe listed the campaign's 18 battleground targets as: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Virginia. Per my latest map, of these 18, 14 are still in active contention with Alaska, North Dakota and Georgia moving off the table for Obama and Iowa moving out of McCain's reach. Of these 14, 10 are 'Red states' (states carried by Bush in 2004) - testament to the wisdom of a full embrace of strategic depth on the battleground states map.

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