Thursday, October 2, 2008

Return of the Amazing Strategy-less Campaign!

In honour of Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve

An integral part of campaign strategy is using the candidate’s time effectively by deploying him/her to critical states. Campaign visits don’t tell the whole story of a battle for a state, of course (see Marcus’s analyses of VA, CO, and OH), but candidate-time is a useful measure of priorities because it is the ultimate finite resource. Field operations and ad buys can be increased with extra funding, but no amount of money can buy the candidate more time until Election Day.

I’ve broken down campaign visits into two categories: offensive and defensive. Offensive campaign visits are appearances in states that went to the opposite party in 2004 – Obama visiting a red state, McCain visiting a blue – and defensive visits are appearances to shore up support in states that went with the candidate’s own party (Obama in blue states, McCain in red). These are the states that the candidates have prioritized in the last month (I have excluded Mississippi, because both candidates were obliged to be there for the debate, and New York, the outcome of which is not in doubt but which is a crucial fundraising stop for both campaigns):

Obama defensive: WI, MI, PA, NH
McCain defensive: OH, IA, MO, FL, VA, CO, NM

Obama offensive: CO, VA, NC, FL, NV, NM, OH
McCain offensive: MN, WI, MI, PA

One of the first points to jump out is the inverse nature of the attack/defend ratio. Both campaigns have prioritized eleven states, with Obama defending four and attacking in seven, and McCain doing just the opposite.

Also of interest here is the fact that while the two campaigns have each prioritized eleven states they haven’t prioritized the same eleven, resulting in several mismatches (where one candidate is spending time and the other is not).
Obama mismatches: NC, NV
McCain mismatches: MN, IA, MO

Obama’s logic is clear. While I cannot imagine he is particularly happy about having to spend time defending four blue states, he is pursuing the positive objective in seven states, all of which could go to him and many of which (FL, VA, NC, OH) carry a significant number of votes in the Electoral College.

McCain’s strategy is not quite as apparent. He is attacking Obama in Minnesota, where Obama’s lead of 3.6% is not particularly strong, and which features onetime potential Republican VP candidate Gov. Tim Pawlenty. It is not unreasonable to believe that Obama might be vulnerable there, although it’s also worth noting that the last time a Republican carried Minnesota was 1972.

McCain, however, has also elected to defend Missouri and Iowa. The Missouri decision is reasonable (McCain’s 3.5% lead is enticingly small, although I believe it will be difficult to overcome), but as I've mentioned before, his decision to ‘defend’ in Iowa, where he trails by 10.7%, is inexplicable. On the math alone his time there appears to be a waste, but his presence in Iowa passes credibility when you consider that every moment he’s there he is not in North Carolina, where, ahead by a scant 1.6%, he stands to lose 15 electoral votes and potentially the election.

This is how the candidates have spent the last month. Where should they spend the all-important next one?

There are two ways to answer this: one is as an exercise is ruthless prioritizing, a worst-case scenario in which any fat must be cut and the candidate’s time spent only in places of the highest possible value. The other is a more holistic approach, which takes into account the importance of assisting down-ballot races, the role of money and field operations, etc. Only one campaign is eligible for this treatment, and Marcus and I will be doing a full analysis of how Obama should spend the last month later. The McCain campaign has already arrived in the full flower of a worst-case scenario, with their poll numbers plummeting, their VP candidate a laughingstock, and their candidate talking about suspending his campaign again.

Obama’s Offensive Priorities (note that this assumes Obama’s Iowa lead holds up):
Tier 1: New Mexico, Colorado OR Virginia
New Mexico is an easy win at this point – Obama has crossed 50% and the McCain campaign and local Republican Party are not exactly the A-team. CO is well within Obama’s reach – see Marcus’s analysis. Getting New Mexico and Colorado or Virginia puts Obama over the 270 mark.
Tier 2: Virginia OR Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada
Any of these states could easily go blue, and you can campaign in NC and VA together with logistical ease, as they share a border. McCain hasn’t turned up to defend Nevada and he did not do well in the Republican primaryreturn on investment is very solid there.
Tier 3: Ohio, Florida
These are tougher sells, but high return for Ohio and Florida, either of which, plus the Kerry states, wins the election.
Tier 4: Missouri, Indiana
Neither is critical, but they represent a combined twenty-two votes, a handy sum to have around in the event of something strange happening.

Obama’s Defensive Priorities:
Tier 1: Pennsylvania
Losing PA puts Obama in a huge hole.
Tier 2: Michigan
Fewer votes than PA, but not many. Losing both PA and MI makes it very hard for Obama to win.
Tier 3: Minnesota and Wisconsin
The addition of Minnesota is the only real point different than what Obama is doing now; that 3.6% lead is too slim to leave to chance and history, and losing MN wipes out gains in NM and NV. Losing either, plus Tiers 1 and 2, puts the election effectively out of reach.
Tier 4: New Hampshire
Still important, but the Obama campaign could technically afford to lose NH if he wins his top tier offensive states.

McCain is in the worst-case scenario, as I mentioned above. He must defend everything – Florida is the most important, but losses in Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia would be near-fatal for McCain, and he must guard against the fact that Obama’s road to victory could lead through New Mexico, Nevada, and the Omaha-area Electoral district. He must defend everything, which, as Marcus rightly points out, is to defend nothing. What he must not do is spend time and resources trying to overcome a 10 point deficit in Iowa at the expense of Virginia’s thirteen EVs or North Carolina’s fifteen.

Offensively, McCain must pick his target and hit it very hard. Minnesota is simply a target of opportunity for McCain, a chance to pick up ten electoral votes that won’t really mean much if he can’t win Michigan or Pennsylvania. Both PA and MI trend toward Obama but neither is safe, and the loss of either does terrible things to Obama’s electoral calculus. Both the electoral math and the polls say Pennsylvania, with its 21 votes and where Obama’s lead is slightly slimmer than in Michigan.

For one brief moment today it looked as if the McCain campaign had exercised some strategic judgment and made its choice, pulling out of Michigan to use needed resources elsewhere. This was only partially true. The McCain campaign is, indeed, pulling out of Michigan, in that it has stopped its ad expenditures. McCain’s staff, however, will remain in place – by way of achieving what is not entirely clear. The campaign is said to be considering an ad buy in Maine (again, for what reason?), but if they’re really serious about the state, then McCain will have to turn up sooner or later. Otherwise, why spend the money?

All of this focuses attention on McCain’s best offensive hope: Pennsylvania. It’s a good job McCain picked Tom Ridge to be his VP candidate, a popular Pennsylvania governor who gives them a serious shot at winning the state and the election.

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