Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Momentous Week Leaves McCain's Map in Tatters

Most of the top political junkie websites are of the opinion that Mr. McCain lost the week by a margin of 4-1, having salvaged Friday (the day no one notices anyway) on the publication of an Obama fundraising letter that could be seen to gloat over the financial crisis, and an increasingly resonant assertion by McCain that Mr. Obama himself hasn't bothered to say very much about his own plans for fixing it. This has "worked" for the (transitory) moment, but it also paints McCain into a far narrower box when along comes the inevitable temptation for future demurral: He's already shot himself in the foot once, perhaps even destroyed his entire campaign--now, by criticizing Obama for his lack of substance on the subject he has left himself no choice but to risk doing it again.

But even if McCain's counter-offensive continues to have traction (my guess is that it won't, precisely because the "low information voters" we've been studying so fastidiously over the past two weeks now confront an issue on which they favor the Democrat by default, instead of the Republican), Mr. McCain's early misstep, coupled with the vulnerability for "re-definition" that he was suffering from at that moment, courtesy of The View, have left his polling numbers for the week in something of a slow-motion free-fall. McCain is now five points down in the Gallup daily tracking poll--an instrument so shameless in its Republican bias that its operators have intentionally left up a series of outdated hypertext links to stories of people favoring McCain on the economy. And as George Bush Sr. can surely attest, when you're five points down with your friends, you're not having a good time running for President.

Of course as we all know, in theory Mr. McCain could lose the national popular vote by fifteen points instead of five, and still be President. Any conversation about the direness of his straits must by definition be a conversation about the map. And even though (as yesterday's column noted) the state polling data tends to be saddled by a curious, roughly seven-day lag, it doesn't take more than a casual survey of the various map-lighting websites to see that Mr. McCain's electoral difficulties aren't as bad as being five points down in a tracking-poll run by Goldwater voters.

Instead they are much, much worse.

The Key Grip doesn't want to plug for one map-following blogger over the others, since they are all fine websites with excellent columns and other features that make none of them optional reading material for gorging on political news--but when it comes to trying to catch the shifting trends of the thing in real-time, the first reference is undoubtedly, since that particular site isn't just a snapshot (if the race were held today, what would happen), as are the others. Instead fivethirtyeight includes a right-hand column of trend analysis, in which econometric regressions on all state polling data are calculated and statistically corrected--for the existence of outliers, basic structural differences between polls and demographics, even weighting by the reliability of different polling sources. With this resource a person can see a single, tied poll in Pennsylvania for the poppycock that it is, since all the polling data is listed together with the site author's own assessment of each poll's usefulness in gaging the race.

Furthermore, since the data in the right-side column is classified into seven major groups, "safe GOP," "likely GOP," "leans GOP," "toss-up," "leans DEM," "likely DEM," and "safe DEM," a quick trip across cyber-town to the undisputed cham'peen of the interactive map sites,, will enable a curious onlooker to light and "un-light" states, based on their inclusion in one or the other of these categories. On any given day, it would seem to this author, the state of the race can best be measured by loading the default map at 270towin, then lighting any un-lit states that fivethirtyeight is showing as "likely" or "safe," and un-lighting any states showing as "lean" or "toss-up."

If all the states currently showing on as "safe DEM" or "likely DEM" are today lit up in blue, Mr. Obama stands comfortably on 260 electoral votes. This total represents all of the John Kerry states except New Hampshire (which incidentally hasn't polled since Mr. McCain decided to see what his own pancreas would look like while speaking to an audience in Jacksonville), plus New Mexico and Iowa, both of which have receded from McCain to such an extent that further efforts in either one would seem at this point to be a waste of resources.

If, by contrast, all of the states currently showing on fivethirtyeight as "safe GOP" or "likely GOP" are today lit up in red for Mr. McCain, by contrast, his total is a comparatively paltry 170 electoral votes. That's a deficit of 90 as compared to the comfortable total enjoyed by Obama, and a 10-1 disadvantage in reaching the golden figure and the keys to the White House. But even this version of the story paints a rosier picture for McCain than the reality on the ground, since the states that aren't currently safe or likely for him are all places where he will now have to play frantic and expensive defense to prevent defections from the '04 Bush total. And even a quick glance at the map reveals just how improbable and diverse this assortment of states has turned out to be:

In addition to the four states that the Key Grip has been calling critical to the Obama recipe for success for weeks now--Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada, any one of which gets him 269 if he can also hold New Hampshire (or 270 if he takes NE-01, as he expects to)--the newly minted list of potential turnovers adds, in order of increasing dramatic effect, Florida, Missouri, West Virginia, Montana, and Indiana. That's a lotta states for the financially disadvantaged and uncharismatic POW to pull from the fire.

Moreover, the entire list is an assortment not just of states that Mr. Bush won in 2004 (except for New Hampshire), but also of states that Mr. McCain categorically, all but mathematically, must somehow persuade to support him, starting today, from scratch, if he hopes to become our next President. He can count on neither a "celebrity" ad, nor a convention bounce, to win back these wayward electoral votes--and indeed must hope that they don't continue to slip further and further from his grasp as Mr. Obama continues to recycle the footage from Jacksonville, as he surely will.

It's not quite true that McCain can't slough a single unlit state on this map, you will perhaps have noticed--he can win New Hampshire and lose Montana and West Virginia, or Montana and Nevada, and if the others hold he gets to 271. But the problem with such a scenario is that it assumes such disconnects are plausible in the behavior of the electorate. Indeed they are not. If Mr. Obama is winning in Montana and West Virginia, for example, it seems unlikely that the people of Missouri and/or Ohio and/or Virginia wouldn't see things the same way.

On the other hand, McCain faces the job of trying to sell a single vote-for-me message in places that are as geographically and topically diverse as Florida and Montana, Virginia and Nevada, Indiana and ...well, anywhere else. And if Mr. McCain knows how to cobble a message that will resonate equally well with doubting voters in Fairfax and Bozeman and South Bend, then, gosh, he probably deserves the White House--because this author certainly can't imagine what that message would be.

And so once more we come to the place at the bottom of the column where a responsible author caveats the current-day analysis with provisos about how long a week is in politics and how much of the discussion is left to be had. "Anything can still happen," I am bound by the by-laws of the political hack-writers' society to say, here.

But here's the thing: it's a caveat that, by the day, almost by the hour, rings increasingly hollow. Mr. McCain is now all but assured this coming Friday of spending his hour in the pre-debate greenroom listening to an avalanche of punditry about the tall odds he will face in trying to "shake up the race" with his performance. The low-information voters, keenly attuned to the first such shakeup, have demonstrated in past elections a steep learning curve for further such efforts, and Mr. McCain has undoubtedly already spent his shakeup capital by choosing a tongue-speaking racist who shoots wolves from airplanes to be his running mate. Any further attempts to shake the race again will be seen by exponentially larger and larger swathes of persuadable voters as just so much pure desperation.

If there is a concern for avid Obama supporters like this author, it is the uncertainty of wondering just how that desperation will manifest, and of whether or not Mr. Obama will be ready for it when it shows itself. But as the days wear on and McCain's poll numbers continue to sag, even the chance of forcing Team Good-Guys back onto a defensive posture gets narrower and narrower. Polls that show this kind of movement after the second convention aren't generally blips, after all--generally speaking they represent persuadable voters choosing to become un-persuadable, moving forward. As an alert reader so adroitly pointed out yesterday, early voting begins very, very soon in some of the biggest and most important prizes left unlit on the map, notably Colorado and Ohio, after which no amount of October-surprising will save McCain from what is expected to be massive early turnout by the Democrats. If Team McCain had anything left in their bag of tricks, they'd be fools not to have played it already.

Right now I'm betting that they do not.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


A. Gordon said...


Even though McSame's monetary limit is $85M, he counts money from the RNC which has all but guaranteed that it's coffers will be spent on the general election whereas the significantly smaller coffers of the DNC, I believe, are spent with more discretion - no doubt, in part, due to the Democratic party's 50-state strategy. I think this fact alone, makes the monetary playing field much more level. However, it's how and where that money is being spent is what's making the difference in 2008.

On that note, to all the detractors of th3 50-state strategy, I should point out that there are states which are close that by all rights shouldn't be. Bush carried Indiana by 21 points in 2004 and it's a statistical tie now. If the Democratic party can maintain it's ground presence/strategy over the next 2-3 election cycles I'm venturing to guess that the outlook for a more progressive America is rosy.


Dave O'Gorman said...

I think the support for Obama is being significantly under-represented in the polling data, between the ground-game advantage, the higher than usual turnout we can expect from Democrats (which I don't think is being properly accounted for in the "likely voter models"), and the higher proportion of cell-phone users (as discussed today on fivethirtyeight).

In 2004, I felt as though we had an accurate reading on how the night would go when the polls closed in West Virginia and they called it for Bush instantaneously. This time I think we'll know a lot by how long it takes to call Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.

In the meantime we all need to do our part.

Anonymous said...

This morning's paper (and Yahoo) are already setting us up for another stolen election. They are saying that McCain is leading by 2.5% due to the fact that everyone is going to vote against an "N". I read the huge article that you cited from Rolling Stone magazine about the 2004 theft and it just made me sick!
I am in the midst of writing a letter to the editor that starts out: if you think this country is not in a mess; vote for McCain cause he's not Black. If you just lost your job; vote for McCain because he's not get the picture.

Dave O'Gorman said...

I too have been thinking a lot about Republican dirty tricks (and conservative bias in some media sources -- log into gallup this morning and you'll find a tracking poll showing Obama six points up, right next to an assortment of ten day-old headlines about McCain's convention bounce). Obviously we must all remain vigilant.

But I also think that it's important for Democrats to "play it where it lies," not exactly accepting that these things will happen, but recognizing that they will and that the most productive thing we can do about it is to try to build a trick-proof majority.

After all, the Gore campaign should never have been in such a dogfight with such an inferior candidate. In the first debate, Mr. Bush actually pointed across the stage at Gore and said, "He keeps saying I'm against things. I'm not against things; I'm for them."

It doesn't excuse what happened in Florida but it does place a share of the blame at the feet of those of us who should have been doing more to close the deal.