Thursday, February 14, 2008

Michelle, Barack, and the Audacity of Struggle: Unsolicited Advice for the Obama Campaign

There's been much bloviating in the blogosphere concerning a profile of Michelle Obama that ran in this morning's New York Times. The fuss has centered on the tone of the piece, perhaps best encapsulated in this passage:
Outspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy and sometimes sarcastic, Michelle Obama
is playing a pivotal role in her husband’s campaign...
I'll confess that I was unimpressed by the critics. This is a genre piece. The Times is in the habit of running treacley profiles of public figures new to the national stage, and they regularly verge on the hagiographic. That tendency is, in this piece, perhaps exaggerated by the fact that there's not much controversy in Michelle's public life, no two sides ready to offer contrasting opinions. That, alas, will resolve itself as the campaign progresses. So I read the piece, shrugged, and went on with my life.

Then, this afternoon, I received an e-mail from a friend who had read the piece. Let me quote it at some length:
[A middle-aged woman in New York who shall remain anonymous] claims that she voted for Obama because, a few days before the primary she was flipping through the channels looking for campaign coverage and happened on Michelle Obama speaking. What got her was that Mrs. Obama was talking about the difficulty of paying back student loans, rearing children when you have to have a full-time job, and her worry that her children will never be able to afford to buy a house in this market. These are the things [our unnamed woman] worries about all the time, and it occurred to her that these two are the only ones in the race who have had to deal with the real pressures of being middle-class in America.
Now my first reaction was a derisive snort. Only in Manhattan can you listen to a woman who holds a $212,000 job as a hospital executive talk about her life, and find in her a fellow, struggling member of the middle class. But then it struck me that she was absolutely right. Alone among the major candidates, the Obamas remember what it is to struggle financially. Their security is a recent thing, an artifact of Barack's sudden celebrity (and specifically, his book sales). They remember vividly what it's like when your costs exceed your income; when loan payments are due each month; when you lie awake at night, worried that your children may not share the same blessings you've enjoyed. That's the world the rest of us live in, too.

So I went back to the article, and decided that I'd identified the wrong quote as the nut graf:
Mrs. Obama’s nickname inside the campaign is “the closer” because she is skilled
at persuading undecided voters to sign pledge cards. But as a smooth orator, she
is also known as a connector, volunteering her own life lessons from
working-class roots and discussing her confrontation with a culture of low
expectations. She has been transparent about more mundane things, too, like
leaning on her mother for child care while she is on the road.
My first time through the piece, I read that with skepticism. Michelle Obama is the campaign's Closer? I thought. Isn't it Barack who's won the nation to his side through powerful oratory? Just what is it she's supposed to have figured out that he hasn't?

My second time through, I noticed the answer. What are presented here as two contrasting facets of Michelle's personality - her ability to sway undecided voters, and her willingness to connect with audiences by sharing her personal struggles - are, in fact, cause and effect.

Compare that with her husband's rhetoric. Barack's narrative is, if anything, more compelling than Michelle's; indeed, it's been the foundation of his candidacy. Yet when Barack talks about his personal history, he presents it as a direct instantiation of the American Dream. Every obstacle he's faced is transformed into another example of the possibilities of this great land, that one so disadvantaged could have come so far. This is moving. Indeed, it is inspirational. Uplifting. But somehow, to working Americans, it has remained largely unconvincing.

Even when he discusses the problems of America, he frames them in terms of moral uplift, and illustrates them with other people's lives. Barack talks about "families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can," the need to "make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life," and his concern "that so many are in debt." Michelle talks about trying to care for her family when she needs to work, worrying that her daughters won't enjoy the same opportunities she has had, and taking years to pay off her student loans. And the campaign calls her The Closer.

There's something fundamental at play here. When working Americans say that Obama is long on promises and short on specifics, they don't mean that he hasn't posted enough essay-length policy proposals on his website. Let's face it: only TPM Cafe readers peruse those things, anyway. What they're saying is some version of: I find your speeches inspirational. I want to believe in the America that you describe, a land of opportunity in which all things are possible. But that vision keeps colliding with the hard realities of my own life. With the bills I can't pay, with the debt that keeps mounting, with the opportunities being foreclosed for my children. So prove to me that you understand that not all American Dreams come true, that you're familiar with the specific obstacles I face, and then maybe I'll trust you to try to make things better.

Michelle has found a way to answer that need, by inflecting her husband's uplifting vision with a hard-bitten sense of reality. The campaign needs to take advantage of her ability to connect with working Americans, particularly with women. It could start by airing a 30-second spot, in which she describes her struggles and concerns, and why she trusts her husband to make things better. It might also go beyond the boilerplate biography offered on the campaign website, and post clips of Michelle on the stump, transcripts of her speeches, and perhaps even blog entries. If they really believe she can convince undecided voters, and the evidence is suggestive, then they've got to do more to ensure that undecided voters hear her voice.

But perhaps more importantly, Michelle offers an answer to the riddle that has puzzled the campaign over the past month - how to break through to the working-class voters who have been most skeptical of its message. It's not enough for Barack to sound more wonkish on the stump, to lard his speeches with specific proposals. He must show voters, in the immortal words of another candidate, that he feels their pain. Barack must demonstrate that he understands that opportunities are always counterpoised with dangers and that the difference between success and failure is sometimes marked not by effort but by happenstance. He must do more than acknowledge this academically. He must speak movingly of his own struggles, not as parables of possibility, but as vivid illustrations of just how hard it is out there. That he, too, worries about his daughters' future. That he's struggled with paying his debts and his bills. That he wants to make this country better because he knows, firsthand, how flawed it can be. The peculiar genius of America is not that we always succeed, it is that in the face of failure we continue to aspire to better things.

Michelle, it seems, is capable of framing her argument in such personal terms, in a manner that inspires the trust and empathy of her audience. Hillary's struggles have been legion (although they are not economic), and she has been strongest as a candidate when she has dared to disclose her own vulnerability. If Barack learns to do the same, if he becomes capable of linking his empathy for those who are struggling to his own trials and travails, then perhaps he, too, can earn the sobriquet of "Closer."

If you've enjoyed this, please share it with other readers by clicking the 'recommend this' link. You can find more analysis on my blog. As always, I welcome comments and corrections. And thanks to all who have contributed to the remarkably civil (and occasionally humorous) conversations that have ensued.

Polling Analysis: Looking Ahead to Wisconsin and Ohio

One of the most frequently replayed arguments at TPM Cafe goes something like this:

ObamaLover27: Wow! New polls show a huge Obama lead!
Clinton4Ever: You can't
trust polls. They've been wrong before. Particularly polls from that
firm/state/day of the week.
I have to confess that these exchanges drive me nuts. Devoid of context, the topline polling figures (Obama X%, Clinton Y%) don't mean very much at all. The most useful feature of polling, particularly with substantial time still to elapse before an election, is the demographic trends and breakdowns. Pollsters, after all, are using a series of assumptions about the composition of the electorate in order to produce the horse-race numbers. Detailing those assumptions, and then discussing whether or not they're plausible, is a far better way to assess the validity or predictive utility of a given poll than: I dislike the result, therefore I dislike the poll.

So, as part of my continuing effort to explore the polling of Election 2008, I've decided to devote today's post to a detailed discussion of a recent spate of polls from a pair of key battleground states.


First, let's pay a visit to America's Dairyland. There have been three polls from Wisconsin during the month of February, and they don't quite add up. Let's take them apart, one at a time.

The first, from ARG, was taken on the two nights following Super Tuesday, and found Clinton leading 50-41%. I wish I knew what to make of that, but alas, ARG releases only the two questions it asks and the sample size, and not the composition of the sample or how it was selected, let alone its non-existent crosstabs. It's a datapoint, to be sure, but it's a week old, and from about the least reliable polling operation in America. So let's set it aside for the moment.

The headline of the second poll, from the Democratic firm PPP, trumpets the reverse result: Obama up, 50-39%. But not so fast. The write-up of the poll continues:

“Our poll shows that if there was standard turnout for the primary, Obama would
lead Clinton 46-42...But since we believe record numbers of young voters and
African Americans will turn out to support him, the weighted result gives Obama
a greater 50-39 advantage.”
Excuse me? In layman's terms, they're saying: "We polled people, and found Obama ahead 46-42. But since Obama did better than certain polls predicted in some other states, we tinkered with the results to inflate his margin." Fortunately, PPP gives us crosstabs, and some back-of-the-envelope math allows us to roughly quantify what they're saying. Their adjusted sample presumes that 12% of primary voters will be black. For context, in the 2004 primary, black voters were 6% of the Democratic electorate, roughly their proportion of the total population (and just 3% in 1992). To double their share of the primary electorate in a year when overall turnout may itself double, black voters would have to turn out at four times the rate of 2004. That, despite the fact that as a reliable segment of the Democratic base, their share of the vote has actually decreased in some states this year as less-reliable voters flood the polls. Am I the only one who sees a problem here? I suspect the youth voter numbers are similarly nuts, but can't prove it, because PPP doesn't provide enough information to allow for the calculation.

Fortunately for Obama-philes, there's yet another problem with the poll: it calculates that Republicans and independents will comprise just 23.5% of the voters. That may sound high, but in 2004, they accounted for fully 38% of the ballots cast. (In 1992, they were 47%, but let's not go there.) I'd hazzard a guess that this is what comes of gerrymandering your samples - artificially inflating the number of black and young voters may also inflate the percentage of Democratic voters, and thus depress independent and Republican turnout estimates. Adjusting partisan turnout to match 2004 gives Obama a 53-38% lead in the poll. So in conclusion, according to PPP, Obama is either locked in a tight race or poised for a blowout win. Great, huh?

Two more polls for you. One was taken by the Republican firm Strategic Vision from Feb 8-10, and it found Obama leading 45-41%. Alas, they tell us nothing about their sample, so we should assign that result roughly the same weight as the first two. The other was released this morning by Rasmussen Reports, and shows Obama leading 47-43%. Rasmussen is stingy with its demographic breakdowns - it charges a hefty premium to see them - so I don't know what to make of that result, either.

So is the Copper State a total cypher? Not quite. There is some value in the polling we've seen. The PPP survey suggests that Obama is running extremely strongly among independents and Republicans who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary, garnering 63% of the support from the members of each group. That's consistent with his extremely strong performance with crossover voters around the country. I suspect that Wisconsin may not be quite as close as these polls make out, but since they don't (or won't) tell me how they're projecting partisan turnout, I can't say for sure. It makes sense to wait for some more detailed polling before we assume that the cheeseheads are going to back Obama. For now, mark this one surprisingly close.


On to the Buckeye State. The Columbus Dispatch conducted a meticulous poll from Jan 23-31, which would be fascinating if it hadn't included John Edwards. Since it did, about all we can take away from the 42-19-18 Clinton-Obama-Edwards split is that this didn't start off as friendly territory for the midwestern senator.

That leaves us with three recent polls that show very similar results. The first, by SurveyUSA, was taken from Feb. 10-11, and found Clinton up 56-39%. The second was released today by the more-reliable Quinnipiac Polling Institute, and put Clinton's lead at a commanding 55-34%. The third, just out from Rasmussen Reports, puts Clinton ahead 51-37%. The polls share some common ground - two show Clinton leading almost 2-1 among white voters, and all three confirm that yet again, Obama is running best among men and voters under the age of 45, although in Ohio he's still losing both categories.

Let me throw out two reasons for caution concerning these early polling results. The first is my old hobby-horse, the Reverse Bradley/Wilder Effect. In a nutshell, it's the observation that Obama has invariably done better on election day among black voters than virtually any pre-election polls have predicted. In this case, the Q-Poll puts his margin at 64-17%, and SurveyUSA at 73-24% (Rasmussen didn't publicly announce its racial crosstabs). Those may sound like impressive percentages, but Obama has lately been taking roughly 9 out of 10 votes from the black community. In 2004, black voters were 14% of the Ohio Democratic primary electorate, so give the man a 3-point bump right there.

I'm also skeptical of some of the other projections. Consider that SurveyUSA finds the gender breakdown in Ohio likely to be 59-41; the Q-Poll doesn't give its breakdown, but we can infer from its numbers that a shocking two-thirds of its respondents were women. For a little context, that divide was just 52-48 in the 2004 Democratic primary. SurveyUSA projects the partisan breakdown between Democrats and Republicans/Independents will stand at 81-17 (compared to 72-28 in 2004). Now, these pollsters are in a bit of a bind. Earlier on, I ripped PPP for tinkering with its results to meet expectations; now I'm criticizing two other firms for releasing results that fail to gibe with expectations. But I'm not entirely inconsistent. I don't mind Qunnipiac and SurveyUSA telling us that they're projecting a huge surge among women voters, and an enormous decline in the percentage of independents. If that's what their polls show, maybe it will happen. I take issue with their trumpeting the top line results (Clinton ahead in Ohio!) without noting the extent to which they're an artifact of the demographic splits (Clinton ahead! Women to set turnout record! Independents vanish!) Let's recalculate those polls, assuming another 52-48 gender split: Q-Poll, 54-36%; SurveyUSA, 54-40%. Now, let's give Obama 3 points for his undercounted black vote, subtracting 1 from Clinton: Quinnipiac, 53-39%, SurveyUSA, 51-43%. Those numbers look about right to me. They give Clinton a robust, statistically-significant lead in Ohio, but not the twenty-point margin she's been hoping for. They're also roughly in line with Rasmussen, for whatever that's worth.
(A note of caution: here, and elsewhere, I've done some rough recalculation of polling figures for illustrative purposes. This is a useful tool for assessing the impact of the demographic composition of the sample, but it does not produce robust or predictive results. I don't have access to the raw data, and possess neither the training nor the experience necessary to re-weight samples, even if I did.)

Take Home Lessons:

So it looks like Wisconsin remains quite close, despite Obama's national momentum. The key for his campaign in that state will be drawing independents to the polls; if he can turn them out in percentages that rival prior primaries, he should win easily. For Clinton, the key to Wisconsin is white working-class voters, as it is pretty much everywhere else. Ohio is an interesting case. Here, Clinton needs to accomplish what she's failed to achieve almost anywhere else - she needs women voters to comprise an unusually high percentage of the electorate. Most states where that's happened, Clinton's been crushed; that's because it's generally been a straight function of exceptionally high black turnout, since black women vote at far higher rates than black men. In Ohio, Clinton needs to draw white women to the polls, and that will be challenging. Quinnipiac and SurveyUSA suggest she may be succeeding; the margin of her success will ride on that effort. If Obama wants to close the gap, he needs to turn out black voters, and continue to win virtually all of their votes. He also needs to make further inroads among white men; he hasn't done nearly as well with that constituency in Ohio as he has in recent states that he's won. That's an uphill struggle. If there's going to be an upset on March 4, these early polls suggest it won't be in Ohio.

If you've enjoyed this, please share it with other readers by clicking the 'recommend this' link. You can find more analysis on my blog. As always, I welcome comments and corrections. And thanks to all who have contributed to the remarkably civil and well-informed recent conversations - I've enjoyed the dialogue immensely, and learned a great deal.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Of Insurmountable Leads

Josh asks:
[T]he gist of it was that both sides agree that it's highly unlikely that
Clinton can end up with more pledged delegates than Barack Obama. And the issue
now is how close she can keep the margin. If she can keep it within a couple
dozen delegates, he argued, it would be credible to try to make up the margin
with super delegates....Folks paying close attention are as likely to accurately
predict the outcomes as the folks in the campaign. So is this true? Is a pledged
delegate win for Clinton no longer a realistic possibility?
Now, sometimes I make mistakes. We all do. On Monday afternoon, I wrote:
The race for pledged delegates is effectively over, and Obama has won. Now,
they're only fighting over the margin of victory. They'll also squabble about
the legitimacy of caucuses. I give the national media until Wednesday before
these become the new story lines.

Looks like Fineman figured it out with 45 minutes left in Tuesday - I give him tons of credit.

The short answer is yes, Obama's lead in pledged delegates is now effectively insurmountable. One reason this very plain fact has been obscured is the way that networks have been counting pledged delegates - with a surfeit of caution, so that they won't have to retract their counts. Most years, that makes a lot of sense. This year, it's had the perverse effect of distorting the picture; we know within a few delegates what Obama's actual lead must be, but because we can't pin it down precisely in a bunch of states, the networks haven't been citing it. CBS, the best of the bunch, puts the current pledged delegate lead at 142, but that's a little high. (My best guess is that he'll emerge from tonight with a lead of around 44 more than he had, so his campaign will likely claim a lead of about 131).

Looking ahead at the remaining contests, we find that there are 1,075 pledged delegates yet to be awarded. To tie Obama, Hillary would have to win about 603 of them, or roughly 56%. But her task is actually a little steeper than that - current polls show her trailing in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Let's award those states to Obama by a modest 55-45 margin, less than the polls predict. Now there are just 866 delegates up for grabs, Obama's lead is up to 152, and Hillary has to win 59% of the remaining delegates to tie him. But it's worse than it sounds. Even winning 60% of the popular vote the rest of the way won't do the trick, because of Obama's strength in majority-black districts. To win 59% of the delegates, she's got to take every state but the three named above (NC, HI, WI) by an average margin of better than 60-40. That includes contests like Texas, with its hybrid caucus-primary, and also states like Mississippi, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming. Can this happen? Not bloody likely. She'll be lucky, frankly, to win more than a few states outright - the remaining calendar is not terribly favorable.

In that way, I think Fineman is underestimating the challenge she faces. It would take a comeback of truly epic proportions, and monumental routs in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, among other states, just to pull Hillary within a few dozen delegates. She'd have to start winning by Obama-like margins. But is there any reason to believe Obama won't take most of Mississippi's 33? Or that, having won every single county in neighboring Washington, he won't win in Oregon? The pledged delegate lead isn't going away, and it's going to be substantial - at least 50, and that's if everything starts to break Hillary's way.

That brings us to legitimacy. There's another argument Hillary's been deploying, to sway superdelegates to her side - she likes to say that she's ahead in the popular vote. On the afternoon following Super Tuesday, Hillary's popular vote lead in those contests stood at some 58,000 votes. In the two primaries held before then, Obama's net margin was 146,000. In five contests held since then, he's accumulated 619,000 more votes than Clinton. (I'm excluding caucuses in ME, NV, and IA, which would only add to Obama's margin.) So, overall, Obama now leads by some 707,000 popular votes. Clinton had been boasting about her popular vote lead by counting the two primaries that no one else does: in Michigan, she racked up 328,000 votes; in Florida, 288,000 more than her rival. The remarkable thing is that, after tonight, even that count falls short of Obama's total, and it's a lead she's not likely to regain.

So what's left? Well, there's her fraigle lead among the superdelegates. But even some prominent Hillary endorsers have, over the past week, indicated that they won't vote against a clear-cut lead in pledged delegates.Elaine Kamarck is the most prominent of the bunch; she made headlines by opining that superdelegates are, essentially, cowards, and will follow the will of the people. So Hillary's much-vaunted lead among the supers turns out to be contingent on her maintaining a lead or a very tight race among the pledged delegates - without that, she starts losing even the superdelegates she already has.

Let me add to that my suspicion that we're going to see a steady drumbeat of superdelegate endorsements for Obama between now and the March 4 primaries. As I've written before, the Obama campaign likes to deploy its endorsements strategically. Most of those we've seen over the past week have been clustered in the states due up next on the calendar. The Obama campaign has claimed to have 170 endorsements lined up, but no one else can count that high - a sign that he's been stockpiling again. Rolling out the endorsements now will add to his aura of inevitability, and help drive the news cycle during the weeks without elections. Hillary's lead here currently stands at roughly 90, but as supers wake up to the new math, she's unlikely to be able to persuade too many fence-sitters to cast their lot with her. Plus, every time Obama wins a state by a huge margin, the supers residing in that state feel substantial pressure to endorse.

A final thought on those supers. There are only between 300-350 left to endorse a candidate, depending on whose count you're using (the other 76 are UADs). If Hillary trails by at least 50 pledged delegates, and probably by 12-20 UADs, she'll have to win the votes of 150-175 of the remaining supers. Does anyone think she can do that?

So is it all over? Not quite. Here are three ways Hillary could pull this out:
1) Seat Michigan and Florida at the convention, or push for new caucuses in those states and win them really, really big.
2) Win on March 4 by such stunning margins that the Obama campaign crumples.
3) Persuade almost all the remaining superdelegates to endorse her.

If you find any of those scenarios even vaguely plausible, then you've got yourself a race. But if you're not persuaded, don't expect the remaining superdelegates to be, either. After March 4, when the last bit of uncertainty has been removed, look for the superdelegates to coalesce behind the presumptive nominee and end this thing.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Eight Thoughts on the Race

Thoughts for Monday Afternoon:

1) Watching Edwards negotiate with his former rivals is a little bit like watching Alex Rodriguez opt-out of his contract. In both cases, there's only one plausible outcome. But simply announcing the decision destroys whatever leverage remains to pry loose concessions. So we'll watch this elaborate pas de trois unfold until it arrives at its inevitable coda.

2) The race for pledged delegates is effectively over, and Obama has won. Now, they're only fighting over the margin of victory. They'll also squabble about the legitimacy of caucuses. I give the national media until Wednesday before these become the new story lines.

3) Patti Solis Doyle's departure is an admission that the Clinton campaign isn't just struggling against Obama, it's also battling its own strategy. Solis Doyle wagered that Super Tuesday would seal victory; she invested her dwindling resources accordingly. Plouffe gambled that it would be a draw, and spread his resources down the calendar. It's dangerous for any campaign to believe its own hype.

4) It may be this week; it may be next; it may not be until March. But sooner or later, the Clinton campaign is going to have to face the reality that the Michigan and Florida delegations aren't going to be seated, and that they can't win the convention without them. When it does, we'll see a dramatic shift in strategy. The Clintons will join the DNC in pressing for caucuses (the formal name for any party-run election, no matter its mechanics). And when they do, Obama's not going to be able to stop them. If Obama can't pull off an upset in OH, TX or PA, it's likely that the campaign will come down to these final two contests. And ironic - the political advantage state leaders failed to achieve by moving their contests forward may well be theirs if they agree to reschedule them all the way at the end of the calendar.

5) The Democratic primary has shaped up, in large part, as a generational battle. The strong support for Obama among voters under 45 cuts across racial, gender, and class lines. Hillary's support among women over 45, and among all voters over the age of 65, is rock solid. It's been a close fight, but Obama is on the brink of victory. That sets up an even more interesting dynamic come November. The Republican candidate is vying to be the oldest man ever elected president; the (plausible) Democratic nominee is running on a message of change. Among the problems facing McCain: voters of his generation trend Democratic, as do women (who comprise larger percentages of the electorate in each successive age bracket). If this battle plays out again in the general, it may not be so close.

6) Will becoming the frontrunner help or hurt Obama? The Potomac Primaries offer an interesting test case. If he can prevail better than 60-40, it's probably a sign that Hillary's base is starting to get discouraged and stay home. But if his margin is smaller than the (incredibly flawed) polls presently predict, we may see Hillary trying to sell the comeback narrative again. Taking the overall lead among delegates is a similarly fraught achievement - its major benefits accrue only if Obama can retain that lead. Otherwise, the media may embrace a narrative of shifting momentum.

7) When does the Clinton campaign think about folding up its tent and caling it a day? Would it take Obama accruing more than 2,025 delegates - improbable for months to come? How about a loss in Ohio, Texas, or Pennsylvania? How damaging will it be to her prospects that people are even voicing the question?

8) After Wisconsin, we hit a long, empty stretch. For the first time, Obama will feel the heat of national media scrutiny that he imagines he's already endured. How well will he hold up? Can he maintain his momentum?

If you've enjoyed this, please share it with other readers by clicking the 'recommend this' link. You can find more analysis on my blog. And as always, I welcome comments and corrections.

Convention Math: Who leads the superdelegate chase this morning?

As the dust settles on the weekend's electoral battles, media organizations and amateurs alike are trying to get a fix on the delegate count. CBS News is out with a startling claim - it's Obama by a nose. The New York Times, meanwhile, shows Clinton by 171. So who's actually in control on this sunny Monday morning? Well, that depends how you count.

Superdelegates: This is where there's the greatest room for fudging the numbers. CBS is basing its story on a fresh survey of the superdelegates,which found 137 supporting Obama, and 211 for Hillary. There's reason to be skeptical of both those numbers. DemConWatch, the blog that's tracking publicly announced endorsements, puts the current totals at 128 to 223. Other media organizations have different totals, ranging upward to the AP's 156 to 243. And, of course, there's the Obama campaign's own claim from last week to a total of 170. Not to mention, it's a moving target - the tragic passing of Rep. Tom Lantos (a tireless champion of freedom) should remind us that neither the total number of superdelegates nor their names is etched in stone.

The Ruling: The problem here is that everyone's measuring something different. The media groups are conducting surveys, and the responses they generate depend on who answers their phone, and just how hard the reporters press for commitments. So the AP tally is a fine indication of which way 37 supers who haven't publicly announced their preferences are currently leaning (they split 28-19 in favor of Obama). That speculative trend is well worth noting, but let's not mistake it for the hard currency of actual, public endorsements. Until these folks announce their support, let's leave the tally at 128-223.

Pledged Delegates: After the chaos and uncertainty of counting superdelegates, tallying the pledged delegates should be easy, right? Well, maybe not. Here are three key disputes separating some major tallies:

1) How do you count caucuses? Voters at precinct caucuses elect delegates to county or congressional district caucuses, who elect delegates to the state convention, who elect delegates to the DNC. At every stage of that process, there's room for slippage - not everyone's going to show up, folks may change their votes, and candidates in the earliest caucus state subsequently dropped out. The New York Times, in its effort to produce an iron-clad count, excludes caucus states entirely until they hold their state conventions. That position is a reductio ad absurdum of its generally cautious approach to reporting totals. Most organizations count the caucus delegates by projecting the results of the state conventions.

The Ruling: For heaven's sake, count the delegates. We know that things may change - bear in mind, even pledged delegates are (almost all) perfectly free to change their minds when they show up in Denver. We're looking for a snapshot that gives us the most accurate impression of where things stand right now. Excluding the caucus states makes that a hopeless project.

2) How do you deal with incomplete returns? This one is a little trickier. CBS, for example, is showing only 14 delegates for Obama from yesterday's Maine caucuses, perhaps because only 99% of precincts have reported. The AP shows 15, awarding the final delegate to the man who is now statistically certain to win it. This one's not hard to settle - the Maine Democrats award the final delegate to Obama, too. But I wouldn't care to hazzard a guess about New Mexico, or to say for certain that the allocations in LA won't change when the votes of independents are tallied. A dozen little disputes produce a range of numbers:
CNN - 986/924; CBS - 997/920; AP - 952/893.

The Ruling: Here, I'm inclined to embrace the maximal interpretations, even at the risk that we'll have to adjust the results by a delegate or two when all is said and done. It seems fusty to leave 20 delegates from Washington unallocated, when they're virtually certain to split 11-9 for Clinton (although three counts do exactly that). Better to have a snapshot of where the race almost certainly stands at the moment than to produce a result - like that of the NYTimes - which is woefully disconnected from reality. So we'll go with CBS - 997/920. But I'd note that the spreads, as opposed to the tallies, aren't all that different: 62, 77, 59.

Unpledged Add-on Delegates: Yes, I'm back to the UADs again. No major media organization or website is tracking the 76 UADs who will be selected by state committees, conventions, or delegations. There are two ways to count them: you can award them to the candidate who carried each state, or award only those who will be chosen by a group known to be pledged to a given candidate.

The Ruling: Here, for once, I'd favor a more minimal approach. We really don't know how state party committees are likely to act; they're not bound to follow the results of primaries or caucuses, and their composition is often unreflective of the primary electorate as a whole. We know, for example, that in several states the key institutional players favored a different candidate than the one who prevailed at the ballot box; will they be able to resist the temptation to award the UADs in a contrary fashion, or to hand the slot to a 'neutral' party elder as a compromise? By my count, the UADs to be awarded by conventions and delegations stand at 15-7 in favor of Obama.

Totaling it up:
So I'd say that a fair count this morning puts Obama at 1,140 and Hillary at 1,150. So you could say it's Hillary by a hair. But it'd be more accurate to say that the two are, for the moment, effectively tied. A ten-delegate gap, given the complexity of counting, is too close to call.
What's not really in doubt is that Obama will gain enough delegates on Tuesday to surge into the lead. My guess would be that he won't release too many superdelegate endorsements in the next 48 hours. He'd rather claim the lead in most of these counts by winning elections, given his rhetorical posture on the legitimacy of superdelegates. To do so (assuming networks don't re-count their supers or resolve a large number of pending results) he'll need:
ABC: 18 delegates to take the lead
AP: 28 delegates
CNN: 27 delegates
CBS: 3 delegates ahead already
Given the projected size of his margins in the Potomac Primaries, he should easily clear all of those hurdles. And, since superdelegates in the last week or two have been breaking for Obama, and he seems poised to claim a majority of the unallocated delegates from previously held contests, it's even possible that one or more networks will follow CBS's lead in announcing Obama ahead before then. After all, networks hate to the be the last to a story. One way or the other, by Wednesday morning, everyone but the New York Times will show Obama firmly in the lead. And that's both a triumph and a major headache for a campaign that will be looking ahead at Ohio and Texas (and Vermont and Rhode Island), and the very real probability that their (overall) lead will vanish as quickly as it appeared, allowing Hillary to regain momentum.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Three (Unanswered) Questions for the Campaign

In the aftermath of Obama's Saturday sweep, and with a tough February still lying ahead for the Clinton campaign, here are three questions that may help decide the outcome of the race:

1) Whither Washington?

Yesterday, Democratic voters in Washington State gave Obama a decisive victory, as better than two-thirds caucused in his corner. It was a blowout win, and added to Obama's mounting edge in pledged delegates. But on Tuesday, February 19, they'll do it again. In one of the odder twists to a very strange cycle, Washington will hold its non-binding primary even though it has already allocated all of its delegates. Polling that succesfully pegged the outcome of the caucuses puts Obama's lead among primary voters at a much narrower 50-45%, close enough that the outcome is in doubt. That's because the caucus-goers were younger, more diverse, more affluent, better-educated, and more liberal than the primary electorate.

So who cares? Hillary can win in a rout, and not be any better off for it. Well, not so fast. The fight for superdelegates is increasingly being framed as an argument for legitimacy. Once it became clear to the Clinton campaign that caucuses were unlikely to favor her candidacy, she turned on them with a vengeance, correctly pointing out that they effectively limit participation, draw from a sample of voters that's non-representative of the primary electorate, and tend to tilt toward the more affluent and better-educated. Those arguments can't change the allocation of delegates, but they can play a crucial role in the battle of perceptions. The Clinton campaign is claiming, in essence, that caucus-state victories don't really count. A win, or even a close fight, in Washington State would serve to underscore that argument. It's the first controlled experiment this primary season - run the election both ways, and line the outcomes up side-by-side. Never mind that Hillary had no problem with caucuses when she thought her institutional support would give her an edge, or that she's challenging the rules halfway through the fight. If she can undermine the legitimacy of caucuses, she can use that to argue that Obama's edge among pledged delegates isn't what it seems - and that her lead among delegates awarded in primary states is the one that matters. And that just might sway some superdelegates.

2) Hillary: More like Rudy or Huckabee?

I'm sure that for the Clinton camp, that's a Hobson's choice. But it's an interesting question. Pundits have already made the analogy to Giuliani. Both candidates, looking at a long stretch of contests with unfavorable demographics, chose to spend heavily and contest them on the ground, while publicly protesting that they weren't really trying to win. Instead, they claimed, they were waiting for the contests in larger, more representative states: Florida for Rudy; Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania for Clinton. For Rudy, the strategy proved disasterous - battered by loss after loss, his campaign ceased to look viable to his core voters in his keystone state, and they abandoned him in droves.

But there's another analogue to be found in the Republican race: Mike Huckabee. Hillary, it's increasingly clear, simply can't win a majority of the pledged delegates. In some years, that might be fatal to her chances. But even though Mike Huckabee has no realistic shot at the Republican nomination, a situation far bleaker than the one facing Hillary, he continues to rack up triumphs in states that feature favorable demographics. That's because his core constituencies find the presumptive nominee tough to stomach, and continue to identify both with the candidate and with his message. Hillary is hoping for a similar result - that women, white ethnic voters and the elderly will ignore Obama's edge among pledged delegates and her long string of losses, and vote their hearts. If they do, she can keep the pledged delegate gap small enough to have a shot at winning the convention on the strength of the superdelegate vote.

3) What to make of the Hillary fundraising surge?

It may be the most under-reported story of the week. Since Hillary went public with her fundraising woes and began to make public appeals for help, she's raised more than $10 million from over 100,000 voters. Critics will assail those numbers. Some have voiced open skepticism about the $5 million she loaned her campaign - was it all a ploy for sympathy? Others sneared at yet another show of vulnerability. Obama backers were quick to point out that even this surge leaves her far behind in the race for funds and donors.

But there's more to this story. There's no question that $10 million gives Clinton enough to stay competitive for weeks to come, and the surge in funds shows no sign of abating. The money itself, however, is the least of it. It's a remarkable transformation for a campaign that had relied on institutional endorsements, big-time bundlers, and Washington insiders. Hillary humbled herself, admitted she needed help, and turned to the public. She was met with an overwhelming response. It suggests, once again, that pundits and prognosticators ignore the intensity of the sympathy for Hillary, particularly among women, at their peril. When she's willing to look vulnerable, when she confesses that she can't do it alone, when she tries to build a movement, and most of all, when she returns to her basic narrative of a woman struggling to break through in a man's world, Hillary becomes a tremendously appealing candidate. Her greatest appeal turns out to lie in her struggles - with her husband, with sexism - because these struggles enable ordinary Americans to identify with her. That's why she cleans up among the most economically disadvantaged Americans, among working women, and in rustbelt cities. And, despite his initial obtuseness, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe came to understand this. His aggressive and juvenile fundraising challenge targeting Hillary succeeded in outraising her, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Obama had been outraising her three-to-one beforehand. But Plouffe made it into a contest, a direct challenge to Hillary and her supporters. And, as they have throughout the past month, Hillary's supporters came to her aid precisely when she seemed most vulnerable. Without the Plouffe challenge, Hillary's breakthrough might never have happened. He caught on, after a couple of days, and hasn't released his fundraising totals since. Why spur Hillary's backers to unprecedented levels of support when you're already getting all the money you need?

So has Hillary, at last, managed to transform her campaign into a movement? There are signs she's beginning to understand this dynamic. She's been harping on the Shuster/MSNBC gaffe because it underlines the difficulty that women face running for elective office - a gendered double standard that's all-too-familiar to women of her generation. She's stopped attacking Obama; you can't go on the offensive at the same time you're highlighting your ability to empathize. She's amped up her economic message, in an attempt to transform her campaign into a struggle on behalf of those left behind in a changing economy, glomming on to the Edwards message. Will it be enough? Has her campaign turned a corner? We'll see. In the past, as she rebounded, she again lowered her mask, reverting to carefully-controlled form. How she handles February will likely determine the outcome of her candidacy - and, win or lose, where the Democratic Party goes from here.

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Reading the Returns: Election Night Analysis

By now, everyone's seen the results. As expected, Obama swept today's Democratic contests, winning in Washington, Nebraska, and Louisana. Less anticipated was his margin of victory. In the caucus states, he won better than 2/3 of the votes; in Louisiana, by double-digits.

So how do we make sense of those margins, and attempt to figure out their significance? Three ways spring to mind.

1) Polling:

Washington State: Only one polling firm released results from Washington in February: SurveyUSA. It found Obama ahead among likely caucus-goers 63-33. So score one for the much-battered reputation of the robo-polling firm, and mark these results 'as expected.'
Nebraska and Louisiana: I'm not aware of recent polling in either of these states.

2) Internal expectations:

Obama Campaign: An internal campaign spreadsheet that was leaked to Bloomberg News gives us a rare view of what the campaign itself expected. The first of the projected scenarios had Obama winning 60-40 in WA and NE, and 54-46 in Louisiana. At this hour, Obama's actual margins in all three states exceed those counts (although in Louisiana, due to Hillary falling short). That scenario had Obama winning the pledged delegate count 95-63 tonight, and 1,647 to 1,580 overall. We'll see how that works out - one projection has him winning Nebraska delegates 14-10, while CNN puts him at 15-9, just like the spreadsheet. In WA and LA, the situation is still too confused to hazard a guess. But with the margins bigger than he expected, you've gotta believe that David Plouffe is going to be a happy man tonight.

Clinton Campaign: The first rule of expectations management is that it's better to be pleasantly surprised than suddenly dissappointed. If that applies to the Obama camp's internal projections (a good reason to take them with a grain of salt) it applies as well to the Clinton camp's memorandum to reporters as well. To quote:
The Obama campaign has dramatically outspent our campaign in these three states,
saturating the airwaves...we will continue to compete in [February states] and
hope to secure as many delegates as we can...
That about sums it up. The name of the game for the Clinton camp was to keep these races close enough to amass some delegates. We'll have to wait till morning (at the earliest) before we get reliable delegate counts. But when expectations start that low, it's tough to be dissappointed.

Edwards campaign: Yes, you read that correctly. In the big surprise of the evening, the moribund campaign of John Edwards roared back to life. Well, not really. But confounding expectations, it seems that thousands of (white?) Louisiana voters who were left to choose between a black man and a woman chose...neither. He didn't break the 15% threshold, so he won't walk away with any delegates, but I think we can faily say that he exceeded expectations. For Edwards, it must be a tantalizing reminder of what might have been. And for the remaining two contenders, it's a troubling indicator for November.

3) Exit Polls: Alas, caucus states don't get much love from the consortium, so we're stuck with the exits from Louisiana. Here, there's plenty for both camps to enjoy:

Obama campaign: There have to be some smiles in Illinois tonight. Obama won among both men and women, among voters in every age cohort up to 65, among religious voters (and ran almost even among the more religious Catholics), with those earning less and more than $50k, and among both Democrats and Independents. But there was plenty to frown about, to, including this statistic that's likely to get some play: 35% of primary voters said they would not be satisfied if Obama wins the nomination. (But then again, 12% of them voted for Obama - so much for polling.)

Clinton campaign: If the tally from Louisiana was discouraging, the exit poll bodes well for Clinton's chances, particularly in the crucial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. White voters supported Clinton (70-26) by margins almost as large as blacks went for Obama (82-18). She won Catholics, including 73% of white Catholics. Voters thought she "cares about people," has "experience" and "electability" - she lost out only on "can bring change." The poorer the voter, the gloomier about their personal economic future and the nation's, the better Hillary did. And she brought home her bedrock supporters - 63% of voters over the age of 65 cast their ballots for Clinton. If she can replicate those margins in states with different demographic compositions, she can win in a landslide.

So there you have it. On the whole, the evening went about as expected. Three dramatic wins for Obama, whose lead among pledged delegates continues to mount. Clinton can take solace in the thought that the national media expected these wins, and so is unlikely to play them to her disadvantage, and that the biggest prizes left on the calendar are rust-belt states full of aging, white-ethnic voters.

If you find this worthwhile, please click the 'recommend this' link, so that other readers can share it. More election and polling analysis is available on my blog (click my name). And, as always, I welcome your comments and corrections.