Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jay Cost on the Post-Convention State of the Campaign

If your not familiar with Jay Cost, he is the author of the Horse Race Blog, over at RealClearPolitics. Cost is known for digging deep into poll numbers. His look at battleground states included county-by-county voting patterns for the last 60 years. His latest article, with the dual title "The Campaign Has Taken a Surprising Turn / Obama On His Heels" is less statistics focused but no less interesting.

He looks at historical breakdown of different groups in the last three presidential elections.

The key point is that white women (a huge percentage of the voting population) increased 17-points from 1996 to 2004. Consequently the end tallies switched from a significant Republican defeat to a notable victory. He comments on how this relates to recent events:
The ABC News poll that set tongues wagging has McCain up 12 among white women - about the same margin as the final result in 2004. I had been inclined to write those results off, as I figured a post-convention poll like that is not indicative of where the race is heading. However, the course correction of the Obama campaign inclines me to believe that there might be something going on here. On September 4th, his campaign said that it was not planning to directly criticize Palin. On September 8th, it released an ad directly criticizing her. You don't do that kind of 180 unless something is up.
Emphasis mine on that last sentence as I think that is the key point. As much as it is fun (if you are so inclined) to look at poll numbers and try to analyze internals, doing so involves a lot of guesswork. Poll results, especially this far from the actual election, have to be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand any significant political campaign always conducts its own polls. Historically, it is common for campaigns to base strategy decisions on these internal numbers. It doesn't really matter what Gallup or Rassmussen says--if Obama's campaign sees something in their own numbers, it is time to act.

Cost continues:
The Obama campaign's decision to attack is a risky one. Negative campaigns are always tricky, but this one is especially so. To some degree, Palin has been treated unfairly since her debut as McCain's vice-president. What the McCain campaign wants to do is tie all criticisms of Palin to the unfair ones, and ultimately remind people of how Hillary Clinton was treated. Team McCain is especially eager to do this for anything that comes out of Obama's mouth - hence the "lipstick on a pig" spot, which in turn induced a response from Obama.

We can assign winners and losers in this little skirmish; we can decide who has truth on his side and who does not. But that misses the point. Here we have yet another day when the focus is on the GOP's youthful, smiling, attractive, witty, female vice-presidential nominee. And for yet another day our ears are filled with the sounds of the Democratic nominee decrying how unfair the Republicans are - as if only one side hits below the belt.
Again I've highlighted what I find as the key point. The interest in Palin has energized the conservative base and, at least from these poll numbers, also affected independents and white women. The coverage of Palin is bordering on mind-numbing. Unless that is the strategy--to make people sick of hearing about her--I am at a loss as to why Obama would keep making her the center of attention.

Obama has campaigned as an instrument of change. McCain, to be blunt, is an old white guy. Why would you not focus on this contrast? Much time remains and the race is far from decided. But if Obama loses, the decision focus on Palin is going to be the leading questions of analysts and critics.

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