Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Obama and the Red State Question: A Deeper Analysis

Recently, The Fix ran a post looking at the Obama campaign's contention that it, given primary and caucus performances thus far, has the ability to swing red states into the Democratic column in November. This post gets the ball rolling on several questions that may prove worthy of further examination within the realm of political science.

The first, as posed by University of Maryland-Baltimore County associate professor, Thomas Schaller, surrounds the observation that, over the last two presidential cycles, the higher the percentage of state's population that is African American, the better the GOP has done (in terms of vote share for the Republican candidate for president). Now, I've glanced through my trusty journal search engines of choice and have yet to find anything that directly addresses this hypothesis. Several confounding factors come to mind when thinking about this relationship though. The way I see it, swing state status and the number of majority-minority congressional districts may form an interactive relationship.

The states in the South are as solidly Republican now as they were Democratic in the 1960s and before. So while those states are the states with the highest percentages of African Americans, they are nonetheless solidly red. Solidly red means little attention from the Democratic candidates for president though. Voters then, that may be likely to swing one way or the other (and are outside of those majority minority districts), are swayed by what they are hearing (or aren't hearing) within their districts: a Republican message. In other words, if African Americans are packed into one or two districts in a state, while Republicans maintain majorities in the remaining districts, the inattention from both parties in those Republican districts leaves a void that is filled by the prevailing GOP message. The question then becomes, does any Democratic attention in those districts help sway enough independents (or even Republicans) to put the state in the toss up category when the general election rolls around. That is the very type of micro-targeting that the Bush team employed with great success in 2004; making some states more competitive than the conventional wisdom would have thought possible. Ultimately though, does this interaction "explain away" the relationship we've seen in the last two cycles between the percentage of African Americans within a state and the vote share captured by Republican presidential candidates? Well, that begs for further research.

The other question concerns whether Obama (if he becomes the Democratic nominee) can shift the pool of competitive, general election states; pulling in some formerly solidly red states. This one I'll tackle less scientifically. It is very early and we don't yet know exactly who the nominees will be for each party (Fine, McCain is the guy for the GOP, but not officially until he crosses the 1191 delegate threshold.), but there are head-to-head polls that are being conducted on the state level. Again, this is less than scientific, but looking at these polls does give us a glimpse into the potential power of an Obama candidacy in the general election. Here are the states that have had head-to-head polls (conducted and) reported over the last week (Clicking on Clinton or Obama gives you a link to their head-to-head against McCain in these states via Real Clear Politics. Emphasis will be given to polls conducted around or since Super Tuesday.).

Swing States:
Iowa: (Obama, Clinton): Iowa has been a swing state in the last two cycles; going for Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. It was one of the few states that actually switched from 2000 to 2004. These early head-to-head polls offer a stark contrast though; a twenty point swing depending on who the Democratic nominee is. Obama leads McCain by ten points, while Clinton trails McCain by the same margin. That's the definition of swing, though not in the terms we're used to in presidential elections. Here's an example of a 2004 red state, that could be comfortably with the Democrats or out of reach based on who the nominee is. Numbers like these don't hurt the electability argument Obama has been pushing.

: (Obama, Clinton): Obama has an eight point lead over McCain while Clinton is tied. The latter roughly reflects the distribution of votes in the 2004 Bush-Kerry match up in the state. Is there potential for Obama to make Michigan solidly Democratic? Well, we'll have to ask those Michigan delegates who may not be seated in late August.

New Mexico: (Obama, Clinton): New Mexico, like several other states in the following analysis, has been a swing state in the last few general election cycles. It is one of the few states that switched support, moving from Democratic in 2000 to Republican in 2004. Early on it looks like Obama has a decided advantage over McCain in a state that neighbors McCain's own, Arizona. Against Clinton however, McCain is knotted in a dead heat.

Pennsylvania: (Obama, Clinton): In four polls since Super Tuesday, Pennsylvania looks to be shaping up as a swing state again in 2008. In averaging those polls, both Clinton and Obama hold about a percentage point lead over McCain. Gov. Ed Rendell could prove useful as a running mate for either Democrat in that scenario and former Sen. Rick Santorum fits the profile of the a possible McCain running mate (Well, if age was the only balancing consideration.).

: (Obama, Clinton): If you focus just on the polls from February 2008, then the results are a wash. Clinton would have a two point advantage while Obama and McCain are tied. Ohio is a swing state, regardless of which Democratic candidate emerges.

Oregon: (Obama, Clinton): Like Pennsylvania, Oregon is a state where McCain being the GOP nominee may actually benefit the Republicans. Oregon has been with the Democrats in general elections since 1988. Of course, that only holds if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. McCain has a five point edge over her in Oregon but trails Obama by eight points; a margin twice what Kerry's was over Bush in 2004.

The tally: In the six swing states represented, four give Obama an advantage over Clinton and the two others are virtual ties between the two and McCain.

Blue States:
California: (Obama, Clinton): There really isn't a need to dwell on California for too long. It is a blue state and these poll numbers show that. Ironically, Obama has a larger margin against McCain than Clinton does in the Golden state despite losing the state's primary to her on February 5.

New Jersey: (Obama, Clinton): Both Democrats lead McCain by about the same margin that Kerry beat Bush in the state in 2004. This is a Democratic state unless the leading indicators point to a Republican lean in any given cycle. 2008 is not that cycle for the Republicans (though the Bush folks focused some on New Jersey down the stretch in 2004).

New York: (Obama, Clinton): The surprise here is that Obama does better in Clinton's "home state" than she does against McCain. Across the two post-Super Tuesday polls, his lead is fourteen points to her nine over McCain. In the end New York will be in the Democratic column.

The tally: These three states are part of the Democratic electoral bedrock, and none give either candidate a significant advantage. The Democratic nominee will be in good shape in November no matter which candidate is settled upon.

Red States:
: (Obama, Clinton): Alabama was a red state and given these numbers will likely stay red. Whether the Democratic nominee is Obama or Clinton doesn't seem to have an effect. One note to make is that Alabama is the one state on this list that falls into the heavily African American hypothesis discussed above. It seems to drive home that perception.

Kansas: (Obama, Clinton): Kansas is a red state where Obama could make a push. Both Democrats trail McCain in these early polls, but the margin between Obama and McCain is much smaller than the one between Clinton and McCain. One of the hot names on the speculative VP list for Obama is Kansas governor, Kathleen Sebelius. With Obama's Kansas roots (or his mother's) and her on the ticket, that six point margin could quickly dissipate. Do the state's six electoral votes really net the Democrats anything though? I suppose that depends on how close the election is.

Virginia: (Obama, Clinton): Like Kansas, Virginia is a solidly red state (at least on the presidential level), where Obama could make some waves. He and McCain are neck and neck while McCain leads Clinton comfortably. The VP choice could be key to hypothetically putting an Obama-led Democratic party over the top in a state like Virginia. This is why we hear Gov. Tim Kaine's and Sen. Jim Webb's names mentioned in relation to Obama. And with thirteen electoral votes at stake, that could prove a real steal for the Democrats.

The tally: Here's the real question: Does Obama potentially bring red states into the electoral equation for Democrats in the fall. In this rather unscientific analysis, he does seem to bring something to the table in two of the three states represented. Virginia has been circled by Democrats since Tim Kaine's gubernatorial win there in 2005 and Jim Webb's ousting of George Allen in the 2006 midterms. Kansas, on the other hand, is intriguing. The margin is enough that a Kansan on the ticket could mean something. The reason Sebelius is governor is because the Republican party in Kansas is split between moderate and conservative factions. Can those conservatives "hold their noses" and vote for McCain? That is the question and why Kansas is a state the Dems could pick off.

Overall, what do we see from this? Obama is helpful in swing states and may be able to pick some spots in red states that could swing some of those into the Democratic column in November. In blue states however, it really doesn't matter. "Give me a Democrat and I'll vote for them" could almost be the mantra.


Robert said...

Thanks. This is great analysis. It puts the race into much clearer perspective. The problem with polls at this time is that McCain and Obama have not really received the scrutiny that Clinton and Romney received. The scrutiny of McCain has already escalated, and it will for Obama if and when he becomes the presumptive nominee. I found Grover Norquist’s remarks on NPR this morning about McCain's rise to be very interesting. He claims that McCain played dead for a year which led to greater scrutiny of the other candidates. As they all fell by the wayside, McCain was the last person left standing.

Josh Putnam said...

Darn. I meant to turn in for that Norquist interview. I heard Beck yesterday, but wasn't near a radio today.

Weird. That link didn't work for me (even though the address is the same as the one I found on NPR's site). Let's see if this works.

Josh Putnam said...

Ah, I figured it out. Somehow "https://www.blogger.com/" got appended to that NPR link.