Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2008 vs. 2004, Part I: What Things Would Have Looked Like 4 Years Ago This Time

Just last week, Alan Abramowitz posted on Sabato's Crystal Ball an examination of how the 2004 presidential race looked in early August. I've been sitting on the state polling data from 2004 for most of the summer, but have yet incorporate it in this forum. I don't particularly like to jump on a bandwagon, but if I've got to follow someone, Abramowitz is a good person to follow up on. His focus was primarily on polling from the national perspective, so an investigation from the state level dovetails nicely with that and augments our understanding of the overlapping dynamics in both races as well as their differences.

In this first part, I want to treat 2004 as if it was the election FHQ was currently examining twice every week. To put it slightly differently, this post applies both the format and methodology of the electoral college projection posts to the state level polling of 2004. Given polling conducted prior to August 12, 2004, what did things look like on August 13 four years ago? Which states were in play? Who held an advantage in the electoral college?
[Click Map to Enlarge]

In the aggregate at least, the Bush-Kerry race looks an awful lot like McCain-Obama does now. Four years ago, Kerry would have held a 44 electoral vote lead over George W. Bush. Over the course of the summer, Barack Obama has had a 298-240 electoral vote edge over John McCain. Notably, Florida and Ohio have switched places in the interim: Florida turning pink and Ohio going light blue. Like Ohio since 2004, Colorado and Nevada have gone blue as well. Other than those four states -- all of which remain toss up states in 2008 -- everything is exactly as it was four years ago.

So should John McCain be feeling pretty good about his position in the 2008 race?

Well, yes and no. It is true that the numbers look eerily similar [Democrats are getting that nervous feeling again.] to the ones in 2004. However, there's more to it than just reds and blues on a map. If we shift our focus to the Electoral College Spectrum, we can get a better idea of exactly how intensely red or blue those states were (ranked from most Democratic to most Republican). This is where the two races look totally different. Bush had at least a 5 point lead (lean or strong states) over Kerry in 22 states with 187 electoral votes. McCain on the other hand isn't as strong overall with strong and lean states (19 of them) totalling 157 electoral votes. In a tight race 30 electoral votes is a big difference. On the flip side, John Kerry's strong and lean state electoral vote tally summed to 198, whereas Obama's total of similar states adds up to 222. From 2004 to 2008, then, the intensity has shifted from the right to the left. But primary season really already told us that. Higher turnout for and a higher number of new registrants participating in the 2008 Democratic primaries are fairly good indicators of that.

The Electoral College Spectrum*
*Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
**The numbers in the parentheses refer to the number of electoral votes a candidate would have if he won all the states ranked prior to that state. If, for example, Bush won all the states up to and including New Hampshire (all Kerry's toss up states, but Michigan), he would have 323 electoral votes. Both candidates numbers are only totaled through their rival's toss up states. In those cases, Kerry's number is on the left and Bush's is on the right in italics.

***Florida is the state where Kerry crosses (or Bush would cross) the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidential election. That state is referred to as the victory line

As always, these presidential races come down to what happens in those states competitive enough to be considered swing states. In mid-August of 2004, John Kerry needed every last one of those states in shades of blue and Florida to even hypothetically cross over 270 electoral votes. 2008 and 2004 differ on the spectrum in the fact that in 2008, Barack Obama's toss up states push the partisan line beyond the victory line. The Illinois senator has two states in Nevada and Ohio that he could cede to McCain and still top 270 electoral votes. Kerry's lead in 2004 was much more tenuous. The junior senator from Massachusetts didn't have a similar cushion. In fact, four years ago, the partisan line and the victory line would have converged on Florida. All Bush had to do then was to swing the Sunshine state a little less than a percentage point and the election would have been his. As it turned out, he just had to show up in the state during a hurricane season that ravaged the Florida coast to accomplish that. Sure, both Ohio and Nevada were close enough to have been put on the mid-August Watch List in 2004. And Bush certainly had to work to keep the Buckeye state from turning blue.

The Watch List*
Arizonafrom Bush lean
to Toss Up Bush
Floridafrom Toss Up Kerry
to Toss Up Bush
Michiganfrom Toss Up Kerryto Kerry lean
Minnesotafrom Kerry leanto Toss Up Kerry
Nevadafrom Toss Up Bush
to Toss Up Kerry
New Hampshire
from Toss Up Kerryto Kerry lean
New Mexico
from Kerry leanto Toss Up Kerry
Ohiofrom Toss Up Bush
to Toss Up Kerry
South Carolina
from Strong Bush
to Bush lean
from Bush lean
to Toss Up Bush
*Weighted Average within a fraction of a point of changing categories.

As you look at the Watch List, you'll note that seven of the ten states were on lines that would have put them close to switching in Kerry's direction. Part II will show that those shift didn't come to fruition for Kerry and that something entirely different happened between August and November 2004.

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Spectrum

The Electoral College Map (8/10/08)

On VP Announcement Timing and Graphic Naming -- Some Housekeeping


Robert said...

This is great. A comparison of the 2004 and 2008 trends will add depth to an understanding of how the two elections develop(ed). I watched Hacking Democracy from Netflix last night. Paranoid Democrats will love it. Its major premise is that Diebold delivered Ohio for Bush in 2004.

Anonymous said...

Oh, everyone knows Ken Blackwell took care of that.

Robert said...

This one focuses more on the dangers of electronic voting.

Looking at the latest national polls in RCP it appears that McCain has lost his bounce from Obama's trip abroad. He is back to where he was two weeks ago.

Jack said...

Were you being sarcastic there, Josh? Because there were some irregularities in Ohio, though I don't blame Blackwell for all of them.

Anonymous said...

That was, in fact, sarcasm. It just never works in email or comment form (not without context or an idea of the person's sense of humor at least).

Jack said...

Well, I was able to detect it. But it really does nobody any good for me to argue with you over irregularities in Ohio four years ago. You do a great job with this site; keep it up.

Anonymous said...

This really isn't an argument. Ohio was a mess four years ago, had issues in March and if it is as close as it looks like it will be, will likely have issues in November. It would be nice if we could make it through a presidential election and not have the decisive state's result challenged or questioned. That would do wonders for the next president, whoever it is.

Oh, Jack, thanks for the kind words over at 270toWin. I've actually been talking with them back and forth today about the methodology behind these electoral college projections.

Jack said...

How do you know that wasn't some other Jack there?

I've had some correspondence with the 270towin people. For the Senate map they just use the projections of one group - Cook, I think. For the presidential, they just use some combination of polling data and gut feeling, so there's no particular scientific methodology.

I mostly use 270towin for its very convenient map, which is its most valuable feature. The ability to quickly examine different possible scenarios is very useful. If they improve their methodology for deciding what is and isn't a swing state, the site will be even better.

Anonymous said...

There can't be too many Jacks out there who would admit to being frequent commenters over here.

The map is awesome over at 270toWin. We were actually having a discussion focused on their methods. The way it sounds, they are trying to address some of the issues you have. Their approach to it didn't sound too "gut reaction" to me, so that bodes well. I've been over there in the past but I haven't followed their projections all that closely. Ugh, I spend enough time on mine sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Oh and Rob, speaking of hijacking, I completely pooh-poohed your comment. That's actually a film I've been wanting to see, but hadn't gotten around to yet. Perhaps after the election.

There are actually several Ohio 2004 based documentaries out there. So Goes the Nation is also a good one.