Saturday, October 25, 2008

Early Voting and McCain's Home-Stretch Strategy

In the comments section this morning, SarahLawrenceScott brought up what I think is a major reason or why we are seeing what we are seeing from the McCain campaign from a strategic standpoint lately. Why let it come out that you are potentially pulling out of Colorado? Well, for starters, it telegraphs where they are focusing, or have to focus: Pennsylvania. But why target Pennsylvania instead of Colorado? The latter looks closer now than the former -- at least by FHQ's measure.

Well, here's what Scott had to say:

"I just came up with what I think may be the explanation for a lot of what seems to be irrational behavior by the McCain campaign in their choice of states to allocate resources to.

Think, for a moment, what is the most likely victory scenario for McCain in terms of electoral votes. Just move up the Electoral College Spectrum until you get to 270?

No. The problem is that some of those states have already voted in large numbers. For McCain to win, he has to have the state of the race change nationally. But if that change occurs late (say, something equivalent to the Bin Laden tape of 2004 the weekend before the election), then its effect is tempered in early voting states.

Here's the map of states with early voting:

[Click Map to Enlarge]

McCain's best chance of winning is to get some of the states on Obama's side of the partisan line that don't have early voting.

Those are:

MN, WI, VA, MI, DE, PA, NY, CT, RI, MA, and NH.

Start by throwing out the deepest of the blue states. Now we've got, in reverse order of their position on the spectrum,

VA, NH, MI, PA, WI, and MN.

Looks an awful lot like where McCain is concentrating his resources, doesn't it?

The one exception there is Michigan. And if they're actually thinking things through (which I admit doesn't seem to be the case), then in the event of one more game-changer they can sweep into Michigan and try to launch a surprise attack of sorts. McCain has enough resources to do that in one largish state, and in the mean time he can save money and resources by leaving it off the list.

The other mystery is why he seems so fixated on Iowa. That I can't understand.

But at least this explains why the interest in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and even Ohio seems a little tepid. McCain needs to defend his states up through Florida, early voting or no (and thus we do see plenty of activity in North Carolina and Florida). That brings him to 227. Assume a major game-changer in the last week. He now adds the non-early-voting states of Virginia, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. He's at 265. McCain now wins if he can somehow pick off Nevada or Ohio (early voting, but pretty close), or Michigan (no early voting, but would need a last minute blitz).

It's a long shot, but that's the point. To win, McCain has to assume something crazy goes his way, and then be ready to capitalize on it if it does. Going after Pennsylvania, rather than the western states, is the best way to do that.

So the football analogy is no longer the hail Mary pass. Now it's down by 16 with under a minute to go and no time outs. If you can score a touchdown, the plan is clearly to go for a two point conversion. Not because that's the high percentage play--in fact, it's likely to make the defeat worse in point terms. But because if lightning strikes (in the analogy, recovering an onside kick), then at least you're poised to take advantage of it.

That's hypothesis one. Hypothesis two is that they're just clueless."

This is the exact same conclusion we came to yesterday in our weekly campaign discussion group meeting. I absolutely reject the notion that the typically top-notch campaign strategists the GOP has in its fold are clueless. They just don't have a favorable political climate in which to operate and that makes message consistency that much more difficult. We have to look no further than four years ago to see a similar contrast in message consistency. John Kerry never to did find the proper balance on how to deal with the Iraq war just as McCain has been back-peddling since the economic crisis hit. As Scott says, an early voting strategy is a long shot, but if the polls we have seen lately are accurate, then that is all the McCain campaign really has.

Good stuff, Scott. Thanks. I should also extend a thank you to Rich Clark who brought this to my attention yesterday.

Credit where credit is due: The map comes to us courtesy of Wikipedia (plus some FHQ alterations).

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (10/25/08)

The Electoral College Map (10/24/08)

While You Wait for the New Map, Here's a...Map


Jack said...

You just liked Scott's idea because it gave you an excuse to put up a map.

I will now contend that McCain likes to campaign in states where people are shorter, because Obama is taller than him. Why don't you get yourself some data on that and put up a map to see if that fits?

(No offense, Scott. I'm not mocking your idea. It was logical, even if I don't quite think it justifies McCain's campaign's decisions.)

Anonymous said...


Save yourself the trouble of trying to understand the McCain campaign.

I would like to think that the vast majority of early voters are people who are 100% certain they support their candidate. While it's obviously an advantage to have them in the bag, it can't possibly be such an advantage that it's worth giving up a state that's polling relatively close in favor of a state in which you're 15 points down.

Also, the Iowa thing, as well as so much more, supports Hypothesis Two.

Anonymous said...

I certainly can't argue your map point, Jack. That's more than accurate.

Robert said...


It is the only thing that seems to make sense. Thanks.

Unknown said...

It might also be that McCain has possibly been losing ground with Hispanic voters which could be hurting his chances in NM, CO & NV. Demographics might then explain the focus on IA and PA.

"Even more interesting than the headline, however, are the internal numbers. McCain is doing just as well as he was before with whites, but he has absolutely cratered among Hispanics..."

Unknown said...

Or maybe just demographic changes in the west are hurting McCain's changes:

How the West Was Lost

"Why is McCain performing so poorly in his own backyard? In part, he is fighting a Sisyphean battle against the demographic changes in the region. The Census Bureau measures how many people migrate into each state each year. In 2006, half of the top ten fastest-growing states were in the West, ranging from Nevada (3.5 percent) to Colorado (1.9 percent). These new residents generally fall into one of two categories: college-educated white folks from the coasts looking for cheaper housing, better schools, or a higher quality of life--or, Latinos. Both groups are quite friendly to Democrats."

So maybe fighting for PA might be the safer option.

Jack said...

Nate Silver submitted his own McCain strategy today. (I'm linking to his FiveThirtyEight post; I will not stoop to the level of linking to the New York Post). I'm basically in agreement with him except I might add NC to the gamble category.

I'm starting to warm to the idea of early voting playing a significant factor for the reasons Scott mentioned. But there also might be cases where early voting requires McCain to make more of an investment. Take these two postulates:

(1)Ohio is a must-win for McCain.
(2)Early voting helps Obama.

These seem to be true. McCain's not going to somehow lose OH and win PA. So while Ohio might be a little more Republican than other states (strong Republican ground game, for example) which meets the criteria for a gamble state, this is offset by the presence of early voting. Yes, NC has early voting too, but I see that state as being more favorable to McCain than OH and therefore worth being placed in that "gamble" category.

Anonymous said...

Here are those links from Anthony:

Daily Kos


Nate Silver via The New Republic.

I think the Hispanic growth in the region is certainly part of the equation, Anthony. The geographic "L" that the GOP has held down for years from the Mountain West into the Southeast is going to be flanked to the west by a bluer "L" that stretches from Washington down to California (that's nothing new) and east from there to include Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

And there has certainly been a lot of talk about the projected four seats it looks like Texas will get following the 2010 Census. The assumption all along has been that the red will get redder, but that growth is going to be driven by primarily by a continued Hispanic in-migration. And while Hispanic voters are not nearly as monolithic as African American voters, they still break for the Democratic Party.

But this is an interesting, if unsaid, part of the discussion we had the other day concerning the Bradley effect and it is what separates the whiter states like Pennsylvania and Colorado from each other. While Colorado is the whiter of the two, the equation is different because of the Hispanic population in Colorado.

Thanks for the links, Anthony.

Anonymous said...

Agreed Jack. My gut tells me that North Carolina fits better with that Indiana, Missouri and Florida group than the Virginia, Ohio, Nevada group.

If the Spectrum is any guide, Florida and North Carolina should perhaps switch places.

I have a follow up on North Carolina that I hope to fit in tomorrow. I heard back from Charles Prysby and his comments I think will fit in nicely with this discussion. Your mention of the comparison between North Carolina and Ohio is particularly pertinent.

Unknown said...

Also one last point about CO and early voting. It appears that early voting in CO has been somewhat favorable to McCain (breaking even), unlike other battleground states. If McCain was motivated by a possible Democratic early voting advantage to pull out of CO, it doesn't seem to make sense. Currently, McCain is running almost even with reduced ad spending with a more forceful push McCain might be running ahead in CO early voting.


"The early voting trend is about even in Colorado."

but voting is starting to close up


"State officials said Friday that 219,000 Democrats have cast their ballots, compared with 215,000 Republicans and 131,000 unaffiliated voters.

Those totals represent 20.8 percent of registered Democrats, 20.2 percent of registered Republicans and 12.2 percent of unaffiliated voters."

Unknown said...

Anthony--the party ID of who votes early is only part of the problem for McCain with early voting. As Jack suggested, a lot of the Democrats and Repbulicans will vote the way they vote, whether they're early or not.

But how do you think those 131,000 independents voted?

Now assume that some blockbuster news comes out next weekend; something that causes the 5% of people who are "soft" supporters of Obama to switch, and 90% of undecideds to go to McCain. Under that scenario, a lot of those 131,000 might have switched their vote, but it will have been too late.

I've run the numbers--using the "right" set of assumptions about a last-minute game-changer, Obama still wins Colorado, but loses Pennsylvania.

Robert said...

Zogby's tracking polls has the race tightening nationally suggesting that the early voting could make a real difference.

Unknown said...

Robert--as Nate Silver has pointed out, Zogby uses party ID weighting from 2004. That causes his tracking polls to vary in ways not seen in other polls. There's no apparent tightening yet when you look at overall averages.

Anonymous said...

And was McCain ever pushing those Zogby numbers on Meet the Press this morning.

Here are those Zogby numbers from Rob.

And here are those Colorado links from Anthony:

USA Today

The Examiner

Robert said...

I have been following the Zogby polls and they seem to precede changes in other polls be about 2 days.

Anonymous said...

As you've said Rob, Zogby was about the closest to right (at the end) of any of the pollsters four years ago.

Unknown said...

Wow. Was somewhat skeptical about the early voter model for McCain's behavior but it appears to have some teeth.

"Barack Obama's already just about won the race for President in Colorado.

65% of the folks we surveyed said they had already voted, and among those respondents Obama is winning 58-41. Folks planning to vote on election day support John McCain 50-47, bringing Obama's overall lead down to ten points...That means out of the remaining folks Obama would only need 251 out of their 717 votes, or 35%. Since 47% say they intend to vote for Obama it seems like a safe bet that he'll get there."

Really thought it was Southwest demographics, McCain was unsure about (otherwise could not figure out why he kept campaigning in Iowa and Pennsylvania instead) but it appears he really has an early voting problem.