Monday, August 04, 2008
Why isn't Obama leading?
Of course, were McCain not weak, his campaign strategists would not be trying to base an argument on how strong Obama is. In 2004, the Bush campaign attacked Kerry directly and via surrogates, and had strict message discipline about Bush's own inevitability (a similar confident stance by Obama today is characterized as "arrogant" by the right-wing today). In contrast, Kerry attempted to concern troll Bush by asking (more legitimately than McCain does now) why Bush's lead, as an incumbent wartime president, was not significant1.
In fact, McCain's entire strategy hinges on tearing Obama down - and his campaign manager, Steve Schmidt, has inherited his mentor Karl Rove's philosophy of attacking the opponent's strengths. In this case, it is Obama's celebrity, which McCain's team is trying to turn into a liability (by comparing him to Britney Spears). This is a desperation tactic.
Rebutting the specific argument that Obama is not faring well in the polls is trivial; for one thing, simply look at the polls. Despite the dogged determination of the mainstream media to deny it, Obama has enjoyed a significant bounce since his triumphant world tour (during which the McCain campaign made an almost comical succession of nonsensical arguments and silly attempts at stealing the spotlight).
But what about the actual numbers? Most observers who buy into the "Obama isn't winning by enough" alarmism are looking at the RCP average. which is a straight average of all available polls. This is essentially meaningless because an average will treat outliers as valid and has no statistically significant predictive value. The fact that RCP is a political website with strong conservative biases, and no actual credentials in poll analysis, should also be taken into account when assessing their choice of methodology.
If instead you look at Pollster.com, run by Charles Franklin, who is a legitimate professor of political science, you will find a very different picture emerge. This is because the methodology he uses is a far more legitimate one:
In most cases, the numbers are not an "average" but rather regression based trendlines. The specific methodology depends on the number of polls available.
* If we have at least 8 public polls, we fit a trend line to the dots represented by each poll using a "Loess" iterative locally weighted least squares regression.
* If we have between 4 and 7 polls, we fit a linear regression trend line (a straight line) to best fit the points.
* If we have 3 polls or fewer, we calculate a simple average of the available surveys.
Franklin explains the reasoning behind why this is a more accurate means of characterizing the trend of a campaign rather than using the clumsy average:
Here is a way to think about this: suppose the last 5 polls in a race are 25, 27, 29, 31 and 33. Which is a better estimate of where the race stands today? 29 (the mean) or 33 (the local trend)? Since support has risen by 2 points in each successive poll, our estimator will say the trend is currently 33%, not the 29% the polls averaged over the past 2 or 3 weeks during which the last 5 polls were taken. Of course real data are more noisy than my example, so we have to fit the trend in a more complicated way than the example, but the logic is the same. Our trend estimates are local regression predictions, not simple averaging. If the data have been flat for a while, the trend and the mean will be quite close to each other. But if the polls are moving consistently either up or down, the trend estimate will be a better estimate of opinion as of today while the simple average will be an estimate of where the race was some 3 polls ago (for a 5 poll average-- longer ago as more polls are included in the average.)
Mark Blumenthal, another experienced pollster at Pollster.com, directly addresses the difference between their analysis and RCP:
Readers frequently ask how our estimates differ from the averages that appear on RealClearPolitics. Their method comes closest to the last-5-poll average, although they vary the number of polls in their average on any given day depending on the timing and frequency of recent surveys. Vive la difference!
It should be noted that Pollster.com is not the only game in town for serious poll analysis. The other site to keep an eye on is FiveThirtyEight.com, which uses a more complex model that also takes voter demographics into account.
Despite all this, it is certainly true that Obama does not enjoy a lead over McCain on the order of 10 points or more. But does that represent "under-performing" by Obama? Nate Silver, founder of 538.com, argues that the reason is structural, given the diversity of the Democratic coalition and the fact that McCain has distanced himself from the conservative Republican brand:
at the time they discontinued their respective presidential bids, Fred Thompson trailed Obama by 12 percentage points, Mitt Romney was behind by 15 and Mike Huckabee by 17. For that matter, a recent poll from Rasmussen Reports showed Obama leading President Bush by 20 percentage points in a hypothetical matchup.
The problem for Obama is not so much that he's underperforming a generic Democrat. It's that he hasn't yet been able to re-brand McCain as a typically conservative Republican.
Of course, this comes at a cost - a disaffected conservative base. Since McCain is not running a 50 state strategy, he is very vulnerable in needing to turn out the base for victory. It's simply not enough to replace conservatives with independent voters. And there are far more self-identifying Democratic voters now than there are Republicans.
It would be unwise to dismiss or underestimate McCain. The very idea that Obama should roll to a cakewalk victory in November is partly an invention of the McCain camp itself, as they try to make their argument about Obama's hidden weaknesses. That the argument is readily embraced by the more fervent Obama supporters is not a surprise, but also of little consequence. However, as long as Obama stays on the right course - tying McCain to Bush, pointing out that McCain is a flip-flopper on every issue - then victory is attainable and there's little reason to panic.
Of course, as Chris Bowers says at OpenLeft, if you're inclined to panic, then that's your prerogative.
 Note that in 2004, the election did turn out to be very close - which is what you woudl expect when both sides pursue a purely GOTV-oriented, swing-state/"battleground" campaign strategy, rather than a genuine 50-state strategy like the one Obama is employing now on the back of the infrastructure put in place by Howard Dean.
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Obama 2008 - I want my country back
Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.