The Horse Race

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

If I were the Obama campaign, I’d be getting pretty worried about recent polling trends. The latest tally now shows him with a razor-thin 275-250 lead in the electoral college. It has Obama winning Indiana, which seems flatly impossible given that Indiana has gone Republican for decades and went for Bush by 21 percent in 2004. Similarly, the map has Virginia a dead heat, but it too has been consistently Republican in recent decades. Northern Virginia is growing, but not that fast. Put Indiana and Virginia in the Republican column and you get a 274-264 win.

Matt Yglesias likes to mock the idea that “only” winning by a thin margin is bad news for Obama, but I think there’s more to the concept than he gives credit for. Obama is a black guy with a funny name and a polarizing pastor. John McCain is a white war hero. There’s plenty of raw material for the Republican smear machine to work with. Political campaigns are not fought with policy briefs and debating points. They’re fought with character assasination and appeals to tribal loyalty. The white war hero has a large, immediate advantage in that kind of competition.

Now, Obama’s an extremely talented politician and a likeable guy, and he may very well find ways to neutralize these kinds of attacks. But I wouldn’t bet on it. His blowout victory in his 2004 Senate race and his relatively genteel race with Hillary Clinton certainly haven’t given him any practice.

So if Obama is barely holding his own now, at a time when McCain is running an incredibly unfocused campaign and before the really vicious smears have come out, he’s going to be in trouble once the McCain campaign gets its act together and the 527s start doing their work. We should remember that at this point in the race John Kerry was predicted to win by an even wider 301-213 margin, without improbable victories in Virginia and Indiana. We know how that one turned out.

Tim Lee

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32 Responses to “The Horse Race”

  1. #1 |  slicky | 

    Isn’t it a tad early to be worried about poll numbers? Let’s have the conventions and debates first. My prediction is once Obama and McCain are on the same stage, people will realize how truly ancient McCain is and Obama be more willing to take a chance on Obama.

  2. #2 |  Gary | 

    I think Obama is holding back and saving his money for now. I suspect he’s counting on:

    1) The convention to unite the Dems.

    2) McCain not being able to compete money-wise once he’s constrained by spending limits.

    Obama holds back now and lets McCain spend his cash (which, in a relative sense is not being spent at an optimal time so far before the election and especially while folks are watching the Olympics), and then once McCain has to watch his spending closer Obama will go all out. IMO.

  3. #3 |  Nando | 

    It’s pretty sad that McCain has to spend so much money on trying to win Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Indiana. States he should either win comfortably or at least not have to focus on so much.

    As it stands right now, he’s either trailing in these states or leading by less than the margin of error (meaning it’s a statistical dead heat). When was the last time a Republican lost VA or MT? Hell, even ND and SD are barely in the McCain column. Consider that he’s limited by the campaign finance laws that he co-sponsored and you see where Obama has an advantage.

    Kerry was barely eeked out by Bush (thanks to Ohio), but Obama is a much stronger candidate than Kerry while McCain is (unbelievably) a worse candidate than GWB was four years ago! Now, when you include Indiana (Illinois’ neighbor), Iowa, and New Mexico (thanks to Bill Richardson) are also favoring Obama, those 23 ECVs more than make up for the 20 that McCain might pick back up if he takes Ohio (the Key swing state in the 2004 elections).

    So, if every state that was blue four years ago stays blue (and McCain still hasn’t picked one up yet) and IA, IN, and NM turn blue, Obama wins by a single electoral vote. That puts the pressure on McCain, if you ask me, especially with NC, VA, OH, and FL so close.

  4. #4 |  Nando | 

    Oh, and we also have to mention that Obama will definitely pick up Virginia if he picks Tim Kaine as his veep. That’s one reason I think he should take the place above Biden.

  5. #5 |  Buck | 

    Never have understood the war hero meme.

    But he is white and that alone gives him a substantial advantage in polling.

    I predict what I call the “Obama Effect” which is the reverse of the “Bradley Effect”

    I think a lot of folks who would never own up to it in mixed company are going to vote for Obama when they know nobody is lookin’.

    It would be sweet for McCain to go into election night 5 points up and lose by 5 because of the Obama Effect.

  6. #6 |  Michael Pack | 

    Voting for McCain insures one thing.Split government.Obama has very strong socialist leanings as do many democrats.McCain has faults that are just as bad.Having these two groups fighting and doing little is the best we can hope for.

  7. #7 |  MSC | 

    We are about to see a presidential race in which one side has a decided money advantage. McCain is running a lot of ads now, but what we’ll he do when Obama has bought up all of the networks in all of the key states?

    And there is absolutely no comparison in terms of the ground game. Obama has something like 30 offices open in VA, McCain may have 5.

  8. #8 |  David McElroy | 

    I don’t like either of the major candidates, so I don’t have a dog in their fight. However, referring to “the Republican smear machine” sort of implies that smearing is unique to Republicans. Just about everybody in politics smears someone. Republicans smear Democrats. Democrats smear Republicans. Either side smears Libertarians in those rare cases when the LP matters marginally in a race. Inside the LP, various factions smear each other. It’s just human nature. When people oppose others, they’re going to see the worst in them and they’re going to “fill in the blanks” with the worst possible things they can imagine. There’s nothing uniquely Republican about smearing. Just look at the things Democrats made up about Republicans stealing votes after the 2004 election. It’s universal.

  9. #9 |  Tim Lee | 

    David, I don’t disagree with you, but I think that in recent elections, the Republican smear machine has been more aggressive and effective than the Democratic one. It wasn’t always so. Bill Clinton’s efforts to link Newt Gingrich to Timothy McVeigh was more vicious than anything the Republicans did during that cycle, for example. But recent Democratic leaders haven’t had Clinton’s (or Bush’s) ruthlessness.

  10. #10 |  Phelps | 

    Under the campaign finance laws for public money, McCain isn’t subject to the spending cap until he is actually nominated. He has more money than he would be able to spend under the cap, so he either spends that money now or loses it.

    That’s why he is spending now.

    BTW, any campaign strategy based on completely reversing prior trends is made of fail. Increasing turnout to win=FAIL. Youth vote=FAIL. Reversing the Bradley effect=FAIL. This system has been evolving for over 200 years, and is pretty robust now. Big changes all of the sudden aren’t going to happen.

  11. #11 |  David McElroy | 

    Tim, maybe we see it differently because you seem to be looking at the Republican vs. Democrat thing (on this issue) just through the lens of presidential races. I work in politics, so I see it at every level. At the local, state and congressional level, there’s no difference. There is a collective Republican smear machine, but there’s also a very effective Democratic smear machine. Even though you were discussing the presidential race, I just think it’s misleading to use the phrase, because it implies you see the Republicans as uniquely the “smearers.” The truth, though, is that the Republicans have simply been more effective in getting their smears to stick in recent campaigns. Democrats have tried it, just ineptly. It was just a minor point, but I thought the phrase colored your argument into looking more like a general anti-Republican slam — something more suited to the Huffington Post, I suppose. :-)

  12. #12 |  Buck | 

    “Big changes all of the sudden aren’t going to happen.”

    We’ll see come election time.

    And I think McCain would probably fight less with a Democratic congress than Obama would. McCain is good buddies with all of them and has been for years.

    The idea of split government is a good one. But when you really look at it you realize that there is not enough difference in the two parties to make a difference.

    With McCain you get guaranteed war.

    With Obama there is an outside chance of Universal Health Care.

    It was a tough choice, but I have made mine.

  13. #13 |  Mojotron3000 | 

    “The truth, though, is that the Republicans have simply been more effective in getting their smears to stick in recent campaigns.”

    Indeed- just look at the “Obama=socialist” meme cropping up everywhere now.

  14. #14 |  The_Chef | 

    Mojotron3000 | August 19th, 2008 at 4:36 pm
    …just look at the “Obama=socialist” meme cropping up everywhere now.

    Obama does = socialist, he’s as much admitted it!

    The problem is that McCain isn’t really any better and Bob Barr is not really a Libertarian. *sigh* Looks like I’m voting for Michael Phelps this year.

  15. #15 |  wunder | 

    # 12
    i don’t see how mccain with a majority demo congress = “guaranteed” war. and obama with a demo congress i think gets more of a shot at universal hc than “outside”.

  16. #16 |  Mark Z. | 

    Michael Pack–

    What is this, 1995? At the moment we need a President who can actually get some stuff done–starting with getting us out of Iraq and indicting a whole bunch of guys from the Bush cabal. “Yay gridlock!” was a much better plan back when the status quo didn’t suck.

    (Not saying Obama will fix anything–it’s impossible to tell whether he’s playing to the center or, like every other Senator, terrified of crossing Dick Cheney and getting voodoo-cursed. Still, (1) he might actually win, and candidates who lose don’t fix anything, and (2) Change You Can Suspend Your Disbelief In is still a hell of a lot better than John “I was tortured for my country, and now it’s your turn” McCain.)

  17. #17 |  Michael Pack | 

    Mark Z,I don’t see where inditing people in the previous change we can believe in.Obama is promising things we can’t pay for and ‘windfall oil tax’ is from 1977 or so.It didn’t work then and won’t now.National health care is socialism at it’s core.McCain has shown little respect for the first amendment and tends to punish people he dislikes through legislation.They both support the war on drugs ,yet Obama and McCain’s wife broke those very same laws.Divided government is the only way to control the worst tendencies of both parties.

  18. #18 |  scared stiff | 

    John “I was tortured for my country, and now it’s your turn” McCain.


  19. #19 |  Tokin42 | 

    Tims post is an example of what I’ve been saying (and repeating as often as possible)…Obama is going to lose this election due to the lack of white DEMOCRAT voters but it will be the republicans who are labeled the racist party. We’ll have to listen for months about what a racist nation this is otherwise Obama would have won.

  20. #20 |  susan | 

    The real issue is not how well Obama or McCain might do in the closely divided battleground states, but that we shouldn’t have battleground states and spectator states in the first place. Every vote in every state should be politically relevant in a presidential election. And, every vote should be equal. We should have a national popular vote for President in which the White House goes to the candidate who gets the most popular votes in all 50 states.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral vote — that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Because of state-by-state enacted rules for winner-take-all awarding of their electoral votes, recent candidates with limited funds have concentrated their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. In 2004 two-thirds of the visits and money were focused in just six states; 88% on 9 states, and 99% of the money went to just 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential election.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  21. #21 |  David McElroy | 

    Having a national popular vote would also guarantee that a candidate could pander to a few big urban areas and ignore the rest of the country. It’s amazing that people don’t understand the reason why the Electoral College is actually a pretty smart idea. As it is, the closer a state is divided between the two candidates, the more resources are spend there. It’s much better than the alternative proposed by a national popular vote.

  22. #22 |  David Bilek | 

    Tim – I’m a little concerned at how some of McCain’s more ridiculous attacks (celebrity? really?) seem to be moving the numbers a little. But just looking at the numbers is misleading; McCain is spending like a drunken sailor on TV advertisement. Obama is spending less on TV ads and hugely on establishing an unprecedented ground organization. The poll numbers don’t pick up on that at all.

    It takes longer to get your ground organization going than it does to slap out some negative ads to move the general numbers. Obama is going to have a large advantage in that department. Now, if McCain keeps slapping him around without much of a response and gets a 5-6 point lead going into the election all the ground game in the world isn’t going to matter.

    But the ad spending will change in September and October. Obama will start outspending McCain on ads while still maintaining his huge advantage in ground organization. If McCain is only about tied he’ll get destroyed on election day.

    That’s the theory anyway. Historically speaking they have a word for people who depend on getting out the youth and black vote against someone who goes for the really old white dude vote. That word is “loser”. So we’ll see.

  23. #23 |  Buck | 


    McCain will be a war president. He knows war. He knows how to win wars. Does he know anything else? We are all Georgians now. Remember?

    The guy is the most openly and unashamedly bellicose individual I have ever seen run for President.

    “Obama is going to lose this election due to the lack of white DEMOCRAT voters”

    I enjoy a good toke as much as the next guy but I cannot wrap my mind around this statement. When you look at total votes cast in the last two presidential elections and look at how they split how can you say there is a lack of white democrat voters? Was it only African Americans and eggheads who voted for Kerry and Gore? Now if you are saying that there are not enough white democrat voters who will vote for a black man that is something else entirely.

    “Historically speaking they have a word for people who depend on getting out the youth and black vote against someone who goes for the really old white dude vote. That word is “loser”. So we’ll see.”

    It will be interesting to see how that turns out. I believe that for the first time the young people and the black people are more inspired than they have been in past elections. As you say, we shall see.

    I can understand why a person would not vote for Obama. But for the life of me I cannot understand why anybody would vote for McCain.

  24. #24 |  James D | 

    McCain’s starting to pull ahead now?

  25. #25 |  Edintally | 

    WTF is up with the comments? Radley leaves and we are inundated with Neocons?

  26. #26 |  James D | 

    Everyone who thinks Obama would be worse for the country is not a Neocon Edintally … the liberals/left-libertarians need to come up with a new catch-all term for people who don’t always agree with them ….

  27. #27 |  Alex | 

    It wasn’t that long ago that liberals liked necons more than paleocons and libertarians, and we could berate them for it. Another reason to dislike Bush.

  28. #28 |  Edintally | 


    Worse for the country compared to what? This president? Please

    Worse for this country compared to the only other major contender who completely supports our current president? Riiiiiiight

    I could care less if you disagree in part with Obama. I just don’t know how you disagree in whole.

    Like someone else said; I can understand the arguments against Obama, but I can’t understand any arguments for McCain.

  29. #29 |  James D | 

    Yes, I think Obama would be worse than Bush, but I admittedly don’t think Bush is as ‘evil’ as most around here. Things could be a lot worse and I’m sorry that the biased media ONLY pushes the bad stories. If Obama (who will have no opposition with the majority of Congress being Democrats) does anything wrong, I’m sure the media will keep pretty quiet on it (just like Clinton got away with a lot). The targeted demonizing of this president is like nothing that has ever been seen before and will ever again, unless McCain wins … then they’ll try to outdo what they did to Bush.

    My post didn’t say anything about you having the right to think Obama or McCain was better. I’m just tired of hearing that anyone who doesn’t agree that Republicans are worse than Democrats is a ‘Neocon’. It’s a tired, old, pointless label and really only applies to a few people.

  30. #30 |  Edintally | 

    You know what else is tired?

    Pulling the Clinton card after 8 yrs of Bush. Clinton got his dick sucked and lied about it.

    Bush has at minimum 10 impeachable offenses and as many as 35. Don’t blame the Media! Man talk about tired. Bush fucks up, it gets reported and the media is to blame?! Come on man, you can do much better than that, can’t you?

    It’s possible that Obama will be worse than Bush, BUT ONLY IF HE TRIES REALLY FUCKING HARD.

  31. #31 |  James D | 

    You’re obviously a product of this media, congratulations. If you actually believe he has done something impeachable …. go buy a tin foil hat.

  32. #32 |  Edintally | 

    Good argument. Bravo