Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Got Indiana?

Yesterday, I wondered how perverse it would be for Senator Clinton to win the Democratic nomination in good part because of her appeal among voters who, in a general election against Senator McCain, would just prefer McCain. Some of the comments (when they weren't supposing I was naive or misinformed or something worse) inferred that I was arguing the DNC is irrational for trying to involve less ideologically committed voters in a nominating process. That is not what I argued at all. What I argued is that individual voters are only asked to make a highly constrained choice in our (mostly ordinal) elections and that that is no way to "reveal preferences" or to aggregate them into some kind of "collective will." Moreover, there is good reason to believe that what nominees for President need most is a committed base to whom they will not have to pander or communicate at all in the general election.

So the results are finally in and Senator Clinton won Indiana -- some of it by wide margins. An area with one of the most lopsided margins (70/30), Pike County, makes my point. Pike County is 99.1% white, disproportionately poor, older than normal, under-educated (this is a demographic profile, mind you, and all this means is that most college educated people leave and don't come back) and clearly a place that has suffered in a post-industrial economy. It has about 12,000 people (down from 20,000 in 1900) and about 3,000 of them voted last night. Is this the sort of victory the DNC should pay attention to in picking the nominee? I'm betting there are WAY more registered Republicans there than about 3,000. More importantly, though, virtually no one even puts Indiana in play this fall. Bush/Cheney states in 2004 that could go "blue" this year include Colorado (9 electoral votes), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), and Missouri (11) and they all seem more likely to go for Obama according to people more knowledgeable than I (although even I can fathom the power of popular home state backers like Richardson, McCaskill, Webb and having won those primaries by wide margins).

Thus, when some suppose that Senator Clinton would be a stronger nominee because a few national polls put her further ahead of McCain than Obama, I am, shall we say, floored. Obviously, the general election is still an eternity away, we don't vote for President as a nation, and THERE ARE STILL THREE CANDIDATES BEING PUT UP IN THESE POLLS. Now readers of this blog will all know (thankfully) that the electoral college is what shapes the Presidential race. Getting to 271 is all that matters. George W. Bush proved that twice (and, in his case, it didn't even matter how he got to 271 in one of them (sorry - couldn't resist)).

But before we think the nominating process is anything other than a crude approximation of what it supposedly accomplishes, ask yourself why more Americans voted for GWB in 2004 than for any other President in history. It wasn't because of his popularity or because Bush was a centrist or because he had been nominated in a process designed to get at those two qualities. He was a presumptive nominee of a tightly organized party, running in a year in which the nation was extremely polarized, he and the RNC ran an extremely polarizing campaign in the "swing" states, and Senator Kerry was close in a lot of the polls leading up to the election.

There are plenty of good reasons to want someone with broad appeal to be a party's nominee. But it is exceptionally unlikely you will nominate that person by just opening primaries up to anyone or making the delegate counting "proportional." (Incidentally, Senator Clinton certainly isn't that person. She the kind of politician Chris Matthews idolizes: she has surrounded herself with professionals whose only expertise is in how to exploit the flaws of an ordinal election and those of our mass media-driven electoral process at the national level. They have "sliced and diced" the voters they need by coming up with "winning" strategies like a gas tax holiday, for example.)

Now imagine Senator Clinton trying to run a race that wins the swing states she might even possibly win. Is she really going to campaign to win places like Pike County, IN? That would be a terrifically stupid strategy because it would cost her (in opportunity costs, if nothing else) dearly to have to triangulate her message for so little voter payoff.

Finally, having the nominating contest end swiftly very well could be means/ends rational for a party. More and more of Senator Clinton's voters have been answering in exit polls that they will not vote for Senator Obama should he be the nominee. I can only surmise that that trend line is a function of the primary campaigning - assuming, of course, that these voters are Democrats at all.

Posted by Jamie Colburn


Nathan said...

Why did you leave out the traditional swing states that are already in play like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida? These states aren't a lock to go republican, and are vitally important to carrying a national election.

Also, much of the national polling done on the question of who will fair better in a national election against McCain is done by putting Obama against McCain, and Hillary against McCain. These polls don't involve a confusing three candidates like you implied. Those polls have shown recently, though, that Clinton has a better chance to beat McCain in the fall. And in the big three swing states, the polls are very clear about Clinton having the edge. There might be some new states in play this year, such as Virginia and North Carolina like you mentioned, but I think much of that is wishful thinking (at least with respect to these two states in particular). Politicos thought North Carolina (where I'm from, so I claim to know a little bit about the political dynamics of the state) was in play in 2004 when John Edwards was on the ticket, but the race wasn't even close. I don't expect it to be any different this time. Virginia certainly is a better opportunity, but Jim Webb won a narrow victory there (won by less than .5), and only after the Macaca incident. And Webb is a former republican, and pretty conservative democrat.

Indeed, if the "committed democratic base" isn't actually just the "committed Obama base," won't these voters be willing to support either candidate as the nominee? And if that's the case, then wouldn't it make sense to run a nominee who has a better shot of capturing some of those voters who prefer McCain to Obama? Just because some of those voters who voted for Hillary might still vote for McCain, it doesn't follow that this voting pattern will be rampant.

According to research, which Paul Krugman recently reported about from another Princeton colleague, republicans don't dominate in those poor white counties like you described. The data showed that those areas where split, or actually leaned democrat. Republican dominance is actually in affluent evangelical areas, where they have a huge supermajority.

Jamison Colburn said...

Just to clarify: while the polls ask the fictional question of a head to head, the present reality is that both Clinton and Obama are potential nominees. Why would you suppose the respondent in the poll is so dumb or ignorant as to not take account of the "expressive" value of the exercise, perhaps over and above its predictive value? Also, I left out Florida because of what has happened there in this election cycle, because of how strong McCain is in those very "supermajority areas" nathan describes and how many of them are in Florida, and because there's a very good chance Charlie Crist will be his running mate. On OH and PA, I think the Clinton victory exactly proves the point. The part of those states that vote Democratic went mostly for Obama, some by significant margins. Before I'm misunderstood again, I do not mean that Senator Clinton has no appeal with some traditional Democratic voters. She clearly does. I'm just not so sure it's for the right reason (this year, "electability" is starting to sound more and more like code for racism) or that the voters she brings in will be strategically good for the Democratic party in the general election.

Nathan said...

Why is it necessarily "racism" that is behind the lead Clinton has with working class whites? Just because they aren't voting for the black candidate, doesn't mean they're voting on the basis of race. It seems like Clinton has been vilified as somehow playing racial politics for seeking and receiving support from working class whites, whereas Obama's efforts to secure black voters, which have turned out 9-1 in his favor, haven't received any negative attention? Obama supporters seem to have no trouble accepting the possibility of receiving votes on the basis of race, but then attack Clinton for allegedly pandering to racial bias. I'm not going to suggest that race has played no part in the preference of white working class voters, but I don't think its the only factor at play either.

Maybe having a massive turn out by the democratic base this year will accomplish more than what the turn out by the democratic base accomplished in 2004, but I'm skeptical. Perhaps support will dry up for a disenchanted republican base and they won't turn out in such large numbers for McCain as they did in 2004, and a battle of the bases will go the democrats way.

Sobek said...

"I can only surmise that that trend line is a function of the primary campaigning..."

That's my assumption as well. A few months ago I heard someone describing this election as one where the Republicans hate all their candidates, and the Democrats like all of theirs. I can personally attest that at least some Republicans find McCain so repellent that they are seriously considering voting Dem.

But it seems the description of the Dems is getting less true, as Hillary and Obama are forced to attack each other, and their supporters are increasingly galvanized against one another. The good will could have perhaps been preserved if the contest had ended before the long knives were out.

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