Friday, November 14, 2008

The 2008 Presidential Campaign

The 2008 presidential campaign is now officially part of the history books, and I wanted to take some time to write some reflections and thoughts.

I was intimately involved in this campaign probably more than in any other election year of my adulthood. I became a “poll junkie,” following the polls on a daily basis starting at the end of August, all the way up through election day. Since I felt very strongly about my candidate of choice – Barack Obama – following the polls was a way that I was able to soothe my fears about another Republican presidential victory. I still distinctly remember the depression and gloominess I felt after Bush won in 2000 and 2004, and I dreaded going through that again this year. Since the polls were generally in Obama’s favor throughout the election season, following them made me feel better. Needless to say, I was happy to discover that they ended up being quite accurate in predicting the winner of the election.

In hindsight, I can say that I knew Obama had a significantly good chance of winning the election as far back as mid-September. At that time, Obama already held a lead in enough states to win the 270 electoral votes needed to secure the presidency. He had held those states, in fact, since the time I started following the polls in August. I knew by mid-September, however, that Obama would very likely win the election because of how McCain’s “post-convention bump” played out.

In every presidential election, the candidates generally see a boost in the polls following their respective conventions. This is due primarily to the media attention surrounding each convention. If a candidate does not see a statistically significant boost in the polls following his/her convention, the proverbial shit begins to hit the fan. An insignificant post-convention bump – or worse, no bump at all – is equivalent to a flatline on an EKG machine.

Obama got the kind of post-convention bump that would be expected, so I felt good about that. However, I was troubled, initially, when McCain’s post-convention bump proved to be quite significant – more so than Obama’s had been. McCain’s ratings went up by 6 or 7 percentage points, and in several national polls, McCain actually took a 1-2% lead over Obama – the first time that McCain had led in national polls. This significant boost in the polls was no doubt related to his unprecedented choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate – people were interested in finding out what she was all about, so the media attention was quite large. As a result, McCain’s polling numbers shot up.

However, while it’s true that most candidates see a bump in their favor following their convention, that bump always levels out after a few weeks. 2008 was no different, and within several weeks of the Republican National Convention (which took place about a week after the Democratic National Convention), McCain’s numbers came back down and Obama regained the lead in most national polls.

Despite all of this, however, I knew that Obama had a significant chance of winning simply because of how McCain’s post-convention boost played out. Even at the height of his bump – in mid-September – McCain never overtook Obama’s lead in any of the states that Obama had already been leading in. Recall my earlier statement that as early as August Obama already had enough states polling in his favor to win the electoral vote. Even when McCain’s post-convention bump was at its pinnacle, and he was leading in most national polls, none of those Obama states flipped to McCain. Obama’s lead narrowed in several of those states, but none actually flipped into McCain’s corner. Essentially, McCain’s post-convention bump was felt most strongly in states that were already in McCain’s corner. That was the reason why McCain’s national numbers went up – he simply increased his lead in the states where he was already leading.

When I observed this in the polls, I knew that Obama had a very good chance of winning. If McCain couldn’t flip any blue states to red, even with his significant post-convention bump, then he was going to have a very hard time winning the election. I began saying that unless Obama faltered in the debates, or unless some unforeseen scandal broke in the last weeks of the campaign, Obama was going to win.

A lot of people were worried in the last few weeks about battleground states and the so-called Bradley Effect. The battleground states this year comprised Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Florida (depending on which pundit you were listening to, this list might have been slightly expanded or contracted). However, I felt fairly confident that two of those states were not actually battleground states – Indiana and Pennsylvania. Although Indiana flipped from red to blue in the fallout of the economic crisis, I believed that those numbers were anomalous, and that Indiana would end up going easily for McCain – I predicted a 3 or 4 point victory for McCain there. That proved to be the only state that I was dead wrong about. Indiana, as we know now, went with Obama by about 25,000 votes. That’s statistically very small, but still a far cry from the 3-4 percentage point win that I expected McCain to have.

Pennsylvania was the other battleground state that I did not believe was a battleground state, and I was proven correct on that assumption. Obama’s lead in Pennsylvania was consistently in the 9-10 point range, and never fell significantly below that. I still don’t fully understand why McCain spent so much time, effort, and money there. I suppose he believed that he absolutely had to win Pennsylvania, so it didn’t matter what the polls said – he had to try. But I never believed that he had any chance at all of winning Pennsylvania, and that proved to be true: Obama won the state by about 700,000 votes, or 11 percentage points – which is exactly what the polls had predicted all along.

The other battleground states went primarily for Obama. The only battleground he lost was Missouri, and he only lost there by about 5,000 votes, or a few tenths of a percentage point. In fact, Missouri has not yet been officially called. They are doing recounts there, and it will not be made official until November 18th. I had predicted a Missouri win for Obama, so I was wrong on that one as well, however, I knew that no matter who won, it would be very close. The same was true for North Carolina – I predicted a McCain win there, but knew it would be close regardless. Overall, I accurately predicted 47 of the 50 states, and only seriously missed on one (the aforementioned Indiana).

The Missouri situation is an interesting one because Missouri has traditionally had the best “record” in presidential elections among the 50 states. From 1904 to 2004 – a period of 100 years – Missouri only went with the losing candidate one time, that being in 1956. And in that year, Adlai Stevenson won Missouri by about 2/10ths of 1 percent over Harry Truman – about the same amount that McCain won in this year’s election. So Missouri has now missed twice in the last 100 years, and both times the election there has been won by just a hair. What is perhaps more significant is that Missouri has voted for every Democratic president in U.S. history – until this year. Obama will be the first Democratic president who did not carry Missouri. Similarly, every single time in U.S. history that Missouri has voted for a Republican, that Republican has won the White House. McCain becomes the first Republican to carry Missouri but not win the presidency.

As for the aforementioned Bradley Effect, I accurately predicted (yay me) that it would not have any impact on the election. The Bradley Effect is a political theory that centers on latent racism. It came into being as a result of a 1982 gubernatorial election in California. In that year, a black candidate named Tom Bradley was leading in the California governor’s race by about 9 points going into election day. However, Bradley ended up losing the election by a very slim margin. One of the theories put forth to explain this unexpected loss was that people told pollsters they would vote for Bradley – a black candidate – when in reality they had no intention of actually voting for him. Presumably these voters lied to pollsters because they did not want to seem racist.

From the time that I first heard about this theory, I dismissed it. There were several reasons for this. First, I was not convinced that latent racism was truly the reason Bradley had lost that election. Perhaps there were other issues that simply caused people to change their minds in the final few days before the election. Perhaps voter turnout among those who supported Bradley was lower than expected. Perhaps polling simply wasn’t as accurate in 1982 as it is today. Secondly, I did not believe that racism – even if it did play a role in the California gubernatorial election of 1982 – would play such a significant role in a 2008 presidential election. In 1982, the country was less than 30 years removed from the segregation era. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was only 18 years old. Racism was still much more prominent in that time period than it is today. That’s not to say that racism isn’t still alive and well, but it had a much more prominent place in society at that time than it does now. I simply could not believe that any significant portion of the American public would tell pollsters they were voting for Obama, when in fact they intended to vote for McCain. There was no justifiable reason to assume that any significant portion of the voting public would lie about their choice simply because of latent racism. Many racists are not ashamed to say they wouldn’t vote for a black candidate, and even those who wouldn’t openly admit to being racist would simply come up with other reasons to explain why they supported the white candidate.

And, of course, as it turned out, the Bradley Effect had no “effect” at all. In fact, depending on which polls you followed, Obama actually did even better than many polls predicted. For instance, in Tennessee – where the poll averages showed McCain with a 20-25% lead – McCain ended up winning by only a 15% margin. That’s still a significant victory, but nowhere near what the polls implied. The Bradley Effect simply does not exist.

One final note on the electoral vote:

There are two states that split up their electoral votes – Maine and Nebraska. Instead of giving all their electoral votes to whoever wins the state, they split their electoral votes by district. Thus, if a candidate loses the general election in these states, but manages to win in one district or another, that candidate will get the one electoral vote that goes for that district. However, this had actually never occurred prior to 2008 – no one had ever won the general election in either state without also winning all the electoral districts. This year, however, both candidates had campaigned in these states in an effort to “steal” one of the electoral votes, should the national electoral race end in a tie. Nebraska was solidly red, and Maine was solidly blue, but both states had districts that were either more liberal or more conservative than the remainder of the state. As it turned out, Obama managed to achieve his goal in Nebraska – while the state itself went solidly for McCain, the Omaha electoral district (which is the only true “urban” district in the state) went for Obama. Thus, Obama actually won one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes. Considering the conservative slant of the state at large, it is likely that the state legislature may change its rules in the wake of losing an electoral vote to Obama. Maine, as predicted, went completely blue, and McCain did not win any of its electoral votes.

This election has certainly made history in a variety of ways. We all know that Obama has become the first black person ever elected to the presidency of the United States. However, even if Obama were white, this would still be an election year for the ages. Consider the following historic-making aspects of this election – which I have come up with just off the top of my head:

1. The first black person ever nominated for the presidency by a major party.
2. The first black person ever elected to the presidency.
3. The first female candidate on the Republican presidential ticket.
4. The first major party primary that came down to a choice between either a black person or a woman.
5. The first electoral vote “split” in a state that splits its electoral votes (Nebraska).
6. The most money ever raised in a presidential campaign.
7. Only the second time in 100 years that Missouri has voted for the losing candidate.
8. The first time ever that a Democrat has won the White House without carrying Missouri.
9. The first time ever that a Republican has carried Missouri and not won the presidency.
10. The first time Kentucky has chosen the wrong candidate in a presidential election since 1960.
11. The first time a Democrat has won 50% or more of the popular vote since 1976.
12. The first time since 1968 that neither candidate was a sitting president or a sitting vice-president.
13. The first time since 1952 that neither candidate had ever been on a previous presidential ticket.
14. The first Alaskan on a major party ticket.

Those are 13 different ways – just off the top of my head – that this election has made history. Those of us who experienced it – regardless of who we voted for – are privileged to have lived through such a history-making campaign. Without question, the 2008 presidential campaign will be one that is studied and evaluated for years to come. The election of America’s first black president will make 2008 a year that future generations of schoolchildren will be forced to memorize in their history and social studies classes.

It was truly an election for the history books.

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