Howard Dean almost made history in 2004. While John Kerry just plain fumbled the opportunity handed to him, Dean’s fund-raising and grassroots registration and turnout drives were spectacularly successful. Over 58 million Americans voted for Kerry-Edwards in the presidential election, an amazing success for the campaign’s workers and planners. President Bush, however, claimed over 62 million votes, on the strength of a similarly epic turnout effort. The 2004 election turned on many points of decision, but in effective terms both parties knew they had to maximize their turnout.
Fast forward to today. Rasmussen Reports (whom I distrust to some degree, because they do not reveal all of their methodology and weighting rationale to the media, bloggers, or academics) released a poll showing Barack Obama leading John McCain by 2 points, 48% to 46%. The race is statistically tied, says Rasmussen. Looking more closely, however, I noticed how Rasmussen has weighted the respondent pool, with 39.7% weighted as Democrats, 32.1% as Republicans, and 28.2% as unaffiliated.
The significance of this weighting is that, as I have warned before, it is not based on any established statistical record or census report. Instead, Rasmussen does what it calls “dynamic weighting”. What they do, by their own admission, is to establish “baseline targets” for party affiliation by reviewing “survey interviews with a sample of adults nationwide completed during the preceding three months”. When translated into English, Rasmussen is admitting that they use the results from previous polls to weight their new polls, even though this is - by definition – circular logic and is invalid for any poll which is authentically using pure RDD methodology in its respondent contact procedure (that is, a pure random method of contacting people means that you have near-absolute certainty that you are not calling anyone from prior polls, and therefore there is no connection between your present and former respondent pool except that they meet the defined criteria, and therefore conditions of the former do not influence the conditions of the present). Rasmussen has no effective basis for claiming the party affiliation in its polls, as a result of its invalid system. This happens a lot with polling groups, but it is a critical factor in the results they report, and as such I must warn the readers regularly about this practice. While no proven scientific method exists to track and report party affiliation between elections, the reader should at least expect a consistent ratio to be used, and for polling groups to obtain the basis of party weighting using outside and objective sources for their party identification data.
So anyway, using Rasmussen’s made-up affiliation numbers, we see that if Rasmussen’s poll is correct and if 39.7% of the voters are really Democrats, 32.1% of the voters are really Republicans, and 28.2% are really unaffiliated, then Obama-Biden has the support of 46 to 50 percent of the people responding to the poll, while McCain-Palin has the support of 44 to 48 percent of the people responding. But suppose that more than 39.7% of the voters are Democrats? What if more than 32.1% of the voters are Republicans? From my experience, I can say that self-identified Democrats and Republicans are much more likely to vote than people without a party affiliation. And what if some factor or issue makes some voters of a certain party affiliation stay home? That’s happened before you know, it hurt Bush I in 1992 and Humphrey in 1968, and there’s more than a few groups which have said earlier that they would sit at home this fall. Not too many people have talked about it recently, and the ones who did seemed to assume they were not problems anymore, but McCain had to worry about hard-line conservatives, while Obama had to worry about Hillary’s army. McCain needed to assure folks that his age and health were not reasons to doubt his ability, while Obama needed to assure folks that he had the judgment to make good executive decisions, even if his record up to now was empty. McCain needed to show Republicans he stood for the party’s ideals, and to show independents that he was a different man from George Bush. Obama needed to show Democrats he was a man able to accomplish their goals, while proving to the nation his claim to be able to reach across the aisle. There are a lot of folks with reasons to walk away from the election, and to doubt the claims of the nominees from either party. Victory may well come down to which party best retains its existing active support, and beings back its doubters.
That brings us to Sarah Palin. John McCain picked Palin to be his running mate after Barack Obama chose Joe Biden to be his VP nominee. Biden was essentially the “safe” pick, meant to shore up Obama’s clear deficiencies in foreign policy and resume depth. Hillary Clinton was an obvious choice for VP, but the Obama campaign clearly worried about whether Clinton would remain an ally after November, and the campaign could be embarassed if Clinton had publicly declined the post, as some rumored she would do. And because the Obama campaign depended so heavily on Barack Obama’s personal charisma, there was no effective way the VP pick could expect to retrieve those voters that were not already attracted to Obama.
Things were much different for McCain. The threat of mainline Republicans staying home was a serious problem; even the likelihood that they would vote for him but withhold campaign support for registration and GOTV drives could seriously damage McCain in key battleground states. McCain therefore needed a running mate who would strongly appeal to the conservatives, yet not alienate the other key GOP candidates from the primaries. McCain needed someone with the skills to step into the role of President if it became necessary, ideally someone familiar with the executive roles and with energy experience. Also, McCain was clearly chasing Obama in overall support, and needed a VP pick who would energize his supporters and create media interest in his campaign. In terms of strategy, McCain wanted a running mate who would increase the level of turnout his campaign could expect in November, who would be able to retain and protect gains he had made in recent months, and whose skills would complement his own. The selection of Sarah Palin proved a near-perfect response to those needs. Palin’s solid credentials as a conservative went a long way to satisfy demands from conservatives who worried McCain would be less like Ronald Reagan and more like Gerald Ford. Her accomplishments as a woman may not attract great numbers of Clinton supporters away from Obama, but those who had already defected to McCain are now more inclined to stay as his supporters. But more to the point, a huge demographic has opened for McCain-Palin, one which has been largely ignored by Barack Obama. In choosing Palin, McCain has taken advantage of yet another Obama blunder.
Palin’s credentials also directly undercut Obama’s claims to quality judgment and executive qualification. Even as Obama’s supporters tried to ridicule Palin’s experience as a mayor and governor, the scale of her accomplishments demonstrates that Obama and Biden, even put together, have effectively no executive experience of any kind, and worse, were unaware of that fact. Biden has shown that he does not understand the difference between committee experience in the Senate, and executive decisions made by a head of state, while Obama lamely tried to claim that running for President counted as executive experience (rather like saying that applying for a job means you have experience in it!).
This election, like 2004, will be decided by turnout, by which party convinces the most folks not only to like their candidates, but also to register and really, truly, go out and vote when the time comes. Sarah Palin is a trump card for which Obama-Biden simply has no answer.