Saturday, August 30, 2008


John McCain out-planned Barack Obama. That is the summary of what happened this last week. Senator Obama apparently planned on the normal course of events as he prepared for the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. He made a number of assumptions along the way, assumptions which were apparent enough that McCain was able to use them in his own planning. Obama assumed, for example, that a few symbolic gestures would mollify Hillary and her supporters, and that in a short matter of time he would have all but a few of them under his banner, ideally working for his election but at least not working against him. He assumed that McCain would stay out his way during that week, and that he would have not only the convention time but also the weekend after to enjoy the glow of a successful run to the nomination. He assumed that the media, which has been overwhelmingly in his corner all through the year, would make sure the spotlight stayed on Obama. On all three assumptions, Senator McCain took advantage of errors by Obama and played them to his own advantage.

McCain understood that the race was close, but that Obama’s nomination would likely give him a “bounce”, in real terms boosting his lead and making it more and more difficult for McCain to look to undecided voters as someone who could win. Therefore, McCain needed to do something unexpected, something which proved him a viable candidate. Part of this was accomplished through Obama’s double-fumble in selecting his running mate. First, Obama not only did not choose Hillary Clinton for his VP spot, an understandable choice and it is quite unlikely that she would have accepted the offer anyway, but Obama failed to vet her for the short list, and in so doing displayed a lack of respect to Hillary’s 18 million supporters. While it is true that for the most part, those voters will come around and vote for Obama anyway, some will sit out the election because of the way Clinton was treated, and some had already warned they would swing support over to McCain in 2008, in order to give Clinton the best opportunity for 2012. The second fumble was Obama’s selection of Biden, a move which is tactically foolish, because it effectively highlights Obama’s own limitations while gaining nothing among undecided voters. This left the door open for McCain to make significant gains through his own choice, an opportunity which would have been far smaller if Obama had handled his side of the aisle better than he did.

The selection of Sarah Palin is brilliant to a far greater degree than it is risky. Analysis of her credentials has already shown Palin to be strong in many areas, and what areas of weakness she has is matched to a more serious degree on the Democrats’ side. Choosing Palin will probably not win over additional Clinton supporters, but that was not the object – what matters is that McCain has not lost any ground with the Clinton supporters he already held, something the Obama camp is not mentioning, indeed he may not yet understand that fact. The timing of the Palin selection is also significant, having destroyed the Obama publicity campaign intended for this weekend. All the talk is about Palin. And the media, while it leans left most of the time, is now as it always was, about the big story, and Palin is simply a much bigger story than Biden ever could be.

The move is not yet complete, however. McCain gambled a bit of his own attention this week. Hurricane Gustav could steal some attention away from the GOP convention, especially as there is no suspense left about who will be in the VP slot. Having played the first half so well, it remains to be seen how well McCain has planned the second half of the convention operettas.

Friday, August 29, 2008

High Stakes Veeping

Wow, what a situation. In the last day, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty have taken themselves out of the running for McCain’s running mate, and a lot of buzz has started up – again - about Governor Sarah Palin. The trouble is, there are now reports that she’s still in Alaska and the only guy from the field in the vicinity of John McCain is his old buddy, Joe Lieberman.

It’s difficult to imagine a vaster gulf between the two, in the effect they would have on the election. Palin would be a breath-taking choice, a masterful stroke which would be likely to reinvigorate McCain’s campaign and make Obama-Biden look dusty and old just a couple days after it kicked off. It would demonstrate bold leadership and an ability to simultaneously firm up the base and attract a lot of the Hillary supporters still angry at their shameful treatment by the Obama camp. If McCain chooses Lieberman, however, he would do just the opposite, burning bridges with groups he desperately needs in order to win, while doing effectively nothing to attract new support. Choosing Lieberman would prove McCain to be the doddering, out of touch man that Obama’s people say he is. This choice could single-handedly prove Obama right and advance his campaign, or prove McCain’s ability to make bold and unprecedented decisions which move things forward. We will know in a little while whether McCain has been a fool or brilliant, but this is a real high-stakes decision, either way.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Poll Bias 2008: What the Numbers Say

Back in 2004, I determined a general measure of bias in the Presidential election by polls. I did the same thing for this year, which may be useful in examining the post-Convention stretch. I began by noting the 2-way poll results from Real Clear Politics from January 1 2008 through August 25.

I made a spreadsheet with the name of the group or agency which conducted the poll, the starting and ending dates of the polling, and the results for Obama and McCain. From this information, I drew up another spreadsheet which produced the daily average for the polls. I then compared each poll against the average for the days polled, to see where each poll stood against the average, noting whether Obama or McCain was getting more or less support than the average in a poll. I then was able to apply that information to determine the average bias, the aggregate variance, and essentially the stability of each poll.

I want to stop at this point, and make an observation about the fairness of these polls. As polls make statements which favor Obama or McCain, it is becoming common to see this poll or that dismissed as being unreliable or unbelievable. This is generally unwise, because in examining the polls presented, I was struck by how well, overall, most polls were conducted. While I have concerns about the demographics base used, and the weighting assumptions inherent in modern polling, the conclusions of each poll were consistent with other polls at the same time. Since twenty-six national agencies or groups have conducted national polls used for my research, such consistency indicates a high level of professional standards. However, within that acknowledgment, there were some clear trends and characteristics, which I think are worth mentioning.

As I said, there were twenty-six separate groups or agencies which conducted polls. Of these, six conducted only one or two polls this year (Battleground, McLaughlin, Franklin & Marshall, Ipsos,POS/GQR, and NPR). Accordingly, I have not considered these groups for the purposes of comparative bias.
That leaves another twenty groups, however, which have conducted a measurable pattern in their polls. For this report, I will note the five polls which most favor Obama, the five which are least favorable to Obama, the five which are most favorable to McCain, the five which are least favorable to McCain, and the five which are, as an aggregate, the least likely to be off the average measure for that date. I would like to emphasize that bias is used here not as an attack on the poll’s integrity or veracity, but simply marks a tendency likely to continue in future polls between now and the election. It remains to be seen which of these polls will prove the most accurate in the final measure.
Here are the top five in each of the five categories, then:

Obama Favorable
1. ABC News/Washington Post (+3.33 pts)
2. CNN (+3.00 pts)
3. Quinnipiac (+1.97 pts)
4. Pew Research (+1.54 pts)
5. USA Today/Gallup (+0.92 pts)

Obama Unfavorable
1. Investor Business Daily/TP (-2.80 pts)
2. FOX News (-2.30 pts)
3. Cook/RT Strategy (-2.28 pts)
4. Hotline/FD (-1.62 pts)
5. LA Times/Bloomberg (1.26 pts)

McCain Favorable
1. Democracy Corps (+3.27 pts)
2. USA Today/Gallup (+2.83 pts)
3. Rasmussen (+1.89 pts)
4. CNN (+1.51 pts)
5. ABC News/Washington Post (+1.40 pts)

McCain Unfavorable
1. Investor Business Daily/TP (-4.55 pts)
2. CBS News (-2.80 pts)
3. Hotline/FD (-1.88)
4. Quinnipiac (-1.57 pts)
5. Time (-1.40 pts)

Aggregate Stability
1. NBC News/Wall Street Journal (1.81 avg total variance)
2. AP-Ipsos (2.06 avg total variance)
3. Gallup (2.17 avg total variance)
4. Pew Research (2.40 avg total variance)
5. CBS News/NY Times (2.53 avg total variance)

I will let the reader draw his/her own conclusions, after making three suggestions:

1. Notice which groups are favorable or unfavorable to both Obama and McCain

2. Aggregate Stability is a near-unknown quality, but represents a reason to have great confidence in a poll. If a poll does not miss the average by very much, it represents a reliable place for quick vitals.

3. Most of the variance shown is within the standard deviation for the population base used in the polling.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Clowns and Commerce

As often happens in these things, we are told that this election is about the economy. That’s no surprise, people often vote by how they feel about their jobs and homes and savings, and wrap the candidate they support in expectations that he will somehow make a difference for the better. The problem with that, is that very few elected officials have any effective idea how the economy works, much less how their actions will influence its behavior. The United States’ economy is a multi-trillion dollar economy, with thousands of job categories and descriptions in industries spanning historical classics to new types created within the past decade. The historical record shows that the government can damage the economy through excessive taxation or neglect of strategic needs, but as a rule government cannot help the economy except by reducing, as much as possible, its footprint upon it. The candidate, therefore, who promises to create jobs or revive the economy through government programs is a liar and a fool, and a poison to the nation he wants to control.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Veep Value

So, Senator Barack Obama has tapped Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate this fall. Senator John McCain may or may not know whom he wants, but in any case he has not announced a pick. At this point there’s not really much substance to the decision anyway, though I think the choices are interesting in what they say about the campaigns. That is, for all the hype, there’s not really much chance the VP choice does much to improve a candidate’s chances – in my entire life I cannot remember anyone saying something like ’I was going to vote for ‘X’, but when ‘Y’ picked so-and-so for his veep he won me over'. Sure, maybe there are some few, some very few voters somewhere that could be swayed by the running pick to vote for someone, but I have to think such a number is too small to really matter. It’s really more a case of three things; the VP pick is usually made when things are a bit slow and the campaign wants some good press – remember that the media is impressed more with the flash of a story rather than its merit, which is why CNN treats a Britney Spears event with greater attention than another success in the Iraq War. Also, the VP choice can be an opportunity to really screw things up, to pick some loser who damages the top of the ticket. Even there, the amount of damage done is generally not significant, as the first Bush’s pick of Dan Quayle in 1988 illustrated. The third thing that comes from the pick, however, is what it tells us about the candidate’s fears. In 1960, Kennedy’s campaign picked Lyndon Johnson because they were worried about the South and JFK’s thin resume. In 1968 Nixon tapped Spiro Agnew because he was worried about the Northeast. On the flip side, the pick sometimes reflects confidence. Bill Clinton’s choice of Gore in 1992 showed that he was comfortable with his team as it was, and Gore was picked because he fit what was already going. In 2000, Dubya picked Cheney for his VP because he saw Cheney as the most competent man for the role, ignoring the popular push to put McCain on the ticket to show party unity, or some prominent regional name to attract support from that area.

There are three effective reasons for picking someone as your running mate. One is the possibility that he might take your place, as five Vice-Presidents have become President through death or resignation since 1900. But Obama is in excellent health, and should expect great support from his party if he is elected. About the only way Obama could get impeached, would be if he announced immediately after taking office that his last name was really “Bush”. So that reason is not really in play. The second possibility is that Obama thinks Biden will help him win a certain region. Delaware is already locked in for the Democrats, and the Northeast is also a pretty deep Blue this year, so that possibility also falls by the wayside. This brings us to the third reason, the fear of some weakness in the nominee’s strategy. Obama picked Biden, it’s pretty obvious, because he hopes Biden’s three and a half decades as a Washington insider will make his own lack of work more tolerable. Obama’s naïveté in foreign policy statements will, he hopes, be overlooked in the light of Biden’s long experience in foreign policy. Of course, the historical record on that point is not promising. Ross Perot tapped an admiral for his running mate, but it did not make his own foreign policy credentials any more authentic. John Kerry got a lot of support from General Wesley Clark, but again the effort failed to undo the damage of Kerry’s own record. So a running mate with a long record does not do much to improve your own credentials. It does, however, prevent McCain’s camp from claiming that neither Obama nor his veep pick have experience in foreign policy.

Some are already saying that Obama’s pick of Biden is a good move, while some have said it was a mistake. At this point I do not really agree with either side. Biden is not likely to win over Clinton supporters who are still mad that Hillary was not even considered for the second slot – even though she would not have wanted the job, many in her camp see the decision to not even vet her as a deliberate insult. Biden is not likely to impress all those young people who are attracted to Obama because he is fresh and new in their minds, something Biden clearly is not. Biden is not likely to win over independents either, as his views have tracked with DNC talking points for a very long time. At the same time, it would be wrong to assume the move is a mistake, as there is no evidence – at least not yet – that Biden would prove a liability. While the man’s vanity and arrogant tone have brought him to many blunders in the past, at the moment Biden looks good where Obama needs him to look good, a union favorite and likely to reassure the party base.

The real effect of the Biden pick won’t be known for some time, partly because the effect will be demonstrated by how well Biden campaigns in battlefield states, but also because now the focus will swing to the question of McCain’s pick. McCain’s choice, like Obama’s, is more tactical in value than strategic, and he has more to lose from a bad choice than he stands to gain with a good choice. But knowing the Biden pick means that the McCain camp has the opportunity to choose a running mate who will appeal to the demographics missed by Obama-Biden.