Trying to Predict the Future

Honestly, I’m excited about this years election, and not just because I think that Obama has a great opportunity to score a major win this fall either.

First, let me dispense with what I hope, and what I know will not come to pass.  I know some of the less partial observers of the presidential race so far have thought that an Obama McCain match up would pave the way for a particularly substantive election, the kind of election that wouldn’t get bogged down by dirty tricks, nasty campaigning, and minutiae.

I would like to see that too, but if you really think that that’s going to happen, I got a bridge, some swampla… er a vacation spot, and a magical pony all for sale real cheap.

The simple fact is, even if both candidates are on their best behavior, 527’s, surrogates, and supporters are going to poison the well.  It’s just something that we all should pretty much go ahead and accept now before we get too excited about rainbows and butterflies getting caught up in our politics.

But the truly intriguing thing for a self taught poli-sci junky like me is that we have two candidates that are not exactly conventional by any means.

John McCain, of course, has the reputation of being a Maverick, a Republican who doesn’t toe the party line.  Now he may have realigned himself to be more in tune with his base, which is most assuredly the case (note: see reversal of positions on torture, Bush’s tax cuts, leaders of the Religious Right, executive power, etc.), but that has yet to translate into a change in the perception of John McCain.  Equally important is the fact that John McCain still manages to command respect among moderates and liberals, and is still not exactly well liked by his own party.

So, too, does Barack Obama buck convention.  For one, there is his ideology.  One of the things that I find interesting is that currently the right is doing everything they can to paint Obama as this ultra liberal, but if any of them bothered to visit the hardcore liberals, they will find that Obama has taken plenty of heat for not being liberal enough.  In fact he still gets dumped on for his health care plan.  Obama’s “post-partisanship” has opened him up in the past to attacks from the base.  Interestingly, though, while Obama’s liberal street creds are sometimes brought into question, he has thus far shown that he does not intend to run as Republican Lite in this election, refusing to do what Democrats have done a lot in the past and capitulate on the turf of foreign policy and national security so as not to fall victim to attacks of being “too weak to defend America.”

Oh, and he’s black, too.

I might as well dispense with the 800 snarling mammal in the room right away.  For the first time in our nation’s history, one of the presidential candidates will not be a white male, which will, no doubt, impact the results a little bit.  Conventionally, given the electorate’s distaste for Bush’s tenure as president, it would seem almost a given that had Democrats opted to nominate just about any white male, he would be a shoo in.  But we didn’t, and it will be interesting to see how the racial tensions affect demography in this race.  We know that in West Virginia, and Kentucky, exit polls indicated up to a fifth of the voting populace in the primaries admitted that race played a factor in their vote, and given the volatility of that question, one can reasonably assume that the real number was at least a little bit higher.

One of the difficulties about race in this election is that I don’t think you can accurately poll racism.  Of course, there are folks out there that simply don’t care, but as time moves on, and racism becomes increasingly unacceptable in our society, fewer people are going to be willing to voice their opinions, even in a poll.  That will be something that is between them and the voting booth.

But it’s also going to have regional limitations as far as effectiveness goes.  In general there is a certain band of opportunity where race tends to play a major factor that we have seen in the Democratic primary.  When minorities make up a percentage of the population that extends from the middle to high single digits into the teens, it seems, is when racial polarization is at its highest.  The theory behind this is that in homogenous regions, such as the midwest where Obama performed well, there wasn’t enough of a minority presence there in the first place for preconceived notions and deeply embedded stereotypes to adversely affect voting.  And in regions where minorities made up twenty percent or more of the population, what you find is that white people, due to sufficient exposure to minorities, tend to take a less harsh view.

And of course there’s the South and all the residual racial tension that extends as far back as the Civil War and earlier.

That’s not to say that every vote against Obama is racist, but there will be a racist vote out there, and it’s going to be hard to measure, but should nonetheless be predictable as far as which regions of the country where it will be most prominent.

Returning to John McCain, perhaps the most interesting thing about him is how little he excites the base.  My Republican Stepfather (who, one of these days I’m going to come up with a shorter code word for so that you guys all know who I’m talking about without me having to explain who he is), the other day intimated to me that not a whole lot of conservatives and Republicans think McCain is going to run a strong campaign.

Now, look, this time last year McCain was already looking to be shunted out of the running.  Rudy Giuliani was building up strong leads in the polls, and Romney appeared to be laying the groundwork for an insurgent fifty state campaign against the frontrunner.  McCain won by attrituion, or, in other words, he won because he was a tough old bastard that was able to out last everyone else.

He streamlined a top heavy campaign and pulled off what no one else thought he could pull off, so I think to underestimate McCain would be a mistake.  However, to say that he’s a strong favorite to win this thing, or that he will run a strong campaign at all, would be giving him too much credit.  There are plenty of obstacles in his path that are unrelated in any way to his opponent that he’ll have to overcome if he wants to be sworn in on January 20th of next year.

The first is his base.  He’s got to find some way of bringing his base on board to the McCain campaign, and getting them excited.  The very reason why McCain has garnered respect among liberals and moderates in the past is the very same reason he is in trouble with the core of his party, the very same people he’ll need to rely upon to hand out fliers, make phone calls, and knock on doors.  McCain/Feingold, immigration, not cowtowing to the religious right when all the cool kids were doing it.

As an interesting sidebar, one thing that I’ve noticed is from the rightside of the chattering class, they have been almost one hundred percent anti-Obama.  There has been little glowing praise for the Republican nominee which suggests that for some, the game plan is winning solely by trying to get everyone to hate the Democrat.

The second is money.  If his frundraising doesn’t improve dramatically, he will continue to be at a severe disadvantage against his opponent.  Again, a lot of this has to do with the fact that he doesn’t excite the base, and a lot of it has to do with possibly that his organization capabilities are meager compared to Obama’s.

Then there is the problem with his ideological similarities to Bush.  He, and those talking heads who attempt to help him out, will try to distance McCain from Bush, but that would have been much easier eight, maybe six years ago as opposed to now.  As I’ve documented frequently, McCain has pushed significantly towards Bush in policy, even if he’s started stiffing the sitting president publicly.  Bush, who has posted record high disapproval ratings, has also been polled to be a bigger liability than Reverand Wright is for Obama.

And concluding what is by no means a comprehensive list (I’m not trying to write a book, you know), is the charisma gap at which McCain is most definitely on the wrong side of.  Nowhere was this more noticable than during the two speeches delivered Tuesday night between he and Senator Obama, and as Oliver Willis points out, not only do appearances matter in winning elections, they matter once you’ve one them as well.

That’s not to say that Obama isn’t without weaknesses either.  Most notable (besides the race thing, of course), is his youth.  There are going to be some voters that are not going to be trusting of a president so young.  Also, while Obama is possibly one of the best orators we’ve seen in politics in some time, as someone who has watched nearly every single Democratic debate, I can say that he’s not the best debater in the world.  He’s improved significantly, but there is a wide disparity between Obama on the stump, and Obama in a debate.  Also, there is the questionable status of party unity.

On this last point, I’ve done some preliminary table napkin math on the party unity issue, and I think that at most the realistic defection rate as a result of fallout from the Democratic primary will be about 3-5 points, but that’s table napkin math.  Frankly, there’s no way to tell exactly how bad the defection rate’s going to be, if it’s worth noting at all.

And, of course, because of Obama’s unique past, he seems to be highly susceptible to whisper campaigns.  I have to admit my shock when I watch reports where every day people say, “I’m not goint to vote for a Muslim.”  The shock is twofold as a result of A) I personally don’t think that someone’s religion ought to be a factor, and B) Obama’s not a Muslim.  But that’s simply an obstacle to be contended with.  One of, in my opinion, his strengths as a person to lead the country, someone who has had an internationally grounded childhood, also opens him up towards the worst kind of attacks that feed off of our national xenophobic and anti-any-religion-that-isn’t-Christianity based fears.

Measuring these two candidates up is interesting, to say the least.  One thing to take note of is that both candidates are known for their cross party and swing voter appeal.  I think on an objective plane, here, Obama gets the edge because Obama potentially has a much stronger support from the base, where as for McCain it is seeming as though it’s the middle or bust.

But when it boils right down to it, I think a lot of how this election goes is going to rest upon Obama.  If he allows this to be a conventional race, I think it’s going to be close, with a more friendly Republican map, and potential racial tensions giving McCain a slight edge despite his shortcomings.

But if Obama runs the general election not like he did the primaries, but with the same sense of out of the box politicking, it’s going to be a blowout in his favor.

That’s to say, this election could very well be a situation of demography equals destiny vs. money and organization and hard campaigining wins.  Right now, allowing the race to be defined by demography is to McCain’s benefit.  Now let’s not fool ourselves with the working class whites myth.  Two excellent bloggers, Fester and Steve M, have done the math on that one already, and the Obama is right now pulling the support he needs from that demographic already to get a win.  But playing a game of demographics I think narrows the election, for, to provide at least one reason, it is playing with already established narrow parameters. that current polling show to be a close race.

But if Obama runs an unconventional campaign, he could be on the verge of a landslide with an EV total over three hundred.  This would have to include at a minimum two things.  First is running a full on fifty state strategy.  The next five months has to be a complete blitz of every state.

The virtue of the fifty state strategy against McCain should not be underestimated.  McCain is coming into this thing with minimal resources and narrowed base support.  There are plenty of states that are “safe” for McCain, but this is only based upon demography and previous election data.  I think the trick this election year, especially to win the swing states, is to not just hammer the swing states, but to make McCain defend his own backyard.  This is particularly possible at a time when public opinion of the Republican led government is at an impressive low, Republican energization is almost non existent, and Democratic enthusiasm is going through the roof.

If Obama keeps McCain on his heels in the red states, he may find a few red states that threaten to turn blue, which will force McCain to burn resources to shore up support there.  This should reduce the presence McCain can project in swing states and allow Obama to flood these states with media and presence and make them easier for him to pick off.

The other thing Obama is going to have to do is maintain and continue to build off of his already impressive organization.  Matt Stoller I think has one of the must reads of the early portion of the General Election cycle which provides some good insight and detail regarding the organization that Obama has built thus far, and it is this organization that I’m most anxious to see in action over the coming months.

This organization, I believe, may very well be what makes demography NOT destiny.  When you run a machine like that (a million on the ground volunteers, 15 million online volunteers, and a fundraising machine that hasn’t come close to its potential), what that allows you to do is establish a GOTV and movilization effort that at least provides the potential for overcoming demographic disparities.

Is there a high portion of working class whites in a state that are particularly drawn to McCain?  Okay, great, just recruit everyone else in the state to vote for you.  When you stop to think that only 120 million people voted last presidential election, that leaves a very large number of non voters left to be courted, and in many ways, that is exactly what Obama’s political machine is geared towards.

The last thing I wanted to mention is polling.  Nobody except the hardcore horse race junkies (no heroine, thanks, just give me a polling aggregator), people don’t have a high opinion of polls.  This time around, I think they are going to be doubly useless.

Polls are already unreliable as is, but one thing I’ve noticed (and many others as well), is that Obama has a tendancy to outperform polls by a couple of points.  There are many explanations possible for this, but the one I find most likely is that Obama supporters tend to not survive “likely voter” filters, mainly because he brings in a lot of young voters and first time voters.

I don’t have a hard number on how well Obama does against his own polling, but I’m going to say that if come election day Obama only trails McCain by a point or two, give the advantage to Obama.

In any case, this is only the beginning, and if my little pet theories here and the ones I just didn’t have time to get out of my head are even close to being on the mark, it’s going to be an interesting ride.


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