The General Election/Primary Connection

As my buddy the GTL rightly observes, the post convention bounce that McCain is seeing right now isn’t that big a deal, and definitely nothing that Obama supporters need to get all kinds of worried over.  But the question as to why is kind of interesting.

The correlation, or lack thereof, between primary contests and the general election has been a subject of great debate, most notably among those Clinton and Obama partisans that spent the final weeks of the Democratic primary looking for any justification that their candidate was the better of the two.  At this point, hardly any of those arguments seem relevant, but it does frame up a set of questions and things to think about when it comes to this general election.

When we look at how Obama won his party’s nomination, it must be understood that he did it through rather unconventional means.  He used the delegate system that Democrats employ to select their nominee as a kind of back door to the more traditional method of winning a lot early, and letting momentum carry one to victory.

The primary mechanism of accomplishing this was through his significant performance in the caucuses.  The significance of this was actually kicked into my head by friend and co-blogger Matt who explained that the focal point of caucus performance was organization and GOTV efforts.  And it’s true; the Obama campaign’s ability to out mobilize any of the competition allowed him to develop a winning edge against far better known candidates with more traditional candidates with seemingly more reliable political machines.

But the rub comes in the fundamental differences between the general election and the Democratic primaries.  They are so dissimilar that there is no way that Obama could adapt his game plan from the primaries to a general election race, right?

Except, the model for an adaptation has actually already occured in recent political history–think 2000 where then Governor George W. Bush won the presidency instead of Vice President Al Gore despite having lost the popular vote.

Just as national polling was nowhere near as significant as delegate count for the Democratic primary, so to are electorate votes far more important than national numbers in the selection of the President.  And while McCain continues to enjoy his post convention bounce which has him even with Obama in many, and over him in some, the fact of the matter is that the electoral map has hardly changed at all.  FiveThirtyEight has Obama winning the electoral college 293 to 245, while Pollster continues to give Obama a sixty-four electoral vote advantage over John McCain.

How does this work? 

Pretty simple, actually.  Depending on where in the country opinion is changing based on events in the political cycle, the electoral college is going to move independently, that is faster or slower, than national polling.  In this case, the Republican convention probably did more than anything else to energize the Republican base, but the downside to that in electoral politics is that this shift in opinion is likely to be the strongest in states that are already red.

In other words, McCain’s safe states are absorbing much of the bump and resulting in little change in regards to the split of electoral votes.  Meanwhile, the fact that there is little to no movement in some of the battleground states, and as Nate points out, Florida looks as though it may slowly be trending towards Obama, all may be indicative of the impressive ground game employed by the Obama campaign.

It seems interesting to me that the Obama campaign has made little to no attempt to take back the national spotlight after the McCain/Palin ticket has enjoyed it now for about a week and a half.  It is possible that they simply don’t have a big announcement to roll out, but I find it a little more likely that they simply don’t have any desire to.

What would be the point?  While the national media focuses on national numbers, Obama is enjoying watching his expectations get lowered in the run up to the first presidential debate while he focuses on localities to keep any actual meaningful movement from occuring in McCain’s direction where it really counts.

Shorter; McCain may be enjoying some decent press time and good national numbers right now, but he’s still losing, and he’s not even losing by a little.

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