Monday, October 17, 2011

The Numbers That Matter?

I've been enjoying the new TNR campaign blog, but I'm going to have to take strongly disagree with Alec MacGillis's post today about the prospects for Barack Obama in North Carolina.

To begin with, MacGillis begins with Obama's poor approval numbers there (42/51) without comparing them to the national averages, which for today, per Gallup, are virtually identical (42/50). The real place to begin when thinking about how a state will perform -- and for the most part, I don't really see any reason for doing so at this point unless you're planning and executing campaign strategy -- is to compare how it did last time against the national average. So with North Carolina, Obama won by only a hair in 2008 despite winning overall by 7 points, which suggests that it's not a likely winner for him if it's a much closer election this time. That doesn't mean he shouldn't campaign there, but it does mean that he hardly needs to win there in order to be reelected.

Then I'd note that the fact that his approval ratings there are basically even with his national numbers suggest that perhaps he's doing relatively well there compared to how he's doing elsewhere.

But that's before getting to the heart of the MacGillis piece, which is about North Carolina conservative bankroller Art Pope, who apparently has been spending tons of money there for the Republicans. And while I haven't yet read Jane Mayer's story about Pope, I find it very plausible to believe that one big spender could tip the balance in a handful of state legislative races, which in turn made it possible for Republicans to redistrict in their favor. I find it a lot less plausible, however, that Pope will make the difference in that state's presidential race in 2012. Money just doesn't matter all that much in presidential general elections, given the amount of information available outside of campaign ads. Nor do we expect the Republican nominee to have any lack of funds -- or the Obama campaign to fail to spend plenty of its own. The marginal returns of the next million dollars, or even the next $10M, just don't really mean all that much (and again, I haven't read the Mayer story, so I don't have any sense of whether Pope is expected to increase whatever he spent back in 2008, which is of course the real question).

No, what you want to do right now if you want to guess at the winner of the presidential election is to pay attention to national trends (and reasonable projections), and ignore the state-by-state factors. Yes, it's possible that an election can come down to tactics in a single state or a small handful of states, but in reality that's very unlikely, and even then it's hard to know exactly which factors will turn out to be important. The national picture really is the best we can do, and this sort of specificity is far more likely to mislead than to illuminate.

(If, that is, we're interested in who will win. If the question is about the texture of the campaign or the state of the GOP or North Carolina state politics or perhaps some other questions, then looking at Pope's role in North Carolina is quite reasonable).


  1. Can I focus on the numbers that don't matter if I don't like the numbers that do matter?

  2. Pope should probably keep his NC money in his pocket. This is the only numbers that matter:

    The only question now is whether Obama is going to challenge Carter's numbers. He's got a shot.


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