For my first post, I figured I would give some final thoughts on the election cycle that was 2008. During the general election, I tracked data regarding the statewide polls and the likelihood that either Obama or McCain would win a given state. I then compiled that data to create a chart showing the track of the general election by electoral votes. That chart is to the right. A state was considered strong for a candidate if there was a greater than 80% chance that he would win that state; it was a “lean state” if the likelihood was between 51-79%. Obviously, 50/50 is self explanatory. A word of thanks to 270towin.com, which was the website that was largely responsible for my data. I started collecting the data on September 16, which was about a week and a half after the Republican National Convention. This allows for the post-convention bumps to be felt and for things to return to some normalcy. I then checked it every 2-4 days thereafter until election day, November 4th.
In looking at the data, I noticed an interesting turning point. When I started in mid-September, McCain actually had more states in the “Strong” category than Obama did (216-196). When adding in the “Lean” states, McCain still had the advantage (261-259). Through the second half of September, Obama slowly began taking the lead, so by September 26-29, he has a lead in “Strong” states of 229-163 and an overall lead of 286-252. This was President Bush’s margin in 2004, so it was still relatively close. However, at the beginning of October, Obama really began taking control of the race. On October 4, he leads in “Strong” states 260-163 and overall he leads 340-185. By October 7, the “Strong” lead for Obama is 291-163 and the overall lead is 364-174. This ended up being the final tally if you add the 1 electoral vote that Obama picked up in Nebraska (In looking at the list of states on my October 7 chart, the only two that were wrong were Indiana and Missouri, and since they both had 11 electoral votes, they cancelled out). After October 7, the race actually remained fairly stable. In fact, McCain’s “Strong” states remain at 163 almost consistently through the rest of the cycle. There was some fluctuating in Obama’s states from “Strong” to “Lean,” and occasionally one would fall into a tie, but his lead remained constant and his “Strong” states never dropped below 291. Essentially, this data shows that Obama had the race won by October 7th.
While everyone likes to point to the economy and John McCain’s mistimed comment that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong,” that comment was made on September 15th and the economy had been poor for some time. In looking at the political calendar, there were two things that were occurring at the end of September that would be reflected in the polls at the beginning of October (it usually takes about a week for events to be reflected in state polls). First was the Congressional debate regarding the bailout. Certainly, the way that John McCain behaved during that discussion did not help his campaign, but as I said the economy had been poor for some time and Obama was only gaining gradually through the end of September. There had to be a “game changer” that occurred at the end of September that allowed Obama to take control of the election
It is a second event that I believe has been overlooked. That event was the first Presidential debate which occurred on September 26. I do not mean to down play the economy in this election cycle. Clearly, it was a major factor, but I believe the media and pundits have not properly recognized the significance of the debate in allowing Obama to take control of the race.
What was it about the debate that allowed Obama to win? Actually, it was just as much about McCain’s tactics as it was Obama’s performance. When Senator McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, he undercut one of his best criticisms against Obama and that was his lack of experience. It would have been disingenuous for McCain to attack Obama for a lack of experience when his running mate had even less. McCain’s response to this quandary was to be less obvious that he was raising the experience argument by attacking Obama’s judgment by repeatedly saying, “He doesn’t get it.” It was the repeated statement by Senator McCain that Obama didn’t “get it” that I believe was his final undoing. Why did this hurt him? Because to the average viewer, they watched as Obama clearly articulated his positions and his rationale for those positions. To most Americans, I believe that they watched as McCain said “He doesn’t get it” and they watched Obama’s answers and thought, “It seems to me like he gets it.” There was an inherent disconnect between what McCain was telling them and what they were witnessing.
As I said, clearly the economy had a huge role in this election as did the way Obama ran his campaign as he essentially reset the rules on how to finance and run a campaign. Both of these factors had a huge role in the outcome of the election and have been widely discussed, but the debates were the one equalizer that McCain could have used to try to keep the race close. As the statistics show above, he was unable to do this and instead he let the election slip completely out of reach. Ironically, if he had been able to keep it close, then his argument may have had some effect as doubts may have arisen in the electorate as to whether Obama was ready. Instead, he raised the argument too early and allowed the American voters the chance to get comfortable with Obama during the debates thereby eliminating the potency of the argument.