Saturday, December 17, 2011

Is the 2012 Game Already Over?

It's still 2011, but the 2012 election has been going on a long time. Nate Silver's "fivethirtyeight" blog hasn't yet made an attempt to count the "538" electoral votes, but that, and not the national polls, is how the points will be scored. The national disapproval rating for Obama or the GOP, or the national head-to-head matchups of Obama vs. some particular Republican, don't really matter if they are averaging an intense rejection of Obama in the Ozark-Appalachian belt with an unenthused but positive margin for him in most of the rest of the country. How does the state-by-state game look now? I have adjusted the numbers to the 2010-census reapportionments, and "colored" my map based on the past three cycles. Here are my seven colors:

NAVY BLUE, 17 states, 2 districts for Gore and Kerry, and for Obama by mostly double-digits. Pacific: California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii. Upper Lakes: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan. Mid-Atlantic: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, DC. New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Portland Maine. Assume that even if the GOP narrowly picks off Bangor Maine, the greater margin in Portland will give the state bonus to the Dems, and this is 241 electoral votes.

BABY BLUE, 3 states, 1 district for Gore or Kerry, Obama by single-digits. New Mexico, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Bangor Maine for 16 votes.

PURPLE, 2 states disputed by Gore or Kerry, narrowly for Obama but sure to be hot again this time. Florida and Ohio for 47.

INDIGO, 3 states, 1 district for Bush twice but flipped by Obama. Virginia, Omaha Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada for 29.

GRAY, 3 states within 1% of a tie last time, enough 3rd-party that no-one had a majority. North Carolina (barely Obama), Indiana (very barely Obama), and Missouri (very very barely McCain) for 36.

PINK, 3 states for McCain under special circumstances. Montana (McCain by plurality only, due to Ron Paul votes; Obama a few percent back, but led the polls at one point), Arizona (McCain's home, but Hispanic anger on the immigration issue puts this in play this time), and Alaska (Palin's home, but "Palin fatigue" has injured the GOP brand) for 17.

CRIMSON, 17 states, 2 districts that are deeply Red. Deep South: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina. Upper South: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia. Mormon West: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming. Great Plains: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Lincoln and Rural Nebraska, for 152.

Now, it's not impossible for the GOP to invade Navy territory: McCain's late efforts for Pennsylvania only got the margin just below double digits (about 9.9% IIRC) but were not out of the question (there is a lot of "north Appalachia" in the state that gave us Senator Santorum, although Santorum is disdained enough in Philly and Pittsburgh that he would be of negative use there as either candidate or running mate); the Upper Lakes, aside from Obama's unassailable home-base of Illinois, were only single-digit margins and offer possibilities. Minnesota gave us Michelle Bachmann as well as Al Franken; Wisconsin is home to governor Walker's voters as well as those trying to recall him (very polarized and delicately balanced right now); and while Michigan (home of the original "Reagan Democrats" of Macomb County) has some gratitude to Obama for rescuing GM and Chrysler, it also fondly recalls Romney's father as one of the last competent governors. Nor is it impossible for the Dems to invade Crimson: holding the convention in Charlotte is not just a bid to retain North Carolina, but also reflects a "New South" strategy that aims to flip states like Georgia. Gingrich as nominee might retain enough hometown sentiment to take Georgia off the table, but one poll showed him trailing Obama in South Carolina, of all places: a solid black vote for Obama would need to be countered by more of a solid white vote than Gingrich is accomplishing.

But, we can take 241-152 as roughly the "starting score", more or less in the sense that the 1967 boundaries are a starting point for an Israeli-Palestinian solution: yes yes, of course we know there can be adjustments in either direction, but it is the ballpark. And it is very unfavorable ballpark for the GOP: they would need 118 out of the 145 votes available in the states of intermediate "color"; while Obama would need only 29, and let us subdivide Obama's possibilities by how the Purples go:

A. Obama takes Florida: that's 270, game over.

B. Ohio but not Florida: then any one of North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, or Colorado, or any two out of Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, New Hampshire, or Montana+Alaska makes at least 268; Obama would only need Bangor or Omaha if the "one" was Missouri or the "two" included New Hampshire, or both if the "one" was Colorado or the "two" was NH+NM.

C. No Purples: then holding all the Indigos makes 270; or some Baby Blues (easier for Obama) could substitute, Iowa for Nevada (both 6), or Bangor for Omaha (1), or NH+NM for Colorado; if he failed to hold Virginia, holding North Carolina (the most realistic Gray) or picking off Arizona and another Pink would be required.

This is a lot of options. The Republican candidate would need stop all of them. This puts them in a dilemma:

Play D? If the idea of picking off any Navy states is abandoned (and, let's face it, any candidate who drinks too much "Tea" is going to have a very hard time doing that), then Florida is an absolute must. The Ryan budget proposing to kill Medicare as we know it seriously damaged the GOP with the long-memory retired voters (attempts to say that Ryan's "coupon" program could still be called "Medicare" of a sort have not sold well). That is why Gingrich (who may be crazy but is definitely not stupid) has broken the commandment "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican" to blast Ryan; and why he tried to out-Likud Netanyahu with his "invented Palestinians" remark, playing to older Jews in Florida; and why he will need to rally the Cubans (who are harder to rile up now that Castro is fading), perhaps with Rubio (despite the baggage) or Jeb Bush (despite the poisonous name) for a running-mate. But it's not enough: it is also necessary to nail down Ohio, or be forced to "run the table" on the rest of the swing states. God-gays-guns themes have played well in Ohio, and we may hear more of that, but in an economy-dominated year, the juice may have been nearly squeezed out of that orange; so we will see more efforts to tank the economy and push the blame for it onto Obama. But both Purples are not enough either: the GOP must also retake North Carolina and Virginia, or at least one of them and almost all of the Rocky Mountains. The divisive strategies required to nail down Florida and Ohio are not going to be helpful against an "Indigo" strategy for Obama in the New South and Southwest: pitting "NoVa" against "Real Virginia" as Palin tried last time would be counter-productive again; the interests of the Cuban Floridians are not the same as those of Hispanics from Mexico or Central America in the Southwest, who may have been irretrievably alienated already. There seem to be a few too many plates to juggle here, when not a single one can be dropped.

So, go on O instead? The GOP establishment would prefer something like a Romney/Christie ticket, making plays for Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (though Massachusetts probably knows Romney too well), and putting the Dems on defense in Minnesota (though Pawlenty's endorsement is probably a net minus there), Wisconsin (a plausible pick-off), and Pennsylvania (but it is hard to rouse rural Pennsylvania with "moderate" candidates, as McCain found). They could make a good game out of it, if 30-ish Navy votes (say, Michigan and Wisconsin with a close race in New Jersey) were flipped. Then Obama would not have a choice of A, B, or C above, but would have to accomplish two of them: still doable, with Florida and the Indigoes, or both Purples and "one" or "two" more, but more uphill. The problem is that the Republican base will not play this game: if Romney can still be nominated and get the party faithful to campaign for him, it will only be in conjunction with a Michelle Bachman or someone equally Palinesque as a running mate. At best, this will make Navy pick-offs less likely and offsetting losses elsewhere more likely. Or the GOP could end up with the "worst of both worlds" where a running-mate choice scares off independents but fails to appease the Tea Partiers, who defect to a third candidate or just stay home. It is not enough for Romney to be more charming than McCain, when he is also more wobbly: he needs more than a minor improvement on the 2008 results.

The Iowa caucuses are supposed to be the "opening pitch" of the game, but the unusual amount of early action has already contributed to a "bottom of the ninth" feel. The Republicans are a few runs behind: can they catch up? Of course it's possible, but in my opinion it is later than they seem to think.

Is the Game Already Over? (cont.)

Just after I wrote my first-draft mapping, state-by-state maps came out from Axelrod on the Democratic side and Rove from the Republican side. Axelrod crows about how many alternative winning maps there could be for Obama, outlining multiple strategies that can be pursued simultaneously. Rove acknowledges that much of what Republicans need to do is already locked in: he agrees that both Florida and Ohio, and both Virginia and North Carolina (along with Indiana, which Obama would have to be very lucky to hold), are absolute must-flips, and assume that every McCain state is a must-hold. Leaving Obama with the Navy and Baby Blues, plus Indigo minus Virginia, still makes 273, however, so Rove needs to identify one more pick-up. He targets Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, saying any one would do. Technically, unless New Hampshire comes along with the Bangor district, alone it would only reach the dreaded 269-269 tie: media uproar, recount litigation in the closest state(s), dusting off constitutional tie-breakers last seen in Andy Jackson's day, perhaps ending with the House picking Gingrich but the Senate picking Biden.

But I would most strongly disagree with Rove about Pennsylvania, which I think is a microcosm of the national problem. The legacy of the Bush years has been polarization: people on the two sides do not look at the same news source, often know few people on the other side, and have largely given up arguing politics with those they do know, or don't get anywhere with such arguments. Who will people blame if the economic recovery remains anemic? Will they say "Obama inherited W's mess, and the GOP obstructs every attempt to fix it" or "He owns the economy by now, and his money-squandering, anti-business ways are killing us"? Mostly, whoever is saying one or the other now, next November will be saying the same; only a sharp dip back into recession or a growth spurt denting unemployment would shift this much. Nor will other issues: foreign policy is a minor plus for Obama, but only something ultra-dramatic (an Iranian nuclear test on the downside, or Israeli-Palestinian peace on the upside) would make many people care much. And on religious and social questions, nobody really changes their minds: the old die and the young take their place, and that's about it. So that leaves intangibles about candidate character and national mood: the messianic glow of Obama 2008 is long gone, but the Republican urgency to "take the country back" peaked in 2010; Obama would have to be very lucky to do as well as last time, but a few percentage points of "enthusiasm gap" are not going to shift many states. Pennsylvania is polarized between the deep-blue urban areas of "Phillyburgh" in the corners vs. "The T" elsewhere, deep-red to Confederate levels: statewide races have often been won by middle-of-the-roaders like the Caseys (former governor and current senator), Democrats but pro-life, or Republicans like former govenor Thornburgh and senator Spector, denounced as "RINOs" by Tea Partiers, with Spector defecting to the Democratic party at the end of his career. In the national race, however, there is going to be no middle, and most people who would say they are "undecided" are really only undecided about whether they will bother to vote at all, not which way they would go. A red-meat Republican candidate might spike turnout in The T, but equally draw more Phillyburghers to vote against him. The built-in edge for Obama is surely less than the 10% of last time, but would be extraordinarily hard to shift.

Note that Rove leaves Minnesota and Michigan off his target list: neither of those would be impossible, but the Republicans are only going to pick those up if they are already doing very well and picking up lots of others; similarly, Indiana and Missouri despite their razor-edge margins last time are not worth spending much time on, since Obama will only get those if he gets back to 2008 levels and is running away with the race. So, let me re-color the map, classifying with an eye to the upcoming race rather than the history. Move Wisconsin from Navy to Baby Blue, and New Mexico from Baby Blue to Pink; merge Gray into Purple, and divide up the Indigo regionally. Virginia belongs with the Purple, which now means the must-take states for the Republicans (96 votes), along with the Crimson must-holds (152). Omaha belongs with the Baby Blues: Iowa+Omaha, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire+Bangor are the plausible targets (22). Nevada and Colorado belong with Pink: that is the Rocky Mountain belt (if we call Alaska's mountains honorary Rockies, and delete the Crimson heart of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming) where former Republican strength has ebbed (37). The GOP has to juggle every single Crimson and Purple plate, and not do too badly in Pink, in order not to need too much "offense" in Baby Blue.

This means, first of all, making up with retirees in Florida and Arizona, and Hispanics in the West generally. The GOP cannot win as the party which will throw Medicare grannies to the dubious mercy of the insurance companies, or as the party which pulls over brown people to ask if their papers are in order; to the extent they have already acquired those reputations, the candidate needs to spend time walking it back. To appeal to at least part of the Jewish vote in Florida, the GOP has already locked itself into opposing a two-state solution, although more and more are in favor of that: this is symptomatic of their problem with appealing to shrinking blocs of older voters while turning off the younger; Cubans whose primary concern is attacking Castro are an even more rapidly-vanishing breed. They have the same problem with their need to rouse the evangelics with some gay-bashing and abortion references. They must somehow combine this with some renewed appeal to "New South" voters, who are tired of hearing about social issues and are dubious about trickle-down economics. Nothing has so far been heard from any of the candidates which would really advance the must-accomplish goal of winning back both Virginia and North Carolina.

And a "Pure D" strategy which counts on recovering in Pink to the extent of one state (Colorado or Nevada; New Mexico is trending heavily against them) looks very unlikely for them (even assuming the Crimson+Purple assembly) given Pink regional trends. "Frontier libertarians" of the sort who only grudgingly allow that a government needs to exist are not necessarily reliable for the GOP anymore: Ron Paul on a 3rd-party ticket could peel away even more votes than last time, and if there is no such ticket, a lot of those votes may just stay home. Meanwhile, hostility from Hispanics, from voters who are not ultra-environmentalist but have seen worrisome amounts of clear-cut forest and poisoned trout streams, and from those who are repelled by the Colorado Springs fundamentalist broadcasters, are continuing negatives. Rove envisions at least holding more-or-less steady in the Pink (if no pick-up, at least no change; picking up Colorado or Nevada at the cost of dropping Montana, Alaska, or both has the same effect) so that only one Baby Blue is needed. But there are several minor-erosion scenarios in which neither Iowa nor New Hampshire would suffice, only both together or Wisconsin at least: dropping Montana, or Alaska, or both; or picking up Nevada at the cost of losing Arizona; or succeeding with North Carolina and Virginia but dropping a little oopsie from the Crimsons, like South Carolina or North Dakota, all make the arithmetic come out that way. Anything worse than this could only be compensated for with more "O" than is realistic to expect.

If some "offense" in the North is a must, can the GOP come up with a ticket and platform which blue-staters could view like, "OK, they're Republicans, but not *those* Republicans that have gummed everything up, and Obama hasn't really panned out, so let's give them a shot"? That doesn't seem to be in the cards anymore, because the red-staters have already decided to insist on one of *those* Republicans, even if it means forcing Romney into some of the most painful flip-flops of his whole career.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Is the Game Over? (concluded)

Rove's map appears to be based on "uniform swing", the model used by pundits in the UK to translate national polls to projected seats in Parliament (polls in each constituency are impractical) assuming that the parties' vote-shares will change from one election to the next by the same amount everywhere, any mis-predictions in one direction due to local variations cancelling with those in the other. Since Obama won the national vote by 7% in 2008, a swing in the -8% range, if exactly uniform (enough to flip Virginia, which had +6.3% for Obama, but not Colorado at 8.6), would create the situation of the Republican winning the popular vote but Obama getting 273 electoral votes (with all the uproar that would cause). Rove's list of targetted states are the ones that would flip with a swing about -10 for Obama, and presumably he hopes that if the national swing is about -8, local variations in at least one of the targets would flip it (but Virginia must not vary in the opposite direction). Obama's approval-minus-disapproval is at -4 recently, a swing of -11, but "disapprovers" might still turn in to "lesser-of-two-evils" voters: Obama is still at +2 over Romney (a -5 swing) or +11 over Gingrich (a +4 swing). The "approval" question is inherently volatile (often heard by the audience as "do I approve of what he has done most recently?") but that is not the whole problem: as with polls about the health-care bill, "disapproval" messily combines those who think the President has gone too far with those who think he has not gone far enough. Real Clear Politics shows some sub-tabs indicating that much of the "swing" away from Obama is among Democrats, blacks, self-identified liberals, the young; in short, among those who would never consider voting Republican; whether they will show up at all is the question, but a sufficiently scary opposing candidate might provide the motivation if Obama cannot. Obama is holding his own among retirees, Hispanics, and Jews, all groups the Republicans wish they could turn.

Axelrod by contrast looks at the map in a very "granular" fashion, thinking of which particular local swings would suffice: making the effort to peel off Omaha's 1 electoral vote is archetypal of what Axelrod did in 2008. It can be assumed that Obama will not do as well this time, but in some places the negative can be kept down low enough to hold, or a positive generated for some "offense". His five alternatives are: going all-in on Florida while playing "Pure D" with the hard-Blues; holding Ohio and one or two related soft-Blues; concentrating on holding in the New South; or on the Rocky Mountains, with either some Baby Blue defense or Pink offense. So, this raises the question of whether "uniform swing" is a reasonable model in the US (in the UK, Nate Silver and others attempted to find a more predictive model, with poor results) or whether the regional variations are crucial. There is the famous "net-Red" map in which counties are colored Blue or Red not based on Obama's margin, but on his margin minus Kerry's; so almost everywhere is Blue (where Obama lost, he generally lost less badly than Kerry) but a band from the Ozarks to the Appalachians was actually net-Red, stronger for McCain than for Bush (or rather, more strongly against Obama). On the other hand, the change from the 1980 Reagan-Carter map to 1984 Reagan-Mondale is a disastrous case of uniform swing: Mondale did not do very much worse than Carter, but he did so consistently, not-quite-carrying a lot of states for a memorable electoral-college wipeout. So I have analyzed not just the state-by-state swings, but the variations among them.

The case-studies were the swings from 2000 Bush-Gore to 2004 Bush-Kerry, and from 2004 to 2008 Obama-McCain. The net-Blue swing 2000-to-2004 had a mean of -2.1, standard deviation 4.5, while 2004-to-2008 had mean +9.9, standard deviation 7.3. It is a little odd that the mean swing +9.9, averaging over the 51 cases (including DC) treating small and large states as of the same weight, is rather higher than the national swing +9.2 (from Kerry's negative margin to Obama's positive); one outlier, the +26.6 in Obama's birthplace of Hawaii, accounts for about 0.4 of it (DC, consistently a run-away for the Democrats, is an outlier in raw margin, but not atypical in terms of the swing) but the rest reflects the campaign's strategic focus on turning out votes where it mattered. The higher standard deviation is also significant: there was wider variation from state to state in how people reacted to the very novel candidacy of Obama; the Republican ticket and platform were also changed, which could contribute to wider variability in how McCain-Palin, likewise, were received in one state or another. By contrast, 2000-to-2004 was more uniform as it shared features with 1980-to-1984: same candidate on the Republican side (true, incumbent-Bush or incumbent-Reagan, with some track record, was not perceived the same as candidate-Bush or candidate-Reagan; and likewise, incumbent-Obama in 2012 will not be identical to candidate-Obama of 2008), and rather similar candidates on the Democratic side (Kerry was not identified with Gore, as Mondale was with Carter; but both were perceived as bland personalities lacking in firmness). I suggest therefore that the degree of uniformity depends upon how "familiar" the electoral choices are: if we get not only the same candidate on the Democratic side, but also a Republican ticket that feels similar to McCain-Palin, with Romney still suspect to the evangelicals and hard-line conservatives but choosing a firebrand running-mate to compensate, we can expect the swing to be fairly small and fairly uniform. A very different ticket could shake things up, but cut both ways from one part of the country to another.

Looking at the raw Blue margin, some states are fairly "rigid" and disregard national swings (in Massachusetts, the margins for Gore, Kerry, and Obama were +27, +25, and +26; in Oklahoma, Kerry and Obama at -31.2 were indistinguishable even to the tenth of a percent) while others are "national microcosms" whose swings are within a percent or two of the average (Iowa and Pennsylvania, notably). Moving to the net-Blue shifts in 2004-to-2008, opposite from the five net-Red states (Oklahoma, Arkansas, Lousiana, Tennessee, West Virginia) where the shift was actually negative against the national current, the six states with highest net-Blue are an odd collection: Hawaii (outlier), Indiana (a surprise victory), Nebraska (the Omaha pick-off), Montana (McCain by plurality only), North Dakota and Utah (neither were any threat to go for Obama, but he did surprisingly well). It is instructive to look at "net-net-Blue", that is, the difference between the local swing and the national swing (where a candidate over- or under-performed compared to his average performance). To see if there are any real underlying regional trends, divide states by whether the net-net-Blue was positive two times in a row (in 2000-to-2004 and again 2004-2008) or negative two times in a row; each should happen one-fourth of the time, so finding 15 double-positives and 13 double-negatives looks like random chance.

Except: there is distinct clumping. The 13 double-negatives include a contiguous block of the 5 net-Reds (OK-AR-LA-TN-WV) and 3 neighbors (Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky) tenuously reaching through Pennsylvania (but its net-net-Blue is negative only by <1% and then 2%) to New York; disconnected are Florida, Rhode Island, and Arizona. The 15 double-positives include a contiguous block Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota; and a little block of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, not touching North Carolina or the strongest double-positive, Vermont. In the Northeast, then, it does appear to be just statistical noise. The continued rightward drift of the Interior South (weakly reaching into The T in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, though not enough to tip either state) is of course very well known. But the leftward drift of the West (not just the Left Coast, where any increase in the Blue margin is irrelevant to the electoral college, but deep into Pink territory) is a less-noted trend. The Western branch of the Republican Party does not seem to be getting any attention from other branches: three former governors from the West are running, with Huntsman of Utah unable to break out of single digits, Johnson of New Mexico only getting enough attention to be invited to a debate just once, and Roemer of Colorado not even a blip. It is hard to say why this disconnection is happening, but my sense is that the Republicans have little chance of retaking any Western states, and a good chance of dropping one or two.