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Deconstructing the Media's Clinton-Obama Ouija Board

Released May 14, 2008

Sen. Hillary Clinton had a good night this week in West Virginia, winning a landslide victory by nearly 150,000 votes over Sen. Barack Obama. Clearly, she must now have that fickle thing called "momentum," right?

Contacts:

Rob Richie  Executive Director  [email protected]  (301) 270-4616 
Aurelie Marfort  Communications Assistant  [email protected]  (301) 270-4616 



Quick Facts:

State Date Projected Clinton
Percent
% Predicted by Obama Campaign
Feb. 6th
WY 3/8/08 38% 40%
MS 3/11/08 37% 38%
PA 4/22/08 55% 52%


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Introduction
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Sen. Hillary Clinton had a good night this week in West Virginia, winning a landslide victory by nearly 150,000 votes over Sen. Barack Obama. Clearly, she must now have that fickle thing called "momentum," right?

Of course a week ago the same candidates had quite different results in North Carolina and Indiana, where Obama won those states collectively by some 210,000 votes. So, the logical conclusion would be that Obama had the "momentum" and must have now lost it.

But what happened between then and now to change the contest so dramatically?

Nothing, really -- and yet the pundit class and many in the media will try to find meaning (read: momentum) into these numbers. But in reality, too many of the nation's talking heads are playing with a Ouija board and tailoring their analysis to fit the pre-written story-line du jour.

In reality, much like American political districts and states can be predictably divided into red, blue and purple areas, Democratic primary voters can often be predictably slotted into the Obama and Clinton camps (and the messages they represent, particularly on the breakdown of change versus experience). Each side has its areas of strength, both within states and among states.

This political determinism has been masterfully demonstrated by the Obama campaign strategists, who through methods they have not made publicly available, have predicted nearly every primary and caucus result thus far. What we’ve been seeing since February 5th are results that largely track what the Obama campaign projected would happen in a memo mistakenly released to Bloomberg News on the morning of February 6th. A lot has happened since then on the campaign trail, from controversies over Clinton facing sniper fire in Bosnia to statements by Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright, but the Obama campaign’s memo projects most state winners and their victory margins with uncanny accuracy.

This fact highlights the misleading nature of the horse-race style coverage of the presidential race, which masks the mostly static nature of the national race by filtering it through the day-to-day narrative of the news cycle.

But the predictability and the problem are much more than simply knowing who will prevail in a given state. Even within a state, regions and counties are predictable. It’s just like nothing had changed in Indiana’s electorate when, long after the polls closed, Obama had a surge of support in votes counted in Lake County that for a time made it unclear who would carry the state. And yet, in a national election, we wouldn't say that Obama had the late momentum because he won the last few Indiana precincts to report -- so why would we measure the momentum of a national campaign based on who won the most recent state, when we knew well in advance who would win it?

The bottom line is that though the scandal or spin of the day may be exciting fodder for the talk shows, it may not dictate election results to the degree our nation's pundit-class would have you believe. And once again, a piece of our broken electoral system is at fault -- namely the presidential primary calendar.


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Why Cover a National Election Through a State-by-State Lens?
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In a nationally competitive race, as this one certainly is, some states will go heavily toward one candidate, others toward another. Within states, one candidate typically piles up support in some counties, while losing heavily in others. Political analysts jump to certain conclusions about momentum or leap to hyped up themes like Obama’s seeming trouble with the white working class, all the while overlooking that in other areas of the country Obama has done very well in that demographic and currently is favored in upcoming heavily white, generally low-income states like Montana, South Dakota and Oregon.

What we are seeing is essentially a national primary unfolding state by state, county by county. Having different winners in different places doesn’t change the basic dynamic of who is ahead overall. It only seems like it might due to the erratic nature in which our primaries and caucuses are scheduled.

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How the Primary Schedule Affects The National Result & Solutions
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Having a national campaign where every state and territory matters is good – and popular with Democrats.  What is unfortunate for Hillary Clinton is that the primary schedule – one created with little national coordination – poorly serves such a national campaign. She has almost certainly lost among pledged delegates and the popular vote, and indeed that was clear weeks ago. She's like a team playing the 7th game of the World Series after losing four of the first six games – they can win that 7th game, but can’t win the series.

What would have made more sense is to have the campaign build to a crescendo where the final states really did have a mathematical chance to determine the outcome even as the early states established momentum and began to clear the field. Developing such a schedule will take coordinated national party action – something we strongly support in promoting attention to several different proposals at our FixThePrimaries site.

At the end of the day, voters matter and their decisions matter. Their predictability cannot be taken for granted. Yet their general predictability should be encouraging to defenders of representative democracy. Voters are grounded in certain beliefs and attitudes and over-hyped stories about campaign gaffes and big money spending aren't necessarily going to shake those views – indeed often not at all.

Voter predictability does mean that we should establish electoral rules that recognize the geographic realities now defining the impact of this predictability. The primary schedule should be made more rational, obviously. More fundamentally, if we want voter choice in legislative elections, we must move beyond the no-choice elections that come with  winner-take-all rules and establish some kind of proportional representation – at a minimum, an Irish-style system of ranking candidates in districts of three to fives seats, where like-minded voters will be well-positioned to earn representation of their views.

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Conclusion
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And a final jab at some (not all) of our talking media heads: please stay calm. Jumping up and down over the profound horserace meaning of certain results may mean better ratings, but it can make you look pretty darn foolish over the glare of an objective spotlight.

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