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The Nominations & The Underbrush

- January 12, 2009

[This is the first post in our week-long series on the 2008 election, in conjunction with The Forum. See here for an introduction.]

In “The Nomination and the Election: Clearing Away Underbrush,” Bryon Shafer and Amber Wichowsky examine this “perverse” relationship: the presidential nominees performed “best in states that they would cede to their opponent in the general election.” For example, Barack Obama did very well in red state caucuses — e.g., Utah and Kansas — but obviously didn’t fare quite so well in these states in the general election. And John McCain failed to win many Southern state primaries, even though many of these states were solidly behind him in November.

I see two questions here. One is more interesting to me than the other. The first question is about the perversity of the outcome. I’ll confess that I don’t really see this outcome as perverse. I’m not sure why we would ever expect a positive relationship between winning a state’s primary or caucus and winning a state’s general election. This is why the campaign rhetoric about this — Obama: I can expand the map; Clinton: I can win in the states that count — was always silly. (Brendan Nyhan was all over this at the time.) When I mentally compare a primary to the general, I see different electorates making choices among different candidates at a different point in time. That Obama wins among Wyoming’s Democrats doesn’t tell us anything about how he’ll do among Wyomingans of every political stripe. Comparing primary election outcomes to the general election outcome is apples and oranges.

The second question is: why did Obama win all of the caucus states and McCain lose all of them? Quoting from Shafer and Wichowsky:

bq. What is left unresolved in this larger theoretical argument—but what just might hold the key to it—is the question of why these caucus results differed additionally, and so strongly, as between the Democratic and Republican parties.

They argue against some conventional explanations for caucus outcomes:

bq. …simple hypotheses about caucus operations—“They favor party regulars.” “No, they favor partisan independents.”—fall quickly by the wayside.

One can, they argue, construct some a post hoc explanation specific to 2008, but ultimately something more generalizable would be better:

bq. The hypothesis that caucuses are low-turnout institutions with a consequently low threshold of victory could be made to fit both parties in 2008. In this view, Obama as a ‘movement’ candidate simply overwhelmed this threshold, while McCain, having less of a movement, could not reach it. Yet this is close to being an idiosyncratic hypothesis, adapted to 2008 alone and specific to each of the two parties independently.

This question is interesting. 2008 was unique in that lots of caucus outcomes (besides Iowa) mattered, mostly on the Democratic side. One hypothesis — weird, unrepresentative electorates in caucus states — has not always been well-supported in the past (see my earlier post). It would be nice to look at 2008 data, but most caucus states didn’t have exit polls or something similar, at least as far as I can tell from a quick search.

On the Democratic side, another hypothesis is simply campaign strategy. A hallmark of Obama’s campaign was his focus on voter mobilization, particularly in caucus states where mobilization pays particular dividends. See, for example, this Boston Globe story.

On the Republican side, I’m not sure there’s really anything to explain. The McCain campaign never much targeted many of the caucuses, and it’s not clear that he needed to in order to win the nomination. I suspect that McCain didn’t win the various Republican caucuses because any particular caucus state either tended to favor someone other than McCain and/or experienced much more campaigning by candidate other than McCain — e.g., Nevada and Romney. If so, then there’s nothing intrinsic in caucuses per se that caused McCain to lose each of them. Caucuses just happened to occur in states where he wasn’t favored or didn’t really campaign.

To conclude, let me return to the broad topic of Shafer and Wichowsky’s piece: the relationship between the nominating process and the general election outcome. There is one aspect of the nominating process that may have affected Obama’s vote share in November (although it was not necessarily crucial to his victory): mobilization, or get-out-the-vote efforts. Obama was clearly able to convert his organization from winning delegates to winning voters. Some statistics on Obama’s advantage in contacting voters are in Michael McDonald’s article and also the article by Philip Klinkner and Thomas Schaller. McCain never built such an organization during the primaries or during the general election campaign. See Michael McDonald’s piece again as well as this 538.com post. This particular aspect of campaign strategy may have been one important link between the two stages of this presidential election.