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What If the Obama Campaign Didn’t Win Him the Election?

- January 8, 2013

In the wake of the 2012 election, it’s become commonplace to credit Obama’s “formidable” campaign for his victory.  I’ve already begun to challenge that narrative a bit.  This post will continue to do so.

As I understand the “formidable campaign” narrative, it’s that Obama campaign simply did a lot of things much better than the Romney campaign.  If so, then one possible implication is this:

Obama should have done better where the two campaigns went head-to-head, relative to places where neither side was campaigning.  That is, even though Obama was expected to lose votes in most states relative to a more favorable year like 2008, he should have done better in the battleground states, relative to non-battleground states, because the battleground states were where his campaign’s hypothesized prowess — in fundraising, messaging, GOTV, etc. — was manifest.  So did that happen?


At a conference several weeks ago, I presented the graph below comparing Obama’s vote margin in 2008 and 2012.  The data are courtesy of the indefatigable David Wasserman.  The battleground states are the black dots (CO, FL, IA, MI, NC, NH, NV, OH, PA, VA, and WI).

If the Obama campaign really beat Romney that badly, you’d expect the battleground states to be “higher” on the vertical axis than the other states.  That is, you’d expect them to stand out as states where Obama did better relative to 2008.  But that’s not really true.  He lost 2.05 points in the battleground states relative to 2008 and 2.24 points in the other states — a difference of less than two-tenths of one percentage point (0.19).  A simple regression model confirms that, once you’ve taken Obama’s 2008 margin into account, his 2012 margin was no better or worse in the battleground states compared to the other states.

I was not the only one who made this graph.  See Gary King’s tweet.  See also this paper by Alan Abramowitz.  Abramowitz goes even further, showing that Obama’s advantage in terms of field offices was not correlated with outcomes in the states.  Abramowitz has also made a similar graph, comparing Obama’s 2008 and 2012 vote among different groups, using the exit polls:

Obama did a bit better among Latinos and a bit worse among Jews, but otherwise his coalition was nearly identical.  (Hence my skepticism about some of the early “Obama is in trouble with (group)” stories).

In sum, I haven’t yet seen good evidence that, where the two campaigns went head-to-head, Obama clearly got the better of Romney.

Some caveats.  First, to say that Obama’s campaign might not have won him the election doesn’t mean that his campaign wasn’t innovative.  See this great slidedeck from engagedc. Put differently, Obama’s campaign may have done many things better than previous campaigns — in terms of data analytics, digital, GOTV, etc. — even if the net effect of those things on Election Day wasn’t large.

Second, evaluating campaign effects depends on the underlying counterfactual. I want to stress that these graphs don’t mean that the campaign was irrelevant.  If Obama had never held a rally or spent a dime on ads or GOTV, there’s a very good chance he would have lost.  But of course, this counterfactual is also absurd.  And it’s not what the formidable campaign narrative has in mind, as far as I can tell.

A skeptic of this post might ask: what if the Obama campaign hadn’t been so innovative and formidable?  Wouldn’t he have done worse in the battleground states?  In other words, didn’t the Obama campaign need to be that much better than Romney’s in order for Obama to win?  I tend to doubt that, in part because Obama was favored by the underlying fundamentals.  He wasn’t actually “supposed” to lose, and so I’m not sure he needed to be a better campaigner to win.

A skeptic might also rejoin: you’re looking at votes, but many of Obama’s innovations were about fundraising, and without them, he wouldn’t have raised as much money and that would have put him at a disadvantage.  My response: it’s pretty clear that the Obama campaign learned how to better raise money by experimenting with emails, developing better fundraising apps, and the like.  What we don’t know — or maybe I should say, what I don’t know — is how much additional money they raised because of this learning.  We should also keep in mind that these likely a diminishing marginal return to campaign spending.  When you’re running a $1 billion campaign, a few million dollars here or there, even a few tens of millions, is not going to be crucial.

Finally, I want to emphasize — in light of my post on the early ads and Walter Shapiro’s response — that The Gamble and the other political science work on the 2012 election will include much more precise estimates of the effects of ads and other things.  What I’ve presented at 538 and in this post are very simple graphs that are designed to stoke interest and reaction.  They are iterations of research that will be much more involved (not that this makes our book or any other study beyond reproach, of course).

Stay tuned.