Posted by Brad @ 10:45 pm on April 24th 2008

The Election Maps of Clinton v. Obama

A poll out today showed the following for Minnesota:

McCain (R) 38 (43)
Obama (D) 52 (47)

McCain (R) 42 (47)
Clinton (D) 47 (46)

Leading to a lot of blog discussion about the two paths to victory that the two Democratic candidates would have. Kos examines this more in depth today using the scenario currently being floated by the Clinton camp, but coming to markedly different conclusions.

Democratic numbers versus McCain are currently artificially depressed because of our long-running primary. But despite that disadvantage, Obama still runs a far broader, map-changing campaign than Clinton.

If Democrats want to run the same campaign that has served us so poorly the last decade — hold the Kerry states and win Ohio and Florida, then Clinton is the person. It’s clear in her rhetoric that she can’t fathom any other path to the White House. That’s why she has insulted so many “Red” states and small states and whatnot. Because in her mind, 50%+1 is the only thing that matters.

Beside having a more solid base than Clinton, Obama’s campaign would have a tough time competing in Florida, no doubt about that. But he opens up the Mountain West — Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, possibly Montana, North Dakota, and even one or two of Nebraska’s EVs (they are apportioned by congressional district). Obama would be competitive in Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia — with their large youth, African American, Latino, and creative class voters.

And, as kos notes, this is what one would assume to be a depressed map for both the Democrats.

I think there is something of a valid argument to be had regarding the two maps (Adam, I gather, views the Clinton strategy as if not necessarily sounder, than safer), but it is worth noting that the line of demarcation, itself, says something. Clinton is still playing by the GOP playbook circa 1999. If you think the best path the Democrats have towards the Presidency is narrowing it down to the same 12 battlegrounds of the last two elections—only minus perhaps New Hampshire and New Mexico which go McCain—then Clinton’s strategy makes sense. She’d be running Al Gore and John Kerry’s playbook, and just hoping that she’ll be a better candidate than them. Another year that all comes down to how the Democrat manages in Ohio and Florida.

Obama, for his part, is a game-changer. The map looks markedly different for him then what we’ve come to view as the “set” red state-blue state thingie, which seems often enough a given until you realize that most states, given a particular candidate, can change easily from red to blue or back again (Reagan and Clinton both won on maps that looked nothing like the supposedly “conventional” path to victory, although the day after the elections they BECAME the conventional path to victory). I think it’s probably true that Clinton runs marginally better, at least right now, in the PA/OH/FL triumvirate—though I have a hard time seeing either Democrat lose PA or either win FL. But beyond that, Clinton has nothing, and Obama has entire swaths of states to pick off or at least threaten in. Things like Texas might seem ridiculous, and they aren’t likely wins, but that they’re in orbit with Obama says a lot, I think, and I see no good reason why Obama could not potentially win North Carolina or Virginia, extending to the Western states kos mentions, and even including some genuine threats in the deep South (where there is the most McCain distrust for GOP voters, and some of the most revved up centers of Obama enthusiasm). We have a tendency to view the red state blue state thing concretely. But remember it wasn’t very long ago at all that KY, TN, AR, GA, and LA were reliable blue states (I’m talking 92 and 96, btw, not the 50s). Hell, Carter in 76 won the entire South, and Bush in 88 won most all of the Northeast. Point being, the map changes pretty regularly, when particular candidates push it. We have a tendency to forget that and only focus on the results of the last Presidential election as “how it is”. The American electoral battleground is a lot more fluid than we give it credit for. (Play around with this if you want to take a look).

And, there are two side benefits that are important to that picture. The first is, of course, down-ticket. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Obama as the nominee wins the Dems an additional 3 Senate seats and probably a dozen House ones (Novak mentioned today that Al Franken will win in MN if Obama is the nominee, Norm Coleman if it’s Clinton, and I think he’s right). Even under the worse case, the Democratic nominee losing, Obama STILL brings something to the table (versus Clinton).

The second thing is strategic. John McCain simply does not have the resources to run on an extended map. I think one of the things that MOST endears a Clinton campaign to the McCain team is, if she’s the nominee…whew. Hunker down in OH, PA, and FL, and maybe throw some bones to MN, NM, and NH, and be done with it. He certainly doesn’t have a budget to do that plus defend, say, Texas, and be running around the South and West. Her strategy is much easier to oppose on a limited budget.

Obama will have more money than Clinton AND a much broader map, and if you’re a McCain strategist running through scenarios right now, that has to give you reason to worry.


  1. I think that Obama should focus his ‘outside the box’ campaigning on Virginia, personally, and then judge from polling where he might be able to score an upset. Minnesota is somewhere he’ll expect to win, of course, because it’s still a Dem state in presidential elections even though it may be sliding Republicanward in some ways; unless McCain picks Pawlenty as his running-mate, I expect Minnesota to be a Democrat victory probably even if the Democrat actually lost the election overall.

    Of course, moneywise Obama can afford to blanket all sorts of states with ads and have operations on the ground there; I think that he should do that. What I don’t think that he should do, initially at least, is spend much of his own time there until it looks like a given state (whichever it is) might tip. As long as he has the money, he can afford to speculate with it by running ads and organising, without spending the much more limited resource of his time on it.

    I think though, that he should concentrate on winning rather than winning in a transformational way; that means making sure he wins Pennsylvania and competes in at least Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa (I’d have him as favourite for the second two and, as McCain will stay favouring free trade and not promising Presidential gifts of jobs and plenty, he has a great chance in Ohio if they believe his anti-NAFTA demagogueing this time around).

    If Obama looks set for a landslide, then it won’t much matter what he does so far as individual states are concerned; if the polls have him 55-45 across the board come September, it’s his to lose and he can spend a bunch of time trying to turn North Dakota blue if he wants to (although I’d again advise ensuring the win rather than trying to win flashy).

    Comment by Adam — 4/25/2008 @ 10:29 am

  2. All of which, by the way, is not even an option for Clinton.

    Comment by Brad — 4/25/2008 @ 10:41 am

  3. Virginia is an important bell weather state, but so is Colorado. Part of the power, I think, of Obama’s promise as a GE candidate is how he will force the Republicans into a spread defense. He should hit those western states hard.

    Comment by tessellated — 4/25/2008 @ 10:56 am

  4. I think he should work out which states he has the best chance in and hit them hard once he knows where his best chances are; Virginia would be a key state to win because it’s been reliably Republican but trending Democrat and Obama seems to have a decent chance of winning it. Of the Western states, although the Democrats are right to target them for Congressional pick-ups, Colorado (that you mention) looks the best bet, then maybe Nevada depending on how the polls look and whether Obama is prepared to swallow the Yucca Mountain nonsense. Maybe Virginia is out of reach, in which case he obviously shouldn’t bother too much, but it’d be a huge pickup and, assuming he holds Pennsylvania, pretty much guarantee victory, I reckon.

    Comment by Adam — 4/25/2008 @ 11:33 am

  5. I’m not clear if when you say ‘him’ you mean Obama personally or his campaign. Obvioulsy Obama the man can only be in so many places at once, and so, yes he’ll need to be strategic in planning where he visits geographically. His campaign, on the other hand, can and should spread itself out. Failure to do so would be ceding an advantage to the opposition. They have the money and volunteer base to contest more states than McCain does.

    Comment by tessellated — 4/25/2008 @ 11:38 am

  6. Well, he has so much money that, as I said, he can do ads and organise pretty much everywhere. As I said earlier (in comment #1), he should do that. His personal appearance time, and his picking of issues on which to focus, however, shouldn’t be spread so wide and should be targetted first at Pennsylvania (to lock it down) and similar states and then Virginia as his turnover state unless polls suggest a better mix of probability vs reward; in any case, he shouldn’t spend face time and add issues for that many states in addition to his base states. Of course, his central message, if voters aren’t tired of it by November, has a broad enough appeal that he doesn’t really have to pick up too many state-tailored issues and run with them hard (such as, Yucca Mountain, for example).

    Comment by Adam — 4/25/2008 @ 11:42 am


    I think things like this are good as far as a “50 state strategy” go. This is arguably as much (right now at least in terms of persuading super delegates) a strategy for the primary, but come the general this has benefits not just for Obama but for down ticket races too. What I like about that it’s likely to help increase Democratic gains in the Congress and thus help Obama push his initiatives while President.

    Anything he can do to leverage his massive organizational power will serve him well. At this point, I’m not sure which is better for him, all his cash or his huge volunteer base. The two probably aren’t really separable per se, but money tends to get more media focus since it is easily quantifiable.

    Comment by tessellated — 4/25/2008 @ 12:01 pm

  8. One thing to give the Obama campaign credit for, unlike most of the other fallen warriors this cycle (many Republicans come to mind, but also Clinton), his team have played the field pretty intelligently, I think. Their strategy seems to be to organize to the extent that they can cheaply everywhere (which is what killed Clinton, whose strategy seemed to be “Eh, why bother with anything after February 5th, or any place with black people, or any caucus states”), be visible in places you need to be, and be flexible in that, so that Obama could spend huge amounts of face time in Texas instead of having a schedule set months in advance that had him talking to VAs in New York. When an unexpected advantage arises somewhere, say for instance Indiana, you A. already have the rails set there, and B. already have some comfort zone in North Carolina, where he’s been plenty already. And don’t get mired in any one place in particular, such that if you HAVE made a big investment somewhere (PA for instance), you’re not dead in the water immediately after if that doesn’t go over (Giuliani in Florida or Thompson in South Carolina, for instance).

    In saying that out loud, it sounds pretty idiotically simple, but for some reason lots of campaigns don’t do it that way. Ron Paul’s, I have to say, was pretty good about that. Though Ron wasn’t known for putting in huge amounts of face time (he didn’t make all that many appearances relative to other candidates), he made sure that he went where he was needed. Some Paulites disagree on that, incidentally, but I thought it was good that he had a contest to see which Meetup groups could raise the most money, and put in an appearance to the top finishers, make sure he hits every big state coming up, but also finding the states he had a particular advantage and show up there when other candidates aren’t (he did that in LA and MT in particular).

    This doesn’t just mean you get more votes, it also means you jazz up your local supporters there, keep morale high, and help out local prominents (down ticket candidates, local moves and shakers, etc). I actually think that last one might be why Obama started getting in trickles of superdelegate support early. A congressman from Nebraska, for instance, who gets on board has reason to hope that Obama might show up there, whereas that probably wasn’t going to happen with Clinton. It adds an element of personal ambition (“I can add a drop in the bucket for Hillary Clinton, and she’ll say a nice thing for my website and give me a VIP pass on the cold day in hell she shows up in Omaha, or I can be ahead of the curve with Obama, and he may well make it a point to stop by).

    Comment by Brad — 4/25/2008 @ 12:02 pm

  9. Interestingly, Obama’s people are planning to unveil on Friday a “massive 50-state voter registration” drive/plan for the general election. Here.

    I have to say, I like how these guys run a campaign. May well be a flop and go nowhere, but Obama plays the high road damn well, in the macro sense of it. Going after John McCain more than Hillary Clinton in his stump speeches is part of it, letting the whole 50-state strategy vs. PA/OH/FL 2004 map speak for itself (in floating the polls mostly without comment or endless Penn/Ickes-style “up is down” analysis, but knowing that it’ll spur exactly the sort of conversation we’re having here), and now he’s already talking about organization and brand building for the fall. Meanwhile, Clinton prattles on about all the voters that don’t count, and going increasingly weirdly negative. To superdelegates, and hell to anybody, the contrast, I think, is pretty sharp, and getting sharper. One is a a vanguard of the party looking ahead. The other is a shrill egoist trying to claw her way to relevance.

    Comment by Brad — 4/25/2008 @ 12:39 pm

  10. If Obama does make a 50-state strategy really work for him, although I’m dubious that it can work as well for the Presidential candidate as it does for the party as a whole, I wonder if the people that laughed at Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy will eat their words somewhat. As I say, I think that it’s a good strategy for the party and it might do good for future presidential candidates if Obama makes the investment, but I’m not sure that it’s likely to bring immediate benefits for Obama; of course, you don’t really need an explicit 50-state strategy to win a lot of states (say, as Reagan did in 84), so disentangling the effects of such a strategy from the effects of winning big from the general national strategy is presumably not going to be easy (should Obama win a lot of unexpected states).

    My point on, say, PA is that because states in the general election, excepting Maine and Nebraska, are ‘winner takes all’, you have to focus first on the big states you can win. Obviously you can make up losing a big state with winning, say, three smaller states, but each state you add to your list of primary targets comes with some overhead (in the limited resources of candidate facetime and the issues they pick to run on) whether the state is big or small (and if you had the choice of trying to win one big state or three smaller states with roughly the same polling, the big state might well be easier to attempt; of course, if you only needed two or even one of the three, then playing their field would make more sense, so it’s all contextual).

    Comment by Adam — 4/25/2008 @ 1:05 pm

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