Friday, June 20, 2008

There is no key voting bloc

It annoys me whenever political pundits say things like "McCain needs to improve his appeal to women" or "Obama needs to do better among working class white people in Appalachia." No, they don't. A vote is a vote is a vote is a vote. It doesn't matter where they come from.

Yes, any candidate would do better if more of a certain demographic voted for them. But that doesn't mean they should automatically target that demographic. Maybe they'd be better off increasing turnout among demographics they're already strong in. Or targeting demographics where the voters are most persuadable. Or targeting demographics that can be appealed to with messages that don't jeopardize the candidates standing with other groups.

Yglesias says something similar here:
...[T]he accompanying analysis says "Barack Obama's appeal to younger voters and John McCain's support among older voters may have created a situation where the outcome will turn on the preferences of middle-aged voters -- particularly those in their 40s." You see analysis of this sort all the time, but it's all based on a mistake -- there's not a demographic electoral college where "winning" particular sub-samples of the population is the key to victory and therefore it's important to focus attention on the most evenly divided demographic groups. If John McCain persuades an Obama-supporting 25 year-old to switch to his camp, that has just as big an impact as one 45 year-old one 65 year-old or one 85 year-old.

Beyond that, if you do want to label any particular group as key (for the sake of deciding which TV shows to advertise on, for example) the reasonable approach isn't to look for closely divided groups, it's to look for groups with lots of people who haven't stated a preference on the theory that those people might be easier to persuade. Voters over sixty have a marked predilection for John McCain, but there are also a lot of undecided voters in this bloc that might be worth going after. For either campaign, who "wins" seniors is irrelevant, you just go after persuadable voters, and it's arguably among seniors where the biggest group of persuadables is.

You hear pundits making this kind of mistake all the time. They decide the soccer moms, or NASCAR dads, or turnout of young people, or whatever is the key to everything. In a close race, they'll pick one particular subgroup and claim it's responsible for the out come. No, it's not. Everything contributes.

This comes up a lot with the 2000 election with Nader pulling votes from Gore. Certainly, Nader was a factor, but there are a zillion other things that could have compensated but didn't. A 0.5% increase in Hispanic women supporting Gore in Florida might have swung the outcome the other way. But no one blames Hispanic Floridian women, or any other demographic group, for Gore not getting enough votes to prevent the Supreme Court from intervening and awarding the state to Bush.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A vote is a vote is a vote is a vote. It doesn't matter where they come from."

Hey Zachary,
Ordinarily, your analysis is spot-on, but I must take issue with your statements in this post. Because of the electoral college, it DOES matter where the votes come from. We know that Obama is going to take California, for example. And he could win by a million votes there, or 2 million, and it would not matter. The extra million votes do not matter -- he gets the same number of electoral votes from the state no matter what, and so the "1 vote = 1 vote" idea does not hold water. If Obama managed to carry more of the Appalachian blue collar vote (for example), in my home state of Kentucky, that might get him enough votes combined with my Prius-driving, latte-sipping demographic to take Kentucky's electoral votes.

Essentially? Demographic appeal *does* matter, state by state, which is why the pundits focus on it.

- Ron

3:28 AM, June 20, 2008  
Blogger Zachary Drake said...

Ron, you're right that demographics can matter because demographics are unevenly distributed throughout states.

So sometimes it does make sense to chase a particular demographic, because it may be a way to flip certain states that are close and over-represented with that demographic.

But I still think the pundits over-fetishize certain groups. Blue collar white Appalachians seem to be the current favorite. I'd love it if Obama did better with these folks, and it is very hard to win certain states without them.

But that doesn't necessarily imply that going after these folks is the right strategy for Obama. It depends on a lot of things: how open are they to being persuaded? Given the resources that would be required to get the electoral votes at stake, are there wiser places to go? Obama may be better off trying to appeal to people in the West, or the South, or Alaska.

I don't have the data to make all these calls. It could be that blue collar Appalachians are in fact Obama's best "target market". But it's not necessarily an absolute must for him.

5:14 AM, June 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Zach,

Let us forget about the "Appalachian" component of the demographic for an instant. I suspect that Obama is not going to be able to get Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, because of social conservatism and lingering racism in those states.

But I believe that the main reason that the pundits are "fetishizing" the blue collar vote (as you put it), is because (1) it can go either way, (2) it represents a very large number of people, and (3) it is always a decisive factor in the outcome of several battleground states. I'm thinking specifically of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana.

That's not to say that votes cannot also be gotten elsewhere. Obama also had a rather weak showing among Hispanic voters in the primary, and going after those votes out West would make strategic sense as well. But ignoring Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to go after them would be an incredibly bad idea. A winning electoral map is very difficult if you lose those states. Fortunately, Obama has the resources to hit both demographics in his "50 state" strategy. He wants it all! And I hope he gets it.

When it comes down to it, the outcome of the election could very well hinge on whether blue collar Democrats vote Democratic this year. They didn't in 2000 and 2004 -- to the country's great detriment. But you have to forget about the populist "1 person, 1 vote" idea for the general election. In the electoral college, place matters as much as people. And the focus on demographics is justified, since that is where races are won and lost.

- Ron

3:30 PM, June 20, 2008  

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