Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai and FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver discuss the viability of McCain's Pennsylvania-based strategy, the voters assuming we're still stuck in the 2000/2004 universe, and Silver's defense of his model should the election turn to McCain.
M.B.: Good to meet you — I like the site. What's new in the polling this week? What's surprising you?
N.S.: Well, the weird thing is the divergence of the state and national polling. Some of the national trackers have tightened a bit. But Obama couldn't be doing much better in the state polls. Maybe McCain has a huge cache of votes in Idaho or something that the pollsters are missing.
M.B.: Yeah, I don't know how to explain that. But it's the states that really matter, right? I mean, that McCain is spending all this time in Pennsylvania — it sort of points to how restrictive the map has become for him.
N.S.: Yeah, Obama appears to have leads of at least seven to eight points in all the Kerry states, plus Iowa, New Mexico, Virginia, and Colorado. And my guess is that the McCain folks are looking at those numbers and freaking out and seeing Pennsylvania as some kind of shortcut. But it seems to me more like a detour that makes their path even longer.
M.B.: Well, I suppose the calculation there is that he has to take a big state out of the Kerry column in order to win. And there's no obvious candidate. They must think that Pennsylvania gives them the best shot because, as Carville famously put it, the state is basically two big cities with Alabama in between. But man, those cities are big, and Obama's probably going to do better in the rural counties than either Gore or Kerry, I would think.
N.S.: Well, McCain's camp seems to have this notion that they'll lose Philadelphia, tie Pittsburgh, and win the Pennsyltucky part of the state. But they're going to lose Philadelphia by too large a margin to make up for it elsewhere in the state. What's really costing them, I think, is that Obama is liable to do quite well in the Philly suburbs, which was more of a swing region before. SurveyUSA has Obama winning the entire southeast region of the state — city and suburbs — by about two to one. And that's more than 40 percent of Pennsylvania's population.
M.B.: Which will be the trend in a lot of states, I imagine. Contrary to much of the conventional wisdom of the Karl Rove–MoveOn years, our elections are still largely decided by swing voters, mostly in suburbs and exurbs, and this year they are swinging strongly Democratic. Even so, there was a piece in the Post today cautioning journalists against being so predictive. How concerned are you that your own predictions could collapse?
N.S.: From sort of a marketing point of view, it might be more optimal if I were hedging my bets a little more. I mean, it's not like we have Obama with a larger lead than anyone else does — about seven points ahead nationally, which is right where Pollster.com and RealClearPolitics and the CNN poll of polls all peg the race. But we're the ones who are bold/stupid enough to try and quantify how difficult it is to overcome a seven-point disadvantage this late in the campaign. And it's not like the intangibles/x-factors are uniformly favorable to McCain by any means either. Maybe the race factor makes this more complicated, but on the other hand, Obama supporters seem to be more enthusiastic, they have a much better ground game, they have a heavy advantage in advertising, and they've already banked some big totals in the early voting. And McCain seems unable to drive a message.
M.B.: All true. But that kind of prediction IS bold and stupid. What will you do if McCain wins?
N.S.: I'll say I got unlucky and the twenty-to-one long shot came in?
But really, if there's a problem with my model, it's the old garbage-in, garbage-out problem. Polls are not terrifically accurate instruments, and if they're all missing in the same direction — and they've done so before (e.g. New Hampshire) — there's no amount of massaging that my model can do to make up for that.
M.B.: You could always start a hedge fund …actually, I think history is in your favor here. I've been talking a lot to college students lately, and I realized that they've never even been aware of an American election that wasn't decided by an impossibly tiny margin. That's been their whole life experience, in 2000 and 2004. In reality, though, that's exceedingly rare in our elections. Most cycles break pretty definitively weeks before the vote. This one feels more conventional that way, more like 1988 or 1992.
N.S.: That's really the entire point of divergence in this election, I think: between the people who assume that we're still stuck in the 2000/2004 universe, and the people who assume that the country has changed a little bit. And you see that reflected not only among the pundits, but also between the two campaigns.
M.B.: Good point. I really don't think we're in that universe now, and in fact I think that universe was a strange detour from political normalcy. But you know what they say about fighting the last battle: If it's a problem among generals, it's an epidemic among strategists and pundits.
N.S.: What's weird is that if you went back and tried to construct a Republican who could win in this environment, he'd probably look an awful lot like the 2000 version of John McCain. But they made a decision early on, obviously, to move in somewhat the opposite direction.
M.B.: Well, that'll be where the histories focus. It has to be. The narrative of the McCain campaign is really pretty simple. He had to make a decision about what kind of candidate he wanted to be. And he seems to have decided that he'd do or say what he had to, within reason, to get the job, and then he could be the president he envisioned being. He's not the first politician to make that concession; George Bush the First did the same thing. The problem is that, especially in this new environment where authenticity and transparency are so important, how you decide to get there really matters.
N.S.: And certainly, it's hard to go through all the counterfactuals and consider what might have happened if X and Y had gone down differently … if Paulson had decided to bail out Lehman Brothers, if McCain gotten along with Mitt Romney a little better. (And of course, McCain might still win.) But the fundamental dynamic of this election is that the Republican brand is doing exceptionally poorly right now, which means that you need to win moderates to get the math to work out, and they never seemed to grasp that.
M.B.: So, since we're both baseball fans, before we go, tell me this … to whom would you give better odds now: McCain or the Rays?
N.S.: I think the Rays have much better odds than McCain.
For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.