For Now, Barack Obama Is Not Another John Kerry

For the last few weeks, Democrats, with their unique brand of optimism, have been suffering from a severe case of "Here we go again.&...
by | August 11, 2008

For the last few weeks, Democrats, with their unique brand of optimism, have been suffering from a severe case of "Here we go again."

The sentiment: Why is Barack Obama blowing it? Why isn't he winning by more? Is he another John Kerry?

The answer to that last question is "no" -- or at least "not yet." Just look at the polling.

Pollster.com aggregates state polling data in all 50 state to come up with an estimate of where the Electoral College stands. The details of their methodology are here. What I've done is compare those numbers to the 2004 results -- meaning compare Obama to Kerry.

So, for example, if George W. Bush won a state 50% to 48% in 2004 and now Obama leads John McCain 47% to 44% in that state, Obama would be running ahead of John Kerry by 5 percentage points (he turned a 2-point deficit into a 3-point advantage). A few general points, before I get to the state-by-state results:

-The overall picture is very favorable for Obama. McCain is only running ahead of Bush's 2004 result in four states. Obama is doing at least 2.46 percentage points better than Kerry in 41 states. In 2004, 2.46 was Bush's margin of victory in the national popular vote.

Another way of thinking about this: If you take the 50 pollster.com figures and then weight them according to the populations of the states (a very crude way of extrapolating a national popular vote forecast from state polling), you end up with Obama 46.4%, McCain 41.6%. In other words, state polling is consistent with the recent Time, AP-Ipsos, and CBS polls that had Obama up by 5-6 points, not with the Gallup poll that gave McCain a four-point advantage. That also means that, nationally, Obama is running a little more than seven points ahead of Kerry. 

One note of caution, though: The state polling aggregations aren't very time sensitive, in large measure because many states aren't polled that often. As a result, if the election has shifted significantly in the last few weeks, these numbers wouldn't entirely reflect that.

-McCain supporters can take heart because their candidate's worst states (or Obama's best states) aren't traditional swing states. Of the ten states where Obama is running furthest ahead of Kerry, none was decided by fewer than 8 percentage points in 2004. In contrast, McCain's second-best state (Nevada), eighth-best state (Michigan) and ninth-best state (Oregon) were all decided by fewer than five points last time around.

-The most fascinating thing about the state-by-state numbers: Every single one of Obama's 12 strongest states when compared to Kerry has an African-American population that is BELOW the national average of 12.4%. This group includes four states -- Montana, Idaho, South Dakota and Wyoming -- that have the four lowest black populations in the country.

You can make a case that this is about McCain and not Obama. Westerners tend to be libertarian-minded, which McCain generally isn't. The immigration legislation that McCain has sponsored in the Senate also might be a problem.

The thing is, though, we saw this dynamic in the primaries too. Obama dominated among white voters in places where there aren't many black voters. He's now vastly overperforming John Kerry with that group too.

Without further ado, here are the state-by-state results. I've placed states that haven't been polled much (or haven't been polled much recently) in bold, just so you know not to read too much into those results.   

States where Obama is running 15 points or more ahead of Kerry:

North Dakota (24.96), Wyoming (23.89), Idaho (23.72), Montana (23.6), Hawaii (21.26), Indiana (20.08), Alaska (19.45), Utah (17.94), Texas (16.46), South Dakota (15.37).

This group includes nine of the most Republican states in the country (at least in terms of recent presidential performance) and one Democratic state -- Hawaii. Hawaii is Obama's birthplace, as well as a place where Kerry underperformed, so it's not surprising.

The question in those other nine states is where does Obama actually win? Even making up 25 points in North Dakota, he still comes up a couple of points short. Obviously, the Electoral College doesn't reward coming close.

Based on Obama's ad expenditures, he seems to be making a real effort in Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and Indiana. Montana is the only one of those four where Obama actually leads, although it, like most of the states in this group, hasn't been polled nearly enough.

States where Obama is running 10 points to 14.9 points ahead of Kerry:

Kansas (13.58), Oklahoma (12.94), Alabama (12.82), Nebraska (11.82), Wisconsin (11.62), Maryland (11.52), Georgia (11.1), Virginia (10.8), Mississippi (10.79), Connecticut (10.63).

This group includes the first traditional (and by "traditional," I mean, "from the past two election cycles") swing state in Wisconsin and another state that is universally regarded as top swing state in Virginia. Virginia was a model of stability the past two election cycles -- Bush won it by 8.03% in 2000 and 8.20% in 2004 -- but, even if McCain wins the election, he probably won't be able to match Bush's performance in the state.

Besides the two swingers, this group is quite a hodgepodge. Three states, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, are similar to the Obama +15 group above. They've been really, really Republican, which makes it a bit easier for the Democrat to be making up a lot of ground. Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia are Republican states with large African-American populations. Connecticut and Maryland are reliably Democratic.

States where Obama is running 5 points to 9.9 points ahead of Kerry:

North Carolina (9.73), South Carolina (9.58), Minnesota (9.02), New Mexico (8.99), Vermont (8.86), California (8.35), Iowa (7.17), Kentucky (7.06), Pennsylvania (6.6), Maine (6.5), Illinois (6.46), Colorado (6.37), New Jersey (5.92), Ohio (5.71).

Since Obama is running about seven points ahead of Kerry nationally, this group is in some sense the "neutral" states. Obama is gaining points on Kerry in these places, but not more points than he is nationally.

And this neutral group is loaded with swing states: Minnesota, New Mexico, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Ohio. That seems to suggest that a split verdict between the Electoral College and the popular vote is unlikely. If McCain, for example, was far stronger in swing states vis-à-vis Bush 2004 than he was in non-swing states, the prospects of McCain Electoral College win occurring with an Obama popular vote win would look stronger.

If there's one state in this group that's surprising, it's North Carolina. You'd expect the Democratic performance in 2004 to be inflated from John Edwards' presence on the ticket. Yet Obama is still running nearly ten points ahead of it, which has raised the outside possibility that he could turn the Tarheel State Carolina blue. Not to hit Edwards when he's down, but that really proves how running mates don't always (or, as it turns out, often) bring many home state voters.

States where Obama is running fewer than 5 points ahead of Kerry:

New Hampshire (4.73), Washington (4.72), Missouri (4.4), Florida (3.91), New York (3.01), Rhode Island (2.95), Arkansas (2.66), Oregon (2.24), Michigan (1.98), Delaware (1.41), Louisiana (1.11), Arizona (0.07).

Even though Obama is running slightly ahead of Kerry here, these are states where I'd argue McCain is doing well -- or at least doing better than he is in most of the country. It's an interesting bunch.

There are two states that have a connection to McCain dating from his 2000 campaign (New Hampshire and Michigan). You have the two states that had disputed primaries on the Democratic side (Michigan and Florida). And, perhaps most importantly, you have a good number of swing states: Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire and Oregon.

For better or for worse, McCain is a candidate without any particular regional strength. Every part of the country is represented here -- the Northeast, the South, the Midwest and the West Coast -- except the Great Plains.

Oregon and Washington are might-have-been states for McCain. It really looked like he could put them in play if Hillary Clinton had been the Democratic nominee. Against Obama, though, that seems less likely, even though McCain is holding his own in both.

States where Obama is running behind Kerry:

Tennessee (-0.43), West Virginia (-0.64), Nevada (-1.01), Massachusetts (-6.56)

McCain's four strongest states give some hint of an Appalachian problem for Obama. More interesting to me, though, is the idea that Obama is weakest in places where he didn't do much primary campaigning.

Tennessee was a Super Tuesday state that Obama largely ignored. He steered clear of West Virginia, knowing that it would be a big win for Clinton. Massachusetts doesn't fit that mold, but it is John Kerry's home state, so it would be tough for Obama to match the 2004 Democratic performance there.

By far the most important state on this list, however, is Nevada. Nevada is the state that came closest to mirroring to national result in 2004. Bush won it by 2.59%. In other words, it's as swingy as they get.

So why is McCain doing so well in Nevada? I'm not sure. It is worth noting that Nevada has been one of the most under-polled swing states around. The most recent poll, conducted almost a month ago, actually showed Obama with a two-point lead.

All of these numbers have implications for down-ballot elections. They give a sense of where Obama and McCain will help their party mates running for lower office and where they'll be a drag. But, I'll leave that discussion for another day.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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