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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Analysis: Why It’s So Hard To Understand 2016 With Numbers Alone

By Ken Goldstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The new breed of cool analytical election observers — from Nate Silver to the folks at the Upshot or Monkey Cage — roll their eyes and sigh deeply at the frenzy of coverage about Donald Trump, the media scrum about Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the speculation about whether Joe Biden will enter the presidential race. Instead, they argue, one should simply pay attention to the fundamentals and not worry about campaigns, debates, events, or even, seemingly, the identities of the candidates.

I’m all for models based on objective and quantifiable data like the state of the economy or the likely demographics of the electorate. They force analysts and observers to be precise and transparent about their assumptions. One can disagree with those assumptions, but at least one knows exactly what those assumptions are.

The problem with that approach is, when it comes to primaries, the fundamentals are not nearly as well understood or as predictive as they are in general elections. In other words, predicting the arc and ultimate outcome of the presidential nomination process is much more difficult than analyzing general elections. Partisanship and assessments of how the incumbent party is doing are absent when one is looking at primaries.

Presidential nominations are not single-day contests with two candidates from clearly defined parties competing to get the plurality of the vote in enough states to garner 270 Electoral College votes. They are dynamic multi-month, multi-candidate contests between rivals who often differ little on the issues and compete to win delegates in states, which often have different sets of rules. They are a process in which, as scholars like Vanderbilt University’s Larry Bartels have shown, previous primary performances and expectations can influence subsequent contests. In short, while it may prove to be short-lived, momentum matters.

Furthermore, even in general elections when we can model with fairly tight precision likely outcomes, much of the analysis and most of the “modeling” tend to rely on the very same polls that more traditional observers of politics utilize. They may, like many of the more traditional observers, augment those polls with their assessments of the national environment or the quality of the candidates and their campaigns, but many of the predictions are basically based on polls.

So, what would a passion-free focus on the most recent poll numbers tell us?

Well, in one contest, according to the averages, there is a candidate comfortably at the top of the national polls of what is universally considered to be a strong field of 16 candidates that includes four sitting U.S. senators and four sitting governors, as well as former governors from two of out of the three largest states in the country.

This candidate enjoys a 15 percentage-point lead over the second place contestant in national polls (and together they are the only candidates with double-digit support). This candidate is leading the pre-race favorite by a margin of nearly four to one and has almost three times as much support as the four sitting senators combined. That same candidate is also leading beyond the margin of error in the crucial early nominating contests of Iowa and New Hampshire. In both national and state specific polls, the lead has grown since the start of the summer as has this candidate’s favorability ratings among potential primary voters. This candidate is well-funded and, to date, has spent no money on television advertising.

In the other contest, according to, the leading candidate has a similarly sized lead, 18 percentage point lead — but in a field that is considerably smaller and that includes one sitting U.S. senator (who is actually not a member of the party whose nomination he is running for) as well as three former office holders (two of whom used to be members of the other party).

Looking at’s aggregation, the national lead is about half of what it was at the start of the summer with a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showing a drop of 20 percentage points in support. According to the average, this candidate is trailing in New Hampshire and leading in Iowa (with both races within the margin of error). But a CBS News/YouGov poll this week also showed this candidate trailing in Iowa. This candidate has spent heavily on advertising in the early states with no opposition on the air.

So, what is the conventional wisdom from the cool analytical kids and the old guard of political pundits? It turns out that it is exactly the same. They both say that the first candidate has virtually no chance at the nomination and the second remains the presumptive nominee.

The first candidate is obviously Donald Trump and the second Hillary Clinton. Why does Clinton’s shrinking lead in national polls and weakness in early states make her likely to win, while Trump’s expanding lead in national polls and strength in early states give him almost no chance of being the Republican nominee? How can it be too much too early to take Trump seriously and dangerously late for Vice President Joe Biden to mount a challenge?

One thing is clear: The answers to those questions do not flow from just looking at polling numbers. Ultimately, the work of the data journalists and more traditional observers of politics include a good dose of instinct.

Endorsements have become the favorite fundamental or favorite tell for modelers. While the causality is not clear, endorsements certainly correlate with outcomes. Front-runners with large numbers of early endorsements like Walter Mondale in 1984, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 tended to fare well.

It is certainly the case that Clinton has an overwhelming lead in the endorsements race. But something is making Joe Biden take another look. While it is clearly a deeply personal decision, some part of that decision is based on his calculation on whether or not he could win the Democratic nomination. Clearly, while estimating that precise number is difficult, it is clearly higher than it was at the beginning of the summer.

So, yes, it’s early. Clinton remains the favorite to be the Democratic nominee and has a solid chance of becoming the 45th president. But Clinton had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad summer that has shrunk her lead in the Democratic primary and wounded her reputation with general election swing voters to the point that she is running neck and neck with Donald Trump in general election match-ups. Of course, polls today are not predictive of November 2016 results, but they may end up getting her a challenge from a sitting vice president. And, if you want to look at correlations from previous nomination fights as a guide or “model,” the last four sitting vice presidents who sought their party’s presidential nomination succeeded — Al Gore in 2000, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Richard Nixon in 1960.

Photo: This man — Nate Silver — is not the be-all and end-all of presidential futurism. (CC) JD Lasica,

Analysis: The Myths Of The Campaign Advertising Air War

By Ken Goldstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

The first significant shots of the 2016 presidential television ad air war — likely to cost $2 billion or more by November 2016 — have been fired. The largest expenditures to date have been the multimillion-dollar buys each from New Day for America, the super PAC supporting John Kasich, and the Clinton campaign. Over the weekend, news broke of an impending $10 million buy from Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush’s candidacy, to be distributed among several early states.

For a media world that’s desperate to know how the war might go, these early blasts — measured in dollars — often take on an outsize significance. But it’s all too easy to misinterpret these early buys, and therefore misunderstand the battle.

The TV ad market is dizzyingly complex. Just looking at the amount of dollars spent in total or even in a particular market tells us little about what messages are reaching which targeted voters at what frequency — the key question that should concern political observers, practitioners and analysts. In fact, political advertising may be one aspect of politics where following the money isn’t the key to understanding.

Fogging the battlefield are numerous rules and pricing anomalies. First of all, different advertisers pay different amounts for spots on the same program — even spots in the same commercial pod. For example, within 60 days of a general election, and within 45 days of a primary, by federal law, candidates for federal office are guaranteed what’s called the lowest-unit-rate for buying advertising. And even outside the so-called LUR window, there can be enormous differences in the rates paid by candidates and groups for the exact same advertising. Take, for example, some recent buys on the only broadcast station in the crucial early primary state of New Hampshire, WMUR in Manchester.

During the first week of August, media buyers representing both candidates and groups ordered spots on ABC’s top rated “Good Morning America.” On Aug. 5, the Christie campaign paid $700 for a 30-second spot and Clinton’s campaign paid a proportional $1,400 for a 60-second spot. America Leads (Christie’s PAC) and New Day for America (Kasich’s PAC) also aired spots on “Good Morning America” that day, but paid almost three times as much — $2,000 for a 30-second spot from America Leads and $4,000 for a 60-second spot for New Day for America. Non-candidate money from groups, as a rule, buys much less ad than the same amount spent by the campaigns proper.

This was certainly the case in 2012 when, pretty much across the board, the Democrats were outspent by the GOP in the presidential race. But a much higher percentage of Republican money came from super PACs and other groups. As a result, the GOP spent more, but got less. Amazingly, the Romney campaign actually compounded this problem. Although Romney’s ad people, like their counterparts in Chicago, had the legal right to buy spots at the LUR, they often did not take full advantage of this right. Wanting particular (and more costly) guarantees of when their spots would air, the Romney campaign often paid more for the exact same advertising buys.

Journalists are rarely precise about the time periods and exact markets of the ad buys about which they tweet — $1 million spent in Cedar Rapids in one month is a lot, $1 million spent in five months targeting New Hampshire with purchases on pricey Boston stations, not so much.

The media obsession with ad dollars has been driven by the availability of what political professionals call the “competitive.” As Elizabeth Wilner, head of Kantar Media CMAG writes in the Cook Political Report, “Every week during the thick and even the thin of a presidential race (or any other race featuring TV ads), dozens to hundreds of e-mails fly between TV stations, local cable systems, ad sales rep firms and political media buyers informing the group of bids for airtime — not just their own but everyone else’s.”

This practice would be unethical and probably illegal if the stations were providing Budweiser’s ad agency with information on where Miller’s agency had just ordered advertising. It, however, has been the norm in politics for the last few election cycles. Media buyers process the information on what spot time has been ordered and use if for strategic purposes to track where their enemies — and increasingly their friends with whom they cannot coordinate — are buying ads. This information, provided as a service by the TV stations, is now also increasingly being passed along — sometimes even sold — by partisan media buyers to members of the news media, who then report the ad buys with bullet point after bullet point of dollar figures.

Some of the reporting around the competitive can also be foggy. For example, recent media coverage of a Rubio campaign order clearly used “competitive information” and spoke of the wisdom of an early buy that supposedly advantaged his campaign with early pricing and guarantees placements. But, in fact, rates are not yet available for many of the times that the Rubio campaign supposedly guaranteed placement. Unlike airlines, TV stations never really run out of seats and you can get bumped while about to board the plane if someone decides they want to pay more for the seat. Ad time is never really guaranteed (unless a campaign pays a very high guaranteed price) and ads don’t air at a certain price until they air at that price.

This is why the raw numbers of ad purchases don’t necessarily mean that much. They’re like partial unweighted survey data after the first night of calling in a political poll.

Still, even with all these warnings about measuring the political ad air war, the ad activity now, as well as the Clinton buy over the last couple of weeks, is worth our attention. To understand why, let’s remember that scholarly work on political communication — not to mention common sense — suggests that advertising should have a greater impact when people are less familiar with the candidates. Attitudes are more fluid and when one side has an advantage in communicating their message.

In fact, the dominant view of academics is that in general elections the partisan predispositions of voters and underlying economic factors either favor a candidate or they don’t and no amount of campaign spending or television advertising can change attitudes and outcomes. The skepticism also rests on the argument that even if such advertising had the potential to change entrenched minds and outweigh the effects of economic conditions, there would need to be measurable differences between the competing advertising campaigns — something not often seen in competitive battles.

But in primary battles, voters don’t have their partisanship to use as a shortcut and at this stage in the primary season, many Republican still are not familiar with their party’s contestants. Furthermore, unlike what we will see in battleground states in the general election and in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina as their nomination contests draw nearer, most candidates are not on TV spots, and television is not flooded with political advertising. In other words, if advertising is ever going to have an effect it is going to be now, when attitudes are soft and the air war can be one-sided.

While the effects are seldom huge, early advertising campaigns can provide important preliminary evidence or be a “tell” for the potential effectiveness of a campaign’s message. For instance, the pro-Kasich super PAC’s $2 million buy certainly seems have moved his numbers and helped get him in the conversation in New Hampshire — though the caveat should be quickly added that the nomination is a very, very long way.

With very little paid media opposition, it will be interesting to see if the buys on behalf of Jeb Bush resonate with Republican primary voters this fall. Even more interesting to political observers is the impact of the Clinton campaign’s ad buy, which has been up on the air unopposed for more than two weeks in Iowa and New Hampshire. Both campaigns are well-financed and staffed with top strategists; assessing the impact of these first buys will be our first evidence about whether the dogs will eat the dog food.

Photo: Ads, from which this still was taken, by the John Kasich-supporting SuperPAC New Day for America, recently aired on “Good Morning America.” New Day for America/YouTube

Analysis: Why Rubio, Bush, Walker, And Kasich Are Not As Purple As They Look

By Ken Goldstein, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — There are now 17 announced, or soon-to-be-announced, Republican candidates for president. And to the degree that they’re serious about winning the White House (an open question in some cases) they’re all trying to accomplish contradictory, if not mutually exclusive things: They have to sell themselves to the passionately partisan voters and caucus-goers in the early primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada), while simultaneously making the all-important case that they would be the strongest candidate to defeat Hillary Clinton, before a very different electorate than that of the GOP primaries, in November 2016.

But what do we actually know about which of these 17 would be the strongest general election candidate? Which of these 17 could compete and win in the nine battleground states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin) that will likely determine the 2016 election? Which of the 17 could expand the playing field into states like Michigan or Pennsylvania?

There’s a lot to take into account when answering that question — but the partisan composition of the electorate is the single most important factor in American elections. And accordingly, a straightforward way to assess the candidates’ prospects in November 2016 is to take a close look at the electorates they’ve faced in the past.

Six of the Republican contenders (Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Rick Perry) are from states that are reliably red — and have never faced electorates that would have the partisan distribution they would encounter in purple states. Two of them (Ben Carson and Donald Trump) have never ever faced any electorate whatsoever and one (Carly Fiorina) ran and lost in a blue state.

Five (Jeb Bush, Jim Gilmore, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker) have won statewide elections in purple states, and three GOP contestants have won statewide contests in blue states (Chris Christie, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum).

But, even for those purple and blue state winners, presidential year electorates are fundamentally different than midterm electorates. Presidential electorates are less white, younger, and more Democratic than midterm electorates. And only one of the eight candidates who have previously won in blue or purple states has ever run statewide in a presidential election year. Gilmore ran for Senate in Virginia in 2008 and lost by more than 30 percentage points. In fact, according to my calculations, of the 40 elections that the 17 announced or soon-to-announce GOP candidates have collectively run in at the state level (not all of them wins), only four of those contests were in presidential election years — Gilmore lost in Virginia in 2008, Graham won re-election in South Carolina in 2008, Cruz was elected in Texas in 2012, and Santorum was re-elected in Pennsylvania in 2000. None of the other 13 candidates has ever faced statewide voters in a presidential election year.

This means that even candidates who have won in battleground states face significant hurdles. For example, Rubio won election to the Senate in 2010 in an electorate which, according to the exit polls, was 71 percent white, and in which Republicans enjoyed a four percentage point (40 percent to 36 percent) advantage in party identification. In 2012, the Florida electorate was 67 percent white and Republicans suffered from a two-percentage-point deficit in partisan identifiers (33 percent to 35 percent). Looking at the voter file in Florida, of the approximately 4 million registered voters who vote in just about every election, Republicans have a five-percentage-point advantage. But among the 3 million-plus registered voters who vote only in presidential elections, Democrats have a six-percentage-point advantage.

There are two Americas when it comes to midterm year electorates and presidential year electorates and while Republicans have enjoyed great success in recent midterms, the eventual nominee will need to attract or disproportionally mobilize a significant chunk of those citizens who only cast their ballots in presidential election years. Who votes is the most fundamental question in understanding who wins, and none of the Republicans have faced the who that will decide the 2016 election — presidential election year only voters in purple states.

Image: Election map by county that shows electoral tendency by shade of purple via Wikimedia Commons