Princeton Election Consortium

A first draft of electoral history. Since 2004

Battleground-state spending: comparisons with 2004

August 18th, 2008, 10:26pm by Sam Wang

Today we have a news story about the state-by-state spending patterns by the two campaigns. McCain is focusing on battleground states, while Obama is spreading resources more broadly. At first this may seem odd. But it makes sense in terms of voter power – and relates to a recent change I made in defining the “jerseyvote.” It also reveals the thinking of the Obama and McCain campaigns, which presumably understand resource allocation extremely well. To explain…

First let’s review what a jerseyvote is. In 2004, I said that in a close election, resources were best deployed in states where the outcome is uncertain, with win probabilities between 20% and 80%. That campaign was quite closely fought, as evidenced by a plot of median EV estimate:

Kerry meta-analytic EV estimate history in 2004

Meta-analytic EV estimator for 2004 Kerry-Bush race

For most of the campaign, neither Kerry or Bush spent much time outside the 95% confidence band. The exceptions were a few weeks in August (when Kerry was definitively ahead, between the Democratic convention and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks) and September (when Bush was definitively ahead, between the Republican convention and the first debate). Therefore both candidates had a vital interest in the same battleground states, any of which could be critical to their efforts.

I pointed out that the disparity of influence by different voters could be quantified using the Meta-Analysis. I defined the “jerseyvote,” a measure of the power of an individual voter on influencing the election outcome, relative to a voter in New Jersey (me, for instance). By this measure voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida had thousands of times as much power as I did. This suggested that activists should try to get out the vote in those states, and campaigns should advertise there – which they did.

This year, the dynamics are different. Until recently, Obama has spent the post-primary season clearly ahead of McCain:

Meta-analytic EV estimator for Obama-McCain race

Meta-analytic EV estimator for Obama-McCain race

For most of the last two months, Obama’s 95% confidence interval has been entirely above the magic 269 EV threshold. For this reason I had to redefine voter power since when the race is not close, individual voters don’t have much power anywhere. I redefined it as the amount of power that voters have if the race swings sufficiently to make either candidate’s win probability 50%. The results are in the right sidebar. You’ll see the expected suspects: Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Nevada, and so on. These match the places where McCain is spending the most money. What this tells me is that the McCain campaign is assuming that if they win, it will be tight. Therefore they are running a “Kerry/Bush” campaign, in which the goal is to get just over the threshold. They are not expecting a blowout; they just want to win.

In this same light the Obama campaign’s spending suggests a more optimistic view. Their pattern of expenditures makes sense if they are assuming that they have many opportunities to win. In this scenario, voters in many states can potentially contribute to an electoral victory, and are worth pursuing. This pattern of behavior is seen in candidates who expect substantial victories; they will even go so far as to campaign to help downticket races, in the hopes of winning more Congressional seats to build a larger caucus on their side.

Last week the fact that my jerseyvotes calculation (as previously defined) identified non-battleground states seemed like an error. But it gave the expected results for a race that is less close – and evidently that’s what the Obama strategists are expecting, despite Obama’s recent slippage to near-parity. In summary, the Obama campaign’s spending makes sense if they believe that the recent decline in their candidate’s fortunes is transient, and the advantage they enjoyed in July will return in the fall. To put it another way, they are acting as if they have enough eggs to put into multiple baskets.

Tags: 2004 Election · 2008 Election

4 Comments so far ↓

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  • John

    Two other factors may be in play:
    1. The article does not make it clear to me who is spending more altogether. My understanding is that McCain is forced to spend out primary money now. Obama is not, because he rejected federal financing. Obama presumably plans to start spending much more heavily after Labor Day, under the assumption that no one is paying attention until the conventions. Maybe, but in the mean time McCain is defining Obama as unpatriotic.
    2. The goal of red-state spending may be to begin to convert those states over the long term rather than contest them now. A noble goal, but if Obama loses this election, he wears the goat’s horns for decades. David is right.

  • David

    Which is stupid. The Obama campaign needs to wake up and start attacking, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at McCain. Attacks work. Coasting doesn’t.

  • Uncle Monty

    Nate at 538 has a good discussion of this issue today, pointing out that “spending” is a misnomer here–these figures are only about spending *on advertizing*, whereas the Obama campaign is vastly outspending the McCain campaign when it comes to the ground game. Any discussion of spending should contain this important information.