Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2008 vs. 2004, Part II: What Happened in the Final 100 Days in 2004 and What That May Mean for the Rest of This Campaign

Now that we've seen that John Kerry's state-level poll leads over Bush in 2004 were similar in the aggregate to the electoral college vote distribution we see currently in the 2008 race, we can focus more on what appears to have happened over the final 100 or so days of the race four years ago. By extension, then, we may be able to make some educated guesses as to what we may have in store between now an November. Here again is the map that shows how the electoral college would have looked in mid-August if FHQ's weighted average methodology were used on the polling from 2004.
[Click Map to Enlarge]

Based on Florida (or at least on Kerry's edge in the average there in August), Kerry held an advantage over the incumbent president in the August electoral college projection. Florida, though, wasn't the only mover between August and November. It was however, among a group of states that shifted their electoral votes from one side of the partisan line to the other -- Iowa and New Mexico were the other two. Below are the final results from the 2004 election. Each state was color coded based on the final vote percentage margin four years ago. California, for example, was firmly within Kerry's column throughout 2004, but the final percentage margin (9 points) put the Golden state in a position to be deemed a Kerry lean state. While Florida, Iowa and New Mexico were the only three states to have shifted sides, there were twelve overall movers when comparing the August projection to the final results.
[Click Map to Enlarge]

Let's isolate those twelve states just to get a visual on where exactly the movement occurred. Not only do Florida, Iowa and New Mexico turn red, but several states became more intensely red and all twelve moved toward Bush including the two blue states on the map, California and Minnesota. The momentum seems to have been squarely on the incumbent president's side coming down the stretch. Bush made his biggest gains -- moving across two categories -- in Florida and New Mexico and seems to have outperformed state-level polling average through August most consistently in the peripheral South and in border states.
[Click Map to Enlarge]

That momentum translated into a shift of 39 electoral votes over the final three months of the 2004 campaign and into an electoral college victory for Bush. So what does any of this have to do with the current race for the White House? It should serve as a cautionary tale for all you President Kerry enthusiasts and Obama supporters. Much can change and likely will over the course of the next two plus months, and though, in 2004 that meant a shift toward the incumbent, in 2008 it may mean something different. One pattern that has emerged in this current race is that things often return to normal after a "shock" to the system. Obama wins the Democratic nomination and gets a bounce that trailed off in some states. McCain punches back while Obama is abroad and upon his return and draws closer to the Illinois senator. But even that has given way to a regression toward the mean. You see different pictures of this depending on where you look. Real Clear Politics shows Obama rising ever so slightly while McCain dips since last week. Over at Pollster the picture is a bit different with both candidates trending upward, but McCain is doing so at a quicker rate.

Granted that focuses on the national picture and Alan Abramowitz has already covered that. One thing that we can note of 2004 is that half of those movers from August on were toss up states. We can then feel comfortable that that is where most of the action will be from now on. That's 13 states as of FHQ's most recent accounting of the electoral college. [I'll have an update up tonight. Yeah, I know -- late.] Of the big hitters, Pennsylvania is trending toward Obama, Virginia and Ohio are holding steady but very close, Michigan and Colorado are closing a bit, and Florida, after moving hard toward Obama has held steady like North Carolina at a distance just outside of Obama's reach. One thing that should be noted is that both Indiana and Nevada have not been polled very recently and are certainly in need of updating. With that said, one thing that struck me in going over the data from 2004 was how big the uptick in polling was once September started. We have been lucky to have had as much information during this cycle as we've had, but it should really start to pick up after the GOP convention during the first week in September.

I should also put in a request to all FHQ readers. I have access to an incomplete set of the polling from 2000 and would like very much to do a similar sort of analysis with that data. If anyone knows where that data can be found just let me know in the comments section below. Thanks.

Recent Posts:
2008 vs. 2004, Part I: What Things Would Have Looked Like 4 Years Ago This Time

The Electoral College Spectrum

The Electoral College Map (8/10/08)


Robert said...

This is great stuff, Josh!

SarahLawrenceScott said...

You've outdone yourself today, Josh! Great stuff.

I've mentioned it before, but I do think a difference this time around is that Obama has a narrow range of support in the polls while McCain floats all over the place. The RCP graph shows that nicely, but it can also be seen in the Pollster curves.

Compare to the RCP graph from last cycle. In that case, it was Kerry who was shwoing repeated 5+ point swings. While Bush's swings were slightly smaller, they were also substantial compared to Obama's 2.5 point band.

Looking at the comparison, McCain's oscillations are similar to what was seen last time. But why does Obama poll so consistently? Media attention? A feeling that he's the anti-Bush? Polarization?

I'm not sure, but it's a striking feature of this race.

Robert said...

Nice work, Scott. It looks like the big turning point in 2004 was right after the conventions.

Josh Putnam said...

It is interesting how Obama has been so steady in the polls this year. It is even more interesting in that 2004 is recalled as a year when things didn't shift all that much (...compared to past cycles). That's why getting a hold of that 2000 data (a complete version of it at least) would be helpful. [I'll have to put out some emails tomorrow and see if I can dig that up.] If there proves to have been decreasing volatility in the polls over those three cycles, I'd say that McCain has a real problem. His goal is to find a way to put a dent in Obama's numbers.

...and that appears to be an uphill climb.