Monday, October 20, 2008

What About North Carolina? Can Obama Swing the Tar Heel State?

Yeah, what about North Carolina? Recently, FHQ has begun discussing the toss up states on our Watch List in terms of "magic numbers." Basically, this asks what it would take from the very next poll released from a state to force that state across, in this case, the partisan line. So, what is the Tar Heel state's magic number? This came up in the comments, and my response ended up being too long not to simply just create a new post.


Part of the reason FHQ shifted from a simple weighted average to a graduated weighted average (one that progressively discounts polls based on when they were in the field) is that states like Minnesota and North Carolina were unresponsive to a series of new polls that ran counter to where our averages had each state.

Some of that unresponsiveness was remedied with the methodological change, but did not move either state as much as some would have liked. The bubble seems to have burst in Minnesota for McCain, so the North Star state has worked its way back to essentially where it was prior to the conventions -- a strong Obama state (Sure, some of that has to do with the threshold being dropped.).

North Carolina, though, is a bit different. In the Tar Heel state we have witnessed a string of polls that have shown Obama ahead by margins up to 6 points with just a few pro-McCain polls peppered in. Yet, it is still seemingly stuck in the McCain toss up category. Much of this has to do with the amount of information we have in North Carolina. Even with the older polls discounted, there is an awful lot of McCain support inherent in the average. In other words, there are a lot of McCain polls for this recent series of Obama polls to overcome. The Tar Heel state has had around 50 polls conducted this year and none of them (other than the Zogby internet polls) favored Obama until after the Lehman collapse. That's a lot of McCain support in the average.

As far as a magic number is concerned, North Carolina is a lot like Ohio: it is going to take a lot to move things just a little. For the next poll to push North Carolina into the blue, it would have to give Obama a margin of 45 points. That's just not going to happen. But we may continue to see numbers come in under the current average of 2.4 (for McCain) that continue to chip away at that margin. In fact, I think that is likely. Between now and election day, we are likely to see polls that are in the +/-3 point range with some outliers thrown in.

Just for the heck of it let's do an exercise here. What if we lopped off all the polls conducted before Obama clinched the Democratic nomination; everything from June 3 on (FHQ has done something similar before.)? How would that affect things? Once we reweight the polls based on a lower number of days in the period examined, we find that Obama gains, but that McCain's lead shrinks to only 1.7 points (down from 2.4). What is North Carolina's magic number then? Not surprisingly, it drops, but not to anymore manageable a level. It would still require a poll with Obama ahead by 25 points to turn North Carolina blue. Obviously, the the number of pro-Obama polls it would take to successfully chip away at that average and turn it blue would be far fewer in this instance.

This is in line with my thinking about North Carolina. I'm a native Tar Heel and though I'm not there now, I still have family ties to the state. My sense is that North Carolina is a "close but not quite" state for Obama. Sure, I've been out of the state for a while, but North Carolina still feels (And yes, that certainly strays from the black and white we get from the numbers typically leaned on here at FHQ.) like a state that is a continued demographic shift away from becoming less reliably Republican -- at the presidential level -- and more reliably competitive. It speaks to the Democratic tilt of this election that North Carolina is talked about in the same breath with the Ohios and Floridas on the map.

UPDATE: Our discussion has extended beyond North Carolina in the comments to encompass a discussion of much of the South. Scott has taken the Census data on the African American percentage of the population and regressed that on Obama's support among whites in these states. A simple bivariate regression with some rather interesting results.

Here are the states Scott looked at (all have at one point or another shown John McCain and Barack Obama within single digits of each other):

Virginia: 39% (20%)
North Carolina: 38% (22%)
Georgia: 28% (30%)
South Carolina: 25% (29%)
Louisiana: 18% (32%)
Mississippi: 16% (37%)

Below is the plot of that relationship; one that shows a rather high correlation between the two variables. The data above are rank ordered based on the dependent variable (Obama's white support) and are displayed as such below.

Obama's White Support as a Function of the Percentage African American
[Click Graphic to Enlarge]

A big tip of the cap to SarahLawrenceScott for a nice addition to our discussion. Kudos!

Recent Posts:
The Electoral College Map (10/20/08)

The Electoral College Map (10/19/08)

The Electoral College Map (10/18/08)


SarahLawrenceScott said...

But it's not just the general Democratic tilt that's making us talk about North Carolina in the same breath as Ohio and Florida. Something's happened there that's different than the national trend. After all, here's a list of states that we're not talking about in the same was as NC:

Arkansas, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky.

Based on past history, those states seem more likely to go Democrat in a Presidential election than NC, and yet this time around they're states Obama only gets in a landslide.

Yes, the African-American population is higher in North Carolina than those other states, but it's not that much higher than Arkansas and Tennessee.

OK, so maybe it's the "new South" thing. But Georgia also has some of those characteristics, and it's been a touch more Democratic than NC since 1984 (we obviously can't look at the Carter elections meaningfully).

North Carolina appears to me to be the single most "anomalous" state in this cycle (well, maybe North Dakota deserves a nod too, but I'm not as convinced of its polling yet).

So, Josh, even if McCain wins it narrowly, do you have any feel as to why North Carolina appears so much more favorable to Obama than its peers in previous elections?

Josh Putnam said...

There are a few things Scott.

First, one state you left out of that group is Virginia. North Carolina, to me, is Virginia-lite in this election. Some of the demographic shifts we've seen in Northern Virginia are playing out in the Research Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) and in Charlotte. I just spoke to a friend of mine from high school last week and he commented about how our hometown, Gastonia, has started looking like south Charlotte, one of the faster growing areas of Charlotte (though people to the east and north may argue). Granted, Gastonia is to the west of Charlotte, so the argument could be made that the exurbs around Charlotte are in full expansion mode.

This growth is behind Virginia's growth though, in terms of the transformation of the state at the presidential level. Warner's election to the gubernatorial seat was the mark of a sea change in the Old Dominion, but there isn't any such change in North Carolina. Democrats have held the governor's seat since 1992. Jesse Helms' seat in the Senate remained Republican but could turn Democratic should Kay Hagan best Liddy Dole. And the other Senate seat has changed parties with each election since 1980. So, the Democrats have a foothold in the state, just not on the presidential level. And it hasn't really been that close.

The second factor I would bring up would be the type of growth North Carolina is witnessing. The one growth industry in North Carolina is banking and the folks employed in that field are certainly tuning into the election since the Lehman collapse. But they were before that, I'm sure, as the margins in the Tar Heel state have been smaller than one would expect this whole year.

I'll tell you what, Scott: Let me send an email to Charles Prysby at UNC-Greensboro and see if I can get a reaction from him. He wrote a chapter in a Southern politics volume that Charles Bullock here at UGA edited a few years back. I'll also try to work my ties at UNC and see what I can come up with. I can offer some perspective, but I'm not on the ground there and neither is my family from an academic standpoint. [No offense, Putnam relations reading in NC.]

Robert said...

The most important contribution NC is making to the Obama campaign at this time, it is forcing McCain to spend precious time and money is a state that should be solid Republican.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

And the Virginia/North Carolina beat goes on:

Rasmussen today shows Obama up 54 to 44 in Virginia, up from 50 to 47 a week ago.

PPP shows Obama up 51 to 44 in North Carolina, up from 49 to 46 four days ago.

Is this a national post-debate/Letterman surge? Possible--it hasn't really shown up in other state polls, but we haven't had many yet. It also hasn't really shown up in the national tracking polls.

So I'm anxious to see what Josh finds out--it really feels like something different is going on in those two states. The Virginia number are identical to where Rasmussen had Wisconsin earlier this month, which was around the time Obama's current run topped out in the national polls. It's harder for me to find a direct comparison for PPP, but how about their 51 to 41 reading in Michighan at the start of the month?

So assuming there's not a sudden additional bump up for Obama that hasn't shown up in other polls yet, Virginia and North Carolina are "catching up" to Wisconsin and Michigan? Wow.

Jack said...

"For the next poll to push North Carolina into the blue, it would have to give Obama a margin of 45 points. That's just not going to happen."

Haven't we heard something like this before?

Never underestimate the Putnam Mocking Effect.

In all seriousness (I've been too much of a joker lately and I'm starting to feel like the class clown, or rather the blog clown and therefore must counterbalance my crack with a serious comment, even if I have nothing meaningful to add), I must concur with what Josh says about NC being VA-lite - that's basically how I've been thinking about the state too. Seems like NC is starting to be the place for retiring Northeasterners to go (our retiring mailman is moving down there at the end of this year), and that shifts the demographics. I don't think this is happening as much in Georgia, and certainly isn't in Mississippi, the other two Southern states that were at an early stage of the election talked about as possibly being within Obama's grasp. This is probably why it's become clear that neither of those states will go for Obama this year, while NC is extremely close.

I'll have to check out some polls to see if whites vote Republican in NC at similar ratios to those in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. After I prepare for my midterms, which seem like they will never end.

Josh Putnam said...

The Putnam Mocking Effect?

More powerful than the Bradley effect. My power has limits and I think 45 points is beyond even me.

The Tom Schaller thesis is at play in Georgia and Mississippi. The higher a state's percentage of African Americans, the better the GOP does in elections. The percentage in North Carolina is lower by close to 10%. That, I would argue, accounts for the biggest difference between North Carolina/Virginia and Georgia/Mississippi.

Of course, Obama is seeking to rewrite much of Schaller's book by attempting to breaking into the peripheral South.

Jack said...

Then why is Alabama redder than Mississippi and Georgia when it has a lower African-American population?

Maybe that thesis only works below a certain threshold, and after that you get a certain percentage of the white vote and a certain percentage of the African-American population, and Alabama's lower proportion of the latter means there are that many fewer Democrats?

I wouldn't know; I haven't read the book.

I suppose the shift to the Republicans was stronger in the deeper South, too - Goldwater didn't win anything north of SC, and Wallace won up to GA.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Jack--I just spent a little time looking for stats on migration from the Northeast. I didn't find any, but I thought either population growth or fraction of people who had moved to their residence within the last five years might be a proxy. While North Carolina and Virginia show high population growth and fraction of people who have lived in their current location in the last five years, Georgia is more extreme on both measures.

What about the Tom Schaller hypothesis?
Here's Obama's support among whites in the latest poll in several Southern states, along with (in parentheses) the fraction of African-Americans according to census data:

Virginia: 39% (20%)
North Carolina: 38% (22%)
Georgia: 28% (30%)
South Carolina: 25% (29%)
Louisiana: 18% (32%)
Mississippi: 16% (37%)

It's amazing. I plotted it out, and the correlation coefficient is an astounding 0.97; every increase of one percentage point in African-American population drops Obama's white support by 1.5 points.

That explains that. No more mystery, sort of. We now know why North Carolina and Virginia appear to be behaving differently from the rest of the South. The question now is, why is Obama making bigger gains in the "whiter" states of the South than he is in other areas such as Ohio?

Josh Putnam said...

Excellent work, Scott! If you have any output you'd like to post, email it to me and I'll add it in.

Jack said...

Thanks for doing all that research, Scott. I felt I ought to chip in a little myself and looked up the latest SurveyUSA poll of Alabama; it showed white support at 21%. So Alabama's a little out of place here - based on African-American population it should be between NC and GA. Not quite sure why that's so, though I guess there are exceptions to every rule. And it isn't really far off line of what one would predict.

Josh Putnam said...

All my books are at the office, but I'll consult my Southern politics sources in the morning and see what I can come up with on Alabama.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Jack--it might also be a difference between Survey USA's and Rasmussen's methodology. Unfortunately, the last Alabama poll from Rasmussen is a bit too old to be a meaningful comparison.

Jack said...

Alright, thanks for all the research you do. Josh, you do a great job on the blog, and Scott and others, I learn a lot for your comments. This site has provided quite an education for me.

Josh Putnam said...

Aww shucks. That's what I'm trying to prove to prospective employers right now, Jack: That this site is an educational experience. If they click on the comments link, then they are seeing living proof of that. Thanks for being the test case.

Oh, and Scott's graphic has now been appended to the end of the post. Good stuff. It really drives the point home.

Jack said...

Oh, also, neat little graph – I share your love for graphs.

And what to make of this? Obviously the McCain campaign isn't looking at your site or they'd know how crucial Colorado is.

How do they expect to win without Colorado?

Josh Putnam said...

Yikes! If Colorado is off the table, I can't imagine how Pennsylvania is still in the equation. Oh to have access to their internal polling.

Josh Putnam said...

Alright. One more exercise on North Carolina. I was just inputting today's data, and wanted to simulate the final two weeks of polling in the Tar Heel state. If we assume that the polling in North Carolina, in both frequency and intensity is the same over the final two weeks as it was over the last week (5 polls, +3.4 raw average for Obama), then McCain's lead in our averages would drop to .82 points.

First of all, if we some tightening in the polls, then this is an unlikely outcome. Secondly, no, I didn't do this for the scenario where only the polls since early June were counted. If the drop described in the post above extends, then North Carolina would be a dead heat.

Yeah, there's a lot of assumptions in there.

Jack said...

Then again, a couple of very nice polls for Obama have come out in NC since your last post:

Rasmussen, and;

PPP. Being a partisan Democrat, I like the Senate numbers there, too.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Maybe the McCain campaign has some nifty internal polling in Pennsylvania. Or maybe, as you've posited before when I tried to justify their withdrawal from Michigan, they're just clueless.

I'm simply astounded that they've decided that the way to go is to characterize Obama's $1000 tax credit for the middle class as "welfare." I mean, I understand the point ideologically, but politically? I suppose the next thing they'll say is that not taking the tax credit would be patriotic.

I'm not actually sure this is the worst-run campaign ever, because they faced such a huge structural disadvantage. Rather than going (relatively) quietly, like Mondale or Dole, McCain tried every crazy longshot play in the book, and a few that weren't. He even kept it close for a while. And maybe that's to his credit. But boy, it sure makes for a spectacular train wreck to watch.

Josh Putnam said...

Those two polls were included.

Jack said...

I've probably said this before, and you have probably said this before, and everyone has probably said this before, but McCain's campaign's biggest mistake has been to overreact to every little thing. It can occasionally, though not always, work in the short term (Palin, for example) but rarely in the long term. I don't think McCain can pull anything dramatic in the last days before the election that will significantly alter anything, even though "short term" is really all we have left.

Could this in some ways be the antithesis of the Hillary Clinton campaign? Hillary tended to underreact to fundamental changes in the race, just as McCain tends to overreact to temporary events.

The tax credit/welfare thing is not the first time they've made such an astounding (for lack of a better word) comparison, though others aren't coming to mind for me right now. Political exhaustion + midterms = mental blocks. Frankly, I'm a little surprised it hasn't worked better — I subscribe to the "never overestimate the intelligence of the American public" theory. I'm also surprised that the Wright stuff didn't sink him, and early on I was surprised that a black candidate can get this far (although now that I think about it I'm less surprised) — well, this election has proven us all wrong on occasion, hasn't it?

SarahLawrenceScott said...

It's certainly proven me wrong enough time, and the times it's proven me right has usually been because I was joking. :)

But I don't think what we're seeing is the antithesis of the Clinton campaign, exactly. McCain changes strategies every week, which Clinton didn't do, but for quite a while she was changing brands every week. Can you even remember her campaign slogans? Some time around Ohio she finally hit her stride, but by then it was too late.

Of course, Obama clearly did not have the huge structural advantages in the primaries. Clinton could have won if she'd played it just a little bit differently. I guess I do agree in this respect: if Clinton has regrets, it's probably about what she could have done to win it. If McCain has regrets, it will probably be over the things he did do to try to win, but shouldn't have.

Jack said...

Yeah, I wasn't quite sure if I believed my own comment, but I very rarely contribute new ideas to the discussion here so I figured I'd give it a try. After all, we all know that Clinton didn't win because she didn't want it enough.

Your last point is very good too. This campaign has really ruined McCain's legacy quite a bit. Or has it? Who knows. After all, historians will look back and realize that they've misunderestimated Bush's presidency. Okay, I stole that line from a Telegraph article I found while looking for a citation.

Maybe history will look back at McCain's heroism and his maverickiness (is that how you spell it) and forgive his dirty campaign — after all, politics is always dirty. Or maybe history will essentially forget him. After all, who remembers presidential also-rans after a hundred years?

SarahLawrenceScott said...

I was curious about Jack's question about Presidential also-rans. Here are some that are fairly well known (e.g. they're still in high school history textbooks):

Aaron Burr
Henry Clay
Daniel Webster
William Jennings Bryan
Adlai Stevenson
Barry Goldwater

So it's possible. But the most mediocre of Presidents makes it at least vaguely into the consciousness of later generations, while you have to be a remarkable loser to do so. Depending on the rest of her career, and assuming she doesn't make it herself at some point, I think Hillary Clinton has a chance to get that kind of status. John McCain? Probably not.

Josh Putnam said...

Should McCain lose, he would make it the fifth consecutive presidential electoral defeat of a military veteran.

Bush 1992
Dole 1996
Gore* 2000
Kerry 2004
McCain 2008?

To me, that is somewhat striking. If that trend were to continue, he would be a part of it, but he would not have anything to really separate himself from the pack.

*Yes, Gore could be very easily removed from this list, but that's still 4 of the last 5.

Josh Putnam said...

The new map is up, by the way.

Jack said...

Scott, of course I remembered Clay and Bryan. I was thinking about people like James M. Cox and John W. Davis - accomplished men who ran for president but never achieved anything truly extraordinary.

Looking at the six names you mention, there are clear reasons that these men stand out.

Aaron Burr - the Hamilton duel, the disputed 1800 election
Henry Clay and Daniel Webster - larger than life figures in the Senate, ran multiple times
William Jennings Bryan - leading figure of the populist movement, and the Scopes trial, ran multiple times
Adlai Stevenson - Relatively recent, part of a political family, ran twice
Barry Goldwater - hero of the conservative movement.

McCain doesn't seem to fit any sort of category that would make him a lasting figure. He's certainly not the first presidential candidate to fight in a war, and while his story is memorable, most aspects of it are not completely unique. He was a US senator, but not a party leader. And he's hardly the first guy to go against his party.

As a participant in the first presidential election in which I voted and followed so closely, I will remember McCain all my life, but the history books probably won't.

Jack said...

To add to my earlier post and Scott's comment, I think Hillary already has made it as an American historical figure. Some first ladies are remembered today (Dolley Madison, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy, for example) and as the first former first lady to become a Senator and run for president, as well as the highly visible role she played in the administration, as well as, to a lesser extent, the Lewinsky scandal, she has secured a place in the history books.