The Independent View: A reply to Mark Pack from Obama’s Director of Data

The Crystal Ball chart blogged by Mark Pack highlights the interesting cases of Alaska and Utah. These outliers make sense given the dynamics of the race (the large Mormon population in UT provided a boost to Romney while the absence of Sarah Palin from the ballot hurt Republican performance in AK relative to 2008). But why do we not see more turbulence in the battleground states?  Surely the gobs of money spent in these states along with the monumental ground efforts of the Obama campaign would push these states away from the crowd? The answer to this apparent disconnect is pretty straightforward: there were also gobs of money and a monumental ground game in these states in 2008.

It would be fair to look at this chart and say, “The Obama campaign does not appear to have done any better a job at getting votes in key states than it did in 2008.” It’s not fair or accurate, however, to say “there’s no evidence that the Obama campaign made any difference whatsoever”.  The baseline we’re comparing 2012 to here – the 2008 election- is not a pristine election in which voters were simply left undisturbed and allowed to make their own decisions based on their own personal whims. Quite the opposite was true. 2008 was the most expensive American presidential election in history, up to that point, and the energy and activity surrounding the election were every bit as intense and grinding as the election that has just passed.

So how can we start to make sense of the impact to Obama campaign actually had? A good place to start is with states where Obama ran an aggressive program in 2008 but did not in 2012. We’ve got two excellent examples to work with: Missouri and Indiana. In each of these states the Obama campaign ran a full-bore election effort in 2008 but had no such operation in 2012. The Obama campaign ran a more focused effort in a smaller number of states in 2012 than in 2008 and IN and MO were two of the states left on the table. If the efforts of the Obama campaign in 2012 really had no impact we would expect these two states to perform just about as well as the battlegrounds, relative to 2008.



Difference in Obama 2-Way Margin

Fully Contested in 08 not 12 (IN and MO)


Sort of Contested in 08 not 12 (GA and MT)


Uncontested R states


National Average- State Support


Fully contested both 08 and 12


Uncontested D states



Obama’s 2-way support margin (his % of the vote when only Obama v Romney is considered) declined by 4.6% nationwide from 2008 to 2012. More so in strong Republican states and less so in strong Democratic states. In the battleground states this decline roughly tracked to the national average.

In our two contrast states though, IN and MO, the floor dropped out. Obama support slipped by more than double what we observe in the battlegrounds: -9.7% in MO and -11.3% in IN. (I’ve put GA and MT into a separate category because the story is a little more complicated there, but these are states where the investment was certainly more in 2008 than it was in 2012 and we see a similar outcome.)

Does this mean the Obama campaign was able to deliver, on average, a 6-point advantage to Obama performance in the battlegrounds? I wouldn’t go that far. There are ten thousand variables at play here and no simple post-hoc analysis of the numbers could ever give us such sweeping confidence in an ROI like that.

But it does strongly indicate that the efforts of the Obama campaign in these states had a clear and measurable positive impact. Given the overall decline in Obama support, the prevailing economic headwinds and lack of early enthusiasm on the Democratic side, the fact that the Obama campaign was able to hold the line and deliver results that were comparable to 2008 in the most hotly contested battleground states is a pretty impressive feat.

And I’m totally saying that based on hard numbers, not bias 🙂

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Ethan Roeder was Director of Data for the Obama campaign.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA, Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Tom Richards 19th Nov '12 - 9:45am

    great post, exactly what I suspected when I read the Pack article!

  • Thanks for this, Ethan. Interesting stuff.

  • Andrew McLean 19th Nov '12 - 11:27am

    Interesting post. But playing devil’s advocate for a minute, as Ethan suggested there is a problem with this sort of post-hoc analysis. In particular, there is a reason the Obama campaign chose not to contest those four states in 2012 and it isn’t because they were the most susceptible to a uniform swing. I’m guessing it was more about local issues and demographics.

  • Tony Dawson 19th Nov '12 - 6:35pm

    @Andrew McLean:

    “..there is a reason the Obama campaign chose not to contest those four states in 2012 and it isn’t because they were the most susceptible to a uniform swing. ”

    In every war, successful generals know where to draw the line. Where to fight, where not to fight, and where to pretend to fight. if you get it badly wrong, you are often routed. Obama’s team appear to have made their discard plan pretty well.

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