December 28, 2008

The litany of McCain errors - Part 2

Yesterday I wrote that McCain had made a number of campaign-related mistakes, and I focused on the money matters. Today I want to look at the demographic issues related to the McCain campaign. How did McCain's failure to have an effective demographic strategy and/or his failure to materialize that strategy in an electoral college sense, cost him the campaign? There's two ways to look at these problems - what demographic groups McCain failed to deliver and what electoral college impacts the campaign decisions resulted in.


John McCain's strategy team clearly were out-gamed in the demographics department. President-elect Obama beat out both Hilary Clinton and then John McCain by having a demographic strategy and sticking to it. I'm sure the Obama team crunched the numbers and figured out what they needed to do to win. George W. Bush had won 62 million votes in 2004. Karl Rove was praised at the time (or vilified, if you were a Democrat) for his GOTV machine. But Obama outdid Bush by garnering 67.1 million votes. Where did they come from. And why did McCain garner only 58.4 million votes? Surely he could have at least matched Bush?

When you break down those numbers, Obama got 52.7% of the popular vote to McCain's 45.9%, while Bush had received 50.7% in 2004. In 2008 125.4 million people voted, in 2004 121 million people voted. So there were 4.4 million net new voters. McCain got 3.7 million less votes than George Bush. You combine those two points and you get approximately an 8.1 million vote victory that Obama enjoyed (according to NPR, the margin was 8.6 million).

Let's take as a plausible but unproven given that the 3.7 million votes McCain leaked versus Bush in 2004 were unavoidable. After all Bush had become very unpopular, and McCain wasn't Mr. Charisma. Those votes could be votes that stayed home or actually shifted to Obama. Let's further assume the latter is the case for simplicity sake for now. Why did those voters become Democratic voters and how did Obama bring an additional 4.2 million new voters to the table?

Obama was clearly going to win 2 groups in unprecedented numbers;


Both of these groups contributed to a good number of the new voters while the latter probably also contributed slightly to the number who voted Democrat this time around.

But there was a third group that Obama did better than I would have expected. Hispanic voters. Considering Bush was friendly to Hispanics and McCain had tried to be, why did McCain fare so much more poorly than Bush had done previously? Another demographic where McCain underperformed were disaffected Hilary Clinton voters, or PUMAs.

Let's look at each of these areas and see what went wrong for McCain.


Interestingly in 2008 the youth vote was only up to 18% versus 17% in 2004. Obama's margin of victory in this demographic has been typically sited as 68-30 to 66-32. This compares to John Kerry's margin of 55-44 in 2004. The number of voters in the demo is estimated at 22 to 24 million, versus 21 million in 2004. In other words, there's a net swing of 2.7 million related to the improved voter share, and 450,000 as a result of new youth voter turnout. All told there is 3.15 million votes that helped to Obama.

Could McCain have prevented this? Probably not. He might as well be 1000 years old to some of that Demographic. He's someone to whom they just can't relate. Showing videos of his heroics in Vietnam is just too distant to them. But McCain could have done something to stem the margin of the tide. Instead of the margin that occurred, perhaps McCain could have fought for a 60-40 split. It would have potentially shaved a million votes off Obama's total gains.

How to do that would have been another matter, but looking at McCain's campaign there wasn't any highly visible youth outreach. Did McCain concede the demographic? Did he feel the youth turnout was being overestimated? In either case, there was a strategic mistake to not seriously contest this group. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but my premise is how do we learn from 2008, so hindsight is meaningful.

What's the lesson on youth? A vote is a vote. Uninformed votes count the same as informed votes, and they must be contested. Working in the GOPs favor for 2012 is the same enthusiasm for Obama's hope and change message is going to be highly diminished after 4 years of not seeing immediate impactful change in their young lives. That demographic edge will still be there, but it will be smaller. This is especially true if the youth outreach is started by the RNC in 2009 and carries on through 2012 and beyond.

African Americans

There's no way McCain stood a chance in this demographic. To put it in any other light would be unfair. Conceding this demographic to Obama was not a strategic blunder but rather a strategic necessity. It was always Obama's demographic. The impact?

These numbers are still preliminary because final numbers seemingly haven't been published yet, but apparently 95% voted for Obama while in 2004 it was 88% for Kerry. Approximating the voter turnout of 60% in 2004 and outright guessing at 70% in 2008, we'd see 21 million voters in 2004 and 25.5 million in 2008. Breaking those approximations down, Obama gained 1.47 million voters versus Kerry in 2004 and attracted 4.5 million new African American voters, for a net gain of roughly 6 million. We'll have to wait for official releases to see if this number bears out.

Combined with the youth vote we're already nearing 9 million voters gained for Obama at this point.

But wait, why do African Americans vote Democrat in such percentages when there is ample evidence they are more conservative in many respects? In California on Proposition 8 regarding gay marriage, they voted against gay marriage in significant numbers. African Americans aren't really lost causes for conservatives. It's a matter of outreach. That's the lesson. We really aren't that far apart, we just need to have the dialogue as often as possible between now and 2012. Obama will still win, but maybe we can push back to the Kerry margins in 2012 and assuming a non-African American in 2016, perhaps work towards an even more central tendency in 2016 and beyond.


Hispanics voted 67% to 31% for Obama in 2008. In 2004 Bush won 44% of the Hispanic vote. That means McCain dropped 13% of Hispanic voters. Similarly I haven't seen turnout numbers but these numbers work in Obama's favor. Overall, this demographic slippage provides a lesson that requires some investigation.

Why didn't McCain fare better? Clearly the amnesty issue wasn't a winner for him. Hispanic voters were similar in California to African Americans on Proposition 8. They are also typically more religious than other demographics. So on social conservatism this group is winnable. Again, the issue is outreach. We need to learn what is motivation the demographic economically or otherwise to sway them away from socially conservative based voting. If we don't know what is motivating them, how can we ever hope to reach them? Bush had made inroads, but those appear to have been foregone now.

Clinton Women / PUMAs

While there are no specific breakdowns of PUMA voters that I have seen yet, Obama carried the female vote. In doing so he dispelled the myth that depending on a disenfranchised voter segment to help you carry the day is a bad idea. It didn't work for McCain, or at least not in sufficient numbers to overcome the build up for Obama in the other demographics. They seemed to be a non factor, or a minor one at best I'm sorry to say.

Unfortunately this analysis barely skims the surface and some underlying data is still outstanding to do it justice. But it's a start for now. The passage of time will reveal more for us.

But the point to be taken away is unchanged. We need to identify a coalition not of interest groups but of demographic groups that we know our message will resonate with. Then, we have to pound the heck out of that group with consistent messaging about their issues and concerns. My belief is that a conservative message plays to many more demographics that are traditionally targeted and the only way to expand conservatism is to take the message to new population segments that are a more natural fit than is currently considered.

Tomorrow I will continue with Part 3, Strategy.

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