The Horse Race Blogger

As the extraordinary drama of the American elections approaches its first decisive moment, the February 5th or Super Tuesday primaries, I find myself once again turning to Jay Cost, the The Horse Race blogger. I believe he is the best technical analyst of both polling and the the candidate’s underlying strategies. Jay Cost, “is [to quote his own original site where he covered the 2004 election] a graduate student of political science at the University of Chicago, currently penning a dissertation on American political parties.” He combines a scholarly knowledge of the history and structure of American politics with a genuine mathematical understanding of polls and what they do and do not indicate. His original site is still up and worth reading for his articles explaining the statistical limitations of polls. And how he organized a group of volunteer poll watchers on the web to feed him local results in key states like Ohio that allowed him to call the election before the media even had the figures his volunteers were supplying him. After the 2004 election he blogged at RedState for a while and now has found his natural home at Real Clear Politics. The words Horse Race Blog appear toward the bottom of the first section of the left hand column of the Real Clear Politics home page. The direct link to his RCP blog is here. The most important reason his work is so excellent is that he genuinely wants to understand what is happening, not make it happen. He puts it this way in his RCP About page:

I am not really interested in the “should” of American politics; I am interested in the “is.” Should Congress pass a comprehensive border plan, or should it just pass border security? I have my own opinions, but they are not what this blog is about. My interest here is in a question like this: Is it likely or unlikely that Congress will pass a comprehensive plan? This is not to say that my own preferences for the “should” won’t creep into my analysis of the “is,” but I am going to keep them as separate as possible.

He knows his history and he knows his math and because he keeps his own views separate while not pretending they don’t exist he puts himself in a position to pursue rational explanation to a deeper level. Again from his About page:

I am, as political scientists like to say, a “rat choice” guy. That is short for rational choice theory. If somebody asks me to explain why something happened, I would want to know who was involved, what were his goals, and what were the rules (formal or informal) that governed his behavior. I don’t understand politics as a pitched battle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. I understand it as the competition between divergent interests in the venue that Americans have set up to manage such conflict, namely our Madisonian system.

So you can take seriously this January 7 analysis of why Hillary’s prospects are different than Bill’s were in 1992 going into Super Tuesday to be a real analysis, not to be just another ideological driven cherry picking of the facts.

So, the implication is that if Bill could lose early contests and bounce back, Hillary could, too.

From a certain perspective, I think this conclusion is indisputable. I do not believe this race is over – and I say that as somebody who predicted that Obama would be a real threat to Hillary a while ago. Here’s my bottom line on the Dem race: Clinton has the money, the prestige, and the support to stay in the race through at least Super Tuesday, even if she loses all of the early contests. She also has, at least according to the latest national polls, much of the traditional voting coalition that has won her party’s nomination in year’s past. And remember – most Democratic primaries allocate delegates to the national convention proportionally, which means that losers still win delegates. So, Clinton could stay a close second through most of the season, and surge late to win the nomination. Of course, losses in Iowa and New Hampshire would seriously damage her campaign. No candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever failed to win his party’s nomination in the modern era.* However, as I have argued many times, history is a limited guide for us when it comes to party nominations. Hillary remains a candidate with real strengths – and she should not be underestimated.

Read the rest to understand how today’s Super Tuesday is different from 1992 and all the other factors that make Hillary’s pursuit to the nomination unique. Here is an analysis that shows how polling combined with mathematical understanding can shed light on a particular candidates chances – in this case Romney:

Romney lost Iowa, and then he lost New Hampshire. Accordingly, he is not the consensus candidate of the party. Far from it. While he has a toehold in the GOP electorate, that’s all he has. The recent Pew poll offers cross-tabs that tell the story in vivid detail. Even though the poll was completed before the Michigan primary, there is still a good bit to learn from it:


Huckabee’s strength is with evangelicals. McCain’s strength is with self-identified moderates and liberals; he is also strong among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Romney wins a solid portion of self-identified conservatives – but he is in a three-way statistical tie with Huckabee and McCain for their support. Clearly, he has not yet broken through with either demographic – be it ideological or religious. You could also slice the party by income – and you would see the same result. McCain dominates; Huckabee has a fair share; Romney has not broken through.

You really get an idea of how good he is when you combine his assertion that Hillary has great strength with the traditional Democratic voting coalition with this close analysis of polling data from Nevada and New Hampshire. Here are his conclusions:

Once again, it appears that Hillary Clinton won by turning out a traditional Democratic voting coalition: Catholics, women, and “downscale” Democrats. This time, she added to this coalition with strong showings among Hispanics, whites, men, and “upscale” voters.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that Obama is able to take a solid portion of the core Democratic vote – notably African Americans. This is good news for Obama in the short term. If you take these demographic preferences to South Carolina, Obama will probably win because each group’s share of the vote shifts. For instance, Hispanics are not a major factor in South Carolina, and African Americans are a much greater factor. This alone would probably yield Obama a victory next week.

But in the long run, my feeling is that a replication of Nevada’s result would give Clinton great success on Super Tuesday. The real concern for Obama should be the shift of white voters to Clinton. It remains to be seen whether this is sustainable (we saw nothing like this in Iowa or New Hampshire). If it is, Obama is in real trouble.

I’m not saying to not read other commentators. I am saying don’t miss out on a wonderful source of insight into this election season. As Jay himself puts it here:

It is a goal of mine that this space be full of clear and precise thoughts. Another goal I have is that what I offer you be novel. I like to observe what has not yet been observed, to infer what has not yet been inferred. I don’t like to waste people’s time through duplication. Who needs that? So, I will try to keep the content unique.

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