US election horse race

by Daniel on March 12, 2008

We’ve been consciously trying to dial down the amount of horse-race coverage of the US presidential nominations (it will probably inevitably get intolerable during the actual race, but that’s the policy), but I don’t think that no coverage at all is the aim. And one thing looks quite interesting to me at the moment; although the general buzz of the news cycle has Hillary Clinton level-pegging or even regaining “momentum”, the Electronic Markets have her, post a small Texas/Ohio bounce, still way out of the money with Obama looking like the favourite at around 75.

As far as I can tell, the tracking polls are telling more or less the same story at present. As far as I can see, the punditosphere seems to have got rather ahead of the data here; there’s a potential test of whether they have any actual predictive ability.

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Crooked Timber » » Horse Races and Odds
03.13.08 at 12:55 am



Steve LaBonne 03.12.08 at 10:42 am

The horserace narrative is a media fiction which has little or nothing to do with the real state of play. Which is that Obama’s sizable lead in pledged delegates is insurmountable because all of the Democratic primaries apportion delegates proportionately; there are no big winner-take-all prizes. Last night in Mississippi, Obama already wiped out the extremely modest gain in delegates that Clinton made on her supposedly big comeback victory day of March 4. Obama will be the nominee, barring the equivalent of a palace coup in favor of Clinton (exceedingly unlikely).


toby 03.12.08 at 11:00 am

At the start of March, Hilary Clinton was behind in the delegate count and the popular vote. Ohio and Texas were described as her “last hurrah” and her campaign was in widely-publicized disarray.

In mid-March, after a statistical dead-heat in Texas and a more convincing win in Ohio, Hilary Clinton has made no headway in the delegate count (if anything, she is farther behind), and is still behind in the popular vote by about the same amount (6,000,000 votes give or take) as she was before. By all accounts, back-biting and in-fighting still continue among her staff.

But her campaign has been described as “revived” and “Comeback Kid” rhetoric is all the rage.

If that is not a victory for spin, then what is? Because March 2nd was not an absolute disaster, it is counted a success. Apparently, the latest strategy is hope that something turns up in the popular vote to convince the majority of superdelegates that she is the “chosen one”. To do that she will need to win Pennsylvania by someting like 80-20% which is highly unlikely.

She’s dead but she won’t lie down.


John Emerson 03.12.08 at 11:43 am

Someone has to explain to Hillary that she no longer has anything to win. The only way she can get anywhere is by tearing down Obama, but there are lot of negatives to that for her. (For one thing, if she beats Obama and loses to McCain, she will go down in history as the most hated Democratic Presidential candidate ever, ahead of McGovern and all the other losers, and she will tarnish Bill’s reputation that way too.)

Horseracewise, it’s time to go meta. It’s not just the “momentum” spin — the way there will always a few pundits who change their story after every primary, regardless of the big picture. It’s that on the next week these very same pundits wmight very well warn you that spinning momentum based on one week’s results is a big mistake, since a single week’s primarys result seldom change much of anything.

Maybe this is the demise of the author function. The journalist’s job is to deliver X words of text every week, and every week is a new week. The byline is just a page marker, like “Page Three”. These guys have to do something to crank out copy.


Glen Tomkins 03.12.08 at 12:20 pm

The announcers at the track

The media has the exact opposite policy than yours concerning covering this as a horse race. That’s all this is to them. So of course they have to hope that it still is a horce race, and where hope fails, to just pretend that way. If the horse race is over, then the announcers would to stop announcing and go home. Can’t have that!


Ginger Yellow 03.12.08 at 12:29 pm

“As far as I can see, the punditosphere seems to have got rather ahead of the data here”

And this is unusual how? Since when has the punditosphere ever followed the data with any consistency?


Matt McIrvin 03.12.08 at 12:41 pm

I’m an Obama supporter, but I don’t find it odd that Clinton hasn’t gotten out yet; historically, candidates stay in to the convention when they’re doing this well, or even considerably worse.

It’s true that if nothing catastrophic happens, she’ll lose the nomination. But, as with any political campaign, something catastrophic could happen–some scandal or gaffe we haven’t even heard of yet that utterly destroys Obama as a candidate–and at that point, having a second strong candidate still in the race with an active campaign organization is a boon. Of course, the bad side of this is that Clinton’s campaign has an incentive to bring the catastrophe.

I get addicted to reading the horse-race coverage, and it makes me angry and frightened sometimes. I think Democrats need to step back occasionally and remember that it’s still March, and most of what’s going on now will be completely forgotten by the fall. This campaign season started so absurdly early that we’re going to have a long general election campaign even after all this.


John Emerson 03.12.08 at 1:11 pm

It’s hard to stay out. I spent a month or more trying to get Obama and Clinton people both to chill out, since the two are (unfortunately) not terribly far apart, but when Clinton went McCain on Obama I was furious. I really can’t take that as “business as usual”. If Clinton wants to stay in and see if something will work, that might be OK, except that I don’t see that she has any non-destructive options.

Her Super Tuesday strategy failed and now she’s improvising. (What is it with New Yorkers? Giuliani’s strategy was even worse, but rather sililar: Forget about the chickenshit little states.)


harry b 03.12.08 at 1:25 pm

glen tomkins is right, but usually the horse race announcers at the track are actually watching the positions of the horses. As far as I can see what has happened is that i) the journalists feel guilty for having given Obama too easy a ride (not clear that they have done that, but they are stung by the accusation) so are compensating and ii) have, collectively, a slim grasp of the proportionality versus winning a state distinction. I don’t have a horse in this race (except that I share the general dislike for Clinton) but I hope steve labonne is right that a palace coup is exceedingly unlikely.


abb1 03.12.08 at 1:53 pm

But, as with any political campaign, something catastrophic could happen—some scandal or gaffe we haven’t even heard of yet that utterly destroys Obama as a candidate—and at that point, having a second strong candidate still in the race with an active campaign organization is a boon.

But she could still be in the race without actively campaigning; I believe Edwards and others merely “suspended” their campaigns, just for a case like that – if something catastrophic happens. She doesn’t have to keep running commercials and making speeches to be the candidate in reserve.

Maybe she’s trying to force him to offer her the VP position?


Anderson 03.12.08 at 1:58 pm

Maybe she’s trying to force him to offer her the VP position?

Tearing him down, e.g. attacking his ability to be commander-in-chief, is not the obvious way to do that.

Hillary has succumbed to the school of Dem thought that says you have to resemble the Repubs to beat them. Hence Mark Penn, her would-be Karl Rove, who is to the original as Napoleon III to Napoleon I: farce to tragedy.


abb1 03.12.08 at 2:08 pm

Tearing him down, e.g. attacking his ability to be commander-in-chief, is not the obvious way to do that.

Why, what other leverage does she have? Harassing someone until they do what you want them them to do is obvious enough method to be commonly used by small children and even dogs.


Righteous Bubba 03.12.08 at 3:44 pm

Why, what other leverage does she have?

There’s an endorsement.


mpowell 03.12.08 at 4:00 pm

Predictive value? Different people have been making different predictions. My personal opinion is that the market value on Clinton has been too high for most of the time since the Potomac Primary. The events of the last week have confirmed that those markets can be influenced by non-events and media hype (which is obviously biased towards making it a race)


Martin James 03.12.08 at 4:14 pm

So how much of the the market being at 25% for Clinton is because Obama may make(or have made) a big error and how much is thinking that Clinton can get the superdelegates to be super in her favor?

If you think neither of those are going to happen, then you can buy dollars for .75!


abb1 03.12.08 at 4:33 pm

The supers I’ve seen so far (on TV), vast majority of them, almost without exception, seemed eager to jump Clinton’s ship. OTOH, maybe those who still are loyal to her don’t want to be on TV.


Shelby 03.12.08 at 4:37 pm

One factor no one’s mentioned is the superdelegates. Thanks to them, Hillary could well win the nomination — all she has to do is not lose more ground in the primaries, then get the supers by a two-to-one margin. Everything I’ve seen since 1992 indicates the Clinton machine can do that.

I don’t expect Hillary to win, but she has a realistic shot.


bigTom 03.12.08 at 5:03 pm

If I were in HRC’s position, I would continue running, but not make strongly negative attacks. That way she is still in the running if Obama were to self-destruct, but she wouldn’t be making so many enemies within her own party. The later effect may hurt her future career, and that just doesn’t seem like a reasonable tradeoff to me.


JJ 03.12.08 at 6:15 pm

Slate has a delegate counter up:
(Put Wyoming and Mississippi in for Obama by 20 points each)

There are three ways she can win. 1) She can win every race from here on out by 25-30 point margins, 2) she can rack up 20 point margins everywhere and figure out how to seat Michigan and Florida, and then win them by 20 point margins each, or 3) she can figure out how to get the superdelegates to usurp the will of the voters.

That’s it.

Jon Chait summed up the state of the race pretty well in this TNR piece


JJ 03.12.08 at 6:16 pm

Sorry, one more time: Jon Chait summed up the state of the race pretty well in this TNR piece


not even an MBA 03.12.08 at 6:39 pm

But what value is there in testing the predictive ability of the punditocracy. That group is less accountable than the Alberto Gonzales era Justice Department.


Jerome 03.12.08 at 7:12 pm

I’m just not seeing Clinton winning on the back of overwhelming superdelegate support unless there are substantial errors by Obama (of the “dead girl or live boy” variety).

If I were a superdelegate that was a big Clinton supporter, why would I not have declared by now? Why not at the beginning of the process as part of an effort to reduce the fundraising ability of the other candidates? If you check out the wikipedia page on superdelegates and look at their declarations of support over time, you’ll find that Hillary got all of her lead at the beginning of the process and now Obama is rapidly gaining. I can only imagine that this pattern will continue for two reasons. 1. Hillary continues to attack Obama rather than build her own support. 2. Hillary continues to attack Obama from the right making it clear that this is the way that she would pivot in the general if she were the nominee.

There is no reason to think that (again, barring an Obama collapse or a media declaration of such) Hillary is the natural choice of the 300 or so undeclared superdelegates.


john con 03.12.08 at 7:28 pm

“I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black”


Sebastian 03.12.08 at 8:20 pm

“As far as I can tell, the tracking polls are telling more or less the same story at present. As far as I can see, the punditosphere seems to have got rather ahead of the data here; there’s a potential test of whether they have any actual predictive ability.”

The data you link to isn’t particularly relevant so this is a great test because the bettors are using mostly relevant information while the news media is using irrelevant information. A 3-5% for Obama among Democrats means a lock for him at this point because the important metric is delegates. In order for Clinton to win she needs to start racking up 15-25% leads in the remaining contests. So a small margin (either way) in the remaining races equals an Obama win–which is what the betting market is looking at.

The reason she hasn’t cratered to near zero is because the super-delegates thing is up in the air until the end, so there she theoretically has an out (even if it is very unlikely).


jim 03.12.08 at 8:42 pm

After reading the comments here, all I can do is ask you to continue your policy of staying away from the horse-race.


Henrico Otto 03.12.08 at 9:56 pm

I don’t think the market is out-of-whack here.

While a number of folks have pointed to Obama’s almost insurmountable leading in pledged delegates, it is also almost certain that Obama won’t have enough to win it without Supers.

The question is how will the supers go?

Seems to me if Obama keeps his lead in the popular vote, he’s got the nearly unbeatable argument that he’s got the lead in votes and delegates and that the Supers have no choice but to vatify the voters’ decisions.

BUT there is a significant chance he won’t hold on to the popular vote lead (it’s around 700,000 now, right?), especially if Fla is counted (better argument for Fla than MI) or Fla and/or MI is redone.

If HRC has the popular vote lead, then Obama’s argument is “Well, I’ve got more pledged delegates.” That argument goes up against HRC’s “Well I won more votes, and the pledged delegate lead has no particular moral force, certainly none to compare to the popular vote. Moreover, Obama has wilted in the end, I won more big important states, yada yada yada.” There is a significant chance she wins that argument, of course she will need to persuade many more supers than Obama, so even though I think she would have the better of the argument she’s got a handicap there.

So what might the market be reflecting? Some greater than 25% chance of winning the popular vote in the end — let’s say one in 35-40% — and then a reasonably high chance of winning the necessary supers if she does?


john con 03.12.08 at 10:12 pm

Ladies and Gentlemen please welcome President Obama of the United States


novakant 03.13.08 at 12:04 am

What jj said, take a good look at Slate’s delegate counter and at the previous results and you will find out:

The race is over!

(unless the Democratic party wants to self-destruct and make a total mockery of the primary system)


blah 03.13.08 at 3:52 am

The pundits are not in the game to predict the outcome or to interpret the data.

They are in the game to influence the outcome and spin the data. It’s pretty clear that over the past month or so the pundits have been pumping up Clinton and knocking down Obama in order to prolong the Democratic primary.

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