Monday, March 12, 2012

Steve Schmidt, Fabricator

Beware of political strategists pursuing self-interest.

He has been everywhere on MSNBC, adding his analysis as a pundit during this campaign season.    And Steve Schmidt now is the star, as played by Woody Harrelson, of Game Change, the HBO movie based on the portion of that portion of the book Game Change which focused on vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Politico recently held a forum, telecast on C-Span, which included authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, movie director Jay Roach and screenwriter, Danny Strong, and McCain-Palin campaign manager Schmidt.    Recognizing that the movie portrays the Alaska governor as intellectually and emotionally unfit to serve as vice-president, Strong explained that 85-90% of the movie was based on the book with the remainder derived from Palin's Going Rogue and interviews Strong conducted with 25 individuals (including friends of the Alaska governor) involved in the McCain-Palin campaign.

Controversy surrounding the book centers around Sarah Palin, her extraordinary lack of knowledge about world affairs and her mercurial, narcissistic personality.      Although Schmidt explains the decision by the campaign about the decision to choose Palin, too little attention is given to what has appeared since roughly mid-September of 2008 to have been a serious tactical error.

The movie suggests, probably accurately, that in selecting Palin, campaign strategists realized that they would be forfeiting McCain's advantage over Barack Obama in experience and that they would be pivoting from the emphasis the campaign had placed on "Country First."     However, advisers were taken with the idea of picking Palin, a woman evidently as skilled with a hunting rifle as she was attractive.    (In reality:    no.)      The candidate himself, though less involved with the selection, stated that he could play it safe- and be resigned to losing by 5 percentage points.

"Politically," Schmidt still claims, Palin "was a net positive to the campaign."     As Schmidt describes it, the campaign decided that it needed a "game change," to gamble on something, on someone.       Boldness was demanded.

No greater favor was ever done for Barack Obama.

The one study of which I'm aware of assessing Palin's impact on the final outcome concluded that she probably cost the ticket 2%.      But there are two major flaws with that perspective:    1) presidential elections are decided state-by-state, rather than nationally, and 2) the theme of the campaign was dramatically altered by the selection of a first-term governor from a state outside the continental U.S.A., and one whose Repub politicians have flirted with the idea of secession.

Schmidt stated in the Politico event that at the time of the GOP convention, the Repub ticket was trailing by 20 percentage points.         The 2008 Democratic National Convention was held from August 25 to August 28, the Repub convention a week later.     On August 24, in ten polls published by Real Clear Politics, the average had Obama leading McCain by 1.6%.      That included the Gallup tracking survey, conducted 8/21-8/23, which showed the race as a dead heat.      A week later, on August 30 the same survey had Obama-Biden up by 6 points. Taken a day or two before the opening of the GOP National Convention, and given the normal dissipation of a "bounce," Obama-Biden probably was on top by 4-5 points

Given the normal dissipation of a "bounce," Obama-Biden probably was up approximately 4-5 points at the opening bell of the GOP convention on September 1.

ABC News has found that from 1968 through 2004, the average convention bounce was approximately 10 points; for the GOP specifically, 10.6 percentage points.          If, then, McCain had made a relatively conventional selection for running-mate, and it had been received (as most designations are) fairly positively, he should have come out of his convention ahead by 4-5 points.

Granted, a couple of John McCain's preferences for running mate, including the Democratic heretic, Joe Lieberman, would have been unconventional and (at least in the case of the Connecticut Senator) would have sparked controversy in St. Paul.        Still, considering that support for Obama-Biden would have subsided from its bounce (what goes up, must come down, at least partially), McCain probably would have emerged from his party's convention roughly even.    

Gallup's tracking survey gives McCain a larger bounce, 6% to 4%, than it gives Obama.     Those numbers are more correctly identified as a bump, which is more enduring than a bounce because, based on the results of a three-day tracking survey, the numbers are more reliable than in a one-shot survey taken immediately after a convention.

Nonetheless, Schmidt claims that Senator McCain faced a 20% deficit upon the opening of the convention.      That is patently untrue, and a state-by-state evaluation would have rated the race at that time as nearly a toss-up.

Obama-Biden garnered 365 electoral votes, McCain-Palin, 173.         For each state, Real Clear Politics displayed a graph indicating what the average of various polls (not exactly the same for each state) showed as the percentage of voters indicating a preference for Barack Obama or for John McCain at each point in the campaign, from August 24 through November 4.       I looked at the numbers for the period 8/27/08-8/30/08 for fourteen states.        There are eight states won by Obama in which, at that time according to the Real Clear average, John McCain either led (Nevada, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Indiana) or was trailing by .4 points or less (New Hampshire and Colorado).    

These states have a total of 104 electoral votes.     If John McCain ultimately had wrested those states from Barack Obama, assuming no other change, McCain would have ended up with 277 electoral votes- seven more than the 270 needed to win- and Barack Obama with 261 electoral votes.

But the objection is raised:   what if, by virtue of the campaign, including the presence of Sarah Palin on the ticket, McCain had won those states but lost one or two others with a combined total exceeding seven?     That would have left the Arizona senator with under 270 votes, and a narrow defeat.

So we go to Missouri, the state won most narrowly (49.29% to 49.43%) by Senator McCain. Perhaps the campaign, which featured a dynamic yet unqualified governor as a veep candidate, enhanced John McCain's performance there.

It's impossible to know for sure, of course, but we do know this.      McCain-Palin won Missouri by .14%.    But on August 30, as the GOP convention was to open, John McCain led in this midwestern, bellwether state of 11 electoral votes by 7.0%, according to the Real Clear Politics average.         Over the course of the campaign, John McCain forfeited approximately 6.8% of his advantage there.

We can't be sure whether Sarah Palin lost John McCain votes in Missouri or, for that matter, in any other bellwether or battleground state.     But we do know that McCain was in easy striking distance of his opponent following the Democratic National Convention.        And then he decided, at the outset of the third quarter, to throw a Hail Mary pass.     A candidate is merely panicking if he decides to gamble it all away when he has, at worst, a little less than a 50-50 chance of winning.

We know, too, why Steve Schmidt and Company decided to take such an irrational risk.     Schmidt noted the gigantic, exuberant crowds the Democratic candidate was drawing and was impressed by the extraordinary enthusiasm of so many of Barack Obama's supporters. He was less impressed by the opportunity to run a campaign for a presidential candidate who had shown enormous courage and dedication to country as a naval veteran (video, below), whose professional life had been dedicated to public service, and who was running against a Protestant from Hawaii- but whom  a large percentage of the electorate believed was a Muslim and foreign-born (and, in lesser numbers, still do!).      Thus, they threw deep, wildly, and snatched someone inexperienced, with little if no dedication to serving anyone but herself (and her family), and a knowledge of American history inferior to that of an average fifth grader.    

And so they threw away John McCain's big advantage, choosing not to present an alternate narrative but to contest the election on Barack H. Obama's turf.   It would be not be a campaign promoting "Country First" or criticizing an opponent because he had been a senator since last Tuesday, with a record of voting "present" in Illinois.    It would be two individuals asking the electorate for their vote because they were "mavericks."     No matter they were running against someone promising to transcend partisan divisions and end business as usual and seemed unusually capable of doing so.       McCain and Palin would be two rebels vying against the man aiming to be the first black elected in the history of a country with a shameful record of slavery, followed by segregation, followed by mere discrimination.        Smart move, Steve-O.

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