Interview: Campaign Diaries' Daniel Nichanian


As the 2008 presidential election continues to dominate national news, a public appetite for information and context has created a niche for websites that cater to armchair analysts. Websites like Politico, Marc Ambinder's blog and Talking Points Memo are daily must-reads. [Ed note: I like FiveThirtyEight.-ML] But polls and electoral maps are also key to understanding the shifting opinions of voters, and Daniel Nichanian's Campaign Diaries has been a consistent source for that data.

"I've obsessively followed electoral politics and decided that I should go ahead and create a blog rather than just shoot emails to friends when I had something to say," says the Yale grad. With a degree in political science, he's been following both major party primaries as well as contested congressional and gubernatorial races in key swing states. "I usually have 2 - 3 posts analyzing whatever is in the news, including down-the-ballot races, and then have one 'polling roundup' every day where I list the day's polls and do some analysis."

Chicagoist recently talked to Daniel about polls, get out the vote operations, and the electoral college.

Chicagoist: There's been a lot of freaking out by Democrats in the last two weeks since McCain picked Palin, and started attacking Obama harder. Has the concern among Obama supports been seen in electoral polling?

Daniel: Well, certainly. Much of the concern has been fueled by national polls that have shown a sizable bounce for McCain. Let's get the magnitude of the shift clear: If you exclude the daily tracking polls, McCain led in perhaps two or three national polls from early May to early September and Obama was regularly leading by high single-digits. Since the GOP convention ended, McCain has taken the lead in a number of national polls - and the fact that one of the first released (USA Today/Gallup) showed the biggest bounce (and McCain up by 10%) set the tone for the ensuing coverage. And what has also worried Democrats is the internals of the bounce: (1) Many polls have shown that the enthusiasm of Republican voters has gone up dramatically (Palin effect? convention boost?), when the enthusiasm gap was one of the main factors that were making Democrats feel so good, and (2) independents significantly shifted towards McCain in post-convention polls, and the fact that so many independents disliked Bush and were shifting towards Democrats (as they started to do in ‘06) was also one of the main causes of Democratic optimism.

McCain might have erased Obama's lead, but he does not appear to have gained an edge himself. He was leading by a few points in some polls, but that is also the point of a bounce. The race has basically balanced itself - national polls have been showing that. Also, the numbers in the most competitive states (OH, MI, VA...) have not moved that much since the pre-convention period, suggesting that all the political noise in those states where the campaign are investing millions of dollars to air ads has drowned some of the convention's message. That means that the race in those states still appears to be pretty much where it was a few weeks ago, and that's one more reason that panic is not warranted.

C: I read a poll today that showed that since the convention, white women haven’t really shifted over to McCain any more than white men have. How has Sarah Palin shaped the race since the conventions?


Daniel: Sarah Palin's impact has obviously been THE big question on everyone's mind for weeks now. We knew as soon as we learned Palin was the pick that it was a huge gamble and that we wouldn't know for a while whether it would be a huge boost or a disaster. Frankly, we still don't know. One thing it has done for sure is fire up conservatives (though Bloomberg did have an article today that pointed out that the McCain campaign has been over-reporting its crowd sizes). Palin has become the star of the Republican Party in a matter of two weeks, and she is clearly one of the main reasons the enthusiasm gap has shrank dramatically.

At first, we thought that she would be a big boost among women voters, perhaps help McCain get the Hillary vote. But it isn't shaping up like that for now; she seems more popular among men than among women, and Obama isn't bleeding any Clinton support. The big question now is what impact she has over moderate/independent/swing voters. (1) Will GOP-leaning independents who have been deserting their party come back now that the party has a new face? This is the key demographic in which she could help, and those are mostly white men she could help with. (2) Will moderates be turned off by her experience, by her extremely conservative views? And will she even matter in a few weeks once the debates happen and the attention turns to the presidential nominees?

C: You look at a handful of polls each day. Which polling organizations have you found to be the most accurate, generally?

Daniel: I typically list all polls, even when I have doubts about their accuracy. The great debate of course is whether automated polls (SUSA and Rasmussen) are reliable, as some news organization and many non-automated pollsters don't trust them. There hasn't been any obvious reason to conclude that automated polls shouldn't be trusted for now, both Rasmussen and SUSA have a pretty good track record and they are obviously polls we look at because of the numbers of polls they typically release.

Typically you should trust polls done by local pollsters like Selzer & Co in Iowa (they produce the Des Moines Register poll that dictates the conventional wisdom in the lead-up to the caucuses and that had Obama leading McCain by 12 today). But it's obviously hard to know before the election is over who had the best model, who projected turnout and partisan affiliations best... A lot of pollsters made huge mistakes over the primary season. Most groups got New Hampshire wrong, most got South Carolina wrong, and the list goes on.

C: In close elections in recent memory, a handful of swing states have decided the race - Florida in 2000, Ohio in 20004. The number of states in play has expanded this year, including some states that should be slam dunks for the GOP. Colorado, Virginia, Nevada, for example, are all being watched this year. How will that impact the decisions the campaigns make in their strategy in the next 50 days?

Daniel: Nevada, by the way, should not be put in the list of states that should be slam dunks for the GOP. It was very competitive in 2004 and Democrats have gained a registration edge in the past four years - so Nevada is certainly in the list of the most crucial states. Part of the reason that candidates have had to stop contesting states in the past has been lack of money. Gore had to cut out Ohio in 2000, for instance. But Obama will probably have enough money to stay competitive in most of the states he wants to run in; maybe not all (he moved out of Georgia this week) but the list of competitive states looks like it will be longer than in past elections. So we should expect the attention to focus on Ohio, Florida (as usual), as well as Michigan, Colorado, Virginia but we shouldn't be surprised if we are still talking about Montana or North Carolina in mid-October.

C: Do you think those states are actually viable? For example, Indiana only has a handful of districts, mostly in dense urban areas that tend to vote Democratic in presidential races.

Daniel: Here's one thing about states like Indiana: Obama essentially has those states for himself right now. He is airing ads, investing resources, staff and the McCain campaign is not really moving in. And that by itself will help these states be actually viable. Not to mention the benefits of the prolonged primary: places like Montana and Indiana hadn't really seen a national Democrat for years, and here were Obama and Clinton running ads, registering voters, organizing, building a campaign infrastructure, etc.

C: Do you think that the prolonged Democratic primary is the main reasons states like Indiana and Montana are still on the table?

Daniel: I don't know if it is the main reason. A state like Montana has shown a Democratic resurgence of late (it has two Democratic Senators and a Democratic Governor), and Kerry was already eying North Carolina in 2004. But there's no doubt that already having campaign infrastructure, voter lists, AND having already done a lot of effort to register new voters must have encouraged the Obama campaign to stay in those states, invest more money, air more ads and just see what happened.

Also, Obama was so much on the offense in places like IN and MT because he hasn’t had to play defense this year. States like Minnesota, Wisconsin and even Pennsylvania seemed much safer than usual, which gave Democrats more latitude to play offense in places they aren't expected to go. But this is one of the things that’s changed in recent weeks. Blue states like MN and PA now look to be closer than they were in late July, the GOP is talking much more about contesting them, and the polls are much closer (the latest MN survey found a tie). That would mean that the Electoral College could balance itself out, and both sides would have a lot of opportunity. That's very much what we happened in 2004, but not what we had been seeing this year until August.

C: Speaking of ground organization in states that haven't traditionally been blue, you also watch the down ballot races as well. The DNC has made a concerted effort this year to challenge the GOP in states like Virginia and Missouri. It seems that traditionally the coat tails are the national candidates, but there's some excitement this year - in Virginia, for example - that local races might help a presidential candidate.


Daniel: Yes, coattails are generally supposed to come from the bottom up, and there are many states in which that could happen this year. If Obama boosts African-American turnout in Mississippi, it could have a huge influence on the Senate race; if McCain improves the GOP's brand among independents, it could prove a huge factor in saving Norm Coleman in MN, Gordon Smith in OR and even (though he is further down at this point) John Sununu in NH. There are a few swing states however (mostly Virginia and New Mexico) where the Democrats look set to pick-up a Senate seat with popular candidate who could help boost Obama rather than the other way around.

It's difficult to see how much of a boost they could give to Obama. Presidential elections tend to make more noise, dominate news... Though organization-wise, down-the-ballot candidates can help: Mark Warner in Virginia will have much more money to organize a big turnout operation and reach out effort in rural areas than his opponent will, and that could mean more voters for Obama. And a lot of Democrats are running ads tying their opponents to Bush, and he will definitely be on voters' mind as they go to the polls. That's good for Obama. But will it transform the Bush attack into more of a caricature? Same thing for McCain. A lot of Republicans are running "I'm a maverick" ads these days. Will that help McCain by changing the GOP brand, or will it just undermine his argument that he's a unique kind of Republican?

C: If you were going to follow only a handful of down-ballot candidates this year as a gauge of the mood of voters, who would you be watching?

Daniel: Oregon and Minnesota's Senate races will really be crucial to see whether the GOP is improving its images. Norm Coleman and Gordon Smith are being weighed down by their party label, and they have been trying to tout themselves as independents while also disqualifying their opponents (Gordon Smith has just launched a vicious Willie Horton-type ad). That's similar to the campaign McCain has been running? If Smith and Coleman start to break ahead in the coming weeks, it could mean very good things for McCain. Colorado's Senate race is also a good bellwether, since it is a competitive open seat in which the Democrat is slightly favored but has had tremendous difficulty breaking ahead, as many expected. If Colorado's Udall maintains his consistent (but narrow) lead, or if Minnesota and Oregon's races remain highly competitive, it could mean that the fundamentals haven't shifted that much and Obama remains in a strong position.

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