The Rise of 538 as a political force.

>> Friday, October 3, 2008

Remember back in the primaries when this guy named pablano was writing top class diaries that dealt with polling and demographics and the race? His regression and numbers based analysis really deserved some type of award. His writing were frequently the best source of election night predictions. Then we discovered that he was contemplating a new site dedicated to that type of work. That site, went live and we ultimately found out this amazing authors identity, Nate Silver. 53 has since exploded into one of, if not the, premier poll information sights on the net.

Every one knows about the work Nate has done with the polls. For example he has helped to publicize the impact of cell phones on polling data estimating a 1-3 point boos for obama due to the effect. One of the lesser known but just as important things he has done is his work on the general election ground game.

I guess it should not be surprising to see someone who is interested in polls looking for a way to understand the possible impact of one thing not found there, the ground level efforts. Nate and his partner Sean Quinn have been traveling around different states in a series entitled On the Road examining exactly what is going on on the ground in those states. For the most part they have been able to travel and observe unmolested. They have given some insight into the feel of each campaigns respective ground games in important cities and counties. They were able to discuss the effect, widely speculated about, that sarah palin was having on the republican base who volunteers for McCain. It has been very interesting and enlightening reading. today's post though revealed something interesting. They encountered resistance to their attempts to report on the McCain ground game.

Something interesting is happening with John McCain’s campaign. Up until now, we’ve had no trouble gaining access to field offices and volunteers. Here in St. Louis, we were told by Tina Hervey, Missouri Republican State Party Press Secretary, that she had never heard of FiveThirtyEight, and while they trusted Politico, we were people who they had to decide whether we “shouldn’t or don’t need to be talking to.” (McCain’s Missouri press secretary actually works out of Iowa, and did not return calls or email.) I told Tina that’s not a story we wanted to write, that this was our first Republican resistance, and that while she may not have heard of us, we’d probably go over 2.5 million site visits this week, now that we’re regularly past 400,000 per weekday. I told her I’d hold off writing her flat refusal and give her the opportunity to change her mind.

No budging. We were told that we’d be asked to leave public field offices we now attempted to visit. We did not get any promised follow-up helping get access to the post-debate Palin rally last night, and we were locked out. Hmm.

What is going on here is very clear. McCain does not want to validate or promote 538 as a site. This may seem like an extraordinary claim but i have some reasoning. The first point is that 538 is a numbers based sight that includes every poll. They do not pick and choose who to include, though they do decide who to weight based on their track record. This means that they give the clearest unfiltered picture of what is going on at any one time. This picture is currently very bad for McCain. 538, as of the time of this writing, has obama listed at 84.4% chance of victory. No amount of McCain campaign spin can change this. There is no narrative to move here. This migth gain some support depending on your interpretation of the recent spat with RCP over the methodology they use to select polls. The assertion was that they were intentionally picking polls to boost mccains numbers. If true McCain would be inclined to take the rcp side of this debate against 538. Think about it in the way McCain thinks about negotiating with an enemy, sitting down with them gives them increased status. Giving increased status to a site that predicts your loss may not be what they want to do.

McCain may know his ground game is not where it needs to be. The stories that 538 is doing on it seem to be the only constant source of information on the ground game. By excluding 538 from reporting on the problems they hope to keep it covered up. This is not a shock reading what was written today.

Let’s be clear. We've observed no comparison between these ground campaigns. To begin with, there’s a 4-1 ratio of offices in most states. We walk into McCain offices to find them closed, empty, one person, two people, sometimes three people making calls. Many times one person is calling while the other small clutch of volunteers are chatting amongst themselves. In one state, McCain’s state field director sat in one of these offices and, sotto voce, complained to us that only one man was making calls while the others were talking to each other about how much they didn't like Obama, which was true. But the field director made no effort to change this. This was the state field director.

Only for the first time the other day did we see a McCain organizer make a single phone call. So we've now seen that once. The McCain organizers seem to operate as maƮtre Ds. Let me escort you to your phone, sir. Pick any one of this sea of empty chairs. I'll be sitting over here if you need any assistance.

[...]You could take every McCain volunteer we’ve seen doing actual work in the entire trip, over six states, and it would add up to the same as Obama’s single Thornton, CO office. Or his single Durango, CO office. These ground campaigns bear no relationship to each other. (emphasis mine)

Clearly not allowing Nate and Co access to cover the story has prompted a negative reaction. That should not have been a surprise. However the McCain campaign has a history of treating the press as if the damage they can do because they are pissed off and dont have access is less than they would do if they actually had the access, think Palin.

There is no way the McCain campaign does not know what 538 is. It would be political malpractice to be ignorant of the hottest growing political site on the net. There is also the possibility that they see 538 as a democratic blog or site and do not want to play ball with them. It is true that many of Nate and Seans posts that deal strictly with political opinion have a left slant. However the numbers are not tainted. Again that is the problem, the numbers.

No one wants to vote for a loser. That is one of the big lessons of the early primaries. If people think you are a loser it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If everyone started looking at 538 and saw the reality of the race, a significant Obama lead they might be less inclined to vote for McCain the sinking ship. McCain might see fund raising slow down as people question whether he is such a great investment. It would also undercut any of the media story lines he really wants to promote. Numbers tend to undercut rather than enforce the media and McCain relies on the media, or at least he used to, to get his point across. McCain probably figures that nothing good can come of 538 getting highly publicized exposure reporting how bad his campaign is. At this point at least he can deny they have the basis to make claims about his efforts.

did anyone think last november that one dkos diarist would create such a political force? 538 is that force. Here is Nate with Dan Rather


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