Friday, April 25, 2008

The state of the race in Indiana and North Carolina

By Michael J.W. Stickings

And so, with Pennsylvania now behind us -- and what a wild time it was (and how much we now know about the state's fascinating demographics!) -- we turn our rapturous attention to Indiana and North Carolina and their upcoming May 6 primaries. (Oh, right. Sorry, Guam. You hold your caucuses on May 3. We'll try not to forget.)

Let's look closely at each state:

Indiana: The RCP Average is Obama +3.0, with recent polls putting Obama up by 1 to 5 points, including this one conducted for The Indianapolis Star: Obama is up by 3, but the margin of error is +/- 4.2 and undecideds are at a whopping 21 percent. Still, the numbers suggest a fairly dramatic turnaround over the past few weeks. Hillary was up from 3 to 16 points in polls conducted late last month and into the middle of this month. One of those pollsters, SurveyUSA, seems to show a pro-Hillary bias (i.e., she does better in its polls than in others), but, regardless, there is a discernible trend. But will that trend continue?

Given its demographics, Indiana is a state where Hillary should do well: The "small town" world of John "This is Our Country" Mellencamp -- though Mellencamp himself has endorsed Obama. However, Obama is a senator from a neighbouring state, Illinois. He should do well in Indianapolis and in the northwest, next to Chicago. She should do well everywhere else. The map of how each county voted, I suspect, will look a lot like the post-vote maps we've seen of states like Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Obama has the money to run an aggressive advertising campaign, as he did in Pennsylvania -- and he will be able to focus on Indiana because he is well ahead in North Carolina -- but Hillary has raised a significant amount since her win on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, and upcoming polls may show a bump in support.

In other words, the race is pretty much even. Which, given where it was just a few weeks ago, is something of a victory for Obama. Many of the primary votes haven't been close, but this one could be. I'll say, for now, Hillary by 4.

North Carolina: Unlike Indiana, this state is clear Obama Country. The RCP Average is Obama +15.5. Recent polls have him up by 9 to 25 points (again, SurveyUSA seems to downplay his support). However, there are no poll results yet post-Pennsylvania. It's possible that Hillary could see a bump here, too.

Regardless, overall, there has been a dramatic turnaround over the course of the campaign. Hillary hasn't been up in the polls since early December, but, prior to that, she was fairly well ahead.

While Obama can focus the bulk of his attention on Indiana, Hillary needs to win Indiana and do relatively well in North Carolina, and, as the WSJ is reporting today, she isn't conceding the latter: She is "spending millions of dollars on advertising and holding rallies in dozens of communities throughout the state... Clinton wants to avoid the kind of blowout loss to [Obama] she suffered in South Carolina in January... North Carolina has a large population of the economically hard-hit rural white voters among whom [she] has fared well in recent contests."

The state's demographics -- in particular, its large black population and its concentration of highly educated and affluent voters in and around Research Triangle Park -- seem to favour Obama, but Hillary should do extremely well, once again, among white working-class voters. Those voters may not be enough to put her over the top, but the race could turn out to be much closer than recent polls suggest. I'll say, for now, Obama by 10.

And remember that these primaries aren't just about winning but about performing in relation to expectations. Obama is expected to win North Carolina by a significant margin. Therefore, a narrow victory for Obama would be interpreted as a victory for Clinton. It's not clear how the expectation game will play out in Indiana, where the race is a toss-up, and the game depends to a great degree on media analysis and campaign spin, but, in North Carolina, Hillary has a chance to achieve a huge breakthrough. (And the media are playing along, thoughtlessly regurgitating the Clinton spin. WaPo today calls the state a "a firewall for Obama," even though he already has an insurmountable pledged delegate lead.) If she wins Indiana and narrows the gap in North Carolina, and then goes on to win West Virginia a week later, and then Kentucky a week after that (and do relatively well in Oregon, where Obama is expected to win), her electability/momentum argument for the superdelegates, propped up by the pro-Hillary media narrative, will take on at least the appearance of credibility. (I say "appearance" because, in reality, Obama has the delegate and popular vote lead, has won many more states, and has picked up many more superdelegates then she has since Super Tuesday in early February.)

Barring a dramatic Obama collapse, this is her only possible path to the nomination.

But first, Indiana and North Carolina. And we have almost two weeks left.

Stay tuned.

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