Colorado vs Ohio: False Choice

For months political scientist and former Clinton official William Galston has been pushing the weird idea that the Obama campaign must choose between a strategy designed to win Ohio or a strategy designed to win Colorado. Nate Silver picked that idea apart long ago, but Galston’s still pushing it around, and today Ryan Lizza has given it credence. Nate gave plenty of statistical arguments against Galston’s Ohio thesis, but I’ll give a simpler one: the historical record shows that Ohio and Colorado perform so similarly in presidential elections that to choose one or the other this from the election is lunacy.

In 22 of the last 25 elections Ohio and Colorado have delivered their electoral votes to the same candidate. Only once in the last 36 years have they split their vote. In Bill Clinton’s big 1996 win, Bob Dole won Colorado by 1.43 points. But there were two factors that make that result a bit of a fluke when compared with Ohio. First, Ross Perot ran about 2 points below his national average in Colorado but 2 points above his national average in Ohio. Furthermore, in Colorado Ralph Nader pulled in 1.66% of the vote, a few tenths of a point greater than Dole’s winning margin. But in Ohio, Nader wasn’t on the ballot. Thus, one could reasonably argue that Perot’s presence altered the vote differently in the two states, and that had Nader not been on the ballot in Colorado that it would have voted the same way as Ohio.

Besides, Galston over-emphasizes the state-by-state importance of a single national narrative or message without also acknowledging the tactical aspects of organization and money. In an extremely close election, if one campaign has a big money advantage, they may decide to slug it out in Ohio. Ohio has more electoral votes but because television advertising is inefficient–if you’re advertising in Cincinnati you’re paying to advertise in non-competitive Kentucky, in parts of the Ohio River Valley you’re paying to advertise in West Virginia–it may be more expensive per electoral vote. But there are other tactical factors, like the strong party and independent expenditure operations on behalf of Colorado Democrats, the well-organized conservative evangelicals in Colorado and the now-energized labor movement in Ohio. Colorado won’t have a Senate race, but populist Democrat Sherrod Brown will be next on the ballot in Ohio. If Latino voters are dragging well behind 2008 levels, Colorado may look less appealing to the Obama campaign. If their support for Obama is at a similar level, Colorado becomes even more appealing, since their share of the voting age population and thus potential share of the electorate have increased since 2008. If Obama rebounds with seniors, Ohio is more appealing, since it includes more working class white voters over 60. If the campaigns choose between Ohio and Colorado, it will be late in the contest, because the election is very close, and based on smaller factors like these rather than the big thematic choices laid out by Galston.

One can go on and one pondering such factors. But the reality is that Ohio and Colorado perform nearly equally, and have for many years. The difference between the Democrat’s percentage of the vote was two points in 2008, and the average difference over the last six elections is under two points. Unless the 2012 election is extremely close, the Obama campaign will not choose either Ohio or Colorado. And when the votes are counted, chances are they’ll win both, or neither.

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