The Sporadics

Mark Halperin of Time sometimes epitomizes the things that make me crazy about the MSM; he was, after all, founder of The Note back when it defined the self-referential Beltway CW, and was co-author of Game Change, whose very title reflected the view that the sort of things that matter to Mark Halperin actually control the outcome of major elections.

But Halperin is certainly big-time enough that he can get access to people inside presidential campaigns who don’t talk to many folk, and his piece on conversations with the Obama campaign has some interesting nuggets, even if you think “Chicago” felt no compunction to tell him the truth. Here’s the key segment:

Said one senior official: “[T]he most important thing about early vote is one thing and one thing only: are you getting your sporadic voters to vote? Because if it’s just chasing people who are going to vote anyway than it’s just…a zero sum game. But all the data I see says we are getting our sporadics to vote at a higher rate than they are, which, especially for any Democratic candidate, is a bigger challenge because we have lower propensity voters. That’s exactly what we are doing and we feel great about that.”

[Jim] Messina claims that in the battleground states, “two-thirds of those who have already voted are women, youth, African Americans or Latinos,” who are, of course, giving a large percentage of their support to the incumbent.

Sporadics, marginals, low-propensity voters: these are all terms for non-likely-voters who wind up voting. If you do an unusually good job at turning them out, it will indeed change the shape of the electorate in ways that many polls may not catch (at least until very late). And if you turn them out early, as “Chicago” is claiming is already happening, then you have a lot more tactical flexibility to deploy resources the rest of the way. To put it another way, it’s not just a matter of estimating Ds versus Rs in the early vote, it also involves which Ds and Rs turn out, and the best way to measure (if you can) that is by race, gender and age as compared to historical patterns.

It sounds to me like “Chicago” is looking at the final phase of the campaign in an entirely sensible way that doesn’t depend on a lot of mumbo-jumbo about “enthusiasm” or “momentum,” or put undue weight on undecideds. As to whether the Obama campaign (or for that matter, the opposition) is actually hitting its marks–well, I doubt they’d feel Mark Halperin should be the first to know.

UPDATE: Speaking of Time, new poll shows Obama winning early voters in Ohio by two-to-one margin at the moment. Very good sign for the president, particularly if a big chunk of these votes are indeed from “sporadics.” A quick look at the poll indicates a slightly disproportionate percentage of people who have already voted are nonwhite and/or under 40.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.