- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

COLUMN:

The best part of NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd’s new book is its first few pages. He and his co-author, Sheldon Gawiser, NBC’s elections director, describe hard-fought primary battles, campaign intrigue and fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits of the 2008 presidential race.

We learn why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to sit out the presidential race in 2004, her initial assessment of rival Sen. Barack Obama and exactly what felled former New York Gov. Rudolph W. Giuliani. Beyond its introductory chapters, however, the book reads like a pared-down version of the venerable Almanac of American Politics, the 1,800-plus-page biennial volume produced by Mr. Todd’s former employer, the National Journal group. That means it’s heavy on statistics and demographic profiles and short on meatier narrations and anecdotes.

The bulk of the book presents a postmortem analysis of exit polling from each of the 50 states, relying heavily on graphical presentations of top-line research data. We don’t learn much about polling methodology throughout the book, although there’s a 1 1/2-page explanation at the very end (we learn polling was done by the New Jersey firm Edison Media Research as part of the National Election Pool, jointly commissioned by the major television networks and Associated Press) and a blurb about how to get outside methodological information for each poll.

Though it may be lacking in literary prowess, the book is a valuable resource for political junkies who want a detailed and timely dissection of how Mr. Obama claimed his historic victory. Its virtue is in its details, which aggregate to a comprehensive snapshot of the American political landscape and where things are demographically. We learn the top 10 states with the highest and lowest proportions of various races, ages religions and ideologies. The authors categorize each of the 50 states as “Battleground” (eight states), “Receding Battleground” (seven states), “Emerging Battleground” (five states) or “Red and Blue” (30 states solidly in one party’s camp) and give their rationale for these distinctions.

Mr. Todd and Mr. Gawiser ponder whether Mr. Obama’s race hurt him in West Virginia (it’s unclear - though the Democratic candidate did lose by the same margin in 2008 as Sen. John Kerry lost in 2004), whether Michigan could have turned red if Sen. John McCain had chosen former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney instead of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate and if Democrats will wrest control of Arizona in 2012 (highly likely, the authors argue, considering its growing Hispanic population and that Mr. McCain’s home-state advantage won him just a single-digit victory over Mr. Obama).

They also wonder whether the order of the Democratic primaries, which first featured states with high pockets of Mr. Obama’s coalitions (i.e. blacks, college-educated whites and young people) determined the party’s overall outcome because it gave him critical momentum despite later state wins by Mrs. Clinton. The later primaries featured Mrs. Clinton’s coalitions of Latinos, women and non-college-educated whites.

The data-miners also dispel the common myth perpetuated during the election cycle about a supposed tidal wave of political involvement among young voters. Though Mr. Obama defeated Mr. McCain by a heftier margin than Mr. Kerry had over President Bush (66 percent to 31 percent in in the Obama-McCain election of 2008 versus 54 percent to 45 percent for the Bush-Kerry contest in 2004), the youth vote was 18 percent of the electorate last year, just one point higher than the 17 percent of the electorate in 2004. By the authors’ count, we learn that without a single vote cast in the general election by voters under the age of 30, Mr. Obama still would have collected every state he won excepting Indiana and North Carolina.

The authors don’t push back on a common narrative pushed by the Obama campaign and television pundits about astonishing numbers of donors who gave to the campaign in small amounts. This narrative helped create a sense of overwhelming grass-roots involvement, and Mr. Todd and Mr. Gawiser seem to buy into this notion. However, a highly cited nonpartisan study later dispelled the notion that Mr. Obama had collected staggering numbers of small donors - the fraction of his small donors was 26 percent of all donors, just one percentage point higher than Mr. Bush’s 25 percent in 2004. This runs counter to the authors’ suggestion that small donors revolutionized the election by finally becoming “their own big-moneyed special interest group.”

Hot off the press, the book was released earlier this month, just weeks after Mr. Obama’s remarkable victory and just days before he was sworn into office. Mr. Todd and Mr. Gawiser give us an inclusive volume of statistical analysis and political forecasting. Politicos would do well to take notice.

• Carrie Sheffield is a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and Boston correspondent for The Washington Times.

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