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Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of US News and World Report reported that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is high in the running for John McCain’s VP selection. The claim from the source for the story, “a high-ranking McCain campaign official,” also accompanies a mention that internal polling shows Pawlenty “delivering” both Minnesota and Wisconsin to McCain in the fall.

Wow, I had no idea it was that easy. Just name a guy as VP, and because he’s from the region, a couple states you look like a longshot to win suddenly become yours. I mean, they should totally do that; it’s a no-brainer.

Minnesota’s last ten public polls have showed Obama leading in 9 instances, and the one instance McCain led was 47-46 by SurveyUSA in mid-March. Since then, SurveyUSA’s once a month polling has shown Obama with leads of +6, +5 and +1 (their February poll had Obama +7). Rasmussen has shown Obama leads of 14, 15 and 13. The Star-Tribune poll of 1117 respondents in mid-May had Obama up 13 points. 538 regression analysis puts Obama in front by 9.3%, and predicts a 10.4% win.

In Wisconsin, it’s Rasmussen who has the race somewhat close, with its June 5 poll putting Obama up by 2, its May 5 poll McCain up by 4, and its late March poll showing McCain up 2. Unfortunately for McCain, those two Rasmussen polls in March and early May are the only Wisconsin public polls that have McCain in front. SurveyUSA’s last 5 polls have Obama up 9, 6, 5, 4 and 11, working from this past Sunday back to late February. As is the case in Minnesota, the trend is going Obama’s way, with 538 regression putting Obama 8.2% in front and projecting an 8.4% win.

McCain’s internal polling apparently says Minnesotans are homers under the Pawlenty Theory. Or, the spin is that Kerry’s 3.5% win in 2004 is the biggest margin by which Obama can beat McCain whereas McCain can siphon that off with a strategic VP pick, and all the polls showing a much, much wider lead in Minnesota are a mirage.

But of course, if you pick a governor from one state as vice-president, that carries so much weight that even citizens of neighboring states suddenly fall in line. A hundred thousand Wisconsin voters who were planning to vote Obama just think, “hey, I totally heard that guy Pawlenty is from near this state, I don’t really have a strong opinion on any other factor in this race, I gotta flip my vote from what I am currently telling pollsters!” (Obviously, telling pollsters by representative sample).

Did we mention Obama’s Illinois also borders Wisconsin? So let’s thread this needle for Wisconsin voters. Gotta not have very strong opinions about Obama or McCain to start. Have to be wishy-washy and flippable. They have to absorb the info – as low-info voters or ambivalent voters or low-frequency voters – to assign weight and value to the fact that the lower-tier candidate is from a neighboring state, while not assigning weight and value to the fact that the higher-tier candidate from the other party is from a neighboring state. They then have to elevate that factor’s meaning over and above the meanings of other arbitrary factors you hear from people who are low-info voters. Such as any factors that go into the reality that only 17% of the country, low-info voters included, thinks the country is on the right track.

Now, anyone who’s talked to thousands of voters on the phones and at their doors and in random conversations knows that the reasons low-info voters come up with are almost uniformly frightening in terms of that person’s mental processes on politics. And I mean that in a non-partisan way, whether the output of the bizarre calculation they share with you is support of your candidate or the opposition. The good news is nobody gets to be offended by this; if you’re reading this post you already aren’t a low-info voter. (Though I’m sure someone will entertainingly point out in comments how opinions like these are ruining the purity and sanctity of the site.) Regardless of all the obligatory paeans you hear to the Great Judgment of the American People from the talking heads, one always comes away from such discussions feeling depressed about how much dead weight there is out there in terms of informed citizenry.

It’s important to understand that, almost by definition, the quirky calculus of low-info voters isn’t subject to en masse influence by any particular trivia-quality factor such as VP’s home state. It’s nearly a tautology. To be persuadable by new information, you have to absorb that information. You have to think things like, “I like that guy and I’m gonna vote for him,” which assumes you already have a basis for forming your opinion. And once you’re down that road, you probably have a basic opinion about which of Obama or McCain you like better. Of course there are exceptions, but the point is they don’t exist in the large numbers that would be required to change the bottom line outcome.

Granted, as a general rule, private, internal-use campaign polling is usually much better than public polling. So McCain’s internal polling is supposedly identifying voters so much on the fence and so much under the powerful, hypnotic sway of Tim Pawlenty that they will flip their soft support, or come out and vote instead of sitting home. Or, McCain’s internal polling shows something wildly different from what 538 projects for those two states.

Color Camp Obama unimpressed; they don’t even list Minnesota in their top 17 most competitive states, not even bothering to send any of their 3,600 Organizing Fellows to Minnesota (Wisconsin gets some). That should tell you everything you need to infer what the internal private polling is telling Obama about Minnesota. And the big advertising buy in 18 states doesn’t include Minnesota either.

Something tells me this is 2 parts internal political jockeying by Pawlenty patrons within the McCain camp, 1 part run-of-the-mill political hype. (McCain has his Lanny Davises and Terry McAuliffes too, though those two are absurdists for the ages, see links.)

At the end of the day, McCain may well pick Pawlenty, and there would be endless blather about how the Republicans are going to leverage Pawlenty’s overwhelming 1%, 21,000 vote (out of nearly 2.2 million cast) Minnesota gubernatorial re-election win in 2006 into automatic electoral success in the fall. I’m not really sure Bridge Collapse Guy is going to be able to hit Barack Obama on inexperience, for example.

Finally, John McCain is in Ottawa (Canada) for a press conference today, and Pawlenty is a hockey fan, which gives me the transparently flimsy excuse I was seeking to get in a mention of the NHL Draft tonight in Ottawa. Who among us isn’t hanging on who the St. Louis Blues will take with the 4th pick? Maybe the exact same number of Minnesotans and Wisconsans who would have voted for Obama but for Pawlenty.

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