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Did Clinton Misplay her Ace?

Hillary Clinton lost last night by a combined 222,000 votes. Given that parameter, is there any way that Clinton might have distributed those votes in order to make herself more viable going forward? I suppose that, if she could, she would take about 50,000 votes from North Carolina and transfer them to Indiana. That would have allowed her to win Indiana by 4-5 points, enough to avoid the appearance of a “virtual tie” and probably to allow all of major networks to have called the race for her at some point in the early evening. She would have lost North Carolina by 18.5 points rather than 14.8, but perception-wise, it’s not like the former number is much worse than the latter.

The reality however is that working from a deficit of 222,000 votes (larger than her winning margin in Pennsylvania), there is very little that Clinton could have done to create the perception of a split decision on Tuesday night, much less a game-changing victory. I have Clinton gaining 228,610 votes over the remaining primaries. To stay on a pace where she could have won the +FL popular vote count (which she currently trails by 526,354), she would have needed to do about 300,000 votes better last night than she actually did. That means that she would have won the night by about 80,000 votes, which could have taken the form of either a solid win in Indiana plus a small win in North Carolina, or a double-digit win in Indiana plus a small loss in North Carolina. These were roughly the scenarios that the media seemed to be looking for in order to declare a ‘game-changing’ moment for Clinton.

Immediately after Pennsylvania, I proffered that considering that her paradigm at this point is to maximize her popular vote count, Clinton should have been just as devoted to North Carolina as to Indiana. And indeed, that’s the viewpoint that her campaign seemed to have taken. According to the Washington Post Candidate Tracker, the Clinton campaign held 54 events in North Carolina since Pennsylvania concluded, as compared with 43 in Indiana (note: many of these events were Bill’s, rather than Hillary’s). The distribution of advertising expenditures was fairly lopsided toward Obama in Indiana, but more equitable in North Carolina. And Clinton deployed top campaign operative Averill “Ace” Smith to Tarheel Country.

After looking at the exit polling results, however, I’m not so certain about that decision. In North Carolina, 20 percent of voters made up their minds in the last week. But this includes only voters who went to the polls on election day, and about 25 percent of the state voted early. So the true percentage of late deciders was about 15 percent.

By contrast, in Indiana, 25 percent of election-day voters made up their minds in the last week. Early voting was a factor in Indiana too, but made up only about 10 percent of the electorate. So the true percentage of late deciders was 22.5 perecnt.

So, if we use late deciders as a proxy for swing voters, 22.5 percent of the voters in Indiana were swing voters, as opposed to 15 percent in North Carolina; the Indiana total is exactly 50 percent higher. And this makes a lot of sense if you consider the underlying demographics of each state. Start with black voters. They made up slightly more than one-third of North Carolina’s electorate, and they weren’t about to vote for Clinton when she made absolutely no effort to court their votes (much to her detriment; there is a big difference between losing blacks 92/7, as Clinton did in North Carolina, and losing them 85/15).

So already your strategy is speaking to no more than two-thirds of the electorate. But even among white voters in North Carolina, a lot of them are in aligned with groups that are strongly predisposed toward one or the other. After black voters, the group that has behaved most monolithically in the primaries are Southern, rural, working-class whites, who have favored Clinton approximately 3:1. She already had those votes in the bag — she didn’t need to win them over. And Obama’s best group among white voters are highly-educated folks in college and university towns. There are plenty of those voters in North Carolina too in the Research Triangle area. In other words, a considerably smaller fraction of the electorate was in play in North Carolina, which means that her return on investment was liable to be lower.

With all that said, I tend to conclude with Marc Ambinder: investing heavily in North Carolina was undoubtedly risky to Clinton — especially if it served to raise her expectations in that state. But given her position, her whole campaign was premised on a long-shot coming through. This time, the bet did not come through — and perhaps it had faced even longer odds than the Clinton campaign had recognized. But credit to a campaign that knows how to gamble when the chips are down.

p.s. What’s interesting about the Indiana voting is that Obama beat his polling by several points, even though Clinton won among late-deciders, and even though she benefited by some margin from a Limbaugh vote that might or might not have been accounted for in the polls. That suggests that Obama did a tremendous job of turning out his base, particularly in Marion County; 17 percent of Indiana’s electorate was black, much higher than anyone was anticipating.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.