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Expectations and Realities

John McIntyre at RealClearPolitics does a bang-up job of summarizing the pundity’s conventional wisdom on Pennsylvania:

Obama wins: Race is totally over.

Clinton wins by 5 or less: Race is effectively over.

Clinton wins by 6-9: Status quo, which favors the front runner Obama, particularly as the clock winds down.

Clinton wins by 10-13: Clinton remains the underdog, but her odds of being the nominee will be considerably higher than the conventional wisdom in the media.

Clinton wins by 14+: Totally different race, as Clinton will be on a path to claim a popular vote win that will give her every bit as much of an argument as the legitimate “winner”. In this scenario anything could ultimately happen, including neither Clinton nor Obama becoming the eventual nominee.

There is a remarkable consensus around these numbers — see for example Don Frederick in the LA Times, or turn on Morning Joe. Anything 5 points or fewer is considered a “win” for Obama, anything 10 points or more a win for Hillary, and anything in between a draw.

At first glance, it would seem like Team Obama has done an exceptional job of managing expectations: they’ve been given a 5-10 point handicap in Pennsylvania, at least in terms of media narrative. But has the media really been spun — or is there some underlying logic to these numbers?

I would argue for the latter, the reason being that I tend to look at these things from the standpoint of information. Based on a detailed look at the demographics of other primary states, we would anticipate a Clinton victory of about 7-8 points in Pennsylvania, assuming that the established demographic patterns hold. Those are basically the results we got in Ohio, less the couple of points that Clinton got from the Limbaugh crossover vote. It’s also exactly where the polls have wound up, or most of them anyway.

And that’s right at the median of the pundit expectation range. But in this case, the pundits are onto something. If the election comes in within a few percentage points of that 7-8 percent number, we really won’t have learned anything new about the electorate. Yes, Obama has his electoral warts — he’ll lose the Catholic vote badly, for instance, and he’ll lose rural whites in the central portion of the state. But we knew about that stuff already. And we also know that, in spite of those limitations, Obama still winds up with 52 percent of the Democratic pie to Clinton’s 48 percent — and that Clinton will basically have run out of states to reverse those fundamentals.

A couple of hedges, addenda, and caveats:

1. At some level, I do think a win is a win. It’s one thing to say ahead of time that “Clinton must win by double-digits for anything to matter” — and another to maintain that line in the face of a victory speech, and after hours of parsing the exit poll returns, which always look good for you when you win. So if Clinton wins by any margin — expect the pundits to say some nice things about her, things they might not expect themselves to be saying ahead of time. But the question is what exactly this buys her. It won’t buy her much in terms in terms of popular votes or pledged delegates. I don’t think it will buy her much in terms of national polling, given how stubborn the polls have been. It might buy her a couple of superdelegates, but only a couple. I think it probably will buy her some cash — and North Carolina and Indiana aren’t all that expensive to compete in, if you’re willing to forsake the Chicago media market that reaches into Northwest Indiana. It may well buy her some media narrative, but that is liable to be ephemeral. Overall, that is not that much of a bounty.

2. Now, I’ll tell you what is spin — the argument you’ll hear from some Obama surrogates that they won a moral victory because they were once 20 points behind in the polls. While this fact has the virtue of being true, its application has been rather specious, as it relies on a comparison between actual voting results and pre-election polling several weeks out from the election. Yes, Obama was once down 20 points in Pennsylvania — but the same was also true in Ohio, Texas, Connecticut, and a host of other states. And in each of those states, Obama’s standing improved substantially in the run-up to the election, sometimes enough to give him the victory and sometimes not. However, Obama was never really in danger of losing Pennsylvania by 20 points, given the presence of an active campaign. The state isn’t wonderful for him demographically — but it’s a -8, not a -20. On the other hand, this argument has its place as a counter to the even more facile argument that “Obama is not a good closer”. If Obama couldn’t close, he would have lost Texas and Ohio and Connecticut and New Hampshire by 20 points apiece — and Clinton would have wrapped up the nomination long ago.

3. Expect the pundits to focus especially on the following two exit poll results: white men, and the results in the Philadelphia suburbs. And for what it’s worth, these are relatively fair fights: Obama should roughly tie Clinton in these categories if he hangs within 5-10 points statewide.

And with that, I think I’ve said just about everything that I have to say about the Pennsylvania primary. I will likely be doing some kind of liveblog tonight for those who are so inclined.

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