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Irrational Exuberance in Arizona?

In contrast to what most candidates do in the closing days of a race, Barack Obama is expanding his list of targets, making an ad buy in Arizona as well as Georgia and North Dakota:

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — In a bold move brimming with confidence, Democrat Barack Obama broadened his advertising campaign on Friday into two once reliably Republican states and further bedeviled rival John McCain by placing a commercial in the Republican presidential nominee’s home state of Arizona.

Obama’s campaign, capitalizing on his vast financial resources and a favorable political climate, announced that it was going back up with advertising in Georgia and North Dakota, two GOP states that it had teased with ads earlier in the general election campaign but then abandoned.

I have to say that I’m not a big fan of this from standpoint of marginal electoral strategy. A slew of recent polls in Arizona show the state close, by margins ranging from 1 to 8 points. However, this is the time of year when “close” means something very different from “functionally tied”. A 3-to-5 point lead in a state, which is where the Arizona polls average out, is fairly significant at this stage of the contest. That lead still belongs to John McCain.

And needless to say, it is hard to elucidate a scenario in which Arizona serves as some sort of tipping point state. Obama will not perform better in Arizona than in New Mexico, Nevada, or Colorado, neighboring states that have been polling anywhere from 5-20 points more strongly for him. Suppose somehow that Obama were to insult the Pittsburgh Steelers or something and lose Pennsylvania; could Arizona matter then? Not really. The Kerry states less Pennsylvania, but plus Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona total 267 electoral votes, three fewer than Obama needs for victory. Obama would also have to win something like Montana for it to matter (while losing Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina etc.). Our model thinks that the odds of this happening are something like 800,000-to-1 against.

Of course, this is probably not an ad buy framed around marginal electoral strategy; it is one framed around marginal media strategy. As Chris Cillizza notes, the tightish polls in Arizona, which the campaign can draw attention to with this maneuver, provide Obama with a good piece of evidence to argue that the national race is not particularly close. An ad buy in Arizona — and I’d expect this to be a very small, largely symbolic ad buy — is David Plouffe’s version of a Drudge Siren.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.