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McCain and Michigan

I never had the chance to comment on yesterday’s big news that the McCain campaign is pulling out of Michigan and re-directing those resources to other states. To evaluate this strategy, we need to ask at least three distinct questions:

1) Was the McCain campaign spread too thin?
2) If so, was Michigan the right state to pull out of?
3) Are they redirecting those resources to the right states?

1) Was the McCain campaign spread too thin?

The Obama campaign has essentially succeeded in what it wanted to do: forcing McCain to play a big map. While Obama has had to give up on a couple of states they had hoped to compete in originally — North Dakota, Alaska, and maybe Montana — they have been able to maintain tight races in states like North Carolina and Indiana, as well as all of the states that people expected to be swing states to begin with, like Virginia and Colorado, as well as the more traditional battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida.

McCain’s problems ultimately stem back to the early summer, when his campaign decided to throw a ton of money into negative advertising rather than to build a robust field operation. That decision might have “worked” in the near term, as McCain chipped Obama’s lead down from about 5 points in mid-June to a virtual tie heading into the conventions. But, as with many McCain campaign decisions, it may have been one more engineered to win the battle rather than the war, as Obama’s position has bounced back with surprising vigor in the past two weeks, and the Britney Spears ads now seem like a distant and irrelevant memory.

That said, the McCain campaign can’t go back and redo the resource allocation decisions it made in June, and pulling out of one or more states may be the correct adaptation to the current milieu. I suspect the facts that North Carolina and Florida have shown especially strong numbers for Obama and now clearly require their attention were major motivating factors behind their decision.

2. Was Michigan the right state to pull out of?

If you look at yesterday’s return on investment index in the four large Kerry states that McCain had hoped to compete in, this is debatable:

Michigan         2.4
Pennsylvania 1.9
Minnesota 1.9
Wisconsin 1.7

That is, Michigan actually appeared to be a slightly better place to spend their marginal resources than states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin; a dollar there goes about 2.4 times as far as one spent in an average state. However, the differences are not large, and certainly within the range where McCain’s internal polling could plausibly have informed his decision. In addition, we are not yet reflecting the new SurveyUSA poll that actually shows McCain with a 1-point lead in Minnesota. So Michigan is probably as reasonable a place to pull out of as anywhere else.

With that said, I know that as of a couple of weeks ago, the Obama campaign had been more worried about Michigan than any of these other three states. Also, according to the New York Times, they had held three events in Michigan since Mid-September, as compared with two in Wisconsin, one in Pennsylvania, and none in Minnesota. So I suspect they’ll be pretty relieved not to have to compete there.

3) Are they redirecting those resources to the right states?

We have less information about where the McCain campaign is putting resources into than where they are pulling out of, but Jonathan Martin’s article reels off a whole litany of states, including Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and the first second Congressional District of Maine (which our return on investment index thinks is a smart decision). All of these states are perfectly reasonable ones to put resources into, although Wisconsin, where Obama overperformed during the primaries, which has same-day registration, and which the Obama campaign can flood with volunteers from Illinois is on Election Day, is tenuous.

There is also a question about whether Minnesota and Wisconsin offer large enough electoral prizes. If Obama wins the Kerry states plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia — all states where it appears to hold significant leads — he would still have a winning map if he lost Minnesota or Wisconsin, but could not win without Pennsylvania.

On the whole, however, this is a pretty reasonable reaction to what has become a very tough election for McCain. But remember that Obama campaign now gets to pull its resources out of Michigan too, although there are some sunk costs (like rent paid on field offices) that it won’t be able to recoup.

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