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Was Obama’s 50 22-State Strategy a Mistake?

Some scattered thoughts on the ponderable above:

1. Thave been some particular resource allocation decisions made by the Obama campaign that I’ve been skeptical of from the get-go. The one that always stood out was Georgia, with the criticism stemming from Electoral Portfolio Theory 101. Namely: while it was possible to conceive of a world in which Georgia went blue, it probably wasn’t going to turn blue before North Carolina, and it certainly wasn’t going to turn blue before Virginia. Obama very probably will have won the election if he wins Virginia, and he’ll certainly have won the election if he wins both Virginia and North Carolina. So the resources deployed to Georgia are arguably redundant; it was hard to think of Georgia as providing better than about Obama’s 320th electoral vote, even under the best case scenario.

2. Arguably also, the Obama campaign was too eager to defend certain states, such as Maine and perhaps Washington.

3. There is also one state that the Obama campaign arguably missed from his group of 22, which is West Virginia. Our tipping point model has always liked West Virginia because it is so demographically unique. It is easier to conceive of Obama winning West Virginia while losing a state like Virginia (if, say, he gained traction by positioning himself as a populist) than to conceive of his winning North Carolina or Georgia while losing Virginia. And what if Obama had selected Hillary Clinton to be his running mate? The two states that I think would have come into play almost immediately were West Virgina and Arkansas, but Obama had no real field presence in either state.

4. If the intention was to draw resources out of the McCain campaign, Steve Schmidt certainly didn’t take the bait, never really venturing into states like Indiana or Montana.

5. But clearly, the post-convention electoral map appears to have been affected heavily by the choice of Sarah Palin, which fired up the Republican base and returned traditionally red states back to the red column. If McCain had instead picked, say, Mitt Romney, who ran poorly in the South during the primaries, it is much easier to conceive of North Carolina becoming an interesting state. If he had picked an insider like Joe Lieberman or Rob Portman, it is much easier to conceive of Montana, which doesn’t like Washington DC candidates, becoming fertile ground for Obama.

6. Indeed, perhaps one of the reasons that McCain picked Palin was precisely because the Republicans were having trouble in states like Montana and Indiana. So maybe Obama did not bluff McCain into opening a field office in Kalispell, MT, but he might have scared him into thinking that drawing the Republican base together with the VP was a necessity, even if Palin may eventually present problems for him in other areas.

7. One further point to consider is whether polling generally becomes more partisan as the election nears. That is, was it in some sense inevitable that North Dakota would turn more red? My guess, after peeking at a bit of 2004 data, is that there probably is some tendency for states to “partisanize” themselves as the election draws closer, but nowhere near the scale of movement that the Republicans seem to have gotten post-Palin.

8. Keep in mind that the resource allocation choices made by the Obama campaign aren’t necessarily focused on the goal of getting him elected President. They may also be motivated by a desire to expand the party’s reach in future election cycles, or to help Democrats in downballot races.

9. Finally, this entire discussion is premature to some extent, since we don’t yet know to what if any extent Obama’s ground game advantages will be worth something. Take a state like Indiana, where Obama has an enormous field presence and McCain has almost none. I doubt that there has ever been such an imbalance of resources in any one particular state in the modern era; game theory would dictate (I think) that allocations of resources between different states ought to be about equal between the two major parties. What if the disparity is worth 3 or even 5 points above and beyond what is reflected in the polls? Then Indiana could very well be a tipping point state, and Obama’s decision to set up shop there would look like a stroke of genius.

Lastly, a quick note. I’ll be on the road for the next couple of days and as such, posting schedules are going to be a bit erratic. We’ll do the best we can and appreciate your patience.

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