Monthly Archives: November 2012

Midday Election Observations

My teaching/advising duties are stretching me thin today, so I’m a bit slower with this post than I expected.  As I noted in last night’s post, however, the state-based forecast models are all showing an Obama victory in the Electoral College, with very high probabilities. (Keep in mind that the probability of victory is not the same as the predicted margin of victory!)  So Drew Linzer is holding steady with Obama winning 332-206, while Sam Wang has Obama up 312-226, although his website promises an update.   Simon Jackman’s model is also leaning toward 332 votes for Obama, although that is based on Florida going for the President.  That race is still too close call, however, as you can see by this chart.

Meanwhile, as I have suggested would happen, it appears that the national polls have moved slightly in Obama’s favor in the last week, bringing them closer in line with the state-level polling.  Here’s a chart from Mark Blumenthal’s site showing the latest national polls: now has Obama up 48.1-46.7% in the national polls.  RealClearPolitics has the national race tighter, with Obama up 48.7-48.1%.  So both the national and state-level polls now have Obama ahead.

What might happen to upset these predictions?  It would have to be systematic error in the state-level polls. I have said before that the final state poll averages have proved accurate in the past but it is possible that they are underestimating Romney’s support – or overestimating Obama’s.  In short, there would have to be a turnout differential that the likely voter screens are systematically missing for Romney to win this race.  Certainly the Republicans are more enthusiastic relative to Democrats than was the case four years ago, and Romney’s organization is not facing a resource disparity vis a vis Obama’s either.   I could see the case for why that might boost his final support a bit higher relative to Obama’s than the polls are indicating.  But how much higher?   Let us assume the polls are understating Romney’s support relative to Obama’s by 2%.  If we reduce the gap by that much, that would clinch Florida for Romney and bring Colorado and Virginia into virtual ties.  But even if we give all three states to Romney – and assume he wins North Carolina – he still falls short with 257 electoral votes. If we inch up his support a hair more, he might squeak by in Iowa – still not enough.  At this point I don’t see Obama losing Ohio.  So even the most optimistic assessment of the polls from Romney’s perspective still has this race an uphill climb.

A couple of other thoughts.  First, I don’t agree that Romney’s decision to run television ads in Pennsylvania was a bluff, or a diversion.  I think it made sense. He and Obama have hammered away at each other in Ohio for months, and the state hasn’t budged.  In Pennsylvania, however, Obama has much less of a presence, so Romney‘s strategists likely viewed it as a soft target more amenable to stealing.   Right now, however, the polls still have Obama up by 5% there, so it is going to take a huge closing surge for Romney to win.

Second point to remember: if the first wave of exit polls is released  late afternoon – pay them no heed! They haven’t been adjusted yet to take into account turnout figures.

Everyone and their cousin has advice on how to read tonight’s returns.  To me it comes down to Florida for Romney and Ohio for Obama. If the night starts out with Romney losing Florida, the race is over.  If Obama loses Ohio, it’s game on.

A reminder – I’ll be live blogging while doing commentary tonight at the Karl Rove Crossroads Cafe.  Hope to see you there (if you are local) or online.

More later.

I Can Read Faces! My Wager On The Election Results

On the eve of Election Day, I am a happy man.  Why is this, you ask?  Because the fundamentals-based forecasts issued by almost a  dozen political scientists before Labor Day are – in the aggregate – looking remarkably prescient. The average prediction of those eleven models has Obama winning 50.3% of the two-party vote, while the median gives him 50.6%.  So far, these forecasts seem to be holding up quite well, with both the RealClearPolitics and aggregate national poll showing this race, as measured by the popular vote, as essentially a dead heat, one day before the election.  Score one for political science!

Of course, that doesn’t tell us who is going to win, which is what most of you want to know.  Fear not!  We need only consult the state-based forecasts issued by Drew Linzer, Sam Wang, Simon Jackman, and Tom Holbrook and Jay DeSart.  (There are others out there, but these are the ones whose methods are most transparent, and with which I am most familiar.  If you want a bit of background on their methods, see this article on “the rise of the quants” ).  Although these forecast models differ in some of the particulars (whether to compensate for a pollster’s “house effect”, how to weight the state polls, the relative weight place on polls of likely vs. registered voters, etc.), they all operate on the same assumption: that state-based polls, taken in the aggregate, provide a very accurate indicator of who is going to win that state, particularly this late in the game.  That, in turn, makes it relatively easy to put together an Electoral College forecast.  All of them have done so, and as I’ve discussed in an earlier post, they all see it as more likely that Obama wins the Electoral College vote.  This doesn’t mean they believe Romney can’t win – they just see it as less probable than an Obama victory.

The process by which these political scientists (Wang is actually a neuroscientist, but he gets honorary membership) put together their predictions is in stark contrast to the methods used by the traditional pundits.  Consider this projection by Jay Cost, a very smart analyst who writes for the Weekly Standard.  Cost believes Romney will win this election, and in explaining why, he took a shot at political science forecast models:  “Both political science and the political polls too often imply a scientific precision that I no longer think actually exists in American politics. I have slowly learned that politics is a lot more art than science than I once believed. Accordingly, what follows is a prediction based on my interpretation of the lay of the land. I know others see it differently–and they could very well be right, and I could be wrong. I think Mitt Romney is likely to win next Tuesday.” As evidence for his prediction, Cost cites two points: Romney is leading among independents, and most voters think he will do a better job handling the economy.

Cost is not alone in thinking that Romney is going to win – there are some very smart people who have vast experience in electoral politics who agree with him.  Here is a list of the most prominent political pundits, and their predictions.   However, as I scan the list, I can’t help but notice that the bulk of people who agree with Cost in predicting a Romney victory are conservatives, including Karl Rove, Glenn Beck, Ari Fleischer, Jay Cost, Peggy Noonan and Dick Morris. On the other hand, many of the best-known liberal pundits – Markos Moulitsas, Jamelle Bouie, Jennifer Granholm, Donna Brazile and Cokie Roberts – think Obama will win.  Now, all of them claim to be looking at the same data – the same polls, the same candidate strategies, the same advertisements, etc.   How, then, can we explain why they end up with dramatically different predictions?  More generally, why do liberals think Obama will win, and conservatives think Romney will?

The answer, I think, is that people – liberals, conservatives and everyone else – are very good at seeing patterns in data that suggest outcomes that conform to their preferences.  Mind you – these aren’t implausible patterns – indeed, what makes them so seductive is that they are very plausible.  Cost, for instance, is correct that most polls indicate that Romney is viewed as better able to handle the economy.  But notice what he writes: “Poll after poll, I generally see the same thing. Romney has an edge on the economy. That includes most of the state polls.”  At the same time, however, he evidently is discounting those same state polls that, looked at in the aggregate by political scientists, indicate that Obama is more likely to win the Electoral College.  So, the question becomes: why value what the state polls say in one area – Romney’s handling of the economy – while discounting their overall projections that say Romney is more likely to lose?

The worry I have when analysts “interpret” data is that it leaves room for personal preferences to sneak in.  Taken to an extreme, it leads to far-fetched inferences like this one tweeted earlier today by Peggy Noonan: “I suspect both Romney and Obama have a sense of what’s coming, and it’s part of why Romney looks so peaceful and Obama so roiled.”  Really?  She can see the election outcome by “reading” their faces?  This presumes that both Obama and Romney know “what is coming” – highly unlikely in a 50/50 race- and that she has some method – a sixth sense? – for inferring when facial expressions reveal a person’s inner thoughts.  Maybe she can see dead people too.

Ok. That was a cheap shot. Let me be clear. I think Noonan is a very smart person.  Her memoir of her years as a Reagan speechwriter is one of the best accounts of life in the White House that I’ve ever read.  But I don’t believe she can read faces.

And that leads me to my broader point.  When I consider this latest election cycle, the most important development in how it has been covered, in my view, is the growing prominence of analysts whose methods are both more rigorous and more data-driven than what we are used to seeing from traditional “pundits”.  I think we are witnessing a sea change in political analysis, one that will leave an indelible mark on future coverage of presidential elections.  Increasingly, the traditional seat-of-the-pants, intuition-based method of analyzing elections is giving way to a less impressionistic mode of analysis. To be sure, these new methods are not infallible by any means. But they are a step forward. And political scientists are leading that movement.

To be fair to Cost, and Noonan, and all the rest of the “traditional” pundits, and the new ones too – they at least had the courage to put their professional reputations on the line and make a prediction.  So I am going to do the same – tomorrow morning.   I can tell you now – my prediction will be entirely atheoretical, and will be based on the latest state-based polling averages.  But to make it interesting, I will make a wager:  if my prediction regarding the winner tomorrow is incorrect, I will pay the bar bill (alcohol only) for everyone who attends the Election Night at the Grille, which Bert Johnson and I will be hosting.  So keep your receipts!  The festivities start at 7 p.m. and, as always, I’ll be living blogging the election returns while keeping the crowd at the Karl Rove Crossroads cafe – er, the Grille – entertained as well.  For those in the area, I hope to see you tomorrow night.  For the rest of you, please join me at this site.  We are hoping to break our all time record for participation.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

The Pundits vs. Political Science: Debating the Impact of the First Debate

As Election 2012 heads down to the wire, it is fascinating to see how the pundits view this race compared to where the political scientists do (at least as I interpret them).  They often seem to be looking at two different events.  For pundits, the race is a roller-coaster affair in which candidates gain and lose momentum based on a series of often unpredictable events.  Thus, on today’s Meet the Press, Joe Scarborough openly speculated about the impact of Hurricane Sandy in blunting Romney’s “momentum.” In Scarborough’s words, “The question is, whether the hurricane stopped the momentum for 48 hours and whether that in the end will stop him from overtaking the president.”

The only problem with this analysis is that it appears that Mitt’s support had stabilized at between 47-48% in the national polls back on October 9, and there hasn’t been very much movement beyond random statistical fluctuations since then.  In other words, there wasn’t much momentum for Mitt to lose, Sandy or no Sandy.

David Gregory, the host, then asked his panelists to identify the moments of the campaign that stood out to them.   Four of the five participants cited the first debate as the turning point in this campaign.  Scarborough, taking what might be perceived as a shot at political scientists, argued, “And, third, just a remarkable first debate that if Mitt Romney wins will be a debate that political scientists will be looking at fifty years from now.  It really could be the big turning point.”  The usually reliable Tom Brokaw concurred: “I– I think the first debate.  I think that history will long record that if he survives this– that debate was something unprecedented.  I have never seen anything like that in my lifetime, when a man who had to convince the country, he was a strong leader, disappeared from that stage.”

At this risk of repeating myself (see here and here), there is not much evidence that the first debate had nearly the impact the pundits ascribe to it.  Previously I published Anna Esten’s research indicating that Mitt may have earned a net gain of about 2.7% when comparing the average of the polls in the week prior to the first debate compared to the average of those polls in the week after.  This is not an inconsequential gain, mind you, but it’s worth remembering what that change signifies.  As I’ve argued before, that net gain did not come from converting Obama supporters to Romney supporters – instead, it came from shifting the proportion of people who made it through the various polling voter screens. In short, the first debate was a focusing event that likely accelerated the polling toward the dead-heat equilibrium that the political science forecast models, looked at in the aggregate, have been suggesting this race would become all along.

Moreover as Peter Kellner explains in this post, there is some evidence, based on looking at a panel study that interviewed the same set of people both pre- and post-debate,  that even a 2.7% projected net gain for Mitt may overstate the impact of the first debate.  Kellner writes, “The key point is that this was a true panel study. We questioned the same people twice. This allowed us to investigate what change, if any, took place at the level of individual voters, NOT by comparing results from different samples.  Any change in the numbers in such panel studies reflects real changes by real voters. And our overall sample was much larger than normal. We polled almost 33,000 electors in September, and reinterviewed more than 25,000 of them after the first debate.

The message from this study was clear. The Romney bounce was tiny.  Overall, YouGov found just a one-point narrowing of Obama’s lead.”

Why did YouGov find only a 1% change, while Anna calculated Mitt gained a more sizeable advantage? The answer gets to an issue I’ve talked about before – most pollsters do not “weight” their polls to maintain a fixed proportion of partisans.  That is, they let the poll results determine how many “Democrats” and “Republicans” there are in any particular sample.  So, after the first debate, many pollsters likely picked up a shift in party identification indicating more Republican self-identifiers, which in turn suggested a net polling gain for Romney. The debate had the same impact on the YouGov panel study – more Republicans in the panel were likely to answer the follow up survey after the first debate than were Democrats.  However, in contrast, to most pollsters, YouGov adjusted their post-debate sample to keep the partisan distribution consistent with the pre-debate sample.  When they did that, they saw only minimal gains by Mitt.

Kellner’s conclusion?  “What we can therefore be fairly sure of is that the first TV debate made little or no difference to the (high) degree of loyalty Democrats and Republicans display towards the two candidates. It is NOT the case that many voters switched from Obama to Romney. The question, rather, is whether the first debate caused the number of Democratic-ID Americans to fall, and Republican-ID Americans to rise.”

The answer to just how big an impact that first debate had, then, turns in part on whether you think “partisanship” changes only slowly, or that it can in fact change rapidly in response to a single event, such as a debate.  Note that this is not one of those nerd fights that have little consequence in the real world.  Instead, it gets to the heart of the polling discrepancies we have found between some state-level polls and the national tracking polls by some firms, like Rasmussen, that do adjust their partisan composition to bring it in line with what they think the “true” party division currently is.  Decisions regarding whether and how to weight by party can determine whether a poll favors one candidate or the other.  Republicans have consistently argued that many pollsters are including too many Democrats in their samples. Democrats counter that some firms, like Gallup, are underweighting some groups that are likely to vote Democratic.  We will know who is right on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, in the long run,  I suspect Scarborough is right. Fifty years from now political scientists will be arguing that the first Romney-Obama debate didn’t have nearly the impact the media pundits said it did – and we will be ignored then as well!

Who Is Really Winning This Race?

Because I have been giving election talks with more frequency of late, I haven’t been able to post nearly as often as I would like.  In giving those talks, however, I am reminded (and I remind my audiences!) that, once again, looked at in the aggregate, the structural-based political science forecast models issued by Labor Day (or earlier) have proved remarkably  accurate.  For those new to this blog, the median forecast of the 11 political science forecast models that I reviewed in previous posts gave Obama 50.6% of the two-party vote.  The average forecast from those 11 models gave Obama 50.3% of the two-party vote.  Remember, this was before the debates, the tax returns, the “gaffes”, and all the other events cited by various pundits as potential game changers.  As of today, that aggregate median forecast (those who attend my talks will remember that the aggregate median forecast provides the basis of my election prediction) from two months ago looks like it will come very close to hitting the final Obama popular vote share squarely on the head if the national tracking polls are to be believed. This is no mean feat, in my book, and it is a reminder that political scientists have developed a decent understanding of the factors that drive presidential election outcomes.  It is reassuring that this election cycle has proved remarkably unsurprising in terms of its likely outcome.

Of course, while those structural models may be correct in predicting this race would essentially be a dead heat, they don’t tell us who is going to win, which is what most people want to know.  At this point, five days before the election, you are better off looking at the polls – state and national – which are probably going to be more accurate than structural models devised several months ago in predicting the winner (even if they are going to be far less useful in understanding why Obama, or Romney, won).  Several political scientists (and others) have developed Electoral College forecast models based on state-level polls, in contrast to the structural models which ignore polls entirely.  I present four of these state-based projections here. (Readers will remember that if I can’t see what goes into a prediction model, I don’t bother following its projections.  That’s a basic tenet among academics, and it explains why I ignore some of the more highly publicized state-based forecast models. )

As you can see, all four of these forecasts show, as of today, that Obama is likely to win the Electoral College vote, based on state-level polls.  This has led pundits at some sites, like this one at Mother Jones, to suggest that if all these prognosticators are predicting an Obama victory, it must be so.  But it would be a mistake to treat these forecasts as independent assessments.  In fact, all rely on the same set of state-level polls, and if the polls are wrong for some reason, all of the projections will be off as well.  Moreover, as several commentators have noted, the national tracking polls tell a slightly different story.  Consistent with the structural forecast models, they indicate that this race is actually a dead heat.   Indeed, some pundits, like’s Steve Lombardo, are convinced that the national tracking polls indicate that Romney is poised to win the national popular vote.  Lombardo writes,” Our current estimate (which we will update next Tuesday morning) suggests that Romney will capture 51 percent of the popular vote to Obama’s 48.5 percent. The trend line-based on 26 national polls conducted over the last 30 days –is both unmistakable and virtually unassailable.”

If Lombardo is right, there is virtually no chance that Obama will win the Electoral College vote.  The problem with this projection is that Lombardo assumes the trajectory of the trend line will continue unabated through Election Day. My read of the latest national tracking polls, however, suggests that Romney’s “momentum” has dissipated, and that the race has settled into a rather stable equilibrium, with neither candidate showing an advantage.   As evidence, consider the latest RCP composite poll, which shows the race essentially tied.

I have said all along that the state-level polls and the national polls will gradually converge.  But in whose favor?  In my next post, I’ll address evidence suggesting that Romney may benefit from an “enthusiasm” advantage among Republican voters. In the meantime, however, it is worth remembering that, once again, the “composite” political science forecast reveals that presidential elections are rather predictable affairs and that contrary to what some pundits have suggested, this election has – to date – contained few surprises.

So, who is really winning this race?  As of today, it is political scientists.