National View: To the Bloody End

Debate-2-Obama-RomneyVanguard Analysis of Presidential Election – For as long as I have been writing on the subject, I have believed that this was 2004 in reverse.  I remember believing up until the very end, when it became clear that Cuyahoga County was not going to be enough that John Kerry would defeat President George Bush.

I was wrong in 2004, I had underestimated Karl Rove and overestimated the willingness of people to make a leap of faith.  But it was a critical point in my understanding of politics.  I have felt since last year that conservatives had made the same mistake as liberals in 2004.

In most ways, 2012 has played out to form, but I started to waver early last week.  I told people for the first time that I thought Romney would win and I believed it.  That changed on Thursday and Friday.

First of all, I think if it weren’t for Nate Silver a lot of liberals would have jumped off a bridge by now.  But he may be right.  As he noted, 19 of 20 battleground polls on Friday showed Obama in a very small, mostly statistically insignificant lead.  Another two showed ties.

I used to do this stuff for a living, so you would think I would be well versed on it.  Polls are based on sample size, probability, and an 85% confidence interval that accounts for standard errors in the sampling.  The result is that most polls produce an error of 3% or 5% on either side of the result.

Averaging polls is a common way thought to reduce the error – but it probably does not do so in any meaningful way.

There are some sophisticated ways to fix these problems that I’m not going to bore my patient readers with.  So I asked a few people who know far more math than I do how to interpret a number of very consistent but very small differences in polling.

One answer makes a good deal of sense and it is similar to what Nate Silver does – use the polling averages as an indicator and rank the states sequentially to assess how much error would have to occur in order to shift the outcome.

This is similar to what Intrade and Nate Silver do.  Intrade puts Obama at the 60 to 70% range while Nate Silver puts it a bit higher at 85% this morning.

Mr. Silver now puts the figure at 85%, but we can dig deeper into his numbers: “My argument, rather, is this: we’ve about reached the point where if Mr. Romney wins, it can only be because the polls have been biased against him. Almost all of the chance that Mr. Romney has in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, about 16 percent to win the Electoral College, reflects this possibility.”

But here’s the problem, most of the polls are based not only on a sampling but a prediction about what the electoral composition will look like, and what if the other polls are wrong in how they modeled it and what if Rasmussen is correct?

You’re telling me the probability that turnout models are wrong is just 16% (now 14.9%)?  I do not buy that.

So let’s look elsewhere.

Some are believing that the Superstorm that hit the east coast may play a pivotal role in the outcome here, even though it is not registering in the polls.

The nugget that is more interesting to me at this point is from Jan Crawford of CBS News, who reports: “For eight straight days, polls showed him picking up support. The campaign’s internal polling, which is using different turnout models than most public polls, had him on solid ground in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa. He had a slight lead or was tied in Ohio, New Hampshire and Wisconsin and was in striking distance in Pennsylvania, a state Republicans hadn’t won since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

“Those leads in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa still hold in the internal polls, campaign sources say, but Romney’s movement flattened out or, as the campaign likes to say, ‘paused.’ Nevada is now off the table, and those neck-and-neck swing states are even tighter.”

Do I really believe in this?  No.  I think Romney’s internal polling is probably wishful thinking in terms of turnout models, but forget that point for a moment.  The key point is the trendline.  I agree that for about eight days, give or take, Romney looked like he was gaining momentum and that that has stopped and now flatlined, if not declined.

That, of course, accounts for my changed thinking.

Make no mistake, the Republicans will point to Chris Christie with some justification if Romney ends up losing.

Now, in fairness to Governor Christie, his state has been utterly devastated, he needs federal resources and in the aftermath of the largest disaster in state history he would be shirking his duties to even consider politics.

“I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested,” Governor Christie said. “I have got a job to do here in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. And I could care less about any of that stuff.”

“I have a job to do. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me,” he would later add.

And the governor was quick to rightly praise the President: “He’s done — as far as I’m concerned — a great job for New Jersey.”

I will add this point because it may or may not weigh in, in the voters’ minds – there have been two large crises in the last two months of this election and both times, the instinct of some in Romney’s camp was to play politics.

They held their tongue better this time than Benghazi, but the leaks coming out about Governor Christie made their feelings very clear.

The fact that President Obama got to use his incumbency advantage, while Mitt Romney was a spectator, very much plays a role in the change in the dynamics in the last week.

It is the chief reason why I once again believe he will narrowly prevail on Tuesday.

Still, I think Mr. Silver’s much too sanguine on his modeling and discounts too much the probability that the modeling is wrong.  We learned in 2004 that candidates can actually artificially alter voter composition – something that Democrats have tried to replicate without nearly as much success – though I must say the California online voter registration model looks promising.

So the bottom line is that, while I don’t think it’s too close to call at this point, I am not nearly as confident as Nate Silver in the turnout models and so right now I think 65 to 70 percent is about right.

Tomorrow I’ll offer a more philosophical analysis of the race.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. dlemongello

    Rusty, the strength of your conviction is interesting. I believe it’s the middle that will decide this one. And maybe (I’m not willing to speak as if I know things that I don’t) after a disaster the middle will hunker down and relate to those affected and the persuasion of the other party to privatize everything and what that would mean.

  2. rusty49

    Romney is going to win. Most of the polls have been sampling far more Democrats than Republicans and we all know the Democrats aren’t going to turn out this time as they did in 2008 while the GOP will have a huge turnout because they’re enthused and want Obama GONE!

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Rusty: I put that at about a 30 to 40 percent possibility. I have read that analysis very carefully there are a number of reasons I discount it however (at least from it being the most likely scenario).

    I agree with you that the turnout model is not going to look like 2008, but there are a lot of reasons it shouldn’t look like 2010 either.

    It is worth noting there was a considerable enthusiasm gap in 2004 but in the end it did not turn the tide for Kerry.

    There is a myth that pollsters weight their pollsters to a given turnout. Most don’t. Instead what they do is they conduct their sample, weight their demographics to the US Census, and then use voter responses to determine who is likely to turn out. Differences in outcome are likely do at least in part to the determination as to who is likely to turn out.

    I have also seen some analyses showing a gap between likely voters and certain voters in favor of Romney, but what I haven’t seen is the next step – the effort to show the relevance of that statistic to past turnout and outcomes.

    Finally, there may be a group of voters that hates Obama but the critical question is whether that hardcore group is likely to shape the outcome or whether they tend to be people that typically vote in large percentages anyway.

    It’s worth noting that we saw the republican advantage in 2010 in the polling, why would we not expect to see any similar advantage in 2012?

  4. wdf1

    “I must say the California online voter registration model looks promising.”

    Prop. 30 may have some of the same effect on the 2012 California electorate that some of the (anti-) gay marriage initiatives had in 2004. What impresses me is the way I’ve seen college age voters take this issue to heart. They understand the passage of Prop. 30 to have an impact on their lives and future. I think it’s one key difference that separates it from Prop. 38’s fortune. Prop. 38 doesn’t have explicit language supporting college education. College students are of voting age, however.

  5. Don Shor

    I’m sticking with my prior prediction, which is in agreement with Nate Silver. Slim popular vote margin, 300+ EC votes, for the president.
    Amazing contrary analyses coming from the right-wing commentators and blogs, ranging from Dick Morris, Karl Rove, Michael Barone, and others, all of which have to discount not just some but [i]all[/i] of the polling data. We are talking about dozens of polls by many polling firms. The conservatives know that news stories about polls can be campaign tactics, and they are happy to provide fodder for that. Dick Morris predicts a Romney ‘absolute landslide’? Can anyone really take that seriously? Oh wait, less than two days later he warns of “sudden danger signs” in recent polling.
    Bad polling stories tend to suppress turnout on your side, or so goes the logic. So those stories and complex rationales you are seeing are largely tactical at this point. I doubt even they believe them. Even Rasmussen has the race trending toward Obama.
    Just look at the swing state polling. All of them would have to be wrong. Romney would have to run the table. At this point Romney gets North Carolina, probably Florida, and possibly Virginia. Colorado is trending back to Obama, and he gets all of the other swing states.

  6. Frankly

    Don, the issue with the polling data is that the polls favoring Obama include a higher percentage of Democrat voters than the 2008 election. That seems highly unlikely this time around.

    But I think Sandy will win back Obama some votes. With the help of the liberal media, the Dems have done well capturing the weather as one of their main campaign platforms.

    I just shake my head about the ignorance of youth and minorities falling for the failed promises of trickle-down government. I think it is going to take another four years to help reverse enough of the voter brain-washing that has taken place.

    A vote for Obama is a vote for accepting the hyper partisanship and political polarization that plagues this country. The Teflon Messiah may win again because the nation seems to given him as many excuses as he makes for himself. But as much as the right demands that their representatives prevent an Obama-led Democrat Party from implementing any more of their previously proven-failed ideas, the next four years of an Obama Predidency will result in an ideological war an order of magnitude greater.

    Obama will go on blaming. The Democrats and their media pals will go on blaming. Meanwhile the country will slide further down hill from lack of leadership and lack of real needed change.

  7. David M. Greenwald

    “Don, the issue with the polling data is that the polls favoring Obama include a higher percentage of Democrat voters than the 2008 election.”

    This is where I think you don’t really understand how a poll works.

    First they call a random sample of voters.

    Second, they weight it to census demographics. There was a long debate back in 2004 over whether they should wait party, but the prevailing view is that you don’t do that because that’s part of what you are trying to measure. It turns out that party ID is not static, it’s actually part of what is in flux. So pollsters don’t want to weight that because it may bias the sample.

    there is a long discussion you can find on this from 2004 and 2005. Back then, Democrats were arguing the same thing you were. Turned out the polls were accurate and the party ID was just capturing the dynamics.

  8. David M. Greenwald

    And the debate goes on. Here’s a pretty good and balanced discussion of the issue: Weight for Party ID? ([url][/url])

  9. Frankly

    I think this is mostly correct.


    I think in any case where the incumbent is so despised; a new President gives us hope. We know what we are getting with Obama, and there is nothing he can say or do to endear himself to the half of the country he has lost support from. He has earned one of the strongest votes of no-confidence from the political right as has any President since Jimmy Carter (and we know how that ended).

    Romney is a business-minded breath of fresh air following four years of misery and failed policies from Obama – a socialist and communist-raised candidate completely void of business and professional experience other than politics. Romney’s bumps from the debates were proof that his political image was and is falsely, but-well, tarnished by the Democrat political machine which is supported and bolstered by most of the TV, movie and print media. For example, I watched SNL last night and most of the skits were Romney smears. Not one took any notable pot shots at the Teflon Messiah. That is the way it goes most night from the industry of never-grow-up millionaires that make their riches making things up and faking us out. Obama is in good company there.

    Democrats may very well get what they ask for this election. Four more years of Obama… and four more years of a growing political divide that threatens to further rip the country apart while sending us over a fiscal cliff that we will never recover from.

    Hello Argentina and Greece… we are even less intelligent than you because we can actually SEE how you failed, but we ignore it and do the same things. Well, maybe not… since Romney may very well pull off the upset.

    I hope for my kids’ sake that he does.

  10. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]Democrats may very well get what they ask for this election. Four more years of Obama… and four more years of a growing political divide that threatens to further rip the country apart while sending us over a fiscal cliff that we will never recover from. [/quote]

    On this score, it probably doesn’t matter who is going to be president. The country was divided under Bush and is divided under Obama. I don’t really see that changing any time soon either unless we go away from SMPD and move to some sort of proportional representation.

  11. Frankly

    [i]On this score, it probably doesn’t matter who is going to be president.[/i]

    I disagree here. I think there will always be a divide between the far right and the far left. There is just too big of a gap in worldview. And, there are always going to be those special interests and single issues that some voters will get hung up on.

    But a great leader should be able to stitch together the support and cooperation of moderates on both sides.

    Obama is not a great leader. He is an actor. He has a lot of people following and loving his act. But he is still a substandard leader. And because of this, we will continue to be politically-polarized more than we would under a more capable leader.

  12. David M. Greenwald

    Whether or not Obama is a great leader, doesn’t seem to matter a lot. There is a trend that has simply continued under Obama that existed under Bush and before him under Clinton. I don’t expect it will be any different under Romney.

  13. Don Shor

    [i]”But a great leader should be able to stitch together the support and cooperation of moderates on both sides.”
    I see zero evidence that Romney would be able to do that. He isn’t trusted by the right of his own party, and isn’t trusted by the left at all. He would get almost nothing done.
    Voting intentions for Obama and Romney are about the same numerically, but Obama’s supporters, according to Pew, are somewhat more supportive of their candidate than Romney’s. Romney’s are somewhat more likely just to be voting against Obama.
    [i]“Nearly four-in-ten (39%) likely voters support Obama strongly, while 9% back him only moderately,” Pew pollster wrote. “A third of likely voters support Romney strongly, compared with 11% who back him moderately. In past elections, dating to 1960, the candidate with the higher percentage of strong support has usually gone on to win the popular vote.”[/i]

  14. Frankly

    [quote]For 2011, Obama’s third year in office, an average of 80 percent of Democrats approved of the job he was doing in Gallup tracking polls, as compared to 12 percent of Republicans who felt the same way. That’s a 68-point partisan gap, the highest for any president’s third year in office — ever. (The previous high was George W. Bush in 2007, when he had a 59 percent difference in job approval ratings.)[/quote]

    G.W.Bush was also a partisan President without adequate leadership skills. However, G.W.Bush was a war-time President after the attacks of 9-11. Most war-time Presidents suffer popularity and create divide because anger often drives support and the political agenda. Obama’s main focus was to be on domestic policy. He had to turn to military accomplishments to help make up for his dismal domestic policy accomplishments.

  15. wdf1

    Interesting that Don Shor’s table of Presidential candidate strength doesn’t include info for 1992. I guess a third party candidate, Ross Perot, wreaked havoc on the two-candidate model.

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