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Nov 6, 2012

Whichever way you look at it, Obama will win

Mitt Romney's camp insists their man can carry the key states. But however you cut the polling, and even allowing for error and uncertainty around turnout, Barack Obama is in the box seat. Crikey crunches the numbers.

William Bowe — Editor of The Poll Bludger

William Bowe

Editor of The Poll Bludger

Of all the controversies in a frenzied final week of a tense presidential election campaign, none has been more fraught than the small matter of who is most likely to win.

One view, shared by statistical forecasters, betting markets and state-level opinion polls, has Barack Obama as a strong favourite — perhaps something more than that. The highest profile of the forecasters, FiveThirtyEight wunderkind Nate Silver, gives Obama an 86.3% chance of victory at the time of writing. An even more bullish view of Obama’s prospects is offered by Silver’s equally credible rival Sam Wang, a neurologist who has been putting his powers of analysis to work for the Princeton Election Consortium. Wang has two models on offer, one of which puts Obama’s chances at 98.3%, the other at 99.9%.

Feeding into these forecasts have been state polls showing Obama with small but stubborn leads where he needs them most. Feeding out of them has been an expectation of an Obama victory in betting markets, albeit in less comprehensive terms (the widely quoted Intrade has it at 66.7%).

The alternative view — that Mitt Romney is at level pegging or better — has been advanced by right-wing bloviators, media outlets with a ratings-driven interest in a close contest, journalists of the old school who dislike the way their game is changing, and — the one persistent basis for real doubt — polling conducted at the national rather than the local level, some of it of excellent pedigree.

Whereas the Australian political textbook instructs leaders and candidates to claim underdog status, presidential campaigns are concerned with generating enthusiasm among supporters in order to drive turnout. It’s thought this is best achieved by projecting an image of strength — perhaps especially so in the case of the Republicans, who are pitching to a male-dominated audience. Servants of the Republican cause have thus been eager to discern in the polling and forecasting professions the same liberal biases they feel they have come to know from scientific organisations and the media.

Forecasters have also come under fire from establishment media figures who argue political insight can be gained only through insider access, such as is available only to members of the journalistic closed shop. Leading the charge last week was cable news host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, who thundered that the level of concern he was hearing from the Democratic camp was risibly inconsistent with the one-in-six chance of defeat being projected for them by Silver (evidently Joe hasn’t played Russian roulette too often).

More troubling from Obama’s perspective has been the national polling, the RealClearPolitics aggregate of which had Romney about a point ahead from the aftermath of his October 3 debate win until Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29. The worst results of all for Obama came from the most prestigious name in the business, Gallup, which consistently had Romney’s lead at about five points up until its tracking poll closed shop after Sandy hit (today it has returned to the field with a final poll that has Romney only one point in front).

Confoundingly, polls conducted at state level — in many cases by the same organisations that were conducting the national polls — showed a weight of support for Obama that was incompatible with the national figures. This has most famously been reflected in a barrage of polling putting Obama 2-3% ahead in the key battleground of Ohio. Polling aggregates have also had him ahead in the swing states of Colorado, Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa — enough to get him over the line without assistance from Virginia, Florida or North Carolina, where he has been at least competitive.

National polling conducted in the wake of Sandy has found Obama edging upwards, narrowing the state polling gap and further weakening the case that Romney has as much grounds for confidence as his campaign asserts. Nate Silver’s state polling-inclusive model now has Obama 2.1% ahead on its national vote projection, against an averaged 1.1% on the basis of Sunday’s national polls. Even the national figure taken in isolation would give Romney little hope of victory, except at the outer reaches of the error margin.

Certainly it is not beyond the realms of possibility that systemic inaccuracy is causing the pollsters to get it wrong. Polls do better at some elections than others; 1980 and 1992 are examples where the combined error was of such size as would put the current result in doubt (although it might be thought notable that there were substantial campaigns by independent candidates on both occasions).

Such is the level of subjectivity involved in polling a US election, particularly in modelling turnout, that there is always a reasonable basis to argue that the wrong assumptions are being made. Romney boosters point to his lead among voters who identify as independent, and argue the pollsters are wrong to credit Obama with the level of Democratic turnout needed to cancel it out. However, party identification is at all times a slippery concept, and it has been complicated over the past term by the rise of the Tea Party and its adherents’ conviction that they are independents rather than Republicans.

The pollsters’ and forecasters’ judgements on such matters may well be imperfect, but they are unlikely to have been motivated on any level by wishful thinking, which clearly can’t be said for most of those talking up Romney. For this reason, I don’t see any reason to bet against the view shared by FiveThirtyEight and the RealClearPolitics state polling averages: that Obama will win the electoral college 303 to 235, carrying Ohio, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, while falling short in Florida and North Carolina.

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41 thoughts on “Whichever way you look at it, Obama will win

  1. Dion Giles

    The American voters had better not count their chooks before they’re hatched. American elections are about as honest as Zimbabwean elections. Two Internet items this morning show once again the forces lined up to steal the current US presidential election from the voters. (This bombshell was fired today. I’ve put a comment in to let American readers know how voting is conducted in the civilised world).

    A democratic poll – on an actual issue, labelling of genetically-poisoned food – is on in California same day as the presidential farce.

  2. Edward James

    Australia, australia how will we be affected by the USA election result? Edward James

  3. Michael

    This is terrific news for Romney (by the way he’ll win by a landslide) because I can’t recall the last time PollBludger got an ection result right.

  4. rhwombat

    Edward James@2: for one thing, I don’t think the Rabbott’s boat will support the influx of Republican Ratfuckers & Tory Teapots looking for refuge from repercussive reality that ended the Thatcher/Reagan era. Just think of it as Karl Rove’s (or Mark Textor’s) vultures coming home to roost.

  5. michael r james

    If you look at the trend lines in Nate Silver’s meta-data graphs for Florida, I reckon there is a fair chance Obama will retain Florida. If there were a few more days he would also claim NC too, but there isn’t time. However, given that any of this data is at least 48-72 h old, there was really almost 4 days equivalent to extrapolate: unless something unexpected happens this projects to a narrow win in Florida for Obama.

    Independent of that, I suspect the polls in Florida are underestimating BO’s support (Puerto Rican Hispanics being newer and less conservative than Cuban Hispanics; Florida is a hurricane state and will have taken lessons from Sandy), but that is perhaps wishful thinking. Not so much on behalf of Obama (who will not need Florida) but in the hope that all the southern Hispanic states including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida are all in the process of turning purple. (Of course NM is actually beyond purple being blue already.) This spells long-term oblivion for the nuttier conservatives–which of course will self-correct and thus might bring some more rational politics to the US.

  6. William Bowe

    Michael, I’m willing to be you can’t remember the last time I got one wrong either.

  7. Edward James

    rhwombat once in a green moon perhaps/ Edward James

  8. toby shepherd

    btw this is ptmd

  9. toby shepherd

    Well, if Romney wins in the USA and PMJG wins in Australia, maybe all the rightwing nutters here will immigrate to the USA and leave the rest of us alone for a while.

  10. Lord Barry Bonkton

    Has Obama won yet ?

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