Archive for October, 2012

Two Very Different Election Scenarios

Scenario 1:   We wake up on Wednesday, November 7th and read about how President-elect Romney seemed to defy the odds to win by a comfortable margin, 52 – 49.   He eeked out narrow but clear victories in most of the swing states, and Republicans managed to take slim control of the Senate.

Democrats are shocked and disappointed.   All the polls said it was close, Obama’s ground game was supposed to pull it out, and what about Nate Silver’s odds heavily favoring the President?  Republicans will feel vindicated that they represent what Americans believe.

Scenario 2:   President Obama is re-elected in a narrow but clear victory thanks to how he held on to leads in swing states, buttressed by his ground game.   He may or may not win the popular vote, but neither did George W. Bush in 2000.   Democrats will also gain in the Senate, something that would have seemed impossible a year before.   Democrats will be relieved and feel their vision of the future is winning, while Republicans start soul searching about how they need to transform their party.

How can two very different scenarios each be plausible?    Simple: the polling data shows a close election and two different dynamics.    Due to inherent uncertainty about which dynamic is actually in play, there is no way to be confident that any conclusion is truly likely.

Nate Silver’s steady odds favoring Obama have given real comfort to nervous supporters of the President

One reason people discount scenario one is the popularity of New York Times blogger and statistical guru Nate Silver.   His models have worked with amazing predictive power in the last two elections cycles.   He knows what he’s doing.    So when he makes Obama a clear favorite, that has to be taken seriously.

Yet as a social scientist who deals with qualitative and interpretive methods, I warn against reading too much into a quantitative analysis and model.   It’s not that such work isn’t good, it’s just that the world is so complex and multi-causal that even good models fail sometime.   That’s why Silver’s model gives Romney a 25% chance of winning.    In essence a set of assumptions are built into how the polls are treated in Silver’s model (economic factors matter too, though their relative importance dwindles by election day), and if for some reason in this election cycle those assumptions are off, the other guy wins.   Silver thinks there’s about a 25% of that happening.

Gallup shows Governor Romney with a persistent lead

Though Gallup can go off base, it has got a good track record overall.    The conventional wisdom (and one suggested by Nate Silver as well) is that Gallup’s methodology is somewhat off.    Since the rule of thumb when looking at polls is to distrust the outlier, it has become easy to distrust Gallup.

Yet after releasing a Politico/Battleground poll yesterday showing Obama up 1, pollster Ed Goeas mentioned that their election modeling suggests Romney should win 52-47 — a result eerily similar to Gallup.   And, since Gallup stays mum on a lot of how they get their numbers, it could be that they’re integrating some kind of election model in their poll that is similar to that used by the Battleground poll.

That means that a couple big name pollsters with good track records have a model or set of assumptions that yields a clear victory for Romney.   Simply, the assumptions built into the methodology of the different models yield different results.

Demographic trends favor Democrats

While Silver has developed a model using the universe of polls out there and other data, individual pollsters like Gallup use their own data and then make assumptions about how voters will behave on election day.    This leads them to make assumptions about actual turnout by different demographic groups.    This could include party identification, intensity, certainty to vote, age and other factors that might not be used for publishing individual poll results.

Gallup has said it expects the 2012 electorate to look much like the 2008 electorate in demographic make up.   Yet the trend has been for minority turnout to increase.   Gallup apparently believes that lack of voter intensity will keep those voters at 2008 levels.

If these assumptions are right, then Obama’s lead in the swing states is not only soft, but illusory.   The dynamics favor voters coming out decisively for Romney.    Silver’s model takes the history of polling accuracy into account, the models favoring Romney look at how history guides understanding who is truly likely to vote.

In short, it all comes down to voter turnout.    For instance, polls show Latino voter intensity to be very high this year, one poll saying 80% intend to vote.


As this graph shows, however, less than 50% of Hispanics voted in the 2008 election, a number little changed from 2004.   If Latino voter turnout actually does increase, assumptions based on the 2008 election may be wrong, and that could swing a number of states and the total vote towards Obama.    Moreover, geography matters.    The national trend may not change much, but if get out the vote efforts alter them in key swing states, that could make scenario two more likely.

But with swing state leads for Obama very small, the kind of shift that Gallup seems to envision could put states like Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina in Romney’s pocket.  It doesn’t take much.

One week from the election it comes down to a simple question of who is going to go out and vote.    Two very different election results are plausible, respected analysts have models that declare each one to be likely.   Who is right will be determined by who votes.    That’s democracy!


Be Happy Warriors!

Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey, Minnesota Senators

Hubert Humphrey was known in the Senate and as both Vice President and a Presidential contender as the “happy warrior,” someone who fought with unbounded energy and drive for equality and social justice, but without the bitterness that infects some activists.

As we near an election with the country divided, Humphrey should stand out as a model.  Whether your side wins or loses, there is no cause for bitterness.  Keep fighting for what you believe in, but not out of anger or resentment.

I like to live by what I call the “reality principle.”  Reality is what it is.   Getting mad or upset about things that can’t be changed is foolish and self-defeating.    If on November 6th President Obama is defeated my preferred candidate will have lost.   If I let that affect my mood and happiness, however, I’ll be acting irrationally.  I can’t give the American electorate power over my personal sense of happiness.

At base, the reality principle is simple (my version of it, not Freud’s!)   Adapt to reality.    Accept the world as it is, and don’t let the world’s injustices and problems cause personal pain and dismay.   Instead, observe with equanimity what the world offers, work hard to change what you think is wrong, and don’t get angry or upset by the things beyond your capacity to change.   Those must be accepted.

Intense negativity in campaign ads help convince people that their side is goodness and light and the other side is evil and darkness

For many activists and believers of social justice, this is very, very hard to do.   One sees a world with a $30 billion sex trade industry with young girls having their lives ripped apart by evil pimps who want to use them simply to make money.   We see children being turned to warriors fighting conflicts in Africa, often having their arms scrapped open so cocaine can be rubbed directly into their bloodstream.    On the African continent nearly half the children are chronically malnourished, with little likelihood of a prosperous future.

Meanwhile we live in material opulence, taking for granted a level of comfort and ease that surpasses what most people have enjoyed throughout human history.   Even the poor live with a level of convenience and plenty that most of the world and most people throughout time lack.   Wicked men and women play with lives in order to try to control oil, resources and vast corporate empires, feeding their own psychological pathologies at the expense of others.   Many people simply partake in mindless distractions, oblivious to the good they could or should be doing.

Given all of that, the relative importance of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is elected President next week seems diminished.   Moreover, the next election cycle comes in 2014 and then for President in 2016.    The game continues to be played.

Yet many on the left and right view the election through emotional partisan lenses, absolutely convinced that the election of the ‘other guy’ would be devastating for the country.    Mitt Romney made the absurd statement that if Barack Obama is elected he would guarantee that America’s best days are behind us.    The Obama campaign states Romney’s plans will drive the US back into the economic abyss.    The reality is that each will have to compromise with the other side to get anything done.   Obama has proven himself a centrist establishment Democrat while Romney is by all accounts a centrist establishment Republican.   The world will not drift towards destruction if either one of them is elected.

Linus’ philosophy is one way to escape letting reality have power over your happiness, but Humphrey’s approach probably brings more satisfaction!

Don’t get me wrong!  I’m not downplaying the importance of the election.   If Al Gore had gotten 600  more votes in Florida in 2000 we may not have gone to war in Iraq and might not have had exploding deficits in the 00’s.    We don’t know.   Perhaps the real estate bubble wouldn’t have happened and we’d be much better off economically – elections can make a big difference.   We’ll never know for sure what would be different – one could argue we’d be worse off without the Iraq war – but elections matter.

Yet once the election is over, that’s reality.    It should not cause anger, despair or resentment.  Reality is as it is, it has to be accepted.   Instead, following Humphrey, people who take the issues seriously should throw themselves in to doing whatever they can to promote their cause.   Not out cynical bitterness but as “happy warriors,” delighted that they have the opportunity to participate in trying to make the world a better place, recognizing that small actions can have huge long term ripple effects.

Success is not defined by achieving the ideal world, but by moving a little closer to it in the course of ones’ life.   The results of our acts are not visible to us.   We have to have faith that if we act on good will and give our effort into creating a better world we do make a difference.   We don’t need to see results or know the future to validate that faith.   We need to recognize that it’s how the world works.

The women’s suffrage movement fought long and hard, with many political defeats and setbacks. Now, of course, their victory appears to have been inevitable.

So my hope is that people work hard to support the causes and people they think will make choices to improve the country and build a better future.   Those efforts are more important than who wins or loses on election day, and our work to build a better future cannot be tied to election cycles.     But we should never give others in the world power over our own happiness.

To much to ask?   Well, when reality really hits hard we often need time to grieve.  Go through the stages of grief, but don’t wallow there.   It’s not a fun place to be.

Hubert Humphrey lost a very close election in 1968, and his record as Vice President was marred by the Vietnam war.   Yet he never gave into bitterness or anger, got along with folk on both sides of the aisle, and remains a political icon.  Even those who disagree with his principles respect his energy, integrity and ability to be a ‘happy warrior.’    Ultimately that brings more satisfaction than giving in to the bile and anger that too often infects American politics.


RAND vs. Gallup

RAND’s trend lines show Obama’s lead outside the margin of error (which is the grey area) at 95% confidence.

On October 27 RAND showed Obama up in the race for the Presidency by six points, 50.93% to 44.58%.   Since the second debate Obama has increased his lead dramatically.   If RAND is right, Obama is home free.

On that same day Gallup, the granddaddy of  all Pollsters, showed Romney up among likely voters 51% to 46%.    The race is tied among registered voters at 48% to 48%.

All other things being equal, it would be tempting to simply say that Gallup should be trusted.   As I’ll describe later, RAND is using a very different methodology than traditional pollsters, and the default conclusion is that RAND’s result is so off from other polls because of this methodological quirk.

Like Gallup, Rasmussen shows Romney opening up a true lead

There are two reasons I’m not going that route.   One is bias.  I support President Obama and if Gallup is right then the race is essentially over, Romney wins.   Yes, one can lose the popular vote and win the electoral college, but a 5% popular vote loss is too big a hurdle.  If Romney is ahead by that much, he’ll win enough states to coast to victory.

The second is that Gallup is as much an outlier as RAND.    While Rasmussen also shows Romney with a large lead (four points), most polls show the race even or trending slightly Obama.   IBD/TIPP has Obama up two, with a stable lead.   Reuters also shows Obama up two, while PPP has the race tied.   Moreover state polling shows consistent leads for Obama.  The leads are smaller for Rasmussen than other pollsters, but there is no way those state polls can be accurate if Gallup is right.   So there are objective reasons to doubt Gallup’s numbers.  (Whew!)

RAND’s “American Life Panel” is unique among polling operations this election cycle — I don’t know if this approach has ever been tried with so much time and effort.    From their website:

“Since July 5, 3,500 participants in the RAND American Life Panel (all U.S. citizens over the age of 18) have been invited to answer three questions every week:

  1. What is the percent chance that you will vote in the Presidential election?
  2. What is the percent chance that you will vote for Obama, Romney, someone else?
  3. What is the percent chance that Obama, Romney, someone else will win?”

Simply, they are not polling a new random sample every night, but keeping the same 3500 participants for the duration. They don’t screen them to see if they are likely voters, or even assign them to one or the other candidate.  They weigh their votes and likelihood of voting according to how they answer the questions.   500 are invited to participate every day on line, so each day’s result is from the previous seven days.  They weigh the results to match the demographics of likely voters.

There are reasons why this method might favor Obama, though Romney did hold the lead in July and early September.  All participants have internet connections, meaning that it could be pulling in more professionals than working class folk, especially among the white population.

Beyond that, people are also likely to self-report a higher likelihood of voting if they’re allowed to choose a probability.   Someone who probably won’t vote might say there’s a sixty percent chance that they will.   Independents may be more willing to split their preferences (e.g. 55% Romney 45% Obama) even though in a traditional poll when forced to choose they would pick who they’ll eventually vote for.    Using percentages given by the participants themselves may yield funky data.

RAND of course knows this, but points to benefits of this approach.   It should better capture trends, and may give real hints as to what the middle — undecideds or soft supporters of either candidate — are going to do.   If the numbers aren’t accurate at least the trend lines should be.

Only one poll really counts – and on Saturday Florida early voters got started on that one!

Gallup, on the other hand, uses traditional methods, but they’ve had their share of problems in the past.   In previous years Gallup’s tracking polls have shown rapid swings and have at times given unbelievable results.    Nate Silver analyzed this and suggests that the likely voter screen is the reason they are so far from the pack.   Gallup may be overly sensitive to enthusiasm or screening in a way that under counts support for Obama.   Gallup counters by noting they do weigh by demographic factors in their final numbers, expecting the 2012 voting population to be much like 2008.

There are other concerns about national polls — how geographically diverse is their sample?   If they over sample the South or the Midwest, voters of all demographic groups are more likely to be supporting Romney.   Gallup doesn’t give full answers, but insists their data and their likely voter screen is solid.    Gallup’s numbers have been more stable this election cycle, in part because they use a seven day rolling average.

Yet between the two are “the rest” – the majority of polls that show the race tied.   Then there are the swing state polls that show Obama’s leads stable, if smaller than last month.  The trend lines in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina — states that Romney needs — look better for Obama than for Romney.

So what to make of all this?   Nate Silver has Obama’s odds of winning at about 75%.    Intrade’s traders put Obama’s odds at 63%.   Average poll trends in the swing states show Obama improving on lows before the third debate.

Predictwise spiked abit for Romney on the 24th, but since then has drifted in favor of Obama

In ten days we’ll know a lot more!   My own view is that RAND probably overstates Obama’s edge because if these 3500 people are polled every week, they are likely motivated to pay more attention to the race.    I won’t speculate on why doing that would help Obama, but it is the kind of factor that RAND can’t control for.   On the other hand, it’s feasible that the trend lines RAND shows could be accurate for undecided or “soft” support.   If that’s true, Obama may be leading by more than most people realize.

Still, Gallup may be right.   If the poll stays stable and Romney rolls to a surprising victory, then Gallup has the last laugh.  Romney supporters can’t count on that, but it’s better to be up five in Gallup than down.   However, I suspect Gallup’s methodology is generating poll results that inflate Romney’s lead.   They are not only an outlier (though joined recently by Rasmussen), but they have been an outlier for over a week, suggesting this is systemic rather than the result of funky data.

For now the good news is that partisans of each candidate have some polls to give them comfort in the emotional dash to the finish.   After all, if your guy is going to lose, it’s more fun to enjoy the last days  of the campaign believing he’ll win.


Remembering Obama vs. McCain

Four years ago McCain was the only Presidential candidate with gray hair

I started this blog “World in Motion” back in May 2008, with my first blog post about comparing cyclone Nargis with hurricane Katrina.   That meant I was blogging through fall election campaign so I decided to look back at how I was describing the last days of that campaign.

Some posts were light.   The world series was going on, and it reminded me that in 1980 I was rooting for the Phillies and put a big “Tug McGraw for President” sign on my door (he was the relief pitching ace for the Phillies, if you never heard of him).   2008 felt a lot like 1980, Americans were ready for a change.

Tug McGraw and the Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals in 1980

I didn’t keep track of all the polls, but exactly 11 days before the election I wrote about the polls which showed a clear lead by Obama over McCain, usually by 4 to 6 points.  A few polls had a double digit lead, and IBD/TIPP showed Obama up only one.   The state polls had comfortable leads for Obama, though one (Strategic Vision) had McCain up in a couple swing states and in striking distance of others.   That company still exists, but focuses on marketing.   It was one of those partisan polls that tried to make the race seem closer than it was.

On October 27th I wrote about “Democratic Gloom and Angst,” about how Democrats were convinced that negative tactics and dirty tricks in the waning days of the campaign might give the election to McCain, here’s part:

“Moreover, many are convinced that the negativity will be ratcheted up, perhaps with new video from Rev. Wright, or some false but yet believable rumor that will be pushed out at the end of the campaign, without Obama having time to effectively respond.  It doesn’t have to change the whole dynamic, just win enough votes to win the “red” states they need on November 4th.  Indeed, some are convinced that the faked attack on a McCain worker, who claimed a black man attacked her and carved a “B” in her face, was part of some kind of dirty trick.  She’s from Pennsylvania, the state McCain hopes to flip by scaring those in the western part of the state to think Obama is too strange and risky.  Even if they don’t like McCain, perhaps they can be persuaded not to vote for Obama.”

Although Obama cruised to an easy victory in 2008, supporters were nervous up until the end

In hindsight that election looks like it was an easy victory for Obama – a country in economic turmoil with a young candidate promising hope and chance alongside an old out of touch McCain.   At the time, it didn’t feel like a sure thing to most people.    I also had a post about early voting and the ground game, which hit on some of the same themes I wrote about yesterday.

I’d forgotten one post “Desperation Breeds Stupidity,” bemoaning the fact Elizabeth Dole, a woman I’ve always admired, had an ad attacking her opponent Kay Hagan, an elder in the Presbyterian church and a Sunday School teacher:

“In the ad a tough narrator notes that Kay Hagan held a fundraiser that was ‘hosted by the Godless Americans PAC,’ showing clips of people from that group calling for God to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and from money, and in general dissing religion.  ‘What did she promise them’ in exchange for the fundraising, the ad asks.  It ends with a close up of Kay Hagan and a voice saying ‘There is no God!'”

Kay Hagen sworn in as North Carolina’s Junior Senator

It didn’t work, North Carolina’s junior Senator is now Kay Hagan.

On the weekend before the election I had a post “Is McCain Surging?”  The Drudge Report and right leaning media tried to create the sense that the race was tightening and McCain might pull it off:

“To look at the Drudge Report, you’d think McCain has been steadily inching closer to Barack Obama, and is within striking distance of taking the popular vote lead and running the sweep of toss up states necessary to come from behind and win the election.  Last week it was a “shock Gallup poll” which showed the two within two points using the ‘traditional model’ for likely voters.  By Sunday it was a ten point race in that group again.  But no matter, Rasmussen showed it narrow to three points, so that was cited — well within the margin of error!  Alas, it expanded back to five points, and Rasmussen declares the race “remarkably stable” with Obama at about an 85% chance for victory.

Then it was the IBD/TIPP poll which has always showed a tighter race.  And finally on early Saturday morning Drudge screamed out that ‘McCain leads in overnight polling!’  Wow!  He must be zooming back.  For the Obama fans, this is their worst case scenario, another defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, an unexpected comeback.  For the McCain faithful this plus slightly tightening polls in Pennsylvania and Ohio shows that their come back scenario is on track — they can do it!”

Watching the current race, which is much much closer, I’m reminded how hindsight has 2020 vision.   Now it appears as if after September 15th when McCain suspended his campaign and then seemed to flail around helplessly in trying to respond to the economic crisis, Obama was a sure thing.   Nobody is talking about the “Bradley” effect this year.   That was a big deal in 2008, a belief that people tell pollsters they’ll vote for Obama because they don’t want to appear racist.  That led many on the right to discount Obama’s lead, sort of like the  “skewed polls” this year.

This year is much different.   The election is closer, the dynamic is uncertain.   Yet a lot remains the same – polls give information but can be used to mislead.  The Drudge Report often seems to be occupying an alternate universe.   And it’ll be an intense final days with rumors, hopes and fears on all sides causing partisans to experience a full range of emotions.   Get ready for the ride!

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The Ground Game!

A different kind of ground game, but without Adrian Peterson the Vikes wouldn’t be 5-2

One wild card in this unique and exciting election campaign is the Obama ground game.    As Huffington Post columnist Paul Blumenthal notes, Obama’s ground game effort is unprecedented.   They are spending four times as much money in swing states than the Romney camp, with that many more offices and paid staff.   Already in states like North Carolina this is yielding high vote totals — levels which might not register in polls that screen likely voters.

In the swing states alone Obama and the Democrats are spending as much on the ground game as entire campaigns used to cost thirty years ago.  Will it work?

If it does, this could change the way politics operate.   Rather than focusing primarily on ads and big picture messaging, campaigns will delve more into social media, GOTV and the building of local grass roots networks to try to enhance voter turnout.

There is reason for Democrats to feel optimistic.   A study in 2009 showed that the Obama ground game flipped three states in 2008:  Florida, Indiana and North Carolina.    They made a difference everywhere, but in other states Obama’s lead was great enough that the ground game wasn’t the cause of victory.   The study tries to control for Obama’s overall popularity, an increase in minority voting, and other things that were happening even without the ground game.

Beyond that, Obama’s efforts have intensified even as reported Democratic enthusiasm has waned — very little can match the emotion of the 2008 campaign.    In 2008 the ground game ultimately got under emphasized because Obama’s win was decisive.   This year the ground game could decide the race.

It’s hard to make sense of early and incomplete data, but the Democrats seem to be doing well in early voting in Ohio (this graph through 10-24)

Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, states that Romney needs to win, all have early voting systems that benefit Obama’s ground game.   In Ohio and Florida early voting has been limited compared to 2008, though not as much as the GOP Governors and legislatures sought.    The reason, of course, was to try to blunt this Democratic advantage.  In Ohio there were efforts to cut the hours of early voting in Democratic districts while expanding them in Republican ones, as well as to limit early voting on the last weekend to the military only.    The US Supreme Court denied the latter effort, and the Secretary of State was shamed into abandoning the former.

Florida decreased the number of days for early voting and eliminated voting the Sunday before election day.   Black churches tended to bus people to the polls that day, enhancing minority turnout.    Florida’s changes led to court challenges and ultimately a deal was reached.

Five counties governed by the Voting Rights Act have been told they must have the maximum of 96 hours over eight consecutive days.   Other counties have chosen between 62 total hours the maximum of 96.   Early voting will take place from Saturday October 27 to Saturday November 3rd.    Florida also allows for mail in early voting, and there has been a lot of activity on that front.

Florida Governor Rick Scott tried to reduce early voting in order to counter Obama’s ground game – the Courts limited the impact of those efforts.

States like Colorado, Iowa and Nevada will be good tests of the ground game.   All three states have early voting for anyone who desires it.  In Colorado it starts 15 days before the election and ends on election day.   In Nevada and Iowa days and times vary by county, but in each state well over half the votes are cast early.

All of this makes the ground game potentially an enormous factor in the outcome.   There is more time to contact people, and those less enthused or likely to vote on election day may yield to the pressure (or embrace the convenience) of early voting.

The air war – in football the passing game, in politics the TV ads – get most of the attention and generate the most excitement. But without a ground game, the impact may be limited.

No one is sure if this will be worth all the money and effort.   Perhaps spending four times as much as the GOP will yield only modest returns.   So going into the election I pose three hypotheses:

1)   Obama’s ground game will be decisive in all close states, even those without early voting.   If Obama wins in states without no excuse early voting, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan and New Hamsphire, this hypothesis is supported.   I’ll compare polls near the election with actual results; if Obama out performs the polls, that’s a sign that early voting made a difference.

2)  Obama’s ground game will be very effective in states with early voting.   If Obama is successful in states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and even Arizona, that will be a sign that a strong GOTV effort has a real impact on early voting.    If polls in states like North Carolina and Colorado show Obama behind but he pulls it out, that’ll be very strong evidence.    If he pulls off a surprise in a state like Arizona or others expected to go red but have extensive early voting, that will be very strong evidence for the efficacy of the ground game in states with early voting.

3)  Obama’s ground game will make no difference.   If voter turn out is down, especially among Democrats and demographics targeted by Obama’s GOTV efforts, his ground game will have failed.

If Obama ends up winning decisively and carrying states that people expect to go red like North Carolina, expect the Democrats to make an intensive ground came a core part of their strategy.  After all their voters are historically less dependable than are Republicans, a mix of early voting and a strong ground game might shift electoral dynamics.    The GOP may have less to gain, but if they’re beaten on the ground expect them to not make the same mistake again.



A Romney Romp?

Romney’s team is claiming he has a sustainable permanent lead and that his horrible debate performance actually helped him!

Go to the right side of the blogosphere and you’ll find Romney supporters convinced that they are not only clearly on their way to victory, but expect a blowout.   Despite the conventional wisdom that the race is neck and neck and the next two weeks will be exciting, they say it’s all but over.   The claim is straight forward:  the first debate changed the fundamental dynamics of the race and once Romney was deemed “acceptable,” he’s moved into a slight lead.   Since late deciders almost always go to the challenger, he’s going to pad that lead going into the election and have a surprisingly easy victory.

It’s tempting to do just dismiss such talk as bravado or wishful thinking.   After all, Obama supporters like myself got fooled in September into thinking that Obama was cruising to a crushing defeat of a candidate who couldn’t do anything right.  Moreover the level of bluster has increased dramatically in the wake of the third debate, one which saw President Obama pretty soundly defeat Mitt Romney according to all post-debate polls.   Indeed, the margin of victory was such that it seemed an inverse of the first debate, with Mitt Romney subdued and lethargic while Obama was energetic and on target.    This looks like a brave attempt to try to push back against a backlash favoring Obama after that debate.

Yet their theory is plausible.  Is it likely to be accurate?

Assumptions:  The argument and assumptions they make are straight forward:  1)  Mitt Romney now has both the momentum and the lead; 2) late deciders will break overwhelmingly for the challenger; and 3) it is too late for anything to upset the dynamic of the race.

Does Mitt Romney have a clear lead and momentum?:  If you look at state and national polls the answer is no.    Since the second debate polls have been rather stagnate, with Romney slightly ahead in an average of national polls, but still behind in most of the swing states.    It appears the race has tightened with no one clearly ahead.  Remember, when there is a margin of error of 3.5%, polls showing a one point lead or a candidate one point down are essentially tied.

Despite all the hype, the most sophisticated forecasts still show Obama as the favorite

Still, if one cherry picks a couple of polls (like Gallup and the recent movement in Rasmussen to put Romney up four), and adds to that the fact that more polls show a slight Romney lead than before, one can’t dismiss the possibility that Romney has momentum, though it certainly isn’t strong.   So for assumption one: unlikely, but possible.

2) Late deciders will overwhelmingly break for Romney:   There are two problems with this assumption.  First, it’s not clear how many late deciders exist!   Still, there are 3 to 5% who aren’t for either candidate in most polls, and if those broke overwhelmingly for Romney that could be enough to push him over the top in the popular vote, as well as in important swing states like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The second problem is more esoteric.   Political junkies like to deal in generalities.   Late deciders go to the challenger, no  President since Roosevelt has won re-election with unemployment over 7.4%, and debates don’t change the trajectory of a race.   Yet there are so few Presidential races in modern history that it’s hard to read too much into any generalization.  Maybe late deciders usually break for the challenger, but in a race as tight and hard fought as this, it’s not clear they will.  Just as the debates did seem to change the trajectory of the campaign, heuristics may be poor guides in predicting what will happen.

Assumption two:  possibly true, but this election is unique, we don’t know.

3)  It is too late for the President to recapture the momentum.   This is the weakest assumption.   The debate that just concluded Monday has a real chance to move the numbers.   After debate one soft Obama support shifted to Romney.   Much of that is now soft Romney support.  If some shifts back to Obama it could make a big difference and essentially assure Obama of a winning electoral map.

Obama could still get a real bounce from his third debate performance

Beyond that is the impact of early voting and the Obama ground game.   Obama’s network is more extensive than in 2008.   This has to be what worries Republicans the most.   The goal of get out the vote (GOTV) efforts is to get unlikely voters to the polls (as well as assuring likely voters do vote).   The Democrats have always been dogged by the fact that their supporters don’t vote with the same regularity as do Republicans.   That’s why registered voter polls tend to show a decent Obama lead.  If team Obama can execute a winning ground game that could push the election further in their favor, especially in the swing states.

Moreover, in two weeks there can be small and large things that create slight shifts.   There are a number of “soft supporters” for Romney, the idea they can’t break back for Obama is simply wrong.   So while time is short, assumption three is weak.

The Romney campaign has always tried to create a sense of inevitability that they’d win — in the summer they worked hard to try to define Obama as a “failed President.”  It didn’t take.   Yet this has been part and parcel of their strategy since the primaries – exuding confidence that they’re cruising and the other side is choking.   It’s not surprising this is the spin coming out of debate three, especially after Romney fared so poorly.

How effective will Obama’s ground game be?

Many Romney supporters truly believe this.   What they’ve done is take a plausible scenario and in their mind make it likely, even near certain.   I can sympathize.   I did the same last month when it appeared Obama was cruising to victory. Obama supporters were wrong then, Romney supporters might be wrong now.

After all, most objective analyses show the polls tight and give Obama a slight edge in the swing states.  Add that to a commanding debate performance and it’s hard to conclude that the race is anywhere close to over.   Two weeks is a life time in politics, anything can happen.

If in the next few days the polls shift more to Romney, or Obama gets no bump from the debate, the “Romney romps” scenario becomes more likely.    Note that the tracking polls will take awhile to register an Obama bump — especially the seven day ones like Gallup.    RAND is an interesting poll to watch for trends.   The state polls will be key, especially Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and Florida.    Also watch for news on early voting and the Obama ground game.  It’s hard to judge what’s happening, but there might be hints.

To be sure, Romney’s supporters may be right, and by November 6th the polls could have swung decisively in his favor, even in the swing states.   In two weeks instead of celebrating, Democrats might be planning the fight for 2014 with a renewed urgency.    But the effort to exude Romney inevitability is bravado and bluster, it’s still too early to know for sure.  We still have a long way to go.

UPDATE:  An added tidbit – Ezra Klein of the Washington Posts note that traders have been putting massive Romney bets in intrade to try to manipulate the market and make it appear Romney is rising.   Usually those upswings are short term as real investors recognize the chance for some ‘easy money’ off the manipulators.


Who’s Ahead?

Secretariat races to victory in the 1973 Kentucky Derby

So how’s is the Presidential campaign going?    Is Romney like Secretariat, coming up fast from the back to race past and leave Obama in the dust, or is Obama like a pennant winning baseball team recovering from a nine game losing streak and holding ground.   I know some readers HATE sports metaphors about a decision so important to the lives of real people.   I apologize, but campaigns are contests, and the strategies and dynamics behind them can be fascinating.

The race for the Presidency has gotten hyper-confusing for those who watch polls and try to make sense of the shifting trends.   Supporters of Governor Romney look at narrow  leads in national polls and very close state polls to conclude that their man has the momentum and the race has turned in their favor.    Some hope that this continues and Romney wins in a romp.

Obama supporters, who last month saw polls that made the race seem all but over, are clearly spooked.   Having the lead and losing it is emotionally more draining than being behind and catching up.    They take solace in the fact that Obama still tends to lead swing state polls and his path to victory seems wider than Romney’s.

The best news for Romney’s people comes from Gallup, whose tracking poll has shown Mitt holding a six or seven point lead for half a week.   Obama backers take solace in the numbers at   Long a favorite of free market conservatives, it’s a market where people bet on who will win.  Right now the  money is on Obama, giving him a 60% chance of victory – and intrade has a strong track record.

At some level the chaos of the current state of the race is a function of being right in the middle of it, with new polls every day and debates every week.   Stepping back, the race can be seen as actually rather stable.

The two spent the summer where they are now – virtually tied.   President Obama then had a very good September as the Democratic convention’s optimism and excitement combined with the infamous “47% tape” from Romney to give Obama a clear lead by late September.

Yet Obama’s lead was fragile.  It depended on the public having an extremely low opinion of Mitt Romney.   This actually worked in Romney’s favor in the first debate.   He shifted to the center and appeared not at all like the man in the 47% video.   Moreover, the election was being recast about the economy and the future, the 47% thing looked like a petty “gotcha” moment.   The race returned to where it had been – the two neck and neck.

So where are we now?

Rasmussen’s chart shows that despite twists and turns, the race has remained essentially very close

National polls show Romney with a slight lead.   Today most polling shows Romney up 2 or 3 points.   In an election this close those numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt.   Shifts of four or five points are common simply due to the nature of polling.     After all, if Gallup is kind to Romney, IBD/TIPP is being kind to Obama.    Swing state polls still seem to lean slightly towards Obama.

So far Obama looks to be holding a slight lead in the toss up states needed by each side for victory

Polls give limited information.    Not only are they “snapshots,” but methodology matters, especially in a race this close.   Pollsters try to discern likely voters from registered voters.   Each polling company has a screen, some (like Gallup) are more intense than others.    If the questions and data used to determine who is likely to vote are off base, then the poll results will be off.     Moreover, the full impact of the get out the vote (GOTV) efforts and early voting are unclear.

Consider:  President Obama’s campaign has massively invested in building a get out of the vote effort that dwarfs even their 2008 ground game.   Republicans haven’t gone beyond their usual efforts.  Does that matter?  That’s a big if in this election.   If it turns out that the polls understate Obama’s share of the vote, that will be strong evidence that Obama’s ground game worked.  If not, then one has to question how effective intensive get out the vote efforts might be.

What about claims that Rasmussen and other Republican leaning pollsters are creating an illusion of a Romney resurgence?   That is only partially borne out by the evidence.   Here is the swing state (major) polling since October 14th.  The first column does not include Rasmussen, Gravis or We ask America.   The second does.    In Colorado, Virginia and Florida the additional polls do cause swing towards Romney.   I have two listings for Florida, the second removes a Zogby poll that had Obama + 6.

State – W/o GOP polls, all polls
Pennsylvania:  Obama + 5, Obama + 5
Ohio:  Obama + 2.3, Obama + 2.1
Wisconsin:  Obama + 3.5, Obama + 3
Colorado:  Obama + 3, tie
Nevada:  Obama + 3, Obama + 3
Virginia:  Obama + 1, Romney + 1
Florida:  Obama + 1.2, tie (slight edge to Romney)
Florida without Zogby:  Romney +0.5, Romney +1.2
Iowa:  Obama + 2, Obama + 1.8
New Hampshire:  tie, tie*

* One after I posted this, a New Hampshire poll from WMUR came out with Obama up 9.  The polls are all over the place.  I keep track of the polls I follow here.

However, the national polls have been trending towards Romney in recent days, including the ones that show Obama with a lead.   Since trends affect all states, this could indicate that the swing states will tighten up more or shift to Romney.   Moreover, when races are within a few points of each other, all poll numbers have to be seen as fallible.

So, who’s ahead?

1.  Obama is clinging to a narrow lead, especially in the important swing states;
2.  Romney seems to still have some momentum, though the race has stabilized;
3.  Get out the vote efforts and turnout will make a difference in very close states; and
4.  The next two weeks will be really intense!


Vote Early?

I like to vote on election day.   Here in rural Maine not only is there never a line, but local candidates are outside the polling center to shake hands and chat (but not campaign), and there is real community spirit.

Voting, after all, is not a rational act.   Rational action means one calculates the expected utility (positive outcome) of a choice.   In the case of voting the time lost, gas used, and effort undertaken is almost certain to be more than the very unlikely possibility that ones’ vote will determine the outcome of an election.   In terms of pure rationality, you’re better off not voting.

Voting instead should be seen as a duty, a moral obligation to our democratic community.  It is a collective good – it may not be in any one person’s rational self-interest to go vote, but it’s in our collective interest to have everyone vote.    People who feel connected to a community are more likely to vote as they recognize it as a task we undertake in order to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

The problem is compounded in cities and urban areas where voter can stand in line for hours.   Not only does this make voting seem completely irrational, but not everyone has hours to sacrifice – a single mom who works and then has to take care of small children may be unable to take the time, for example.

Thus the rise of early voting.   States have always had absentee ballots for those who couldn’t vote on election day.   That later evolved into “no excuse” absentee ballots and in person early voting.   This has grown rapidly since the 2004 election.  That year Ohio decided the election for President Bush, and the state was dogged by long voting lines which arguably dissuaded some people from voting.

The states in blue allow no-excuse early voting either by mail in or in person ballot.  The purple states are in person only, while the green ones are mail in only.   The grey states have no ‘no excuse’ early voting.   Is this a good thing?

Here in Maine early voting may have determined an election in 2010.   In a three way race for governor, early polls showed Democrat Libby Mitchell in a tough campaign against Paul LePage, a tea party Republican who narrowly won a plurality in a field of six Republican primary candidates.    Independent Elliot Cutler was third when early voting started.  Mitchell’s campaign plummeted after that and the result was:  Le Page 218,065, Cutler 208,270 and Mitchell 109,387.

The Democrats had an extensive get out the vote effort and many are convinced that Mitchell had at least 10,000 ‘early votes’ that would have gone to Cutler if people had waited and seen Mitchell’s campaign collapse.   Some vowed never to vote early again!

Some claim that early voting helped bring tea party favorite Paul LePage to the Governor’s mansion in Maine

That is probably an exception, and may not even have determined the result.   10,000 is a lot of votes, about a quarter of the total early votes.

Some dislike early voting because they believe people should pay attention to the campaign and be willing to change their minds up until the end.   That is idealistic, but most of the early voters are not going to change their mind.   Indeed, probably over 90% of voters are still where they were in their preferences half a year ago.   The Maine case noted above wasn’t so much a change in preference but of strategy – they wanted to stop Le Page.

Others note that early voting benefits the campaign with the best get out the vote effort.   GOTV efforts used to focus on election day, now campaigns can cajole voters to fill out absentees or go in to vote early.   This is especially important in swing states like Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Colorado.    This year it appears Obama’s GOTV operation is stronger than Romney’s, but it’s hard to tell.

The fact is that this year about a third of voters are expected to vote early, and in states like Colorado and Nevada it can be well over half the voters.    Republicans have tried to limit early voting out of a belief that it is more likely to increase the turn out of groups that traditionally don’t vote in high numbers like blacks, Latinos or the poor.   Since these groups are also more likely to vote Democratic, they believe that early voting helps Democrats.

Efforts to demand voter ID and limit early voting are seen by critics as Republican efforts to block the vote of those more likely to vote Democratic

While I prefer to vote on election day, I support early voting.   I support it because of the fact it just might bring out poor and minority voters who traditionally don’t vote.

Someone who votes is more likely to take responsibility and work to build a better community.    If you care about an election, you may become more likely to care about your neighborhood.  If you care about your community, you might be more likely to make extra efforts to improve your life situation, help your children achieve more, and move out of poverty.

Idealistic?  Perhaps.   But critics of social welfare programs argue that they create psychological dependency, whereby a chunk of those on welfare find it easier to feel like victims and just live off others.   Not 47% by any means, but there are some.   Still others may not be that far gone but yet feel alienated and powerless.   These are curable conditions.   They may result from poverty, but they also increase the likelihood poverty will become permanent.

There could be much more done to address this issue.   Social welfare programs should be less the mailing out of checks and more in the realm of community action.   Community organizers should be the key line of defense against poverty, not bureaucracies in Washington.   Real reform could help make the safety net also a ladder out of poverty.

Voting can’t do all that, but perhaps it’s like a gateway drug, creating a connection between the individual and the community.   That can be built upon.   So if early voting brings out more voters, especially people who have felt alienated and outside the community, then it is a good thing.

Still, I’ll be at the community center on November 6th (not the 7th – thanks Sarah, for catching that!), enjoying the ritual of voting in person on election day!


Venice in Pop Culture

And now for something completely different.   Here’s a sample new blog I just started focused on the upcoming travel course to Italy that we’re offering next May.

Venice in Pop Culture.

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A Clarifying Debate

The two shake hands before their second debate, moderated by Candy Crowley of CNN

It was a spirited debate, it was a pointed debate.   By all accounts President Obama won, but it was neither a game changer nor a an overwhelming victory.    Moreover, the debate clarified the core issues at stake in the race, which is precisely what these debates are supposed to do.

In the first debate, I claimed Romney won not so much because Obama was listless and uninspired, but because Romney shifted dramatically to the center, jettisoning positions and rhetoric from the primary campaign.    Surprisingly, he did little of that last night.   In retrospect, that’s probably good — he has already shed the image of being an uncaring plutocrat, too much shape shifting would make him less credible to all sides.

Both men made strong arguments but left work undone.

Governor Romney powerfully argued that Obama’s job performance doesn’t deserve having him re-election.   He went through a litany of promises Obama made four years ago to show that the President hasn’t done what he set out to do.  Yet Romney hasn’t sold people on thinking he would do better.   The “I know how to make an economy work” line is vague and hollow.     He remains vulnerable on his lack of specifics and the ease in which the President can claim he’ll return to the “policies that brought us here.”

President Obama made a strong case for his plan moving forward, and in raising questions about whether we can trust Romney to do what he claims he will.  However, he needs to convince people that given the depth of the global economic crisis what he’s achieved reflects success rather than failure.   He also needs to clarify why and how his plans will work moving forward.

There was plenty of finger pointing last night as the two went after each other!

The “gotcha” issues are actually hurting the one who makes the gotcha argument.   Obama’s bit about Romney’s 47% seemed hollow.   That’s old news, and any damage done has been registered.   Ironically it gives Romney a chance to reaffirm his commitment to all Americans in a manner good enough for most voters.   The Democrats should drop the 47% as an explicit campaign theme and make it more subtle.

Similarly Republican efforts to create a scandal around unclear story lines in the 9-11 Libya attacks gave Obama his best moment in the debate.   He could look Presidential, scold Romney for trying to score cheap partisan points and in the process, well, score partisan points!   The President took responsibility, talked about the emotion behind losing a diplomat in such an attack, and came off very well.

As with the 47%, the Republicans should drop Libya — it makes them look petty.   And if you don’t believe me, watch the CNN grid that measured audience reaction to the two.   Obama got his highest level of positive reaction when discussing Libya while Romney tanked.   Romney got high levels of positive reactions when he talked of how he cares for all Americans, Obama’s level went down when he brought up the 47%.

CNN’s bottom grid reporting reactions of a select group of undecided voters (green = men, yellow = women) is intriguing.

Simply, this is not a race about gotcha games any more.   The voters are turning to fundamental questions about what direction the country should take in the future.

Despite the noise and theatrics that have dominated discussion over the last few weeks, the debate brought the core issues into focus.   Despite the scripting of messages, the two men responded to each other and weren’t afraid to mix it up.   They spared on Obamacare.   Romney was weakest when talking about women’s issues — giving a woman flexibility so she can “go home and make dinner” sounds like the old insensitive Romney (and ‘women in binders’ is going viral).

Not a gaffe, but it could feed into his reputation as being out of touch

There was a lot that went unsaid.   The climate change folk are furious that an issue they think the most important to human kind isn’t getting mentioned.   Many other issues will dominate the airwaves over the next few weeks.  But the debate set up a clear choice for the voters.     That made it a good debate.