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!

  1. #1 by Jeff Fordham on October 30, 2012 - 13:32

    Ok……I am ready to bash my head against the wall………..can you let me know when its over? I appreciate the analysis but am up to my gills in data. I trust Silver since he seems to work in a logical way and has a decent track record……………so far. Nothing surprises me though in America anymore…….Down is up and up is down………..2+2=5 . I used to say back in the early days of the Iraq war………..that they could have a high def video of Bush and Karl Rove snorting cocaine on the oval office desk , and joking about it……and many of the deluded 40% would fight tooth and nail to say……..”thats not what they were doing”. … how functional can a democracy really be when one third of the population will deny their own eyes and ears ?

    I recently had an argument with a dear conservative friend……….a highly successful entrepreneur who is a college educated business owner who employs a number of people at his various companies . He stated to me that there is a huge transfer tax on real estate in the ACA
    (Obamacare) legislation that affects everyone at every income level.

    Knowing that this is incorrect, I proceeded to supply him with the actual section of the ACA which deals with the sale of assets and proved to him that 95% of his statement is “INCORRECT” . I then also proceeded to supply him with 2 reliable conservative sources such as Forbes and the National Review who had articles written in support of my claim that there is no such real estate tax.

    His response to me was a plain and simple……”you have no idea what Obama is going to do” as if the president can circumvent his own law thats on the books, and change whatever he wishes. This is the type of insane irrational behavior I am seeing all over the place with friends and family who profess to be “conservative” ………this is not an isolated incident. I could spend all day telling you about the crazy behavior I see from highly intelligent and successful people I know.

    You would think that anyone who harbors a modicum of intelligence would honor the truth when it comes to the facts………..and not pander to their primitive brain stem to try and assuage their irrational fears?

    I watched the video last night of Romney stating that FEMA should perhaps “be closed and the responsibility for disaster relief fall to the states” …he then said “better yet, disaster relief might be better off handed over to the private sector” …………………imagine that my fellow Americans? …..”for profit” disaster relief ! right on Mittens !

    As of today ….several conservative sources are already trying to spin the Romney comments as “not what he really means”…………..and no doubt many will buy it.

    I am beginning to ask myself…..whats the point anymore?

    • #2 by Scott Erb on October 30, 2012 - 14:22

      Romney’s got no core. He’ll say whatever it takes to get elected. The last President who was such a shape shifter was Richard Nixon (not saying Romney has all of Nixon’s faults). He now praises FEMA and says he won’t cut it. Deep down I think Obama will win, and perhaps with a better margin than people expect. Evidence about enthusiasm from Latinos and Blacks, higher voter registration and other aspects, esp. in swing states, make me optimistic. But I know I’m biased, so I wrote this in part as a check on my own “wishful thinking.” That we can have Hurricane Sandy and yet not have global climate change as a serious topic of Presidential discussion? It’s surreal.

      • #3 by Jeff Fordham on October 30, 2012 - 16:43

        I am sorry for being so negative on the topic today…..I really do appreciate your blog.

        Yes……when was the last time you saw a storm so large it stretched from Illinois to New jersey……from tennesee to Canada. Its exactly what some climatologists predicted will happen.

        Wait till you see the well off second home owners along coastal New Jersey clamoring for those juicy federal socialist bags of relief money………….because government can’t do anything right ! If Obama wins and had some balls, he’d make an issue out of it with Chris Christie next week….in a polite and courteous way of course…..In the manner of Harry S Truman.

        Why should hard core Republicans who decry government and spending ……….get the relief money they demand without being taken to the carpet on it.There are a lot of super wealthy second and third homeowners along the Jersey shore ….Wait till they ask for billions in beach replenishment money too……which they will. Its time for Obama to play hardball with these people.

    • #4 by Stella Martini on November 6, 2012 - 18:19

      I understand where you are coming from. On the Romney comment, I myself was close to tears when I found out about it as I am in NJ. The feeling of helplessness that I have experienced since last Monday was worse than when I was in the Northridge earthquake. If Romney wasn’t a threat to my reproductive rights his comment over FEMA inflamed my sense of morality and if a womans evil eye could be felt through a computer- he would have moved to another country.

  2. #5 by helenofmarlowe on October 30, 2012 - 15:00

    I keep wondering how the polls take into account the misbehavior of the voting machines in Onio and Florida, and the hundreds of thousands of legitimate voters who will be forced to use provisional ballots because of purging — that sort of thing. Do the analyses take any of this into account?

  3. #6 by helenofmarlowe on October 30, 2012 - 15:18

    PS – good discussion of this (the mis-behaving machines) in the Oct. 26 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Long article, “How to Rig an Election”

  4. #7 by lbwoodgate on October 30, 2012 - 15:26

    Here’s my thoughts. If there is no tampering with voting machines, as helenofmarlowe suggests, and some feel may be possible, especially in Ohio where the machines there are part of a company that Romney is heavily invested in, then I see Obama taking this with a 50.5% plurality and about 285 electoral votes.

    I wonder too if Gallup and others have an accurate read on the hispanic vote. Unlike 2008 the latino vote is solidly in Obama’s court this year at last count with more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.

    • #8 by Jeff Fordham on October 30, 2012 - 16:30

      yes….with he flick of a switch…..who knows what algorithmic slight of hand could be played. Eventually I see this happening anyway….as we slide into a new gilded age….but this time there are no more muckrakers with peoples interest at heart…..hell, most of the pundits we see today are “paid for” softball throwers …………after all, you don’t want to upset someones apple cart by asking real questions or challenging anyones erroneous commentary…..cause when you do that….you lose access to the asshole in question and your network doesn’t like guys who lose access.

      You know…….it kills me to see softball questions asked by tv “journalists” …who are raking in giant 6 and 7 figure salaries………and in some cases are in the very same top tier tax brackets that the said “asshole in question” is on TV trying to protect !

      Is this not a conflict of interest?

      • #9 by lbwoodgate on October 31, 2012 - 07:09

        I suspect you are right in your estimation of “journalists” today Jeff. The 4th estate is but a shell for the most part of its early 20th century self that helped bring about badly needed reform then.

  5. #10 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 30, 2012 - 18:06

    I’m sure you’re right, Scott, but the persistently close poll numbers do scare me, as does this article published today which seems to suggest that the Republicans are pitching my home state back into play.,0,2908834.story

    Backwards, Hickish and racist we may be in Pennsylvania, but overwhelmingly Republican we’re not. Philly and Pittsburgh tend to keep us civilized. I stayed up until, from what I can recall, 3 in the morning Greenwich Mean Time four years ago because PA was very late to declare and I was scared that buoyantly confident McCainers had been right to think the descendants of Penn had come out in favor of their man after all. Thought that as it was the swing state no one seems to mention it was pretty safe, but there certainly don’t seem to be any absolutes this year.

  6. #11 by thenewamericanlondoner on October 30, 2012 - 18:08

    And I suppose what also scares me is that even though we haven’t gone Republican since Bush Sr, we also haven’t gone with a loser save ’00 and ’04 in the last 10 elections.

  7. #12 by jcanti71 on October 30, 2012 - 18:14

    Great commentary in comment #1 Jeff. I feel the same way.

  8. #13 by sandy on October 30, 2012 - 22:31

    does not matter about gender or class. we are all on the same planet.. what does concern me is that most people are so willing to leave it up to someone else to determine our outcome and then bitch that it was not the outcome they were looking for,, keeping it real and close would have a huge ripple effect if those real and close were for the greater good.. Is Mitt tryin to be the 2nd African American with that spray tan or what?? History was in the making friends, we asked for a change, we got it,, don’t throw baby out with the bath water

    • #14 by Scott Erb on December 18, 2012 - 21:32

      Mitt trying to be everything to everybody seems to have been his tactic, but the spray tan had me thinking he was entering Michael Jackson territory. I half expected an androgynous Mitt to appear.

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