Thursday, September 11, 2008

the state of the race

Early on the morning of Tuesday, August 26, Gemma and I took off for almost a week of camping where we had no access to TV, the Internet or any other source of news. For a political junkie like me, it was oddly calming. Our last political fix had been Michelle Obama’s brilliant speech at the Democratic convention. (Damn, she is as good as he is.) The Clinton speeches, the much anticipated roll-call vote (a media event that seemed so big in anticipation but which proved to be a total non-event) and Obama’s big stadium finale were still ahead.

When we returned the following Sunday (already over a week ago), the Democratic convention had already been forgotten in the wake of the Sarah Palin media frenzy. Over several days I tried to get caught up – among other things, going back and watching the speeches by Hillary, Bill and Barack (all three exceeding my expectations and accomplishing exactly what they needed to accomplish). But events continued at a pace that left me feeling more overwhelmed than when we first returned. I watched the Republican convention with a sense of unfolding horror. It has been hard to write with any sense of perspective with events unfolding at that pace.

[A little non sequitur here: Generally, as I read, when I come upon an interesting fact or insight, I save the link in case I want to refer back to it later. As a narrative begins to form in my mind, I draw upon those links to write a post. Most of the links eventually get discarded unused because they don’t fit in with any particular theme – they are just random factoids. Now that I have a (extremely modest and irregular) blog, I will try to get into the habit of posting them as just that – random, amusing factoids. But over the past couple of weeks I have been overwhelmed with far too much material to even begin organizing it all into thematic narratives. So, alas, most of that accumulated material has already been discarded in favor of some more general observations on the state of the presidential race.]

Beginning with the announcement of Joe Biden as Obama’s VP pick (a good, solid choice as I noted
here), we headed into two weeks of big political events – the two VP picks and the two political conventions – with a lot of sideshows along the way. Until all those events played out the race was going to be in a state of flux with narratives changing and poll numbers of limited value. At the end of last week, the last of those events – the Republican convention – finally played itself out. The conventional wisdom is that the "convention bounce" takes until about the following Tuesday to fully manifest itself and can take weeks to completely dissipate. Heading into these last two weeks, the best predictive political Web site out there -- (the guy behind it -- Nate Silver -- is the ultimate statistical analyst in baseball who has now also turned his skills to politics), came up with a model for evaluating the likely overlapping "bounces" from the two conventions back-to-back (an unprecedented phenomenon). This is his conclusion in graphical form:

Despite having studied this graph and the methodology underlying it before the conventions, I still got sucked into an emotional roller-coaster ride over the past couple of weeks. When I returned to media access on the Sunday before the Republican convention, Obama was already enjoying a convention bounce which eventually peaked out somewhere between five and eight points. In some tracking polls he finally broke the 50 percent threshold while McCain continued in the 42 to 44 range where he had languished for months. Disregarding the convention bounce, I got sucked into believing this was finally the breakout when Obama consolidated the undecideds and locked in a statistically-meaningful, sustainable lead. The peak of the Democratic convention bounce was also a few days after the Palin VP announcement and it seemed to confirm the obvious judgment that McCain's reckless gamble on the new darling of the Christian Right had been the disaster that anyone in his or her right mind would have expected.

The last-minute, unvetted Palin pick seemed to reinforce the worst aspects of McCain's impulsive, thrill-seeking decision-making style. "I make [decisions] as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," McCain wrote, with his top adviser Mark Salter, in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."


The Republican convention, initially, confirmed my judgment. It was a small, mean gathering of angry old white people. It was a satirist's dream. Here you had Mitt Romney, the super-rich former governor of Massachusetts – the son of a governor/Fortune 500 CEO – who made his vast fortune in the leveraged-buyout business (laying off workers), denouncing “Eastern elites”. And the former mayor of NYC, who lived with a gay couple and their Shih Tzu when he was between his second and third marriages, accusing Barack Obama of thinking small towns are insufficiently “cosmopolitan”.

Whatever latent anxiety I was still feeling disappeared when I heard the "pit bull with lipstick" give her highly-anticipated speech. I thought it was HORRIBLE. Palin was once a professional sportscaster – so she can read a speech. And she was almost certainly underestimated going in, so it was a virtually certainty that she would get a certain positive spin for exceeding expectations. As the Wall Street Journal reported on the day of the speech, McCain's speechwriters (former Bush speechwriters) had written the vice presidential nominee's acceptance address the previous week, before Palin had been chosen. They had written it for a guy, so they had to frantically re-work it for delivery by a woman. I found the tone and content to be sarcastic and condescending. In my experience, those qualities are rarely effective in a political campaign, where people tend to vote based on who they like best. Those qualities are particularly ineffective when voters are still making an initial evaluation of the person exhibiting them. It is hard to pull off under the best of circumstances, but you need to have pretty high and resilient positives in the voters' minds before you can pull off sarcasm and condescension. And Palin was going in with a high level of skepticism. Of course, the crowd in the hall loved her, but they aren’t the ones McCain needed to win over.

As it turned out, my opinion of her speech seems to have been the minority view. After days of media frenzy, there was a high degree of curiosity. Some people were undoubtedly surprised that she was able to give a strong speech. No question there was a fair amount of sympathy for Palin based on the sudden media glare that her decision to accept the VP nomination inflicted on her family. And there was probably a certain thrill seeing her go on the attack with such venom and obvious enjoyment. For whatever reason, the speech was objectively a bit hit and propelled her to the kind of "celebrity" that the Republicans had been mocking all summer. More importantly, it energized the Republican party base which resulted in a shift in the narrative and a big post-convention bounce for the McCain ticket.

[For the record, I still think Palin will hurt McCain in the end. It is hard to take her seriously as a potential president of the United States and McCain's choice of her undermines both his seriousness about governing and the "experience" case against Obama. For example, a recent Rasmussen poll shows only 35% of "moderates" have a favorable opinion of Palin vs. 61% who have an unfavorable view (70% who have a favorable view of Biden). But what do I know. Heck, I can't believe the McCain/Palin ticket is even within 20% of Obama/Biden.]

The shift in the polls after the Republican convention pretty much exactly tracked what Nate Silver had predicted in the graph above (the guy is awesome). McCain almost overnight went from trailing Obama by six points or so to holding a lead of around three points. For the first time, McCain broke out of the narrow range where he had been languishing for so many weeks. Although virtually all polls reflected that shift to some degree, the variation among the different polling organizations was indicative of the instability of polling in a period when the electorate was absorbing so much new information. For many voters, this was just the beginning of the period when they begin to pay attention to the race.

[I should confess that I am not feeling as emotionally detached as this post might seem. My mood these days is probably best summarized in this two-minute version of the Coen Brother film The Big Lebowski:

But I digress.]

McCain's surge stunned me. Since last February or so I have been calmly confident that Obama would ultimately pull this off (I even had a couple of outstanding bets that he would win with at least 300 electoral votes). I still think it is more likely than not that Obama will win. But for the first time, this week I got scared. The Palin nomination should have ended the McCain candidacy. Instead, it seems to have energized and bolstered it. It was a rude reminder that we share this continent with a lot of people who just don't think like we do. Sarah Palin could be one angry, cancerous 72-year old heartbeat away from being the most powerful person on the planet? Might we actually look back and long for the days of George W. Bush (the way Bush made some of us actually miss Nixon)?

After eight years of Bush/Cheney, with the neocons and religious right ascendant, how could this country even take seriously a ticket composed of John McCain (whose love of military glory is limitless and who is advised by some of the most extreme neocons who helped get us into our current mess in Iraq) and Sarah Palin (a right-wing Christian nut who has reignited the "culture wars" that the Republicans used to win elections before their ideological incompetence became fully manifest)? Even more improbably, the McCain/Palin ticket has now been recast as "maverick reformers" who will finally bring "change" to "liberal Washington." A neocon/religious right ticket is "change"?

As Tom Shales
wrote, "It's like staging a revolution against yourself -- saying that the Republicans have got to go so the Republicans can move in and clean up the mess."

OK. So we have now emerged from the immediate aftermath of the VP picks and conventions. Day-to-day shifts in the polls will continue to reflect instability in the judgments of voters. And the McCain convention bounce, while having peaked, has not yet fully dissipated. But, as an initial matter, where do we stand?

Not good. But maybe not as bad as many Democrats fear.

As things stand today, my gold standard, Nate Silver's model at, has the probability of a McCain/Palin win of the popular vote at 52.7%. But he still has Obama winning the electoral vote by the smallest possible margin (270 to 268 -- more on the electoral vote below). That is a statistical predictive model. Polls, on the other hand, attempt to capture where things stand today. Here are a couple of the polls-of-polls on the state of the race as of today as reflected in national polls: McCain 47.1 Obama 45.1
CNN: McCain 46 Obama 45

Here are the latest from the daily tracking polls (all are three-day averages):

Gallup: McCain 48 Obama 43 (appears to be a bit of an outlier)
Rasmussen: McCain 48 Obama 48
Diego/Hotline: McCain 46 Obama 44 (for the two previous days it was tied)
Research 2000/DailyKos: Obama 47 McCain 45
InsiderAdvantage: Obama 46 McCain 46

Here are some other major national polls from the past few recent days:

GQR: McCain 48 Obama 46
FOX News: McCain 45 Obama 42
NBC/Wall Street Journal: Obama 47 McCain 46

There are more. But you get the general idea. It's essentially a dead heat at this point. Basically, all polls are currently moving within the margin of error. Obama may be down in the national polls by one or two points, if that -- which is actually slightly better than where Nate Silver's model for the convention bounce predicted for this date.

Of course, we don't elect our president by national poll. We use the electoral college. There are 538 electoral votes. It is generally said that you need 270 to win, but that is not necessarily the case. A 269-269 tie is broken by the House of Representatives -- which would almost certainly go for Obama (the vote is not a straight majority vote but rather it is a vote by state delegation, with a majority of the state delegations required to win, so it can get complicated). A tie is not an improbable scenario. In fact, it is one of the more likely scenarios. For example, if Obama wins all the states Kerry won, minus New Hampshire (where Obama currently has a narrow lead, but where McCain is well known and well liked from two presidential campaigns), but picks up Iowa (where he has a comfortable lead) and Colorado and New Mexico (both where he has small leads), it would be a 269-269 tie and goes to the House.

Of course, with a New Hampshire win, Obama would have a majority of the electoral college and it is this scenario that is probably his path of least resistance to an electoral college win: Kerry states (252), plus Iowa (7), Colorado (9) and New Mexico (5) = 273. If Obama wins the Kerry states plus Ohio (20) or Kerry states plus Florida (27) no other states are required (with a Florida win he can even lose New Hampshire (4)). Kerry states plus Virginia (13) and Obama can win it with any one other state (for example, add New Mexico and he would have exactly 270).

So with the race tightening, the electoral map has pretty much come down to the states I have mentioned above (minus Iowa which doesn't appear to be in doubt), plus Michigan (17) and Pennsylvania (21)(both Kerry states where Obama leads even with the McCain convention bounce, but that could still swing either way) and Nevada (5)(where McCain leads but could still go for Obama). For either candidate, losing two out of three among Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania would be hard to make up elsewhere.

There have been a bunch of state polls out in the past few days, so let's see where the key swing states stand, in rough order of importance (according to the model):

Insider Advantage (9/11): Obama 49 McCain 46
PPP (9/11): Obama 47 McCain 46
Fox/Rasmussen (9/7): Obama 49 McCain 46
( composite: Obama 46.7 McCain 45.6)

Quinnipiac (9/11): Obama 49 McCain 44
Insider Advantage (9/11): McCain 48 Obama 47
Fox/Rasmussen (9/7): McCain 51 Obama 44
( composite: Obama 45.2 McCain 44.9)

Insider Advantage (9/11): McCain 45 Obama 44
CNN (9/10): Obama 49 McCain 45
Strategic Vision (9/8): Obama 45 McCain 44
( composite: Obama 45.7 McCain 44.1)

(no recent polls)
( composite: McCain 44.9 Obama 44.2)

Quinnipiac (9/11): McCain 50 Obama 43
Insider Advantage (9/11): McCain 50 Obama 42
Fox/Rasmussen (9/7): Obama 48 McCain 48
( composite: McCain 47.8 Obama 44.3)

New Mexico:
Rasmussen (9/10): McCain 49 Obama 47
( composite: Obama 48 McCain 42.8)

CNN (9/10): McCain 50 Obama 46
SurveyUSA (9/8): McCain 49 Obama 47
Fox/Rasmussen (9/7): McCain 49 Obama 47
( composite: McCain 47.2 Obama 46.3)

Quinnipiac (9/11): Obama 48 McCain 45
Strategic Vision (9/10): Obama 47 McCain 45
Fox/Rasmussen (9/7): Obama 47 McCain 45
( composite: Obama 48.1 McCain 42.8)

New Hampshire:
CNN (9/10): Obama 51 McCain 45
( composite: Obama 46.6 McCain 45.9)

Bottom line: Obama still probably has a slight lead in the electoral college -- even with the McCain convention bounce. But one caveat: As a practical matter, if either candidate wins the popular vote by three or four points, he is almost certainly going to win the electoral college. In the case of a one or two point win in the popular vote, there is still a chance the electoral college will go the other way. But in all likelihood, the electoral college will ultimately follow the national popular vote.

At this point, given that McCain may still be enjoying a bit of a convention bounce, the advantage probably lies with Obama. But ...

RISK = PROBABILITY x MAGNITUDE. Even a small probability of a catastrophic event can be an unacceptably high risk. And even a very high probability of a relatively inconsequential event can be an acceptable risk. In my mind, it is still somewhat more probable that Obama will win. But even a 20% or 30% PROBABILITY of a McCain/Palin win, after the damage this country has sustained over the past eight years, is a terrifyingly high RISK. And the probability is probably somewhere around 50% these days.

And that has me scared.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Russ for delivering the data! Glad you are back from expeditions to help. This election is downright terrifying!

Carol Albert, who is running Obama's State campaign, is worried about Washington. I am doing my best to talk to strangers, cashiers, peers... about the dangers of a McCain/Palin ticket but it is no easy feat to talk to folks. I feel wierd but I am scared for my children and realize it is time to heed the call and fight for this.

We are also in danger of losing Governor Gregoire to a man who plans to ensure creationism is taught in our schools. I think it is time to sound the alarm.

Your fan, Petra

beowuff said...

I had read somewhere (can't remember where though) that the race may not be as close as the polls are saying. Even though a lower percentage of younger voters turn out to vote, there has been a huge turn out of newly registered younger voters. Most of these tend to be Obama supports. They may not be included in the polls because the polls only poll people with land phone lines. Many of the newer, younger voters may not have land lines (cell phones only), so may not be polled.

I don't know how likely this is, but I'm an Obama supporter and only have a cell phone. Several of my friends also only have cell phones and support Obama. I suppose one can hope.

S said...

The current system does not reliably reflect the nationwide popular vote. The statewide winner-take-all rules makes it possible for a candidate to win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

Nationwide popular election of the President is the only system that makes all states competitive, guarantees that the candidate with the most popular votes nationwide wins the Presidency, and makes every vote equal.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes — 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.



Anonymous said...

As an Obama supporter, I'm becoming more pessimistic. Factor in 3-5% racism, 1-2% voter deletion, 5-8% less youth vote and you find that Obama trails McCain by a lot. I predict an easy McCain win with Obama not holding onto all Kerry states.