US Presidential Election 2012: So How Close Is It?

by George_East on November 1, 2012

On the Today Programme this morning Mark Mardell described the US election as still being neck and neck.  Ray North, in his passionate post on Tuesday about the way the world seems to be going, said that Jackie South and I had been saying to him that  the race was close.  And so it is.  But that doesn’t mean that it is currently a tie.  This post is designed to help to assuage the fears of Obama supporters out there who haven’t been following the race in the somewhat obsessive way that I have.   

The race is not over, Romney could still win, but as we stand today 5 days out, Obama is the clear and overwhelmingly favourite.     So, to reflect my 6 reasons why Romney could still win post I wrote in late-September before the disaster of Obama’s first debate, here are 6 reasons why Obama supporters should be confident.

  1. Ohio, Ohio, Ohio

It would be an exaggeration to say that this year’s Presidential race is in reality all  about the Buckeye State, but not much of an exaggeration. 

Barack Obama is  not going to win all of the states he won in 2008.  He will undoubtedly lose Indiana (his most surprising victory 4 years ago) and Nebraska’s Second Congressional District.  He will almost certainly lose North Carolina. He will probably lose Florida.   He may well lose Virginia, Colorado and even New Hampshire and Iowa. But none of this matters, when push comes to shove.  Obama doesn’t need 300 Electoral Votes to win the Presidency, he needs 270.

As I have written before, in swing state terms, this means allowing for Obama winning the states won by John Kerry with New Mexico in place of New Hampshire, he has 237 Electoral Votes in the bag.  

Wisconsin’s 10 Electoral Votes look to be almost certainly in the blue column too.  Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight now has Wisconsin at an 88% chance of an Obama victory (from 75% last time I wrote) and there has not been a single poll which has put Romney ahead in Wisconsin since mid-August when local boy, Paul Ryan, was first announced as the Vice Presidential pick.  That makes 247.

Nevada, similarly, looks more and more like a clear Obama win.  Nate Silver now has it as an 85% chance of an Obama victory (from 69% last time I wrote).  There has only been one poll this year showing Romney ahead in the Silver State and that was from a little known polling outfit (Dane) and came at the height of the Romney surge following the first debate.    That takes Obama to 253.

Allowing then for Wisconsin and Nevada, Ohio is worth 18 Electoral Votes.  It is the state which takes Obama over the victory line, whatever happens in the remaining swing states.  It is why Nate Silver rates it as having a 48% chance of being the decisive state in the race.  The last couple of weeks have seen Obama’s position in Ohio get consistently stronger.  Reflecting its importance, it is the most polled state of all.  There have been an astonishing 25 published polls since 17 October.  Of those polls, only 1 one has shown Romney in the lead (and that was from Republican polling outfit, Rasmussen), 2 others have shown the race tied.   The last 8 published polls (since Saturday!) have shown Obama up by between 2 and 5 points.   In the circumstances it is no wonder that Nate Silver now has the state as 80% likely to go to Obama (from 67% last time I wrote).  

It is also the likely explanation for the sudden Romney campaign diversion (including over $2,000,000 of ad buys) in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota.  This is not a sign of strength as seen by some TV pundits, but a sign of desperation – an attempt to find another route to 270, if Ohio ends up in the Obama column.  For what it is worth, in case this still makes you nervous,  Nate Silver currently has Obama as 96% likely to win Pennsylvania and 98% likely to win Minnesota and Michigan (ie it is considerably less likely than Obama winning North Carolina).

 2.  The End of Mittmentum

The conventional wisdom of the media pundit class, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that Obama was cruising to re-election until the first debate, but that since then all of the momentum has been with Romney.   There is, I think, an in built desire amongst journalists to make out that the race is a toss of a coin nailbiter, as Mark Mardell did this morning, it makes it more exciting after all, and drives ratings up.  

However, the reality is rather different.  Obama suffered a catastrophic fall in support immediately following his sleep walk of a first debate and Romney undoubtedly had the momentum in the first couple of weeks of October as a result.   However, his position peaked on 12 October.  Since that date the trend has been back towards Obama.    It has been a slow reversal of the initial steep fall in support, but the trend has been consistent and clear over the last 2 and a half weeks.   The FiveThirtyEight percentage chances of an Obama victory peaked on 4 October at 87.1%.  Eight days later at the nadir for Obama, it was at 61.1%.  As of last night it was back to 79.0%.  By this measure Obama has gained about 2/3rds of his position back since Romney’s peak.

 3. The Polls: It’s The Maths, Stupid

There has been a fascinatingly revealing spat between Republican supporting political pundits and Nate Silver about his projections: the so-called War on Maths.   Former Republican congressman turned TV pundit, Joe Scarborough declared FiveThirtyEight’s projections as meaningless and asserted that the race was neck and neck (based on no more reason apparently than what his gut told him).   The right wing National Review ran a piece which accused Nate Silver of bias because he weights polls (he does this on the basis of the polling company’s past performance).  

 Matters reached the height of absurdity on Monday when Jonathan Martin of Politico tweeted: ‘avert your gaze liberals. Nate Silver admits he’s simply averaging public polls, there is no secret sauce here’ – a tweet that Brad Delong described as the ‘stupidest tweet in the history of Twitter’ as it appeared to miss the point that it is precisely this that makes Nate Silver’s analysis so powerful.  He doesn’t reach his judgment by looking into a crystal ball, or talking to people on the ground who ‘just know’ what the true position is or by using a time machine.  He inputs publicy available figures into his spreadsheet and out pops a result. It is just maths.

Of course we shouldn’t be too optimistic, just because of one election prediction site.  What if, despite his excellent record in 2008 (every senate race and 49/50 states) Nate Silver’s model is wrong.   

The problem with this is that other election prediction sites looking at the polls come to similar conclusions.  Indeed Sam Wong of the Princeton Electoral Commission (who performed similarly to FiveThirtyEight in 2008 and got every single state right in 2004) currently gives Obama a 95% chance of winning.  Yes that is a 19/20 chance of being re-elected. 

 4. A Good Hurricane for Obama

As Jackie South wrote on Tuesday Hurricane Sandy was this election cycle’s October surprise.  All the indications are that this has benefited the President.  There are two reasons for this I think.  Firstly, it plays to Obama’s strengths.  It enables him to appear above the fray, statesmanlike and non-partisan.  Secondly, it has brought into focus Romney’s proposals to privatise FEMA, the responsible federal agency, which has also had a good hurricane.  

It is, of course, true to say that FEMA had an awful reputation in the aftermath of Katrina, but that was because it had been run into the ground by George W Bush, who had appointed his crony Michael ‘heckofajob’ Brown as its head, who had zero experience in handling major disasters.  Being opposed to the continued existence of an agency which is effectively and efficiently rescuing people and securing property, is not a great place to be, politically.

5. The Return of Romneyshambles

Privatise FEMA is not the only PR disaster that the Romney campaign has had in the recent weeks of the campaign.  There has also been the utterly dishonest advertisements playing in Ohio and Michigan suggesting that car plants making jeeps would be closing and transferring to China as a result of the Obama auto-bail out.    The problem for Romney with this is that not only did the Obama campaign call him out on his lie but, in an unusual move, so did Chrysler, who manufacture the Jeep.   

Ohio is one of the few states in the US where the trend for white blue collar voters towards the Republicans has not been noticeable in this election.  With gaffes like this, it is hardly surprising.

 6. The Clock

Finally, the clock is running down.  There are only 5 more days of campaigning.  There are no more debates.   The final unemployment figures before the election are due tomorrow.  The expectations are that they are going to be broadly stable.  After that there is the weekend and then the last day of campaigning.  Al Gore had a very big surge in the final days of the 2000 campaign, but with such little time left Romney’s options to turn the race around are running out.

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