Friday, November 2, 2012

I'm Willing to Predict: Barack Obama Will Win a 2nd Term, Sandy Continues to Disrupt National Polling, Why Is Mitt Romney Headed to Pennsylvania?

First Polls Open In: 3 Days, 8 Hours*
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +0.4% (down 0.3% from yesterday)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 290, Romney 248 (unchanged from yesterday)
Current Betting Odds: Obama 67%, Romney 33% (Obama up 1% from yesterday)
Current Popular Vote Betting Odds: Obama 56%, Romney 40%, within 0.5% - 4%

* An avid reader has pointed out that my "first polls open" denotation is technically incorrect.  Early voting is well underway in many states.  I guess "first election day polls open" would be the right term, but you know what I mean.

There were only a few new national polls today (more on that later), but Mitt Romney nudged slightly closer to President Obama in today's projection.

But the real action is happening at the state level.  The map continues to be stable, but at this stage of the game, the margins matter.  And we now only have 3 states within the 2% band that I consider within striking distance.  And those 3 states do not give Mitt Romney a plausible path to victory (more on that later as well.)

Accordingly, I am now comfortable projecting that Barack Obama will be re-elected to a second term as President of the United States.

Let me qualify that by saying that there is still a case to be made for a Mitt Romney win.  The arguments would go something like this:
(1) President Obama is still under 50% in virtually every national poll.  Undecideds will break late for the challenger and give Romney the narrow victory.
(2) No incumbent President has ever been re-elected to a second term winning less states than he won the first time around and it is impossible to see a path to President Obama winning more states than in 1988.  It's win big or go home for incumbents and Obama cannot win big.
(3) The polls systemically overestimate Democratic turnout and the actual results will therefore differ from the polls by several percentage points.
(4) The national polls show a tighter race than the state polls and the national polls are generally conducted by better-established, more reliable polling firms.  It is therefore reasonable to believe that swing states are actually in better shape for Romney than the state-level polling data would indicate.

While it is certainly not impossible that one of these arguments is true (the Intrade odds would indicate that people willing to wager money on the race believe there is about a 1 in 3 chance that it is), my counterarguments would be as follows:
(1) Recent history suggest no evidence of this rule of thumb.  Undecideds in 1980 surely did break for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter late.  In 1984, they broke for Reagan again - this time as the incumbent.  In 1992, undecideds broke evenly.  In 1996, they broke for the challenger.  In 2004, they broke evenly.  There doesn't seem to be a pattern here to support the "rule of thumb" that an incumbent under 50% is in trouble - George W. Bush was under 50% in the polling and got 51% of the vote on election day.
(2) True, but irrelevant.  No one had ever won 49 states...until 1984 when Ronald Reagan did.  Candidates always win their home state - heck, even George McGovern and Walter Mondale did - until Al Gore lost Tennessee and the election with it.  The winner of Missouri always wins the election - until 2008 when Barack Obama won without it.  My point is that you can point to lots of things that are "always" true - until they aren't. 
 (3) We've dealt with this one extensively in previous posts.
(4) Generally, the evidence doesn't support this theory.  On average, state-wide polls have been at least as accurate and often more so than national polls on election day...see 2000 for a great example of this.  Secondly, while there are some smaller firms polling in swing states, there are also a lot of large ones - Rasmussen, CNN/OR and Survey USA are all poling Ohio and their results are actually well in line with other polls from smaller firms.

I don't see Romney winning the election - but, as always, I could be wrong.  Similar to my point in #2 - polls tend to be very predictive of elections - except when they aren't.

Few National Polls Available
The fine print on my national polling data is that some of the tracking polls are aging significantly.  Gallup, Ipsos and several others have not released polls in several days as they have suspended polling in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  I will continue to keep their data in the mix as long as it remains less than a week old, but this is surely hurting the accuracy of my aggregation model.  My hope is that we will start seeing new poll releases from these firms prior to the election to make a final projection.

Why Go to Pennsylvania?
I wondered if the Romney campaign would put their money where their mouth is - and they are.  Mitt Romney will be campaigning in Pennsylvania this weekend.  He's also spending a lot of time in Ohio and some time in Wisconsin, but the Pennsylvania visit suggest a shift in strategy that is meaningful.

So why go to Pennsylvania?

Romney's camp says it is because he is expanding the map.  Obama's camp says it is because Romney is desparate.

Truthfully, I think it is an ill-advised move.  Romney's internal polling numbers may make him believe that he is actually in much better shape in swing states than I have him.  But I still wouldn't go there. 

Here is why:
It is almost impossible for me to envision a scenario where Pennsylvania is the "tipping point" state, that is, the state that gives Mitt Romney his decisive 270th electoral vote.

Certainly, it is not impossible that the GOP have been right all along about the likely voter models.  So let's say that Romney is 4 points better across the board than what I am projecting, for sake of argument.  If this is the case, he would stand to pick up Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire.  It would also make Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin among the closest states in contention.  But it still makes no sense to go there.  Colorado, Ohio, Nevada, Iowa and New Hampshire would give Romney the necessary electoral votes to win - he wouldn't need those other states.  Pennsylvania would just be gravy.  And let's face it - the game is about winning - getting over 300 electoral votes doesn't make you any more President than getting exactly 270.  You would never risk losing the election simply to run up additional electoral votes you don't need.

The only way it makes sense to go to Pennsylvania is if you believe that it is possible that you might LOSE Ohio and WIN Pennsylvania (or lose Florida, Virginia or one of the other states that is crucial to Romney on the map as it is now constructed.)

John McCain pushed hard in Pennsylvania when he realized that he was going to have to run the table on all the swing states in order to win.  It obviously didn't work in his case - he got trounced in PA, along with those other swing states that he diverted resources from.

I suspect that Romney sees that the map as it is presently constructed doesn't work for him - and hope to catch Obama flat-footed in Pennsylvania by pulling an upset there while Obama is focusing on trying to lock down Ohio.

In short - it is ridiculous to think Romney thinks he has Ohio, Florida, Colorado and Virginia all locked up and that he can focus on getting "insurance".  It is far more probable that he is looking for an alternate path to victory that doesn't require all 4 of those states, 2 of which he is presently behind in, Ohio, crucially, by a meaningful margin.  And that makes a Romney victory a long shot.

Of course, George W. Bush famously did go for those gravy electoral votes in 2000, campaigning in California on the basis of some tightening polls the weekend before that election.  He didn't win California - he didn't even come close - and very nearly lost the election as a result of it.

Sometimes when you have been running a campaign for years (as is required these days), you don't make the best judgements.

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