Presidential election minus 13 days

With a fortnight to go, Barack Obama looks in big trouble on national polling averages, but retains breathing space on electoral college projections. The vagaries of polling methodologies might have something to do with this.

With less than two weeks to go, it’s high time for another presidential election thread – especially now that I’ve been inspired to put pen to paper by a fascinating article from Peter Kellner of YouGov, a British polling firm which has been sticking its oar into the American campaign.

The broad picture painted by the mountain of opinion polling is that a handy lead to Barack Obama disappeared after the first debate, and that to the extent that he is still favourite it is because he maintains slender leads in key swing states. According to RealClearPolitics, Mitt Romney now has a 0.5% lead on aggregated national polling after trailing by 0.2% two days ago. However, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Obama a 70.3% chance of victory by virtue of state polling which shows, among many other things, an adjusted 1.9% lead to Obama in the likely crucible of the election, Ohio.

Until now, my favourite explanation for Obama’s stronger performance on electoral college projections has been that America’s decaying industrial “rust belt” is over-represented in the list of key states, which includes Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania together with Ohio. Romney’s image as a rapacious capitalist has by all accounts been especially damaging to him in these areas, owing to their long history of mass lay-offs and economic decline. This was illustrated when the General Motors bailout emerged yesterday in the context of what was supposed to be a debate about foreign policy, with Romney again haunted by his assertion from 2008 that the government should, as the New York Times subeditors helpfully paraphrased it, “let Detroit go bankrupt”. However, Kellner points to an intriguing alternative explanation involving polling methodology, with encouraging implications for Obama.

In the United States as in Australia, polling generally involves contacting random samples of respondents, the composition of which differs entirely from one poll to the next. However, the alternative approach, known as panel surveying, is to call back on the same set of respondents to determine how many are changing their minds. As Nate Silver observes, there are good reasons why this method is not generally favoured: the fact of being surveyed on multiple occasions may influence the way respondents behave, and a biased sample will produce consistently biased results, rather than random variation in the direction of errors from one poll to the next. The virtue of the approach is that it provides a more stable footing for evaluating changes over time, which is especially useful in the event of a significant shift such as that which the polls appeared to detect after the first debate.

As Kellner explains, YouGov fortuitously conducted just such a survey on a vast scale both before and after the debate. Whereas the RealClearPolitics aggregate saw a 4.3% lead to Obama on September 29 turn into a 1.3% lead to Romney by October 13, the panel survey found next to no change, with the small number of respondents switching from Obama to Romney matched by an equal share going the other way. What did emerge though was a crucial distinction in response rates from one survey to the next. Whereas the first survey elicited 33,000 responses, YouGov was only able to get 25,000 to complete the survey after the debate. This included 80% of those who indicated support for Romney the first time, against only 74% of the Obama supporters. That meant the raw numbers became immensely more favourable for Romney, and remained so after the data was weighted in the normal fashion according to demographics (by age, gender, region and race).

However, when weighting was further done according to party identification – so that responses from those identifying as Republican, Democrat or independent carried equal weight from one poll to the next – the effect of the differential response rates washed out, along with all but sliver of the swing to Romney. Responses are weighted in this fashion by YouGov as well as Rasmussen, but not by most other American pollsters. The argument against this approach (which, amusingly enough, has most often been heard from liberal critics of Rasmussen, which is renowned for its Republican lean) goes that party identification can change sharply in response to specific events, and that weighting for it negates their impact on voting intention. However, YouGov’s evident failure to find large numbers of individuals who changed their tune after the debate (allowing for the previously noted qualification that panel respondents may be shy about admitting they have changed their minds) suggests that, on this occasion at least, party identification weighting might have produced more meaningful results.

Nate Silver was moved to hypothesise that a lack of such weighting might cause polls to exaggerate bounces which occur in response to focusing events such as party conventions and clear debate victories. This is not to say that the poll shift to Romney isn’t meaningful, as the surge of enthusiasm which made Republicans more forthcoming when pollsters came calling could equally translate into higher turnout, with very real consequences for the outcome. However, Kellner offers a compelling counter-argument: that as the campaign intensifies with the approach of polling day, the enthusiasm gap and its attendant advantage to Romney will diminish. This may well be reflected in Obama’s lead in the swing states, where campaigning is already quite intense enough.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

294 comments on “Presidential election minus 13 days”

  1. http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-california-money-20121104,0,7120500.story
    [Political cash floods California races

    More than half a billion is likely, with much going to initiative fights. Biotechnology firms oppose Prop. 37, and a billionaire spends for a union dues measure and against Gov. Brown’s tax hike.

    By Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times
    November 3, 2012, 3:55 p.m.

    SACRAMENTO — More than half a billion dollars in political cash is likely to be spent in California by Tuesday, a staggering amount in a year when the presidential candidates are barely present and voters appear tepid about much of the state ballot.

    This election will rank among the top in California history for campaign spending — without the governor’s office or most other top posts in play.]
    As a side note, I’ve always been against Propositions or Citizens Initiated Referendum. Nothing about how they work in the US changes my mind.

  2. Pittsburgh Tribune poll has the race in Pennsylvania tied. Mental.

    Obama now 0.2 ahead nationally at RCP.

    The spin from the GOP has gone from Romney will win, to Romney has the momentum, now to ‘Obama won’t win because our turnout will be better’.

  3. Glory. Old trick. Spend the last few days focused on a long shot state to make it look like you’ve got the others sewn.

    Should also add the McCain supporters were “extremely confident” about PA too…

  4. 538 has updated – with an ever so slight tick up in Obama’s estimated probability of winning from 83.7% to 84.4%

    … with Montana is now a swing state – clearly a rouge poll in the mix

  5. [That the real problem is him winning in 2016 …]

    I think the “him” here refers to Gingrich, not Obama. Ie, Gingrich intends running again in 2016. Newt v Hillary – now there’s a race!

  6. Probably too early to be considering such things as 2016

    But one wonders if the underlying demographic shifts over the next four years will be enough to force the GOP to challenge the nutter right wingers within its ranks.

    Mind you – I can’t see Gingrich as being the person to lead the GOP out of the nutter wilderness

  7. Biden or Clinton are both old but could still be nominated as “heirs” to the Obama administration, assuming Obama is reelected.

    On the outside, I’d say Mark Warner, Andrew Cuomo and Martin O’Malley are all good picks…

  8. tjwalker

    [What does Fox News do if Romney loses the popular vote… loses the electoral college… but just proclaims that he won? Why let facts and reality get in the way?]

  9. Movement toward Obama in nearly every national poll released today

    http://politicalwire.com/archives/2012/11/04/obama_gains_in_final_days.html
    [Obama Gains in Final Days
    The final Pew Research survey finds President Obama has edged ahead of Mitt Romney in the final days of the presidential campaign, 48% to 45%.

    “The survey finds that Obama maintains his modest lead when the probable decisions of undecided voters are taken into account. Our final estimate of the national popular vote is Obama 50% and Romney 47%, when the undecided vote is allocated between the two candidates based on several indicators and opinions.”

    The last NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey shows Obama moved ahead by one point, 48% to 47%.

    The last YouGov survey has Obama leading by two points, 49% to 47%.

    The Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll finds Obama up by one point, 48% to 47%, while the Washington Post/ABC News tracker finds Obama up 49% to 48%.

    Meanwhile, the last Politico/GWU poll and Rasmussen tracker both find the race tied, though both earlier found Romney leading. ]
    The article has links to those polls embedded in it.

  10. So, Mitt is off to Pennsylvania today. That’ll be a waste of time and money.

    Nate Silver makes an interesting point about this. Romney campaigning in Pennsylvania may make sense because, even though he’s unlikely to win, it may be his least unlikely way of getting to 270.

    To use a basketball analogy, he’s abandoning a conventional game, and throwing the ball the length of court, in the hope of getting a three pointer on the buzzer.

  11. Couple of other reasons for seemingly wasting time in Pennsylvania:
    – keeping the base energised by looking like you’re making deep in-roads.
    – early voting is making some states unproductive to campaign in

  12. I think Nate Silver is increasing his probability of Obama winning because there’s no time left for Romney to turn the polls around in the states he’s trailing in.

    For Romney to win, he needs to simultaneously win the tossup states of Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and either Colorado or New Hampshire, as well as the Obama leaning Ohio.

    If he fails to win Ohio, then he must also win at least both Nevada and Iowa as well, both of which are Obama leaning, or shock everyone and win Pennsylvania.

    So the polling averages need to be overestimating Obama by a lot for Romney to win.

  13. [This little black duck
    Posted Monday, November 5, 2012 at 10:10 am | PERMALINK
    So, Mitt is off to Pennsylvania today. That’ll be a waste of time and money.]

    The Republicans are winning in the early vote so far in PA and are tied in this recent poll:

    Tribune-Review/Susquehanna 10/29 – 10/31 800 LV 3.5 47 47 Tie
    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/pa/pennsylvania_romney_vs_obama-1891.html

    ….but then, of course, there are these other recent polls as well:
    Morning Call 11/1 – 11/3 430 LV 5.0 49 46 Obama +3
    PPP (D) 11/2 – 11/3 790 LV 3.5 52 46 Obama +6

    The truth is, if Romney is winning Penn he is winning Ohio and probably Michigan and Wisconsin so all the analysis and poll and early vote checking I have been doing like the obsessive compulsive has been a complete waste of time and its a Romney landslide.

    Not going to happen.

  14. [gloryconsequence
    Posted Monday, November 5, 2012 at 4:27 pm | PERMALINK
    Silver will be out of a job if Romney wins. Don’t reckon he’ll be saying much at all!]

    Nate is much more conservative (as in careful not as in Republican) than the other projection sites:

    Nate (538.com) has it at 307 ECV and 86.3% chance of Obama win today

    Election projection has it at 330 ECV today
    Votamatic has it at 332ECV (and has for a long time)
    Princeton has it at 303 ECV but a >98% chance of Obama win

  15. [This little black duck
    Posted Monday, November 5, 2012 at 8:42 pm | PERMALINK
    I’m looking forward to opening a bottle of bubbly (Grant Burge Pinot Noir) way within 48 hours.]

    TLBD:

    Enjoy, but not sure we will know Wed night for sure….

    I would not be surprised if Obama wins a very clear majority of the national vote (2,8%) and a very clear majority of the electoral college (332) but it being too close to call for perhaps many days.

    Some of the pivotal states allow postal ballots to arrive a week late as long as they are postmarked on (or the day before) the election date. Unfortunately for my sanity, Obama is only very narrowly ahead in a lot of the states he is winning.

  16. [With a fortnight to go, Barack Obama looks in big trouble…]

    … quoth William 12 days ago. But with half a day to go, Obama looks home and hosed. Romney failed to maintain his momentum after the first debate, because it was based on appearances rather than substance. Most of those who warmed to Romney after his strong performance soon remembered why they didn’t want to vote for him. Then his campaign was literally blown away by Sandy, which not only made Obama look good but starved Romney of attention. How will the evangelicals explain that the anti-Christ has been re-elected by an act of God?

  17. [Then his campaign was literally blown away by Sandy, which not only made Obama look good but starved Romney of attention.]

    As I said at the time, Sandy made Obama look like a president and Romney look like a candidate. It was that moment that I knew Obama had it sewn up (I know I am prematurely declaring victory and may eat my words tomorrow but, at this point, every respectable commentator (even those who are conservative leaning) thinks Obama will win.

  18. I’d agree that hurricane Sandy suffocated the Romney campaign, let Obama look presidential and reminded people that the private sector is not the solution to everything.

    Another thing about Sandy – is how the timing affected the campaign. Had Sandy been a week earlier, then problems about how slowly things were being fixed would have started to creep in and Romney would have had time to get his Campaign rolling again. Had Sandy been rolling through right now – then it’s difficult to say how that would have played out.

  19. Fivethirtyeight just tipped Florida…

    That would be a big blow for the GOP. It would mean, in four years, they had only managed to win back Indianna, North C and that pesky Nebraska district.

  20. [That would be a big blow for the GOP. It would mean, in four years, they had only managed to win back Indianna, North C and that pesky Nebraska district.]

    EVs which should be considered locks for the GOP. In over words, if Silver’s state by state probability map matches tomorrow’s results, the GOP will have only succeeded in reclaiming their own turf, failing to win any actual swing states!

  21. Given the response to defeat in 2008 was not to reconsider the extreme right wing elements of the their platform – but to make those elements the central part ….. I wonder what those GOP folk will do this time?

  22. I think the GOP will have to be shut out of the white house for a while, while nominating right wing candidates for the party to wrestle itself from the extremists. Think the Dems after the Mondale and Dukakis disasters…

  23. I think the GOP will have to be shut out of the white house for a while, while nominating right wing candidates for the party to wrestle itself from the extremists. Think the Dems after the Mondale and Dukakis disasters…

  24. [That would be a big blow for the GOP. It would mean, in four years, they had only managed to win back Indianna, North C and that pesky Nebraska district.]
    The state Republicans redrew the Nebraska 2 boundaries in order to make it harder for Obama to win it.

  25. Whew, how does the USA manage to have so many elections on the same day?

    Not only is there the President, House and Senate elections, but there’s a bunch of State elections too, and these are always overshadowed by the Federal ones. Which is a bit unfortunate as the US State laws usually mean more for the individual citizen.

    Speaking of which, does anyone know if they can vote for the President, House, Senate, Governor, State House and State Senate in the same place (just getting different ballot papers like they do here)? Or do they have to drive around town to different voting booths?

    I found this site handy for the predictions of the state legislatures: http://www.governing.com/blogs/politics/gov-state-legislature-ratings.html

    At least in Australia, elections are a bit more spread out.

  26. [Speaking of which, does anyone know if they can vote for the President, House, Senate, Governor, State House and State Senate in the same place (just getting different ballot papers like they do here)? ]
    Yes. It is all on the same ballot paper.

  27. It varies from state to state. In some states you can pull one lever and vote the whole Dem or Repub slate. In others who have to tick a whole bunch of boxes. Some now have touch screens. US electoral law is a total and disgraceful mess.

    William has started a new thread on this subject.

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