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”

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  1. I suspect what has happened here is that conservative voters have been reluctant all year to commit to Romney. (He would never have been nominated if the Republican right had found a credible alternative.) This has artificially inflated Obama’s polling lead, both nationally and in states like North Carolina and Virginia. Now at the last minute the conservatives are rallying to Romney, helped by his strong debating performances, and this is pulling the polls back to the 50/50 split which now seems to characterise most US elections. Obama is clinging to the lead in the key states such as Ohio, and that should enable him to win, but it’s certainly possible that Romney can edge ahead. That a complete turkey like Romney is in with even a chance shows what a weak candidate Obama actually is. This has been masked up until now by his incredible run of luck. He was elected virtually unopposed to the Senate, he got the jump on a complacent Hillary Clinton in the primaries (but still nearly lost), and in 2008 faced McCain who was crippled by Bush’s record and the GFC. Now he has to defend his mediocre record in office and he’s done a pretty poor job of it. He is also paying the price for his massive over-promising in 2008.

  2. Indeed. The media loves the narrative of ‘game changers’, sine qua nons. Yet neither the convention nor the first debate in themselves uniquely change vast numbers of votes; rather they are events which trigger what was going to happen slowly anyway. A focussing by each side’s lukerwarm supporters on the choice they would inevitably make.

    There is a simpler explanation for the supposed likelihood of Obama winning a few more marginal states than Romney, but losing the national vote. Romney is stacking up huge majorities in the south.

    The consistency of predictions of Obama’s success in those key marginal states is going to be sorely tested. With so much depending on getting out the vote efforts, and early and polling day turnout; but the ‘science’ of opinion poll sampling of the individuals who matter, as ‘likely’ voters, is limited.

  3. There will be a lot of turmoil in the U.S. if Romney wins the popular vote comfortably but still loses the election. Fox News will go nuts demanding that the electoral system be overhauled.

  4. There was no outcry from Fox when Gore won the popular vote but was fiddled out of Florida.

    This time the Dems probably should have taken up Robert Reich’s suggestion and run Hillary as Obama’s VP candidate.

  5. I’ve been interested in working out likely situations of a tie in the electoral college vote. Probably the most likely case would be this one:

    Obama holds on to Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, but loses North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Nevada, Colorado and Iowa. If it gets to that stage, the Democrats would have most likely lost the House vote, and will give us the very interesting combination of Romney elected from the Republican House and Biden elected from the (most likely) Democrat Senate.

    Although I think it would be unlikely that Obama would lose all of those and will probably win by holding on to at least 3 of them. And if he loses Ohio, he can still win narrowly by holding on to Nevada, New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa.

  6. I’m expecting a significant shift from the current polling towards Obama on election day.

    Obama’s recent efforts have been closer to his 2008 passion. He is doing a good job of conveying two messages: 1. look, I’m very busy trying to run this country back into good times and 2. Romney is an untrustworthy liar.

    US polls are misleading in that they can’t really predict who will vote on election day. I am expecting Romney to be inspiring more Democrat-leaning voters to get out and vote than Republican-leaning voters. Meanwhile for the loony right Obama is nothing like the hate figure that the Clintons were and IMHO won’t fire up their base as much as Romney will fire up the Dem base.

    Romney peaked and since then the signs are that normality is resuming, i.e., a solid but unspectacular lead for Obama.

  7. Romney will pick up North Carolina, Indiana and Florida. Obama to get a 2nd term, right wingers to go absolutely mental. And I mean mental.

  8. Just saw Dick Morris on O’Reilly predicting that Romney will win >300 electoral votes. Even O’Reilly thought he was really sticking his neck out.

  9. Romney’s peak was really based on people who, due to the economy and general conservative tendencies weren’t going to support Obama but did not like Romney either. Romney gave many of those Americans a reason to like him at the first debate, thus the bounceback… but as time goes by, the shine has worn off again. However, don’t expect anything like the pre-debate situation where we were starting to consider NC back in the Democratic column and states like Missouri being obtainable.

    As it stands, I reckon where looking at 303 electoral votes and approx 50% of the pop vote for Obama versus 235 EVs and approx 49% for Romney (and around 1% for others – I am pessimistic about a Johnson bump from Paul supporters)

  10. [Diogenes
    Posted Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm | PERMALINK
    New polls

    Obama up 2 in Nevada and up 3 in Ohio

    Down 2 in NH]

    Which Nevada poll? Are you talking about ARG? That was yesterday’s news!!!!

  11. [gloryconsequence
    Posted Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 8:15 pm | PERMALINK
    And Missouri for Romney also.]

    Missouri was Republican last time. There is little prospect of Obama winning any red states.

    I agree with Carey: 2008 – NE2 – Indiana – North Carolina, but I think he can hold onto Virginia (perhaps with Romney losing a percent or two to the Libertarian and Constitution party candidates there…and I hope Obama doesn’t lose much to the Green in Virginia.

    With Virginia or Ohio, Obama looks pretty good.

  12. I hate when people use “Democrat” as an adjective. “Democrat” is a noun, “Democratic” is the adjective. The DemocratIC Party is full of Democrats. The DemocratIC Senator from X is a Democrat.

  13. Gallup restoring contact with Earth:

    [gallupnews ‏@gallupnews

    Registered Voters: #Obama 48% (+1), #Romney 47% (-1); Voters: Romney 50% (-1), Obama 47% (+1)]


    [ gallupnews ‏@gallupnews

    #Obama Job Approval: Approve 53% (+2) Disapprove 42% (-3)]

    Which is a hell of a shift for a three-day rolling average. Perhaps they’ve had a look at their methodology.

  14. It will reinforce Obama’s big lead among women, which will help him in moderate swing states like Ohio, Colorado and New Hampshire. It might also help flip the Indiana Senate seat, since Mourdock was only slightly ahead the last time I looked.

  15. I can understand why so many Dems are reluctant to come out and vote for Obama. He is not evil in a Bush/Cheney sense but he is very weak. Four years after the financial crisis US bankers are still at large. Many should have been jailed. Meanwhile millions are still unemployed and the debt problem has not been fixed. Issues like climate change aren’t even on the table. This is not leadership.

    I think Obama may scrape over the line, but as a lame duck president, he won’t do much in his second term. The winner is… China.

  16. Also if Obama “does a Bush” and gets re-elected in the electoral college while losing the popular vote it will be interesting to hear what some Democrats say, given what they said about Bush/Gore in 2000…

    This in no way is meant to endorse Romney, who is a creep typical of the Wall Street types who bankrupted the richest nation on earth. But McCain might have won this one.

  17. [He was elected virtually unopposed to the Senate, he got the jump on a complacent Hillary Clinton in the primaries (but still nearly lost)]
    So what you actually mean is that as a not even one term Senator he took on the Democratic Party establishment – the Clintons – and won.
    […and in 2008 faced McCain who was crippled by Bush’s record and the GFC.]
    You still don’t seem to appreciate that McCain demolished his own campaign when after 2000 he turned himself into a rank and file Republican, oh and when he destroyed his credibility by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate!

    [Now he has to defend his mediocre record in office and he’s done a pretty poor job of it. He is also paying the price for his massive over-promising in 2008.]
    Obama has stabilised the U.S. economy and passed the biggest health care reform since Medicare.

    He would’ve achieved even more if he had a congress willing to compromise.

  18. Socrates
    [I think Obama may scrape over the line, but as a lame duck president, he won’t do much in his second term.]

    I think he’ll do better if he wins. The Republicans have been determined to wreck the place to stop his re-election. If he wins it’ll be his last term, so there’s not so much motivation to frustrate him.

  19. The Democrats have been running a great Senate campaign. Even at the peak of Romney’s bump they were projected to gain a few seats.

    An example of their success here is in Wisconsin where Tammy Baldwin was considered a longshot at the beginning of the US Summer, now she is the favourite to win the race.

    Or Warren in Massachusetts, who was originally looking to have a tough, competitive race now looks like she has got it.

    I haven’t really seen much data regarding House races. The close ones are usually decided by presidential candidate coattails in the region and conventional wisdom suggests the Dems will probably gain a handful but not enough to gain the majority.

  20. I wonder how much early voting will effect the outcomes in Ohio and Iowa. If the democrats carry those two states its difficult to see how Mitt can win.

    One estimate is that 40-45% of Ohio voters will be cast before the November 6.

    Colorado is likely to have 85% of votes cast early. So even though Mitt is pushing slightly ahead – it may be on a much reduced pool of remaining voters.

    Anyone got a view on how significant this could be?

  21. [Carey Moore
    Posted Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 1:22 pm | PERMALINK

    I haven’t really seen much data regarding House races. ]

    House data does seem to be particularly scarce this time around, perhaps due to the massive interest in the national polls, state POTUS polling and state Senate polling.
    Princeton has it at about 25% of Dem takeover:

    Election Projection estimates a 1 seat gain for the Dems!!!!
    …it has been between 0 and 10 seats every time I look, so well short of the 25 seats needed for a majority.

    Agree with everything else you said, and the Mourdock statement on rape should help get out some women (and men) who hadn’t planned to vote. Could help defeat Mourdock, but also could help in Arizona making it 55-45 (if Tester can creep across the line 56-44)!

  22. [Work To Rule
    Posted Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 4:04 pm | PERMALINK
    I wonder how much early voting will effect the outcomes in Ohio and Iowa. ]

    The 6 million dollar question. This article suggests some positive news for Obama

    [Obama takes 49 percent support over Romney at 44. Among those who say they have already voted, Obama leads by a 2-to-1 margin, 60 percent to 30 over Romney.]

    also this:

    [The gender gap is particularly pronounced in Ohio, according to the Time poll. Obama leads Romney 56-37 among women, while Romney holds a 51-42 lead among men.]

    …given women vote at higher rates than men. Perhaps even higher than normal with all the nonsense Republicans have talked about rape this season.

  23. [I suspect the Indiana senator mentioned by @deblonay has not helped the gender gap]

    The pro-rapist demographic is presumably not a great one to target and would be a distinct minority.

  24. He is a Tea Party candidate, and like the others in 2010 is likely to ensure a Democrat victory where no such chance seemed to be there at the start of the year.

    To think that the Dems could actually end up with a 58-42 seat Senate in 2012 is just astonishing. I thought it was going to be a 50-50 shot or thereabouts early in this race!!!

    The thing about Mourdock is that he takes away vital oxygen in the remaining 13 days, Senator McCain has kindly kept the story going by threatening to remove his endoresement for Mourdock, and Romney has kindly put out ads supporting Mourdock (obviously arranged prior to the “rape is God’s will” comment).

    With national polls trending back to Obama, the Economy looking to be on the mend (confidence is on the rise and Unemployment is on the decrease) and with Obama’s approval rising and disapproval falling, and Dem wins in the final 3 debates, and the ridiculous Donald Trump rebirthing the birthing story…..I am a little more relaxed about the election now!

  25. “Perhaps even higher than normal with all the nonsense Republicans have talked about rape this season.”

    Yeah, i dont even want to know what those backwoods medieval throwbacks mean by “legitimate rape”. These guys are the Christian equivalent of the Taliban, and we’re supposed to pretend this is somehow still “mainstream”.

  26. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth lefty e!

    Without the likes of Trump, Akin and Mourdock providing a little comic relief, and reminding women why they vote Democrat, who knows what would have happened at this election?

    The Democratic party probably does not deserve the victories in the Presidency and the Senate that I suspect they are about to win…..alas, the Republican party just cannot bring itself to elect a reasonable moderate option. If they could have done that you can see that Obama would have been surely screwed.

  27. [(AP) — After four days of early voting, nearly one-fifth of Nevada’s 1.2 million active Nevada voters had already cast ballots in advance of the Nov. 6 election day.

    Figures released Wednesday by the secretary of state’s office show 214,609 people had voted through Tuesday, either in person or by mail, since early voting began Saturday. Of those, ballots received from Democrats total 99,415, compared with 79,697 cast by Republicans. The remaining ballots are nonpartisans or voters registered with minor political parties.

    The roughly 173,000 people who have voted in person are nearly 43,000 more than those who voted during the same period in the 2008 presidential election.]

  28. Obama is back in front in Virginia, putting him on 294 ECVs. And the Dem is now leading in the Indiana Senate race, putting the Dems at 54, even without Angus King. Romney has had his debate bounce and it hasn’t put him in front in the key states. Where is he going to get another bounce from?

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