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. Colin Powell (past Republican Secretary of State) endorses Obama

    Gotta admire the timing. Colin must still be annoyed with the Republicans for making him their patsy in the Iraq war build up. I presume this would play well with male voters.

  2. Thanks, WTR. Don’t know where I got that from.

    It’s been reported that Senator Barbara Boxer (D) of California has offered Donald Trump $50 if he would stop trying to make the election about himself.

  3. Been a while since I posted here…

    Writing from the USA, I’d say Obama has the states won by Kerry *and* Gore (including Wisconsin) in the bag, giving him 242 EV. New Mexico has gone pretty strongly to Democrats in the polling, which makes 247. I think this would be his floor.

    Democrats have a tendency to underpoll in Nevada (Reid in 2010 is a prime example of this), and he’ll more than likely win there (bringing it to 253). From this, all he would need is Ohio to exceed 270. Of the remaining marginal states, I’d put the likelihood of him winning as follows: Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire (weird little state, this), Florida, and North Carolina. I’m pretty sure he’ll win at least the first two, giving him the victory, but being a natural pessimist I won’t commit to this.

    I disagree with the contention in the thread’s first post that Obama’s comparative strength in Virginia and North Carolina have anything to do with artificial bumps. This has a lot to do with demographic changes. Virginia and North Carolina both have African-American populations of over 20%, and have steadily been gaining white collar urban professionals (NoVA in VA; Charlotte, the Research Triangle and the Piedmont Triad in NC). Of course, keep in mind that the bashing of government employment used to some effect by the GOP will fall on stony ground in the Northern Virginia suburbs and exurbs where so many work for the federal government.

  4. I agree of course about the demographic changes in VA and NC, which is why Obama carried them in 2008. But they also still have lots of white Christian conservative Republicans, and my point was that these people were unenthusiastic about Romney until very recently, and they were showing up in the polls as “undecided” or “won’t vote”. Now at the last minute they’ve decided that they hate Obama so much they will commit to Romney, and this has pulled Obama’s lead back. I’d also put Florida in this category. But, as you note, Obama doesn’t need these three states to win, he only needs his base plus Ohio and Nevada.

  5. My short cut to following the election is to check Nate’s site and then the odds. They have moved pretty much inline – so much so that i wonder if Nate’s analysis is so respected that it forms a frame of reference for the betting sites.

  6. [Work To Rule
    Posted Friday, October 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm | PERMALINK
    My short cut to following the election is to check Nate’s site]


    538 is excellent but I also recommend

    Its a Republican site, but it doesnt matter as it lists every poll (refreshes from about now to early hours of the morning so you can check first thing in the am our time).

    Also is good as it averages out the recent polls to give you an idea of the current snapshot!

  7. Ex Republican Governor of New Ham. John Sununu, a very strong and vocal supporter of Romney, has just suggested on national TV that Colin Powell has endorsed Obama because wtte ” both are of the same race.”

    Interesting new development that Romney would not appreciate I would think.

    Talk about taking focus off the economy !

  8. If the Dems do not win back the House, there is a belief that there will be pressure on Pelosi (who is 72) to move on from her position as leader. Who would replace her is the question? While Steny Hoyer is no doubt eager for the job and would probably get it, one potential candidate who rose to prominence for her exceptional work running the party convention is Debbie Wasserman Schulz, a liberal from Florida who, as mentioned, has demonstrated organisational skills and, unlike Pelosi and Hoyer, is not old.

    However, this could work against her, as the party may feel she still has plenty of time ahead of her to advance her career. Nevertheless, she is somebody whose career will be worth watching.

  9. [Debbie? I have no idea about their relative merits but being a woman would do her some good.]

    Well, it would further push the cause of the “old boys club” dying off and avoid the perception that Pelosi was a “one off” situation.

  10. From the little I have seen and heard of Nancy Pelosi, she is “all right”, in the “Yes, Minister” sense.

  11. carey,

    Nancy Pelosi still has fire in her belly, last time I saw. Has she been front and centre so far or is she saving herself for the last two weeks?

  12. [Nancy Pelosi still has fire in her belly, last time I saw. Has she been front and centre so far or is she saving herself for the last two weeks?]

    Oh I agree. FWIW, I hope a miracle happens, they take back the House and she is Speaker again.

    Even if they don’t, as long as she wants the position, she has my support as leader.

    If she does decide to move on though, I would rather her be replaced by Debbie than Steny…

  13. New broom and all that…

    Hoyer is 73 and been around in Congress since the early 80s. He is representative of the politics of the past. DWS, OTOH, is a rising star, who has shown organisational and leadership skills, yet is also a relative cleanskin as far as political life is concerned, but still retains strong liberal credentials!

  14. I spoke to soon about Gallup’s return to the field yesterday:

    [Registered Voters: #Obama 48% (-), #Romney 48% (+1); Likely Voters: Romney 51% (+1), Obama 46% (-1)]

    And their ratings for Obama have gotten even bouncier:

    [#Obama Job Approval: Approve 48% (-3) Disapprove 47% (+3).]

  15. Carey Moore — (since you’re here) I’d have used prossima for “next” in your Italian passage on the next poll. Successiva is much closer to the “subsequent” or “following” senses of “next” and is best used for past chronology.


    Great analysis of early voting, summarised below:

    Assuming states which voted for one party at each of the last 5 elections continue, Obama just needs Ohio and one of Nevada or Iowa:

    Ohio (Obama’s 2008 margin = 4.6%):
    17% of the 2008 turnout has already voted
    Polls show Obama leads among those who say they have already voted, by:
    21% (CNN: this includes those who voted early or say they are about to vote early)
    26%, (Purple strategies)
    29% (Survey USA)
    or 30% (Time)

    Nevada (Obama’s 2008 margin = 12.5%)
    33% of the 2008 turnout has already voted
    Democrat registered early voters 46% beat 37% Republican registered early voters
    In Clark County (75% of Nevada) Obama won by 19% last time and leads by 17% this time so far (the only trouble is he lead by more by this stage last time)
    Given his 12% margin, pretty encouraging

    Iowa (Obama’s 2008 margin = 9.5%)
    27% of the 2008 turnout has already voted
    Obama leading 45% to 32% according to registration of early voters, similar to the final early voting totals of 45% to 29% in 2008.
    Given his 10% margin here, pretty encouraging

    2. POLLING
    Obama ahead by 4%, 2% and 2% in latest 3 polls
    Obama leads by an average of 2.3% in the last of each of the polling companies polls
    Obama has a 76% chance of winning according to Nate Silver’s magic number analysis

    Obama has won or tied in every poll in Nevada since April 2012
    Obama has a 79% chance of winning according to Nate Silver

    Obama is ahead by an average of 2.3% in the most recent polls
    Obama has a 72.1% chance of winning according to Nate Silver

    So, in summary:
    With Ohio and one of Nevada/Iowa Obama wins 271 ECV and the presidency.

    At this stage it is looking likely that he will win Ohio, Nevada AND Iowa, and he has leads or is tied in a range of other states, including Colorado (9ECV). With Colorado he could actually lose Ohio and still win if he holds out in New Hampshire. Obama is currently 2% behind in early voting in Colorado versus his 2% lead in early voting last time (a 4% drop), but he carried Colorado by 9% in 2008.

  17. The Presidential debates and Obama’s chances of winning:

    Nate Silver ( analysis of chances of winning has some very interesting findings when it comes to the debates. Yes, yes, I know, the % may not be accurate and all that…..but at least it has a robust consistent methodology so any bias or error is likely to be in the same direction, and hence it is reasonable to look at trends which is what I am doing:

    If we look at Obama’s chances of winning from the day after each of the debates (which would be based on polling up until the debate but not after the debates):
    First Presidential debate (Oct 3rd): Obama 97.0% chance of winning
    First Vice-Pres. debate (Oct 11): Obama 56.1%
    Second Presidential debate (Oct 16): Obama 62.9%
    Third Presidential debate (Oct 22): Obama 70.6%

    As of today……..Obama 78.6% chance of winning, or he has regained half of what he lost after the 1st debate debacle.

  18. Let me say on the broader question of who should win this election, I have the most profound misgivings. Speaking as a leftist, neither of the major candidates should win. In a rather better America than obtains now, there would be a progressive candidate up against the conservative candidate and he or she would have a real chance of winning. To the best of my knowledge, there is no such candidate running in this election for President — at least not one contesting all 50 state ballots.

    So this election is not about voting for someone you’d like but against someone you’d find more repulsive in practice. This seems an odd distinction when we are comparing two candidates you both regard the mass killing of innocent people with drones in some far off land as an acceptable overhead for killing people they think deserve it. Both candidates are trying hard to present themselves as the best friend of a state (Israel) occupying another state (Palestine) and threatening to bomb a third state (Iran). Really, both candidates are seeking to place themselves at the head of what would be called a terrorist network if it weren’t affiliated to the UN. What their personal differences might be on health care or women’s rights or gay rights or even climate change seem rather secondary when you consider that.

    A question arises though — and it does go beyond what the main candidates say they will and won’t do — because the two have sharply different constituencies. The contest for the Presidency is a contest between two basic tribes. While both tribes are of right-of-centre disposition, one of them includes a slightly left-of-centre component and this has acted as a contraint on that tribe recruiting many seriously unhinged reactionaries and misogynists. Almost all of these have been drawn to the other tribe, and if that other tribe has its way and wins the Presidency, it’s certainly possible that what most would regard as unhinged, reactionary and misogynistic will come to be seen as an acceptable inflection of Americanism. America may be on the wane as an economic power, but it has enough military firepower to make a huge mess of places well outside its jurisdiction, and a second iteration of something perhaps even more crazy than the Bush era would not be a good thing for humanity as a whole. The Presidency isn’t just about Americans. It’s about how the world could run.

    Romney has demonstrated the truth of libertarian-leaning Gary Johnson’s remark that he is “a perfectly lubricated weathervane” — that he is indeed “etch-a-sketch man”. He, rather less than Obama, could restrain the truly mad elements of his tribe celebrating in their own special way. This is a man who says things not because they are true, but because they feel as if they ought to be true in the time and place where he is speaking. In this he resembles our own Tony Abbott. Luckily, Australia is not a serious contender for the world’s top cop.

    The crazy thing is that if Obama were white and especially if he had Romney’s jaw line, this would not be a close election. In a sense though this underlines the basic point about the two tribes. If Obama is beaten, it will almost certainly be read as showing that America’s experiment with a President who is not a white man was an anomaly — that the racial glass ceiling wasn’t really broken in 2008. Whether that’s fair or not, the question will linger.

    So it seems there might after all be a reason for holding one’s nose, sucking in a breath and supporting Obama, consoled by the fact that his victory will come with modest progress on universal health care, recognition of gay rights, equal pay for women, perhaps some progress on decarbonisation and so forth. Encouraging hordes of nutbags to think their visceral existential angst is fair comment and handing them scope to destroy the world and stack the SCOTUS with people of their kind seems unthinkable.

    I’m just glad I’m not American and can have this discussion at some distance from responsibility.

  19. [Carey Moore — (since you’re here) I’d have used prossima for “next” in your Italian passage on the next poll. Successiva is much closer to the “subsequent” or “following” senses of “next” and is best used for past chronology.]

    Thank you. Still learning the language. The grammar can be a little confusing at times.

  20. No problems Carey. You can also use successiva to describe future chronologies in cases where it means something like “thereafter” — perhaps in a description of a procedure to be undertaken or a likely anticipated sequence.

    [Dave Jamieson

    Sheldon Adelson Pressures Casino Workers With Pro-Romney Voter ‘Guide’
    Posted: 10/26/2012 9:36 pm EDT Updated: 10/26/2012 9:53 pm EDT

    WASHINGTON — Billionaire Sheldon Adelson apparently isn’t content to influence the presidential election through his multi-million dollar donations to conservative super PACs. It seems the casino mogul wants to see his workers vote his way, too.

    Management at Las Vegas Sands Corp., Adelson’s casino group, has been distributing voter guides friendly to Republican nominee Mitt Romney and critical of President Barack Obama to its casino employees in Las Vegas.]
    Includes a link to one of the guides


    Don’t give Florida and North Carolina away just yet……

    The proportion of white voters in the Registered voters list is decreasing and the proportion of black and hispanic voters is increasing in 2012 compared with 2008 in Florida and North Carolina (see above link).

    A little play with the numbers from the changing racial demographics of registered voters in 2008 versus 2012 provides interesting results. If we assume people vote based on racial characteristics, exactly as they voted in 2008, but with the 2012 make-up:

    Florida: estimated margin goes from 2.8% win in 2008 to 4.0% Obama margin.
    North Carolina: estimated margin foes from 0.5% win in 2008 to 3.5% Obama margin.

    So Romney needs a 4% gain on 2008 to break even.

  23. Re choice of pres. candidates
    Obama has made more and more drone strikes
    A writer in Counterpunch saw this is an escalation of the usual militristic policies followed by all US pres. in our time
    Likewise he failed to bring the banksters to justice
    No single criminal prosececution has yet taken place over the 2007 financial crisis

    His social reforms have been timid ancd his health reforms while well-intentioned have been small
    He’s no Roosevelt…even LBJ..war aside …did more

    His oppenents however are loathsome religious cranks…but he leads a US on a steep dopwnwards slope…worse is to come as the empire unwinds…as all empires do !

  24. Yep I’d be similarly surprised if Obama cleared Florida and NC. But if it means that Mitt has to devote resources to holding the line in those states then it aids Obama.

    As they say in footy – if you can’t win the ball make it a contest.

  25. Both Gallup and Rasmussen show a 3% drop in Approval and a 3% rise in Disapproval over the last few days.

    ….not sure why or what this means, given state level polling hasnt changed the story (narrow win to Obama). However, usually a President needs >50% to win and its definitely not there and sagging now…

  26. []

    Now I am really worried…..Malcolm Mackerras is predicting an Obama win.

  27. Obama extends to 51-47 lead in Virginia according to ABC/WashPost poll. Interesting.

    538 now out to 74+ chance for Obama.

  28. I think there is one more set of monthly Labor stats due out before the elections. The positive trend in the October results favoured Obama’s narrative.

    I do wonder, with all the money being spent on the election campaign, does the campaign itself become a little Keynesian stimulus that biases employment outcomes?

  29. Tagg Romney apologises for wanting to take a swing at Obama.

    [Asked in that interview what it’s like “to hear the President of the United States call your dad a liar,” Tagg Romney joked about his fantasy response.

    “Jump out of your seat and you want to rush down to the debate stage and take a swing at him,” he said. “But you know you can’t do that because, well, first because there’s a lot of Secret Service between you and him, but also because that’s the nature of the process. You know they’re going to try to do anything they can do to make my dad into something he’s not.”

    “We signed up for it, we’ve got to kind of sit there and take our punches, and send them the other way,” he continued.

    One of Tagg Romney’s brothers, Josh, downplayed the comments in an interview on ABC’s “The View.”

    “That brother has slugged me a couple of times,” Josh Romney said. “I’m sure President Obama has nothing to worry about.”]

    Obama could run a couple of nice lines now that Tagg has apologised.

    Obama being nice: A boy standing up for his Dad? I’m not going to take a swing at that. Family solidarity is a good thing.

    I recall the passion of youth. You do realise after a while though that some of your more entertaining flights of fancy are best when kept in your own head and not shared. I’m sure Tagg will get there.

    <em<Obama being nasty Well I’m going to forget it. Perhaps Tagg can respond with a little Romnesia.

    I suspect he won’t do either, and certainly the latter, but it would be funnier.

    Apparently a cyclone/tropical storm is disrupting campaigning with Romney trailing in Virginia 51-47. Obama has a 3% lead in contacting voters.

  30. @fran barlow

    I’d expect that Obama would play it safe and not open himself up to attack by commenting on Tagg.

    Still, you can always delegate the job.


    300k more hispanic voters and 151k more black voters in Florida (Obama +180k vs. ’08)
    166k more white voters in Florida (Romney +23k vs. ’08)

    Obama won Florida by 240k in 2008 so he starts 2012 with a 400k margin.

    [At the same point in 2008, 257,000 more Republicans than Democrats had early voted. This year, it’s just 33,500 more. “In a state President Obama won by nearly 240,000 votes, that’s a 223,500-vote swing even the dizziest Republican can’t spin away,” Bird wrote. Democrats have also cut Republicans’ absentee ballot advantage in half.

    All of that, added to state’s demographic shifts – 300,000 new Hispanic voters, 100,000 African American and Caribbean American voters – overwhelmingly favor Democrats. Just 10 percent of the new Hispanic voters have registered as Republicans. In all, the Obama campaign expects minority voters to make up more than 30 percent of the Florida electorate, up from 28 percent in 2008.]

    [Can the company fire you for the way you vote?
    Very likely, yes. When it comes to employees’ political views, the free market, not free speech, is the power that rules America
    Michael Paarlberg, Friday 26 October 2012 18.39 BST

    So many stories of employers pressuring their workers to vote for Romney have come out that you might think workplace intimidation was invented just for this election.]

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