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. Can we call it the Harry Reid effect? 🙂

    It’s quite possible, especially with a good ground game and Obama still seems to have that spades if the noises out of Florida are anything to go by. Also Latinos are more likely to be cell phone only voters, so that on its own undercounts Latino voters in some US polls.

    What’s interesting about Nevada is the early voting, I have bit more on that in a few mins.

  2. [Diogenes
    Posted Friday, November 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm | PERMALINK

    Obama is way ahead in early voting but he’s not as far ahead in a few states as he was in 2008. In Colorado I think he might even be behind in early voting.]

    Colorado (remember Obama’s margin in 2008 was 8.6%):
    2008 early vote: Dem 37.7, Rep 35.9, = +1.8%
    2012 early vote: Dem 35.0, Rep 37.8, = -2.8%

    So this 4.6% difference between 2008 and 2012 is not enough given Obama’s 8.6% buffer.

    So far 53.9% of the total final 2008 turnout has lodged an early vote in 2012.
    78.2% voted early in Colorado in 2008 so we are heading for that kind of number again.

    Iowa is the same (was 18% lead in 2008, currently 12% lead = 6% drop in margin but Obama had a 9% margin so still safe…

  3. Thanks ML and Diogenes.

    On another issue. it has been bothering me that the effects of the big storm may serve to lower the turnout for Obama. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that bad weather usually favours the Repubs. Any thoughts on that?

  4. Gee….another great question. I have been wondering about this as well.

    Normally a big turnout favours the Dems, but that is because the majority of adults favour Democrats and the Republicans only win when the Democrat poor and lower educated voters who would vote for the Dems don’t bother / can’t vote (transport / time off work etc etc).

    How to interpret this when the voting is interrupted mid stream is hard, because the Dems usually win the early voting (at least in elections before this one) as the Republicans don’t really bother with ground games and early voting initiatives.

    The fall in voting along the east coast might influence the margins but Romney has no chance of winning New York so it wont affect the allocation of their electoral college votes.

  5. Thanks ML. Good to hear that New York is safe. Were there any other states badly affected in such a way that it might cause a lower turnout among Democrat supporters?

    Another matter of interest to me is that apparently there is a move afoot (don’t know how strong it is) to amend the constitution and change the day of voting to Saturday rather than Tuesday. I suspect if that happened it would lift the Democrat turnout somewhat, as many workers would find it difficult and inconvenient to get away and vote during the week.

  6. In terms of the national early vote figures form polls (i.e. Pew), Electionate hit it right on the head here:

    In short the state which don’t have early voting are mostly eastern blue states, this skews the national figures

    What strikes me about the Nevada vote is that early votes cast are now 58% of all votes in 2008, the same proportion as the entirety of 2008 early votes as a share of all votes cast in 2008. With such a large portion of the final vote cast and most early votes now cast we can have a go at estimating the final outcome.

    The partisan breakdown of the early votes is D 44, R 37, I 14 state-wide, a 7 pt Dem lead

    In 2008 partisan breakdowns for early voters were only released for the two largest counties Clark and Washoe (which hold about 80% of the voters in NV anyway).

    In Clark County the early voting breakdown was D 52, R 30, I 18. Obama won the county 58-40, a 22 pt partisan advantage in early voting translated into an 18 pt win.

    In Washoe County a 12 pt partisan breakdown translated into a 12pt Obama win.

    All in all lets give Romney a 3 pt handicap with early voting figures.

    This implies a final Obama victory of 4 pts.

    PS: I got these figures from Prof. McDonald’s excellent site.

  7. If I may offer a qualitative analysis, I think Obama has sealed the deal with his leadership during the campaign. He acted like a president, whereas Romney (while he didn’t do anything wrong, per se) merely looked like a candidate. Obama just needs to keep hold of the ball and run the clock down, I reckon.

  8. @carey

    agreed – although a very bad job number might have given romney a shot – it didn’t happen. I think its over

    Obama 303 in the EC

  9. [change the day of voting to Saturday rather than Tuesday.]

    I actually don’t think changing the day will make a huge difference, particularly since the Red states have early voting (notwithstanding attempts by Republican state governments to limit or stop this, thankfully prevented by the courts).

    The real issue with POTUS elections is that election decisions (districting, voting methods, counting) are made by partisan hacks and not an independent body with democracy at heart rather than redistricting to help your party and the absolutely revolting super PACs and campaign funding and superficial campaigning where the candidates talk to true believers rather than do hostile interviews where they are grilled to within an inch of their political lives.

    I remember there being an interesting reason for the Tuesday election day….something to do with horses and carriages and getting produce to market. Does anyone remember?

  10. Yeah, NH will be fine. As long as the party alienates the Rockefeller Republicans, NH will stay blue*

    *barring the odd small government Republican getting elected to the House/Senate/Governor’s mansion, of course…

  11. New Hampshire (New England College):
    Romney vs. Obama
    Obama 50, Romney 44 Obama +6

    Up from 49-46 Obama last week. The wind is at the President’s back…..

  12. I think the hurricane was really bad for Romney. Not only had he said he’d toss FEMA but it clearly showed how important government can be.

    You can’t just let the free market clean up after a hurricane.

  13. I think the hurricane was really bad for Romney. Not only had he said he’d toss FEMA but it clearly showed how important government can be.

    Yeah Romney’s response in the debate to a question on FEMA was that these responsibilities should be delegated to the state and ideally to the private sector.

    As is often the case Stephen Colbert satirised this perfectly,

    “we should make disaster relief the sole responsibility of the states. Who better to respond on what’s going on inside its own borders than the state who’s infrastructure has just been swept out to sea…”

  14. [Obama was leading Romney among those who said they already voted by 6 points, 52-46, according to the SurveyUSA poll commissioned by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and 8NewsNow.]

    The only poll in the last week, the party registration of early voters and the results of reports from voters who say they have already voted are all consistent with an Obama win of >5%.

    Given the fact that two thirds of voters have already voted (based on 2008 turnout), this all bodes very well for Obama and means Romney needs around two thirds of the remaining voters to win (which given his current position would be a massive turnaround).

    With Nevada, Obama can lose every other swing state as long as he keeps Ohio (where Romney’s best result in +2 in a Republican leaning poll and has lost in every other poll- and there have been two dozen!- for the last 3 weeks).

  15. Is anyone here willing to do a big favour?

    I have copies of the CNN, NBC and Fox News broadcasts of the 2008 election night broadcasts. I have kept them (historical purposes).

    I am dead keen on obtaining copies of the same (CNN, NBC and Fox) but this year I don’t have Foxtel to record.

    Would anyone be able to a) record any/all of these broadcasts, and b) upload/record to DVD the broadcasts and send them to me?

    Would really appreciate it.

    [2 November 2012 Last updated at 07:08 GMT
    Jonny Dymond Washington correspondent

    Mitt Romney’s dwindling ‘diner’ supporters

    Ma and Pa’s Diner in Virginia is in a squat building by the highway – a place close enough to the airport to make it an anonymous hangout for travelling types. But it’s actually a neighbourhood joint.]
    [Chart: Almost Every Obama Conspiracy Theory Ever
    Fake birth certificates, ghostwriters, teleprompters, a teenage trip to Mars, and more of the most paranoid and bizarro Obama conspiracy theories out there.
    —By Asawin Suebsaeng and Dave Gilson]

  17. Latest polls

    45% 51% Oct 30 Nov 01 Mason Dixon
    49% 47% Oct 31 Nov 01 Marist Coll.
    New Hampshire
    50% 44% Oct 29 Oct 31 New England College
    49% 49% Nov 01 Nov 01 Rasmussen
    50% 47% Oct 30 Nov 01 ORC International
    51% 45% Oct 31 Nov 01 Marist Coll.

    Plus this:

    [In 2008, John McCain beat Barack Obama by 12 points among white voters, 55% to 43%. Obama more than made up for that with overwhelming edges among black voters (95% to 4%) and Latino voters (67% to 31%). The most recent WaPo/ABC national poll put Romney’s lead over Obama with whites at 57% to 39%. This is 6% worse than in 2008. On the other hand, Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 was about 7%, so if he is doing 6% worse with 3/4 of the voters, that would explain why the race is fairly close nationally. If Obama can do as well with the minorities as last time, that might be just enough to barely win the popular vote.]

  18. I was out, so sorry for the delay! However, I am not changing my earlier prediction- Obama 332 (just minor changes to margins):

    Minnesota: +5
    Wisconsin: +5
    Nevada: +5 …. now +4
    Ohio: +1 … now +2
    Colorado: +2 … now +1
    Virginia: +1
    New Hampshire: +1 … now +2
    Iowa: +2 … now +3
    Florida: +0.1 … now +0.5
    North Carolina: -2.0

    Obama 50.8%
    Romney 48.0%

  19. Senate predictions (draft 2) = 54

    That is made up of 47 safe Senate seats, including Maine Independent King, plus:
    Mass: Dem (Warren) +5
    Conn: Dem (Murphy) +5
    Missouri: Dem (McCaskill) +5
    Wisconsin: Dem (Baldwin) +2
    Virginia: Dem (Kaine) +1
    Indiana: Dem (Donn) +1 … now +4
    Montana: Dem (Tester) +1

    Nevada: Rep (Heller) -1
    Nth Dakota: Rep (Berg) -3
    Arizona: Rep (Flake) -3
    Nebraska: Rep (Fisher) -5

  20. Either there will be egg on the faces of 20 reputable polling companies next week, with Nate Silver out of a job, or Obama wins handsomely.

  21. Greetings from Lille, where it is cold and wet.

    In today’s Wall St Journal, Karl Rove says that Romney will win Ohio and the election. Next week he will either be revered as a genius, or he will be finished. I suspect the latter. The Republican Party seems to be living in a total fantasy-land.

    This week’s Economist endorses Obama, while saying quite a lot of harsh things about him, most of which I agree with.

  22. “@stephenspector: FACT: In CO, FL, IA, NC, and NV, 1.3 million non-midterm Dems have voted already, compared with just 840,000 non-midterm Republicans.”

    [Iowa Poll: Final stretch in Iowa gives edge to Obama
    6:59 PM, Nov 3, 2012 | by Jennifer Jacobs

    Iowans are feeling more optimistic about where the nation is headed, and they’re giving President Barack Obama the credit.

    Obama is up 5 percentage points in Iowa, leading Republican Mitt Romney 47 percent to 42 percent, according to a new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, although the results also contain signs of hope for Romney, political strategists said.]

  24. Okay, so here goes, my crystal ball:

    Obama to win with 50.5% of the popular vote (versus Romney’s 48.5%)

    He will get 303 electoral votes (2008 states minus Indiana, North Carolina, Florida and NE-02) – Romney will win the remaining 235.

    The results of the “10 states of interest” as described by Mod Lib:

    1. Minnesota: Obama 52% (Romney 46%)
    2. Wisconsin: Obama 52% (Romney 47%)
    3. Nevada: Obama 51% (Romney 48%)
    4. Ohio: Obama 50.5% (Romney 49%)
    5. Colorado: Obama 49% (Romney 49%)
    6. Virginia: Obama 49.5% (Romney 48.5%)
    7. New Hampshire: Obama 51% (Romney 48%)
    8. Iowa: Obama 52% (Romney 47%)
    9. Florida: Romney 49% (Obama 49%)
    10. North Carolina: Romney 50.5% (Obama 48%)

    As for the Senate, the next session will be composed as follows:

    52D – 46R – 2I (Sanders and King)

    The seats changing party hands will be as follows:

    Dem pickups:

    Indiana from GOP
    Massachusetts from GOP
    Connecticut from Independent (Lieberman)

    GOP pickups:

    North Dakota from Democrats
    Nebraska from Democrats

    Independent pickups:

    Maine from GOP (King)

    All other seats will be retained by the party currently holding them.

    As for the House, I really don’t know, so I will just make a wild guess and say the GOP to retain 230-205.

    Governor’s races will hold for the incumbent parties, except North Carolina, which will go from Democrat to Republican.

    Ummm… will not bother with state legislative, municipal or referendum ballots, so I think that’s it…

  25. [In today’s Wall St Journal, Karl Rove says that Romney will win Ohio and the election. Next week he will either be revered as a genius, or he will be finished. I suspect the latter. The Republican Party seems to be living in a total fantasy-land.]

    Rove’s genius is highly overrated, as far as I am concerned. He was just very lucky. He ran a shit campaign in 2000 that merely won because the other side ran a shittier one and he happened to be given a great present in 2001, that he was able to use to Bush’s advantage in 2002 and 2004 (something any strategist with half a brain would’ve done) as soon as the “fearless leader Bush” image popped, Rove’s strategies were as effective as a headless chicken.

    He was good at knowing what wedges are effective, I grant that, but he was only effective when the cards were right for him. Most other races he’s touched have performed mediocre at best.

  26. Either there will be egg on the faces of 20 reputable polling companies next week, with Nate Silver out of a job, or Obama wins handsomely.

    According to google trends – interest in Nate’s predictions is more the double its peak in 2008. He’s certainly become a focal point.

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