Commentary Magazine


Posts For: October 21, 2012

Expecting the Electorally Unexpected

Throughout the Republican primary season, the favorite fallback story angle for pundits was one that hyped the possibility of a deadlock that would lead to an open or contested GOP convention. That was always highly unlikely, and in the end it didn’t come close to happening. Mitt Romney wound up sweeping the field and the Tampa convention was the usual boring political infomercial, rather than one that harkened back to the colorful and unpredictable political conclaves that were par for the course in an earlier era of American history. The yearning for this anomaly said more about the desire of the media for something interesting to cover than anything else, but it must be admitted that it was always a possibility, albeit one that had very little chance of coming to pass. Several months later, the media has a new meme along the same lines: the possibility that one candidate will win the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. This, too, is unlikely. But given both recent history and the way some of the polls are looking, this one is a bit more difficult to dismiss.

As much as it is difficult to understand what exactly the myriad of polls are telling us about the presidential race, there does appear to be a difference between the way President Obama’s standing in the national polls has declined and his ability to remain competitive if not ahead in many of the key swing states. If this continued, it could mean that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote but still lose the Electoral College as the president won razor-thin majorities in a few battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa and Colorado. If this happened, Democrats who cried bloody murder in 2000 when George W. Bush found a similar path to the presidency would enjoy the turnabout and Republicans who defended the arcane system would suddenly discover the necessity of its abolition. But before we start preparing ourselves for another Bush v. Gore Armageddon, it’s important to point out that while it is possible, it’s probably not going to happen.

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Throughout the Republican primary season, the favorite fallback story angle for pundits was one that hyped the possibility of a deadlock that would lead to an open or contested GOP convention. That was always highly unlikely, and in the end it didn’t come close to happening. Mitt Romney wound up sweeping the field and the Tampa convention was the usual boring political infomercial, rather than one that harkened back to the colorful and unpredictable political conclaves that were par for the course in an earlier era of American history. The yearning for this anomaly said more about the desire of the media for something interesting to cover than anything else, but it must be admitted that it was always a possibility, albeit one that had very little chance of coming to pass. Several months later, the media has a new meme along the same lines: the possibility that one candidate will win the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. This, too, is unlikely. But given both recent history and the way some of the polls are looking, this one is a bit more difficult to dismiss.

As much as it is difficult to understand what exactly the myriad of polls are telling us about the presidential race, there does appear to be a difference between the way President Obama’s standing in the national polls has declined and his ability to remain competitive if not ahead in many of the key swing states. If this continued, it could mean that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote but still lose the Electoral College as the president won razor-thin majorities in a few battleground states such as Ohio, Iowa and Colorado. If this happened, Democrats who cried bloody murder in 2000 when George W. Bush found a similar path to the presidency would enjoy the turnabout and Republicans who defended the arcane system would suddenly discover the necessity of its abolition. But before we start preparing ourselves for another Bush v. Gore Armageddon, it’s important to point out that while it is possible, it’s probably not going to happen.

I’ve taken issue with some of Nate Silver’s conclusions about the race recently, but I’ve great respect for the former baseball analyst’s willingness to look at the statistical truth where it can be discerned from what he rightly calls the “noise” that tends to distract us. Silver assessed the likelihood of a number of different scenarios and puts the current odds on their coming to pass in this manner:

How often the following situations occurred during repeated simulated elections.

  • Electoral College tie (269 electoral votes for each candidate) 0.4%
  • Recount (one or more decisive states within 0.5 percentage points) 10.1%
  • Obama wins popular vote 63.8%
  • Romney wins popular vote 36.2%
  • Obama wins popular vote but loses electoral college 1.7%
  • Romney wins popular vote but loses electoral college 5.8%
  • Obama landslide (double-digit popular vote margin) 0.7%
  • Romney landslide (double-digit popular vote margin) 0.2%
  • Map exactly the same as in 2008 0.1%
  • Map exactly the same as in 2004 <0.1%
  • Obama loses at least one state he carried in 2008 99.5%
  • Obama wins at least one state he failed to carry in 2008 4.6%

I think the liberal writer is overly optimistic about Obama’s chances, though you can bet he will revise those numbers in the last days before the election if it looks like Romney is heading to victory. But I have no quarrel with his assessment of the other scenarios, especially the one that shows that there is slightly more than one in chance in 20 that Romney wins the popular vote while Obama wins the Electoral College.

The point here is that whether you believe Gallup and its tracking poll that shows Romney up by seven percentage points or Investors Business Daily/ TIPP and its survey that has Obama up by six or the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that calls the race a tie, the odds are that in the last two weeks the swing states will follow the national polls or vice versa. It is far more reasonable to suggest that the trend will break one way or another (or rather, hold steady as Romney continues to gain ground in most surveys that do not, like IBD, have samples that are heavily skewed toward the Democrats) than anything else. That’s why it is also reasonable to assume that whoever wins the presidency may be able to influence enough state races to swing an evenly divided U.S. Senate with them as well.

Nevertheless, the fact that the popular vote diverged from the Electoral College result only 12 years ago means this isn’t merely a discussion that revolves around the unkind fates that befell Democrats Samuel Tilden and Grover Cleveland in 1876 and 1888. If that happens again in 2012 (which would make it only the fifth time in American history that result was obtained), but especially if it happened to a Republican this time, then I would have to agree with New York Times editorial writer Juliet Lapidos that this would probably mean the end of the Electoral College. This will probably not happen, but we may see another Electoral College/popular vote split before we experience another contested national political convention.

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No Bounce for Obama Clouds Dem Forecast

The flood of opinion polls that are being published this week continues to provide a confusing picture of the presidential election. But there is one thing about them on which most people agree: President Obama does not appear to have gotten a bounce in the wake of the second presidential debate. Even the most optimistic of liberal pundits, such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose “Five Thirty Eight Forecast” is still sticking with the president to win in November, concedes that it’s “hard to make the case that the polls have moved much toward Mr. Obama since Tuesday night’s debate in New York.” While he is hopeful that even a slight nudge toward the president could alter the race this late in the game, there’s little reason to believe this is the case. Nor is there any doubt that the only game-changing event in the last six weeks was Mitt Romney’s performance in the first debate in Denver. It was at that point that the polls started shifting in the Republican’s direction. Though Romney made a number of mistakes in the second debate and Obama put on a better show after a drowsy performance in Denver, the electorate was largely unmoved.

No debate bounce means it is even more unlikely that the third debate to be held on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida will move the needle much no matter what happens. Though each camp hopes for a rout for their man, Obama’s failure to gain ground after the encounter on Long Island means a bounce of any size for the president or Romney after the third debate is not in the cards. That’s bad news for Democrats who are still looking for something that will alter the direction of a campaign that has been steadily looking worse for them this month.

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The flood of opinion polls that are being published this week continues to provide a confusing picture of the presidential election. But there is one thing about them on which most people agree: President Obama does not appear to have gotten a bounce in the wake of the second presidential debate. Even the most optimistic of liberal pundits, such as the New York Times’ Nate Silver, whose “Five Thirty Eight Forecast” is still sticking with the president to win in November, concedes that it’s “hard to make the case that the polls have moved much toward Mr. Obama since Tuesday night’s debate in New York.” While he is hopeful that even a slight nudge toward the president could alter the race this late in the game, there’s little reason to believe this is the case. Nor is there any doubt that the only game-changing event in the last six weeks was Mitt Romney’s performance in the first debate in Denver. It was at that point that the polls started shifting in the Republican’s direction. Though Romney made a number of mistakes in the second debate and Obama put on a better show after a drowsy performance in Denver, the electorate was largely unmoved.

No debate bounce means it is even more unlikely that the third debate to be held on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida will move the needle much no matter what happens. Though each camp hopes for a rout for their man, Obama’s failure to gain ground after the encounter on Long Island means a bounce of any size for the president or Romney after the third debate is not in the cards. That’s bad news for Democrats who are still looking for something that will alter the direction of a campaign that has been steadily looking worse for them this month.

That is especially true since Monday’s debate will focus on foreign policy. Foreign and defense issues are the president’s most important responsibility but given the failing economy, they are not at the top of most voters minds this year.

Romney tends to flounder when talking about anything but the economy, but in contrast to his blunders on Libya that let Obama off the hook at Hofstra, it is probable that he will come prepared with pointed and accurate criticisms of the administration’s Benghazi fiasco as well its failures on Iran. President Obama’s only effective foreign policy argument is that Osama bin Laden is dead, but since Libya shows that Al Qaeda is alive and well that point doesn’t have as much punch as it did a couple of months ago. But even if it did, at this point it is fair to wonder whether anything said tomorrow night would have much electoral significance.

The race is still very tight and neither side has any reason to believe that it is home free or doomed. But the trend in the national polls, especially those that are not skewed by unrepresentative samples of the electorate, is in Romney’s favor. He has done less well in swing state polls, but even in those polls there appears to be a shift in his favor as Ohio tightens up and Florida, Virginia and North Carolina all look to be less hopeful for the president than they were only a few weeks ago. If this trend holds, that makes Obama’s chances for re-election look far less rosy than Silver’s optimistic forecast would have it.

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How Bureaucracy Crowds Out Good Intel

Not surprisingly (for anyone familiar with the ways of Washington) the intelligence community is fighting back against the common assumption that there was an intelligence failure in Benghazi–not only in preventing the attack but in describing it afterward as the work of a spontaneous mob rather than a planned jihadist terrorist attack.

Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press writes: “The CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, U.S. officials have told The Associated Press.”

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Not surprisingly (for anyone familiar with the ways of Washington) the intelligence community is fighting back against the common assumption that there was an intelligence failure in Benghazi–not only in preventing the attack but in describing it afterward as the work of a spontaneous mob rather than a planned jihadist terrorist attack.

Kimberly Dozier of the Associated Press writes: “The CIA station chief in Libya reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month’s deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, U.S. officials have told The Associated Press.”

I don’t doubt that was the case, and that’s why I did not single out the CIA for criticism in my blog item a few days ago suggesting that readers of the New York Times or Washington Post often have better information than readers of classified intelligence products. The CIA is by far and away the best intelligence agency we have when it comes to both collecting human intelligence and analyzing intelligence. But it is overly large and overly bureaucratic. Enterprising officers are often frustrated by miles of red tape. That is even more the case in many of the 15 other intelligence agencies, and of course on top of all of them is another layer of useless bureaucracy–the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The result of all this bureaucracy is that even good information and analysis often gets lost in the analytical noise and it takes a long time to sort out what actually happened–whereas even in the biggest newspapers there are far fewer layers between the “collectors” (i.e., reporters) and consumers (i.e. readers). Thus it is no surprise to read in Dozier’s article: “It is unclear who, if anyone, saw the cable outside the CIA at that point and how high up in the agency the information went.” In an intelligence bureaucracy as big as ours, authority is diffuse, responsibility is hard to pin down, and information often falls between the cracks. That makes disasters such as Benghazi more likely.

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