Commentary Magazine


Topic: opinion polls

Dem Senate Comeback May Be Fool’s Gold

Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

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Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

The need to frame the midterms in terms of a wave is understandable. Journalists love a story that they can wrap up in a neat unifying package that explains everything. That’s why so many political pundits are so eager to try to interpret any national election—even a congressional midterm which is really dozens if not hundreds of separate races piled together—through a single lens. The problem is that even when such elections produce a big victory for either party, the reason for all these results often is more the product of a host of local factors rather than a national tide sweeping the nation.

That’s an important lesson for pundits to remember in 2014. Within the last couple of days, the New York Times’s Upshot, the Washington Post’s The Fix, and Nate Silver’s Five-Thirty-Eight all reversed their previous findings showing the GOP as the big favorite to take the Senate and now say it is a tossup. They didn’t agree as to the reason for this momentum swing. Silver believes the decisive factor is a Democratic edge in campaign fundraising with liberal and Democratic Super PACs outspending conservative and Republican ones. He may be right about that. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, Democrats are using their considerable resources, with the aid of their reliable cheering section in the mainstream press, to paint GOP opponents as either extremists (as they are trying to do to Joni Ernst in Iowa) or sexist fools (as they seem to have done with Thom Tillis in North Carolina who is still dealing with the “mansplaining” charge lodged against him).

Moreover, the more you break down the 2014 races, the more apparent that national trends can be irrelevant to Senate races. That’s certainly true in deep-red Kansas where incumbent GOP Senator Pat Roberts finds himself in deep trouble because he is considered out of touch with a state that he doesn’t live in much anymore. The willingness of his Democratic opponent to pull out of the state in favor of a Democrat-leaning independent has transformed Kansas from a GOP lock to a possible loss.

Indeed, as much as money, political pragmatism seems to be the best weapon in the Democrat arsenal this year. Wherever Democrats are doing better or holding their own, it is largely because they are seeking to distance themselves from both President Obama and the national Democratic Party. Both North Carolina incumbent Kay Hagan and Georgia challenger Michelle Nunn have been adept in fleeing the president’s embrace. Viewed in isolation, these races not only confound any thought of a Republican midterm wave but also remind us that elections are principally decided on the basis of the ability of the candidates more than the party labels they wear.

But even if we concede that the last week has provided a great deal of comfort for Democrats, they shouldn’t get too cocky. As the party in charge of the White House, they are still laboring under tremendous disadvantages this fall that provide their GOP opponents with a safety net that could cushion the impact of any surge in Democrat fundraising as a result of these new more favorable predictions. National surveys, such as the latest New York Times/CBS Poll, show President Obama’s job approval ratings still heading south. Just as important, Republicans are gaining crucial advantages with the public on the economy, foreign policy, terrorism, and immigration.

While those who would extrapolate from these numbers the seeds of a genuine Republican wave are probably exaggerating the impact of national polls on local races, the Democrats are still dealing with some very unfavorable electoral math. In order to hold the Senate, they need to take one or two Republican seats (Kansas and Georgia representing their best chances), preserve the seats of one or two of their endangered red-state incumbents (North Carolina’s Hagan being their best chance of that), win some of the tossup states like Iowa, while also avoiding losing any of the seats that they thought were not endangered like that of New Hampshire’s Jean Shaheen.

Is that doable? Yes. Is it likely? The answer here is still no.

As much as the outlook has brightened for Democrats, Stuart Rothenberg’s prediction last week that Republicans will win at least 7 seats and possible more is still the more reasonable conclusion about an electoral map and a national political atmosphere that is heavily slanted toward the GOP. Democrats may be able to stop the bleeding and stay competitive by constantly reminding voters that their name isn’t Barack Obama. But doing so also reminds the electorate why midterms trend against the party in power.

Even more to the point, unlike in the past when Republicans came up short in efforts to win back the Senate, this time they don’t appear to be burdened with a roster of terrible candidates. Weak incumbents like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Prior in Arkansas might have survived against equally weak challengers but they didn’t get that lucky. And strong GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire have put seats in play that many thought to be safe for the Democrats.

So while the pundits should forget about waves, the notion of a big Democrat comeback may be more a case of them finding fool’s gold than a real path to victory in November.

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The Last Ditch of GOP Optimism

Conservatives have spent much of the last few weeks expressing skepticism about polls that showed President Obama winning the election. Democrats claimed this was merely a case of premature sour grapes. But that disbelief, which I shared, was rooted in a reasonable argument. Most polls showing Obama ahead had samples that showed an electorate that seemed to match the 2008 turnout model, in which the Democrats had a large advantage in partisan identification. It seemed highly unlikely that the Democrats could maintain that lead after four dispiriting years of the Obama administration. Surely, they reasoned, the partisan split would be a lot more even in 2012, and polls with more balanced samples showed Romney ahead.

Yet the exit polls currently being discussed on the networks’ elections coverage are showing a turnout model remarkably similar to 2008. That makes the polls look smart and those that staked their reputations on them — like the New York Times’s Nate Silver — even smarter.

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Conservatives have spent much of the last few weeks expressing skepticism about polls that showed President Obama winning the election. Democrats claimed this was merely a case of premature sour grapes. But that disbelief, which I shared, was rooted in a reasonable argument. Most polls showing Obama ahead had samples that showed an electorate that seemed to match the 2008 turnout model, in which the Democrats had a large advantage in partisan identification. It seemed highly unlikely that the Democrats could maintain that lead after four dispiriting years of the Obama administration. Surely, they reasoned, the partisan split would be a lot more even in 2012, and polls with more balanced samples showed Romney ahead.

Yet the exit polls currently being discussed on the networks’ elections coverage are showing a turnout model remarkably similar to 2008. That makes the polls look smart and those that staked their reputations on them — like the New York Times’s Nate Silver — even smarter.

But the only problem with this is that exit polls are notoriously inaccurate. They also tend to favor Democrats. If you don’t believe that truism, just ask President John Kerry, who believed the exit polls that said he won the 2004 election before President George W. Bush was re-elected.

But the question is how inaccurate the exit polls are this year. Even if they are off by a bit, if they are somewhat close to the actual totals, that is very bad news for Mitt Romney. While the night is still young, the last ditch of Republican optimism is based on disbelief in the exit polls. Like the skepticism about the pre-election polls, this is not an unreasonable position. But the exits are going to have to be off by a lot in order for Romney to be the next president.

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Tracking Polls Say Election No Sure Thing

To listen to the Obama campaign and many liberal pundits the last few days, the presidential election is a foregone conclusion and the president is a sure bet to be re-elected. But even though there’s no question the Democrats gained ground over the last week, the latest national tracking polls tell a different story. The president is ahead in none of the four most recent national tracking polls. Mitt Romney has a slender one-percentage point lead in both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls taken over the last few days, while he is tied with the president in the CNN/Opinion Research and the Monmouth/SurveyUSA/Braun poll. Taken together, and even if one is inclined to believe one more than another, the quartet of surveys illustrates that the race remains very close with either candidate in position to win.

The polls, which continue to show Romney leading among independents by a large margin, also demonstrate that the key to victory tomorrow will be turnout. Romney continues to do better among likely voters than among all those registered, something that will require Democrats to get all of their supporters out to vote. But if Republican enthusiasm continues to run high, it will be difficult for Democrats to replicate the 2008 electorate, in which they had a huge partisan identification advantage. These national numbers may not translate into an edge for Romney in individual battleground states like Ohio. That means we are looking at a possible replay of 2000, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College. Yet Romney’s camp has to believe that if they wind up with more votes overall, that is bound to translate into some upsets in swing states where most of the generally less scientific statewide polls continue to show Obama leading. That may not be how things play out, but these national numbers have to sow some doubts in the minds of Democratic strategists who know the odds of the loser of the popular vote getting 270 electoral votes is still a long shot.

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To listen to the Obama campaign and many liberal pundits the last few days, the presidential election is a foregone conclusion and the president is a sure bet to be re-elected. But even though there’s no question the Democrats gained ground over the last week, the latest national tracking polls tell a different story. The president is ahead in none of the four most recent national tracking polls. Mitt Romney has a slender one-percentage point lead in both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls taken over the last few days, while he is tied with the president in the CNN/Opinion Research and the Monmouth/SurveyUSA/Braun poll. Taken together, and even if one is inclined to believe one more than another, the quartet of surveys illustrates that the race remains very close with either candidate in position to win.

The polls, which continue to show Romney leading among independents by a large margin, also demonstrate that the key to victory tomorrow will be turnout. Romney continues to do better among likely voters than among all those registered, something that will require Democrats to get all of their supporters out to vote. But if Republican enthusiasm continues to run high, it will be difficult for Democrats to replicate the 2008 electorate, in which they had a huge partisan identification advantage. These national numbers may not translate into an edge for Romney in individual battleground states like Ohio. That means we are looking at a possible replay of 2000, when the winner of the popular vote did not win the Electoral College. Yet Romney’s camp has to believe that if they wind up with more votes overall, that is bound to translate into some upsets in swing states where most of the generally less scientific statewide polls continue to show Obama leading. That may not be how things play out, but these national numbers have to sow some doubts in the minds of Democratic strategists who know the odds of the loser of the popular vote getting 270 electoral votes is still a long shot.

Nevertheless, a popular vote victory is no consolation prize in a presidential election. The only thing that counts is getting to 270 and if, despite a virtual tie in the national totals, Obama manages to hold onto leads in Ohio and the other swing states, these numbers won’t matter much. Even more important, if Obama can manage to win Virginia — a state where the majority of polls still give him an advantage, it won’t matter much how Romney does in the northern battlegrounds.

Throughout the last few weeks, conservatives have disputed the validity of polls that were based on samples that showed far more Democrats voting this year than Republicans, as was the case in 2008. But that argument is about to be resolved. If our expectations–that the 2012 electorate is going to be nothing like the hope and change wave that swept Barack Obama into the White House–turn out to be based on a false assumption, then most of the pollsters who produced these surveys can take a bow. If not, this may be as close to a rerun of the 1948 “Dewey Defeats Truman” embarrassment for pollsters as any of us have lived to see.

These final numbers make clear that after months of campaigning, and probably more than a billion dollars spent by both sides in the contest, neither candidate has any kind of real edge in the national vote. Last week, New York Times blogger Nate Silver believed President Obama had the equivalent of a three-point lead in a football game with three minutes to play. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that we’re heading into the final moments of this presidential contest with the score probably tied. What we don’t know is which team has the ball and how close they are to the other team’s goal line. We’ll find out tomorrow night.

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Some State Polls Point to Romney Upset

As I wrote last night, liberal analysts are right when they point out that the preponderance of state polls have greatly strengthened President Obama’s hopes for re-election. But a couple of the latest ones published this morning contradict that conviction, which caused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to claim only stupid people think the election is not a cinch for Obama. One Democratic-leaning pollster has Romney ahead by one point in supposedly deep-blue Michigan, while a new Pennsylvania poll shows the race there deadlocked.

These may be outliers, but even a Nobel laureate (and, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to say, “former Enron advisor”) like Krugman is smart enough to understand that if Romney wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, Obama has virtually no chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The point here is that while we are all rightly focused on who will win Ohio, the president’s hold on a number of states that were thought to be likely Democrat wins is far from secure. What’s happened in the last month since the Denver debate turned the race around is not just a surge of Republican strength in the South and the West but a surprising comeback for the GOP in the rust belt and the Midwest.

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As I wrote last night, liberal analysts are right when they point out that the preponderance of state polls have greatly strengthened President Obama’s hopes for re-election. But a couple of the latest ones published this morning contradict that conviction, which caused New York Times columnist Paul Krugman to claim only stupid people think the election is not a cinch for Obama. One Democratic-leaning pollster has Romney ahead by one point in supposedly deep-blue Michigan, while a new Pennsylvania poll shows the race there deadlocked.

These may be outliers, but even a Nobel laureate (and, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto likes to say, “former Enron advisor”) like Krugman is smart enough to understand that if Romney wins Pennsylvania and Michigan, Obama has virtually no chance to get to 270 electoral votes. The point here is that while we are all rightly focused on who will win Ohio, the president’s hold on a number of states that were thought to be likely Democrat wins is far from secure. What’s happened in the last month since the Denver debate turned the race around is not just a surge of Republican strength in the South and the West but a surprising comeback for the GOP in the rust belt and the Midwest.

The Michigan poll is from the Democratic firm of Baydoun/Foster sponsored by WJBK Fox Channel 2 in Detroit, and has a sample that has a nine percent edge for the Democrats in terms of partisan identification. More tellingly, it is a fairly large number of respondents for a state poll — 1,913 likely voters — and a relatively low margin of error at 2.24 percent. Yet shockingly it shows Romney up by more than half a percentage point: 46.86 percent to 46.24 percent.

It should be specified that most other Michigan polls are still showing the president with a lead there. Another Democratic pollster, Public Policy Polling, has Obama up 52-46 percent in their latest poll. Just to confuse things, that poll has a smaller Democratic edge in partisan identification at only six percent but it is also the product of a much smaller sample — only 700 likely voters — and therefore has a margin of error that is nearly double that of the Baydoun/Foster poll.

In Pennsylvania, a Susquehanna poll sponsored by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review shows the race in Pennsylvania a virtual tie. Indeed the poll’s sample of 800 likely voters showed 378 say they would vote for Romney and 372 for Obama. Again, Susquehanna is a bit of an outlier in that it has shown more strength for Romney throughout the campaign than other polls. The Real Clear Politics average of polls for Pennsylvania still shows the president up by more than four points. But it should also be pointed that a clear difference between Susquehanna and the others is the same one that has been stirring discussion about virtually all the presidential polls on both the state and the national level: partisan identification. Susquehanna (whose sample is larger than that of the other Pennsylvania polls) shows a six-percentage point advantage for the Democrats. By contrast, two other polls that show Obama ahead in the state, PPP and Franklin & Marshall, had samples with 10 and nine point edges for the Democrats.

Those numbers make the contradictions between these polls more explicable. It can’t be said often enough that turnout is the key to this election. Those polls that are assuming a large advantage for the Democrats are pointing toward an Obama win. Those that are not are favorable to Romney. It’s as simple as that. If the Obama campaign machine can manufacture a replica of the 2008 electorate, the polls and the analysts predicting and Obama win will be vindicated. If not, then Romney may be on his way to victory and Krugman will be the one sitting in the corner wearing the dunce cap.

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Are the Polls Biased? Democrats Hope Not

The latest crop of opinion polls has generally brought good news for Democrats. The Real Clear Politics average of all the national polls has given President Obama a slight lead, after this poll of polls had shown him trailing since Mitt Romney’s post-Denver debate comeback changed the race. Even more important, polls of likely voters in the battleground states have given the president leads in most of them. This caused New York Times blogger Nate Silver to double down on his forecast predicting an Obama win. According to Silver, Obama now has an 83.7 percent likelihood of prevailing on Tuesday.

We’ll leave aside the arguments about Silver’s odds-making, which depicts what even most liberals concede is an extremely close election as a near certain Obama win. Suffice it to say, as I wrote on Thursday, Silver’s belief that Obama had a field goal lead with 3 minutes left in the game (which he may now think is more like a 4-point lead with 2 minutes left) is based on a belief that the polls he trusts are accurate. On Saturday, however, he returned to the question that has to be haunting his readers: what if these polls aren’t accurate? While he admits the possibility, he thinks it unlikely that so many surveys could be in error. That seems logical, even persuasive. But the problem with that assumption is the same as it has been for the past month. Most of the polls showing Obama ahead either nationally or in some states reflect a common bias: their sample reflects a picture of the electorate that resembles the 2008 Democratic advantage. But this year we expect the gap in party identification to be smaller. In short, unless the Democrats match or exceed the massive “hope and change” surge of four years ago, then what Silver and the Democrats who look to his column for encouragement fear will be true: all the pro-Obama state polls are going to turn out to be quite wrong.

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The latest crop of opinion polls has generally brought good news for Democrats. The Real Clear Politics average of all the national polls has given President Obama a slight lead, after this poll of polls had shown him trailing since Mitt Romney’s post-Denver debate comeback changed the race. Even more important, polls of likely voters in the battleground states have given the president leads in most of them. This caused New York Times blogger Nate Silver to double down on his forecast predicting an Obama win. According to Silver, Obama now has an 83.7 percent likelihood of prevailing on Tuesday.

We’ll leave aside the arguments about Silver’s odds-making, which depicts what even most liberals concede is an extremely close election as a near certain Obama win. Suffice it to say, as I wrote on Thursday, Silver’s belief that Obama had a field goal lead with 3 minutes left in the game (which he may now think is more like a 4-point lead with 2 minutes left) is based on a belief that the polls he trusts are accurate. On Saturday, however, he returned to the question that has to be haunting his readers: what if these polls aren’t accurate? While he admits the possibility, he thinks it unlikely that so many surveys could be in error. That seems logical, even persuasive. But the problem with that assumption is the same as it has been for the past month. Most of the polls showing Obama ahead either nationally or in some states reflect a common bias: their sample reflects a picture of the electorate that resembles the 2008 Democratic advantage. But this year we expect the gap in party identification to be smaller. In short, unless the Democrats match or exceed the massive “hope and change” surge of four years ago, then what Silver and the Democrats who look to his column for encouragement fear will be true: all the pro-Obama state polls are going to turn out to be quite wrong.

Silver sums up this equation quite succinctly:

I do not mean to imply that the polls are biased in Mr. Obama’s favor. But there is the chance that they could be biased in either direction. If they are biased in Mr. Obama’s favor, then Mr. Romney could still win; the race is close enough. If they are biased in Mr. Romney’s favor, then Mr. Obama will win by a wider-than-expected margin, but since Mr. Obama is the favorite anyway, this will not change who sleeps in the White House on Jan. 20.

My argument, rather, is this: we’ve about reached the point where if Mr. Romney wins, it can only be because the polls have been biased against him. Almost all of the chance that Mr. Romney has in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, about 16 percent to win the Electoral College, reflects this possibility.

Yes, of course: most of the arguments that the polls are necessarily biased against Mr. Romney reflect little more than wishful thinking. …

But the state polls may not be right. They could be biased. Based on the historical reliability of polls, we put the chance that they will be biased enough to elect Mr. Romney at 16 percent.

That 16 percent chance that Silver talks about though is far more potent than the forlorn hope he implies. Quite simply, if Democrats do not have the near 10-point lead in partisan affiliation that many polls show — which mirrors the 2008 results — then the polls that show the president leading are a misreading of a race, which is either tied or actually trending in Romney’s favor.

This is a possibility that Silver and those who look to him for comfort try not to think about, but which looms large in the final days of the race. The president may have gained some ground as coverage of Hurricane Sandy diverted the public from the election and allowed Obama (with an assist from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) to appear in control of events. But it strains credulity to believe even that advantage can conjure up a Democratic turnout that would rival that of 2008.

That’s why the polls not only could be wrong, but are likely to be wrong. Silver may be right and our expectations of a more even partisan split may not materialize. But if that isn’t the case, then November 6, 2012 will prove to be the Waterloo not only for President Obama but also for the pollsters who are predicting victory for him.

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Mitt’s PA Foray No Repeat of McCain Fiasco

Democrats are hoping that the Romney campaign’s decision to invest both time and money in Pennsylvania the last weekend before the election is a sign that the GOP is doomed. Memories of John McCain swooping into the Keystone State four years ago in a futile attempt to gain ground in a state that he would lose by better than 10 percentage points encourages Democrats who believe Romney is making the same mistake. But that was then, and this is now.

Though Romney must still be considered a heavy underdog in Pennsylvania, there’s little doubt that the race has tightened and that a Democratic victory there is no longer a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the Obama camp’s assumption that Romney’s move is rooted in a desperate attempt to craft an Electoral College majority without Ohio may also be dead wrong. Far from conceding the key tossup states to Obama, Romney may be sensing an opportunity to win states few thought he had a chance to take only a few weeks ago.

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Democrats are hoping that the Romney campaign’s decision to invest both time and money in Pennsylvania the last weekend before the election is a sign that the GOP is doomed. Memories of John McCain swooping into the Keystone State four years ago in a futile attempt to gain ground in a state that he would lose by better than 10 percentage points encourages Democrats who believe Romney is making the same mistake. But that was then, and this is now.

Though Romney must still be considered a heavy underdog in Pennsylvania, there’s little doubt that the race has tightened and that a Democratic victory there is no longer a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the Obama camp’s assumption that Romney’s move is rooted in a desperate attempt to craft an Electoral College majority without Ohio may also be dead wrong. Far from conceding the key tossup states to Obama, Romney may be sensing an opportunity to win states few thought he had a chance to take only a few weeks ago.

Conflicting poll numbers in the battleground states have made this one of the most confusing elections in memory. If you believe polls with samples that are disproportionately Democratic then the president seems likely to take Ohio as well as Virginia, virtually closing off any path to 270 Electoral College votes for Romney. But the Romney campaign thinks these numbers are off, since they see little likelihood that the Democrats can conjure up a turnout that will match or even exceed their 2008 hope and change wave that swept Obama into the White House. If, as the Republicans believe, the enthusiastic GOP turnout effort will match that of a Democratic campaign that can’t recapture the spirit of Obama’s first presidential run, Romney is a cinch to win Virginia and has a better-than-even chance in Ohio.

Far from the panic and desperation that characterized the last days of the McCain campaign, the Romney effort right now seems confident not only of winning their share of the tossups but of stealing some blue states on Tuesday. That shone through even in a New York Times story published this morning that reported the shift to the GOP:

But there is a tangible sense — seen in Romney yard signs on the expansive lawns of homes in the well-heeled suburbs, and heard in the excited voices of Republican mothers who make phone calls to voters in their spare time — that the race is tilting toward Mr. Romney.

If ever there were a place where a last-ditch torrent of money could move the needle, this is it. For the last couple of months, there has been a void of presidential ads in Pennsylvania. So when Republican strategists looked for places where their money could go the furthest, they set their sights here, reasoning that a dollar spent in Erie or Altoona would have a greater impact than in a place like Las Vegas or Cleveland, where political commercials have clogged the airwaves.

Despite their bravado, Democrats know Romney is making inroads among women and Jewish voters. Those are demographic groups that fueled Obama’s landslide in Pennsylvania four years ago but which now are deserting him.

Democrats may want to believe that they have Ohio in the bag and that they are in no danger of losing Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, another state where polls show Romney seems to have a real chance. But the decision to have both Romney and runningmate Paul Ryan visit Pennsylvania this weekend seems rooted more in confidence than in a forlorn “Hail Mary” pass to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The Republicans may be mistaken in thinking they have any sort of chance in Pennsylvania because of the strength of the Democratic machine in Philadelphia and its still potent ability to manufacture majorities that can outweigh what happens elsewhere in the state. But there is no doubt that state, as well as several others that the Obama campaign had hoped to have wrapped up this late in the game, are still very much in play.

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Infallible Election Prognosticators Tend to Have Brief Careers

Back in May 2011, the leading liberal poll analyst of this election cycle returned to his roots in an op-ed published in the New York Times. Nate Silver, who had parlayed a brilliant record as an independent numbers cruncher in the 2008 presidential election into a gig as the paper’s political blogger in the age of Obama, first made his name as a writer as a baseball guy and one of the leading exponents of new and advanced ways of looking at baseball statistics. On May 9, 2011, Silver penned a piece for the Times explaining why New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter was finished as a baseball star. Given that that the Yankees shortstop had an uncharacteristically mediocre 2010 season and was off to a slow start in 2011, it was hard to argue with Silver’s conclusion.

Except the very same day that Silver was planting Jeter’s tombstone in the Times, the future Hall-of-Famer got four hits, including two home runs in a game. I noted this embarrassing development in a blog post here titled, “The Perils of Punditry: That’s Why They Play the Games.” For my pains, I was subjected to a chorus of abuse via e-mail and Twitter from Silver’s fans, most of whom knew nothing about Sabermetrics. Indeed, another Times blogger noted my criticism (which was laced with respect for Silver’s work on both baseball and politics) and ironically noted, “the jury was out” on whether the results of “one game” could disprove the great Nate.

The jury was out in May, but within a few months, Silver’s fans would be dropping that prediction of his down the proverbial memory hole as Jeter put together a stellar second half of 2011 and followed it up with a brilliant 2012 in which he led the Major Leagues in base hits. That didn’t mean Silver didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was proof that a proper understanding of what has already happened didn’t necessarily give even the smartest of researchers the ability to predict the future. Fast forward to the last days of the 2012 presidential election campaign, and it looks like that day in May wasn’t the only time Silver’s crystal ball has clouded up.

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Back in May 2011, the leading liberal poll analyst of this election cycle returned to his roots in an op-ed published in the New York Times. Nate Silver, who had parlayed a brilliant record as an independent numbers cruncher in the 2008 presidential election into a gig as the paper’s political blogger in the age of Obama, first made his name as a writer as a baseball guy and one of the leading exponents of new and advanced ways of looking at baseball statistics. On May 9, 2011, Silver penned a piece for the Times explaining why New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter was finished as a baseball star. Given that that the Yankees shortstop had an uncharacteristically mediocre 2010 season and was off to a slow start in 2011, it was hard to argue with Silver’s conclusion.

Except the very same day that Silver was planting Jeter’s tombstone in the Times, the future Hall-of-Famer got four hits, including two home runs in a game. I noted this embarrassing development in a blog post here titled, “The Perils of Punditry: That’s Why They Play the Games.” For my pains, I was subjected to a chorus of abuse via e-mail and Twitter from Silver’s fans, most of whom knew nothing about Sabermetrics. Indeed, another Times blogger noted my criticism (which was laced with respect for Silver’s work on both baseball and politics) and ironically noted, “the jury was out” on whether the results of “one game” could disprove the great Nate.

The jury was out in May, but within a few months, Silver’s fans would be dropping that prediction of his down the proverbial memory hole as Jeter put together a stellar second half of 2011 and followed it up with a brilliant 2012 in which he led the Major Leagues in base hits. That didn’t mean Silver didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was proof that a proper understanding of what has already happened didn’t necessarily give even the smartest of researchers the ability to predict the future. Fast forward to the last days of the 2012 presidential election campaign, and it looks like that day in May wasn’t the only time Silver’s crystal ball has clouded up.

As Dylan Byers notes today in Politico, Silver is fast on his way to being a one-term celebrity. Having become the top liberal swami by predicting the 2008 election, it’s fair to ask whether as many people will pay attention to him if it turns out the forecast model he has been using all year to reassure worried Democrats that President Obama had to win was fatally flawed. But the possibility that Silver could be wrong or had let his own bias affect his judgment is sending his liberal fan base over the edge, as this post by fellow Timesman Paul Krugman indicates.

Let me stipulate that some of the attacks on Silver’s attempts to establish what the percentages of an Obama win are a little unfair. His model, like similar attempts to weigh the percentages in baseball games, is a matter of probability not certainty. A game-tying home run in the ninth inning can make previous projections that the team with the lead had a 95 percent chance of winning look silly, even if they were reasonable at the time. But the problem with his forecast model is not just that it’s not infallible, but that it is probably a little harder to being purely objective about political analysis than baseball. There are just too many moving parts and political judgments about which polls to believe to make his system work as well as his PECOTA model for projecting what a player will do in the upcoming baseball season–and even that is often wrong.

Even when I think Silver’s conclusions are incorrect, I learn something from his analyses. But those who point out that his Times on-line column that has consistently showed the president with a 75 percent chance of winning the election appears absurd in a race that is a tossup or heading in Mitt Romney’s direction are not off base.

Silver survived his whopper of a mistake in underestimating Derek Jeter. He’s not likely to fare as well if he has been calling the presidential election wrong all year.

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The Obama Ground Game Myth

In the last week, there have been two consistent themes being sounded by the Democrats. One is the assertion that Mitt Romney’s momentum has been halted and even reversed. The other is that their ground game is so good that the president is bound to win the election no matter what the polls say. These two talking points are closely related, since the polls that liberal analysts cite in order to assert that the president is edging back into the lead are based on assumptions about the composition of the electorate that are only possible if the Democrats match or even exceed the massive turnout they achieved in 2008.

Why pollsters would assume that a correct sample for the 2012 election would mirror the 2008 results when Obama rode a wave of disgust for the Bush administration and belief in his promise of hope and change is a mystery that demands an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. Yet Democrats say the question is irrelevant since their ability to generate turnout is so expert and so superior to that of the Republicans they believe there is little doubt that once again the number of their voters will outnumber those of the GOP. To that end, journalists have been citing the fact that there are far more Obama campaign offices in states like Ohio than those working for Romney. But that is an argument that even some on the left understand is largely meaningless. Not only may the ground game advantage be a myth, the changes in partisan affiliation in the last four years render the optimistic poll numbers that are encouraging Democrats in the past week a self-deception that could lead to bitter disappointment on election day.

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In the last week, there have been two consistent themes being sounded by the Democrats. One is the assertion that Mitt Romney’s momentum has been halted and even reversed. The other is that their ground game is so good that the president is bound to win the election no matter what the polls say. These two talking points are closely related, since the polls that liberal analysts cite in order to assert that the president is edging back into the lead are based on assumptions about the composition of the electorate that are only possible if the Democrats match or even exceed the massive turnout they achieved in 2008.

Why pollsters would assume that a correct sample for the 2012 election would mirror the 2008 results when Obama rode a wave of disgust for the Bush administration and belief in his promise of hope and change is a mystery that demands an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. Yet Democrats say the question is irrelevant since their ability to generate turnout is so expert and so superior to that of the Republicans they believe there is little doubt that once again the number of their voters will outnumber those of the GOP. To that end, journalists have been citing the fact that there are far more Obama campaign offices in states like Ohio than those working for Romney. But that is an argument that even some on the left understand is largely meaningless. Not only may the ground game advantage be a myth, the changes in partisan affiliation in the last four years render the optimistic poll numbers that are encouraging Democrats in the past week a self-deception that could lead to bitter disappointment on election day.

The field office gap has become as popular a talking point in recent days as the gender gap. Earlier in the week the Atlantic’s Molly Ball reported that not only are the Democrats’ offices more numerous, but that the GOP outlets are either sleepier or lack interest in Romney’s fate as opposed to those of local Republican candidates. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough was so impressed by this argument that he wrote in Politico that it showed that Romney was depending on emotion and intangibles while the Democrats were relying on practical organizational skills.

The problem with this simplistic argument is easily illustrated. There are far fewer GOP field offices, but that’s because as even Kevin Drum, a writer for the left-wing Mother Jones, wrote on Friday, Republicans are operating on a different paradigm:

There’s been a disconnect in the ground games of the major parties for some time. Democrats tend to rely on paid, professional operations, while Republicans rely more on volunteer efforts, largely from evangelical churches. This is something that actually works in the Republicans’ favor, since volunteer efforts from friends and neighbors tend to be more effective at switching votes than professional phone banks. (Also cheaper.)

The other reason why Republicans are not as obsessed with turnout is that their base tends to be more highly motivated and, as a rule, are already registered rather than having to be schlepped out to the polls with great difficulty. They are instead working on convincing independents to give Romney a second look, an effort that has borne fruits as polls show their candidate gaining ground among centrists.

That’s something that gets us to the heart of this conundrum about turnout. As Josh Jordan explains in National Review, both Gallup and Rasmussen agree that the partisan split between Republicans and Democrats has changed markedly since 2008. Whereas four years ago the Democrats had a seven-point advantage, this fall that has become a 1 or 2 point Republican edge.

Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to take seriously those polls like the Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll that shows Obama up by one point, since its sample has seven percent more Democrats than Republicans. But even there, there is little to encourage the president’s supporters since his numbers have been declining in that poll over the past week. You have to believe along with Obama staffer Jim Messina that their ground game that will produce an electorate that is disproportionately Democratic with more minority and young voters than even in 2008 to think such a result is even possible.

This makes the operative question this week not so much whether which polls are accurate as it is how even with a field office advantage can the Democrats possibly manufacture the sort of partisan turnout advantage that could re-elect Obama? In a year when independents are flocking to Romney, there simply may not be enough Democrats, youth or minority voters to offset the fact the GOP base will turn out in numbers that will far eclipse their totals in 2008. Discussion about a ground game may be simply an attempt to distract us from the fact that the president’s campaign is betting everything on an organizational plan that can’t overcome the way the electorate has changed over the course of the Obama presidency.

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Liberal Denial Will Only Get Worse

For those following the polls, the evidence of the last few weeks has been pretty obvious. Following the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney began to eat into the lead that President Obama had amassed. In the last week, he has caught and passed the president in most national polls, especially those without samples that are not overestimating the number of Democrats who will turn out to vote. The race remains very close, and the president is still ahead or tied in a number of the important swing states. Evidence that the Obama campaign thinks it is trailing is everywhere, as the president swings away at his rival as if he were the challenger not the incumbent. Even more telling is, as I wrote yesterday, the first evidence that some influential people within the president’s re-election team are starting to plant stories in the media alleging that an impending defeat isn’t their fault.

And yet despite all these signs of trouble for the president, the most popular story line for liberal pundits and analysts today seems to be an attempt to deny that Romney has momentum or to brand it a media creation. That was the conceit of a much talked about piece in the New Republic by Alec MacGillis. His thesis is that the media — including publications and broadcast outlets that tend to favor the Democrats — are trying to foist a misleading story line about Romney moving ahead in order to make the election a better story. Even most liberals aren’t buying that idea but other voices, including polling analysts like the New York Times Nate Silver and Mark Blumenthal at the Huffington Post, are on slightly firmer ground when they claim that their reading of the polls tells them that Romney’s momentum is over. In a race this close, one has to admit the possibility that they might turn out to be right. But these frantic denials of a Romney surge not only contradict the clear trend of the polls. They smack of the sort of desperation that is often in evidence as candidates who were once thought in a commanding position start slipping. After months of liberals telling themselves that Romney was a fake or a fraud that no one could possibly take seriously, they are having a hard time coming to grips with the possibility that he might be elected president in 10 days. If denial is the first of five stages of grief, liberal mourning about the possible end of the Obama presidency can be said to have begun.

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For those following the polls, the evidence of the last few weeks has been pretty obvious. Following the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney began to eat into the lead that President Obama had amassed. In the last week, he has caught and passed the president in most national polls, especially those without samples that are not overestimating the number of Democrats who will turn out to vote. The race remains very close, and the president is still ahead or tied in a number of the important swing states. Evidence that the Obama campaign thinks it is trailing is everywhere, as the president swings away at his rival as if he were the challenger not the incumbent. Even more telling is, as I wrote yesterday, the first evidence that some influential people within the president’s re-election team are starting to plant stories in the media alleging that an impending defeat isn’t their fault.

And yet despite all these signs of trouble for the president, the most popular story line for liberal pundits and analysts today seems to be an attempt to deny that Romney has momentum or to brand it a media creation. That was the conceit of a much talked about piece in the New Republic by Alec MacGillis. His thesis is that the media — including publications and broadcast outlets that tend to favor the Democrats — are trying to foist a misleading story line about Romney moving ahead in order to make the election a better story. Even most liberals aren’t buying that idea but other voices, including polling analysts like the New York Times Nate Silver and Mark Blumenthal at the Huffington Post, are on slightly firmer ground when they claim that their reading of the polls tells them that Romney’s momentum is over. In a race this close, one has to admit the possibility that they might turn out to be right. But these frantic denials of a Romney surge not only contradict the clear trend of the polls. They smack of the sort of desperation that is often in evidence as candidates who were once thought in a commanding position start slipping. After months of liberals telling themselves that Romney was a fake or a fraud that no one could possibly take seriously, they are having a hard time coming to grips with the possibility that he might be elected president in 10 days. If denial is the first of five stages of grief, liberal mourning about the possible end of the Obama presidency can be said to have begun.

Feeding this denial is the widespread oversampling of Democrats in polls that still show the president leading the race. The assumption that the turnout of the president’s supporters will match or exceed those that lifted him to a historic victory in 2008 seems to be based more on a leap of liberal faith than evidence, but it is statistical tricks like that that are keeping Obama’s head above water in the polls. Partisans always tend to believe polls that tell them what they want to hear, but systems that weigh polls in an arbitrary manner such as Silver’s forecast seem to be similarly positioned to keep Obama ahead for as long as possible.

Just as misleading is the fact that the heavy turnout in early voting states, like Ohio, of Obama’s supporters may be skewing likely voter formulas in the president’s favor. As Josh Jordan writes in National Review today, given the emphasis the Democrats have placed on getting their base out to vote early while Republicans count on theirs to turn out on Election Day, the president’s ability to stay ahead or tied in Ohio polls may be a statistical anomaly that won’t be corrected until the ballots are counted.

But even looking beyond the biased analyses being published by liberal sources, the refusal of many Democrats to accept the reality of the Romney surge may be rooted in something more emotional than just skewed poll numbers. Many if not most liberals share the attitude of contempt for the Republicans that were so easily discerned in the attitudes of both President Obama and Vice President Biden during the debates. Though most Americans have rejected the attempt by the president’s campaign to define Romney as a heartless plutocrat or a monster, liberals bought it hook, line and sinker. The idea that such a person could have caught and passed Obama in the space of a few short weeks seems impossible to them not so much because they think the numbers don’t support this thesis but because they just don’t want it to be so.

Rather than debunking Romney’s wave, liberal analysts who seek to deny it are merely confirming their inability to look dispassionately at what has occurred. Democrats living in liberal echo chambers need a reality check.

There will be no landslide in the presidential race this year, or even a decisive victory like the one Obama scored in 2008. It’s possible that the president can rebound in the last days of the campaign and that Romney could falter. But barring some late October surprise that would help the president (as opposed to one, like last month’s Libya fiasco, which hurt him), it’s hard to see momentum shifting back in his favor. If it doesn’t, expect liberal denial about Romney’s strength to deepen.

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The New National Pastime: Poll Analysis

The 2012 election is the first presidential contest in the age of Twitter. It’s also the one that may be remembered as the one in which analysis of poll data became the subject of mass discussion as opposed to the domain of a few political science and statistical freaks. The New York Times’s Nate Silver is as responsible for this as anyone, but the trend is fed by the proliferation of national polls whose results are as varied as their methodologies. Silver has become something of a lightening rod in this election as his forecast which, has continually favored President Obama’s prospects, is now coming in for almost as much scrutiny as the policies of the man he’d like to see re-elected. As someone who has occasionally criticized Silver’s conclusions, I think the focus on him is unfortunate. Silver is a brilliant stat man who whose work attempts to bring the unsparing realism and devotion to accuracy and understanding that is the hallmark of sabermetrics — the study of baseball statistics that derives from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research — to political writing. That, like some baseball writers, he cannot always rise above his prejudices, is unfortunate but does not mean his work isn’t worthwhile. Silver is always a good read and even if he seems to have an agenda, I always learn from his posts.

Nevertheless, given the importance that Democrats are placing on his “Five Thirty Eight Forecast,” it was only a matter of time before Silver was given a thorough takedown and Josh Jordan of National Review has done it in a must read analysis. In “Nate Silver’s Flawed Model,” Jordan details how Silver’s partisan leanings have influenced his judgment about how much weight to give to various polls. As Jordan points out, Silver tends to assess the reliability of certain polls based on his feelings about whether they are right, which is to say sufficiently pro-Obama. While I don’t think Silver’s purpose is deception, his bias has created a model that seems designed to produce one result even if it contradicts what many see as a pro-Romney trend. As such, he’s become the geekiest yet perhaps also the most important cheerleader in the country these days as liberals look to his blog for comfort in trying times. But Silver isn’t the only one making mistakes out there.

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The 2012 election is the first presidential contest in the age of Twitter. It’s also the one that may be remembered as the one in which analysis of poll data became the subject of mass discussion as opposed to the domain of a few political science and statistical freaks. The New York Times’s Nate Silver is as responsible for this as anyone, but the trend is fed by the proliferation of national polls whose results are as varied as their methodologies. Silver has become something of a lightening rod in this election as his forecast which, has continually favored President Obama’s prospects, is now coming in for almost as much scrutiny as the policies of the man he’d like to see re-elected. As someone who has occasionally criticized Silver’s conclusions, I think the focus on him is unfortunate. Silver is a brilliant stat man who whose work attempts to bring the unsparing realism and devotion to accuracy and understanding that is the hallmark of sabermetrics — the study of baseball statistics that derives from the acronym for the Society of American Baseball Research — to political writing. That, like some baseball writers, he cannot always rise above his prejudices, is unfortunate but does not mean his work isn’t worthwhile. Silver is always a good read and even if he seems to have an agenda, I always learn from his posts.

Nevertheless, given the importance that Democrats are placing on his “Five Thirty Eight Forecast,” it was only a matter of time before Silver was given a thorough takedown and Josh Jordan of National Review has done it in a must read analysis. In “Nate Silver’s Flawed Model,” Jordan details how Silver’s partisan leanings have influenced his judgment about how much weight to give to various polls. As Jordan points out, Silver tends to assess the reliability of certain polls based on his feelings about whether they are right, which is to say sufficiently pro-Obama. While I don’t think Silver’s purpose is deception, his bias has created a model that seems designed to produce one result even if it contradicts what many see as a pro-Romney trend. As such, he’s become the geekiest yet perhaps also the most important cheerleader in the country these days as liberals look to his blog for comfort in trying times. But Silver isn’t the only one making mistakes out there.

Trying to make sense of the various national polls would defeat a lesser mind than Silver’s and that’s the position the rest of us are placed in by the contradictory results being produced. But you don’t have to be as sharp as the Times blogger to understand that if you poll a Democrat-leaning sample, you get a Democrat-leaning result.

Thus, amid the flood of polls showing progress for Romney, there are some showing Obama holding his own. But almost all of them report that their poll sample is made up of respondents who appear to be disproportionately identified as Democrats. For example, that was the case with last week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll that showed the president with a three-point lead. It’s sample showed nine percent more Democrats as opposed to Republicans, a result that seems at variance with reality as well as outstripping the numbers that were produced by President Obama’s 2008 near-landslide.

This week, the same poll produced a slightly less favorable result for the president giving him only a one-point lead. While some might interpret this as part of a pro-Romney trend or more evidence that the president failed to get a bounce out of last week’s debate, the reason for the different result is found in the last question in the survey: Do you think of yourself as a Republican or a Democrat? In one week, the poll’s party identification sample changed from plus nine for the Democrats to only plus five.

Now, as Silver has often rightly pointed out, party identification is not set in stone and can vary. But do we really believe the country’s view of the parties, as opposed to the candidates, can change that much in one week. A review of the samples in this poll in the past year shows similar fluctuations.

Understanding that the sample you choose more or less dictates your poll results is the sort of unoriginal insight that puts even stat amateurs pretty much on an even playing field with smart guys like Silver. Put simply, the polls that show Obama winning only make sense if you believe the Democrats’ turnout will far eclipse that of the Republicans and at least match the “hope and change” fervor of 2008. That’s certainly possible but is not particularly likely. Which is why the healthy skepticism being shown toward outlier polls that favor Obama is not merely conservatives letting their wishes be father to their thoughts.

In the two weeks that remain before the election, we’ll have a lot more polls to dig through but that basic truth about samples should never be far from our thoughts. We don’t know what the results in the only poll that counts — the one at the ballot box — will be but until we get there, we’re stuck trying to, as Silver would say, filter out the “noise” that is obscuring the truth about public opinion. Unfortunately, some of that noise comes in the form of analysis that is as heavily influenced by partisan feelings as that shown by any hometown baseball scribe.

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Why the First Debate Was the Only One That Really Counted

Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

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Much of the country will be watching tonight’s presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida. Both sides are playing, as they have before each of the previous two encounters between President Obama and Mitt Romney as well as the vice presidential tangle, the expectations game. And on an evening that will be devoted to foreign policy, both the president and his challenger are primed to exploit each other’s weaknesses and will hope to be proclaimed the victor by the spinners and the media. But if the polls are any judge, the odds are not much will be altered by the debate no matter which man comes off better.

Last week’s second debate was scored a clear victory for the president due to his livelier performance and Romney’s mistakes in the town hall format. But unless you believe the one outlier poll (Investors Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll), there doesn’t seem to have been any bounce for the president as a result of his getting the better of Romney. That means that even if Obama can repeat the same trick tonight, with Romney continuing to blunder, it probably won’t make a difference. That leaves us with the question as to why the first debate earlier this month in Denver proved so decisive. Was it that it was really more one-sided for Romney than Obama’s win at Hofstra University? Though it was, that doesn’t seem to be the answer, since if it was just a question of a margin of victory then Obama would have gotten more out of the second debate than he received.

Rather, the answer has to do with the relationship between the way Romney came across and the way Democrats had campaigned against him for the last year. While the president’s sleepwalk through the first debate seemed to betray his contempt for the process as well as for his opponent, the real news there was that by coming across as a reasonable, intelligent and well spoken candidate, Romney effectively undid several months and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Democratic ads that sought to portray him as an extremist, hateful plutocrat who tortured dogs, killed factory workers and destroyed the lives of others more or less for fun.

For all of our intense attention as to who is winning the debates on points and how strong their arguments may be or how many mistakes they make, the real test of these evenings is whether the candidate comes across as a plausible president of the United States. Since so much Democratic effort went into painting Romney as implausible if not completely unsuitable for the presidency, his Denver showing made it clear that the Obama campaign had overspent on hyperbole that was easily disproved if not completely debunked.

As Woody Allen is often quoted as saying, 80 percent of life is just showing up. Romney didn’t just show up in Denver. He showed up and showed the country what he was: an intelligent, fact-driven technocrat with some strong convictions about the economy and limited government as well as an appealing personality.

Having established this, it doesn’t really matter if he screwed up the Libya question last week or even if he does it again tonight–though if he does it will drive his campaign, if not the entire Republican Party, crazy.

As with the first debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980, the GOP candidate has destroyed the caricature that his opponents so carefully constructed. This hasn’t won him the election outright, since this close race can still go either way. But it does illustrate why the first debate will probably turn out to be the only one that really counts.

That shouldn’t stop Americans from watching the foreign policy tangle since it gives the country the opportunity to hear the candidates expound on the issues that are truly the primary responsibility of the president. But now that the American people know Romney is a reasonable alternative, it isn’t likely that anything he or Obama can say in Boca will change their minds.

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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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Pro-Obama Poll Formula: Overcount Dems

New York Times blogger and statistical analyst Nate Silver did his usual thorough job yesterday explaining why he’s not taking Mitt Romney’s strong performances in the Gallup tracking poll too much to heart. His piece, “Gallup v. the World” rightly pointed out that the firm’s tracking polls, which have given Romney leads of 6, 7 and 6 points in the last three days, are the most favorable yet published for the Republican. He conceded that Gallup is the most reliable of the tracking polls in that it employs the largest samples and employs a methodology for counting cell phone owners as opposed to landlines only. But he claimed that Gallup has a history of inaccuracy in recent elections that ought to cause us to take their conclusions with a grain of salt. That’s a fair point, though it should be noted that we never heard much about Gallup’s shortcomings in recent months when its results (which showed Obama with a lead) were unquestioned while the rival Rasmussen poll (which generally gave Romney better numbers) was consistently called into question.

But as long as we’re discussing methodology, it’s worth pointing out that the only surveys keeping the president’s head above water in the national average of polls are two whose credibility are very much in doubt. I wrote earlier in the week that the Washington Post/ABC News poll published on Monday that showed President Obama with a three-point lead was called into question by the sample employed by the pollsters. That poll was based on a sample that had nine percent more Democrats than Republicans; a figure that is far more than is reasonable. The same thing can be said about a new Hartford Courant/University of Connecticut poll that also shows Obama up by three but on the basis of a sample that has eight percent more Democrats than Republicans. If you adjust both of these samples to create a more representative group of Americans, even one that showed the Democrats with an edge in affiliation, it would mean they would show Romney and not the president ahead in the race.

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New York Times blogger and statistical analyst Nate Silver did his usual thorough job yesterday explaining why he’s not taking Mitt Romney’s strong performances in the Gallup tracking poll too much to heart. His piece, “Gallup v. the World” rightly pointed out that the firm’s tracking polls, which have given Romney leads of 6, 7 and 6 points in the last three days, are the most favorable yet published for the Republican. He conceded that Gallup is the most reliable of the tracking polls in that it employs the largest samples and employs a methodology for counting cell phone owners as opposed to landlines only. But he claimed that Gallup has a history of inaccuracy in recent elections that ought to cause us to take their conclusions with a grain of salt. That’s a fair point, though it should be noted that we never heard much about Gallup’s shortcomings in recent months when its results (which showed Obama with a lead) were unquestioned while the rival Rasmussen poll (which generally gave Romney better numbers) was consistently called into question.

But as long as we’re discussing methodology, it’s worth pointing out that the only surveys keeping the president’s head above water in the national average of polls are two whose credibility are very much in doubt. I wrote earlier in the week that the Washington Post/ABC News poll published on Monday that showed President Obama with a three-point lead was called into question by the sample employed by the pollsters. That poll was based on a sample that had nine percent more Democrats than Republicans; a figure that is far more than is reasonable. The same thing can be said about a new Hartford Courant/University of Connecticut poll that also shows Obama up by three but on the basis of a sample that has eight percent more Democrats than Republicans. If you adjust both of these samples to create a more representative group of Americans, even one that showed the Democrats with an edge in affiliation, it would mean they would show Romney and not the president ahead in the race.

These kind of misleading polls are not doing the Democrats any service. While these misleading numbers may help encourage the president’s supporters, they are potentially setting them up for a great fall on November 6. While, as Silver has rightly argued, party affiliation isn’t set in stone and reflects the changing fortunes of the candidates, the idea that there are more Democrats prepared to vote for Obama in 2012 than there were in 2008 when he won in a walk is ludicrous.

All polls are fallible and their results are open to interpretation. But the decision of publications to go ahead and put out polls that they already know are based on faulty samples demonstrates either bad judgment or political bias. Overcounting Democrats in polls may produce numbers that tell liberals what they want to hear. But those with more reasonable methodologies are pointing in a very different direction. With the race coming down the homestretch, it appears that some in the media are determined to portray the election in the most positive light for their side even if it means bending the truth a little.

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Romney’s Blue State Trap

Republicans should be happy about the latest polls coming out of Pennsylvania. Two of the three polls conducted there in the last few days show President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney down to four points while another run by the Democratic-leading PPP firm has him up by seven points. This is quite a turnaround for a state where Obama has led by large margins for most of the year. The same might also be said for Michigan where Romney has narrowed a once large deficit in some recent polls. Both are important states the loss of which could be potentially fatal to the Democrats’ hopes of re-electing President Obama. But Romney would be well advised not to expend much effort trying to exploit this potential weakness in the president’s Electoral College lineup.

No Republican has won either state since the 1980s which means that if Obama is looking weak in places where he had double digit margins of victory in 2008 it stands to reason that it might be wise for his campaign to double down on their investment there so as to make the Democrats expend funds in areas that they thought were already in the bag. That would be a mistake. Though the president’s support in both states is far softer than anyone imagined a few months ago, converting them from blue to red would involve far more effort that the prize would justify and still fall short.

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Republicans should be happy about the latest polls coming out of Pennsylvania. Two of the three polls conducted there in the last few days show President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney down to four points while another run by the Democratic-leading PPP firm has him up by seven points. This is quite a turnaround for a state where Obama has led by large margins for most of the year. The same might also be said for Michigan where Romney has narrowed a once large deficit in some recent polls. Both are important states the loss of which could be potentially fatal to the Democrats’ hopes of re-electing President Obama. But Romney would be well advised not to expend much effort trying to exploit this potential weakness in the president’s Electoral College lineup.

No Republican has won either state since the 1980s which means that if Obama is looking weak in places where he had double digit margins of victory in 2008 it stands to reason that it might be wise for his campaign to double down on their investment there so as to make the Democrats expend funds in areas that they thought were already in the bag. That would be a mistake. Though the president’s support in both states is far softer than anyone imagined a few months ago, converting them from blue to red would involve far more effort that the prize would justify and still fall short.

Despite the bad polling numbers, Obama still has overwhelming advantages in both Pennsylvania and Michigan. Unions and still potent Democratic organizations in cities like Philadelphia and Detroit have the ability to generate high turnouts that are likely to offset any losses in other parts of these states no matter how much Romney spends there. Were the Republicans to switch gears and divert resources there from other more winnable and arguably more crucial Electoral College targets it would materially lower Romney’s chances of victory.

The key to Republican victory remains those toss-ups where they have at worst an even chance of winning such as Florida, Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is an inviting GOP target made even more tempting by poll results that illustrate Obama’s weakness. But the Romney campaign is wise to relegate it to a lower priority. Their good polling numbers are fool’s gold best ignored.

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Dems Fear Losing Women to Romney

Today’s USA Today/Gallup swing state poll is the latest sign that Mitt Romney is cutting into President Obama’s lead with women. The candidates are now in a virtual tie, even though Obama had a major advantage with women voters for most of the election:

Mitt Romney leads President Obama by four percentage points among likely voters in the nation’s top battlegrounds, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and he has growing enthusiasm among women to thank.

As the presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, the survey of voters in 12 crucial swing states finds female voters much more engaged in the election and increasingly concerned about the deficit and debt issues that favor Romney. The Republican nominee has pulled within one point of the president among women who are likely voters, 48%-49%, and leads by 8 points among men.

Chicago is on edge, as you can see from this memo by Obama strategist Joel Benenson, which attacks Gallup for “defying trends” and “distorting the composition of likely voters”:

The latest Gallup/ USA Today Battleground survey showing President Obama and Governor Romney tied with women in battleground states (48-48) is an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll. …

Gallup’s data is once again far out of line with other public pollsters.

The memo includes a chart of 14 post-debate swing state polls, which show Obama with an average lead of 10 points among women. But the chart only includes three polls conducted in the past week. It doesn’t include last week’s Times/Bay News/Herald poll in Florida, which found the two candidates virtually tied with likely women voters, a major shift from Obama’s 15-point lead last month. It also doesn’t include last week’s WMUR poll of New Hampshire, which found Romney whittled Obama’s 27-point lead among likely women voters down to 9 points.

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Today’s USA Today/Gallup swing state poll is the latest sign that Mitt Romney is cutting into President Obama’s lead with women. The candidates are now in a virtual tie, even though Obama had a major advantage with women voters for most of the election:

Mitt Romney leads President Obama by four percentage points among likely voters in the nation’s top battlegrounds, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and he has growing enthusiasm among women to thank.

As the presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, the survey of voters in 12 crucial swing states finds female voters much more engaged in the election and increasingly concerned about the deficit and debt issues that favor Romney. The Republican nominee has pulled within one point of the president among women who are likely voters, 48%-49%, and leads by 8 points among men.

Chicago is on edge, as you can see from this memo by Obama strategist Joel Benenson, which attacks Gallup for “defying trends” and “distorting the composition of likely voters”:

The latest Gallup/ USA Today Battleground survey showing President Obama and Governor Romney tied with women in battleground states (48-48) is an extreme outlier, defying the trends seen in every other battleground and national poll. …

Gallup’s data is once again far out of line with other public pollsters.

The memo includes a chart of 14 post-debate swing state polls, which show Obama with an average lead of 10 points among women. But the chart only includes three polls conducted in the past week. It doesn’t include last week’s Times/Bay News/Herald poll in Florida, which found the two candidates virtually tied with likely women voters, a major shift from Obama’s 15-point lead last month. It also doesn’t include last week’s WMUR poll of New Hampshire, which found Romney whittled Obama’s 27-point lead among likely women voters down to 9 points.

In addition, today’s Gallup/USA Today poll mirrors last week’s national Pew poll, which found Obama and Romney tied with likely women voters. The president had led Romney by 18-points with women in the same poll last month.

Contrary to the Obama campaign’s memo, the Gallup poll seems like more of a continuation of a trend than an outlier. Which may explain why the campaign is desperately swinging at it in a public memo.

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Will Early Voting Help Obama Win?

Democrats are crowing today about how their early voting operation is giving President Obama a big edge over Mitt Romney. Early voting has been a priority for the Democrats who have fought hard to preserve it in the crucial swing state of Ohio. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, they are being rewarded for this emphasis by gaining a huge edge among early voters. Reuters reports the poll says Obama leads Romney 59-31 percent among the seven percent of the electorate that has already cast their ballots. If those numbers were accurate and hold up by Election Day, that could make an enormous difference in what has otherwise been considered a tossup election. But, as the Romney campaign has pointed out, the poll doesn’t seem reliable. Nor is it necessarily indicative of what the results will be in various states.

Liberals who have been quick to pounce on any poll with an inadequate sample in the past should steer clear of this Reuters poll. Not only is the margin of error in the survey a whopping 10 percent and therefore so large as to render its results meaningless, but also the sample in each state is miniscule. As Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, pointed out in a memo, the total sample of early voters was only 361 with only 115 of them in swing states. That means the average number of early voters polled in each state is less than 10. Early voting hasn’t even begun for the general population in Colorado, the state with the highest number of early voters four years ago. More important is the identity of the groups the campaigns are targeting in their early voting turnout programs. According to Politico, the Democrats have focused on getting Obama’s base out early while the Republicans think their core voters don’t need to be rousted out to the polls before Election Day, and instead concentrate on wavering potential GOP voters. Whether the latter strategy is smarter than the former is yet to be seen. But the Reuters poll is so flimsy that it’s difficult to see why it should be taken seriously.

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Democrats are crowing today about how their early voting operation is giving President Obama a big edge over Mitt Romney. Early voting has been a priority for the Democrats who have fought hard to preserve it in the crucial swing state of Ohio. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, they are being rewarded for this emphasis by gaining a huge edge among early voters. Reuters reports the poll says Obama leads Romney 59-31 percent among the seven percent of the electorate that has already cast their ballots. If those numbers were accurate and hold up by Election Day, that could make an enormous difference in what has otherwise been considered a tossup election. But, as the Romney campaign has pointed out, the poll doesn’t seem reliable. Nor is it necessarily indicative of what the results will be in various states.

Liberals who have been quick to pounce on any poll with an inadequate sample in the past should steer clear of this Reuters poll. Not only is the margin of error in the survey a whopping 10 percent and therefore so large as to render its results meaningless, but also the sample in each state is miniscule. As Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, pointed out in a memo, the total sample of early voters was only 361 with only 115 of them in swing states. That means the average number of early voters polled in each state is less than 10. Early voting hasn’t even begun for the general population in Colorado, the state with the highest number of early voters four years ago. More important is the identity of the groups the campaigns are targeting in their early voting turnout programs. According to Politico, the Democrats have focused on getting Obama’s base out early while the Republicans think their core voters don’t need to be rousted out to the polls before Election Day, and instead concentrate on wavering potential GOP voters. Whether the latter strategy is smarter than the former is yet to be seen. But the Reuters poll is so flimsy that it’s difficult to see why it should be taken seriously.

Beeson argues there’s no point for his party to invest in a measure that would be devoted to bringing out GOP voters early that he knows will support Romney on Election Day. That may be true for high intensity Republicans, but Democrats seem to think their base needs more help and might not vote at all if they allow many of them to wait until November 6. They are probably right about that, which means their approach makes sense.

Early voting does alter some of the calculations for pollsters since once a person has voted they are invulnerable to the subsequent swings in opinion about the candidates. Democrats seem to think that since Obama has led most of the way, this limits Romney’s path to a comeback win. But since most early voting is happening now, as the Republican surges, this is not a compelling argument for either candidate.

Even if the Reuters poll was accurate — and there is no rational reason to think that it is — it doesn’t mean that Obama should view early voting as his path to re-election. It is just a device to increase turnout among sections of the public who cannot be relied upon to vote without this sort of aid. But there is also no reason to think that exponentially more Democrats will vote early than Republicans nationwide. As Beeson says, of those voters who have requested ballots but have yet to turn in their vote, Democrats hold only a six percent registration edge. Another wild card here is the military vote that may not be so favorable for the Democrats.

That means there is much less than meets the eye to the early voting hoopla. No matter who has what is liable to be a small edge in this category, it won’t decide anything.

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Skewed Presidential Polls Should Be Trashed, Not Published

With the public and the pundits hungry for more information about the election, the focus on polling seems to be greater than ever. Unfortunately for the pollsters, so has skepticism about their results. Part of that lies in the natural unwillingness of partisans to accept that their side is losing. Thus, Republicans take polls that show their side winning as truthful while scoffing at those that show Democrats ahead; Democrats play the same game. We’ve seen a lot of this during this election cycle. But as much as we should guard against the partisan knee-jerk when reacting to certain polls, that doesn’t mean that they must all be taken at face value. Case in point is the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of the presidential race published today. It gives President Obama some much-needed good news by showing that he leads Mitt Romney 49-46 percent. That three-point margin is an improvement by one point over the last Post poll taken two weeks ago.

But the problem with the Post poll is revealed in the paper’s story about its findings:

Partisan identification fluctuates from poll to poll as basic orientations shift and with the sampling variability that accompanies each randomly selected sample of voters. In the current poll, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points among likely voters; the previous three Post-ABC polls had three-, six- and five-percentage-point edges for Democrats. The presidential contest would now be neck and neck nationally with any of these margins.

In other words, the pollsters know this is a bad poll but went ahead and published it anyway.

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With the public and the pundits hungry for more information about the election, the focus on polling seems to be greater than ever. Unfortunately for the pollsters, so has skepticism about their results. Part of that lies in the natural unwillingness of partisans to accept that their side is losing. Thus, Republicans take polls that show their side winning as truthful while scoffing at those that show Democrats ahead; Democrats play the same game. We’ve seen a lot of this during this election cycle. But as much as we should guard against the partisan knee-jerk when reacting to certain polls, that doesn’t mean that they must all be taken at face value. Case in point is the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of the presidential race published today. It gives President Obama some much-needed good news by showing that he leads Mitt Romney 49-46 percent. That three-point margin is an improvement by one point over the last Post poll taken two weeks ago.

But the problem with the Post poll is revealed in the paper’s story about its findings:

Partisan identification fluctuates from poll to poll as basic orientations shift and with the sampling variability that accompanies each randomly selected sample of voters. In the current poll, Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points among likely voters; the previous three Post-ABC polls had three-, six- and five-percentage-point edges for Democrats. The presidential contest would now be neck and neck nationally with any of these margins.

In other words, the pollsters know this is a bad poll but went ahead and published it anyway.

It’s true that partisan identification isn’t set in stone. But do the pollsters or the editors at the Post who were presented with this survey for publication really believe the electorate is that heavily skewed in favor of the Democrats? If that were true, that would mean America is leaning even more heavily toward President Obama’s party that it did in November 2008 when his “hope and change” fever was at its height. Getting such a result at a moment when every other poll indicates that Romney has made up the ground he lost in September to tie up the race, if not go ahead, should have alerted the pollsters that their sample was badly skewed. Adjust the figures to the level where other polls show party affiliation and the result would have been a lead for Romney, not Obama. It should have told the Post and ABC that this poll was not worth publishing.

We won’t know just how much those who vote in this election will lean toward one party or the other until after November. But the notion that an election as close as this one will produce a plus-nine result for the Democrats is ludicrous.

There will be those who will simply charge the pollsters — and their sponsors — with political bias and claim that they deliberately sought to cook the poll so as to give a win to President Obama at a time when other polls and the public’s mood has shifted against him and toward Romney. In reply, the pollsters will simply say that their sample was random and that they merely transcribed the choices of their respondents. I’ll take them at the word about that. Random is random, and perhaps that’s just the numbers they got. But not all random samples are kosher. The party identification numbers should have made it clear to them that this was a bad survey and that they needed to try again, if only as a control to see that they didn’t produce a glaringly inaccurate survey. That they didn’t do that is an indication of a lack of seriousness, if not bias. Just noting a margin of error (in this case of 3.5 percent) isn’t enough.

The skewed sample means that the Post/ABC poll is an outlier and will be dismissed as such by serious observers. But it raises serious questions about the willingness of major news organizations to publish material that they already know is tainted and almost certainly inaccurate. Stories like this make it clear why the public views journalists with such disdain.

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Romney’s Lead: More Than Just One Poll

On Tuesday, New York Times blogger Nate Silver attempted to make sense of the latest round of polls that had been released on Monday. Silver, an astute political statistical analyst, took note of the post-debate trend that has tilted the presidential contest in favor of Mitt Romney, but argued that the average of the various polls that had altered his daily forecast of the outcome had been skewed by one poll. That poll from Pew Research showed Romney ahead of President Obama by four percentage points, a result that seemed out of line with other surveys.

But the problem with dismissing the Pew Research Poll is that as more data is coming in from other sources, it isn’t possible to pretend that what has happened in the last week is the product of one poll. With the latest Gallup Tracking poll and an Investors Business Daily/TIPP Tracking poll both showing Romney ahead by two points, as well as other polls showing Romney gaining ground in swing states, there is a clear trend that is showing up across the board in a wide range of surveys. Romney has spent most of the year trailing the president and looked to be in big trouble in September as his deficit grew. But the first debate was clearly a turning point in the race, and though Silver has tried to argue that the post-Denver bounce has already started to recede, there is now a wide body of evidence illustrating that Obama is losing ground and, at best, is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger. The fact that the Real Clear Politics average of major polls is showing Romney with an aggregate lead today for the first time all year must send chills down the spines of the Obama campaign.

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On Tuesday, New York Times blogger Nate Silver attempted to make sense of the latest round of polls that had been released on Monday. Silver, an astute political statistical analyst, took note of the post-debate trend that has tilted the presidential contest in favor of Mitt Romney, but argued that the average of the various polls that had altered his daily forecast of the outcome had been skewed by one poll. That poll from Pew Research showed Romney ahead of President Obama by four percentage points, a result that seemed out of line with other surveys.

But the problem with dismissing the Pew Research Poll is that as more data is coming in from other sources, it isn’t possible to pretend that what has happened in the last week is the product of one poll. With the latest Gallup Tracking poll and an Investors Business Daily/TIPP Tracking poll both showing Romney ahead by two points, as well as other polls showing Romney gaining ground in swing states, there is a clear trend that is showing up across the board in a wide range of surveys. Romney has spent most of the year trailing the president and looked to be in big trouble in September as his deficit grew. But the first debate was clearly a turning point in the race, and though Silver has tried to argue that the post-Denver bounce has already started to recede, there is now a wide body of evidence illustrating that Obama is losing ground and, at best, is locked in a dead heat with his Republican challenger. The fact that the Real Clear Politics average of major polls is showing Romney with an aggregate lead today for the first time all year must send chills down the spines of the Obama campaign.

The signs of trouble for the Democrats are showing up in a raft of new polls being released every day. In the past few days, states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which looked to be in the bag for the president, are now tightening up. Obama had opened up a significant lead in the key battleground state of Ohio, but now the Buckeye state, which was being colored blue in most electoral maps last month, is now back in the tossup column.

Some Democrats dismissed the Pew poll because they felt it reflected a disproportionately high sample of Republican voters. Yet the president’s cheering section had no problems with polls that were the product of samples that were based on the assumption that Democrats would heavily outnumber Republicans at the voting booth in November. While the assumption that Obama can duplicate his 2008 turnout seems wildly optimistic, Silver also wisely points out that party identification can be fluid in a presidential election. The number of those claiming sympathy with the GOP may be increasing. After getting a good look at the two candidates side by side last week, many Americans may have decided the Republicans aren’t the monsters that Democratic ads have portrayed.

Silver continues to insist that the “fundamentals” of the race are still pointing toward a favorable outcome for the president. He believes the index of economic factors he has compiled works in favor, rather than against, the incumbent. The assumption there is that the majority of Americans believe the rosy numbers about unemployment. Many may still blame the country’s problems on George W. Bush, and others may be persuaded by the Democrats’ attempt to brand Romney a “liar” based on assertions that even liberals concede are misleading if not a downright false.

As I have pointed out many times in this space, conservatives have always underestimated how much of an advantage it is for Obama to have the mainstream media in his pocket (something that was clearly demonstrated by their use of a clip of Andrea Mitchell wrongly claiming that Romney would raise taxes on the middle class in an ad that is being run repeatedly on national broadcasts such as the baseball playoffs). The right also tends to ignore the powerful hold that Obama’s status as the first African-American president has on many voters.

But the sinking feeling that has set in among Democrats in the wake of the president’s disastrous debate performance stems from their grudging recognition of the fact that the political messiah of 2008 is starting to show his feet of clay.

If the trend holds, and there is good reason to think it will, I expect Silver will start adjusting his November forecast to reflect the fact that the president should no longer be considered the overwhelming favorite. Anything can happen in the next four weeks, but right now it’s starting to look as if Obama peaked too early and Romney caught fire at just the right moment.

UPDATE:

After digesting the polls released on Tuesday, Nate Silver has now backed away from his claim that Romney’s surge is solely the result of one survey skewing the averages. He concedes that Romney’s “uptick on Tuesday was a result of a wider volume of evidence.”

Despite this, he is still sticking to his forecast model that shows President Obama as the overwhelming favorite in the election:

The forecast model is not quite ready to jump on board with the notion that the race has become a literal toss-up; Mr. Romney will need to maintain his bounce for a few more days, or extend it into high-quality polls of swing states, before we can be surer about that.

But we are ready to conclude that one night in Denver undid most of the advantage Mr. Obama had appeared to gain in September.

Silver believes the president has amassed such a large lead that even Romney’s significant post-debate bounce still leaves him trailing. However, he does admit that the evidence of the national polls shows it to be essentially a dead heat.

It will be interesting to follow Silver’s forecast and to see whether his model, which seems to favor Obama, will stick with the president to the bitter end or wind up hedging its bets by Election Day.

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Obama Poll Surge Doesn’t Jibe With Democrats’ Registration Decline

Many Republicans are not buying the numbers produced by national polls in the last few weeks that show President Obama padding his lead over Mitt Romney. Some of this sentiment can be put down to wishful thinking by conservatives who can’t fathom why so many Americans want to re-elect Obama. It is only human nature that we tend to think polls that verify our views of the way things should be are credible while dismissing those that contradict as bogus. Indeed, with the president taking the lead in so many national as well as swing state polls recently it is difficult to argue that the race hasn’t shifted in his direction. However, there are those, such as former Bill Clinton advisor/pollster and current pundit Dick Morris, who have consistently argued that the polls are wrong because their turnout model is incorrect. Morris believes that all of their numbers reflect a belief that the Democrats will be able to match their historic turnout they achieved in 2008, something he argues is not remotely likely to happen.

Morris’s argument was widely dismissed as mere spin by a conservative-leaning analyst, but recent reports showing a huge decline in Democratic registration when compared to four years ago should give even the most sanguine liberals some food for thought. As Fox News reports, several studies have shown that the number of voters declaring themselves to be Democrats has dipped precipitately in swing states, particularly in Ohio. The same is true, as I noted back in July, in Pennsylvania. That leaves us with a conundrum. If, as even left-wing think tanks agree, Democratic voter registration is in decline, why are pollsters assuming that the electorate will largely resemble the messianic “hope and change” outpouring that elected Barack Obama? And if they are wrong about the turnout model, does that mean their forecasts showing the president cruising to re-election are also incorrect?

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Many Republicans are not buying the numbers produced by national polls in the last few weeks that show President Obama padding his lead over Mitt Romney. Some of this sentiment can be put down to wishful thinking by conservatives who can’t fathom why so many Americans want to re-elect Obama. It is only human nature that we tend to think polls that verify our views of the way things should be are credible while dismissing those that contradict as bogus. Indeed, with the president taking the lead in so many national as well as swing state polls recently it is difficult to argue that the race hasn’t shifted in his direction. However, there are those, such as former Bill Clinton advisor/pollster and current pundit Dick Morris, who have consistently argued that the polls are wrong because their turnout model is incorrect. Morris believes that all of their numbers reflect a belief that the Democrats will be able to match their historic turnout they achieved in 2008, something he argues is not remotely likely to happen.

Morris’s argument was widely dismissed as mere spin by a conservative-leaning analyst, but recent reports showing a huge decline in Democratic registration when compared to four years ago should give even the most sanguine liberals some food for thought. As Fox News reports, several studies have shown that the number of voters declaring themselves to be Democrats has dipped precipitately in swing states, particularly in Ohio. The same is true, as I noted back in July, in Pennsylvania. That leaves us with a conundrum. If, as even left-wing think tanks agree, Democratic voter registration is in decline, why are pollsters assuming that the electorate will largely resemble the messianic “hope and change” outpouring that elected Barack Obama? And if they are wrong about the turnout model, does that mean their forecasts showing the president cruising to re-election are also incorrect?

While all polls are merely a snapshot of public opinion at a given moment, the registration numbers can’t be debated. Voter registration in Ohio is down by 490,000 from 2008 when, as was the case around the country, there was a flood of young and minority first-time voters eager to elect the first African American to the presidency. That decline in Ohio appears to be largely concentrated in the three largest counties that contain urban cities like Cleveland, where Democrats predominate. That same trend is reflected elsewhere. As Fox notes:

Ohio is not alone. An August study by the left-leaning think tank Third Way showed that the Democratic voter registration decline in eight key swing states outnumbered the Republican decline by a 10-to-one ratio. In Florida, Democratic registration is down 4.9 percent, in Iowa down 9.5 percent. And in New Hampshire, it’s down 19.7 percent.

Does this mean that the polls that show Obama ahead are, by definition, wrong? Not necessarily. After all, the president may be gaining among independents, something that the Fox story points out may be driven by Obama’s support for the auto industry bailout. It is also true, as liberal analyst Nate Silver pointed out last night in a New York Times blog that was intended to answer conservative skeptics about the Obama surge:

Party identification is not a hard-and-fast demographic characteristic like race, age or gender. Instead, it can change in reaction to news and political events from the party conventions to the Sept. 11 attacks. Since changes in public opinion are precisely what polls are trying to measure, it would defeat the purpose of conducting a survey if pollsters insisted that they knew what it was ahead of time.

If the focus on “oversampling” and party identification is misplaced, however, FiveThirtyEight does encourage a healthy skepticism toward polling. Polling is difficult, after all, in an era in which even the best pollsters struggle to get 10 percent of households to return their calls — and then have to hope that the people who do answer the surveys are representative of those who do not.

It seems reasonable to assume that turnout in 2012 will not be fueled by the same passion that drove his 2008 campaign and that Republicans will not have the same advantage they had in 2010 when discouraged Democrats stayed home and the Tea Party revolution powered the GOP to an equally historic victory. The decline in Democrat registration would seem to back up these conclusions.

A biased media may have exacerbated Romney’s recent difficulties but it would be absurd to deny that he has lost ground. To assume that all the polls are wrong may be wishful thinking by conservatives. But blind faith in their accuracy on the part of Democrats might be equally foolish. The turnout models may have baked in a pro-Obama bias that makes Romney’s plight look worse than it really is. Should the president start to widen his lead, that skewing of the numbers won’t be that meaningful. But if Romney uses a strong debate performance to turn the tide and the race tights back up, then it will be important.

Just as Republicans must guard against indulging in fantasies that reflect their desires rather than reality, so, too, must Democrats understand that if they allow a poorly constructed poll model to feed their overconfidence, they may regret it on Election Day.

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