Monday, November 12, 2012

Can You Handle the Truth?

"We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
 -Mitt Romney's pollster, Neil Newhouse, during the Republican National Convention

As things turned out last Tuesday, that was the fatal flaw in Mitt Romney's campaign for the presidency: a refusal to accept, or even acknowledge, basic truths.  It shouldn't be a huge surprise that a party whose leaders resist the science of climate change and evolution isn't big on math, either.  The Romney campaign played fast and loose with the facts all summer and fall, but there's no truth-in-advertising law for politicians.  Society can debate whose scientific theories are more valid, and candidates can squabble over whose ads are more mendacious.  But once the ballots are cast and counted, one side's guess about the makeup of the electorate is going to be proven right and the other wrong.  In 2012, the assumptions made by most of the public pollsters, and those working for the Obama campaign - the ones that drew so much scorn and ridicule from the GOP and Romney's own polling team - turned out to be dead on, and Romney's, dead wrong.

I wrote on Election Eve that this race reminded me very much of 2004, when President Bush squeaked out a narrow re-election win over John Kerry.  Bush beat Kerry in the popular vote that year, 50.7% to 48.3%.  As I write this, with some ballots still to be counted, President Obama has 50.5% of the popular vote, to Romney's 47.9%.  That's awfully close to what happened in 2004 (it's also the closest I've ever been to nailing my final prediction, which was Obama 50.2 to Romney 47.9).

Throughout the campaign, Romney operatives, and some pollsters, insisted there was no way the broad coalition of young voters, African Americans, Latinos and inspired independents that propelled Barack Obama to history in 2008 was going to turn out for him this time.  Too much disappointment and disenchantment on the left, they said; the bloom is off the rose.  Romney will benefit from an enthusiasm gap; the electorate will be more like the one Bush got in '04.  They shredded polls that projected a Democratic turnout advantage of five, six, seven points (Democrats outnumbered Republicans by seven points in the '08 election).  What they failed to grasp - despite many, many polls suggesting this - was that Republican voters were even less enthusiastic about their nominee than Democrats were about President Obama.  Consistently, Romney supporters told the pollsters they were voting against the president more than they were voting for the GOP nominee.  Obama voters, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly casting ballots for his re-election, not against Romney.  The steady parade of "Anyone But Romney" Republican frontrunners during the primaries should have been enough of a warning sign for Romney and his strategists.  But, blinders on, the Romney team ignored all of that data, or insisted it was wrong, preferring instead to shoot out constant emails about huge, excited crowds at rallies and the proliferation of Romney-Ryan yard signs.  As I noted last week, crowd count is not a reliable predictor of success on Election Day.  A majority of voters simply didn't trust Romney, and they didn't feel he connected with them on a real level.  The lack of credibility, authenticity and embrace of reality permeated his campaign and doomed it from the start.

I took much of the GOP's ostensible optimism and confidence in the campaign's closing days as so much bluster.  Surely, they had to see what the rest of us did: that all signs pointed to the president's re-election.  There was simply no denying the data, and the sense of momentum for Mr. Obama that accelerated after Hurricane Sandy.  But no, their post-election comments reveal that the Romney team really didn't see defeat coming at all.  On Election Day, the youth turnout didn't go down - it went up, one percentage point from 2008.  The African American vote didn't decline - it increased, especially in Ohio, where it went from 11% of the electorate in '08 to 15% this year.  The Republican effort to make voting more difficult backfired, motivating minority voters in particular to stand in line for hours to cast their ballots for the president.  And an enormous Latino tide, with 71% of those voters preferring Barack Obama, simply swept Mitt Romney's erroneous assumptions away, and with them, his shot at the presidency.  In fact, of the major ethnic groups, only the white vote declined.  Democrats made up 38% of the electorate this time around, and Republicans 32%, with independents and others constituting the rest: in other words, exactly the six-point advantage many of those GOP-derided polls assumed.

I took some heat on Twitter for suggesting that the Gallup and Rasmussen polls were using flawed methodology. "It's pretty obvious you just like the polls that show Obama is winning," one critic tweeted.  No, I like the ones whose methods make sense, and to me that seemed to be IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos.  I was slightly suspect of Public Policy Polling, a firm that works for Democratic campaigns, because their surveys seemed to overstate Obama's support and looked like slight outliers.  As we review the polls now, it was PPP, IBD/TIPP and Reuters/Ipsos who were most accurate.  Rasmussen skewed way to the Republican side, as it often does, and Gallup simply blew it, by assuming a much whiter electorate and excluding too many actual voters with its "likely voter" screen.  Gallup has been around since 1947 and is America's best-known pollster by far, but I will no longer consider them reliable until I see them get a major election right again (they were among the least accurate in 2008, too).

I also am not a fan of the Real Clear Politics average, and I hope the outcome of this election illustrates why.  RCP's final average gave President Obama a 0.7% lead.  He won by 2.6%, subject to slight revision.  That's a fairly significant miss.  You can't simply add the 53% reported by a live poll of 2000 people with landlines and cellphones to the 49% from a poll of 300 people by robocall and call it an "average" of 51%, which is what RCP does (in this example, the true average of those two polls would be 52.5%, and their differing methodologies would render even that result suspect).  I hope lazy media outlets stop reporting that "average" as some sort of useful and informative number.

I am curious to see if the Republican Party reverts to denial within a few months of absorbing this defeat.  The demographic trends can't be ignored: take a look at California if you want to see the future of the national GOP if it makes the mistake of doing so.  The Republican Party teeters on the brink of irrelevancy in the Golden State, where Democrats hold every statewide office and two-thirds of the legislature.  Mitt Romney won only 38% of the presidential vote.  Latinos and young voters here are overwhelmingly Democratic.  The national GOP leaders can't be that blind.  But will they react cynically - showcasing Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Susana Martinez while still hewing to the social conservative line - or will they moderate their views, compromise on immigration reform and taxes and give up the ghost on things like repealing Roe v. Wade and banning same sex marriage? It's hard to imagine John Boehner and company moving very far to the middle, for very long.

One thing is certain: the 2016 primaries will be fascinating.  2008 was the first wide-open race, with no incumbent president or vice president running for either party's nomination, since 1928.  Now we'll have a second one, just eight years later, assuming Joe Biden doesn't take a third shot at running for president (he will be 73, and delusional if he thinks he can win).  On the Democratic side, it should be Hillary Clinton versus the field (Andrew Cuomo, Martin O'Malley, maybe Elizabeth Warren?), with a huge and deep potential field for the Republicans, led by Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum and maybe Nikki Haley, Bob McDonnell, Rand Paul and a few others, too.  That's an extremely conservative bunch, with Christie the most able to position himself as a centrist.  Most of those Republican candidates are likely to run as right wing purists and point to Romney's defeat as a reason why.  That could easily mean an even more lopsided Democratic victory four years from now.

A few interesting nuggets from this election:

  • Mitt Romney lost Massachusetts by 23 points, the worst home state defeat ever for a governor (or former governor) running for president.  The old record was 20 points, set by Ohio Governor James Cox in 1920, but he lost to a fellow Ohioan, Senator Warren Harding, so neither had the home field advantage.  The worst previous home state loss to someone from a different state was only eight points, by Kansas Governor Alf Landon to FDR (of New York) in 1936, so Romney really shattered this one.
  • Obama won all four "new" states (NY, NJ, NH and NM) while Romney won all the North, South and West ones (NC, SC, ND, SD and WV).
  • Obama swept all the swing states and won all the battleground states except North Carolina.
  • Mitt Romney not only lost his home state (MA), he also lost his birth state (Michigan) and the other two states in which he owns homes, New Hampshire and California.  He did win Utah, by a larger margin than any other state (48 points) but he no longer owns a residence there.
  • The states that were thought to be among the closest really weren't.  Obama won both Iowa and Wisconsin by almost six points, Colorado and Pennsylvania by more than five, Nevada by almost seven, Michigan by almost ten. Only Ohio (Obama by 2), Virginia (Obama by 3), Florida (Obama by 1) and North Carolina (Romney by 2) were close.
  • This is only the second time in history that three consecutive presidents have been elected to two terms.  The first time was Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, from 1800-1820.  This time it's Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, from 1992-present.  Perhaps that says something about the power of incumbency in the era of television advertising and unlimited campaign spending.
  • Barack Obama is only the third president in history to be re-elected with fewer electoral votes than he won the first time around (Woodrow Wilson in 1916; FDR in both 1940 and 1944).
  • Obama is only the third Democrat to win more than 50% of the popular vote twice (Andrew Jackson and FDR are the others. The other three two-term Democratic presidents, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton, never hit 50% in any of their victories).
  • New Hampshire is the first state ever to elect women to every major office (Governor, both U.S. Senators and both of its Congressional seats).
  • Hawaii is sending Congress its first Hindu member ever (Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic woman originally from American Samoa) and will also give the Senate its first Asian-American woman and first Buddhist ever, in the person of Mazie Hirono.
  • There will be 20 women in the U.S. Senate, a record, including the first lesbian (Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin).
  • There will be seven gay members of Congress, enough to have an actual caucus.
  • See, this is how I spend my time, looking up stuff like this so you don't have to.
One final statistic: for the 9th time in 11 tries, I predicted the winner of the presidential election correctly.  I got 49 states right this time, my best showing ever.  As noted above, I nailed Romney's popular vote and I'm only 0.3% off on Obama's, although those numbers could still change.  That's actually better than Nate Silver, for all you 538 junkies (I am proudly one).  He can have the glory, I just like to be right.  Facts can be fun, and good for you too, a lesson the Romney campaign would have done well to learn at the start of this campaign.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Not Too Close To Call

The Sovern Nation politics blog has been dormant for months, a victim of my Twitter addiction and the time-consuming demands of my radio work.  I am reviving it today to make my quadrennial presidential election prediction, because 140 characters simply won't do.  I'll check back in after the election with some analysis and post mortem, too.  

Forty years ago, I went to see a presidential candidate in person for the first time.  It was Senator George McGovern, at one of his final campaign rallies, in New Jersey.  McGovern's oratory was overshadowed by the eloquence of the man who introduced him, the young Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.  But the crowd was huge, the atmosphere electric, the excitement level unlike anything I'd ever experienced.  I was only 11, and it was the first presidential election in which I was fully engaged.  I'm sure many in that enormous throng came away thinking their man might actually upset the incumbent.  Polling was a less exact science then, and far less incessant.  A few days later I borrowed one of my dad's yellow legal pads, compiled all the information I could gather, and made my first-ever election prediction: Nixon would win.  Sorry George (may he rest in peace).

As it turned out, that was not a tough call, even for an 11-year-old.  President Nixon was re-elected in what was, at the time, the largest electoral landslide in history (he beat McGovern 61%-38%, and won 520 electoral votes to McGovern's 17*, an Electoral College wipe-out exceeded only by Ronald Reagan's 525-13 win a dozen years later).

In 2012, margins like that seem almost inconceivable.  Voters in California and Alabama agreeing on who should be president?  Democrats voting overwhelmingly for the Republican?  Republicans embracing a candidate from the other party?  The country is so polarized today, it's hard to imagine an election not being close anymore.  Since 1988, no presidential candidate has won the popular vote by more than eight and a half points, although we have seen landslide-level results in the Electoral College (Bush beat Dukakis 426-111; Clinton beat Dole 379-159).

When this election cycle began, it seemed like it might mirror Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election; now, after flirting briefly with 2000-level unpredictability, it looks more to me like 2004, when a not especially popular incumbent overcame some structural disadvantages to eke out a second term over a sometimes awkward challenger from Massachusetts, thanks to a narrow victory in Ohio (does that sound familiar enough?).

This election remains a tough one to get exactly right.  Starting with that 1972 Nixon victory, I am eight out of ten in my general election predictions (George W. Bush confounded me twice; in 2000, I called the popular vote for Bush but the Electoral College for Gore, a crazy split I had never predicted before, but of course I got it backwards).  In 1976, I started predicting the major party nominees before the first primary or caucus.  I am ten out of ten picking the Republican nominee, and eight of ten predicting the Democrat.  So that's a total of 26 predictions right out of 30, a success rate of 86.7%.  In the 2008 election, the final Gallup Poll predicted Barack Obama would win by 13 points.  The last CBS News/New York Times projected a nine-point Obama victory.  I said Obama would win by six, 52.5-46.5%.  Obama wound up with 52.9%, but McCain only had 45.7%, so I was off by a total of 1.2%.  I picked 47 of the 51 states (and DC) right, but I missed on four large swing states that I thought were closer, so I was way off on the Electoral College (I predicted Obama would win 291-247 but the final numbers were 365-173).  So take my educated guess with whatever size grain of salt seems appropriate.

There is a near-constant stream of predictive data to absorb these days.  My inbox is stuffed daily with new polls from public firms, private ones, the campaigns themselves.  Nate Silver crunches the numbers for all to see (and takes undue heat for it from scoffing Republicans, while grateful Democrats - this year, at least - bow toward his laptop) at his indispensable 538 blog.  There are more websites, blogs and poll trackers than any sentient being could possibly consume.  I know people on both sides who are guilty of selection bias, cherry-picking the polls they like the best while dismissing the others as biased, flawed, rendered moot by laughable methodology.

To which I say: take a deep breath and step back.  Look at the big picture.  The consensus of the national popular vote polling is that this race is a dead heat.  Every poll is either tied, or shows a narrow lead (mostly for Obama at this point) that is within the margin of error.  That means the outcome could be anywhere from Romney winning by six to Obama winning by six, and few of these surveys will have been "wrong."  The most useful information they provide is that there seems to be a late trend towards President Obama, which began when Hurricane Sandy struck and accelerated in the final 48 hours of the campaign.

Trends like that tend to be instructive. But as we all know, Americans don't actually elect their presidents - they choose electors from each state, who do that for them.  And a review of the state-by-state data shows a narrow, but probably sufficient, edge for President Obama.  I am not a disciple of the Real Clear Politics "polling average," which simply adds together different kinds of polls with vastly diverse methodologies and averages their results, which strikes me as silly.  RCP also omits about as many legitimate polls as it includes. I cast a wider net for polling data, and the ones I read have consistently told me, for most of this campaign, that President Obama is likely to carry a majority of the battleground states.

Probability is about what could happen versus what should happen.  Could there be an unexpectedly high Republican turnout in the suburbs of Philadelphia that hands Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney? Absolutely.  Could Ohio independents and undecideds break as a bloc for Romney on Election Day and deprive the president of those 18 precious electoral votes? Sure.  Could the Romney ground game be superior in Iowa, springing a Hawkeye State surprise that puts Mitt over the top? No question.  The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants had no business winning the last two Super Bowls.  They barely even made the playoffs at all. The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were long shots to win the last two World Series.  Oddsmakers said none of those teams was likely to win - but they all did.  So saying President Obama will probably win is not saying that Mitt Romney definitely won't.  But the preponderance of the available information tells me the president should win.

Now I don't base my predictions solely on polling and other empirical data.  I've traveled to a dozen states this campaign cycle, including the critical swing states of New Hampshire, Nevada, Florida and North Carolina. I interview voters, cover campaign events, talk with the candidates.  I meet with local pollsters and pundits, quiz the undecided and try to get a sense of the public mood.  Then I combine my own reporting with all those numbers on my computer, add a dash of gut hunch, and spit out a prediction.  It's not entirely scientific, but it almost always works.

(I will also add that although I covered him in person many, many times, George W. Bush is the only president, or major presidential candidate, since 1976 that I have never actually "met" or interviewed.  Maybe that lack of contact was the missing ingredient that led me astray in predicting his two elections).

There is a nagging spot in my gut that tells me Romney is going to win.  President Obama's embarrassingly poor performance in the first debate turned the election in Romney's direction.  Subsequent events - the next two debates, improving economic numbers, Hurricane Sandy - have turned it back.  But there's been an unquestionable tightening in the Midwestern states in particular, and I would not be that surprised if Romney were to win Ohio, after all, and with it, the White House.  As I said though, my predictions aren't based just on gut feelings, or on the polls, but on a combination of factors.  And after I push the "stir" button on my political blender, here is what I come out with (the swing states in bold type):

President Obama will win California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, for a total of 294 electoral votes.

Mitt Romney will win Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming for a total of 244 electoral votes.

In order of most likely for Obama to most likely for Romney, I rank the swing states this way: Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina.  If there is real momentum for the president, he could pick up Florida and Colorado, giving him as many as 332 electoral votes.  If the pendulum swings the other way, Romney could take Virginia, leaving the president at 281.  If it swings far enough for him to capture Ohio too, then obviously Romney will win, 275-263.  But I don't think that will happen.  I'm sticking with my 294-244 prediction.

On the popular vote, I keep reminding those people who say President Obama has to get to 50% or he loses, that he doesn't.  These two are probably playing for 98% of the vote.  There are more, and stronger than usual, third, fourth and fifth party candidates on the ballots in most states, who will probably combine to take about two percent of the vote. So the winner probably only needs 49% plus one. I think President Obama will top 50% anyway.  My official prediction is:

Barack Obama 50.2%
Mitt Romney    47.9%

Remember, it can take a month before we have the final, final numbers.  In 2008, Barack Obama's margin of victory increased a full point, from six to seven, during four weeks of ballot counting.  And if Ohio or Iowa or Florida is especially close, we could be left hanging for a few days - or longer - on that electoral vote count.

It could be a long, late Election Night.  I will be tweeting like a gatling gun at @SovernNation, and reporting live on KCBS 740AM/106.9FM in San Francisco, and will also be checking in as part of the CBS Radio News network coverage. Please tune in for constant returns, reaction and analysis. Be sure to vote, and see you tomorrow....

*Yes, sharp-eyed readers, 520 + 17 only = 537.  The 538th electoral vote that year went to the Libertarian candidate, John Hospers, a pal of Ayn Rand's.  A "faithless elector" who was pledged to Nixon cast his ballot for Hospers instead when the Electoral College met in December.