Ignore the Republican hype, Obama's odds are as strong as ever

When right-wing spinners try to attack mathematics itself, you know they're running scared.

Republican Mitt Romney has been hyping the idea that his campaign has Big Mo since the first presidential debate in which he introduced the world to his inner moderate, and conservative pundits have done their best to lend credibility to the hype. 

The National Review said this week it's not a win for Romney that's in question but the size of the win. Dick Morris, in the Hill, proclaimed: "Here comes the landslide." (Never mind, as the Guardian noted in August, that Morris is almost always wrong.)

To someone paying attention to the polls, this might be incredible if it weren't so predictable. The Romney campaign has taken a page from the Karl Rove playbook. The brain behind President George W. Bush's reelection believed hyping a win at the end of the 2004 race would lead to a win, because most voters like to back a winner. 

And yet polls released Wednesday suggest President Barack Obama has leads in enough swing states to win the required 270 Electoral College votes. In fact, even if Romney won every state Bush won in 2004 he'd still lose if he doesn't win Ohio, and the odds in that state are getting longer. A new poll has Obama ahead by five points. But conservatives and Republicans have never been ones to let polls bother them. Indeed, the best thing to do when the messenger arrives with bad news is kill him. 

One such messenger has been Nate Silver. He's the wunderkind of data analysis over at the New York Times who predicted 49 states out of 50 in the last presidential election. What he says matters, and what he has been saying, for months, is that the polling data has been steady and that, from what he can tell, the president, as of Friday, has an almost 84 percent chance of winning. Romney? Just over 16 percent. 

Moreover, Obama has a more than 17 percent chance of winning 330 Electoral College votes while the odds of Romney getting the minimum, 270, is just over 0 percent.

That's got to hurt. No wonder Republicans and the pundits who support them are peeved. For both, Silver's calculations suggest a painful and foregone conclusion. 

The math doesn't lie. Not if it's done right. The president has been leading his challenger for months, with the exception of a couple of weeks after the first presidential debate in which Romney's numbers rose and Obama's numbers sank, so the final outcome of the election will likely reflect those long-term trends.

Even so, Republicans and pundits are taking shots at Silver. Joe Scarborough, a the popular TV host on MSNBC and an esteemed Republican pundit who is not a fan of Romney, said: "Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue [that] they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops, and microphones for the next ten days, because they're jokes." 

David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The Timessaid: "If you tell me you think you can quantify an event that is about to happen that you don’t expect ... I think you think you are a wizard. That’s not possible. The pollsters tell us what’s happening now. When they start projecting, they’re getting into silly land."

Silver isn't biased. As Brendan Nyhan, in the Columbia Journalism Reviewnoted, the "the debate over both Silver himself and the specifics of his model misses the point. The best available evidence from both statistical forecasting models and betting markets suggests that Obama remains the favorite in the election." Even so, that's hardly going to stop partisan attacks by Republicans worried their hype bubble is being burst or by pundits fretting their market share is being threatened. 

Yet among all the polls released in the week prior to Election Day, one got little attention -- and it's one that would seem immune to accusations of bias. It was conducted three times this year by Gallup and it did not ask respondents who they believed should be president who they believed would be. In effect, the survey taps into the wisdom of crowds, thus obscuring any the potential for individual bias.

Of the 1,063 people asked (via land line and cell phone), 54 percent said Obama has better odds of winning while 34 percent said Romney has. This response, like the polling data generally this election year, has been remarkably steady. In May, Obama had 56 percent; Romney had 36 percent. In August, Obama had 58 percent; Romney had 36 percent. The only significant change was among those who had no opinion. In May and August, it was 8 and 6 percent, respectively. This time it was 11 percent. 

What's more, the survey found that even among Republicans, nearly 20 percent thought the president would win reelection while the view among independents was even more telling: a majority (52 percent) thought Obama would win. 

And Americans, when asked who was likely to win, not who deserved to win, are generally right. Gallup asked the same question in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, and in each case, Americans accurately predicted the winner of the popular vote. 

Gallup noted: "Although Americans are not as optimistic on Obama's odds as various "prediction markets," such as Intrade.com, where the president has often been projected as having a probability of winning of more than 60 per cent, the prediction markets and the American public in general find Obama the favorite against Romney."

It worth remembering, too, that this poll was conducted on Oct. 27 and 28. That is, before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Eastern Seaboard. After the storm, Obama made the odds of reelection look even better by merely looking presidential.

The implication is fairly clear: the final outcome of this election will probably – note that I said probably! – reflect the long-terms trends of the polling data collected over the course of this year. Obviously, anything can happen, and Silver and others like him are the first to acknowledge that. Yet the greater probability is in Obama's favor, and for all the hype being served by Republicans, and for all the desire by pundits to have a race that's down to the wire, the odds are simply not in their favor.

The president speaks at a rally in Colorado. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.