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 "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle