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.

 

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.