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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.