Thursday, October 9, 2008

Slow New Cycle? Let's Play With the Map

I don't know about you, but I've been sensing a pronounced deceleration in the amount of political news being generated and, for that matter, reported, just at the moment. Mind you I'm not complaining: The less political news there is right now, the better it is for the man hoping to consolidate his lead--but it does put a columnist like yours truly in the unusual predicament of trying to figure out what to write about. (I most assuredly have not yet mustered the courage to devote even a single column to either a movie review or a travel narrative, and probably won't until after November 4th--despite having several such entries in the can.)

Instead I decided to take an unexpectedly idle Thursday afternoon to dust-off my old academic training in a specialty branch of statistics called econometrics, to run a simulation on how election night could unfold. This is distinct from my usual "let's go over to the map" mode, in that (a) I took a stab and projecting states that fivethirtyeight.com has assigned "leaner" or "toss-up" status, and (b) I paced the lighting of the states in accordance with their staggered poll-closing times.

I won't bore you with too many of the ugly details, but it turns out that it's possible to use statistics to predict the answer to a yes/no (or, in this case, a blue/red) question, employing something called a "logit regression"--which indeed can return rich enough results so as to enable not only the final answer, but how closely the matter will be run in the meantime. In my small-minded and cursory approach to all of this, I took the closeness of the call as a proxy for how long it would take the networks to make it, yielding a "stair-stepped" map that lights up in measured phases, just like the real one does on the big night.

The most significant factor in projecting who would win any given state and when, was of course the current fivethirtyeight regression value (no sense reinventing their hard work, after all), but in addition I decided to add a handful of other variables that I thought could easily influence when (if not how) a state fell. These were:

1) whether today's leading candidate is from the same party as the governor of a state

2) whether today's leading candidate is from the same party as that of the candidate who won the state in 2004

3) whether the fivethirtyeight regression line shows a narrower race than today's poll-of-polls number, or a wider one

4) whether the largest cities in the state are purple or blue or red, since blue cities tend to take longer to report in

5) ratio of advertising expenditures in the state, where known

It is also worth noting--before we play our dangerous game--that I am by no means a pro at this sort of thing. The fivethirtyeight guys are the pros, and I'm sure we can look forward to a similarly textured experiment from them, in the near future. But in the meantime it is (at the very least) a stress-relieving exercise to pretend that the election was ending today, if only because it would mean that we can get on with the rest of our lives. So without further ado, here are the results of my election-night simulation, based on today's polling data and projections. All times are EST.

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6:00PM: Unable to Call Indiana

The modern quadrennial tradition of electoral vote-counting on the major networks has reliably started during the east-coast broadcast of the national news, with two ominous red spluts, bang in the middle of the map. This year, if things hold up the way they are right now, only one of those spluts will be visible where it should be--Kentucky. Indiana is a nail-biter for the first time in significantly longer than I have been alive, and the networks' inability to call the state at the moment its polls close will form the keynote of the broadcast-news coverage--much to the dismay and possibly even the tangible peril of the McCain/Palin ticket.

McCAIN/PALIN: 8
OBAMA/BIDEN: 0
NEWLY UNCALLED: IN

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7:00PM: Unable to Call Virginia

Viewers of the Mountain Time-Zone broadcast of the national evening news will turn on their television sets to find a second conspicuous hole in what is usually an early patchwork of red. As Georgia and South Carolina fall to McCain immediately and New Hampshire and Vermont are sumarrily awarded to Mr. Obama, the state Virginia--emerging as possibly the single most important prize up for grabs in McCain's desperate gambit to stop Obama's momentum--sits there on the gray-painted map, conspicuously uncalled.

McCAIN/PALIN: 31
OBAMA/BIDEN: 7
NEWLY UNCALLED: VA
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+1:00)

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7:30PM: Three More States, All Too Close

At the bottom of the seven o'clock hour the polls close in two crucial states this year, plus a third state that isn't as rich in electoral votes but could sound a grim alarm-bell for McCain if my forecast of its stubborn refusal to fall comes true. The big states? North Carolina and Ohio--neither of which will surprise anyone for not being painted one color or the other at the first possible moment. But what will the news analysts do with the story of their own inability to call West Virginia? Remember, polls are still open in most of the country and many people hearing the analysis at this hour will not yet have voted: If it's already shaping up to be a long night for Team Crankypants, will the uncalled races in Indiana and West Virginia discourage any of McCain's supporters out west from voting?

McCAIN/PALIN: 31
OBAMA/BIDEN: 7
NEWLY UNCALLED: NC, OH, WV
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+1:30), VA (+0:30)

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8:00PM
: First Big Wave, No Big Prizes

At eight o'clock on the east coast the networks cut away from their prime-time lineups and roll with the news that none of the major states that were truly in play this year can yet be called. McCain is perhaps relieved to see that Tennessee falls abruptly and without fuss into his column (along with Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma), but a quick call for either Florida or Missouri would have stopped the party next door in Springfield dead in its tracks. Instead the Show-Me State gives McCain no succor from the droning network narrative of a long and increasingly ominous-looking night. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, quietly collects his home state, plus Michigan and everything northeastern except for Pennsylvania, piling-up Connecticut, Delaware, The District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine (both districts), Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey.


McCAIN/PALIN: 64
OBAMA/BIDEN: 99
NEWLY UNCALLED: FL, MO, PA
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+2:00), VA (+1:00), NC, OH, WV (+0:30)

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8:18PM
: Quaker State Falls Startlingly Early

This would perhaps represent the first moment in the evening when the McCain/Palin surrogates start mentally composing their sound-bites about the role of a loyal opposition in Congress. Pennsylvania took most of the night to fall for John Kerry in 2004 (while West Virginia was called for Bush the instant the polls had closed there), and my simulation has them reversed, with the bigger and more important prize needing only a few extra minutes of cross-checking to verify a result that is, today at least, about as suspenseful as the Cubs not making the World Series.


McCAIN/PALIN: 64
OBAMA/BIDEN: 120
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+2:18), VA (+1:18), NC, OH, WV (+0:48), FL, MO (+0:18)

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8:30PM
: The Razorbacks' Quadrennial Fifteen Seconds

Hey, remember when we all used to hang on the edge of our seats to see what was going to happen at 8:30--when polls closed in Arkansas? Me neither.

McCAIN/PALIN: 70
OBAMA/BIDEN: 120
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+2:30), VA (+1:30), NC, OH, WV (+1:00), FL, MO (+0:30)

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8:46PM
: McCain Salvages West Virginia

...And as you surf the various networks for the next fourteen minutes of comparing maps, the rule is that every time someone on TV says "firewall," you have to drink.



McCAIN/PALIN: 75
OBAMA/BIDEN: 120
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+2:46), VA (+1:46), NC, OH (+1:16), FL, MO (+0:46)

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9:00PM
: GOP Pundits White-Knuckled For Indiana

As the top of the hour rolls 'round for the second time in prime-time, nobody can take their eyes of what is shaping up to be the dominant under-story of the night, the continuing inability to call Indiana (and what it means for the fortunes of the Republican ticket). Meanwhile Obama nabs Minnesota, which never was anything like as close as it seemed to be polling, together with a big pickup in New Mexico, plus New York and Rhode Island to round-out the northeast. McCain/Palin settle for Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska (except NE-02), South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, and (mercifully) McCain's home state of Arizona. The Florida-Florida-Florida of this election, Colorado, is conspicuously too close to call.

McCAIN/PALIN: 144
OBAMA/BIDEN: 180
NEWLY UNCALLED: CO, NE02
STILL UNCALLED: IN (+3:00), VA (+2:00), NC, OH (+1:30), FL, MO (+1:00)

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9:17PM
: Indiana Says "Uncle"

A gigantic sigh of relief from the McCain campaign is postulated by all three network anchors--apparently too distracted by Indiana's final red hue to notice that the precinct reports from Virginia and North Carolina and Colorado look like an Obama fundraising tally.

McCAIN/PALIN: 155
OBAMA/BIDEN: 180
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: VA (+2:17), NC, OH (+1:47), FL, MO (+1:17), CO, NE02 (+0:17)

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10:00PM
: Third Wave a Mini-Tsunami For Team Blue

With the smallest assortment of top-of-the-hour calls, the ten o'clock sweep manages, if not to steel the whole show, then certainly to lay the foundations for its theft. With unexpected confidence the networks climb over each other to award both Iowa (where Obama has been leading since early summer) and Nevada (which was supposed to be tied) to the Senator from Illinois, thanks in large measure to a flood of California-based canvassers in the Silver State. All of which begs only the question, how many water metaphors is too many for describing an outcome in the middle of the desert? McCain hangs on in Utah--by only thirty-five or forty points. Montana and North Dakota, on the other hand, aren't being called for anyone--yet.

McCAIN/PALIN: 160
OBAMA/BIDEN: 192
NEWLY UNCALLED: MT, ND
STILL UNCALLED: VA (+3:00), NC, OH (+2:30), FL, MO (+2:00), CO, NE02 (+1:00)

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10:13PM
: First Truly Breathless Call

Here we were, just about to get up to root around in the fridge, and Tom Brokaw is cutting-off a meandering tale of childhood patriphilia by Doris Kearns Goodwin to announce that Virginia and all its suburban-DC commies have just turned their backs on the color red, and with it most of McCain's dwindling chances of becoming President.

McCAIN/PALIN: 160
OBAMA/BIDEN: 205
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC, OH (+2:43), FL, MO (+2:13), CO, NE02 (+1:13), MT, ND (+0:13)

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10:24PM
: Dakota Territory Goes Maverick

How a group of fifty-eight corn farmers could have gotten together and decided to cast their three electoral votes for the guy who hates ethanol is beyond me. But lots of things are, these days.

McCAIN/PALIN: 163
OBAMA/BIDEN: 205
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC, OH (+2:54), FL, MO (+2:24), CO, NE02 (+1:24), MT (+0:24)

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10:35PM
: Nebraska's Second District Says Go Big Red

I guess if Sarah Palin is going to choose Omaha as her first stage on which to call Barack Obama a terrorist, the least the good people of that city can do to show their appreciation is... vote for her???


McCAIN/PALIN: 164
OBAMA/BIDEN: 205
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC, OH (+3:05), FL, MO (+2:35), CO (+1:35), MT (+0:35)

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10:41PM
: The Grandaddy of All Calls ...This Year

With most of the juciest electoral prizes still on the table well into the ten o'clock hour, the 2008 election has appeared to some observers to be unexpectedly close. Not anymore: Ohio's 20 electoral votes, while not quite enough to put Obama in the White House by themselves, remove all doubt that the Pacific will seal the deal in another few minutes. In a hotel room somewhere in Tuscon, Rick Davis is hog-holding John McCain to keep him from slugging Carly Fiorina in the eye, while Steve Schmidt is seated at the meeting table, trying to choose between the second draft of a concession speech, or a cyanide capsule.


McCAIN/PALIN: 164
OBAMA/BIDEN: 225
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC (+3:11), FL, MO (+2:41), CO (+1:41), MT (+0:41)

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10:52PM
: A Centennial Celebration

I guess those influence-hungry field workers in Durango and Grand Junction didn't want to let the whole matter get decided without their input--again.

McCAIN/PALIN: 164
OBAMA/BIDEN: 234
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC (+3:22), FL, MO (+2:52), MT (+0:52)

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10:56PM
: McCain Answers. With Montana.

Hey, it's better than not answering with Montana. In some way that I haven't thought of, yet.

McCAIN/PALIN: 167
OBAMA/BIDEN: 234
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC (+3:26), FL, MO (+2:56)

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11:00PM
: HISTORY IS MADE.

As of this moment, the United States is no longer a country in which a black man can't be President. With the poll closings on the west coast, Obama tips comfortably over the 270 mark by securing California, Oregon, Washington State, and Hawaii, while McCain's Idaho victory escapes the notice of the candidate, who is already in the motorcade on his way to give the speech.


McCAIN/PALIN: 171
OBAMA/BIDEN: 311
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC (+3:30), FL, MO (+3:00)

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11:10PM
: As We Await the Speeches...

Even as McCain is making his way to the pavilion from which he will concede the race, the biggest contested electoral prize slips through his fingers and into the waiting arms of the President-Elect.


McCAIN/PALIN: 171
OBAMA/BIDEN: 338
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: NC (+3:40), MO (+3:10)

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11:18PM
: So Do We Cut Away From McCain's Speech?

Probably not--even though North Carolina hasn't had a blue hue for a long, long time.

McCAIN/PALIN: 171
OBAMA/BIDEN: 353
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: MO (+3:18)

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12:00AM
: Palin Pays Off?

Well, yeah--with Alaska's three electoral votes--though her pantsuit tails turn out not to be enough to save Ted Stevens from going down to defeat in his bid to become the first convicted felon reelected to the US Senate.

McCAIN/PALIN: 174
OBAMA/BIDEN: 353
NEWLY UNCALLED: (none)
STILL UNCALLED: MO (+3:25)

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12:13AM
: You Can Read About The Senate in Tomorrow's Paper!

The last state in the union finally falls--for John McCain--long after all but the most hardened political junkies have gone to bed.

FINAL TALLY:

McCAIN/PALIN: 185
OBAMA/BIDEN: 353

-------------------------------

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

7 comments:

Doug said...

I have no idea how long it took you to predict this timeline... but I will personally buy you a beer if it holds true! ;-)

The Key Grip said...

If it holds true I'll get the second *and* the third rounds, in exchange.

shabec said...

"...buy you a beer"---------hell, you deserve a whole case! This is an incredible piece of research and grim doggedness--and I suspect: entirely correct. Congrats!

The Key Grip said...

Thanks to both for your kind feedback. You know, the big sting in this thing's tail is that a great many lazy journalists (and, by extension, lazy citizens who are on the fence about voting), will as usual turn on their TV's at 8:38PM and see a map that's painted all red.

We need to start circulating the message -- now! -- that the early returns aren't indicative of how the race is going on election night.

Anonymous said...

Key Grip - would be curious to get your opinion on this piece...

Palin wearing an earpice?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTqdYQ46wMU

The Key Grip said...

I would be stunned -- given how poorly she fares when she's impromptu -- if she wasn't wearing an earpiece. There can be little doubt that Mr. Bush has worn one for years, and he's vastly more capable, intellectually, than Ms. Palin. (Something I might not have thought possible.)

The problem is that these sorts of stories only bother those of us who don't want to make a President in our own image to assuage our insecurities about not being very bright ourselves -- which means, sadly, that calling attention to such a matter could do more harm than good with respect to wooing the remaining undecided voters in the race.

It's always true, but it's even more true in the second week of October, that empathizing with undecided voters is very, *very* difficult. If they're still undecided, they probably don't want to hear what could easily devolve into a teachy, pedantic lecture about how the President and Vice President should be able to give speeches without ear pieces.

Anonymous said...

This was pretty close! Good work! You did get the call of the presidency on time, followed immediately by FL coming through. But you called MT too early and IN went to Obama afterall! Also, OH fell shockingly early for Obama. But other than that you were basically spot on. What a fantastic prediction!

--hilbuk