Sunday, November 4, 2012

Final Predictions, Part One

In my most recent post I observed that the state-level polling data seems to be lagging the actual condition of the race on the ground, and yesterday's and today's polling data has done nothing to disabuse me of that intuition. Survey USA has the President up in Colorado (without which Romney can't win), Marist has him up in Florida (without which Romney can't win), and PPP has him up in Ohio (without which Romney cannot win). With these new polls emphasizing the short shelf-life of any supposed insights, and allowing that the lid isn't exactly 'on' between now and Tuesday, it seems to me that the time is right to make a few predictions.

To begin with, Barack Obama will win.

For weeks now we've been hearing that pollsters are using biased likely-voter screens, that the President's early-voting numbers and enthusiasm advantage are down significantly from four years ago, and that anger against the incumbent will form the impetus for an election-night upset. It ain't gonna happen. For one thing, it seems far more probable to me that the likely voter screens being used by polling firms are artificially favoring Republican turnout, since it is Democrats who are statistically considered less likely to vote in the first place. (Exhibit A in this regard is the 2000 election, which Mr. Bush was favored to win by a comfortable-enough margin that it was the Republicans who were clamoring before the fact about the need to abolish the electoral college.)

Then there is the movement toward the President that we are seeing in all quarters, as I described in my previous column. The big news on this front is that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy we are seeing some strong movement toward the President among the so-called "independent" voters (who would probably be better labeled as "unaffiliated," since I've yet to meet one whose ideology is all that up-for-grabs, personally). If Mr. Romney ties among unaffiliated voters, he badly loses the election. There just aren't enough angry white farm-check recipients in Oklahoma who hate their farm checks enough to sweep to power a guy who would do away with farm checks.

This brings us to the simplest reason why Mr. Obama will win -- the reason that has existed all along: In an eerie reversal of 2004, the incumbent President's floor is just too high, and the challenger's ceiling is too low.

When people talk about the President having less enthusiasm and fewer early votes than he did at this time in 2008, what they perhaps fail to take into proper perspective is just how much of his '08 advantage could be jettisoned before he ran any serious risk of losing. The blood-red states in the interior south and high plains did their part to obfuscate the matter, but in point of fact the 2008 election was a landslide of positively Reaganesque proportions. Over sixty-nine million people cast a ballot for Barack Obama, and if one includes Georgia and Missouri to his electoral vote total (both of which were quietly stolen by the other side), the final tally weighs in at 391. 

Four years later the President's resulting head start puts him in a far better position than that of George W. Bush in 2004, and otherwise the dynamics are oddly similar: An incumbent chief executive presiding over a period of extreme divisiveness and a galvanized opposition, but whose favorability and job-approval numbers just, will, not, go, below, 48% -- at least for long enough to afford any daylight to the Massachusetts flip-flopper running against him.

Barack Obama is going to win because not even the combination of massive Republican funny business, a dreadful first debate performance, and all that sumptuously credulous media coverage of the supposedly tightening dynamics after Denver, will overcome the President's irrefutable and in some cases structural advantages. The President has enormous leverage in the form of better field operations, a slowly but gamely strengthening economy, the single defining Romney gaffe spoken a very long time ago ("let Detroit go bankrupt"), and of course the chance to wield the bully pulpit of his office in response to hurricanes and fictitious plant closures alike. If the old saying is true that you can't steal a landslide, than equally is it true that you can't steal a closer race that you were never leading, and Mitt Romney has never led this race. There will be a few surprises (see below), but on Wednesday morning the biggest of them will be how unsurprising and orderly the whole thing ended up feeling: We will all have known that Barack Obama would win this thing before Mitt Romney even went to London, and then he will.

Now, what about that map?

Just as in 2008, there may be nine or so states that are considered battlegrounds, but not all of these are equally in doubt. In this commentator's opinion the President has an insurmountable lead in Iowa and Nevada -- and with those two states his electoral vote total (even without Ohio) would be 263. ...Let me just repeat that, please: The President's hard firewall of support, without Ohio, is in my opinion just seven electoral votes short of victory:

Alert readers will also have noticed that I'm not buying any of this Romney-sourced claptrap about late tightening in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania. (When David Axlerod bets his mustache, folks, you don't bet the other way.)

I also gave the President New Hampshire, even though he doesn't need it: The polling data is not moving Mr. Romney's way anywhere on the map right now (with the possible exception of North Carolina, and even there it's inconclusive), but aside from Iowa and Nevada the polling for Romney in the Granite State has been the least encouraging of all the states still considered up for grabs. No poll has shown Mr. Romney ahead in New Hampshire since October 23rd, and the current poll-of-polls average shows him barely within the MOE.

Of course, not all states' polls close at the same time, so to make an election-night prediction that doesn't light up all the states at once, one should really follow the same poll-closing- and first-likely-to-fall differentials that I first used to make my predictions in 2008. This isn't just a fun little academic exercise in prognostication, either: The speed with which a state is called will influence the coverage of the call, and this in turn could influence late turnout in states whose polls haven't already closed. I predicted this in 2008 about Indiana -- the media's breathless meta-coverage of a slow call there, I thought, would suppress Republican enthusiasm in later-closing states -- though in the interest of fair and full disclosure it's worth mentioning that I didn't predict Indiana would actually *go* to President Obama.

Indiana is one of two states in the nation to close most of its polls at 6:00PM EST (the other being Kentucky), though neither of them close all their polls until an hour later. On the matter of asynchronous poll-closings, I'm not altogether certain what the state of the understanding is between the networks and the states. In 2000 Florida was called when its polls in the *Eastern* time zone had closed, leading Republicans to counter the "Palm Beach County argument" with the very reasonable assertion that a lot of Bush supporters in the panhandle could easily have stepped out of line when they heard the news. In 2004 the networks were extremely careful not to repeat the mistake, but in 2008 the pressure to be first does seem to have eaten into the quid pro quo.

At all events a quick grab for Governor Romney will almost certainly influence the coverage, though perhaps not as much given that few analysts inside the media or out are expecting a tight race in the Hoosier state this time around. The risk in this proposition for the Romney campaign is that the expectations *game* shifts right along with the expectations: If Indiana is once again slow to fall for the red team, it will have a disproportionate effect on the early-evening coverage of the election -- perhaps as much as 0.1% of the intended-for-Romney vote that has not yet been cast per thirty minutes that Indiana remains uncalled. The thing is, I don't see it happening this time: Indiana will fall when it's supposed to, the instant its polls (or at least most of them) are closed, and assuming Kentucky is also called asynchronously, Mr. Romney will open the six o'clock newscasts with a 19-0 electoral vote lead. (If the calls are postponed until 7:00, as they should be, then these two states will be lumped in with several other calls described further below.)

There is room to fret over how the Indiana result will be covered, since trusting our nation's press corps to understand the difference between a true Republican pickup state and an orderly reversion to form, is a little bit like trusting a college student to do his homework after you told him that all the same questions are going to be on next week's test. But the good news is that the major networks won't be up with their special coverage at that hour, and anyway Democrats don't respond to the possibility of an unforeseen voting deficit the same way that Republicans do. I've seen it written (though this morning I can't find the link, alas) that Republicans won't vote if they think they're losing, and Democrats won't vote if they think they're *winning*. This, too, should help to blunt the lazy narrative that Romney has scored anything like a breathless victory in the first moments of the (cable-only) coverage.

At 7:00PM EST the polls close unambiguously in Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia (and in the eastern time zone part of Florida), and three of these will be called more-or-less immediately with no surprises: Romney in Georgia (where the President's decreased support among whites will cost him a race that four years ago was close enough for the GOP to have to steal), as well as in South Carolina (which was looking promising for Mr. Obama before the first debate), with Team Blue scoring the easy victory in Vermont.

Nobody expects Virginia to be called early, just as it wasn't called early in '08. An early call there -- one way or the other -- really would shake up the dynamics of the race, but I'm not terribly optimistic or concerned that this will actually happen, mostly because the Democratic-leaning precincts tend to report later and therefore the outcome can't really be extrapolated from the early ones as easily as it can in other states. On election night 2008 the state was showing a lead for McCain until well over ninety percent of the precincts had reported, at about 10:30, after which Obama began to close dramatically. Look for a similar pattern this time around, about which much more anon.

North Carolina, West Virginia and Ohio close at 7:30EST, and of course only one of those will be called:

Every four years we are accosted with our first big wave of poll-closings at 8:00EST, precisely the same time that the major networks dump their regular programing to cover the matter. Most of the northeast and some pretty big prizes in other parts of the country are all scheduled to close their polling at this moment, and for the most part the calls should be pretty orderly, with the President holding in Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, with Mr. Romney holding in Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Tennessee.

Some polls are closed at this time in all three of Michigan, South Dakota and Texas, and since I don't expect the results to be changed by the straggling western counties of either state, I'll include them in my next snapshot even though the calls may have to wait an hour: Mr. Romney will carry South Dakota and Texas, of course, but Mr. Obama will carry Michigan with equal lack of melodrama, despite what the Romney people may be saying and/or looking at internally. Florida, Pennsylvania and Missouri will not be immediately called because they are tough states in which to get an early projection from the early precincts, just like Virginia.

The one to watch at the top of the eight o'clock hour is New Hampshire: If it falls immediately for the President, as I think it might, Governor Romney is in big trouble: He needs a slow call there to begin building any legitimate claim to the late-election-night narrative he'll need if he wants to keep his voters coming to the polls. Personally I see New Hampshire falling very quickly for President Obama. Note also that this is the first moment in the evening coverage wherein the press might realistically be expected to spin a pro-Obama shading of the story. A slow call in Missouri, together with a quick one in New Hampshire, could easily add up to a lot of observations about this shaping up to be a long night for Team Boathouse.

This is typically the moment where chief  surrogates for both campaigns -- someone of an Axlerod/Plouffe stature for Mr. Obama, e.g. -- tend to appear as guests on the mainstream networks' coverage, and there is much to be gleaned from their dispositions, if not their words. I remember vividly in '08 when Axlerod said, at 8:15 or so, "Well, so far, so good." It was at that moment that I knew, barring unprecedented electoral funnybusiness, that the good guys had won the day. Mark these interviews very carefully as even the tiniest cues from the two campaigns can tip a great deal of insider information about how things are going. "So far, so good," spoken coolly and without facial expression, means, "We've got this."

Arkansas closes all by itself at 8:30PM EST, and the interview coverage barely pauses to note the outcome in this once up-for-grabs state.

At 8:49PM EST the first really big call comes in, as the Keystone State once again goes to Team Blue. Between the speed with which this call is made, the inescapable parallels to 2008 (when McCain/Palin wasted copious resources trying to compete there) and the foreclosure of Mr. Romney's biggest chance to upset his opponent's map, this has the potential to be a disproportionately influential moment, despite the fact that Pennsylvania hasn't been considered a genuine tipping point by anyone on either side for months. Instead the differential poll-closing times will bubble the state's significance to the surface and blot out the coverage of surrogates and exit polling for the remainder of the bottom of the hour:

Remember, at this moment Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia will remain uncalled.When the top of the hour rolls, at 9:00PM EST, the polls will close in a variety of big and/or important states, but in the meantime there will be nothing else to talk about, other than Pennsylvania and the tremendous impact it has on the viability of Romney's upset chances. Depending on how soon it falls it could very easily pull votes out of Mr. Romney's line in places where there's still a line to stand in.

At 9:00PM EST on the dot, Minnesota, New York and New Mexico will go for President Obama and Arizona, Louisiana, (all of) Nebraska and Wyoming will go for Mr. Romney, but that's not the news of the moment, here: The news of the moment is that Wisconsin will *also* fall immediately for Mr. Obama (a huge disappointment in Boston), and that Colorado will be reported as utterly up-for-grabs (ditto). The combination of these two states -- one called too quickly for the Romney narrative, and the other not quickly enough -- will have a further blue-hued influence over the unfolding coverage. This will also, not coincidentally, mark the first moment in the evening's coverage in which Mr. Obama has the electoral-vote lead.

At 9:18PM, Missouri will say uncle and fall into Mitt Romney's column, bringing a momentary surcease to the building narrative of an impending Obama reelection.

The gap between 9:00PM and 10:00PM EST is always a slow stretch in the election, since for the first time in the evening there are no bottom-of-the-hour poll closings for the press to machinate over. Instead the story of the post-Missouri coverage may well be the continued inability to call North Carolina -- despite the fact that Mr. Obama's decreased support from 2008 levels was supposed to have taken the state off the board.

In point of fact the current polling data in North Carolina doesn't differ all that much from where it was at the same point in the '08 cycle, and with a little extra lag built in for reflecting the post-Hurricane-Sandy realities of the election, the trends all suggest the strong possibility of another nail-bitingly close election in this dixie battleground. Certainly neither North Carolina nor Virginia will be called before ten o'clock eastern time. If the Romney camp has anything to feel good about, at this moment, it's that at least none of the big, uncalled prizes have been called out from under them. All of that, however, is about to change.

At 10:00PM EST, on the dot, the major networks will call both Nevada and Iowa -- states that Mr. Romney was counting on as part of his much-needed battleground sweep -- for President Obama instead. Kansas, Montana and Utah will go quickly and quietly for Governor Romney, but the effect of the two big battleground calls of the hour, their speed as much as their swing, will mark the first unavoidable note of decisiveness in election 2012: That magic moment when the anchors can no longer pretend that the matter is as much in doubt as just not yet concluded.

No sooner will this news have begun to resonate than Florida, now too little too late for Governor Romney, will be called for his column anyway. This is one of the two states about which I am least confident in my prediction (the other being Colorado), but despite every encouraging sign to the contrary, I just can't quite get my head around the idea of Rick Scott allowing his electoral treasure to once again be awarded to the President. Mr. Scott ran for Governor in 2009 for exactly one reason, and that was to keep the outrage of Obama's victory here from being repeated; he is not now about to let irksome little nuisances like voters actually get in his way. Goodness knows he's never let them bother him before.

Make no mistake, this is not the kind of celebratory victory-fest we on the side of the good guys enjoyed for ourselves four years ago; this will be a much more complex evening, at least in terms of the emotional notes carried in the coverage. This being said, and with Ohio already trending blue, the media's call of Virginia for the President at 10:24PM EST will cement any lingering doubt about the outcome that may have been introduced in some circles by Florida, with both North Carolina and Colorado -- states that were supposed to have been unambiguous Romney pickups -- still stubbornly refusing to stick to the script. 

And what about that biggest battleground prize of them all? Governor Kasich clearly wants his state to either decide the election in favor of Mr. Romney, or not at all, but the thing about that is, he can't actually stop the networks from projecting a winner, and at 10:40PM they will do exactly that -- calling Ohio and its near-mythic eighteen electoral votes for President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

As you've no doubt heard, the race in Ohio may need weeks to be officially resolved. The Governor, having apparently failed to steal the state's eighteen electoral votes for his chosen candidate, has implemented a series of measures intended to retard the President's victory-narrative by disenfranchising his own citizens. First, he ordered his Secretary of State to mail absentee ballots to a comically large subset of the population, most of them Democrats and largely without those people having asked for them. As a result, anyone who shows up to vote on election day and who has also been mailed one of these absentee ballots, will have to cast a provisional ballot to "ensure" that the individual in question hasn't voted twice.

This much of Kasich's plan has been known for some time. Not until the last day or two has it become known that Kasich also ordered the Secretary to release the precinct results in a deliberately and unjustifiably segmented fashion, with Republican-leaning areas going first in the reporting process. Clearly the governor hopes that this will result in an ability of the media to call the state -- but that's just the thing: the electoral vote projections on election night don't work that way. As soon as one major network or other news source believes, statistically, that a particular candidate has carried a particular state, then as long as the polls are closed there, the network will call the race to avoid being behind some rival's earlier call.  

This, alas, is the end of the Obama ground-game/bully-pulpit juggernaut. Despite late signs that the President is slightly ahead, North Carolina will fall late in the ten-o'clock hour for Romney, and Colorado's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana will (perhaps somewhat paradoxically) pull enough potential Obama voters to the candidacy of Libertarian Gary Johnson to prevent a repeat of Team Blue's '08 victory in the rocky mountain state. The thing is, neither pickup will do Governor Romney the tiniest bit of good as, sandwiched around these two calls in some fashion, the eleven o'clock wave of poll closings will break over the coverage, resulting in no surprises.

In the end, Barack Obama will be called the victor at precisely the same moment he was four years ago, immediately upon the networks' return from the top-of-the-hour commercials, with the calling of California and the rest of the Pacific Northwest.

Your final tally, then, is Barack Obama 294, Mitt Romney 244. Barack Obama will also win the popular vote, credulous-media-expectations to the contrary notwithstanding. 

Well, there you have it. As I mentioned earlier, the two calls I'm least confident about are Florida and Colorado. We may perhaps take it as a sign of the President's solid inside track to reelection, then, that both of those calls are ones I'm actually making for his opponent. As for what this victory will do for the national agenda, the future media coverage of the administration, or the future of both parties, those are topics that will have to wait for my "Final Predictions, Part Two" column, following the actual election.

Don't forget to vote.

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

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