Friday, October 31, 2008

Those of you with fingernails left

All right children, gather around--Last weekend before this goddam thing ends. I will have to clear off half the aps on my iPhone, which blurts at me any time something happens in the campaign, and that is sick, sick I tell you.

So, with four days left here's what's cooking on the polls. As I reported earlier, polling usually tightens in the last week of a campaign and that seemed to be happening, at least with the national polls, but that trend is now halted. The general consensus is that Obama is ahead by around 6 points, meaning McCain has to gain more than a point a day to catch up and that pretty much can't be done. Obama retains a strong lead in the states. He has all the Kerry states and is walking off with not a few Bush 2004 states. McCain has zero Kerry states and is now even having to defend himself in Arizona.

The P0llster (Ralph Blumenthal and company out of the University of Wisconsin) aggregate has Obama up by 5.5 points with 311 electoral votes, which actually is on the conservative side. The Gallup tracking poll of likely voters (the one modified for the best estimate of who will vote this year--more about that below) has Obama up by 8, with 353 votes (270 wins). RealClearPolitics, something of the gold standard in aggregating polls, has The One up by 6 and 311 EVs. gives Obama a 96.3% chance of winning, has him ahead by 5.6 points and 346 EVs. Nate Silver's estmate is that the odds on an Obama landslide are 36% and Obama doesn't have to win Pennsylvania if he gets Virginia and Nevada. Hotline's poll in the National Journal has That One up by 7; Pollyvote (Wharton) at 5.6, Princeton up by 8 and TalkingPoint', 6.3. A new poll from CBS and the New York Times has Obama up by 11 but that is an outlier.

A word of warning. What is screwing up consistency are two things: one, in some states voting has already begun and in a few states like Colorado and New Mexico, a substantial percentage of the ballots have already been cast. This makes exit polls on election day problematic, I think. The good news is that Obama seems to be highly favored by earlier voters as near as anyone can tell. It does take a bit of precision away. Two, if the young folks show up as they have promised to do (but history tells us they might not) Obama will have a tsunami. If they don't, this could be a whole different race. Selecting who is likely to vote is the hardest part of polling and this year it is harder than usual. Gallup, for instance, has two polls: one with a sample of people who actually voted in 2004 and one including people who did not but say they will this time. The latter has Obama doing better. Some polls use 2004 as a benchmark; many do not. They vary.

Oh, and by he way. All the polls now show that the greatest drag on McCain isn't George Bush; it's Sarah Palin. Most Americans think she is unqualified for the job. Imagine that.

In short, looking good. If McCain does win, American journalism and political polling will never recover.

I can't wait till this is over.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

What to watch for in the polls--forget precision

With the national polls running from Obama+1 to Obama +14, what the hell are we to make of it?--If you are profoundly, and in my case, pathetically, addicted to the polls, you might be confused by all of this. Me too. But here are some tips on what you can expect in the next week-and-a-half.

1. In most--not all--presidential elections, the polls showed a tightening of the race in the last few weeks or days. People change their minds or chicken out or drop out. This has not happened yet. John McCain seemed to be making some gains last week, but that has been offset by a reversal this week. The polling aggregators, the guys who take all the polls and do things with the numbers, all seem to agree that Obama leads by about 6 points and that hasn't changed much in the last few weeks. The lead is pretty steady. If you look at the charts, particularly from, and turn the sensitivity down (use the tool button), you will see the true vector--which is fairly flat.

2. The lagtime between the national popularity polls and the state polls shrinks. Now there is about a two day delay: if one of the candidates moves in the national polls, it is reflected in state polls two days or so later. As we get closer to the election, that gap closes. The state polls are still reflecting McCain's uptick a few days ago. And of course, as I mentioned before, ignore the day-to-day changes. They are likely statistical noise.

3. In the days before the election, the polls will begin to converge toward one number. The outliers will move toward that number, meeting the other polls at whatever number it is going to be on election day. Add a grain of salt: Polling ends a day or so before the election and will miss very late shifts in the electorate. That's what happened in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire; the polls missed a late move for Hillary Clinton. That could happen in the national race but is not likely. If Obama really is 6 points ahead, that won't change between Sunday and Tuesday barring a terrorist attack or something.

4. All the statisticians who are projecting the winner (including those who claim they are not making predictions) are predicting an Obama blow-out, again by 6 or 7 points, fairly historic.

5. They could all be full of shit. The ghost of Thomas Dewey will not be exorcised for a long time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the other hand.....

OK, make up your goddam minds--Just to give you heartburn, within 24 hours after the posting below, two polls came in with Obama and McClain in a statistical tie. The range now runs from +1 to +14.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Very very softly. It's over.

The Phillies are in the World Series, Obama is winning the election. There may be a God--The Pew Research Center, one of the most trusted polling establishments, this afternoon reported that Barack Obama was 14 points ahead of John McCain in the national race. If that is correct, Obama is about to blow this thing open with two weeks to go.

In fairness, that Pew poll is an outlier, higher than any other poll, some of which have it down as close as 2 (another outlier). The general consensus before Pew published was Obama by around 6, still a handsome number. Remember, the record is 8.5 points, Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. Fourteen is a bit much.

In the last few days there were signs that the race was tightening the way races always tighten at the end, but that tightening (think sphincter) levelled off the last day or so and the Pew poll (which incidentally had a very large number of respondents, almost 3,000), is either a blip in the polling statistics or the beginning of a blowout.

Polls are not predictors; they are snapshots. But there are statistical ways of projecting one of those snapshots out to the end. Several good sites do that. Here's what some of them say.

  • Pollyvote out of the Wharton School, has Obama ahead by 6. This uses a statistical package plus input from political experts and all kinds of razzamataz I won't even try to understand. It has a repution for accuracy.
  • Nate Silver's, which uses something like baseball's sabermetrics, gives the chances of an Obama victory at 92.5%. The chances of a landslide are 33.43% and Obama is most likely to win 344 electoral votes and the Democrats to wind up with 56 Senate seats.
  • The Princeton Election Consortium has Obama winning 362 electoral votes.
  • Real Clear Politics, the standard most journalists use, has Obama up by 6.9 points
  • Gallup tracking has an 11 lead.
  • has Obama up by 6.1. You can see the EV chart to the right.

Now, very quietly so the evil spirits don't hear us--no candidate as far behind as John McCain is at this stage of an election, has ever come back to win. Shshsh.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Is that a chasm I see before me?

No wonder they are getting pissed out there--The national tracking polls are now showing a widening for Barack Obama. The Shurkin number (I made that up) went from 5.4 to 6.2 in the last few days. That is the average of three best mathematical averaging websites,,, and, all of which are non-partisan. In other words, I average the averagers. Pollster, which is very well respected, has Obama ahead by 7.4. The Gallup Poll, which is included in all the averaging and is something of the gold standard in these matters, has him ahead by 11.

Fivethirtyeight has the odds of Obama winning at better than 9-1 in 95 out of 100 campaigns. Nate Silver, who runs it, expects Obama to gain during the weekend. He thinks it is clear that everytime there is a debate, Obama's numbers grow. Still one more debate out there, gang. National Journal, also well-respected and non-partisan, did a survey of Republican leaders and found that 8 out of 10 expect an Obama victory in November. The Journal is one of the first to use the "L" word, as in "landslide."

But Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post, suggests things are still not set in concrete, what he calls a contrarian view. Besides the Bradley Effect, which we'll discuss in some detail next week, he suggests that too many Obama supporters think this is a slam dunk and won't show up to vote. I don't think so. Too many are really pissed off.

And speaking of pissed off, the crowds at the McCain-Palin events are really getting scary and John McCain and Sarah Palin are stoking them on. McCain stands to lose twice on November 4. He will probably lose the election; he will definately lose his honor. It is certainly, as Politico describes it, a party in panic.

Do keep in mind, this isn't a popularity contest and while the tracking polls are interesting, we elect Presidents by the states. Pollster has Obama winning 320 electoral votes (see graph to the right). The average winning vote in modern history is 402.6, so he is behind in that regard at the moment.

[That's an AP photo up top]

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Margins of non-error

That was a ceiling you just bumped into--Two things have happened in the polling today. Barack Obama may have hit a ceiling and is leveling off, and John McCain has gained in several polls. Panic not.

The range in polls now runs from a slim 1 point margin (Hotline Poll) to 11 points in the Gallup tracking poll. The Hotline poll showed a major shift in one day toward McCain (better than 10%), but as I've mentioned before, you can't get too excited about one-day movements. Often it is just noise. Wait a day or so and it will even out.

Some things to remember:
  • No candidate, none, has won with better than an 8.51 point margin. That was Bill Clinton's blow-away in 1996. See Chris Bower's piece here. This means that there is a rational ceiling to how large a margin Obama can achieve. Bower says that a landslide is anything between 5 and 8. Obama is there now.
  • Several of the sites I've mentioned here average polls, meaning they take the numbers from multiple polls and either just average them out or apply some kind of mathematical formula involving square roots or something, and the size of the sample, to come up with a number that reflects all the polls. Bower points out that historically, those aggregates are 2 points off, meaning any margin of 2 points or less is not a lead. As long as the number stays above 2 points, a candidate is a winner. has Obama at +5.1. (right) has +5.8. has it at 5.4. The Shurkin average is therefore is 5.42.
  • Most of Obama's increase is relatively new and relatively new adherents are not particularly solid and could move again, so nothing is in concrete.
  • Gamblers sometimes know things. The odds of Obama winning the election are 7-3 on Intratrade. Nate Silver, who uses an algorithm based on polls at Fivethirtyeight has it at 9-1.
  • The Polyvote, a mathematical model out of the Wharton School, has Obama ahead by 4.4 points and it accurately predicted the last election. This works well as long as all the polls aren't wrong in the same direction.
Three factors could screw up all the polls.
  • Cell phones--a growing number of people now only have cell phones (no land line) and pollsters either have trouble getting to them or don't even try. No one knows how that skews the results, but it tends to reduce the number of young people in the universe, in this case to Obama's detriment.
  • The Bradley Effect--no one knows how many people are lying to pollsters about voting for a black man. As I reported earlier, a Stanford study guesses at 6 points, giving McCain an unknown advantage
  • New voters--The Obama campaign has enrolled a huge number of new voters--mostly young, mostly Obama supporters--and it is likely the polls are missing many of them.
The best guess is that all of the above may cancel it all out. We shall see.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Polling pollsters about polls, or why I have a stomach ache

Let's see, we're ahead 3 points, 6 points, 11 points. Make up your goddam mind--You may have noticed I have added a thingy to the blog, the electoral college map. It will change as changes, and it just changed yesterday to reflect new state polls.

(State polls lag behind the national tracking polls because there are a lot fewer of them. Just remember, it is the states that vote for president, not a popularity contest. Anyone remember President Gore?)

The poll numbers remain all over the place. They only thing they agree on is that Barack Obama is ahead in the national poll and if the election were held today, in the electoral college. The numbers vary, from Zogby's 3 points (they poll for Reuters) to Daily Kos' 11. Both polls are, to me, outliers. One is too low and not notoriously accurate, the other is for a liberal website. That doesn't mean it is slanted or dishonest but it is an outlier, the most optimistic if you are an Obama person. I tend to discount them both, leaving us with a bunch of polls having him 6-8 points up. Historically, it is very difficult for a candidate with John McCain's numbers to come back in 28 days, but this race is unpredictable.

[The Hotline poll has them down to 2 points this morning, a peculiar tightening] I find that odd, since that poll has been peculiarly conservative and hardly moved at all for a week or two.]

The McCain faction has launched the most egregiously dishonorable campaign in my memory, now subtly playing the race card. The good news to me is that the Obama people, having learned their lessons from the Kerry campaign, are fighting back instantly. They obviously had an ad on McCain's participation in the Keating Five scandal sitting in the closet just waiting for the opportunity to turn it loose. So much for the high-minded campaign we were promised.

Okay, where do you go for accurate, non-partisan polling and political information. We've already discussed often my affection for Mark Blumenthal's
It's his map to the right. He also writes for the National Journal. A commenter (not the spam guy) has mentioned and I agree completely. (The number comes from the total of electoral college votes).

For balanced political coverage, I recommend two sites, and is interesting for another reason. It is not your normal guy sitting around in his underwear blog (like this one), but has grown into a respected journalism outlet, one of the largest and best on the Internet. It is the new wave in journalism and worth monitoring.

Now, for the best biased--to the left, of course--sources of information. My favorite remains the Huffington Post. Slightly more centered is Josh Marshall's It was Marshall's site that uncovered the firing of the nine U.S. prosecutors, forcing the mainstream media to follow. It is the only website to win a Polk Award, I believe.

For right wing sites, you are on your own. My stomach won't bear it.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Excuse me Capt. Queeg. Can you stop making that noise

John is having a bad day--OK, more on the election. Since I am obsessed with it I might as well quit trying to write about anything else. The Alaska proposal is off to my agent and I can indulge my obsession.

An interesting column in the Des Moines Register's website hints at what many have begun to suspect: Sen. John McCain is losing it. Not just losing the election; losing it. McCain was at a meet-the-editor conference at the Register last week, normal campaign stuff, and anyone watching could see something was wrong. His body language, the way he held his face, his petulent anwers to what were clearly pertinent questions. At least one editor at the meeting had a similar reaction and suggests that McCain may be too unstable to be President. See here. For video, go here.

McCain is losing. McCain is pissed off. Running around like a headless chicken during the Congressional battle for the bailout bill isn't leadership, it's hysteria.

Current polling is not likely to change his mood. Tracking polls, all completed after the vice presidentail debate, shows Barack Obama's lead expanding and he is now approaching double digits.

Explanation: tracking polls should be called rolling polls and are done on a daily basis, accumulating three days worth of data. That means, for instance, they will poll on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Then they poll on Sunday and drop the data from Thursday. On Monday, they drop the Friday data. All the polls out today have the three days since the Biden-Palin debate. The data are clear, Alaska's dingbat governor did McCain very little good with the general electorate.

All this is reflected in the state polls and some of the numbers are astonishing. Minnesota was listed as a close contest--until last week. Obama now is ahead by as much as 11 or 18, depending on which poll you watch. North Carolina was always considered a solid Republican state. Now it is a toss-up; Obama now leads slightly and in one poll has reached the 50% mark. He now leads in Virginia--Virginia, for God's sake--by double digits in one poll. McCain has already given up in Michigan, which is interesting in itself.

Political campaigns are like chess matches in many ways. When you are losing, you often sacrifice pieces to protect the king. What McCain did in Michigan is sacrifice a piece (a bishop or a knight in this case) to protect the campaign. The difference is that in chess, you don't announce it ahead of time.

In the next posting I'll produce a list of the best places to poll watch on the internet. You already know one, There are others I'll pass on.

So who is Capt. Queeg? Movie fans?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Roman Hruska meets Sarah Palin

"Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos."--Sen. Roman Hruska, R. Nebraska, on defending the appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court of a mediocrity.

OK, we're back. Been busy. Ramping up again.

The polls are all over the place as usual, but the unmistakable trend is toward Barak Obama. The polls have him ahead in the national count by anywhere from 4 to 11 points. More importantly, this is spreading to the states, particularly the most important states. He is ahead in places he was not expected to be ahead, like Virginia and Colorado.

The bounce the Republicans got from their convention is gone and Sarah Palin is now a drag on the ticket. She has succeeded in scaring the hell out of increasing numbers of people and has become a national joke. I'm a little sorry for her: she has no business playing in this league. John McCain, who is really getting cranky these days and is busy channeling Herbert Hoover, shouldn't have picked her and she shouldn't have accepted. She is pushing independents away faster than she gained them at the convention.

On the polls: Even Rasmussen, which has been the most tilted toward McCain, now has Obama ahead by 7, Associated Press, 7, New York Times/CBS at 9, Gallup at 4. The most conservative of the polls, Diageo/Hotline, is at 5, and the most liberal, the poll run on Daily Kos, 11.

What makes this particularly interesting is that voters tend to solidify around October. It is rare for a campaign to roar from behind (or blow it) when one candidate has a large lead over the other by October. Most people have made up their minds. The numbers also are interesting for another reason: the Bradley Effect. That is the phenomenon in which voters will tell pollsters they have no problem voting for a black guy, go into the booth and vote for the white guy. They lie so they won't sound racist to the interviewer. No one knows (although we are about to find out) how much the effect skews polling, but the best numbers I've found say it is about 6%. In other words. He will need more than a 6% advantage over McCain to win. He is now at or above that number in the polls.

What seems to be happening is that the voters have clicked into place. There is also the potential for a landslide in the state voting, although making any predictions in this race is really odd behavior.

Nonetheless, here is one: John McCain will throw another Hail Mary, something dramatic to get himself into back into the conversation and change the subject. Every day the economy is the overarching news story is a day he loses support. I don't know what it will be, but he clearly knows he is losing, is pissed off, and frantic. Watch for a pass. And, whatever it is, it probably won't work. His last two, Sarah Palin and parachuting into the Wall Street bailout blew up in his face.

Some odds and ends:
  • The only place you can see Russia from Alaska is on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Sea. About 150 Eskimos live there; Sarah Palin has never visited. As CNN reported, Big Diomede Island, which is Russia, is four miles away and is highly visible. Except for those 150 people (many of whom never heard of Palin) you cannot see Russia from Alaska.
  • Palin said Alaska is a microcosm of America, which makes her able to undertand "Joe Sixpack." Alaska is not a microcosm of America. Alaskans describe their state as the only foreign country that still likes Americans--but not too much. It is an idiosyncratic, totally weird place. I happen to love it in part because it is not like the rest of America.
  • Sarah Palin is who Roman Hruska might have had in mind.