The Sovern Nation politics blog has been dormant for months, a victim of my Twitter addiction and the time-consuming demands of my radio work. I am reviving it today to make my quadrennial presidential election prediction, because 140 characters simply won't do. I'll check back in after the election with some analysis and post mortem, too.
Forty years ago, I went to see a presidential candidate in person for the first time. It was Senator George McGovern, at one of his final campaign rallies, in New Jersey. McGovern's oratory was overshadowed by the eloquence of the man who introduced him, the young Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. But the crowd was huge, the atmosphere electric, the excitement level unlike anything I'd ever experienced. I was only 11, and it was the first presidential election in which I was fully engaged. I'm sure many in that enormous throng came away thinking their man might actually upset the incumbent. Polling was a less exact science then, and far less incessant. A few days later I borrowed one of my dad's yellow legal pads, compiled all the information I could gather, and made my first-ever election prediction: Nixon would win. Sorry George (may he rest in peace).
As it turned out, that was not a tough call, even for an 11-year-old. President Nixon was re-elected in what was, at the time, the largest electoral landslide in history (he beat McGovern 61%-38%, and won 520 electoral votes to McGovern's 17*, an Electoral College wipe-out exceeded only by Ronald Reagan's 525-13 win a dozen years later).
In 2012, margins like that seem almost inconceivable. Voters in California and Alabama agreeing on who should be president? Democrats voting overwhelmingly for the Republican? Republicans embracing a candidate from the other party? The country is so polarized today, it's hard to imagine an election not being close anymore. Since 1988, no presidential candidate has won the popular vote by more than eight and a half points, although we have seen landslide-level results in the Electoral College (Bush beat Dukakis 426-111; Clinton beat Dole 379-159).
When this election cycle began, it seemed like it might mirror Bill Clinton's 1996 re-election; now, after flirting briefly with 2000-level unpredictability, it looks more to me like 2004, when a not especially popular incumbent overcame some structural disadvantages to eke out a second term over a sometimes awkward challenger from Massachusetts, thanks to a narrow victory in Ohio (does that sound familiar enough?).
This election remains a tough one to get exactly right. Starting with that 1972 Nixon victory, I am eight out of ten in my general election predictions (George W. Bush confounded me twice; in 2000, I called the popular vote for Bush but the Electoral College for Gore, a crazy split I had never predicted before, but of course I got it backwards). In 1976, I started predicting the major party nominees before the first primary or caucus. I am ten out of ten picking the Republican nominee, and eight of ten predicting the Democrat. So that's a total of 26 predictions right out of 30, a success rate of 86.7%. In the 2008 election, the final Gallup Poll predicted Barack Obama would win by 13 points. The last CBS News/New York Times projected a nine-point Obama victory. I said Obama would win by six, 52.5-46.5%. Obama wound up with 52.9%, but McCain only had 45.7%, so I was off by a total of 1.2%. I picked 47 of the 51 states (and DC) right, but I missed on four large swing states that I thought were closer, so I was way off on the Electoral College (I predicted Obama would win 291-247 but the final numbers were 365-173). So take my educated guess with whatever size grain of salt seems appropriate.
There is a near-constant stream of predictive data to absorb these days. My inbox is stuffed daily with new polls from public firms, private ones, the campaigns themselves. Nate Silver crunches the numbers for all to see (and takes undue heat for it from scoffing Republicans, while grateful Democrats - this year, at least - bow toward his laptop) at his indispensable 538 blog. There are more websites, blogs and poll trackers than any sentient being could possibly consume. I know people on both sides who are guilty of selection bias, cherry-picking the polls they like the best while dismissing the others as biased, flawed, rendered moot by laughable methodology.
To which I say: take a deep breath and step back. Look at the big picture. The consensus of the national popular vote polling is that this race is a dead heat. Every poll is either tied, or shows a narrow lead (mostly for Obama at this point) that is within the margin of error. That means the outcome could be anywhere from Romney winning by six to Obama winning by six, and few of these surveys will have been "wrong." The most useful information they provide is that there seems to be a late trend towards President Obama, which began when Hurricane Sandy struck and accelerated in the final 48 hours of the campaign.
Trends like that tend to be instructive. But as we all know, Americans don't actually elect their presidents - they choose electors from each state, who do that for them. And a review of the state-by-state data shows a narrow, but probably sufficient, edge for President Obama. I am not a disciple of the Real Clear Politics "polling average," which simply adds together different kinds of polls with vastly diverse methodologies and averages their results, which strikes me as silly. RCP also omits about as many legitimate polls as it includes. I cast a wider net for polling data, and the ones I read have consistently told me, for most of this campaign, that President Obama is likely to carry a majority of the battleground states.
Probability is about what could happen versus what should happen. Could there be an unexpectedly high Republican turnout in the suburbs of Philadelphia that hands Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney? Absolutely. Could Ohio independents and undecideds break as a bloc for Romney on Election Day and deprive the president of those 18 precious electoral votes? Sure. Could the Romney ground game be superior in Iowa, springing a Hawkeye State surprise that puts Mitt over the top? No question. The Green Bay Packers and New York Giants had no business winning the last two Super Bowls. They barely even made the playoffs at all. The St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants were long shots to win the last two World Series. Oddsmakers said none of those teams was likely to win - but they all did. So saying President Obama will probably win is not saying that Mitt Romney definitely won't. But the preponderance of the available information tells me the president should win.
Now I don't base my predictions solely on polling and other empirical data. I've traveled to a dozen states this campaign cycle, including the critical swing states of New Hampshire, Nevada, Florida and North Carolina. I interview voters, cover campaign events, talk with the candidates. I meet with local pollsters and pundits, quiz the undecided and try to get a sense of the public mood. Then I combine my own reporting with all those numbers on my computer, add a dash of gut hunch, and spit out a prediction. It's not entirely scientific, but it almost always works.
(I will also add that although I covered him in person many, many times, George W. Bush is the only president, or major presidential candidate, since 1976 that I have never actually "met" or interviewed. Maybe that lack of contact was the missing ingredient that led me astray in predicting his two elections).
There is a nagging spot in my gut that tells me Romney is going to win. President Obama's embarrassingly poor performance in the first debate turned the election in Romney's direction. Subsequent events - the next two debates, improving economic numbers, Hurricane Sandy - have turned it back. But there's been an unquestionable tightening in the Midwestern states in particular, and I would not be that surprised if Romney were to win Ohio, after all, and with it, the White House. As I said though, my predictions aren't based just on gut feelings, or on the polls, but on a combination of factors. And after I push the "stir" button on my political blender, here is what I come out with (the swing states in bold type):
President Obama will win California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, for a total of 294 electoral votes.
Mitt Romney will win Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming for a total of 244 electoral votes.
In order of most likely for Obama to most likely for Romney, I rank the swing states this way: Nevada, Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina. If there is real momentum for the president, he could pick up Florida and Colorado, giving him as many as 332 electoral votes. If the pendulum swings the other way, Romney could take Virginia, leaving the president at 281. If it swings far enough for him to capture Ohio too, then obviously Romney will win, 275-263. But I don't think that will happen. I'm sticking with my 294-244 prediction.
On the popular vote, I keep reminding those people who say President Obama has to get to 50% or he loses, that he doesn't. These two are probably playing for 98% of the vote. There are more, and stronger than usual, third, fourth and fifth party candidates on the ballots in most states, who will probably combine to take about two percent of the vote. So the winner probably only needs 49% plus one. I think President Obama will top 50% anyway. My official prediction is:
Barack Obama 50.2%
Mitt Romney 47.9%
Remember, it can take a month before we have the final, final numbers. In 2008, Barack Obama's margin of victory increased a full point, from six to seven, during four weeks of ballot counting. And if Ohio or Iowa or Florida is especially close, we could be left hanging for a few days - or longer - on that electoral vote count.
It could be a long, late Election Night. I will be tweeting like a gatling gun at @SovernNation, and reporting live on KCBS 740AM/106.9FM in San Francisco, and will also be checking in as part of the CBS Radio News network coverage. Please tune in for constant returns, reaction and analysis. Be sure to vote, and see you tomorrow....
*Yes, sharp-eyed readers, 520 + 17 only = 537. The 538th electoral vote that year went to the Libertarian candidate, John Hospers, a pal of Ayn Rand's. A "faithless elector" who was pledged to Nixon cast his ballot for Hospers instead when the Electoral College met in December.