Friday, November 2, 2012

What You Should Worry About

The election is close and so everyone is nervous. Well, everyone except Dick Morris who is convinced that Romney will win in a landslide as Oregon is now in play (I'm not kidding).

Obama is leading according to the polls. It is roughly tied in the national poll averages and Obama has clear leads in the polling averages in enough swing states to put him over the top for re-election.

So, if you're supporting the President, you have just two things to worry about:

1) Something changes
2) The polls are wrong

Are either or both of these things possible? Absolutely. Are they likely? No. But let's take a closer look at each possibility.

Something changes. What could change in the final days? Some argue that nothing is going to change. Sam Wang, for instance, points out that the cake is now fully baked. He provides statistical proof for this and I find the phrase oddly compelling so I figured I'd repeat it. But it is always possible something could change. For one, a jobs report is going to be released in a few hours. Economists expect that the unemployment rate will tick up to 7.9%. That's probably not enough to damage Obama significantly. But it is an awfully close race and what if it ticks up to 8.0%? Are the optics of that sufficiently bad to do damage? Doubtful, but possible. (UPDATE: The jobs report was better than expected with 171,000 jobs added but the unemployment rate did tick up to 7.9% as more workers re-entered the workforce). What about the so-called incumbency effect? Many (mostly Republicans) argue that most of the undecided voters will break for Mitt Rommey because if they were voting for the President, they'd have been with him already. Is this likely? No. Mark Blumenthal picks that argument apart pretty well.

What about some other wildcard? Hurricane Sandy seems like the last, biggest wildcard and that does not seem to have done any damage to President Obama. Arguably, it has made him look good. Mitt Romney seems to think Pennsylvania is in play and he's headed there for a campaign stop on Sunday. Don't get me started on that. Overall, I think the jobs report is Romney's best bet in this category.

The polls are wrong. The polling data is much more clear than it appears to the naked eye. Sam Wang, Simon Jackman, Nate Silver, Drew Linzer, and others have modeled the probability that Obama does, in fact, have a lead according to the polls and the general consensus is ... "YEAH." But the key phrase in all that is "according to the polls." If the polls are all systematically biased in some similar kind of way, that lead would be a mirage. How often does this happen? Not often. But it is important to remember that polling is at least partially an art. In this era of low response rates, it is not quite as easy as before to ensure you have an unbiased sample. If Obama's lead (and he DOES lead in the key state of Ohio in the polls) were bigger, this would be less of a concern. But it is a small lead.

Of course, the possibility of error goes in both directions. If you watched the video of Stan Greenberg I posted a few days ago, you know there are those who believe the pollsters are undersampling Obama voters. In addition, the Obama campaign claims their superior ground game will help them out-perform the polls. Of course, the Romney campaign claims the same things. The reality is that pollsters are smart people and have staked their reputation on what they're doing. The odds are they are right. Systemic polling failure is possible ... but unlikely.

In the end, there is enough uncertainty to worry about both of these things: Something could change. The polls could be wrong. How much should you worry? As of tonight, Nate Silver has Obama as an 81% bet to win.

That's a high point in the post-Denver (first debate) campaign for Obama. And as Nate points out, you'd rather be holding Obama's cards right now than Romney's.

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