Today, we as a nation decide between the evil, plutocratic cult member who wants to take the country back to the 1950s, or the anti-American socialist Muslim who probably isn’t even eligible to be president in the first place. Or possibly between two lying shills who are both in the pocket of the big corporations and who just want to keep the people down, man.
At least all of that is what I’ve gleaned from my social media interactions over the past four months. Today, that all comes to an end, giving way to many more months of accusations of election fraud, unethical tactics, and tampering with voting machines.
Beyond obvious general interest in the actual outcome, there are several more specific things I’ll be watching tomorrow:
1. Can we trust polls anymore? This is the big one for me. Nate Silver (a statistician who runs fivethirtyeight, an impressive political prediction and analysis blog now hosted by the New York Times) has the likelihood of Obama winning at over 90% as of this writing. He’s taken some heat from non-stats guys who perceive this election to be a dead heat. His supporters, mostly from the progressive side of the spectrum, have launched a spirited defense of Silver, mirroring the tone and intensity with which the not-entirely-unrelated SABRmetrics crowd would protect one of their own against an old-school baseball guy.
Anyway, Silver predicts the most likely scenario to be Obama winning somewhere around 315 electoral votes. What I find interesting is that, for the first time in my life, there is a vocal minority of experts who actually believe that the election will turn out the exact opposite, which is to say—a mini-landslide for Romney. This deals largely with the contention that the polling data upon which the majority of analysts are relying is flawed to the point of being faulty.
A number of explanations have been proffered in this regard, ranging from a rooting bias (which is what some said of Silver) to the idea that polling has become an antiquated means of reading the electoral tea leaves. Personally, I think Silver knows his stuff and his data doesn’t reflect any bias. However, I do wonder about how our rapidly-changing technological landscape might no longer track polling as well as it once did. I think about Michael Barone, admittedly a conservative (much as Silver is a progressive), but one who really knows his stuff.
Yet, he’s not the stat-head that Silver is, and his analysis relies a lot on less-concrete “fundamentals,” rather than current mainstream polling data. On top of that, all of those polls have Obama no worse than tied with Romney (and most of them have Obama up by about two points).
So, there’s a very big question for us to reconcile today, over and above the outcome itself: Someone seems to have things very wrong. But who (and why)?
If Silver and the consensus turn out to be correct, it will be easy to chalk up the inaccuracy of some of the conservative prognosticators to ideological bias / wishful thinking, or at least a reliance on less-sound data. But if Romney wins (especially if he wins with +/- 300 electoral votes)? I think we’ll need to take a hard look at whether traditional methods of polling still work today.
2. Please don’t drag on through recounts and court cases. Whether you think Bush v. Gore was rightly-decided or not, 2000 certainly didn’t do us any favors in the civility department. It’s likely that we’ll have several close races in certain states. However, if either candidate is in line to win the 315 electoral votes that proponents predict, a close vote in, say, Ohio, won’t matter.
Or, to be more precise, it won’t be determinative.
It’s the difference between a booth review on a potential go-ahead touchdown, and a review on one that potentially cuts the lead to 14.
The latter would go by largely unnoticed while the winning candidate gave celebratory speeches, while the former would tie the country up in knots for weeks, have wide-reaching effects including the stock market taking a hit due to uncertainty, ruin Thanksgiving (and possibly Christmas) for many, and generally serve as a catalyst for our national dialogue’s further decay.
3. Please, please don’t let the popular vote victor lose the election. I mentioned before I’m a conlaw nerd. With that in mind, let me add that, for reasons that are beyond the full scope of this article, I am a staunch supporter of the Electoral College.
The only times the Electoral College takes a beating are (1) when someone perceives it to hurt their candidate’s chances at victory, or (2) when someone fundamentally misunderstands how it works.
Over and above the calls for abolition of the Electoral College by whichever side loses will be the companion argument that the winner of the election is somehow “illegitimate.”
So, imagine something like the fringe “birther” movement, only amplified by a factor of ten, claiming that President Romney or President Obama isn’t “really” the president because the other guy actually received more votes. Now imagine them saying this over and over and over and over again for four years.
4. Please, please, PLEASE don’t be a tie. Electoral Armageddon. The chances of this are remote now, but my greatest fear is that this thing will end up 269-269. For those of you who aren’t conlaw nerds: In the event that no candidate gets a majority (270+) of electoral votes, the president is chosen by the House of Representatives, except that the House votes state-by-state (like delegations). The voting ends when one candidate has 26 or more states. Here, Romney would win under that scenario.
Except that the vice-president is chosen by the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats.
This would almost certainly mean that a tie would result in a scenario in which Mitt Romney is president and Joe Biden is vice-president.
Whatever you think about the ultra-ideological, partisan nature of political discourse in 2012, that problem would be augmented by some weighty multiple in the event of a 269-269 deadlock.
If this happens, rest assured that my Facebook account (my personal one, anyway) will be deactivated until after Inauguration Day.
5. Ok, but who wins? My personal opinion is that Silver probably has it close to right, although I’m not sure Obama will get to 315. I thought 300-320 was the appropriate range, until I began playing with the numbers and came up with 274-264. Something in the high 280’s might be more appropriate.
However, this tinkering may reflect some of my own subtle biases, so perhaps my original figure of ~300 (which is close to Silver’s prediction of ~315) is more accurate. I will say that I think Romney will win Virginia, whereas Silver says that Obama has a probability north of 80% to win my home state.
And that brings us back to the original quandary. I’m not one to argue with numbers, but some of the probabilities he lists for the swing states seem incredibly high. His proponents would shout that I just don’t understand his model as they rattled their SABRs, but what I mean is that he has Obama with a 53.1% chance to win Florida, which makes sense, but some of the other “battleground” states seem more like walkovers than battles. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, are each over 90%, with two of the three over 98%.
On the other hand, the lowest grade I ever got in pursuit of my political science degree was in applied statistics, and I considered that C-plus in stats to be a huge moral victory for me. I was just happy I passed.
So, maybe I should shut up about probabilities and percentages. And, if Florida goes the other way, that gets the number to 303, which would be in line with my original prediction. Let’s call it 303, then.
Either way, we’ll know a lot more tomorrow night about whether there’s been a previously-undetected but fundamental shift in how polling needs to work in the Internet Age.
And, much like the silent prayer of every myriad-sheets-to-the-wind college freshman attending his or her first fraternity / sorority mixer, let’s just hope we go to bed with a winner.