Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Silver bullet in the War on (electoral) Terror?

In this corner we have Nate Silver, data-crunching young technocrat with a dizzying array of charts and an astounding track record, coolly assuring us that John McCain's chances of winning the election stand at 3.8%, that state poll data remains strong for Obama, and that any national poll tightening is as yet insignificant. And in this corner, nailbiting TNR vet Noam Scheiber:
I'm not popping anything just yet, except maybe some sleeping pills to get me through the night... In the last few days, pretty much every tracking poll I trust (WaPo, Gallup, Rasmussen) and several I either don't trust (that would be you, Zogby) or don't have much of an opinion about (Kos, Investor's Business Daily) has shifted toward McCain, in some cases sharply. ...

As of this writing, Obama's lead in the national tracking polls looks to be around five points (I get 5.5 when I average all six of the trackers I mentioned, along with the Hotline and Battleground trackers, which haven't changed much in the last few days). If that drops two-to-three points, as it easily could in a week, I don't think it's crazy to think McCain will have a shot at winning Pennsylvania, Virginia, and/or Colorado. Unlikely, yes, but not crazy.
And then again today, ironically citing the more sanguine John Judis:

Judis makes a great point in his otherwise overly-optimistic post on the polls:

I mention the Bradley effect because I think, too, that McCain and Sarah Palin's attack against Obama for advocating "spreading the wealth" and for "socialism" and for pronouncing the civil rights revolution a "tragedy" because it didn't deal with the distribution of wealth is aimed ultimately at white working class undecided voters who would construe "spreading the wealth" as giving their money to blacks. It's the latest version of Reagan's "welfare queen" argument from 1980. It if it works, it won't be because most white Americans actually oppose a progressive income tax, but because they fear that Obama will inordinately favor blacks over them.


Worse, though I have no evidence for this (nothing new there), I worry that these insinuations are reinforced in the minds of working-class whites by the millions of African-Americans lining up early to vote for Obama. How sad for the country if McCain ends up jujitsuing something (i.e., record turnout) that should be a source of pride.

Silver is brilliant and has all the confidence of a young black box hedge fund manager. Scheiber, however, has been around the block a few times. Silver writes sanguinely about McCain's need to shave a half-point off Obama's cumulative poll lead per day and the historical unlikelihood of doing so. Scheiber speaks to that gut feeling that polls can shift a lot more suddenly than that.

I'm off to to contribute one last c-note.

UPDATE: Make that $120. Those clever devils have moved the defaults to base 6. I consent to be upsold!

P.S. Behind the cool Silver, there's the even cooler (and equally data-based) Obama...


  1. Not enough people recognize the inherent racist appeal in those code phrases.
    Let's hope they're not effective.

  2. The thing is, the only polls that really matter, the state ones, are not tightening at all. So I am leaning Silver. I'll be devastated to be wrong though.


  3. Polling has been a strange pseudo-scientific pursuit. It's strange that it's been so qualitative, because a lot of the ideas behind it are similar to very quantitative, empirical social science observations.

    Essentially all Nate's doing is what a sensible social scientist trained in quantitative methods would do when analyzing polls--building a regression model based on past election history and demographics, rather than using the single-point Chuck Todd-like observation of "candidates with a national poll deficit like mccain weeks out from the election have lost x out of y times".

    There's a lot of pushback, because it decreases the value of these intuitive experienced poll observers when anyone trained in statistical methods can come up with sound predictions. But it's similar to what's happened ni a lot of other fields.

  4. Noam needs to chill out. From what I've seen, most of the tightening represents previously undecided voters shifting to McCain, rather than any significant erosion of support for Obama, who is still well above 50% in places like Pennsylvania, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada, and is right at 50% in the RCP average. Any Bradley effect is going to obscure McCain's strength, rather than overstate Obama's. So the 50% threshold is what matters. As long as Obama stays at or above 50%(preferably far enough above to account for the margin of error), McCain can do no better than second place, even in the very unlikely event that ALL of the undecideds jump his way.

  5. Relax man - the national polls don't mean a damn thing. The only polls you need to follow are VA, CO, and NV. If Obama sweeps these 3 - it's all over. My friend works for the Dem party in a battleground state and gave me a heads up last week - he said look, the polls are going to be all over the place during the last 2 weeks. It's going to be a matter of when people are called - if these undecideds are called after a negative ad, it will affect their vote.

    The point is - over 90% of this country knows who they're voting for, and due to the electoral college it just takes 20. So unless a SERIOUS number of people are lying to every pollster out there in the states of VA, CO, and NV - you have nothing to worry about.

  6. If you recall, the polls were not very reliable in the primaries. I have a feeling they failed to account for how easy it is for ten percent of Democrats to swing between Clinton, Obama, Edwards, etc. The policies were nearly identical. But, it is far less likely that a voter is that mobile weighing a vote for Obama or McCain. So I suspect Silver is correct.

    Here is my advice...just look past to poll numbers and closely watch the campaign staffs. They have internal polls and first hand accounts that journalists and academics aren't privy to. The body language of infighting and blame, or calm and disciplined. The abandoning of advertising and campaigning in states, versus the expansion of the map. One campaing is contracting and frustrated...the other is warning of complacency. You can tell what is going don't need polls. Human nature is easy to read.

  7. Th' chief problem is relying on the trackers. For all we know most of the movement could be undecideds in Alabama or Wyoming.

    State-level polling continues to go Obama's way - ESPECIALLY in Virgina, PA, Colorado and New Mexico.

    That's pretty much the presidency right there. OH, MO, FL, NC etc. would be some nice icing on the cake.

  8. I live in NC. I've been to multiple Obama events in NC. It's not just, or even primarily, African-Americans at those events. It's not just, or even primarily, African-Americans driving his volunteer efforts here. It's not just African-Americans standing in lines to vote early. What you're seeing is a larger percentage of AAs turning out to vote than in years past. But you're also seeing an increase in all other racial and ethnic groups. I think that white voters might be seeing African Americans in those lines because 1) there are pictures of those lines being distributed and 2) they are seeing the African-Americans in those lines, because they are looking for them. White people aren't necessarily looking for "white people." White people are "invisible," in a sense. They are just "voters," if you know what I mean. A long line of white voters isn't visually interesting, as a story.

    At any rate, I would chill about the polls. Ground game trumps polling, and I can guarantee you that Obama's got game. In NC at least, McCain doesn't.