Sunday, November 4, 2012

Predicting the 2012 Election

In a recent post, I explained why "calling" races and making predictions based on qualitative, not quantitative, factors was iffy at best and academically irresponsible at worst. So, naturally, what follows will be my arbitrary and binary predictions for the 2012 elections.

(In seriousness, I do want to make it clear that this is in no way a scientific prediction. But I also don't think there's anything wrong with that, as long as it's acknowledged up front and everything that follows is kept in its proper perspective. Making predictions, as pundits do on Baseball Tonight or the World Series pregame show or whatever, is fun, and it's nothing I would begrudge anyone. I just wish punditry would be seen for what it is—entertainment.)


Here, my prediction will be the roughest and, probably, the most uninformed. Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance this cycle to look at the competitive House races in much depth. In 2006, 2008, and 2010, we had the benefit of knowing it was a "wave election," but there is no such trend this year. The consensus among experts is that there may be a slight Democratic edge (as in the Senate and presidential races), but it's close to a draw. If the parties split the tossup seats, Democrats would net only a handful—zero to five seems to be the generally agreed-upon range. Looking at the roster of competitive races, though, I find a bit more to like for Democrats. Going through this list, keeping score based on my sense of each race, and then splitting my own personal "tossups" 50-50, I make a back-of-the-napkin guess that the next House will consist of 202 Democrats and 233 Republicans.


In the underrated governors' races, I have already provided my overall rankings in the form of a spectrum accessible via the tab on the top of the page. This year, there are four clear Democratic favorites and four clear Republican favorites; you can see my picks for those on the Gubernatorial Rankings page. But what of the three tossups: Washington, New Hampshire, and Montana?

Well, the way the chart works is that I order the races from most Democratic to most Republican, so the tossup closest to the blue side is the one most likely to go blue and vice versa. However, I should emphasize that the reason I ever place any race in the "tossup" category is that it truly is too close to call—by definition, that there's nothing that gives me a hint the race is leading one way or the other. I'll pick them for you here—again, for entertainment purposes only—but know that it's a stab in the dark.

I'm going to say that Montana's next governor will be Republican Rick Hill, while Washington and New Hampshire will elect Democrats. In Montana, I expect that presidential coattails (i.e., the fact that Mitt Romney will win the state handily) will outweigh the coattails of an outgoing Democratic governor who's not on the ballot. In Washington, likewise, Barack Obama's easy win should help drive Jay Inslee–inclined supporters to the voting booth. Furthermore, Inslee has enjoyed a slight polling lead for a few months now, with the race only just recently drifting into the margin of error. In New Hampshire, the opposite has occurred, with Democrat Maggie Hassan coming off a strong set of polls showing her up four points, five points, and five points after a tied race for much of the duration. My prediction below (spoiler alert!) that Obama will win the Granite State can also only help her. Here's what I expect the gubernatorial map to look like at the end of election night:


In the Senate, I also have a useful chart explaining which parties I expect to win which races, and how safe that prediction is. Obviously, I won't be picking against myself in any of those races that I've categorized (otherwise I'd just change the chart). But the chart does leave five races as tossups, and, yet again, I will make some random predictions for you.

My crystal ball will again be generous to Democrats, as I perceive the median voter's mood to be ever-so-slightly left-leaning at the moment, so I give them the top four tossups in the chart. In Massachusetts, I've thought that Democrat Elizabeth Warren would prevail from day one; Republican Senator Scott Brown eked out a win in 2010 only because turnout was so low and Republicans were so motivated to vote in that special election. The 2012 voter-turnout model, of course, will look very different in this deep-blue state. Still, Brown has proven to be probably the strongest Senate candidate in the entire country, keeping the race tight all year. It has only been recently that Warren has pulled ahead—slightly—in polling.

Virginia and Wisconsin both figure to feature razor-thin margins as well, and I'm not convinced that either candidate has an advantage as we stand today. On Election Day, though, it'll come down to turnout, and I expect Democrats to have the superior ground game in both states on Tuesday. This is in large part because both states are important swing states in the presidential, and (spoiler alert!) I view Obama as the favorite in both. That should be enough to pull Tim Kaine and Tammy Baldwin into the Senate.

A very interesting case is Indiana, which, along with Missouri, looks as though it could be one of two states where the Tea Party costs Republicans a Senate victory—2010 redux. This went from a safe Republican seat when it was Richard Lugar's to lose, to a lean Republican seat when the very conservative Richard Mourdock became the nominee, to a complete tossup (some would say leans Democrat!) when Mourdock made his controversial comments about rape. For me, that last straw threw the race into total confusion, and this may be the hardest Senate race to forecast because of it. Indiana remains a very Republican state on the presidential and gubernatorial level, yet the only public poll conducted after the rape comments showed a huge lead for Democrat Joe Donnelly. While I'm not sure I believe in such a huge margin, the momentum of the race is clearly away from the Republican—so I think this one will go blue too.

The one tossup where I ultimately expect the Republican to triumph is Montana. Democrat Jon Tester actually leads in the polling average at the moment, but this is one case in which I could easily foresee an upset, à la Nevada or Colorado in 2010. Montana is obviously a Republican-leaning state, and its support for Romney will present a hurdle for Tester; it's always harder to convince people to split their tickets than to vote the straight party line. This is, of course, the same reason why I chose Rick Hill to win the gubernatorial race in Big Sky Country. Indeed, my predictions are banking on Montana rediscovering its conservative roots.

Speaking of upsets—remember that, unlike the over-polled presidential race that I'll get to below, the smaller number of polls in many Senate races means there are fewer data available to make prognostications. This increases the margin of error and can make surprises more likely. That's a big part of the reason why there is usually an upset or two in the Senate races (and always a handful of upsets in the House). While I've picked them to go a certain way, this year I could see surprises taking place in Missouri, Arizona, and Nevada.

Missouri is an increasingly red state with an increasingly obtuse Republican candidate. Polls have shown Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill with a large lead because of it, but I've wondered for a while now if there may be latent support for Republican Todd Akin. No one wants to tell a pollster they're voting for an ostensibly sexist candidate, but when they get in the voting booth all by themselves, perhaps they'll fill out that secret ballot differently. This possibility is enhanced by the fact that most undecided Senate voters in Missouri are die-hard Republicans. In fact, according to Public Policy Polling, if Akin can pick up just 10% more Republican support, he wins. The libertarian candidate is also winning 6% of voters in the latest PPP poll, most of them Republicans. Will they come home? I do think it'll be close.

In Arizona and Nevada, the case is less complicated, and it all comes down to turnout among the Hispanic population. Democrat Richard Carmona is seeking to become the first Latino senator from Arizona, a state with a 30% Latino population but where Latinos made up only 13% of the vote in 2010. And, in Nevada, with an Obama win (spoiler alert!) looking likely, could the president's winning coalition pull Shelley Berkley over the finish line? Democrats in both states will be working hard to turn out these difference-making Hispanic voters.

In the end, though, I've still chosen to keep those three states in their "leans" categories. Totaling everything up, I project a 2013–14 Senate that consists of 53 Democrats (including two independents) and 47 Republicans—the exact same arrangement as today. Here's what it will look like:


That takes us to the big kahuna. My view of the state of the presidential race should actually be pretty uncontroversial, at least to anyone who follows the polls and accepts their consensus. It feels as though we've settled on a nonet of swing states whose combined 110 electoral votes will decide the next president; furthermore, with the rich supply of polling we've had there, it is fairly easy to put them on a spectrum from blue to red (numbers are as of Sunday afternoon):

I do not consider any state apart from these nine to be worth investigating in the presidential contest. In the week before Election Day, we've seen political observers go even more cuckoo than usual over states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Arizona. Despite last-minute candidate visits and polls showing a close race, I find it incredibly unlikely that any of these states will deviate from conventional wisdom. Historically, states that have been in one candidate's column all cycle long do not just suddenly defect to the other on election night. If Romney wins Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Minnesota, or if Obama wins Arizona, it will be because the national race on the whole shifted significantly toward him at the last minute; consequently, this entire prediction will be rubbish, since that will have meant one of the candidates won in a landslide. In the end, no state other than the nine in the chart above will be decisive in the Electoral College, because no other states will be swing states in an election consistent with how closely contested this one has been.

To walk through those nine states—it would appear that the ones on the extremes would be the easiest to predict, and I agree with this school of thought. I expect North Carolina to go to Romney without much difficulty; beyond the public polling average, the president has not visited the state since the Democratic convention two months ago, suggesting that his campaign does not see it as truly competitive.

In Nevada, early voting shows a huge advantage for Democrats, leading the state's most prominent political analyst to expect an Obama win. Mark Mellman, Harry Reid's pollster who was one of the few who accurately forecast that Reid would hold on in 2010, also has Obama up. Then there are just the demographics: as long as the state's growing Hispanic population prefers Democrats, Nevada as a blue-leaning state may be the new normal.

Finally, Wisconsin is a state where the Romney/Ryan ticket has invested a lot of time and energy, keeping it within their reach. However, past election results show that Wisconsin just isn't anything but a blue state, and even a native vice-presidential candidate can't change that. There hasn't been a poll showing Romney leading in Wisconsin since August 19 (before the Denver debate and his greatest moment of the campaign), and the odds of a candidate winning a state despite so many data points to the contrary are astronomical. This same logic can be applied to North Carolina and Nevada; hence, I feel pretty confident about my predictions in this first triad of swing states.

Skipping Ohio for a moment, the next-closest states are our old friends Iowa and New Hampshire. These states have both sported the occasional polls showing Romney with a lead, though Obama still holds the upper hand on average. They also lack the solid additional circumstantial evidence of an edge one way or another that Nevada, Wisconsin, and North Carolina can boast. Given their historical proclivity for being very elastic, fickle states, I could certainly see them going for Romney, but I still have to side with the averages and say they'll fall in the blue column, where the polls have them pretty comfortably resting for the time being.

Totaling my predictions so far from above, we stand at 263 electoral votes for Obama and 206 for Romney with four states left to examine—any one of which would put Obama over the top. It's the same argument you've been hearing for a while now, so I apologize for repeating it, but it's true: Obama is the favorite in this election because he simply has more paths to 270 electoral votes. This election is like a best-of-seven playoff series where the incumbent leads three games to none. Historically, it's a commanding lead, with the blue team needing to win only one of their next four games. But as Mitt Romney's favorite team, the Boston Red Sox (who did it while he was their governor), have shown, it's possible to win four in a row.

But I'm trying to give you my for-entertainment-purposes-only pick, not a synopsis of the odds. Indeed, this is where this presidential forecast verges from grounded in fact and reason to based on the flip of a coin. In contrast to the states above, which I expect to be very close but resolved on election night, the next three are the ones where I don't think we'll know the winner until sometime during the day on November 7. (Keep a particular eye on Colorado, where Secretary of State Scott Gessler's controversial tactics and malfunctioning voting machines have made the state ripe for a legal battle.) In other words, these are the pure tossup states, the ones that will be decided by the decimal place.

My (arbitrary) pick in Colorado and Virginia is President Obama. Call it a hunch—and you'd be right—but I see a number of intangibles in his favor. Most importantly, there is Democrats' superior get-out-the-vote effort; Obama has more than twice as many field offices in Virginia as Romney does, and in Colorado "one top GOP consultant who has worked on presidential campaigns told [the Atlantic] he mentally added 2 to 4 points to Obama's polls in the state based on superior organization." Strong field teams not only are better at turning out a candidate's likely voters, but they're also more wont to tap into the "unlikely" voter pool—which polls of "likely voters" often miss. Registered voters who can't reliably be expected to make it to the polls usually skew Democratic and can include younger as well as non-white voters. Specifically, as with the Senate races in Nevada and Arizona, I believe Hispanic voter turnout could be a difference-maker in Colorado. You can bet that OFA will be trying to get every last vote out of the state's Latino community, which polls can often undersample and therefore underrate the impact of. Finally, one last group that many polls miss entirely are "cell-phone-only" voters—that is, voters, likely or not, who do not own a landline phone. Because many polling companies do not call cell phones, their results may underestimate this blue-leaning demographic.

These are all acceptable justifications for picking Obama when all other factors seem equal. But there are also similar arguments that favor Romney—perhaps the most convincing of which is to point at the national polling numbers. Unlike the state polls, where Obama has had an advantage, national polls have been consistently better for Romney, showing either a tied race or the Republican leading. (For the record, I do not foresee a popular vote/Electoral College split. That's not something a responsible predictor can ever "call," in my mind, because it has been so rare historically and the election would have to be uniquely close.) You can average the national polls with the aggregate of state polls to tell a more conservative-friendly tale than the state polls alone show. This is as good a reason as any to break my mental tie in the state of Florida in favor of Mitt Romney. Another is the advantage he seems to have in the swingiest region of this swingiest state: the I-4 corridor between Orlando and Tampa. With its high percentage of conservative Cuban-Americans, Florida is also a state where high Hispanic turnout would not necessarily aid Obama.

Finally, we return to Ohio—and, unfortunately for the GOP, this is the real stake in Romney's heart. Even if Romney wins all three coin flips above, he'll still need Ohio for the presidency, like every Republican before him—but as we saw from the chart above, Ohio is somewhere between Iowa and Nevada in terms of how safe it is for Obama. This is a state where liberals have been reenergized thanks to a concerted union effort to kill a ban on collective bargaining, where liberal senator Sherrod Brown is poised to cruise to reelection, and where you can bet Obama's ground-game advantage will manifest itself as much as anywhere (if you're an OFA volunteer from a non–swing state, you're going to Ohio.) And then there's the stubborn polling advantage that has implied that Obama's support is as solid as a rock. As Nate Silver wrote of Ohio, "There are no precedents in the database for a candidate losing with a two- or three-point lead in a state when the polling volume was that rich."

Because of Ohio, and also simply because of Romney's dire reliance on my three coin-flip states versus their expendability to Obama, I am confident that Obama will win a second term. I am much less confident about my specific prediction that he will win 303 electoral votes to Romney's 235, but there you have my map anyway:

Now let's see what happens.

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