With less than two weeks until the presidential election, some of my less political friends who are aware of my blog have been asking me "So who is going to win this thing?" My educated guess is still - anything can happen, and I think there's a sound basis for saying that.
I do see some likely scenarios as the most probable ones, but let me first dissect why I think it's anyone's ball game before pontificating on who will win.
I can guarantee though, that someone will win.
Before the first Romney-Obama debate, most pollsters had started switching from Registered Voters to Likely Voters in their results reporting. Registered Voters tend to skew more Democrat than what actually happens on election day, since many registered voters don't bother to turn out to vote. After the first debate there was a clear shift towards Romney, acknowledged by both liberal and conservative pundits even before pollsters could confirm it. The problem is there are still issues with the polls.
At this point national polls are virtually irrelevant. The presidency is won by individual state races and therefore individual state polls are what really matters. Looking at the individual state races, both candidates are fighting for what many consider 11 battleground states with the combined electoral vote totals to swing the election either way. Some states seem to be leaning safely one way or the other but in general, the polls in these states are tighter than many expected.
Which brings us to the second problem with the polls. Many of the polls perform a skew on their models. Exit polls in 2008 showed that out of every hundred voters, there were 8 more Democrats than Republicans. In 2010 it was pretty much an even split. In the likely voter models used by pollsters they have to project turnout and weight their samples to reflect the likely turnout this year. That's okay if done sensibly, with sound reasoning. In reality, conservatives cannot expect the same turnout ratio as 2010 - off-presidential-year elections favor the party out of power. The reality is likely to be in the Democrat D+1 to D+5 range and very likely to be towards the lower end of that range. But that's just my best guess. With D+2, Romney should win. But many pollsters have D+9 or better in some of their posted results. Is enthusiasm for Obama higher than in 2008? That's a ridiculous notion. That will not happen and some polls should be discounted out of the gate for such irrational weighting.
But those who discount the polls and try to reverse engineer an unskewedness into a revised version of the polls also have issues. A D+6 might make sense in one state and D+1 more sense in another, and that is from what I've seen not really been discussed in depth anywhere.
The polling therefore, despite the avalanche of data, is only slightly useful, and more-so at a macro level than at a meaningful level - it can help identify trends. But to do more is risky business this cycle.
A lot of people think that the InTrade odds of the presidential election are a very likely indicator. Those currently show Obama with a 60% chance of winning. InTrade is people betting their own money on winners. To actually plunk down money is regarded as being more invested in getting it right than those who don't put their money where their mouth is. True, but what about the die-hard Buffalo Bills fan who plunks down a few bucks every week on his team? There's a skew there too. Not to mention if the information they are vetting their bets with includes, or is driven by, less than optimal polling? More importantly, if odds makers decided outcomes, there would never be a need to play a game, and upsets happen all the time because odds makers and bettors are far from perfect.
Momentum seems to be on Romney's side ever since that first debate. The problem with momentum is that it can change unexpectedly. Just ask Democrats if they were expecting a shift on October 4th. They weren't. Shocks to the current path can happen at any point - an October surprise, a major gaffe, or some crisis could tilt the field either way, and potentially heavily so. Hanging your hat on momentum is to not safe.
Word is Obama may have given up on states like Florida, North Carolina, Colorado and even possibly the very close Virginia. The Obama team had a firewall that looks to have been burned all the way down to Ohio and protecting some normally reliable Democrat states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He wasn't supposed to be spending time and treasure in two of those states. Romney and the RNC meanwhile had a funding advantage (though it may be declining) over Obama and the DNC and need to figure out where to best allocate that. But using ad spend as an indicator of where the battles are really being fought may not be instructive either, beyond directionally. Ad spend does not translate directly to voter results. Ad spend in a decided state could be wasted money. What it does tell us is where the battles need to be fought, but not who will win.
Undecided voters who break late, tend to go for the challenger by a pretty good margin. But indications are there are less of them this year than in most years. They should help Romney, but by how much given the supposedly low numbers and the skew of their break for the challenger (e.g. 55% vs 85%) it may not be enough.
So who wins?
All of this is a way of saying reading the tea leaves is still an exercise in best guesses. A victor has not pre-emerged. There are too many uncertainties despite the volume of available data for prognostication. But there do seem to be some patterns emerging.
The battleground states will indeed be the battleground states. Michigan and Pennsylvania are very unlikely to flip to Romney, though they could, I just don't see it happening. Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Nevada and Iowa are likely Obama but could conceivably flip to Romney if there is an undecided voter break for Romney that is strong enough. Florida and North Carolina appear to be in the Romney column. Virginia I would say is more possibly Romney than Obama, but could also go the other way. That brings us down to Ohio where polls on average have Obama up by a couple of points.
My suspicion is that Ohio will be the decider. Whoever wins Ohio will win the election. Romney needs to pour a lot into this state in the closing two weeks, because it is a must win. So too must Obama. Given Obama's slight lead there today, if the election were today I'd be guessing an Obama squeaker. But the election isn't today.
There is still the distinct possibility, either way, of an electoral college blowout - more likely for Romney but also potentially for Obama. Since many of the battleground states are close a lot of things matter, beyond even the items I've listed above - voter turnout impacted by bad weather for example. But there is a distinct possibility that many of these battleground states could break the same way, seven or nine of them all going the same way - for Romney or Obama. It could be a blowout, even with a 53% to 47% national vote total split. We could see as some predicted, a 330 electoral vote total for Romney and 208 for Obama. Or we could see a near reverse of that. Most likely though, one of the two candidates will win by less than 20 electoral votes, swung by the 18 electoral votes from Ohio.
But I'm not ready to call anything just yet.