Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why National Polls Are More Important Than State Polls in a General Election

Now that Elephant Watcher's coverage of the general election has begun, the Polls page has been added, listing and averaging the most recent polls. But the Polls page only includes national polls, not polls of individual states. Those who followed the Republican primary would have noticed that the opposite was true then, when Elephant Watcher continually provided polling data for the early state contests (e.g. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina), but not national primary polls. Why the difference?

As we explained last year, state polls are more useful during a primary. That's because states vote one after the other during a primary, with the outcome of early contests influencing the outcome of later contests. Also, candidates only campaign in the early states (at first), and early state voters pay attention to the race earlier. None of these factors apply in a general election, since the entire country has the same voting day--this year, on November 6th.

For the general election, there are many reasons why state polls are actually much less useful than national polls, even if the state being polled is a swing state. First, state polls tend to be less accurate than national polls. Most pollsters are geared toward polling the country; they do not have as much experience polling one state, and they may not have very good infrastructure in place for it. State polls are less frequent--and it's better to rely on multiple polls rather than a single poll. The infrequency of state polling also leads to the use of out-of-date polls: A newspaper column may categorize a state as being a "swing state" or a "safe Democratic state" based on a poll from a few months ago, simply because there aren't any recent polls there. In addition, desperation for state polling can result in less-reputable pollsters getting their state poll widely published, while national polls are generally reported only if the pollster is well-established.

Even when state polls are frequent and accurate, there are other problems to consider. No one state decides the outcome of a general election. The electoral college total for each candidate is determined by the outcome of all 50 states (and the District of Columbia). If one's focus is narrowed to the swing states, there are still always multiple combinations that can result in the same winner. Thus, cobbling together an electoral college prediction will depend not only on good polling for one state, but for many states. Moreover, when states are very competitive, the uncertainty increases. For example, if polls show a dead heat in several states, one would need to create electoral college projections that somehow manage to call each race accurately.

All of this means that judging the state of the presidential race is far more difficult using state polls than simply using national polls. But what about the fact that the winner is determined by the electoral college rather than the popular vote? For all practical purposes, it doesn't matter. History demonstrates that if a candidate wins the popular vote by at least one point, he is virtually guaranteed to win the electoral college. Even in the 2000 race, where Al Gore won the popular vote by half a point, he was a few hundred votes from victory in Florida. The difference in the popular vote in that race was largely due to low voter turnout in the solid red states of the South where George W. Bush was guaranteed to win; Republican get-out-the-vote efforts in those areas increased in subsequent elections to prevent another mismatch between the popular vote and electoral college winner.

In other words, it's extremely unlikely that the winner of the popular vote will fail to win the presidency, even in a very close race. Since state polls are less accurate, and since electoral college projections rely on calling multiple races, it makes far more sense to follow national polls.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

General Election Coverage Begins

Elephant Watcher's coverage of the general election for the 2012 presidential race begins today. Though there are still a few remaining primary contests in the Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney has already accumulated a majority of the total delegates; Romney is guaranteed the Republican nomination. Information on the Republican primary results may continue to be accessed on the Primaries page.

The main pages of the website have been updated for the general election. The Campaign Status page indicates each party's nominees for president and vice president. The Candidate Profiles page contains profiles for the presidential and vice presidential nominees, as well as each ticket's strengths, weaknesses, and optimal strategies. The Candidate Rankings page now calculates Romney's and Barack Obama's odds of becoming president, based upon their winning scenarios. Finally, the Primaries page has been replaced by the Polls page, which provides the most recent national polls, along with an adjusted average. All of the pages for the Republican primary will still be available in archived form, with links provided at the top of the corresponding page.

The general election has begun, but most voters will not begin to pay close attention to the race until late in the summer, when the parties hold their conventions (August 27-30 for the Republicans, September 3-6 for the Democrats). Until then, the race will be in flux, especially since Romney has not yet selected his vice presidential running mate.

Nevertheless, Elephant Watcher has conducted an initial analysis of the race and has calculated that Mitt Romney's odds of winning the presidency now stand at 65%. Since there is no chance of a third party candidate winning, Obama's chance of victory is 35%.

Romney's odds of winning may seem surprisingly high, given the closeness of the national election polls (even accounting for the registered vs. likely voter issue), Romney's lower odds on Intrade (to be covered in a future post), and the fact that Obama is an incumbent.

However, as with the 2012 Republican primary, Elephant Watcher's calculations are not determined merely by studying the polls and conventional wisdom. Instead, likely scenarios for each candidate's victory are constructed and then compared to reality. Obama's main difficulty is that most voters (1) want a change in the direction of the economy, (2) don't think Obama is capable of providing that change, and (3) do view Romney as a viable alternative.

However, the race remains fluid. Each candidate has at least one plausible path to victory, and they have not yet begun to exhaust their opportunities for employing their strategies. Each candidate's odds of winning the presidency will go up or down depending on how well they perform in the race. Elephant Watcher will periodically recalculate the odds and provide relevant updates.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Decisive Moments of the Campaign, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Newt Gingrich Destroyed by Attack Ads (December 10th - December 20th). After Herman Cain and Rick Perry self-destructed in early November, the Anti-Romney vote coalesced behind Gingrich. Gingrich then enjoyed a commanding lead over everyone else in the national and early state polls; it was the longest sustained lead held by an Anti-Romney during the primary season. Romney could have gone on the attack, but he held his fire for what seemed like an interminable period of time. Suddenly, in early-to-mid December, the Romney campaign unloaded a deluge of attack ads against Gingrich, particularly in Iowa. But would the attacks prove effective in changing Iowans' minds about Gingrich? They did. Gingrich's numbers went into a death spiral as voters learned about Gingrich's lack of conservatism and lack of electability. Gingrich placed fourth in Iowa, preventing him from winning the Iowa-South Carolina combination of which every anti-establishment candidate dreams.

Rick Santorum Runs out of Time (December 27th - January 3rd). Romney's attacks against Gingrich were timed to knock out Gingrich close enough to the Iowa Caucus so that another competitor wouldn't have enough time to rise up in his place. Before Christmas, Santorum was barely reaching double-digits, and usually didn't make the top four. After Christmas, Santorum's numbers started to climb, as Iowans considered him a more electable alternative to Perry and Gingrich. On the day of the Iowa Caucus, Santorum out-performed even his rising poll numbers. Unfortunately, he had just barely run out of time. It was reported that Romney beat Santorum by a handful of votes; they tied at 25% each. A later count showed Santorum had actually won by a handful of votes. If the contest had been held a day or two later, Santorum would have won and gotten a bounce, perhaps claiming the mantle of chief Anti-Romney. Instead, Romney was reported the winner, and Santorum wouldn't rise again until after Gingrich had been decisively defeated in Florida. By that time, Santorum had to make up a lot of ground.

Mitt Romney Beats Newt Gingrich at the Florida Debate (January 26th). After Gingrich rallied the base in debates and won the South Carolina Primary, the tide appeared to have shifted radically against Romney. A corrected tally in Iowa showed that Romney had narrowly lost there, meaning he had only won one of the first three contests. Polls in Florida showed Gingrich in the lead. Not only was Romney not going to wrap up the nomination quickly--he might even lose. But on January 26th, Romney scored a huge win against Gingrich at the final pre-Florida debate. Gingrich had claimed to be the best candidate to debate Barack Obama, but Romney obliterated Gingrich. The debate demonstrated that Gingrich actually wasn't a very good debater, and that Romney was much stronger than most voters realized. Romney went on to trounce Gingrich in the Florida Primary by 14 points, sealing his frontrunner status and taking Gingrich out of the race.

Mitt Romney Wins Michigan and Ohio (February 28th - March 6th). During the month of February 2012, the Anti-Romney vote rapidly shifted from Gingrich to Santorum. Voters are disinclined to change horses midstream, but they were desperate. Gingrich was viewed as a spent force. Santorum was the only candidate remaining who had not been vetted; voters gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he was a decent, electable candidate. Romney's weakness in the Midwest shone through as Santorum topped the polls in Michigan and Ohio. The Romney campaign responded by attacking Santorum's conservative credentials. Unlike the assault against Gingrich, they did not get personal and did not attack Santorum's electability. This was a mistake, and Santorum's numbers eroded only slowly, as the news media gradually did more stories about Santorum's extreme social views. It was enough--barely. Romney beat Santorum by three points in Michigan, and beat him again in Ohio by just one point. Having lost two important contests in the Midwest, Santorum could no longer hope to put together a delegate majority. After Ohio, Romney was all but guaranteed to win the nomination.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Decisive Moments of the Campaign, Part I

As we continue our restrospective of the 2012 Republican primary, we would like to put a spotlight on several key moments of the campaign. An event may be considered "decisive" if, having gone differently, it likely would have altered the final outcome of the primary--or at least significantly changed the trajectory of the campaign. The events described will be listed roughly in chronological order. Since events further down the road have less potential to cause change (due to delegates being "locked in," etc.), they may be considered somewhat in order of their decisiveness, as well.

Candidates Choose Not to Run (May 14th - October 4th). Each presidential primary campaign is unique because the dynamic of the playing field is determined by who is playing. Generally speaking, if a politician is capable of winning the presidential nomination--and particularly if he's likely to win--he will run. For various reasons, a number of serious potential competitors opted not to run this season. In the case of three men--Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie--their absence was decisive. Any of the three had a real chance to defeat Mitt Romney. At least one of them, Chris Christie (arguments can be made for all three), was more likely than not going to defeat Romney. If that weren't enough, if any of the three had entered the race, the shape of the race would have been dramatically different, even if Romney ultimately won.

Tim Pawlenty Quits Early (August 14th). According to the Elephant Watcher calculation of the odds, only one candidate who entered the race ever had higher odds of winning the nomination than Romney. That candidate was Tim Pawlenty, who ended up quitting much sooner than anyone else. Pawlenty quit because his campaign was spending itself into debt while failing to get good poll numbers or win the Ames straw poll. Unlike Romney, who had learned from his 2008 run, Pawlenty's campaign was in a hurry, and it acted as though voters were making up their minds during the summer of 2011. They were not. What if Pawlenty had taken a more steady approach? In hindsight, we can see that Pawlenty probably would have beaten Romney. Though he lacked any exciting qualities, Pawlenty had a solidly conservative record and was at least as electable as Romney. In the end, he would have been acceptable to both wings of the Republican Party. When we consider how well Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did in spite of all their failings, it's pretty clear that someone like Pawlenty, who lacked their weaknesses, would have won.

Mitt Romney Beats Rick Perry in the Debates (September 7th - September 22nd). Though a lot of media attention was devoted to Rick Perry's later "oops" gaffe, Perry had already been defeated during the more decisive September debates. Romney's campaign always considered Perry to be the biggest threat. Perry was the only candidate capable of running a first-class, professional campaign. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum were all running long-shot vanity campaigns. By September, Pawlenty was already out. That left Perry, who owned a Texas-sized chunk of the Republican establishment and donor networks, second only to Romney. During the September debates, Perry was aggressive. He sought out one-on-one battles with Romney and occasionally scored points against him. But Romney consistently out-classed Perry, who had a tendency to make at least one memorable gaffe per debate. Perry also seemed to get worse over time. The third strike, the debate on September 22nd, knocked Perry out. Before the September debates, Perry had a solid lead over Romney in the polls. After them, Romney held the lead.

Rick Perry Says "Oops" (November 9th). Though Romney maintained a lead over Perry from the end of September onward, Perry's catastrophic "oops" gaffe at the November 9th debate still had an important impact on the race. By November, Perry was in a weakened position. However, there was a possibility that he could recover at some point. He might not have been able to win, but he could have played a role as one of the--if not the chief--Anti-Romney candidates. Only voters in the early states paid attention to the September/October debates. Recall that Gingrich was able to bounce back and win South Carolina after early defeats. Santorum, too, experienced a resurgence in February 2012. Supposing Perry had not made his "oops" gaffe, which became the most famous primary debate gaffe in political history, he might have been able to muddy the waters in Iowa, South Carolina, or beyond. Gingrich and Santorum both needed Perry out of the way in order to make their big gains. Without the "oops," Santorum may have been forced to drop out after losing Iowa.

In Part II, we will explore the remaining moments which we consider to have been decisive in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Newt Gingrich Calls It Quits

Newt Gingrich announced today that he, like Rick Santorum, has suspended his campaign and is conceding the race to Mitt Romney. The Campaign Status page has been updated to reflect Gingrich's departure; only Romney and Ron Paul remain in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Gingrich's concession will have little impact on the race, since his campaign was already dead in the water. However, it does help ensure that Romney will win the Southern primary contests in May by a wide margin. If Gingrich or Santorum had remained in the race and scored a large protest vote, it would have embarrassed Romney. Now, the only potential recipient of protest votes will be Paul, who appeals to few voters.

Gingrich had a lot of ups and downs in the race. He stumbled out of the gate with a poor performance on "Meet the Press" in May 2011. He was written off by most observers, but he steadily gained attention with his strong debate performances. Yet Gingrich did not "debate" his opponents in the traditional sense; he did not attack or get into arguments with his competitors. Instead, he presented "red meat" to the base in an interesting and articulate fashion. Gingrich, like so many others in the race, waited his turn as candidates crashed and burned. When Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain all cratered, Gingrich's numbers rose. By the end of November 2011, he was in the lead.

For a time, Gingrich had truly impressive poll numbers. In December, he was leading by a substantial margin in national primary polls as well as the state polls in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Romney's campaign held firm, refusing to unleash its attack ads until mid-December, when they believed Iowa voters were really making up their minds. The attacks had an extraordinary impact, proving Gingrich had feet of clay. Gingrich crashed just in time for Santorum's numbers to go up, leading to a virtual tie in Iowa between Romney and Santorum.

The Gingrich rollercoaster wasn't finished, however. After Gingrich did badly in both the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, he suddenly rose again to win the South Carolina Primary by 12 points. He had done well in the debates again (particularly by attacking the liberal moderators), and he benefited from his regional connection. Romney inadvertently helped Gingrich by making some unforced errors, like not releasing his tax returns and not launching attack ads against Gingrich as he had in Iowa.

But once Romney's campaign returned to form, Gingrich was crushed in Florida. Republican voters clearly had reservations about Romney, but they were more afraid of selecting a candidate with Gingrich's doubtful electability. Nor could Gingrich's debate performances save him once Romney started taking an aggressive posture in the debates: Gingrich was good at expounding on various topics, but he wasn't very good at debating an opponent head-to-head. After Florida, the anti-Romney vote switched horses to Santorum and never looked back.

What will Gingrich's legacy be? He proved the importance of debates in the primary process. He also demonstrated Republican voters' preference for electability over red meat. Gingrich saw himself as a man locked in mortal combat with Romney, but ultimately Gingrich served to help Romney. Gingrich was the second-to-last Anti-Romney candidate. Santorum, the final Anti-Romney, was a stronger one, since he had fewer electability issues (though he did have some). Gingrich essentially took up space that Santorum needed. Gingrich's rise and fall in Iowa delayed Santorum's own rise, preventing Santorum from getting his needed clear-cut victory there. And Gingrich's victory in South Carolina prevented Santorum from gaining any steam until February. Gingrich also took some delegates that otherwise would have gone to Santorum. If Santorum had gotten those delegates, the race would have appeared closer, and Santorum probably would have performed better in late February, when Romney started beating him.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2012 Republican Primary in Review: April 2012

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the Republican primary during the previous month. Follow these links to read earlier recaps: May 2011, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January 2012, February, March.

The 2012 Republican presidential primary came to a close in April. The month opened with contests in Wisconsin, D.C., and Maryland. While Mitt Romney was heavily favored to win D.C. and Maryland, Wisconsin was a pro-Santorum state by nature. Earlier in the primary season, Rick Santorum would likely have won Wisconsin with little problem. But by the time April rolled around, Santorum had been weakened by successive defeats and a thorough vetting by the media. Moreover, widely-publicized delegate counts showed Santorum with no chance of getting a majority of the delegates--he could only hope to force a contested convention. Since Republican voters were less than enthused about the prospect of a contested convention, and since they increasingly understood Romney was the inevitable nominee, Santorum's support dwindled.

On April 3rd, the three contests were held, and Romney won them all. Santorum's early lead in Wisconsin was obliterated; Romney won Wisconsin by 7 points. Wisconsin marked a turning point, as no one could any longer deny that Romney was going to win the nomination. Romney was still far from having accumulated a majority of the delegates, but it was only a matter of time.

Looking ahead, April 24th looked to be a good day for Romney: A number of pro-Romney states, plus Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, were set to hold their primaries. Santorum was faced with a decision. On the one hand, he could stay in the race, attempt to win Pennsylvania, and then ride the pro-Santorum calendar in May. On the other hand, he could save himself the trouble, concede the race, and avoid the possibility of an embarrassing defeat in his home state.

As with Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, the early polls showed Santorum with a shrinking lead. Santorum realized that although he still had some chance of winning Pennsylvania, it wasn't worth the risk. Were he to stay in the race, he would be continually pressured to drop out and make room for the Party's obvious nominee. If he stayed in the race and lost Pennsylvania, it would be a humiliation. On April 10th, Santorum suspended his campaign, conceding the race to Romney.

Santorum's decision effectively marked the end of the primary season. Newt Gingrich attempted to capitalize on Santorum's departure by claiming he was the "last conservative standing." But Gingrich's campaign was long dead, having been killed by Santorum's Southern wins in March. The last gasp of Gingrich's campaign took place in Delaware on April 24th. As with the other states voting that day, Delaware gave Romney the win by a huge margin. Gingrich reportedly made plans to drop out of the race, though he did not make any public statements to that effect.

By the end of the month, Romney was still short of the magic number for a delegate majority, but virtually all opposition to him ceased. Romney was spared the difficulty of dealing with an anti-Romney calendar in May. Romney's campaign and the news media shifted their focus toward the general election.