Sunday, October 31, 2004

Final Weekend – U.S. Election

The Presidential race is too close to call. The reason is simple: the popular vote is almost tied nationally (you can check out the updated national polls here and here), and the polls in states that could tip the Electoral College one way or the other are also very close.

Here are my observations about all this:

1. A blogger called the Mystery Pollster – a Democratic polling professional – has averaged the national polls. His latest calculation shows a one point Bush lead of 48% to 47% for Kerry. One polling rule of thumb is that the incumbent will actually receive his final poll share on election day, while most of the ‘undecideds/won’t ‘say go to the challenger, but it doesn’t always apply.

2. On many minds this weekend is the question: what impact will the Osama tape have? My own view is that it is likely to have little or no impact because most voters have had plenty of time to decide how they feel about all the terrorism/war in Iraq related issues. However, there is one poll out from a Democratic pollster, which suggests, if anything, that the tape will help Kerry.

3. It should be noted that most polls just prior to the 2000 election showed Bush ahead, while Gore actually ended up winning the popular vote – a fact which adds to my impression that U.S. polls are often wrong. That’s partly because there are simply more of them, but also because many use small sample sizes and can’t figure out which respondents will actually vote.

4. This contributor to the Daily Kos site has averaged the polls in the battleground states. He concludes that Kerry will win 311 electoral votes to Bush’s 227. I think the author, a pro-Kerry Democrat, lets his partisan enthusiasm get the better of his judgement. While he may be too optimistic about Kerry in drawing his conclusions, his calculations do say unequivocally that the election is very close and the numbers are worth looking at.

5. All this year I have thought it would be tight. There is a great deal of evidence that tells us that the United States is split down the middle politically. My intuition has been that Bush would win, even though I think the longer term trend is against the Republicans. Now that the last weekend is here, my intuition is wavering: the reality is that this election is extremely close, too close to call. Factors we cannot now see (but will be clear after the balloting) could tip it one way or another.

State by State
6. My reading of the polls is that the following five states are toss-ups and will likely determine the outcome – Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

There are other close races: in New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania where Kerry appears to be narrowly ahead. New Hampshire voted for Bush in 2000, the other two for Gore. In New Mexico, a state that voted by a razor-thin margin for Gore, my reading is that the polls suggest Bush will win. If all this comes to pass, it would result in a net gain of one electoral vote for Bush.

There are some other close races in Nevada, Arkansas and Colorado, which are probably going to be won by Bush but not by much.

7. One of the most important aspects of electoral behaviour is turnout. It is also one of the things that gives American pollsters fits because turnout is generally low. Hence pollsters build in “likely voter” screens into their questionnaires. The Mystery Pollster has a good discussion of this.

One of the problems with “likely voter” models is that this year there is every prospect of a dramatically increased turnout so that models based on past behaviour would not apply. There is already plenty of anecdotal evidence of increased turnout including strong early voting. Some of this is motivated by strong antipathy to Bush. I know of several Americans living here who are voting in a U.S. election for the first time in their lives – even in states where the outcome is not expected to be close – because of their strong negative feelings about Bush and his record. To me it is a clear indicator of increased turnout caused by anti-Bush sentiment.

The Democrats are targeting increased voter registration and turnout among younger voters and minorities. See, for example, this discussion of increased registrations in New Mexico. For the Republicans a key strategy has been to increase turnout among evangelical Christians. Bush strategist Karl Rove has calculated there is a pool of 4 million voters the Republicans could tap through turnout efforts – voters he thinks Bush should have had last time. I have no way of assessing whether the Republican efforts are going to be successful.

8. In conclusion let me note one of the biggest imponderables in polling in the U.S. this year. Polling firms can’t reach cell phone users and it’s a problem for them because many younger people rely exclusively on cell phones. There is no hard evidence that the cell phone problem has yet had a distorting impact on poll results but given the growth in the phenomenon, it seems to me that it is only a matter of time. Is this the year?

Monday, October 25, 2004

U.S. election - a week to go.

I have been scanning the U.S. election web sites and looking at it up and down and I cannot tell which way the Presidential contest will go next week. Now that Bubba has entered the thing, maybe things will tilt Kerry's way.

I have been looking at various sites that offer projected outcomes based on complex multi-dimensional formulas derived from the polls. This one is a favourite and has links to other efforts. Its erratic line graphic line says it all.

The uncertainty in the Presidential contest is mirrored in both Senate and House races although the conventional wisdom says the Republicans should have no trouble retaining control of the latter. It is true there does not appear to be a clear trend away from the Republicans on a scale similar to the one that favoured them in 1994, and that strongly suggests that the status quo will prevail.

This fits with my intuition, which with a week to go, is still that Bush will likely win. I should add that I do see the longer term trends as favouring the Democrats but we probably won't see this come to fruition until 2006.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Two observations

I don't ordinarily find much insight in his online column, but this posting by Larry Zolf on the shenigans around the Throne Speech is worth reading. Not surprisingly, you will note a similarity with an earlier TC Norris post on the same subject.
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I have been wasting my time watching the Sunday morning talk shows on the American election. The centre of gravity on all of them is to the right. Although he works for one of the most conservative voices in American politics, the Wall Street Journal, reporter John Harwood who appears here on Inside Washington is one of the few in journalism who seems to have any grasp of how real politics works. I find that I have to take his analysis seriously whether I agree with it or not. It should be noted that he is on the news side of that paper, and not part of its lunatic editorial board.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Vote on the Conservative Throne Speech Amendment

The compromise resolution has been adopted. Both the Bloc and the Conservatives forced the government to swallow versions of their original amendments, making it clear that they are willing to cooperate to force the government to bend to their will to a certain extent.

The key implication of this is that if the Liberals want an early election, and I think they do, it will likely be easy to engineer a defeat in the House. The Liberals and the Conservatives have conventions scheduled for next March, probably shortly after the budget. After that there could be a spring election.

The fact that the Liberals are being pushed around by the other parties will give them a powerful incentive to go to the polls. The recent public opinion surveys, for example, this one released yesterday by Environics, don't give them enough seats for a majority but they are getting close to one.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Presidential race – state of play

I am playing catch up today so here is the last of three posts. This one was actually written today.
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Post-debate what is the state of play in the Presidential election? It remains as it has all year too close to call.

Kerry won all three debates. The results from the polls taken following the October 13 debate were: A CNN/Gallup instant poll found Kerry the clear winner, 52% to 39%. A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters who watched the debate found Kerry won, 39% to 25%, with 36% calling it a tie. An ABC News Instant Poll of voters who watched the debate also found Kerry the winner, 42% to 41%. (Note: The survey group was 38% Republican, 30% Democrat.)

My intuition all year has been that Bush would win in a close race. The debates have shaken that gut feeling. Nonetheless the polls overall still point to Bush being ahead.

The race remains close. The latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll has the race tied at 48% while three other polls out today show small Bush leads. All the major Presidential polls can be found here on Polling Report.com.

In terms of keeping up with the race the two best sites on the state by state battles are http://2.004k.com/ and Current Electoral Vote Predictor, the latter having an excellent Electoral College Map.

The polls show different results largely because they use different methodologies and assumptions. One of the best discussions of the issues I have run across is this one from the Scripps survey research center. The findings from their poll show that if the U.S. had the Australian system of compulsory voting, John Kerry would be the easy winner.

IRPP Analysis of 2004 Canadian Election

The Institute for Research on Public Policy’s monthly magazine Policy Options September 2004 issue was substantially devoted to analysis of the 2004 federal election (you can find it in the back issues section).

Included is an excellent analysis of the polls by political scientist Geoffrey Hale. There was a megaton of media and other comment at the time of the election about how the polls missed the outcome. Prof. Hale, however, argues that the polls were by and large accurate and I agree:

This article examines polling data for each region during the campaign, and compares it with actual outcomes by region. It concludes that although most pollsters missed the extent of last minute vote swings in Ontario, regional vote projections for three of four major polling firms that publishing regular polls during the campaign were well within national margins of error.

Another article by Maurice Pinard makes the following observation about the alleged polling errors.

How can such forecasting errors be explained? The answer is astonishingly simple: Voting intentions changed at the very end of the campaign. The recently published results of the Canadian Election Study, conducted by university professors, indicated that, at least outside Quebec, an important surge in support for the Liberals occurred during the last few days of the campaign, especially during the days after the media’s pollsters had left the field. This coincided with a corresponding decline of both Conservative and NDP support.

Pinard says “outside Quebec”. More precisely what happened was that public opinion changed in the last few days in Ontario shifting from both the Conservatives and the NDP to the Liberals.

The articles can be found along with others, here: http://www.irpp.org/po/index.htm

What my forecast model says about this

I have compared the regional polls to the final results myself. The only strong and consistent pattern regionally is in Ontario where all the pre-election polls overstated Conservative and NDP support and understated Liberal support, likely because of last minute shifts. On average the closing polls in Ontario understated the Liberals by 6 points, while overestimating Conservative support by 3 points and the NDP by 2 points.

The results of a last minute poll conducted by Environics for the CBC lend support to this thesis. When you connect to the CBC’s web page, scroll down and look at the party preference numbers in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. It shows the Liberals winning over the Conservatives 49% to 31% almost identical to the actual margin of 50.2% to 30.6%.

However, using my forecast model, when I project the final Ipsos-Reid poll Ontario results, which reported the Liberals ahead of the Conservatives 38-34, I find the Liberals would only have won this riding by two points. When I put in the final election margin in Ontario of 45-31 into the model, the Etobicoke-Lakeshore outcome becomes 45-33, much closer to the actual result. If the pollsters were really getting it wrong in this election, then Environics CBC should have been wrong in Etobicoke-Lakeshore and clearly they weren’t.

The patterns in other regions don’t clearly show a shift to the Liberals although there may have been some small movement. The margin of error and different findings by different pollsters make it impossible for me to come to a definitive conclusion.

The Circus in Ottawa Around the Near Miss on October 7

There were two very different views of the winners and losers in Ottawa around the Thursday October 7 drama in the House of Commons summarized on andrewspicer.com.

On the one hand was the column of John Ibbitson in the Globe: “The one unequivocal winner was Jack Layton of the NDP…. He, of all political leaders, is the one who demonstrably acted to preserve the Parliament, rather than play political chicken. And now he'll get his beloved citizens assembly on electoral reform. Not bad for a leader in his first week in the House.”

On the other hand we have Chantal H├ębert in the Star who was harshly critical of Martin and Layton and more charitable to Duceppe and Harper.

My view is that that ordinary citizens would see any behaviour that provoked a crisis this early in a new government’s life on such a weak basis as completely unacceptable – Harper himself said a government should fall on submarines not sub-amendments . They would place the blame on those causing it, primarily Duceppe and Harper, but also Martin for governing as if he had a majority. It seems to me that Layton’s words are the ones that would resonate with voters.

I saw part of Ed Broadbent’s speech during the debate and in answer to a question on this he said:

Hon. Ed Broadbent: Mr. Speaker, I would like to use the occasion to at least address part of what the question is intended as I see it. The subamendment did in fact refer to a citizens' assembly of the kind my party has advocated and I hope the government will take it seriously under consideration.

My reason for coming back to politics, by the way, was to get away from playing games. Canadians are fed up with the politicians who come here, whatever side of the House they are on, playing nice little rule games that they know the outcomes are going to be different from the words they use. If we were to accept the subamendment that is before us, the government would be defeated, and the people on the other side of the House, both the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, know that very well.

I did not return to federal politics to indulge in this hypocritical, silly kind of politics and I will have nothing to do with it.

Further evidence that Harper’s position did not play well can be found in the October 8, 2004 Toronto Star, which reported on a number of provincial premiers who lambasted Harper for getting too close to Duceppe, including Conservatives Danny Williams of Newfoundland and Bernard Lord of New Brunswick.