10 August 2008

From Whence My Confidence Cometh

Zac's comment to a previous post has prompted my to do what I've been meaning to do for a long time and lay out the reasons that I'm confident for an Obama win in November. Here's the relevant part of Zac's comment:

Obama's lead has apparently vanished as a result of these inane attacks. I think it could go either way at this point (including a massive landslide for McCain).
Zac sees the possibility for things going either way or even a McCain landslide, I see that as highly improbable. Here's why:

First, why does current polling show the race to be "so" close? According to our assumptions, any Democratic candidate should be clobbering any Republican candidate and, indeed, polls have shown a 10 to 15 point lead for "Generic Democrat" against "Generic Republican". This is normal; after all we're mired in an unpopular (but potentially improving) war, the Republican President is rocking a 30% approval rating and, if I can engage in a little understatement, the economy is not doing so hot these days. So why is Obama under-performing his store-brand party mate? I would say that the fact that he is a new-to-the-stage, 46 year-old black guy named Barack Hussein Obama is likely to have something to do with it. Compare that to his opponent, a familiar, moderate (maverick!) war-hero with what Unidentified Male in Copperhill, TN might call an "Anglo-Saxon sounding name." To hear a McCain pollster endorse this line of thinking, you can read this IHT article.

This, of course, doesn't guarantee that Obama will win in November. In fact, it simply says that the polling is accurate given the candidates and that Obama has a 3.5% lead. One point that should be made, with qualifications, is that a 3.5% popular vote (PV) lead is actually a very large electoral vote (EV) win. Historically, a 3.5% win in the PV correlates to a 100 vote (18.5%) win in the EV. Not a landslide, but certainly a comfortable margin. The obvious qualification is that we're still several months out from the election and that, historically, there is a lot of movement during this time, especially around the conventions and debates. Here is the current election compared to that of 2000 and 2004:
Political Arithmetik

To briefly recap, let's look at the argument up to this point:
  1. Polling shows Obama with a narrow lead.
  2. This is probably pretty accurate.
  3. This could easily change

  4. Therefore:
  5. Kurt is Confident that Obama will win
  6. QED QED w00t w00t QED!!!1
Now, you don't need to have read The Complete Works of Aristotle to see that that doesn't follow. The missing piece is what we can reasonably expect to happen between now and November and what that means for the election.

Barring major, unexpected events (terrorist attack, resurgent economy, etc...) the two main contributing factors to the November outcome are major public events (namely the conventions and the debates) followed by campaign organization and the "get out the vote" drives of the two campaigns. Both factors are largely in favor of Obama.

First, the conventions. What will be a better image; McCain playing the "cottage cheese in the lime jello" or the first black candidate giving his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Certainly, there is a very fine line to be walked when giving a speech so rich in historical allusion and pretext before 75,000 people but I think that Obama has proved himself quite capable in walking fine lines.

Second, the debates. Admittedly, Obama proved himself to be one of the weaker debaters among the other pretenders to the Democratic throne but, up against McCain, there will be a very strong advantage to Obama. To put it quite bluntly, McCain seems to have a very hard time recalling facts, getting his words out, and staying on message, all of which are vital in a debate format. Sure, Obama may be better with a teleprompter than he is off the cuff, but compared to McCain, there's no contest.

Third, and most importantly, organization and get out the vote. First, recall the correlation between popular vote and electoral votes and remember that a few percentage points in the PV makes for a much larger advantage in the EV. If you can get more people interested and involved in your campaign and then get them to the polls on Nov. 4, you can reap a considerable advantage. One way to get people motivated is to have a charismatic and popular candidate (do I need to specify that this is advantage Obama?). Another, often complimentary way, is to have people make phone calls and go door to door talking up your candidate. How do the campaigns match up. To quote Sean at fivethirtyeight.com, "One is an NFL team and the other is now a high school JV team." In terms of numbers, what does that mean? From the same post at fivethirtyeight.com:
Let’s do some quick math. Martin’s reporting suggests to us based on that ratio that nationwide, in one week, the McCain campaign talked to approximately 81,000 voters. The Obama campaign talked to about 27,000 in one state in one night. If we make a reasonable guess that Ohio has something like one-fifteenth of Obama organizers and volunteers, that’d be 405,000 voters contacted in one night nationwide. In 7 days, that’s 2,835,000 voters contacted, compared to the McCain 81,000, a thirty-five-fold edge.
That's a big advantage, if Obama can walk into election day knowing that he has a built in 1-3% advantage, that is quite literally game changing.

That's why I'm confident that Obama will win. How confident? As of today I would buy Obama contracts at Intrade up until 70 which means, I give him a 70% chance of winning if the election were today. Assuming things go as I expect them to over the next few months that will go up considerably.

That said, I'm not expecting an Obama landslide and I agree with Matt Yglesias in thinking that elections should tend to be close. An election is a market like any other and an efficient market will tend towards equilibrium. This is one of the few possible elections where a traditionally liberal black guy named Barack Hussein Obama could be a legitimate nominee. In that respect, the Democrats did well in nominating him as he represents the closest they could get to the "market clearing" nominee, that is, the most extreme nominee that can still win (just as the market clearing price is the highest price where you can sell all or enough of your merchandise). Similarly, the Republicans did well to nominate McCain, the moderate, trusted war hero. He is their best chance at victory. Close elections are a sign of a healthy democracy and, as such, are a good thing.

To close with a video, here's Nate from fivethirtyeight.com talking about their methods and his take on the election. It's a very solid method that they use in their predictions and has been a favorite source of information for me.


  1. What about the campaign's messaging? The 100's of millions of dollars of advertisements that each side will pay for, attempting to define the other candidate on their terms. My concern is that Obama is perhaps more vulnerable to the kinds of attacks that McCain will raise than McCain is to the attacks Obama will raise. Doesn't the outcome hinge on who wins that battle?

  2. Thankfully there is fivethirtyeight.com to provide me guidance in these dark times. In this article Sean lays it out pretty well. The summary is that McCain must attack Obama personally and broadly in the hopes that they can get a legion of "smearers" murmuring things like "Not ready to lead..." in dark corners.

    The effectiveness of a character-based negative ad depends a lot on the mood of the public receiving the ad. I'm not sure that running negative, personal ads during the Olympics is going to help win anyone new to McCain's side.

    Obama, on the other hand, has the luxury of avoiding national, character-based, negative ads and can, instead, focus on local, policy-based negatives. For example, instead of going on national TV (which costs a lot of money) and saying that McCain is a bad guy, Obama can go to Ohio and explain to them how McCain and his lobbyist/consultant friends are costing their county 8,000 jobs. Obama keeps the national media from grabbing onto a "what happened to the new kind of politics?" storyline while telling the few people in the country who are concerned and may change their vote as a result.

    This resembles quite closely Obama's successful strategy in the primaries. How do you beat the most famous political "machine" in the country? Very careful planning and very precise messaging. That is what Obama is engaged in right now and I think it will work well for them.

    From the article linked above, there is a link to a comment on another blog explaining why the Obama campaign doesn't care doesn't care about national tracking polls. Sure, it's anecdotal, but it rings true. Especially the part at the end about the Obama camp not wanting to be further ahead in national polls right now as it would lead the vulnerable. Keeping the race close avoids the chance for a massive McCain momentum swing to happen as it did for him in the primary. It also provides more interest in the substance of the issues which is, again, a big Obama advantage.