Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Personal Prognostications

For those trying to follow the US Presidential campaign and election outside the U.S. (and for many inside the US), I predict that the election results will be a surprise.  Here's why -
  1. The polls are likely to be wrong - and not by just a bit, either.  There are two major problems that I've mentioned before.  First is the rapid fall in participation rates for surveys, and the high likelihood that there is significant response bias in samples, and thus samples may not be random, and in that sense may not be generalizable to the larger population. The second is the variation in sample definitions and turnout models that pollsters are increasingly using to weight their samples.  Most use 2008 turnout as a basis - but 2008 turnout was atypical.  It differed from the 2004 turnout, the 2006 turnout, and the 2010 turnout - and not consistently.  I think that 2012 turnout will end up being significantly different that 2008 - and thus actual voting will be very different from that suggested by polling.
      There's also two other factors playing a role - increased early voting, and skewed responses to candidate preference questions.  Most polls don't make an effort to sample early voters - and if those differ from models or election-day turn-out, that can contribute to the difference between predicted polling results and actual vote counts.  There are several theories that can account for survey respondents not being honest about their preferences - spiral of silence and social desirability responses for two.  If these are in play, they suggest that support for President Obama may be overstated.
  2. Gaps in media coverage.  If U.S. political coverage is biased, international coverage of US political campaigns are really biased.  The latest study of election coverage from Pew shows more favorable coverage of President Obama and his campaign, than the coverage they give to Governor Romney and his campaign = at least until the last few weeks.  International coverage of the election is limited, and somewhat delayed in terms of presenting changing storylines - they're likely to have not yet stressed recent trends and changes. 
      US election coverage isn't that great to begin with - there's little discussion of issues, and issues are framed by coastal "elite" attitudes - which are not, for the most part, shared in what's termed "flyover country."  The main U.S. news outlets don't cover the issues that most people are concerned about, while giving significant coverage to issues they think are important, but aren't important to most people.  On what most of what media call "hot-button issues," they tend to think that most people share their opinion, while in fact, most don't.  Gay marriage, abortion on demand, free contraceptives, "green" energy support, and Obamacare are not winning issues among the general electorate, despite being labeled so in much campaign coverage.
      But the most critical lapse/gap is the media's jumping onto President Obama's early campaign focus of trying to paint Governor Romney as a radical money-grubbing extremist.  The Obama campaign's attempts at character assassination were over-the-top, and largely repeated uncritically in press coverage.  The campaign should have known that even if somewhat successful early on, there's the possibility of recoil if people later see that the caricature doesn't fit - as happened with the first Presidential debate.  There, Romney was seen unfiltered; he turned out to be not some frothing-at-the-mouth radical extremist with no ideas (as he had been largely portrayed), but rather a rational and reasonable man with real ideas and not totally unreasonable proposals.  And frankly, a lot of people see Romney's business success as a sign that his economic policies are more likely to be effective than Obama's turned out to be.
      Another big media miss is the failure to grasp the rise and enthusiasm of what could be called the "Anybody but Obama" voter block.  The opposition of this block is not based on racism, despite what most coverage infers - but objection to specific policies and political maneuverings of President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, and fear about the direction the country seemed to be taking.  To them, Romney may not be their preferred candidate, but they will enthusiastically vote against Obama.  How big is this crowd? Democratic primaries in several states saw 30% or more of voting Democrats vote against President Obama.  Many Congressional Democrats also stayed away from their national Convention, to avoid being linked with President Obama.  This group isn't really organized, but there is an overlap between them and the rise of the Tea Party (they share many of the same policy concerns).
  3. The shift in enthusiasm.  One of the biggest gaps (or misses) in coverage this time around is the shift in enthusiasm.  It started with the rise of "Tea Party" movement, which has turned out to be a real transformative political movement, despite mainstream news attempts to trivialize it.  They were not racists, and they weren't traditional single-issue activists - and they were smart enough to move from rallies and protests to working within the electoral process.  A lot of media coverage has assumed that a lack of Tea Party rallies means the movement is dead - but it really isn't. The energy and enthusiasm of the movement has shifted to influencing candidate choices, get-out-the-vote efforts, and actions against voter fraud.  Its impact will show up in voter turnout.
      The shift can be seen in the shift in newspaper endorsements, and the disillusion of more radical supporters of Obama about his failure to achieve his promises.  It can be seen in campaign event turn-outs, with Obama and his surrogates speaking in small venues, and then not even filling them; while Romney and his surrogates have overflow crowds in larger venues.  (For example, Obama drawing half the expected crowd (15,000 of an anticipated 30-35 thousand) for a rally in liberal Madison, Wisconsin - compared to Romney's overflow crowd at Red Rocks amphitheater, near liberal Denver, Colorado).
      It can be seen in the shifting makeup of early voting, which is showing significant increases in early voting by registered Republicans, and significant declines in early voting totals by registered Democrats, compared to 2008.  In several "battleground" states, the shift in early voting makeup is larger than Obama's voting edge in 2008.  There is a real and growing shift in enthusiasm within the American electorate - and that's not being talked about much.  But it is likely to have a significant impact on election results (and isn't included in most polling results).
I was overseas for the 1992 and 2000 Presidential elections.  If current coverage of US politics and elections are anything like they were then, it's quite likely that this blog's international readers have seen much coverage of these factors.  And thus may be surprised that the results aren't a landslide in support of President Obama.  Don't be surprised if it's close, or even if Romney wins.  There's a lot going on in American politics that media aren't telling you (for whatever reason).

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