I've been putting out my electoral college forecasts for months now but haven't really offered a reason for my projections so here's a complete preview of Election Night. At the end, I'll also briefly discuss the Senate and House races which I have not previously projected and mention what to watch for on Election Night.
First there are the states that are pretty likely in the column of one of the candidates. I have that at 237 for Obama and 191 for Romney. The Obama states are California (55), Connecticut (7), DC (3), Delaware (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5), New York (29), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12). The Romney states are Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arizona (11), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Montana (3), Nebraska (5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3).
Some people would dispute some of these states. Some Republicans think that Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are now in play. While there's a good chance that these states have closed to a 5-8 point margin for Obama, I don't think they're in play. Mitt Romney is visting Pennsylvania briefly today in an attempt to signal he's expanding the map but so have a number of Republican nominees in the last few elections and they've never won. John McCain went to Pennsylvania right before the 2008 election and lost the state by 11 points, even more than the 7 point deficit the poll averages showed. The campaigns are spending money there but that's not an indication that the states are up in the air. Given the explosion of spending and campaign donations, campaigns have so much money that they don't even know what to do with it. Thus, they can afford to drop some money into peripheral states because a state like Ohio is so inundated with ad spending that there's no point to spending even more. The days before the election day are always about projecting confidence so your voters will go vote and I view this as a bluff by Romney or as First Read called it, attempting an onside kick with a minute to play. Either way, it likely doesn't matter given if Romney wins any of these 3 states, it's likely he's already won enough electoral votes from the swing states to win the election. As one final piece of evidence, David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, bet Joe Scarborough (host of Morning Joe on MSNBC) that he would shave his 40 year old mustache if Obama lost any of these 3 states. There's a lot of campaign bravado but very rarely do you see people make actual bets like that when they're not confident especially considering he's seen the internal data. I could see the margin in these states falling under 5 points, especially in Pennsylvania since Romney is actually trying a little bit there, it had hurricane issues that could play a minimal role, and it has minimal early voting so he has until Election Day to make his case, but I just don't see it swinging all the way to Romney. Republicans have chased Pennsylvania many times before and always come up short, even in elections that they win.
On the Republican side, it's not likely any of the Romney states will come within 5 points. Arizona, Montana, Indiana, and Missouri would be the most likely candidates but I see them in the 5-10 range. Obama won Indiana and almost won Missouri in 2008 but they've fallen off the map of competitive states. Obama won the 2nd district in Nebraska in 2008 but so far it appears he'll fall about 5 points short this year.
For the most part, the 237-191 projection is agreed upon. Those represent the likely floors for both candidates. That leaves 9 swing states: Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. They carry 110 electoral votes. Obama needs to carry just 33 of those to win the election. The first state on the list is Wisconsin. As of now, I'd project Obama to win Wisconsin by 4 points. Obama has been ahead or tied in every single Wisconsin poll since August 19. In a number of recent polls his lead has been as high as 9 points. Rasmussen has been one of the lone holdouts showing the race tied as of October 25 but since then even his polls have shown a shift toward Obama so I'd imagine Obama might've taken the lead even in his polling. Paul Ryan's selection as VP nominee probably had some impact but I'd guess it only turns a 6 point win into a 4 point win. Some Republicans actually view Wisconsin as a better opportunity than Ohio I suppose given Scott Walker's success at beating back the recall but I don't see it. Adding Wisconsin would give Obama 247 electoral votes.
The next state is Nevada. Again, it signals clear Obama. Of all the polls taken in the past year, Romney has been tied twice and led just once and Obama has led in the last 16 polls. I project a 4 point lead for Obama but even that might be low. In 2008, the poll average had Obama winning by 6 and he won by 12. In 2010, the poll averages had Harry Reid losing his Senate election to Sharron Angle and he ended up winning easily. The easiest explanation for this disconnect is failure to properly poll hispanic voters by not including spanish language interviews. Mellman, the pollster that accurately predicted Reid's victory in 2010, has 2 polls out recently with 6 and 8 point wins for Obama. The group Latino Decisions has polls out with Obama leading among hispanics by almost 50 points. If that's true, it might reflect why polls underestimate Obama in areas with larger hispanic populations. I imagine some pollsters have caught on so I wouldn't project as large of a gap as the last 2 elections but I do think it makes it highly unlikely Romney wins Nevada. Adding Nevada would give Obama 253 electoral votes.
If he actually wins Nevada and Wisconsin (and the other 237), that leaves a lot of paths to victory. He would need to win just 17 of the remaining 94 electoral votes up for grabs. The easiest path to victory is through Ohio. Ohio is the constant battleground state and has received more attention than other state in this campaign because the winner will likely win the election. Nate Silver at 538 has it as the tipping point state in over half of the simulations run. Obama has been ahead in the polling averages the entire year and has held a persistently small lead for much of the time. I project his lead at 2.5. Obama has led in the vast majority of polls there with most settling around a 2-3 point lead. That may not seem like much but when dozens and dozens of polls center around the same number, they are often right. The key dispute in Ohio is over party ID. Republicans claim that Democrats are being oversampled but it seems unlikely that pollsters across the board are getting the same wrong results. It's cited that Romney is winning independents in Ohio but John Kerry won independents by 19 points in Ohio and still lost Ohio. The problem with thinking about party ID is that it's only a decent proxy for actual voting. Lately, Democrats have an advantage in party ID with some of the gap being caused by the fact that reliable Republican voters are identifying as Independents. Thus, it may appear that Independents are supporting Romney when a lot of them are just Republicans not identifying as such. Ohio has a lot of early voting and Obama seems to be doing fairly well so at this point Obama is a clear favorite based on all the evidence but obviously there's still a possibility Romney pulls it out. Obama is hurt by the fact that Republican Secretary of State John Husted seems to be pulling a Katherine Harris (Florida 2000 Secretary of State) and doing everything in his power to help Romney win and if Ohio gets closer on Election Day, I could definitely see it turning into Florida 2000 recount style chaos if it's the state that determines the election. If he wins Ohio, Obama is up to a clinching 271 electoral votes.
Ohio's importance could be diminished if Obama can win in the next 3 states: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado. With those states, he would be at 272 even with an Ohio loss. As of now, I'd say Obama has small leads in all 3. In Iowa, I project Obama's lead is around 2. In 2008, Obama's final lead on Real Clear Politics was 15.3 and he actually won by 9.3. Obama's 54% figure was correct but McCain won 6% more than expected. I'm not sure if that's just a polling coincidence or undecideds broke heavily to McCain. The Des Moines Register endorsed Romney this year after endorsing Obama in 2008 but they also put out a poll today saying Obama is up by 5. In 2008, they overestimated Obama's lead but they hit Obama's support correctly. This year they have it at 47-42 which has a lot of undecided voters. However, like Ohio, Iowa is another state where Obama has led the whole time in the polling averages. The race is close but the majority of the polls have shown a lead from 2-6 points. With Iowa, Obama would be up to 277 electoral votes.
New Hampshire is always a difficult state to poll and its results have been among the weirdest for swing states. He's built a persistent lead in the last week of polling so I'm inclined to say Obama is up by 2 points but I think New Hampshire has a larger margin of error than most states. The 2008 primary where Clinton shocked Obama shows their desire to be contrarian. New Hampshire only has 4 electoral votes but they can be key in the right scenario such as if Romney wins Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina, then New Hampshire would provide necessary electoral votes to go from 268 to 272, the difference between Romney and Obama winning. In addition, New Hampshire is one of the few states that didn't have the same result in 2000 and 2004. With New Hampshire, Obama would have 281 electoral votes.
In 2008, the state that put Obama over 270 electoral votes is Colorado. He won Colorado by 9 points even though he won nationally by 7 points. A lot of people seem to forget that fact when they're discussing the discrepancy between the race being tied nationally yet Obama having a clear electoral college lead. This isn't how it actually happened but imagine if Obama lost 7% across the board in every state from 2008. The national race would be tied yet he still would've won the election because he would win Colorado by 2 points which would put him over the top. It might be the same way this year where the electoral votes favor Obama. This could become especially relevant if a lot of voters in solid blue states like NY, NJ, and CT don't vote due to the hurricane which would chip away some at Obama's national total. Colorado could again be the clinching state this year if Obama surprisingly loses Ohio. Right now I project his lead to be about 1.5 points. Colorado is the 2nd state which could be affected by underestimating hispanic turnout. In 2010, like Harry Reid, Michael Bennet pulled off a surprise victory in the Senate race which many attribute to hispanic voters giving him a wider margin than expected. This year, Colorado has been tight leading up to the election and while polls suggest Obama has opened a small lead, if things turn out the same as 2010, it's going to be a victory. Similarly in 2008, the polling averages gave Obama a 51-45 win but he actually won 54-45. So if anything, it's likely this toss-up state moves toward Obama. With Colorado, Obama would have 290 electoral votes.
The last state leaning toward Obama is Virginia. Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964 and did it convincingly with a win that was similar to his national margin. This year, it looks like it's going to be close to his national margin as well and will be a marginally superfluous state for Obama's total. If Obama loses Ohio, this can be another key state to lift Obama to victory. As of now, I project a 1 point win for Obama. Following the Denver debate, it looked like Virginia had flipped back to Obama but he's been doing well there of late. He's led fairly consistently in the last week of the campaign. I would classify Virginia as a toss-up but especially since Kaine is likely to beat Allen in the Senate race, I don't see there being enough Romney/Kaine voters to flip the state for Romney. If I had to guess, I'd say the winner of Virginia also wins the popular vote. If Obama wins Virginia, he's up to 303 electoral votes. 303 is my projection for Obama's final number of electoral votes. Romney wins the other 235. Here's what the map looks like: Electoral Map
To get to 235, Romney wins the final 2 swing states, Florida and North Carolina. In 2000, it was Florida, Florida, Florida and the state dragged the election on for weeks. This year, Florida plays a much more minor role most likely as it did in 2008 as a necessary state for Romney and a sign of a potential blowout for Obama. I project Romney holds Florida by a 1 point margin. Obama only won Florida by 2.5 in 2008 and given his standing has declined in the last 4 years and Governor Rick Scott is doing his best to restrict voting, it seems like a tough state for Obama to hold. There have been a good number of polls showing ties or small Obama leads so it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if Obama pulls out a victory. Polling in Florida was pretty reliable in 2008 and the Real Clear Politics was only off by 0.7 which was smaller than most states but perhaps that's just a coincidence. If it holds this year though, Obama could be in line for an upset. If Obama does win, he'd be up to 332 electoral votes. Not that newspaper endorsements hold much sway, but it doesn't help that 2 of the 3 major swings from Obama to Romney were in Florida (Orlando and Tampa).
The final swing state is North Carolina. Obama pulled off a surprise and won there in 2008 by less than 0.5. This year, I think he trails by 2.5 to 3. Some of the local pollsters have shown the race as tied or a 1 point Romney lead so perhaps it will be closer than anticipated but others have shown clear leads for Romney. It's hard to imagine Obama not losing any ground in North Carolina from his tiny win in 2008 given his real decline in support but they did have the Democratic Convention in Charlotte this year and it seems like they have a strong ground game working to get out unlikely voters. Still, this state is far from a must win for Obama and has received minimal attention relative to the other swing states so it's not likely to be an important state in the calculus and the odds definitely favor Romney. If Obama pulled off the shocker, he'd be up to 347 electoral votes which is likely his ceiling, below the 365 he won in 2008. One thing to consider is that North Carolina is essentially viewed as an afterthought with a 2.5-3 point lead for Romney yet Obama's lead in Ohio is projected to be about the same and is being heavily contested.
So is it possible Mitt Romney will win the election? Of course it is. At this point, I'd give him a 15-20% chance to win. Even if you trust a right leaning pollster like Rasmussen, the national race is tied with Ohio tied, a 50-50 chance at best. The Romney campaign insists they're going to win (they've even said they'll have over 300 electoral votes) but the day before the 2008 election, Mitt Romney went on TV and stated McCain was going to win or looked good in 7 swing states. McCain went on to lose or be pummeled in all 7. It's always about projecting confidence to voters so you can disregard what the campaigns say for the most part. While it's not necessarily intuitive that polling can predict such a close election, the odds clearly show Obama as the leader. Romney's chances effectively depend on turnout being notably different from the polling which is possible but only possible to the extent it gives him a 15-20% chance to win. The bigger problem for Romney is that polling can't be just be a little wrong, it has to be systematically wrong across a number of states. As I mentioned, Obama can lose Ohio and potentially other states as well and still win the election. Right now he has 66 swing state electoral votes and only needs 33. That means he only needs half of his projected electoral lead to hold up assuming he loses Florida and North Carolina. Of course, much of the polling moves in tandem so if some states are wrong, it's likely that many of them are which is why Romney has a chance. There are a lot of moving pieces this election and while people can project what will happen, there's no telling exactly what will happen on Election Day on a number of issues: enthusiasm gap between Obama/Romney supporters, party ID of the electoral vote, and turnout of African-American, Hispanic, and young voters who were key for Obama in 2008. There are other random issues like weather on Election Day that also can play a small role and the aforementioned effects of the hurricane.
Polling averages have come under fire because people "feel" like it's a toss-up election. Most people don't seem to understand that there's a difference between a prediction and a projection. Polling averages done by sites like realclearpolitics.com, fivethirtyeight.com, and pollster.com aren't making predictions. They're not guessing the race the way you would guess the winner of a football game. They're using the available data to project the winner of each state. Real Clear Politics uses a simple average while Five Thirty Eight and Pollster uses formulas that actually judge the polls. All of these poll averages project an Obama victory. If Romney ends up winning, that doesn't mean that these sites were wrong or biased. They're only as good as the data they're presented with which is the current polling data. If Romney wins, the real blame falls with the pollsters because they will have systematically found the wrong winner. We'd have to figure out why the polling didn't match the actual results. Ultimately though this seems unlikely. Polling has become, if anything, more accurate lately and polling averages are usually very good because they reduce the margin of error even further. There have been complaints about oversampling Obama supporters and not sufficiently showing the enthusiasm gap but I think those critiques underestimate the power of the Obama campaign and the fact that presidential elections bring out a lot of voters, not just very enthusiastic ones so you can't count on the election being like 2010 just because Republicans might be more enthusiastic. Midterm elections do not have the same electorate as presidential elections. In addition, there's the previously discussed issue that many Republicans are identifying as Independents. Despite this, I'm sure that the polling averages will be hailed as geniuses or idiots depending on what happens on Tuesday night. I hope that they're right just because I'd hate to see people turn away from math and data which is often very useful in favor of just assuming they should go with their gut. For all the attacks on polling averages, pundits are historically very bad at predicting outcomes based on their instincts and tend to be no better than a coin flip so frankly the last thing we need is a glorification of gut opinions and an endorsement of conventional wisdom.
In 2008, Ohio was called at 9:23 PM EST which effectively ended the election. Obama was not actually declared the winner until 11 PM but there was essentially no chance that he was going to lose once he won Ohio (similar to this year). Obama won Ohio by 4 points in 2008. Most likely the margin of victory will be smaller in 2012 which means it will probably take longer to call Ohio. The swing states actually suggest it will take a number of hours after the first polls close before it becomes clear who is going to win.
The first swing state to close is Virginia at 7 PM EST. Seemingly this would make it a good state to judge how the election is going but most likely that won't be the case. Despite winning by over 6 points in 2008, the state was not called for Obama until 11:13 PM. This is mostly due to the fact that Northern Virginia is the Democratic stronghold and it tends to take a long time to report its results. Considering the state is likely to be decided by a much smaller margin, it will probably be long into the night before it's decided. Florida also closes at 7 PM in part of the state but the central part of the state closes at 8 and it's likely to be a close race so again not likely to be the one that provides the clear signal of who is going to win. Florida was called at 11:16 PM in 2008 when Obama won by 2.5.
North Carolina and Ohio close at 7:30. Certainly if Obama wins North Carolina, it's over. North Carolina wasn't called in 2008 until 2 days later though so don't expect it to provide any value other than perhaps being called for Romney to avoid a blowout. Ohio took just under 2 hours to be called in 2008 so they probably count votes reasonably quickly. If that holds up and Obama actually does win by 2-3 points, I'd imagine this is the state that clinches Obama's victory between 9:30 and 11 PM. If Ohio is actually closer, then it'll probably take many more hours and may even result in a recount.
Pennsylvania closes at 8 PM. That could be a good indicator of how things are going. It was called very quickly in 2008 but Obama had a double digit victory. This year it might take a while but I imagine it'll be called by 10 PM. The margin could indicate whether Romney made any headway or not.
If Obama can't count on any of the big states to close the race out before midnight, he's going to need a combination of the other small states. New Hampshire closes at 8 while Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, and Wisconsin don't close until 9 and 10 PM EST. With that in mind, there's a good chance that unless the electorate swings toward Obama in the final days, it could easily be 11 PM or midnight when it finally becomes clear who's winning. Colorado and Nevada were not called until after 11:30 PM in 2008 despite wide margins of victory. So either Obama wins a convincing win in Ohio or it's probably going to be a long night to decide the presidency. One thing that may help is that early voting has become such a big part of the total in a number of states that at least those will hopefully be tabulated quickly.
The good news for viewers is that the presidency isn't the only race on Tuesday. However, despite all of the dissatisfaction with Washington, it appears everything is going to stay the same. There is over a 90% chance that the Senate will remain under Democratic control and the House will remain under Republican control. I don't know much about the House so I defer to other sites like Real Clear Politics and Larry Sabato's Crystal ball but even the liberal Daily Kos crowd doesn't seem to think that the House is going to sweep back to the Democrats. Most likely, the overall numbers will remain +/- 10 where they are now. The real intrigue will be whether big names like Michele Bachmann, Steve King, and Allen West hold their seats.
For a while it appeared that Republicans would take over the Senate. Democrats have to defend 23 seats compared to just 10 for Republicans so a +4 (or +3 if Romney wins) would be enough to take control. However, the last year has been fairly disastrous for Senate Republicans. In 2010, Republicans blew it by nominating right wing candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell which resulted in Democrats holding a 53-47 majority. This year is likely to be a repeat of 2010. Republicans started with an easy +2 with Ben Nelson (Nebraska) and Kent Conrad (North Dakota) leaving their seats open in deep red states. It's likely Republicans will win those seats to drop the margin to 51-49 but Democrats have put up good candidates who have an outside chance to win so there are no guarantees but those seats are definitely lean Republican.
Olympia Snowe (R-ME) also is retiring. Angus King, an independent, is likely to win and caucus with Democrats which pushes the margin back to 52-48. Other than that, there are a number of close races which are at least debatably toss-ups. Elizabeth Warren has been fighting a tough battle with Scott Brown in Massachusetts for a long time now but seems to have emerged with the lead and is now viewed as the favorite even though a few polls lately have shown it back as a toss-up. It's hard to imagine Warren not winning given the big margin Obama will run up in the state even though Brown is viewed favorably. Assuming that happens, it's back to 53-47 where they started. Also, after his comments about rape and abortion, Richard Mourdock is now viewed as an underdog in Indiana so that makes it 54-46 Democrats.
Democrats still have to defend a number of states. They caught a break in Missouri where Todd Akin similarly made comments about rape and went from a favorite to an underdog against incumbent Claire McCaskill. The latest poll has him down just 48-44 with the 3rd party candidate getting 6% so I could imagine him pulling off a shocker on Tuesday but he's definitely the underdog. In Montana, Jon Tester has a tough task holding his job and seems to have the slightest of leads against Denny Rehberg. I could imagine a good number of Romney/Tester voters so he's not hurt too much by Obama's weakened standing in Montana. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, the Democrats have a real but not substantial lead. In Connecticut, Virginia, and Wisconsin, the Democrats are likely to hold off tough challenges but those races aren't over. Given the pure volume of seats, it's easy to see a way for them to have a bad night but given how many races favor Democrats, it seems unlikely that Republicans would surprise in enough races to pull off the at least 4 upsets required to take control.
Democrats also have a chance to take Republican seats in Nevada and Arizona. They're underdogs in both but if Nevada is similar to 2010 where the Democrat does much better than expected and has the benefit of Obama's coattails, it could be another upset. In Arizona, Richard Carmona has run a good race against presumed winner Jeff Flake but will probably fall a little short. So while there are a number of races not decided, it looks like the median number for Democrats will be around 53 which is how many they currently have.
After all this campaigning and spending, somehow it looks like the presidency, House, and Senate will be almost identical. It'll be interesting to see what happens Tuesday but don't expect the fireworks and excitement that dominated many recent elections. On December 31, 2011, I made a number of predictions as can be found here. So far they're actually looking pretty good. We'll see if I can say the same after Tuesday.
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