A Canadians Guide To The 2012 Election Wednesday October 24, 2012

Many Canadians (and many more Americans) woke up to the Monday morning news that The Presidential Election was at a 47% dead heat between President Barrack Obama and Governor Mittens Romney. Many of my fellow Canadians are probably looking at that information and going, what the hell is going on?

A Canadians Guide To The 2012 Election

How could this be? Mitt Romney has to be the worst candidate ever? Why is it so close?

Well, there’s a whole slew of underlying story lines going on, but the one thing to note for my fellow Canadians is that this election was always going to be a tight race – regardless of what polls noted earlier in the month.

So as a Canadian who has been incredibly obsessed with every element of this election for months now, and as an ex-pat who spent the past two and a half years in Washington D.C., I feel it’s my duty to as a Canuck to explain some of the interesting nuances of the 2012 Election.

We’ll call it A Canadian’s Guide to The 2012 Election.

National Polls Aren’t As Important As State Polls… In This Election

The Electoral College

With the election as it is, national polls aren’t as nearly important as state polls. Yes, national polls matter, as they give an overarching sense of the race, but with the race so close the key metric is who wins the Electoral College.

Many Canadians may not know this, but Presidents aren’t chosen on the popular vote, but rather who wins the Electoral College. Basically, the Electoral College is made up of Five Hundred and Thirty Eight seats, with each state allocated a certain number of seats to represent the population base. So for example the state of Montana has 3 seats in the Electoral College, while the more populous California has 55 seats. If you’re looking for a Canadian example, you can kind of see the formula working in how the seats for Members of Parliament are distributed across our nation – where highly populated regions (cities) get more seats than the rural areas. The person who is elected the President of the United States is the person who crosses the 270 Electoral Votes threshold.

If you want to see how this all works look play around with the Huffington Post’s Electoral College map.

So the National Polls do matter, but when a race is this close, what really matters is who wins the Battleground states. Nate Silver, who is a baseball statistician turned political polls guru, has gone in to great length about polls, national polls, and state polls on his blog FiveThirtyEight.com, so I won’t go into the break down of that. But the key thing to look at is the polls of Battleground States: .(Battleground States are states where there is an even proportion of Democrats and Republicans and the vote can go to either side).

The Battleground states that will determine the election this time around are Wisconsin, Nevada/Iowa, Virginia, possibly North Carolina and more importantly Ohio. (I think Florida is pretty much a shoe-in for Romney) See the funny thing about the Electoral College make up is that Romney cannot win the election without Ohio, but in the same breath Obama has multiple paths to victory without Ohio.

Which in a first look doesn’t make sense, but that right there is the wonderful world of math and American Politics. So in regards to the Electoral College current make-up Obama continues (and has the entire race) a larger Electoral College advantage than Romney, even though the polls tend to give Romney a slight edge in national race.

And if you’re curious, yes there is the strong possibility that either Romney or Obama may win the national vote, but lose the Electoral Count. If you want evidence of this, look no further that Gore vs. Bush Jr. in 2000.

Why National Polls are All Over The Place

Over the past weekend, there was a flurry of national polls. Some showed Obama with a 6 point least, some showed a 1 point advantage, some were tied and some showed a 7 point lead. So in a race this close, why are the polls so all over the place?

Well, there are a couple of issues, the first is the discrepancy between sampling bias by region and the other is the likely vs. registered voter models.

I’ll pick on The Gallup Daily Tracking Poll, which showed Romney with a 7 point advantage, as a way to explain this issue. Nate silver, went into some interesting details about Gallup on his blog, but when you get down to it, Gallup was (and continues to) over-sample the southern states. In fact the southern states tend to represent a third of the poll’s sample size. If you dig through the crosstabs (the breakdown of the sampling), you see that Obama is ahead by 4-5 points in the North, West (with battleground states such as Nevada and Colorado), Mid-West (with battleground states such as Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio), while Romney was ahead by 22 points in the south (which includes states such as Florida and North Carolina, but also includes states such as Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Louisiana, etc.). So anyone with common sense can understand, why this poll seams to be so out of line with the other polls. If one team has a comfortable edge in 3/4 of the survey, but it only represents 66% of the survey results and the other team has a landslide advantage in another quarter of the country, but that represents 33% of the survey, there’s going to be a large gap. Further proving that although national daily tracking polls are interesting, it’s more important to look at the national average of polls and the battleground state trends. When one looks at the national averages, Obama appears to be ahead by about 1-2 points or it’s a statistical tie or Romeny’s leading by a point or two.

The second issue with Gallup is that it’s difference between Likely Voters and Registered Voters showed a huge gap. (For example, As of today the LV was 50-47 for Romney and RV is 48-47 For Obama).

Likely Voters vs. Registered Voters

Unlike Canada, where every citizen is given a voting card by the Government, in the Untied States, citizens need to register to vote with their state government. It’s why you always hear about Voter Registration Drives and Rock The Vote, etc., etc., Basically, because each state is in charge of their own electoral process, and of course there is a massive discrepancy between how each state deals with their specific demographic issues and procedures. In addition, the transient nature of ordinary Americans makes it even more difficult to track voters, unlike in Canada where we have a smaller and less transient population and our big bad socialist government just takes care of the election process for us.

The other thing that’s different in the US over Canada is that when a citizen registers to vote, more likely than not, they will declare which of the two parties they support. So imagine, filling in your Canadian voter registration card and mailing it back, but in doing so declaring whether you’re a Conservative, Liberal, NDP’er, or Green party supporter.

Yeah, it’s a little odd. But it also plays huge into other aspects of the polling system and the strategy of the parties. All of the parties and pollsters are given this information and it has become a fundamental element of the entire process.

This brings me to the next element of all these polls, the Likely Voters vs. Registered Voters. In all of these polls you’ll see RV and LV beside two sets of numbers. Pollsters use the list of Registered Voters to determine who they contact in these polls and then will use a predetermined method for figuring out of the list of Registered Voters, who is more likely to vote. The methods that different pollsters use for this is up for debate, but the concept of splitting respondents into two groups is to better determine, who is actually going to vote on Election day.

Of course, American’s demographics are constantly changing and it maybe more difficult to determine who is likely to vote based on older models. I don’t want to solely pick on Gallup, but it’s become the easiest example to demonstrate how they may have some strong flaws in their Likely Voters models. See Gallup uses 7 questions to determine if you are a Likely Voter or not. If you answer no to more than 3, you’re considered not likely to vote.

So for example, the first three Gallup questions are:

  1. Thought given to election (quite a lot, some)
  2. Know where people in neighborhood go to vote (yes)
  3. Voted in election precinct before (yes)

If you answer no, or not much to all of these you won’t be counted in the Likely Voter model. Now it’s up for debate, but this model would appear to underestimate the percentage of Democratic voters (Younger, College Students, More Transient, Minority, etc.)

So when looking at Likely Voter (LV) information and Registered Voters (RV), the actual turn out will be somewhere in between. With this election, many political experts expect the turn out to be about 2% points closer to the registered voter number, than what the pollsters are estimating the likely voter turn out.

Early Voting & Declaring Your Voter Intentions

Another major difference between the US system and Canadian system is the importance of early voting.

In Canada, early voting is a nicety and a luxury. If you’re away you submit a mail-in ballot or if you think that you won’t have time you’ll go to an early voting station and get it over and done with. Some campaigns have started to push this tactic on to their supporters, but in general most Canadians will vote on election day. But in the US, early voting is a key piece of each parties’ strategy. So much so that the President Obama’s re-election team has spent millions of dollars to encourage early voting and is resting the campaign’s chances on building an insurmountable edge in early voting for Battleground States. (Interesting read by the way)

But why is it so different?

A couple of things. Remember that whole idea of Voting Intentions declaration? Yes? Well, campaigns use that information to estimate their base for a given state. They then either focus their attention on attracting people who declared themselves as independents or they focus on ensuring that their base gets out to vote. They also use that information to encourage voters to go to the polls early or to help spread the word. In Canada we don’t have that sort of knowledge going into an election, well the Conservatives do, but that’s for a different blog post.

So in the Battleground states, early voting is a huge component of the current story. If you’re interested, you can actually watch rough estimates of the voting right now online. A few bloggers and reporters are already tabulating the results based on early voting numbers, mail-in ballots and of course voter declaration. For example, Jon Ralston in Nevada, is tabulating the results of early voting to estimate team Obama’s lead in Nevada. This trend has pretty much ensured that Nevada will be an Obama stranglehold when election day rolls around. While others bloggers/reporters are showing huge leads for the Democrats in Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina.

So early voting trends, while not a big deal in Canada are a huge game changer in the US and are a fascinating thing to watch – more so than the see-saw battle of the polls.

Gary Johnston, Ron Paul, Virgil Goode… Names to Remember?

Gary Johnson 2012

Many Canadians may not realize this, but there are actually more than two parties in the US. Yes, it’s considered a two party system, but there are a handful of other parties involved in the election. The difference being that these other parties just don’t have the wherewithal to compete on a national level like the Democrats and Republicans.

But with that being said, never underestimate the power of a third party disrupting the election. Again, going back to 2000, many people blame Ralph Nader on Gore’s loss, as the third party candidate took a small percentage of voters which could have pushed Gore over the top in states such as New Hampshire or Florida.

Now my gut tells me that we won’t see something like that in this election, but don’t discount it.

You may remember Ron Paul’s legion of fans during the Republican Primaries. He had a massive grassroots campaign that constantly placed him third throughout the Republican primary season – even with the carousel of Newt, Bachmann, Santorum and that guy from Texas. His supporters constitute the Libertarian side of the Republican party and in general feel cheated, by how they were treated during the Republican Convention. There is a chance that many of these same supporters, which are at least 10-13% of the Republican party core base (based on Ron Paul’s voter base), may shift allegiances to former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party in protest. Again, I’m not sure of the shift being that strong, but when votes are down to percentage points for certain states, a 1% shift to a third party candidate can be huge… which brings me to my next point.

Good ol’ Virgil Goode.

Virgil Goode For President

Virgil Goode, is a third party conservative from Virginia. He’s a Congressman from rural Virginia, but is now running for president under the banner of the Constitution party. While he may not be a big name anywhere across the country, he is a pretty popular politician in the mountainous regions of south-west Virginia. And Virginia as we know from before is a highly contested Battleground state. There is a chance that votes towards Virgil may come at the expense of Romney when it’s all said and done in Virginia.

So What’s Next

As I mentioned, for almost a year now I’ve had a feeling that this would be a tight, tight race. The United States is just a polarized as Canada is and this is a hotly contested race.

The irony of looking at the race is that there are so many variables involved, but in the end I have a feeling that things will continue the way the have for months now. Yes, there are other factors that I haven’t even touched upon such as the Gender Gap (Women favour Obama over Romney, while Men favour Romney over Obama) or the underestimated Latino population or even the Voter Fraud/Voter Suppression tactics, but all that leans towards a close race. In general, the polls will fluctuate on a daily basis and everyone will overreact, but take them with a grain of salt and remember it’s better to look at the trendlines.

So as a Canadian enjoy the next 13 or so days and we’ll see what happens next. If you’re really curious as to the state of the race, I’d strongly suggest spending sometime at FiveThirtyEight.com and learning about the different elements of the race – it really is fascinating. Now, if you really want a prediction, go back to FiveThirtyEight.com take a ruler and draw a figurative straight-line on of the charts on the right – draw from one end of the screen to the other and you’ll probably get a gist of where the race is heading.

Chances of Obama Winning

Enjoy.

Categories: the-political-world, The-Southern-Neighbours, The D.C. vibe

Commenting is closed for this article.