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Polls as predictor of elections

  • Published at 06:03 pm October 26th, 2016
  • Last updated at 04:13 am October 27th, 2016
Polls as predictor of elections

In my recent columns, I have mentioned Nate Silver regularly. His website, “FiveThirtyEight,” makes predictions on topics as diverse as sports and politics. Over the last decade, Silver has proven to be the best prognosticator of American presidential elections.

In 2008, Silver predicted correctly who (Obama or McCain) would win the electoral votes in 49 out of 50 states.  He got only Indiana wrong. That deep red state got caught up in the “Obama wave” and voted for him.

In 2012, Silver was 100% right. He correctly predicted all the states that Obama and Romney would win. Silver had correctly predicted that the red-leaning North Carolina would go for Obama in 2008, and for Romney in 2012.

The website is named “FiveThirtyEight,” because there are 538 Electoral College votes to be won in an American presidential election. The candidate winning 270 or more Electoral College votes wins the presidency. George W Bush won 271 in 2000.

The number of electoral college votes equals the number of US congressmen (435), US senators (100), plus three for the District of Columbia, which is not a state, and therefore, has no senators.

Electoral College votes are apportioned according to the number of senators (always two), and congressmen (depends on population) in each state.

Seven low-population states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming) have only three electoral votes (two senators and one congressman).

California (deep blue), the most populous state, has 55 (two senators and 53 congressmen), followed by Texas (deep red) with 38, New York (deep blue) with 29, Florida (trending blue) with 29, Pennsylvania (blue) with 20, and Illinois (deep blue) with 20. This demonstrates why the electoral college map is stacked against the Republicans.

America’s presidential election is not a nationwide popular vote contest. Democrat Al Gore won half a million more votes than Republican George W Bush nationwide in 2000, but lost the election because Bush won more than half of the electoral college votes.

The popular vote winner in a state wins all its electoral college votes. Only Maine (blue) and Nebraska (deep red) do it slightly differently. Nebraska assigns the winner of each of its three congressional districts one of its electoral college votes. Maine does the same with its two congressional districts.

This has interesting consequences. Although Nebraska is deep red, the congressional district around Omaha, where Democratic billionaire investor Warren Buffet lives, is more liberal. Obama won this district and its electoral college vote in 2008, although McCain won the state handily.

Similarly, although Hillary Clinton will easily win the deep blue Maine on November 8, Trump is leading in one of the state’s rural congressional district.

For the last few days, the average of all polls has Clinton ahead by six to seven points nationally, and her chance of victory has oscillated between 85-88%. Not only is Clinton ahead in all battleground states, she is also ahead in red Arizona

Taken alone, polls can be notoriously misleading. In the 1970 British election, Premier Harold Wilson was supposed to win convincingly. What the polls did not consider was the sour mood of the British public after England lost to West Germany (3-2) in the quarter final of 1970 World Cup in Mexico City, the night before the election.

Polls predicted a very close 1980 US presidential election.  What the polls missed was America’s anger at President Jimmy Carter for double-digit inflation, and its humiliation at the hand of the Iranians, who had taken American diplomats hostage in Tehran. Ronald Reagan won in a landslide over Carter.

The day before the election in 1982, polls predicted that Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley would win the governorship of California by double digits over Republican George Deukmejian. He lost. Polls had failed to take into account the fact that Bradley was an African-American, and many of the whites polled were embarrassed to say that they were not going to vote for a black man, giving rise to the lexicon, “Bradley effect.”

Polling methodology

The premise and methodology of polls vary widely. Current polling shows Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump from zero to 12 points. Trump campaign always points to the Los Angeles Times poll that routinely has Trump ahead by a couple of points.

The problem with the LA Times poll is that they have selected a sample pool of 4,000 voters who they poll repeatedly, asking them to recount how they felt x number of days before the previous presidential election, and how they actually voted. They also ask those polled to express their preference for a candidate in percentages. The flaw in the model is the selection of the sample pool. If it had a Republican bias, the poll will always favour the Republican candidate.

Nate Silver takes all credible polls into account, including outliers like the LA Times poll. He believes that the mean of all polls brings the outliers closer to the mean.

In his mathematical model, he also compensates for the inherent bias of a state -- whether it has a history of voting for Republicans or Democrats. He also incorporates time dependency in the model; for example, if a candidate was ahead in a state by a certain point at a certain date before the election, what that translated into on election day.

Nate Silver’s model shows that when Americans take a close look at Trump, they don’t like him, and that Hillary Clinton’s installing of email servers at home and her mishandling of classified information are her Achilles’ heel.

Clinton’s flawless Democratic Party convention in July, coupled with Trump’s painting of a dark vision for America in the Republication convention a week earlier, catapulted Clinton to a trajectory that improved her chance of victory to 89% by August 14.

Then came the revelations of Clinton’s careless handling of confidential emails, and her collapse at the 9/11 memorial on September 11. Her chances dwindled to 50% by September 26.

Clinton’s superb performance in the first debate (September 26) changed her trajectory towards another ascendency. The Access Hollywood tape and the two subsequent debate victories consolidated Clinton’s advantage.

For the last few days, the average of all polls has Clinton ahead by six to seven points nationally, and her chance of victory has oscillated between 85-88%. Not only is Clinton ahead in all battleground states (Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada), she is also ahead in red Arizona. Democrats are feeling so giddy that they think Georgia, Missouri, and even deep red Alaska and Texas may be competitive.

With about two weeks to go, Trump has to turn his ship around quickly to make the election competitive. Absent that, a Clinton landslide is not out of the question.

Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed is a Rhodes Scholar.

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