Monday, November 5, 2012

24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles

"Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours to go.  I wanna be sedated." - The Ramones

I have always been of the view that you can find a song title or lyric to basically describe whatever is going on, and today is no different. This time tomorrow - 24 hours from now - the transition from voting to counting will be well-underway. For many it promises to be a tense and intense night. 

First let's start with the polling. The majority of published polls now show President Obama with the lead - both nationally and more importantly within the swing states that will decide the Presidency. 

As always, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight does a great job of pulling them all together. I would also recommend a look at Public Policy Polling's final set of polls here.

The bottom-line for many pollsters is that the consistency of the President's polling in these states and his re-taking of the popular vote lead make him the strong favourite tomorrow. You can see odds anywhere from two-thirds to north of 80% in terms of the likelihood of an Obama victory.

And yet we have a race that pundits continue to claim is too close to call. Why?

First, while the President has leads in several key states many are not decisive and some (when aggregated) fall close to the margin of error. Much will therefore depend on our second point - turnout. 

Turnout basically morphs into three questions:

- How much higher will Romney's 2012 turnout be than McCain's in 2008?
- How much lower will Obama's 2012 turnout be than Obama's in 2008?
- Are Romney's gains / Obama's losses sufficient to turn small Obama poll leads into Romney victories?

President Obama can afford - and undoubtedly will have - some declines from his 2008 turnout. But he can't afford a lot.

That said, his team are confident that their ground game can prove decisive, both in terms of early vote and on election day. For their part the Romney camp is claiming a better organization and much stronger enthusiasm (compared with 2008) can take them over the line. We will see.

Without question media and new cycles are also playing their part in driving this sense of a virtual dead heat. It makes for a compelling story and you cannot argue with the degree to which it has kept people engaged.

Yet there is one other element which could make things closer than polling suggests, and in fact which polling could not really account for in a model - voting irregularity.

Whether we are talking about provisional ballots, voting technology or voter identification, it is difficult to discern what impact, if any, voting irregularities could have on results. The experiences of 2000 and 2004 (as well as issues at the state level) have people worried about fraud and theft.

This is why Ohio is probably more densely populated with lawyers right now than an other part of the United States. And this is why there is a possibility that we will not know who wins tomorrow. Or Wednesday. Or even this week.

This is not the likely outcome, but it is not improbable. And in a country that aspires to be a shining city on the hill and the world's greatest democracy, the fact that this is not improbable is a tragedy.

So, hold on tight America! 24 hours to go....give or take several protracted legal battles.

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