Yesterday, a lot of people suddenly seemed to notice that there are disagreements between various pollsters and politicos over what states are actually “up for grabs” by either Romney or Obama. On The Rachel Maddow Show, Maddow briefly covered it, noting subtle discrepancies between the two campaigns (as Obama continues to focus on Florida and Virginia, while Romney seemingly feels more comfortable there). She left it up to her viewers to deduce why the NBC predictions she also referenced were distinct from either of the major campaign’s focuses in including New Hampshire and Wisconsin as “swing states” (but dropping Nevada, too). Clearly, there’s some politics involved in simply deciding what states are vulnerable in the election.
Jonathan Chait earlier in the same day made a similar point, arguing that:
“[the Romney campaign] is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy [… while the race is somewhat close,] Obama enjoys a clear electoral college lead. He is ahead by at least a couple points in enough states to make him president. Adding to his base of uncontested states, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin would give Obama 271 electoral votes. According to the current polling averages compiled at fivethirtyeight.com, Obama leads Nevada by 3.5 percent, Ohio by 2.9 percent, and Wisconsin by 4 percent. Should any of those fail, Virginia and Colorado are nearly dead even. (Obama leads by 0.7 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively.) If you don’t want to rely on Nate Silver — and you should rely on him! — the polling averages at realclearpolitics, the conservative-leaning site, don’t differ much, either.“
The only problem with his statements is that while Real Clear Politics provides the polls to prove Obama’s small but consistent advantage, it also provides the predictions that keep insisting that Michigan and Pennsylvania are some of the “toss-up” states. Looking over their map of predictions, it’s hard not to see the “horse race” that gives the media the ratings it loves. After all, states they classify as “toss-ups” hold more electoral votes than all of Romney’s “safe” states, either Romney’s or Obama’s “likely” states, and their combined “leans”. It’s only smaller than Obama’s “safe” states by 11 electoral votes. Their list contains all of the states either campaign considers worthy or visiting right now, the two additional ones listed by NBC, and two more – Michigan and Pennsylvania. A full fifth of the states are being contested in their predictions.
(Behold the gray
faces states that hold our future in their hands. The screen-shot of their electoral college prediction is from this morning.)
There’s a key word at the beginning there – they classify states. Based on what? That’s not really said – but given their job as an aggregate polling firm, which collects polls from different pollsters to give a broad overview of what races are looking like, it’s hard to believe that polling data are totally irrelevant to their classification of states. If that’s true though, that polls are at the center of their predictions – then they really look like they have a double standard between what gets classified as an identifiable preference for Romney and an apparent choice of Obama.
Focusing on just the “toss-ups”, there’s immense variation between states’ polling results within that category. Admittedly, some of them look like what you’d imagine. The recently collected polls for Colorado show low results for either candidate, with quite a bit of alternation between who’s leading. There’s been a mix of polls showing either Romney or Obama leading throughout October, and into the summer. It really is difficult to feel confident that the state will go one way or the other. There’s a few other states that also fit this overall pattern – New Hampshire, Florida, Virginia and Iowa.
Slightly distinct are the “toss-up” states with some mixed polling results, but a clear tendency towards Obama. Nevada, for instance, has consistently seen extremely small leads for Obama, with no polls in the past few months showing a Romney lead (although there were two ties). Looking at Ohio gives similar results, as there’s a clear imbalance between the campaigns in convincing voters to support them, but the difference is extremely small. While there is adequate uncertainty to question the victory of the incumbent in those states, labeling both of them “toss-ups” seems to imply a degree of equal opportunity that seems unfounded.
On the other hand, there are some “toss-ups” that seem to be anything but. Michigan hasn’t seen a tie or Romney victory in the polls since late August. Wisconsin hasn’t seen either since mid-August. Pennsylvania hasn’t seen one or the other since February. Multiple months have seen no polls indicating a Romney win or extremely close race. Over those weeks, there have been periods where the incumbent enjoyed double digit margins of victory. Those polls are provided by a diverse group of pollsters – from the right-leaning Rasmussen to left-leaning Public Policy Polling, but all of them have found substantial Obama victories in those states for at least a month and a half, if not more.
And yet, these are still “toss-ups”, because apparently some one in Real Clear Politics head office still isn’t really sure if they can even modestly suggest that Obama will carry them. In contrast, North Carolina was reclassified from being a “toss-up” to being a “leans Romney” state on October 18. If you bother to look at their state-specific polling data, they changed their prediction after 17 days without any Obama wins in the polls – and with only five polls showing single-digit support for Romney. Now, I actually agree with both Real Clear Politics and Five Thirty Eight that North Carolina is more likely to end up in Romney’s column than Obama’s, but Real Clear Politics’ standards for reaching that conclusion seem at odds with their choices for, say, Pennsylvania – which has 261 days without any Romney wins in the polls and 39 polls showing occasionally double-digit support for Obama.
So while Real Clear Politics polling aggregation might suggest the same conclusions as “biased” Nate Silver, their predictions don’t match, provided the prediction would be of an Obama victory. Sounds like Chait might have been too charitable there in attributing major media predictions of a Romney win to confusion, rather than willful intent.