Confessions of a mistaken pundit: How the Denver debate skewed my judgment
Nov. 8, 2012
A few days after the Oct. 3 presidential debate in Denver, I sent an email to a friend. It included the following postscript:
Popular vote prediction:
Obama 50.1, Romney 47.1 Johnson 2.5 Other .03
Still calculating the Electoral Votes, but I am thinking 332 for O, 206 for R.
Those were the numbers that had pretty much taken shape in my mind after the conventions, and other than overestimating Gary Johnson's popular vote performance while underestimating Mitt Romney's, I was pretty darn close to the actual popular vote results. I was spot on in the actual electoral vote count.
At the time I sent the email, though, I was still trying to get a better read on how the debate aftermath would play out. I knew from watching that President Obama bombed badly in his first debate with Romney. The president was obviously “off his game,” to use a readily understood euphemism, but how would that affect the electorate? As comedian Bill Maher joked, it looked like the president took the million dollars Maher gave his campaign and spent it on weed.
Still, I knew that the president had a better field organization than Romney, and I calculated that as long as Obama led by 3 or more points in most polls, as he did at that time, his advantage in polling numbers could not be negated by Republican enthusiasm. I expected Obama to bounce back at the second debate, but I did not expect Romney to have effectively pulled even in the polls over the 13 days between debates.
But Obama was pummeled and not just beaten in the Denver, causing many Republicans and independents who had been lukewarm about Romney to suddenly speak of him in glowing terms, as if he were the second coming of Ronald Reagan. All of a sudden, a whole lot of people seemed to believe in Romney rather than just not believing in Obama.
Too much research, not enough voters
As the Oct. 16 debate approached, I began reviewing voting patterns from 2008, new voter registration numbers, the so-called enthusiasm gap that supposedly favored Republicans and the cross-tabs of a great number of polls.
The deeper I went, the more plausible the Romney victory scenario became. I started with the assumption that Obama would not receive anywhere close to the 69.5 million votes he received in 2008 and that Romney would not only exceed McCain’s popular vote performance (59.9 million votes) against Obama but would come close to George W. Bush’s 2004 winning total (62 million) in 2004.
As it turned out, I was mistaken. Not only would Romney fall short of Bush’s 2004 numbers, he wouldn’t even get as many votes as McCain did in 2008. Given the enthusiasm from Romney backers down the stretch along with polling numbers from Rasmussen and Gallup, I sensed major movement toward Romney. I wasn’t quite sure what the turnout would be, but I expected the total number of total voters to be higher than 2004 (122 million) and lower than 2008 (131 million). For my working model, I settled on 125 million voters.
What I did not count on was lower turnout across the board, but that’s what happened. CNN reports that only 57.5 percent of registered voters turned out in 2012, compared with 62.3 percent in 2008 and 60.4 percent in 2004. Prior to the Denver debate, I was actually expecting a lower turnout than the previous two elections, but I bought into the right-wing post-Denver hype about enthusiasm for Romney and mistakenly adjusted my thinking accordingly.
According to the latest popular vote totals, Obama has about 61.1 million votes to Romney’s 58.1 million. While everyone knows the popular vote does not determine the president, those popular votes have to come from somewhere, and that’s where I miscalculated. I expected stronger turnout in anti-Obama country, enough to give Romney the popular vote edge. But I also took Team Obama’s voter registration efforts and much-vaunted ground game into consideration. Knowing that the president was heavily invested in Ohio and his other “firewall states,” I did not see a path to 270 electoral votes for Romney. I did, however, see what I thought was some pretty good indicators that Romney would win the popular vote even as the president was re-elected.
Unlike the brilliant Nate Silver of 538-New York Times fame, I misread the data.
Explaining my Arizona prediction
Readers who digested my prediction column in its entirety have to be wondering what in the world I was thinking in giving Arizona to Obama. Basically, I thought Democrat Richard Carmona would beat Republican Jeff Flake in the U.S. Senate race there, and I thought Johnson would perform much better there than he did.
There was also the “gut feeling” factor. It wasn’t so much that I had a gut feeling Obama would win Arizona as it was I had a gut feeling that something strange would happen on Election Night. After reviewing the data in Arizona and putting entirely too much emphasis on an Oct. 13 Rocky Mountain Poll from the Behavioral Research Center that found Obama ahead of Romney 44 to 42 percent (and Carmona leading Flake 44 to 40 percent), I concluded that Arizona could well be the source of the weirdness.
The key clue, or so I thought, was that interviews in the Rocky Mountain Poll had been conducted both in English and Spanish. In other words, I thought most polls in Arizona had been overlooking the Hispanic vote.
So that’s a wrap on another presidential prediction from Punditty.
I suppose that, technically, I got it right since I predicted Obama’s re-election, but I will always be slightly embarrassed at getting sucked in by the right-wing noise machine and predicting a Romney victory in the popular vote. As for overestimating Johnson’s performance, I have only myself to blame for that. I voted for him, and with his name on the ballot in 48 states, I made the assumption that at least 1 out of every 50 voters would like what they saw, too. It was more like 1 in 100 voters, although Johnson did become the first Libertarian presidential candidate to get more than a million votes in a single election.
There is one saving grace, though: I didn’t miss the mark as badly as Dick Morris and Karl Rove did. That’s not saying much, but when a pundit makes the wrong call, he takes his consolation where he can find it.
Report shows turnout lower than 2008 and 2004, CNN, Nov. 8. 2012
Rove predicts Romney win by 2 percent margin, around 280 electoral votes, RCP, Nov. 4, 2012
Dick Morris stands by prediction Romney will win 325 electoral votes, RCP, Nov. 4, 2012
Dewey defeats Truman moment awaits either Gallup or Nate Silver, Allvoices, Oct. 31, 2012
Punditty predicts: Romney will get more votes, but Obama will get re-elected, Allvoices, Nov. 2, 2012