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An under-the-radar runaway for Obama?

November 2nd, 2008, 10:00am by Sam Wang


By current standards the McCain campaign is not spending that much on polling – only $1.1 million since July. During that time the Obama campaign spent almost four times as much. Maybe that’s why on Friday, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis felt able to write a memo containing plainly absurd statements such as “Our numbers in Iowa have seen a tremendous surge in the past 10 days.” Obama is up by 11% in Iowa. With little enough data, Davis could convince himself of all kinds of swings.

He needs to. What’s amazing about the Presidential race is how little change has occurred in October in national polls and in meta-analysis of the Electoral College. By these measures, the campaign ended after the first debate. However, there are still a few surprises lurking in the data. Battleground states have presented a steep hill for McCain to climb. In the last four weeks, the hill has grown into a mountain.

The height of the mountain can be measured using the Popular Meta-Margin. But first…

Let’s look at national surveys since so many of you fret over them. These have been at a near-standstill for weeks:


As you can see from this graph custom-generated from Pollster.com (have you tried that? it’s fantastic!), it’s hard to see any movement. Here’s a list of values:

Date range
Obama-McCain national margin
10/3-7 5.0 +/- 1.1%
10/8-11 9.0 +/- 0.7%
10/12-17 5.0 +/- 1.2%
10/17-21 7.0 +/- 1.1%
10/28-31 7.0 +/- 0.9%

On the other hand, in the last comment thread Frank pointed out that eight tracker polls have shown a widening of 1.5 +/- 0.5%. If true, that should show up in the Meta-Analysis on Monday morning.

The Median EV Estimator. In terms of stability, it’s like 2004 all over again, when the race stabilized after the first debate. In the last few weeks the short-term fluctuation has increased because of increases in polling frequency.
History of electoral votes for Obama since April 1
For the last 3 weeks it’s been bouncing around Obama 360 EV, McCain 178 EV.

The Popular Meta-Margin. Here’s the surprise. This is the amount of across-the-board shift in Obama-McCain margins that would be needed to make the race a perfect 269-269 EV toss-up. Here’s a graph of it over time:

Since mid-September, when Sarah Palin spoke unscripted and Lehman Brothers collapsed, the Meta-Margin has been increasing steadily. It’s now twice as large as it was at any point during the summer.

The increase in the Meta-Margin over the last four weeks is quite striking. Despite the fact that national surveys and the Electoral College have been solid during October, the effective gap between the candidates has been steadily widening in battleground states. The cementing of Obama’s advantage is a hidden story of the campaign endgame.

Tags: 2008 Election

59 Comments so far ↓

  • Frank P

    Vincent,

    Right below those numbers you’ll see a win% which gives McCain a 24% chance of winning Ohio.

    Emily,

    In 2004 you could imagine tampering in a single state (Ohio) affecting the outcome of the race. I don’t believe such tampering occured but it was conceivable.

    This year there are many paths to 270 and Obama doesn’t need Ohio. For tampering to be effective you would need widespread tampering by different corrupt officials in different states (some of them under democratic control) with NOBODY letting the cat out of the bag. Such very wide and deep corruption seems very unlikely.

    The only (very unlikely) path I see to a McCain victory is the return of the magical mythical Bradley Effect (perhaps assisted by purely localized corruption somewhere).

  • Sherry Havelka

    Help! I can’t take this any more! Is Obama still okay in Pennsylvania and why Sam are you the ONLY site projecting Florida for Obama? Sherry

  • Marginal Intellect

    This is a super secret ultra-hypno-mind-controlling blog post.

    O.K. now all Obama supporters close your eyes…close them!

    O.K., O.K., now remember to go to your polling place first thing WEDNESDAY MORNING! That’s WEDNESDAY, Nov. 5th

    O.K. Obama supporters can open your eyes now.

  • Observer

    Cliff: Congress does not count the votes.
    It does accept or reject electoral votes submitted by the states (which it has never done since 1876-77), but the vote counting that determines that electoral vote is controlled by each state.

    That is why in 2000 we had the Florida fiasco, with Florida state courts reviewing the state authorities — until the U.S. Supreme Court — very unusually — chimed in. But you’ll notice that Congress nowhere played a significant part in that drama.

  • Michael

    Sherry,

    Three PA polls released today:

    Obama 53, McCain 45 (PPP-10/31-11/2)
    Obama 52, McCain 46 (Rasmussen-11/1)
    Obama 52, McCain 46 (Muhlenberg-10/29-11/2)

    The PPP poll is 1,529 likely voters, with an MOE of 2.5%.

    Feel better now?

  • Observer

    I don’t know if she does, but I do!

    Thanks, Michael.

  • Sherry

    Yes I do feel better! Thanks, but I am still wondering about Florida. Why do blue on this map when the polls seem really close?

  • Sherry

    whoops I meant why so blue!

  • Sam Wang

    Vincent and Sherry – All calculations come from publicly available polling data. Our data stream is provided by Pollster.com. So you can see for yourself what the data are.

    The rule used here is to take the last three polls and all polls whose median date is within seven days of the most recent polls. The rest of the procedure is documented in the “About The Meta-Analysis” item in the left sidebar, as well as two FAQs. It can be read and understood in under 10 minutes, unlike the far more elaborate procedure at FiveThirtyEight.

    Other sites, including FiveThirtyEight, typically use a longer time window, but in cases where the race is changing this can be a problem. A possible resolution is to dynamically vary the window depending on the rate of recent movement.

    However, I would not recommend any algorithm that makes Florida a toss-up when Obama is leading or tied in all of the last 10+ polls.

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