Natural disasters put everything into perspective. Politics should pale into insignificance against the loss of life and destruction caused by ‘Superstorm Sandy’. But while the significant after effects of this hugely destructive event may have a game-changing impact on the Presidential Election, next week’s vote will, rightly so, not be the primary matter on most voters minds. A funny thing has been happening in the coverage of Election 2012 though.
There is now a remarkable divergence between media ‘punditry’ and where the ‘smart money’ is going when it comes to the interpretation and presentation of Presidential opinion polls. If you believe most of the British, European and of course American media, Obama may be ahead in the Electoral College stakes, but Romney is probably ahead in the popular vote and is on the rise and may take the College vote too. All agree that the General Election is ‘too close to call’.
But when we look at electoral betting, we see that the money is pretty solidly Obama. It’s following the outcomes of Nate Silver’s (New York Times) statistical model. The betting trends on Intrade put odds of Obama winning at around 60%, Silver much higher. These two key opinion gaugers say that Obama is ahead in the Electoral College and Silver has the President ahead in the Popular Vote too. By this reckoning, Obama should win Election 2012 fairly comfortably and many reporters, editors and pollsters will have some serious questions to answer after the result.
A bit about those ‘smart money’ gurus. Silver got the 2008 and 2010 elections remarkably right. All he does is aggregate national and state polls – and discounts the importance of ‘outliers’ where Romney or Obama appear to have surged. The author of the ‘FiveThirtyEight’ Blog has shown his poll analysis to be outstanding in the recent past. ‘Intrade’ is an influential ‘predictions market’ (like a betting index). Based on Silver’s numbers, and Intrade’s spread, this writer is calling it for Obama in both the popular and Electoral College vote
A backlash against Silver has already started and is easy to understand. If Silver is shown to be correct, much of the coverage since the Conventions will have been shown to be so much hot air. There are several possible reasons for this.
The media love a good race. They need it. Nobody’s going to tune in to statistical analysis delivered in a dispassionate manner. And who’s to say this is totally a bad thing? The democratic process needs an engaged public. But we also need our Press, particularly our ‘mainstream media’ (not stridently partisan, reasonably objective and reliable, you’ll know it when you see it) to be as close to the ‘true’ position as possible. They aren’t doing this. The party-aligned, conservative and some liberal sites, aren’t doing this either. So why say the race is closing or Romney is ahead or too close to call when Obama is still in front and has been since before the Conventions?
Then there’s the more Partisan media that’s ignoring the numbers. Both Right and Left need to Get Out The Vote (GOTV). Again, this is crucial in any election. Everyone with a vote should use it. But to distort or ignore actual polling data and say that the race is neck and neck when it isn’t is to mislead readers and supporters. Yes, polling reflects intentions, but the reliability of this pulse-check is seriously compromised by relying on outlier polls to ‘scare out the vote’.
We can debate whether Political Correspondents have been doing their job properly or not but we are probably on safer ground when we say that the move of the Election to ‘News Centre-Stage’ has seen the story enter the purview of the generalist. Generalists have strengths and weaknesses; they can take a good strategic overview but they are not, by definition, experts. The news ‘lense’ becomes further smudged and conventional wisdom gets parroted all over the airwaves, print and online. Most European news organisations would be fortunate enough to have more than two to three correspondents based in the US; they pick up on this new worldview and parrot it back across the Atlantic.
Nobody knows who is going to win the 2012 Presidential Election. But we do know this; if the results match the trend of all the polls so far, and not just the rogue ones, most of the air time, the talking heads debates, the column inches, the sound and the fury engendered from the campaign will have been based on a false premise. President Obama is on course to be re-elected by both Popular and Electoral College vote. Will the media, both partisan and, more importantly, mainstream, be apologising for what seems like wilful ignorance during the campaign? Some will and expect a few ‘mea culpa’ articles after the result. But most will brush off any criticisms, acknowledge little and learn even less.