Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Day 08

Hi everyone, this is Rob! I've been enabled as a guest blogger on Becky's blog ever since I took over parental leave from her two weeks ago, with the intention of giving updates on Clare's further adventures and my parenting activities. If you're a regular reader, you'll note the absence of any such entries from me before today (and as you might guess from the title of this entry, I'm not going to be writing about any of those things here). Before I move on to the main topic of this post, I'll give you a quick Clare fix. Clare is doing really well, becoming more mobile and active by the day. I've noticed during our playtime that she really becomes focused on whatever I'm doing; if I'm playing with the blocks, she inevitably abandons whatever she's doing to play blocks with me (and by "play", I mean "tear apart whatever I've built and start chewing on a block"). If I move on to open up a book, she abandons the blocks and comes to flip pages with me. As Becky mentioned before, she really is quite a social little girl, and I'm really beginning to think we need to find more opportunities for her to play with other kids. Besides that, she's also becoming more and more adept at feeding herself the little chunks of bread and vegetables that we give her at dinnertime. No more taking whole chunks of food into her little mouth; for the most part, she's learned to bite off manageable chunks of food to chew before taking in some more. You may remember that Becky and I have been trying to keep her diet gluten-free until she's a little older. To that end, we've been feeding her mostly rice and rice pasta/noodles for her carbohydrates, as well as spelt bread and couscous. If you'll follow those last two links and do a text search for gluten (as we should have done), you'll see that we haven't been that successful.

As for the actual subject of this post, today is the first Tuesday following the first Monday in the month of November in an election year (for the U.S.A), meaning it's Election Day south of the border. While we had our own election just a few short weeks ago, for me, I find U.S. politics to be much more engaging and interesting to follow. Every four years, when this first Tuesday in November comes around, I spend most of my free time for the day watching the American networks and cable channels and their election coverage. I still remember Bush/Gore 2000 and spending the whole night watching the returns come in, seeing most of the networks call Florida for Gore even though Bush was ahead in the actual count (on the strength of uncounted returns from heavily Democrat counties), then having them retract those calls and going to bed not knowing who won. On the other hand, I usually flip back and forth to CBC and CTV on Canadian election nights to keep up on the current tally, but otherwise spend most of the night in my normal routine.

If you've been following the election coverage for Obama/McCain 08, you'll know that all of the national tracking polls show Obama with a comfortable lead (anywhere from 5 to 11 points). Of course, if you know a little about how American presidential elections work, you'll know that the popular vote (which the national polls are attempting to track) aren't the whole story, but such a sizeable lead almost always will translate into a comfortable lead in the electoral college. FiveThirtyEight.com, a political blog run by a baseball statistician (and admitted Democrat partisan) that takes the available state and national polling data and runs it through a proprietary election model (based on historical polling and election results), currently predicts that Obama has over a 98% chance of winning, with an expected electoral college tally of 346.5 (of the 538 available). Not quite landslide territory (a landslide would be around 400), but a comfortable win compared to the last two Bush wins.

If you're a non-American (which I assume is generally true for people reading this), I'd guess you'd consider this pretty good news, since most of the rest of the world favours him by a wide margin. However, if you've been following the election coverage at all, you may have noticed some Republican partisans claiming that the polls are inaccurate, as well as Democrat hand-wringing amongst those who won't feel safe until their man is sitting in the White House. A lot of people remember the exit polling from 2000 and 2004 that seemed to point to a Democratic win, and so there's an undercurrent of residual mistrust of the polling data that's out there. There are also complicating factors like the so-called Bradley effect and Shy Tory effect that Republican partisans believe may overstate the Obama support in these polls. However, while the presence of these effects seems to be somewhat dubious (and possibly counterbalanced by the cellphone effect that should favour Obama), it seems that if the polls do indeed get it wrong and McCain pulls out a win, it will be because of how the pollsters model the electorate in coming up with their "top sheet" numbers.

If you've ever hung up on someone calling you to get you to participate in a poll, you can probably guess that the it may be difficult for a pollster to get a representative sample for a given poll. Ideally, if you polled 1000 people, you'd like for those 1000 people to proportionally represent the expected or likely voting population on election day. Two obvious ways you could break down this sample are by age, and by party affiliation. So, for example, out of 1000 people, you might get 50 people from age 18-24 answering your poll. If, in your likely voter model, you expect 100 out of every 1000 voters to be in that age range, then your poll may be undercounting Obama support (since Obama tends to dominate in this age range). Similarly, you may get equal numbers of registered Democrats and registered Republicans to respond to your polls. If your model suggests that more Democrats will vote on election day than Republicans, then your poll again underrepresents Obama's support.

Of course, almost every pollster doesn't just take the raw results and use that for their top sheet. Almost everyone will take what they have and then weight the responses by their likely voter model. And this is where a lot of the angst about the polls (on both sides) tends to come from. I won't go into details about why this is, but Obama has had a huge advantage in terms of money to spend on his campaign compared to McCain, and has spent a lot of money on registering new voters, and organizing GOTV (get out the vote) efforts to ensure that these voters actually vote on election day. Because of this, many pollsters have been using a likely voter model that leans Democrat (anywhere from D+3 to D+9, i.e., Democrats having between a 3 and 9 percent larger slice of the likely voter pie). This flies in the face of what has been happening for the last 20 years, where turnout has been generally even, or leaned Republican. Most pollsters have also been expecting a higher youth turnout because of Obama's GOTV organization, a group that has been historically difficult to motivate (I still remember people trumpeting the youth vote as the reason that Kerry would win in 2004). The upshot is that if the actual turnout doesn't match what the pollsters have been predicting, this is going to be a lot closer election that the polls seem to indicate.

Kudos to you if you're still reading after this long dry post on election modeling. I think this stuff is pretty interesting, and I find American politics interesting in general. I'd actually intended to write something a little different rather than the somewhat dry explanation about polling above. It's really kind of interesting to see Obama take a page out of Karl Rove and George Bush's winning campaigns from the last two elections (Rove really focused on GOTV and rather than winning independants -- Obama hasn't ignored independants, but the so-called "ground game" and getting his supporters to the polls has been a major focus for his campaign). It's also interesting to see how McCain completely abandoned his centrist appeal and went "Rovian", trying to get the Republican base on his side with the Palin pick and the negative rhetoric. Like I said above, Rove really won Bush's last two elections by motivating the base and ensuring that they all showed up to the polls. With Obama likely to win 90+% of the Democrat vote, and McCain likely to do the same with the Republican vote, it pretty much will come down to which party turns out in larger numbers.

1 comment:

Hannah said...

I am 22 and I'd like to capture my thoughts before America either elects a president who its first 26 presidents could have legally owned, or brazenly subverts the very ideals it was founded upon by manipulating numbers in a final embarrassingly overt goosestep towards corporate totalitarianism.

I am nervous. And not night-before-the-swim-test nervous or even night-you-lose-your-virginity nervous, it's a low rumbling primal panic which I can only liken to Star Wars panic. Disney panic. The edge-of-your-seat-terror that makes you wonder if Skywalker's doomed after he refuses to join Darth Vader and drops down into the abyss, if the wicked octopus or grand vizier or steroid-pumping-village-misogynist is going to wed/kill/skin the dashing prince and then evil people in dark funny costumes are going to take over the world... if it wasn't a movie of course.

And tonight it's not. It's not a movie and yet I feel like Obama might as well be wearing an American flag cape while a decaying McCain, in a high-tech robotic spider wheelchair wearing an eyepatch and stroking an evil cat, gives orders to a sexy scheming Palin who marches back and forth through their sub-terranian campaign lair in four inch thigh-highs and full-body black leather catsuit bossing around the evangelical ants with a loooooong whip... umm... is this just me?

Anyway, the point is that things feel weird folks. I have friends who have peed in waterbottles to keep from interrupting a Halo-playing marathon who got off their asses/couches to volunteer for the Obama campaign not once, but many times. Friends so cheap their body content is at least 1/3 Ramen Noodle who donated a good deal of their hard-earned cash to the campaign. People have registered to vote in record numbers, and yet, something just doesn't feel right. I think we should stop congratulating ourselves for just voting. To vote is a privilege which people have died for, and I think there's a whole lot more to be done for the country than to simply help win an election every 4 years.

Hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of man-hours spent on both sides by good-intentioned people who want to make a difference in an historic election, so many resources and voices and energies devoted to a single day. After tomorrow, half of that is going to have been a waste. And I can't help but wonder what could have happened if all that muscle had been put towards something else, and what will happen to its momentum after the election has come and gone. Shouldn't we be donating our money to good causes whenever we can? Helping people who don't have? Dedicating some of our time to contribute to making the country which provides for us a better place? Of course a power shift is a hugely significant step on the path to great reform, but worrying about this election has been a wakeup call for me:

Even if Obama wins, we have not "won." This isn't a movie and we can't toss every greedy lobbyist oil fatcat bigot down a reactor shaft. I think if we dedicate ourselves to the ongoing welfare of the country as much as we have to the outcome of this election, we'll have a much better shot at coming closer to the overwhelming good the liberals hope Obama will usher in, but which no mere mortal could fully realize alone.

Which brings me to the other side. I've heard a lot of people claim that if McCain wins, they're leaving. I heard the same thing about Bush's reelection, and his unelection before that, and nobody seems to be leaving. And that's fine. Because as much as I complain about certain political happenings, atrocities, etc., I really do like it here and I suspect most other people do too. We have New York and Hollywood, purple mountain's majesty and sea to shining sea, we created jazz and country music and baseball and cars and lightbulbs and computers and that movie with hundreds of animated singing Chihuahuas! I mean who among the shivering Plymouth pilgrims ever imagined ordering hundreds of animated singing chihuahuas onto a magical box from an invisible information superweb?

The point being, if things don't turn out the way I want tomorrow, I feel compelled, as a college-graduated adultish-type-person, to take a stand. And if I'm going to leave I'm going to leave. But if I'm going to stay I'm not going to sit around whining like I have for the past 8 years. It's like when I don't clean my room because it's dirty and then I blame the dirt. So in my very indecisive way, before you and your screen, I'm declaring my intention to make some kind of stand in the event of -(Ican'tevensayit)-, and encouraging you to consider making one too...

Jump the ship or grab a bucket?
Wasn't everything so much easier back when the worst possible affront to your values was a PB&J sandwich cut diagonally with crust?

Anyways, I guess what I'm saying is that if we're going to stay on board, we should probably be generous with our time and resources when times are tough even more than when the hero saves the day. Because what if he doesn't? And what if he can't? If we're serious about real change, election day should only be the beginning of "Yes we can," not the end.

Hannah Friedman