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Do US opinion polls flatter to deceive?

Though Obama and Romney are tied in the popular vote, the Electoral College seems to favour the president.
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2012 15:07
Obama is ahead of Romney in the Electoral College, according to most polls [EPA]

Major news outlets and national polls have touted the US presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as anyone's game. But neither candidate is likely to hear that story from their top strategists.

That is because the current US president is projected to earn enough votes on Tuesday to beat the former Massachusetts governor, according to figures by nearly every prominent research model that analyses state opinion polls.

Statistician Nate Silver, who runs the blog FiveThirtyEight, predicted on Saturday that Obama has an 83.7 per cent chance of getting re-elected.

Other organisations have not yet published the probability of the election's outcome. However, most predict Obama will receive at least 270 electoral votes, which would secure his stay in the White House for another four years.

This is despite projections by a number of major media outlets and some of the top US polling companies, which have described the race as a tossup.

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For months, news organisations such as CNN, the Washington Post, and Al Jazeera have repeatedly cited US national surveys to gauge the horse race between the two political contenders.

Those polls, such as this recent one by the Pew Research Center, say support of likely voters is split equally between Obama and Romney. Pew goes so far as to use the headline "Presidential race dead even". And Ipsos pollster Julia Clark was quoted as saying the election was on "a razor's edge".

Most pollsters do predict the popular vote will be close. "But [the popular vote] is not how you elect the president," says Andrew Tanenbaum, the computer scientist behind Electoral-Vote.com.

"Romney voters are in the South and the distribution of votes are important," he says, noting that the votes in the Electoral College are what counts. His data puts Obama ahead of Romney in the Electoral College, 281-215.

An Electoral College primer

Wary that individuals were beholden to local interests, the framers of the US Constitution established the Electoral College.

It is an institution that officially elects the US president and vice president every four years. Its 538 members, known as electors, represent individual states and the nation's capital, Washington, DC.

The number of electors are allotted to each state based on its population.  

A presidential candidate who wins the popular vote of a state also wins that state's electors. And a candidate secures a place in the White House by winning enough states to earn the support of 270 members of the Electoral College.

However, the Electoral College members are not mandated to side with their state's popular vote. For instance, in 2000, Barbara Lett-Simmons abstained from casting her electoral vote for Washington, DC. She did so to protest the fact that residents of the US capital are constitutionally barred from having representation in the US Congress.

Calculating an election victory

"It's a rare exception when the popular vote doesn't reflect the electoral outcome."

- Charles Franklin, electoral statistician

At the moment, the electoral math does not favour Romney. According to Tanenbaum and several other researchers, Romney would have to win all nine swing states, or states where opinion polls do not favour either candidate. Tanenbaum says this is unlikely to happen.

That is not to say Obama is running away with the election, says Ariel Edwards-Levy, an associate polling editor for the Huffington Post's Election Dashboard.

"He has a small lead in several states," says Edwards-Levy. But she says those leads are increasingly solid as several polling companies, with different analytical models, repeatedly produce the same outcome.

The popular vote matters in context

Pollsters say the nationwide vote is a relevant indication of who could win a US presidential race. "It's a rare exception when the popular vote doesn't reflect the electoral outcome," says Charles Franklin, a leading electoral statistician who advises Talking Points Memo's Electoral Scoreboard.

Franklin says it is also unlikely that a candidate could win the election while significantly behind in the popular vote.

Romney got a glimmer of hope after several Gallup surveys in October showed him leading the popular vote by as much as six percent. He repeatedly boasted about the numbers on the campaign trail.

But such leads can also give a candidate a false sense of comfort. "Talk to Al Gore, and he could say it could ruin your day," says Franklin.

In 2000, the Federal Elections Commission declared that more voters cast ballots for then-Vice President Al Gore than for his Republican opponent, George W Bush. However, Bush went on to become president because his votes were in states that gave him a lead in the Electoral College.

It is a rare phenomenon that has happened four times since the first US presidential election in 1788.

However, predicting an election day victory using electoral math is not bulletproof.

Romney could still win

"If the polls in states like Ohio and Wisconsin are wrong, then FiveThirtyEight... will not have a happy Nov. 6."

- Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight

Jim Kearney volunteers at a phone bank for the Romney campaign. The 24-year-old aspires to go into politics one day. He has spent the past two months trying to rally Republican voters to cast their ballots in the Democratic-leaning state of New Mexico.

"A 25 per cent chance of winning the election it's not good, I'll say that," says Kearney, referring to polls that give Romney less than a one-in-four chance of victory on November 6. However, he agrees it is still good odds when the topic is the leadership of the world's most powerful country.

Franklin, citing those same polls, says a 25 per cent chance of victory for Romney should also be a cause of concern for Obama. "Those kind of odds are huge if what we're talking about is you losing your house," says Franklin.

And Nate Silver wrote in an October 30 blog post that Romney's chances could improve if pollsters misread voters in a few key states:

It’s certainly possible. (It keeps me up late at night.) If the polls in states like Ohio and Wisconsin are wrong, then FiveThirtyEight - and all of our competitors that build projections based on state polls - will not have a happy Nov. 6.

Days before the election, Romney's chances of becoming president rest on whether pollsters misread voting behaviour, says Tanenbaum.

No more game-changers

Tanenbaum says Romney's final hope of swaying voters was Friday's jobs report by the US Department of Labor. "If unemployment shot up again, Romney will be screaming that Obama is a miserable failure."

That is not what happened. Instead, the report says the US unemployment rate has remained essentially the same at 7.9 per cent, only a tenth of a per cent higher than the previous month.

It also shows the US economy added 171,000 jobs in October, and more people resumed their search for work.

Now, most pollsters will spend the final days of the election waiting for the outcome.

Franklin says he has confidence in his statistical methods, but acknowledges the American people hold the real answer. "On some level I believe my data," he says, adding the final outcome will be decided not by predictions, but by "the people who show up on Tuesday".

Follow Jack Zahora on Twitter: @JackZahora

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