Charlie Cook, writing in the National Journal, gives voice to the fears of many, me included:
“I am now reconciled to the fact that this will be a race to the wire. I am watching Ohio and a handful of other swing states that are right at, or near, the 270-electoral-vote tipping point. In the end, the odds still favor the popular and electoral vote heading in the same direction, but the chances of a split like the one in 2000 are very real, along with the distinct possibility of ambiguity and vote-counting issues once again putting the outcome in question.”
Please, whatever happens Nov. 6, not that.
One way or the other, we need a clear-cut winner in the White House, not somebody installed there thanks a quirky electoral college or, even worse, the Supreme Court or House of Representatives. A race that tight is also highly likely to touch off bitterly divisive court challenges and lawsuits, along the lines of what happened in 2000.
Given everything, the country actually handled that excruciating process pretty well and, once it was resolved, quickly accepted the legitimacy of the outcome. But political tensions in the last dozen years have heightened, promising considerably more drama and trauma should similar events occur.
So, what are the chances?
Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight puts the odds that a recount will be required in a decisive state this year at a frightening 9.8 percent. The odds of either candidate winning the popular vote but losing in the electoral college are a combined 7.1 percent (Romney 5.2 percent; Obama 1.9 percent). That’s too high — roughly a 15-1 shot for those who bet the horses — for my comfort.
I should also mention that Silver does a pretty efficient dissection of the history of Gallup poll, which currently shows Romney with a seven-point lead among likely voters, well outside the polling consensus. I have tended to treat Gallup as the gold standard among polling, but Silver’s evidence to the contrary is convincing:
In 2008, the Gallup poll put Mr. Obama 11 points ahead of John McCain on the eve of that November’s election.
That was tied for Mr. Obama’s largest projected margin of victory among any of the 15 or so national polls that were released just in advance of the election. The average of polls put Mr. Obama up by about seven points.
The average did a good job; Mr. Obama won the popular vote by seven points. The Gallup poll had a four-point miss, however.
In 2010, Gallup put Republicans ahead by 15 points on the national congressional ballot, higher than other polling firms, which put Republicans an average of eight or nine points ahead instead.
In fact, Republicans won the popular vote for the United States House by about seven percentage points — fairly close to the average of polls, but representing another big miss for Gallup.
Apart from Gallup’s final poll not having been especially accurate in recent years, it has often been a wild ride to get there. Their polls, for whatever reason, have often found implausibly large swings in the race.
In 2000, for example, Gallup had George W. Bush 16 points ahead among likely voters in polling it conducted in early August. By Sept. 20, about six weeks later, they had Al Gore up by 10 points instead: a 26-point swing toward Mr. Gore over the course of a month and a half. No other polling firm showed a swing remotely that large.
Then in October 2000, Gallup showed a 14-point swing toward Mr. Bush over the course of a few days, and had him ahead by 13 points on Oct. 27 — just 10 days before an election that ended in a virtual tie.
In 1996, Gallup had Bill Clinton’s margin over Bob Dole increasing to 25 points from nine points over the course of four days.
After the Republican convention in 2008, Gallup had John McCain leading Mr. Obama by as many as 10 points among likely voters. Although some other polls also had Mr. McCain pulling ahead in the race, no other polling firm ever gave him larger than a four-point lead.
Silver’s conclusion seems appropriate. You can’t disregard Gallup entirely, but when it’s that far outside the polling average you also shouldn’t put much weight on it.
– Jay Bookman