Having failed rather spectacularly to correctly predict Mitt Romney’s running mate—I said it definitely would not be Paul Ryan less than 24 hours before he was picked -- I should probably avoid political predictions for a while. But as all those who make their livings in the prediction business know, the secret to success is to make so many of them that a few are bound to be right.
That said, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Barack Obama will win the election easily, at least in the all-important Electoral College. I have thought so for some time, but wanted to wait and see if the party conventions changed the political dynamics. They have; they have made me more certain of Obama’s victory.
Pollster Nate Silver has done an excellent job of assembling all of the known political data on where the presidential race stood as of Wednesday. His analysis leads him to project that Obama will beat Romney 51.2 percent to 47.6 percent in the popular vote, and 311 to 227 in the Electoral College where only 270 votes are needed to win. Overall, Silver gives Obama a 76 percent chance of winning the election.
Those who don’t follow the data intensively can be forgiven for not knowing what good shape Obama is in, because it is rarely reported in the mainstream media. There is a simple reason for this: it has a huge vested interest in maintaining the idea that the election is so close it cannot be called and will come down to the last vote cast on Election Day.
That is because the media have huge political operations with many highly-paid commentators who need people reading and tuning in daily to see if their preferred candidate has made any headway. There is also an enormous amount of data being produced daily that requires reporting and analysis—polls, campaign contributions, charges and counter charges, endorsements, gaffes and so on. It is not hard to spin this vast cacophony of material in such a way as to maintain the fiction that the election will be close.
The media, collectively, are in the position of sports announcers calling a game where one team is heavily favored and well ahead. They need to keep people watching so that advertisers will get value for their money. So they use every cliché in the book to tell viewers that “it ain’t over till it’s over” and about all the times the losing team has come from behind to win and so on and so on.
Of course, it goes without saying that once in a while, the losing team does make a comeback and wins unexpectedly. But by the time that happens, all except the winning team’s hardcore fans have changed the channel or left the stadium. However, we all know about those magical come-from-behind victories because the media have an incentive to hype them as a warning to fickle fans that they better stay tuned next time.
The same is going on today with the presidential race. Reporters and commentators are building up Romney’s chances and downplaying Obama’s to keep people interested. This was most evident last week when Republican speakers at their convention were played up and their talking points repeated, as if they were changing the course of the election as they spoke. This week, they are doing the same for the Democrats.
I thought the Republican convention went very poorly. And apparently, I was not the only one. According to Nielsen, television ratings for the Republican convention were down sharply from 2008. And according to Gallup, Romney’s convention “bounce” was the worst for any candidate of either party except for John Kerry in 2004—and we know what happened to him.
We don’t yet know what kind of bounce Obama will get, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it will at least be significantly better than Romney’s. Whereas few Republicans raved about any convention speech other than actor Clint Eastwood’s rambling conversation with an empty chair, Democrats are raving about those by Michele Obama, Bill Clinton and a number of other speakers at their convention.
To be sure, there are still opportunities for Republicans to level the playing field. There will be three debates between Romney and Obama, as well as one between the respective vice presidential nominees. They could make a difference, but history does not show that debates have much impact.
There is also the possibility that the Republicans’ huge money advantage could tilt the race in their favor. However, academic research and anecdotal evidence say that over a certain threshold, additional campaign spending has very little value. For example, in the 2010 governor’s race in California, Republican Meg Whitman outspent Democrat Jerry Brown $177 million to $36 million, yet Brown won very easily, 54 percent to 41 percent.
Too much money in a campaign can be counterproductive to a candidate. Voters become annoyed seeing the same commercials day after day, and resent intrusive phone calls and junk mail from candidates who do too much of it. But it is contrary to human nature for candidates not to spend whatever money is contributed to them. It has no value the day after the election.
In short, while it is not impossible for Romney to win the election, it is Obama’s to lose. As we get closer to the election and this view becomes widespread, it could influence congressional races and tilt the balance in the next Congress. Democrats may be able to free up some money budgeted for Obama to help candidates just needing an extra push to win, while Republicans may pull money from their winnable congressional races in hopes that still more advertising can pull the election out for Romney.
Finally, there is the unknown factor. I won’t even speculate on what that could be. But it goes without saying that Obama could royally screw up in some way or suffer from some foreign policy or other crisis beyond his control. But knowing what is known today, I am comfortable predicting an Obama victory in November.