Hard News by Russell Brown


The Watching World

The wishes of American voters will again be tested against the desires of most of the rest of the world this week. Last month's poll of 21 countries for the BBC found that people in 20 of those countries preferred Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, the only exception being Pakistan. Half of those surveyed indicated a personal preference for Obama, only 9% for Romney.

But the United States of America is not the world, and things are much closer there. Both the New Yorker and the Washington Post have published lengthy, strongly-argued endorsements of a second Obama term, and both  expressed something approaching revulsion at Romney's endlessly shifting platform, improbable budget and willingness to flat-out lie. But if newspaper endorsements mattered that much, Romney would be ahead in the swing states, and he isn't.

The most recent post from the New York Times' oracular election forecaster Nate Silver notes that:

Among the 21 polls in battleground states on Saturday, 16 had Mr. Obama ahead as compared with just two leads for Mr. Romney; three other battleground state polls had the race tied.

This is the kind of data that goes into Silver's reassuring -- for Democrats -- forecasts of the likely result in the electoral college vote, which is nowhere near as close as the national popular vote polling (which has steadily crept back from the shock of Obama's terrible performance in the first presidential debate).

The electoral college system is intended to produce emphatic results -- but those emphatic results rest on much, much smaller leads in many different polls. The result turns to a remarkable degree on what happens in Ohio, where, on balance, Obama's lead has been modest but consistent. As the time before polling day shortens, so does the time for any dramatic change -- meaning Silver's assessment of the likelihood of Romney winning the necessary 270 electoral colege votes is now down to 14.9%, and Obama's thus up to 85.1%.

This is a terrible message for the Romney campaign, not least because it sounds like a thrashing. The campaign has spent the last two or three weeks insisting that it is either placed for victory or in a "toss up", and its keener supporters have openly accused Silver of being in the tank for Obama.

There is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case: Silver's methodology is quite open. But there's more at stake here than just partisan political interest. TPM's Josh Marshall quoted some interesting commentary from one of his readers:

The second group that I think doesn’t want Silver to be right are the horse race pundits. Just think of the CNN folks after the debates in 2008 and 2012. They would say what they think and then the data would come in and they would have to change what they said. They looked dumb. Data couldn’t be thrown away. The pushy pundit couldn’t walk over the weak one. Data equalizes everyone. Well, why pay Joe Scarborough a lot of money when his analysis is unreliable? He has a financial interest in proving his visceral understanding of the race is more cogent than Nate Silver’s statistical one.

Silver is making it harder to just make shit up and be believed. It's the buzz-killing demise of visceral punditry -- at the hands of geeks.

Disagreements about the nature of reality provide some peril for news media here. At least twice during the campaign, Morning Report has invited comment from the discredited Republican pollster Fritz Wenzel, who has, unsurprisingly, been nothing like an honest broker. Radio New Zealand has done its listeners a grave disservice by not even attempting to place Wenzel's claims in context. He is a partisan hack, basically.

The chances are that Obama will retain the presidency this week. In a poorly-argued Herald column, Fran O'Sullivan contended this was solely because of the positive gloss offered by the his chance to respond to the Sandy storm. This has probably helped, but it's simply not true to declare that Sandy suddenly rescued a losing campaign. Obama has long been a better than even chance to reach 270 electoral votes -- the difference now is that he's considerably better than even.

Behind that reality lies a huge degree of complexity. Obama leads by big margins amongst black and Latino voters, while Romney leads among white Americans. But Obama still does better among white Americans than Democratic candidates have typically done in recent decades. The wisdom is that by the time of the next general election, American voter demographics will have passed a critical point -- there will be so many non-white voters that the Republican Party in its present form (this incredible xkcd infographic shows just how extreme it has become) will be unelectable. Jeb Bush, with his new, Latino-friendly version of the GOP, waits in the wings.

But that's another day. On Tuesday -- Wednesday our time -- the USA will vote on who will be its president for the next four years. And the rest of us will watch: nervous and fascinated.

Naturally, we'll be reviewing the election media on Media3 this week. I'll advise on the detail of the show soon, but for now you're welcome to join us at 5.30pm on Thursday for the Media3 recording, at the Villa Dalmacija ballroom, 10 New North Road.

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