The Theory of the Tightening Race

One meme we are hearing from all sides this year is that the polls are closing, and will do so up until the election (with some expressing skepticism). We see this in CNN’s report that the race might be tightening as Obama’s lead over Johm McCain is down to five points. We’ve also seen Gallup’s daily tracking poll used to show a tightening of the race, with McCain coming within six points on a rare day, within two points based upon one of their voting models. But wait, today Obama is back up by eleven points with just over two weeks to go.

Projecting a tightening in the race makes sense for all sides. Obama cannot assume a victory and must continue to fight as if the race were close, even if well positioned for a landslide. While nobody has come back from this far since we have had modern polling, it would make no sense for McCain to just give up when few would totally discount the possibility that somehow the race could be shook up again in the final two weeks. The media wants to call a close race to keep viewers interested for the same reason that sportscasters are reluctant to call a game over when there is any chance for a come back.

Not only is Obama back up by eleven in Gallup’s daily tracking poll, he also has extended his lead in McCain’s best case scenario. Polls of all registered voters are not totally predictive as they don’t take into account who will actually turn out to vote. Gallup has created two models this year to adjust their polling numbers. Their more traditional model “takes into account respondents’ history of voting as well as their current interest in the campaign and self-reported likelihood of voting.” McCain has been as close as two points by this measure.

While only being down by two points sounds like the we have a close race, the problem for McCain is that this is probably his best case scenario and he is still behind. It has been clear this year that people will be voting this year who have not voted before, with the vast majority voting for Obama. Obama also has an overwhelming advantage in money, which might help him extend his lead due to more money to spend on advertising, and will give him an advantage in getting out the vote on election day. There are few news days remaining and, regardless of whether Colin Powell will directly influence many voters by his endorsement, this story will dominate the news at very least through today, making it harder for McCain to pick up any ground. If Obama led by two points by this measure last week, odds are far greater that Obama could increase this lead than McCain could even pick up even two points. Making matters even more difficult, Obama extended his lead by this model to five points today.

As it is unrealistic to believe that only those who have voted in the past will vote this year, Gallup has a second model which “shows what would happen if turnout reflects voters’ self-reported likelihood of voting and campaign interest, but is not assumed to be dependent on their voting history.” Obama has extended his lead to nine points in this model.

Pundits assume that the race will tighten based upon past years, along with considering it unlikely one party could win by very much considering how close the past two elections have been. This could be the case, and Obama should act as if the race will tighten, but the advantages for Obama I mentioned above could also result in Obama pulling out a victory of around ten points, and possibly even more.

Obama also continues to lead in the state polls. projects 364 electoral votes for Obama and 171 for McCain, with North Dakota’s three electoral votes too close to call. If the race were to tighten it is possible that some of the red states where Obama only has a small lead could go back to McMcCain, but there would have to be many states which change back for Obma to lose in the electoral college. As Obama has the money to spend in every state where he has any chance, it is also possible that some of the races where McCain only has a slight lead, such as Indiana and West Virginia, could go to Obama.

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