Ah, I love science. Especially when it supports my political leanings.
This week's issue of New Scientist (September 29, 2012) has an opinion piece by Jim Giles, a consultant for the magazine. It's title and subtitle:
No contest. Don't believe the US presidential opinion polls. Barring a political earthquake, Barack Obama will be re-elected at a canter, says Jim Giles.
Hey, makes sense to me. Here's some excerpts:
FROM tabloids and broadsheets to left-leaning blogs and conservative talk shows, the US media has been united on one point in recent months: the presidential election is too tight to call.
...But it takes just a few clicks to go from that last article to one that tells a very different story - one much more in keeping with what science tells us about the election. The New York Times hosts FiveThirtyEight, a blog by statistician Nate Silver dedicated to crunching electoral numbers. It gives the Republican challenger Mitt Romney a 1-in-4 chance of victory. Over at PredictWise, another source of political forecasts, Romney's odds are only a shade better. The race isn't close or razor-thin or dependent on advertising. It is President Obama's to lose - something that readers are rarely told.
Why the discrepancy? To answer that question, think about what polls actually are. They are often taken as an indication of who will win the election. But polls only provide a snapshot, often with a large margin of error, of who would win if the election took place today. That's very different from what we really care about, which is the candidate most likely to win the real thing in November. That's a forecast. It's what FiveThirtyEight and PredictWise provide, and it's a more complex beast than a poll.
...If the models are robust, and their predictions strongly in favour of Obama, why are we being told that the race is a dead heat? I think it is partly a cultural issue.
...The hurly-burly of day-to-day politics is filled with dramatic events, like the recent leaked video of Romney talking in unvarnished terms about voters he cannot hope to win over. These events make the race feel like a roller-coaster ride.
The truth, as revealed by the science, is much more prosaic. Obama is way ahead and has been for ages. The meat and drink of daily political reporting - party conventions, gaffes, attack ads - have a limited and often passing impact. That's not to say that an unforeseen event couldn't put Romney in the White House. But it would have to be something huge, because studies of previous elections show outcomes depend far more on fundamental factors such as employment rates.
...The race is not tight, and the only honest approach is to say so.