Tuesday, November 11, 2008

2008 Electoral College Wrap Up

"How did we do?"

In the last week, several of our electoral college analyst brethren have asked about the level of accuracy each achieved. Let's have a look at how well and/or poorly FHQ did in that regard. [What, you thought we were going to be any different?] Below, you see how the race actually played out on election day, except now we've added some gradations to reflect states where candidates won by a substantial margin or where the final spread between Obama and McCain ended up being narrow.
[Click Map to Enlarge]

As Nate Silver explained recently, Obama could have given 9.3 points on average back to John McCain in every state and still have come away from Tuesday night's election with an electoral college tie. We have spoken time and again about the electoral college cushion Obama had in this race, but we have done so in terms of how many states past the victory line Obama's campaign was able to push. If George W. Bush would have given 9.3 points to John Kerry in 2004, Kerry would have been able to snatch up Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Arkansas, West Virginia, Virginia and Colorado to get to around the same number of electoral votes (360 EVs) Obama had in 2008 (365 EVs).

The Electoral College Spectrum*
HI-4
(7)**
ME-4
(157)
NH-4
(262/279)
GA-15
(159)
NE-4
(58)
VT-3
(10)
WA-11
(168)
IA-7
(269/274)
SD-3
(144)
KY-8
(54)
RI-4
(14)
MI-17
(185)
CO-9***
(278/269)
ND-3
(141)
LA-9
(46)
MA-12
(26)
OR-7
(192)
VA-13
(291/260)
AZ-10
(138)
AR-6
(37)
NY-31
(57)
NJ-15
(207)
OH-20
(311/247)
SC-8
(128)
AL-9
(31)
DE-3
(60)
NM-5
(212)
FL-27
(338/227)
TX-34
(120)
AK-3
(22)
IL-21
(81)
WI-10
(222)
IN-11
(349/200)
WV-5
(86)
ID-4
(19)
MD-10
(91)
NV-5
(227)
NC-15+1****
(365/189)
MS-6
(81)
UT-5
(15)
CA-55
(146)
PA-21
(248)
MO-11
(173)
TN-11
(75)
OK-7
(10)
CT-7
(153)
MN-10
(258)
MT-3
(162)
KS-6
(64)
WY-3
(3)
*Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
**The numbers in the parentheses refer to the number of electoral votes a candidate would have if he won all the states ranked prior to that state. If, for example, McCain won all the states up to and including Colorado (all Obama's toss up states plus Colorado), he would have 269 electoral votes. McCain's numbers are only totaled through the states he would have needed in order to get to 270. In those cases, Obama's number is on the left and McCain's is on the right in italics.

***
Colorado is the state where Obama crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidential election. That line is referred to as the victory line.
****Nebraska allocates electoral votes based on statewide results and the results within each of its congressional districts. Nebraska's 2nd district voted for Barack Obama on November 4.

We knew, for instance, that when and if New Hampshire and Pennsylvania went for Obama on election day, that all it was going to take, given where Obama was likely to do well the rest of the evening, to push Obama over the top was the victory line state (Colorado) or some state below it. So when Ohio fell into Obama's column the race was over. And that can be seen on the Electoral College Spectrum for the final results above.

Great, FHQ's weighted averages granted us the ability to see that Obama would win and what states to watch on election night. Lots of people saw that coming. But where did FHQ fail to capture in its average what actually happened on election day?
[Click Map to Enlarge]

There were a handful of states that FHQ missed (...as did several other outlets). Most notably, North Carolina and Indiana turned blue for the first time in decades. We had discussed North Carolina at length during the last month of the campaign and the Tar Heel state's average had crept closer and closer to a complete tie in that time. But it never moved into the blue for Obama. Between the average and the actual outcome, North Carolina moved about a point on election day. So, while North Carolina wasn't correctly predicted, the result wasn't out of left field either. The state was already close and on the Watch List for a potential switch toward Obama.

Indiana, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise given where the graduated weighted average has the Hoosier state ranked on the Spectrum. Consistently on the McCain side of both Missouri and North Carolina, Indiana jumped over two points on election day (from where FHQ's average placed the state and where it ended up after the votes were counted). Heading into the day, Missouri looked much more likely to end up on Obama's side of the ledger than Indiana. What's strange is how both those states split their votes between the presidential and gubernatorial level. Missouri gave McCain its 11 electoral votes while electing a Democratic governor and Indiana provided Obama with a narrow margin and at the same time reelected a Republican governor. Yes, local factors played a role in each case, but that's still an interesting occurrence.

[The final electoral vote from Nebraska's 2nd congressional district was one that was never accounted for in our averages. Now that the first split allocation of electoral votes has occurred, that may be something that FHQ will have to attempt to factor in in subsequent cycles. But we'll talk about possible improvements momentarily.]

The Electoral College Spectrum*
HI-4
(7)**
ME-4
(157)
NM-5
(264)
ND-3
(381/160)
AK-3
(61)
VT-3
(10)
OR-7
(164)
CO-9***
(273/274)
GA-15
(157)
KY-8
(58)
DE-3
(13)
WA-11
(175)
VA-13
(286/265)
WV-5
(142)
TN-11
(50)
NY-31
(44)
NJ-15
(190)
NV-5
(291/252)
AZ-10
(137)
KS-6
(39)
IL-21
(65)
IA-7
(197)
OH-20
(311/247)
SD-3
(127)
NE-5
(33)
MD-10
(75)
WI-10
(207)
FL-27
(338/227)
LA-9
(124)
AL-9
(28)
RI-4
(79)
MN-10
(217)
NC-15
(353/200)
AR-6
(115)
WY-3
(19)
MA-12
(91)
PA-21
(238)
MO-11
(364/185)
TX-34
(109)
ID-4
(16)
CA-55
(146)
MI-17
(255)
IN-11
(375/174)
MS-6
(75)
UT-5
(12)
CT-7
(153)
NH-4
(259)
MT-3
(378/163)
SC-8
(69)
OK-7
(7)
*Follow the link for a detailed explanation on how to read the Electoral College Spectrum.
**The numbers in the parentheses refer to the number of electoral votes a candidate would have if he won all the states ranked prior to that state. If, for example, McCain won all the states up to and including Colorado (all Obama's toss up states plus Colorado), he would have 274 electoral votes. Both candidates numbers are only totaled through their rival's toss up states. In those cases, Obama's number is on the left and McCain's is on the right in italics.

***
Colorado is the state where Obama crosses (or McCain would cross) the 270 electoral vote threshold to win the presidential election. That line is referred to as the victory line. It is currently favoring Obama, thus the blue text in that cell.

Also, when we compare the predicted map and Spectrum to the actual results above we find that while several states were correctly predicted, they were either more or less competitive than our averages would have let on. On the McCain end, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia ended up being less competitive than expected while South Dakota and Indiana and North Carolina, obviously, were closer to Obama on Tuesday than had been predicted.

On the Obama side, there were several states that were "off" in terms of how their averages and results matched up, but the rank ordering fell pretty much in line with what had been expected. Nevada ended up being much less competitive then the polling in the Silver state otherwise would have indicated. As UNLV political scientist, Dave Damore, told FHQ back in September, pollsters tend to oversample the the rural and more Republican areas of Nevada which in 2004 meant support Bush was overestimated in the polls conducted in the state. But even adding that 4-5 points to FHQ's average falls short of where the Silver state fell on November 4. What was the deal then? Well, it could be that we didn't have enough information on Nevada -- it certainly had fewer polls conducted within the state lines than many of the other toss up states -- or it could be that rural/Republican oversampling really overestimated McCain's support in the state.

[Click Figure to Enlarge]

But how well did FHQ's averages match up with where the individual states actually fell on election day? A simple bivariate regression with our averages as the explanatory variable and the actual results as the dependent variable show that the averages explained over 95% of the variation in the vote margins witnessed on election day. All 50 states are clustered pretty tightly around that regression line above. But how closely? And which states were problematic?

[Click Figure to Enlarge]

We can eyeball it or we can add a 95% confidence interval to the plot above. Sure, you can see that Alaska and Hawaii are outliers in that original scatterplot, but are there states that fall outside of that confidence interval? There are and we come full circle with the earlier discussion of Nevada. One of the potential problems with the Silver state that I mentioned was that there were fewer polls there than in other toss up states. If you look at the states that fall outside of the gray area in the second plot, you see that most of them are less competitive and thus less frequently polled states. That indicates that some sort of repeated simulation -- akin to what FiveThirtyEight, the Princeton Election Consortium or Hominid Views use -- could be useful in providing more information on those states and a greater level of confidence in their averages. Ah, something to work on for 2012. Isn't that just copying them? Yeah, but FHQ would remain different in that it would include all the older polls in a given cycle while the others phase them out gradually or focus on only the more recent ones.

On the whole, though, this first run in 2008 was a relatively successful one for FHQ in terms of the electoral college. 48 of the 50 states were correctly predicted with a simple weighted average and one of those two, North Carolina, was certainly within range of a switch heading into election day.


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12 comments:

Robert said...

Josh,

Have you seen Jay Cost's maps today?

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/horseraceblog/2008/11/is_2008_a_realignment.html

Josh Putnam said...

Here's that Cost link from Rob.

I had not seen them Rob, but I do like seeing Long Island vote differently than the rest of New York on several of those maps. [Goody! I'm a map snob now.]

I certainly talked at great length about realignments in my intro to American government course this semester given the post-9-11 world and now these economic issues, but the R word is used too much. Cost is never more correct than he is in that final paragraph. Much of this realignment talk depends on Obama's ability to successfully govern.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

Not a "realignment." But for lasting changes, I'd identify this election as the last gasp of the anti-intellectuals on a national level. The percentage of Americans who are college-educated keeps creeping up, so it didn't quite work this time to pit "real" people against "elitists"--there are too many who side with the elitists in that division. And the demographics there will keep tilting further and further toward the educated.

It was once possible to espouse a kind of populism that set workers against landowners--but eventually, demographics shifted so that now too many voters own homes, and any attack on property owners would be political suicide. We've just crossed that Rubicon with education, and we won't be going back.

Jack said...

Josh,

There are a few nuts up here that want to secede from New York, including the comptroller of neighboring Suffolk County.

Based on population figures, I believe we'd have five electoral votes, and as Long Island's starting to turn blue (thanks entirely, of course, to me) it would probably be a slightly Democratic-leaning swing state by 2012.

Jack said...

Scott,

I don't think populism which plays to the uneducated is dead. But the increase in education certainly requires one to be more subtle. One can't go around insulting educated Americans, but you can get away with playing up the virtues of rural American values, etc.

I've been reading a lot about the "death of Rovian politics," "end of the politics of fear," etc., and I've just had a hard time believing it. Just because it didn't work this year doesn't mean it will never work. After all, there were a lot of other reasons why McCain didn't win; they might work in a year in which the conditions are more favorable.

Robert said...

Jack,

I intend to agree with you. I heard on NPR that Newt Gingrich is planning on running in 2012. Here is a man who is brilliant and who can appeal to intellectuals as well as the uneducated. If Obama falters, Newt could be a very appealing candidate -- one who can appeal to the social conservatives despite his divorces. For those of you who think that 1996 finished him off, I point to the 1962 gubanatorial race where "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more", Bill Clinton's career-ending speech at the 1988 convention, and Hillary Clinton's national reputation in 2000. A Gingrich/ Palin primary contest could be as entertaining as the Obama/ Clinton contest this year!

Josh Putnam said...

Folks,
I'm going to put these responses into an open thread on realignments. These comments and responses don't deserve to be lost in the comments section. Plus, I have some nice links to add in as well.

MSS said...

I won't complain about FHQ's missing of Indiana and North Carolina's blue turn. In both states, Obama won with less than 50% and the votes of Bob Barr were greater than the margin.

I could, however, complain about FHQ's failure to look beyond two parties, given that once again, third parties affected the electoral college result (if not the final presidential result--this time).

I compiled some of the relevant data at F&V.

(And while we are at it, did anyone else notice that Nader's vote in Missouri was more than triple the margin by which McCain won the state?)

(Obama also did not win a majority of the vote in the one Nebraska district.)

Jack said...

I would not assume that Nader cost Obama Missouri; some Nader voters might have considered a candidate such as Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney, while others might have been racist Democrats unwilling to vote for Obama (I doubt this group would have voted for McKinney either), or simply people absolutely dissatisfied with both major party choices. Also, while Obama may have lost some votes to Nader in MO, McCain also lost a smaller number of votes to right-of-center types such as Barr, Baldwin, Jay, Amondson, and that nut who ran against Obama in the 2004 Senate race.

Josh Putnam said...

I think these are excellent points, Matthew. Here's the thing, though: FHQ even covering the electoral college to the extent that we did during this cycle was an on-the-fly, constantly evolving process.

It all started when Evan Bayh and other Clinton surrogates began claiming in late March that the New York senator would do better in the electoral college than Barack Obama would. I checked it out, and that wasn't the case. But I did think it was something worth continuing to track.

And I did.

But lacking true preparation ahead of time hampered me in some cases; instances that will be fixed in 2012 hopefully.

Along the way I obviously examined the chances that some of the third party candidates would have an impact (see here and here), but the information at that time was scant at best. We got some nice data down the stretch on those folks and I'd like to be able to incorporate that sort of data in some way in the future.

This is where running several thousand iterations will help as well. Third party polling is a limited information situation that could be bolstered by some simulation runs. In fact, that would be fairly unique among these examinations and another way that FHQ could separate itself from other electoral college analyses.

MSS said...

Actually, I never assume that third-party voters would all go for the major-party candidate that is "closest" to them. (I am decidedly not of the school that claims Nader "cost" Gore the 2000 election.)

However, when Nader's vote is three times the margin in a post-2000 election and in a state that would not normally be a stronghold of greenish/left-libertarian support, one should at least wonder...

Josh, as I have said before, FHQ was out front on a lot of things, and so my criticism was friendly and even somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

I would heep a lot of criticism on pollsters for not being as systematic about third-party polling than they should be (though I understand the small-margins problem; nonetheless, pollsters in other countries with small parties tend to manage).

And, by the way, I do not think McKinney was much of a factor anywhere.

Josh Putnam said...

Matthew,
I took your points as constructive criticism and like I said, this is a potentially fruitful avenue to take in the future.

Once I clear the dissertation hurdle and get a real job (and don't hesitate to ask the folks in charge at UCSD to change the focus of that African Diaspora line they have open to campaigns and elections -- tongue planted firmly in cheek on that one), I'll be able to think more about 2012 and linking some what I've gathered along the way in 2008 to some potentially publishable material. When I get to that point we should try and chat some more about working together on something along those lines (because I really do think there is something to it. I also think there are ways around the third party polling data deficit.)