Barack Obama is toast. This is not something I say lightly. I generally try to remain cautious about predictions, because the prediction business is a humbling one. I have never been especially bullish on Mitt Romney, and I spent most of the summer and early fall arguing that this was basically a neck-and-neck race that would go down to the wire. But in the end, two things stand out:
One, Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead. This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls. It’s been a hard enough number for the past few weeks now, even as the last of the debates gets baked into the polls, that there’s little chance that Obama can turn it around in the 11 days remaining in this race. In fact, Obama has been underwater with independents almost continuously since the middle of 2009.
Two, to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of – or in some places exceeding – the advantage he enjoyed in 2008, when Democrats nationally had a 7-point advantage (39-32). Yet nearly every indicator we have of turnout suggests that, relative to Republicans, the Democrats are behind where they were in 2008. Surveys by the two largest professional pollsters, Rasmussen and Gallup, actually suggest that Republicans will have a turnout advantage, which has happened only once (in the 2002 midterms) in the history of exit polling and probably hasn’t happened in a presidential election year since the 1920s.
Those two facts alone caused me to conclude at the end of last week that Obama will lose – perhaps lose a very close race, but lose just the same. That conclusion is only underscored by the fact that, historically, there is little reason to believe that the remaining undecided voters will break for an incumbent in tough economic times. He will lose the national popular vote, and the fact that he has remained competitive to the end in the two key swing states he needs to win (Ohio and Wisconsin) will not save him.
Three types of people vote: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Traditionally, Republican candidates get in the vicinity of 90% of the votes of Republicans, and Democrats (for a variety of reasons) get a similar but perhaps slightly smaller percent of the votes of Democrats. This is more or less true over time and in national and state races. In 2010, Republicans carried Republican voters 95-4, Democrats carried Democratic voters 92-7, a 3-point Republican advantage. Absent an unusually large number of party crossovers, then, there are two paths to winning an election: win the remaining, Independent voters; or turn out more of your own.
It is usually the case that if you want to know who is winning an election, you look at who is winning independent voters. This chart, for example, shows the popular vote totals for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates from 1972-2008, juxtaposed with their share of independent voters. As you can see, while the relationship isn’t a perfect one (Bush narrowly won independents while narrowly losing the popular vote in 2000, and narrowly lost independents while winning the popular vote in 2004; a lot of independents also voted for third party candidates in 1980, 1992 and 1996), independent voters tend to mirror the trend of the electorate as a whole. This is not surprising: year to year, the preferences of independent voters tend to be a good deal more volatile than the partisan composition of the R/D portion of the electorate.
More recently, we can use the crosstabs in the exit polls to break this down more precisely. In 2000, for example, Bush had an 0.5 point advantage from his 2-point win among independent voters and a 1.5 point advantage from winning crossovers by 3 (he got 11% of Democratic votes, Gore got 8% of Republicans), but Gore won the popular vote because the 4-point Democratic turnout edge gave him a 1.9 point advantage. This graph shows the component parts of the popular vote margins for Gore in 2000, Bush in 2004, and Obama in 2008:
As you can see, Republicans generally help offset Democratic turnout advantages by drawing a slightly larger number of crossover votes. In Obama’s case, 28% of his popular vote margin in 2008 came from winning independents, while the other 72% came from getting more Democratic votes than McCain got Republican votes. But had Obama lost independents by the same 52-44 margin, he would have won 51-48 instead of 53-46, cutting his margin of victory by more than half – turning a 5.9 point margin among loyal partisans into a 2.6 point win.
Here’s another way of visualizing how the share of the electorate broke down in each of those elections by Republicans voting Republican (R-R), Independents voting Republican (I-R), Democrats voting Republican (D-R), etc.:
Obama has lost independents. He will lose them nationally by easily 5-8 points, and quite possibly well into double digits. And he will lose them in Ohio by at least 5 as well. With no sign that he’s winning the crossover battle, partisan turnout is his only hope.
We’ve established that Obama, having won independents four years ago, is now losing them. If the electorate looks like 2008, of course, that’s not a fatal problem. But that’s a seriously dubious assumption.
The Democrats’ enormous, post-New Deal party ID advantage evaporated after Ronald Reagan’s election, but after that, GOP party ID was remarkably steady around 35-36% from 1984 to 2000; what varied from year to year, usually going up a few points in presidential election years, was the relative vote share of Democrats vs independents. All that changed during the Bush and Obama years: Republicans enjoyed a post-9/11 boom in party ID in 2002-04, followed by a crash in 2006-08 (2008 was the first electorate below 34% Republican since 1982), followed by a run-up again in 2010. The obvious conclusion is that the largest factor in the partisan composition of the electorate in 2008 was that Republicans stayed home. Meanwhile, Democrats in 2010 were under 37% of the electorate for only the second time (the other being 1994). Another way of looking at this is to chart the Republican share of the non-Democratic electorate (R/(R+I)) and the Democratic share of the non-Republican electorate:
Looked at in that context, it’s pretty clear that (1) both parties have been steadily losing share to independents since the partisan high-water marks of 2002 and 2004, and (2) by far the bigger factor in 2008 was low GOP turnout. And there’s precious little Obama’s campaign or ground operations can do to keep Republicans home; if anything, the harder he presses social wedge issues to fire up his own base, the more likely it is that he’s helping motivate the GOP base. So he has to squeeze out a really large surge in Democrats to offset that.
That’s asking a lot. If you average out the past 7 election cycles, you get an average party ID split of D+3 in presidential election years (D/R/I of 38/35/27) and D+2 in off-year elections (37/35/27). To believe that the D+7 electorate of 2008 is likely to be replayed in 2012, you have to believe some sort of fundamental shift has taken place…but the 2010 elections don’t support that thesis at all. Nor, in Wisconsin, does the 2012 recall election. Take a look at the charts for Ohio and Wisconsin:
(Per Josh Jordan, I used the adjusted 2008 Ohio D/R/I figures, since the actual 2008 Ohio exits overstated the Democratic turnout advantage – if you added them up, they didn’t produce the same results as the actual vote count. Even exit polls are still polls.)
Obama supporters at this point are shaking their heads, saying that those elections were different: not national elections. It’s worth examining that in more detail another day. Interestingly, among other things, African-American voters were 15% of the Ohio electorate in 2010, compared to 11% in 2008. A look at the black and Hispanic components of the electorates in the six most hotly-contested swing states suggests that the narrative of a sudden shift to a less-white, more-Obama-friendly electorate is really only an accurate description of one of the six (Nevada); even Colorado saw fewer Hispanic voters in 2008 and 2010 than in 2000 and 2004, and if you’re banking on non-white voters to save you in Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire, you are well and truly doomed:
Extending the Rasmussen chart to the midterm elections in 2006 and 2010 you see a somewhat less accurate picture – Rasmussen understated Republican turnout in both years (in 2010, his survey only captured a big GOP spike in November) – but still one that communicated the basic outline of where the electorate was headed:
If you tick off the list of other signs of turnout – voter registration figures, polls asking which side’s partisans are more enthusiastic, early voting and absentee ballot figures – you get a mess of data, data that can sometimes be misleadingly incomplete or hard to trace to nonpartisan sources…but nearly everything we can verify shows the Democrats in worse shape than 2008. It’s just hard to see where you come up with the evidence of the Democratic turnout wave that Obama needs. Certainly Obama has a sophisticated GOTV operation, well-honed and extensively staffed throughout the swing states. But Republicans had that in 2006, and it was all for naught. The voters themselves still get to decide if they really want to show up and pull the lever for you. And as noted above, Obama can’t do a thing to keep Republicans and independents home. At this point, given all the indicators, Obama’s plan for a decisive enough turnout advantage to overcome a huge loss with independents looks like the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan.
It’s hard to make sense of why so many pollsters are showing this as a tight race under these circumstances, with independents consistently breaking heavily to Romney and all the indicators of turnout suggesting at least a much smaller Democratic advantage than 2008 and – if you believe Gallup’s and Rasmussen’s surveys – a Republican wave unlike any we’ve seen in a presidential election in our lifetimes. Bob Krumm notes that the GOP advantage in national polls is directly correlated to how tight their likely-voter screens are; Romney also, for whatever reason, tends to do better in polls with larger samples. But the reasons can await the inevitable mid-November recriminations over what the polls missed and why. The important point is, a D+7 electorate is gone, and it’s not coming back.
The waterfront of analyzing all the factors that go into my conclusion here is too large to cover in one post, but the signs of Obama’s defeat are too clear now to ignore. Given all the available information – Romney’s lead among independents, the outlier nature of the 2008 turnout model, the elections held since 2008, the party ID surveys, the voter registration, early voting and absentee ballot data – I have to conclude that there is no remaining path at this late date for Obama to win the national popular vote. He is toast.
Obama’s partisans have argued that he doesn’t need to; that he can pursue the rare path of winning key swing states without a national win. Time permitting, I’ll come back later to why I don’t think this flies if you take a close look at the state-by-state polling using the same assumptions about turnout and independent voters. But I don’t buy that either.
Mitt Romney will be the 45th President of the United States.