As everyone knows who reads this blog, I am obsessed with national politics, and in particular with the outcome of the present election, which I consider truly fateful for this country. Lately, I have been puzzling over what seems to me to be a contradiction between established fact and a belief so widespread and plausible that it seems absurd to doubt. Let me explain.
In recent years, several sophisticated statisticians have had extraordinary success in predicting election outcomes by amalgamating the results of polls that they themselves do not conduct. Nate Silver at 538.com and Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium simply take all the poll results that the rest of us read as they appear – Ipsos, Rasmussen, Gallup, Quinnipiac, et al. – and generate extraordinarily accurate predictions. Sam Wang got 50 out of 50 states right in 2012, and predicted most of the senate races as well. Silver adjusts his calculations by taking into effect non-poll data [popularity of the sitting President, unemployment rate, etc.] whereas Wang adopts a “polls only” approach. And Wang’s record of prediction is even better than Silver’s.
This is the established fact – that amalgamation of polls, all by itself, is a spectacularly accurate predictor of election outcomes.
Now for the widespread and plausible belief. Everybody who comments on national politics agrees that ground game, organization, outreach, use of social media, paid advertising and the rest – the nuts and bolts of electoral politics – make a significant difference in election outcomes. Barack Obama’s game-changing get out the vote effort in 2008 and again in 2012 is credited by everyone with the strength of his success. I put in my time in 2008 and 2012 here in Chapel Hill walking door to door, registering new voters at supermarkets, entering data in the headquarters office, and I can attest to the ground level sophistication of the Obama campaign.
But these two – the established fact and the widespread belief – are in flat out contradiction with one another, or so they seem. The polls simply ask the chosen sample how they intend to vote [and other things as well, of course]. As the election grows closer, the polling organizations move from polling all registered voters to polling “likely voters,” a rather shaky and shifting classification, to be sure.
If Sam Wang can predict 50 out of 50 state results on the basis of those polls, then what earthly difference does the ground game make? So far as I can tell from a Google search, the identification of who is a likely voter has nothing to do with the impact of the ground game.
I await the greater wisdom of my readers.