"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
November 26, 2012
BASEBALL: Has Mike Trout Peaked Already? Maybe.
David Schoenfield asks a provocative question: is Mike Trout's Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up season in 2012 as good as he will get? After all, he's unlikely to improve much as a fielder or base thief. Schoenfield thinks Trout can still get better as a hitter - for most 20-year-olds, that's not even a question mark, but most have more room for improvement:
I think it's possible. He has a walk rate of 10.5 percent -- while above the AL average of 8.0 percent -- could improve, boosting his on-base percentages over .400, even if he's more .300 hitter than .330...
Let's look at some history. Trout's headline-grabbing number is 10.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at age 20. You can't really study a player like that systematically, because he's essentially a sample size of one. Counting only non-pitchers, only 2 other players have cleared 8 WAR at age 20 - Alex Rodriguez and Al Kaline, a list that grows to 5 if you include 21 year olds (Rogers Hornsby, Rickey Henderson, Eddie Mathews). If you compare Trout to players with 10-WAR seasons, the youngest comps are Ted Williams at age 22, and Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins at age 23. Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle and A-Rod all did it at 24, Hornsby and Babe Ruth at 25 (Ruth only really put in his first full-time season as an outfielder at 24). And of those, if you look at players with 10.5 or more WAR ate age 25 or younger, the only guys on the list with Trout are Mantle (twice) and Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, and Hornsby once each, all of them at 24 or 25. Rare air to be listed with any of these guys, let alone atop a club exclusive to those names.
But to at least get some historical perspective, let's loosen the criteria.
Of the ten previous players to clear 10 WAR in a season for the first time by age 25, four never topped that season again, and three of those never topped 10 WAR again; only three (Ruth, Hornsby and Mays) cracked 10 WAR more than two more times (the "10+Yrs" column refers only to subsequent seasons):
If you expand the field to players who reached 9 WAR for the first time by age 25, you get 19 players. 7 of the 19 never topped that season, although besides Arky Vaughan all of those were the 24 and 25 year olds. 9 of the 19 went on to have at least 3 more seasons of 9 or more WAR:
As you can see, I included here as well, under the heading dWAR, the player's defensive Wins Above Replacement, to see if players whose defensive value was a big part of scaling these heights were more or less likely to repeat. At the extreme end you have Terry Turner, who made this list on a fluke defensive season for the 1906 Indians (the defensive stats of Nap Lajoie's Indians are a whole separate historical controversy). That said, the guys with some significant defensive value, like Trout, do seem to have been more likely to re-appear on the list, even guys like Hornsby and Bonds who were no longer valuable defensive players by the time of their best offensive seasons.
Stretching this to players who reached 8 WAR before age 25, you get a total set of 40 players, and almost half of them never matched the first season when they reached that level:
Stirnweiss was a dominant player in 1944-45 who was merely ordinary when the real ballplayers returned from the war. Grich and Andruw Jones, like lesser versions of Turner (though better players over their careers), were pushed to these heights by unusually valuable glovework.
Mike Trout is a highly unusual player; we just don't have much precedent for a guy this good, this young, with this broad a base of skills and some of them (like his defense and base stealing) so well-polished already. You can compare him to Mays, Mantle and Cobb, but almost by definition you can't project a player to have that kind of career. What we can say is that players who have MVP-caliber seasons at age 25 or younger (1) tend, more often than not, to go on to great careers but (2) tend, as often as not, to never have a better season simply because it's hard to put it all together like this at any age.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Baseball 2012-13 | Baseball Studies | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
November 16, 2012
POLITICS: Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time - A Polling Post-Mortem (Part III of III)
This is the third and final part of my three-part polling post-mortem. Part I here looks at the national and state polls, and Part II at the likely voter screens and the electorate.
V. Polls vs. Non-Poll Tools
One of my premises in reviewing projections of turnout was that other items of information besides the polls were worth reviewing. Many of these same indicators favoring Romney in 2012 had forecast the rise of Obama in 2008. Why did so many of them prove useless or misleading?
The Bush era saw a modern-historic rise in the partisan component of the electorate, i.e., the percentage of votes that were either Democrats voting Democrat or Republicans voting Republican - and while the partisan component has become more Democratic, the trend has not significantly abated under Obama:
As long as that remains the case, knowing the partisan composition of the electorate remains critical. Yet non-poll data on the topic proved elusive. The data point I stressed that failed most spectacularly was the Rasmussen and Gallup surveys of party ID. I don't regret looking at those; they had a proven track record in the past of being right, and I like looking at data that has a proven track record in the past of being right. Rasmussen's surveys had been right in presidential and non-presidential election years, in years before and during/after the rise of Obama, and had never before overstated GOP turnout. And the Rasmussen survey in particular is based on an enormous sample of something like 15,000 interviews a month. But both proved to be way off the mark: Gallup had the electorate at R+1, Rasmussen's final survey R+6. Despite their record of accuracy before 2012, I will almost certainly put no stock in those surveys again. It really was different this time.
On the other hand, I still stand by my scorn for TPM's party ID survey average; it was useless slop that failed once again. It got 2010 wrong, and 2012 too: even if you adjust the numbers upward proportionally from the 90.7% of the population it purported to survey, it projects a D+8 electorate of D 36/R 28/I 36, when the exits told us it was D 38/R 32/I 30. The survey assumed significantly more independent voters than Republican voters, but Republicans outnumbered independents at the polls, just as they have every year since 1980.
That said, as in 2008 and unlike in the off-year electorate of 2010, Republicans were at a recent-historically low share of the vote relative to independents, suggesting that their turnout problem was not solely one of high Democratic turnout - this chart computes the GOP share of (Republicans+Independents), and the Democratic share of (Democrats+Independents), so as to avoid letting one party's turnout cloud estimates of the other's:
No two ways about it: there were not enough Republicans at the polls. The question for the GOP going forward is how to bring the people who stayed home or left the party back into the fold and the voting booth.
Then there's voter registrations; I relied on a bunch of studies showing that Democrats were registering new voters at a slower rate than 2008 and suffering a net decline in voter registration in key battleground states, while Republican registrations were up slightly and independent registrations were up dramatically. This hard data told the same story as the national party ID surveys and the voter enthusiasm self-reporting. While Democrats said they could just turn out the voters they'd registered in 2008, I was skeptical on two grounds: voters age 22-25 were likely to have moved since 2008, and voters age 18-21 could not have been registered then.
I may have overrated these problems. It would seem that OFA's digital outreach must have kept a handle on transient recent college grads. And we have yet to see final voter-registration figures; while 2008 featured yearlong registration drives, it's still possible that the Obama campaign just registered a whole lot of people in October and/or the day they voted. I'll be very surprised if we do not see, in the data that comes out after the fact, a surge in last-minute registrations.
There was also early voting and absentee ballot data; I didn't have systematic data, but lots and lots of the individual hard-data points, especially from Colorado and Ohio, showed that early voting and absentee ballot requests were up in Republican areas or among registered Republicans, and down with Democrats, at least compared to 2008. Many of these data points came from official state records; they were not just the usual vaporous campaign emissions about how many doors they knocked on. Yet again, all this data turned out to be misleading. For example, the Colorado Secretary of State at one point was showing an R+2 electorate in the state after 62% of the state had voted early. Coming from official records, that seemed to me a non-crazy reason to think the electorate would be pretty good for the GOP, given that early voting is more of a Democratic strength in most states. Exit polls showed the Colorado electorate ended up D+4.
Relatedly, one of the realities the GOP has to come to grips with is the extent to which early voting has changed both the process of turning out voters and the process of polling even as compared to a decade ago - early voting makes it easier to turn out less-motivated voters, but also harder to use traditional tools to figure out who will turn out. Many of the polls in October hugely oversampled early voters (you'd get samples that were around 40% early voters when about 20% of the state, according to official records, had voted early) - but of course, with voter turnout overall below 60% of the voting-age population, you probably do need to oversample people who you now know are 100% certain to vote, if your sample is going to reflect final turnout. I suspect that at least in some states, the polls taking a turn towards Obama at the end reflected, not a change in public opinion, but a change in the poll samples as more of Obama's early vote got locked in. That suggests that past patterns in how the polls moved at the end of a race in the days before early voting may be a poor guide to how they will move in years to come.
Another indicator I factored in, from within the polls, was polls of self-reported voter enthusiasm. Many, many polls reported GOP voters more enthusiastic about voting. Such polls have been indicative of an "enthusiasm gap" borne out on Election Day in the past, including in 2010; they were not this time. Ditto the less scientific indicator of the large, enthusiastic crowds Romney and Ryan drew on the trail. By contrast, one thing I didn't put a ton of stock in, small-dollar donations, favored Obama, and in retrospect it was probably a sign of the effectiveness of his digital outreach (the much-mocked three-a-day fundraising emails), and a proxy for real base enthusiasm just as it had been for Bush in 2004. Romney never really did particularly well with small donors.
I also failed to consider that Dick Morris predicted a Romney win, which should have set the probability of a Romney win to zero all by itself.
All of which does make me wonder whether, despite my longstanding philosophy of wanting to use external sources as a sanity check on the polls, there are any left we can trust. If relative or in some cases absolute advantages in voter registration, early voting, absentee balloting, party identification, and self-reported voter enthusiasm are not worth anything, we may be stuck trusting the pollsters' hunches - and may be blindsided the next time they are wrong.
VI. Presidential vs. Off Year Polling
Many of us quite reasonably thought that 2010 proved the GOP had recovered from its 2006 and 2008 wipeouts, and that we should expect an electorate in 2012 that looked at least as much like 2010 as like 2008; at a minimum, a midway point between the two, which would be D+3.5. After all, 2010 was the more recent sample, and both parties had contested it vigorously. But one of the real emerging lessons of 2012 is that we are in an age where turnout in mid-term elections is genuinely not predictive of the electorate that will show up in a presidential election, and vice versa. As with many things in the Age of Obama, it remains to be seen if this effect will persist after Obama is gone - but it is clearly with us now, and suggests both that (1) Democrats on the ballot in 2014 should not count on the 2012 electorate showing up and (2) even a strongly Republican-tilted electorate in 2014, if one resurfaces, will not tell us much about the 2016 electorate. Right now, I would not want to be Mark Warner facing the electorate that voted in Bob McDonnell by 19 points, or Ron Johnson facing the electorate that re-upped Obama by 7.
This chart shows each party's swing between the off year elections and the prior and subsequent general election:
As you can see, Republican turnout in the era from 1984 to 2000 was extremely steady every two years, in both general and off-year elections, around 35% of the vote. Democrats would go up and down relative to independents, but the GOP share was a constant. But since 2000, that has fluctuated much more wildly, with high GOP turnout in the 2002, 2004 and 2010 elections and low turnout in 2006, 2008 and 2012. That volatility is even higher than the volatility of the Democrats. What it suggests is, more or less, that there are a lot more casual Democratic voters than casual Republican voters - the GOP's determined base turns out rain or shine every two years except in a real washout like 2006, but the extra people who come out only every four years are (at present) composed more heavily of Democrats. That's terrible news if you're a Democratic candidate for Senator or Governor in 2014 (even aside from the usual carnage that attends a president's sixth-year elections), but it's also frightening news for Republicans considering the long-term strength of the party.
VII. Models vs. Averages
My criticism, and that of other informed skeptics on the Right, of Nate Silver's 538 model was on three grounds. First, most of the major controversies in this election cycle centered around how much faith to place in the state polling averages, a debate for now largely resolved in favor of the state polling averages. Since the 538 model runs on those averages, it successfully called the election - but so did the averages themselves, without the assistance of the model.
Second, the model has been oversold. This really has nothing to do with the model itself, and everything to do with making people understand that it was only as good as its inputs. That criticism still stands: as noted in Part II, the polls had to make some very unscientific adjustments to keep up with the electorate this year, and there are significant reasons to question their ability to do so in the future. If the pollsters' "hunches" are wrong next time, the model contains no mechanism to avoid failing just as it has failed in virtually every past instance where the state polls were wrong. If you view the 538 model as a way of aggregating imperfect inputs - like the RCP average, but with some additional bells and whistles - you can get value from it as an informed consumer. If you view it as an infallible Oracle to be obeyed, you are likely to sooner or later be disappointed.
Third, the most questionable part of the model is its projections of the likelihood of how late-deciding voters will break, which by definition is the part not anchored to the polls. (You can read Nate Silver's breakdown of past incumbent-challenger races here, and while as he notes it suffers from the usual small-sample-size problems of any presidential poll analysis, you can also see that the challenger has traditionally tended to gain more ground than the incumbent as compared to his standing in the October polls). This is an area where others in this field have done more work than I have, so I won't repeat the controversies, but one of my prior concerns was Ted Frank's point that the 538 model was placing heavy emphasis on the 2000 election in projecting that voters were less likely to break against an incumbent party when the Democrats are in office than the Republicans. Ted's point was that Bush's DUI story was an unusual end-of-race event not likely to recur here (I had a good deal of confidence that Mitt Romney had never been busted for DUI). But we did, yet again, have an end-of-the-race late-October surprise, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, and we did, yet again, have voters break towards Obama right at the end. Unless you place a lot of value on the ability of the media to spin a late-breaking story in the Democrats' favor, however (not a factor in Bush's case, since the story was self-explanatory), it's hard to see how you build a credible mathematical model that assumes this sort of thing will happen with regularity.
The model's usefulness in presidential polling is also not necessarily translatable to other races, especially in off-years when the electorate is not as predictable. There was no running 538 forecast this year, at all, for the Democrats' chances of re-taking the House (which they did not). In 2010, the 538 forecast in August 2010 gave Republicans only around a 60 percent chance of taking the House, and still had Democrats with about a 20% chance of holding their House majority as late as Election Day - a much higher chance than the model gave Romney of winning this year. But of course, the Democrats got shellacked in a landslide, far worse by historic House standards than Romney's loss by historic presidential standards.
As to the parts of the 538 model that go beyond just plugging in the state poll averages, I continue to take Bill James' view of expert and expertise:
"[G]etting the answers right" had almost nothing to do with the success of my career. My reputation is based entirely on finding the right questions to ask - that is, in finding questions that have objective answers, but to which no one happens to know what the objective answer is...When I do that, it makes almost no difference whether I get the answer right, or whether I get it a little bit wrong. Of course I do my very best to get the answers right, out of pride and caution, but it doesn't actually matter.
I add to that my own prior view of experts:
[T]he expert who learns that the recitation of jargon and the appeal to authority effectively exempts him from moral or social scrutiny has made the most dangerous discovery known to man: the ability to get away with virtually anything. Because if people will let you talk your way into money and influence with good science on the grounds that they do not understand it or have no right to obstruct it, what is to stop the expert from using bad science from accomplishing the same end, if they layman isn't equipped to tell the difference between the two?
We have not arrived now at the End of History or the End of Science. The polling controversies of past election cycles forced pollsters and poll analysts to learn important lessons. The polling controversies of this election cycle have, in my view, done the same. I wish my conclusions had carried the day this time, but I make no apology for challenging assumptions that were being treated as Holy Writ by liberals merely because, on this occasion, those assumptions proved correct. That's what I often do in my day job as a lawyer, in which I often encounter two contending experts with irreconcilable conclusions: probe their competing assumptions to expose what each side's conclusions assume to be true. There will always be a role for a Socrates, asking well-compensated analysts and pundits to explain themselves and put their assumptions on the line to be judged. The day we stop asking those questions is the day we let the "experts" know they can get away with anything just by hanging some numbers on it.
For the reasons explained in Part II, the old model of what kind of voter represents the swinging center of the electorate didn't work in 2012 - in fact, the center wasn't the decisive factor at all, but rather the huge margins in one corner of the electorate matched against a party that saw falling turnout among its natural base. Here in a single chart is the winning candidate's share of the two-party vote among five groups traditionally thought of as swing voters since 1972 - independents, suburbanites, voters age 30 and up, white women, white Catholics:
Mitt Romney's coalition among these five groups would have been the foundation of a clear national majority throughout the political era that ran from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and the polling practices that grew up in that era would have captured that majority's formation. Pollsters have had to unlearn a lot of what they knew about polling in order to stay ahead of those changes in the electorate, and poll analysis does as well. The harder question will be how we can tell, other than after the fact, if the pollsters' guesses don't capture future shifts. Merely appealing to the idea that the majority of pollsters will always be right is an unsatisfying answer, especially given the follow-the-herd tendencies in the industry.
So the state poll averages were right, and really nothing that contradicted their narrative was. Does all of this mean that the state poll averages, and the models that run on them, will always be right in the future? Of course not. Anybody who has followed gambling prognosticators or stock pickers knows that winning streaks of couple of cycles do not always equal omniscience, even when backed by facially impressive-looking math. Unquestioning faith in mathematical models still has not been adequately called to account for its role in the 2008 financial crisis, for example. (On the other hand, climate models can only dream of the predictive success record of the state poll averages). Just because somebody gives you a prediction with numbers on it and is right a few times in a row doesn't mean they always will be. If you look at this as a science, you have to recognize that we don't have nearly enough data from presidential elections to constitute a meaningful sample size. And the fact that the poll averages were right because the pollsters changed the way they poll - in a world of ongoing technological and demographic change, and via methods that are themselves far from scientific - leaves us with a lot of uncertainties about whether they will make the right guesses again next time. Tom Jensen's next "hunch" could be wrong. There might be elections in the future in which polls using likely voter screens are more accurate than polls that all but abandon the project. Skeptical examination of the assumptions behind the polls' turnout forecasts will not go away, and should not go away.
But all that said, we're conservatives; we learn from experience, and even when the process is questionable, results talk. The case for trusting state poll averages over all other indicators, at least in the stretch run of presidential elections, has been strengthened a good deal by a third consecutive cycle of those averages calling the result right in 48 or 49 states out of 50. The case for treating other indicators as predictive of turnout has been weakened and in some specific cases pretty badly discredited. And while I remain a little less firmly convinced of the value added by modeling of how undecided voters will break at the end - over and above the value of the poll averages themselves - the 538 model had a good election in that regard.
A final word. While I've been following elections for a long time, I really cut my teeth reading polls in the 2002 and 2004 elections. I recall well from those races seeing a lot of polls that were registered-voter polls or polls with D-heavy samples very favorable to Democrats, yet the end results were much more favorable to Republicans. In the presidential elections of 2000, 2004 and even 2008 (before the financial crisis), we repeatedly saw the polls shift towards the GOP when we got past Labor Day and most pollsters started using likely voter screens. I learned a lot from that experience, some of which is clearly still true, and some not.
But I also saw a lot about human nature that is eternally true. A lot of Republican pundits and poll-readers looked like geniuses in that period by projecting Republican wins in a lot of the competitive races. The lesson, then as now, is that it is easy to look smart when your own side is winning all the close ones. It doesn't make you a bad or dishonest advocate for your side if you are better at predicting your side's victories than its losses. But it means you are still one side's advocate - and while I work hard to call things as I see them (I genuinely believed every word I wrote in this race), I make no bones about being an advocate.
But you have not really made it as a neutral arbiter of presidential polling - let alone a scientific one - until you have given both sides news they desperately do not want to hear. We will know Nate Silver has really made it as a presidential pollster when people on his own ideological side are screaming in terror at his conclusions, and not before.
November 15, 2012
POLITICS: Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time - A Polling Post-Mortem (Part II of III)
The second part of my 3-part post-mortem on the polls and the 2012 election. See yesterday's Part I here.
IV. Likely vs. Registered Voters
A. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen
Near the heart of every major polling controversy this year was the issue of sampling and likely-voter screens. Polls traditionally report results among either "all adults" (whether or not registered to vote), "registered voters," or "likely voters." Historically, there's a well-recognized pattern: all-adults and registered-voter polls have tended to skew a couple of points in favor of the Democrats, and in the past this has usually been to the detriment of the accuracy of the polls. The pattern was especially pronounced this year; Bob Krumm noted before the election that Obama's strength in national polls was directly correlated with how lenient the poll's likely-voter screen was, and Nate Silver found the same effect in August, concluding:
It's all a bit of a mess, frankly. I suspect that part of the problem is that polling firms are applying likely voter methods that might have been designed 30 years ago to a modern polling universe of extremely low response rates (even the most thorough polling firms can only get about 10 percent of voters to return their calls), cellphone-only households, and an increasingly diverse and partisan electorate - and that is producing erratic and unpredictable results. There's always some uncertainty about just who will turn out to vote, but there is more of it than usual this year.
He also noted at the same time that Obama's support was strongest among those poll screens considered least likely to vote.
Those screens have worked in the past; if they didn't, the poll averages would have been useless a long time ago. This is why one of the regular rules of thumb in reading polls is that if a campaign is citing polls of registered rather than likely voters, especially late in the campaign, it's doomed. Yet that's exactly what Obama supporters were doing in the closing weeks, and more or less what Jim Messina was saying even after the election was over. For once, the registered-voter numbers were more accurate than the polls that put rigorous effort into likely-voter screening. The question is whether the pollsters actually had a good reason to do this, or whether they just got awfully lucky.
Part of what is supposed to make polling valuable is pollsters' ability to judge which voters are likely to show up to vote. They get to the likely-voter number by first, constructing a sample of registered voters, and second, applying a series of screening questions to determine which of those voters is likely to vote. That's what Messina was talking about in his argument that "traditional polling" was "broken" - the Obama campaign's theory throughout the election was that pollsters using the kinds of likely voter screens that have worked in the past (like Gallup and Rasmussen) would be wrong this time. The lesson we learned, at least this year, is that Messina was right and the traditional, professional pollsters were wrong - and that the nature of Obama's coalition made the application of likely voter screens particularly likely to affect the accuracy of the polls.
But determining which voters are likely to vote is the part of polling that is most inherently subjective and least scientific. Moreover, pollsters are often not very forthcoming about how they make these determinations, so sometimes when they release a poll, the best you can do is compare the number of registered and likely voters in the sample. As a result, a certain amount of deductive work is required to figure out why some polls give different results from others. There's only so much we can know from the outside, but it appears that pollsters like Gallup and Rasmussen were, for much of the cycle, using likely-voter screens that made traditional assumptions about who would make the effort to vote - and those assumptions just didn't hold this year, as illustrated by Gallup's final poll envisioning an electorate that was 78% white (the exits said 72%). By contrast, a number of the polls that were later vindicated were reporting results that defied all historical precedents, classifying as many as 99% of registered voters as likely voters. Their process seemed problematic precisely because it was so different from the things that made polls trustworthy in the past, but they got results.
One of the pollsters that projected a Democrat-friendly electorate and ended up getting high marks in the post-election rankings of final polls was PPP, a Democratic pollster employed by SEIU and Daily Kos, among other clients whose identities are not known. PPP's overall accuracy throughout election cycles is a longer story, but they did end up having a good record at the very end. Here's Tom Jensen, the principal of PPP, discussing how his firm determines who is likely to vote:
Jensen conceded that the secret to PPP's success was what boiled down to a well informed but still not entirely empirical hunch. "We just projected that African-American, Hispanic, and young voter turnout would be as high in 2012 as it was in 2008, and we weighted our polls accordingly," he explained. "When you look at polls that succeeded and those that failed that was the difference." Given the methodological challenges currently confronting pollsters, those hunches are only going to prove more important. "The art part of polling, as opposed to the science part," Jensen said, "is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the equation in having accurate polls."
In other words, the successful pollsters this cycle were doing exactly the same thing the poll skeptics were doing: making a more-or-less informed guess as to what the electorate would look like and weighting their results to match that. As Neil Stevens notes:
I don't remember anyone willing to say PPP was actively rigging the polls to reach chosen results, but there it is in black and white. Jensen decided in advance what he wanted the electorate to look like, and so tweaked the numbers until he got what he wanted. This isn't a whole lot different from what Research 2000 admitted to doing, folks.
Research 2000, as you may recall, was PPP's predecessor as DailyKos pollster, but had to be canned for more or less manipulating its data to get to results it wanted; Kos eventually sued them for fraud, which was settled out of court. Here's what Nate Silver had to say about R2k at the time:
[I]n practice, a pollster will usually have enough knobs to twist between likely voter screens, weighting and sampling assumptions, etc., that they could back into almost any result they wanted more often than not. But there would usually be some scientific pretense for it.
In fact, Jensen's hunches changed over the course of the race. Sean Davis calculated the demographic composition of PPP's Florida polls over the course of the race, yielding the following percentages of white voters:
4/17: 71%...6/5: 70%...7/3: 69%...9/12: 70%...9/23: 69%...10/14: 66%......10/28: 64%...11/5: 66%
From April until September 23, PPP assumed an average white vote of 69.8%. From October 14 through November 5, PPP assumed an average white vote of 65%. What changed? Who knows?
It's entirely possible, of course, that Jensen has some other source of information he's not disclosing here, but taking him at his word, the "poll averages are science!" crowd should have just a little more humility about exactly what it is that they are placing their unquestioning faith in - Jensen believed that this year's electorate would favor the candidate he favored, and he was right, but right in roughly the same way pundits are right when they say their side will win. Nuclear physics, this is not.
How PPP got it right while others, including polling titans Gallup and Rasmussen, got it so wrong goes back to a difference in method for how the firms identify likely voters and how long they conduct a poll.
It also means the likely voter screen - like Jensen's hunches - is completely opaque to the consumer of the poll. All you see is the opinions of the people Jensen decides should be polled, and who agree to talk to him.
Even pollsters themselves conceded that the combination of demographic and technological changes had made their supposed science more inexact than ever. "We're in sort of what I would call polling's dark age," Jay Leve, who runs the polling firm Survey USA, told me earlier this fall. "We're coming out of a period of time where everyone agreed about the right way to conduct research, and we're entering into a time where no one can agree what the right way to conduct research is."
[Nate Silver's] appeal, of course, is that he's scientific. And last night, his science worked because the polls themselves worked. But as polls become more art than science, Silver's approach could become more tenuous. The good thing about pollsters - at least the good ones - is that they're constantly reassessing and tweaking their approaches. That's the bad thing, too, at least when it comes to having any certainty that about how they'll perform in the future.
B. Why The Screen Mattered So Much This Time
Why did these differences in projecting the electorate matter? In an ordinary election, they would not: ordinary winning presidential candidates have a broad enough base of support that you can see it coming pretty clearly without needing the right "hunch." But Obama was not an ordinary winning presidential candidate. The racially polarized electorate of the Obama era means that every slight shift in demographics can have an outsized effect on outcomes.
Let's look at what the exit polls tell us. 81% of the electorate was voters age 30 and up; Romney won those by 2 points, 50-48. Drilling into the state-by-state exit polls, here's a map of what the election would have looked like just among voters age 30 and up - losses with young voters cost Romney six states worth 95 electoral votes, more than enough to flip the election:
Historically, that is game-set-match; the last candidate to win the national popular vote while losing voters age 30 and up was Jimmy Carter in 1976:
Another 11% of the electorate was white voters under 30; Romney won those too, by 7 points, 51-44. These were Paul Ryan's "faded Obama posters" voters - they swung 17 points from Obama winning them by 10 in 2008. Obama's pop culture cache with young white voters had worn off by 2012 in the face of his record. That's 92% of the electorate accounted for, and Romney up 50-48 and with a decisive lead in electoral votes. In other words, the 8% of the electorate consisting of non-white voters too young to have voted in the Bush v. Gore race in 2000 accounted for the entirety of Obama's national margin of victory.
The "gender gap" was similarly a feature of race and racial turnout patterns. Romney won white women, who made up 38% of the electorate, by 14 points, 56-42; this was the biggest margin of victory among white women since Reagan in 1984. Obama in 2008 was the first winning candidate since Carter in 1976 to lose white women, but Carter lost them by 6, Obama last time by 7. Yet, Romney lost women overall by 11, 55-44. Why? He lost non-white women 85-15, including Hispanic women 76-23 and black women 96-3. Among non-white voters, Obama again maximized the group most favorable to him: black and Hispanic women were 14% of the electorate, compared to 10% black and Hispanic men, both of which Romney lost by less severely lopsided margins (Obama won black men 87-11 and Hispanic men 65-33). In other words, the black and Hispanic segment of the electorate was something on the order of 58% female; black voters were over 60% female. Romney had no similar redoubt of lockstep support - exit polls showed that even among Mormon voters, he didn't crack 80%. So polls measuring turnout had to match two highly asymmetric campaigns, one winning majority groups with support in the 50s and 60s, the other winning much smaller groups by enormous margins.
You can slice the exit polls a few different ways and see similar results along racial lines (without reference to age or gender). Nate Cohn notes that black turnout in general was key to winning Ohio, as black voters were 15% of the electorate there, up from 11% in 2008. If you look solely at white and black voters and leave out Obama's margins with Hispanic, Asian, and Native American voters, Romney wins five states he lost - Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Pennsylvania (very narrowly) and New Mexico - enough to swing the race:
Of course, white and black voters together are only 53% of the vote in New Mexico. Neither a campaign nor a poll analysis can safely ignore such segments of the electorate. But my point is that, because Obama's margin of victory (both nationally and in the critical swing states) was entirely the result of his outsized margins with very narrow but homogenous segments of the electorate, the accuracy of polls was highly sensitive to the relative size of this segment in turnout compared to other voters.
Yet, voters under 30 in particular have rarely been a reliable source of voter turnout; for years and years, it has almost invariably been the case that a campaign losing with the rest of the electorate but placing its entire faith on high turnout from young voters was a losing campaign. Even Obama in 2008 didn't do that: he won voters over 30, independents, and young white voters handily. His coalition was broader then, before he had a record.
It is true that Carter set a precedent in 1976 for appealing to the under-30 voters. But thanks to the Baby Boomers, the oldest of which were just hitting 30 at the time, voters under 30 were 32% of the electorate in 1976; today, thanks to shrinking birthrates and a graying population, they are just 19% and demographically likely to decline even further:
The last year in which under-30 voters were 20% of the electorate was 1992, not coincidentally the last election less than 20 years after Roe v. Wade. Take away 50 million abortions, and the demographics of the electorate look quite different in a race where the winning candidate will end up around 62 million votes. But while young voters are less numerous and traditionally a below-average turnout group, Obama for the second straight election cycle managed to increase them as a share of the electorate, closing in on their share of the population (Census data from 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2010 show 18-29 year olds as a steady 22% of the voting-age population; by contrast, with the Boomers graying, 30-44 year olds dropped in that time from 31% to 26% of the population, while 45-64 year olds rose from 30% to 35%). Here's the major age groups' turnout relative to their share of the general voting-age population:
And while the smallness of the age breakdowns among black and Hispanic voters creates rounding-error issues that make the math a little fuzzy, this chart illustrates rather vividly that the proportion of young voters among non-white voters as a whole was much, much larger than the proportion of young voters among white voters:
Voters under 30 made up somewhere north of a third of all Latino voters, compared to less than 15% of all white voters. Partly that, too, is demographics; the median age of Hispanics is 27 compared to 42 for white non-Hispanics. But it's also the case that OFA maximized the showing of the few loyal groups that provided its entire margin of victory. Rasmussen came to a similar conclusion in evaluating why his polls were off:
A preliminary review indicates that one reason for this is that we underestimated the minority share of the electorate. In 2008, 26% of voters were non-white. We expected that to remain relatively constant. However, in 2012, 28% of voters were non-white. That was exactly the share projected by the Obama campaign. It is not clear at the moment whether minority turnout increased nationally, white turnout decreased, or if it was a combination of both. The increase in minority turnout has a significant impact on the final projections since Romney won nearly 60% of white votes while Obama won an even larger share of the minority vote.
As Rasmussen notes, the demographic shift from 2008 could be higher non-white turnout, or lower white turnout (or both). Sean Trende has estimated that white voter turnout was down in absolute terms and in particular in proportion to white Americans' share of the voting-age population:
Had the same number of white voters cast ballots in 2012 as did in 2008, the 2012 electorate would have been about 74 percent white, 12 percent black, and 9 percent Latino (the same result occurs if you build in expectations for population growth among all these groups). In other words, the reason this electorate looked so different from the 2008 electorate is almost entirely attributable to white voters staying home. The other groups increased their vote, but by less than we would have expected simply from population growth.
The 74% would be in line with Rasmussen's assumptions, which were more reasonable than Gallup's projection of a 78% white electorate. Byron York has more on the collapse of white voter turnout in Ohio by about 200,000 voters, which led to Romney getting fewer total votes there than John McCain in 2008.
The actual proportions in the voting-age population depend on how you read the Census data and break it out to exclude the non-voting-age. The Census showed non-Hispanic whites as 63.7% of the overall population (of all age groups) in 2010, compared to 69.7% in 2000, dropping to 63.4% in the 2011 Census estimate. Looking at Pew Hispanic Center data, the nation's 215 million eligible voters are 72% white, 13% black, 11% Hispanic and 4% Asian; the electorate was 72% white, 13% black, 10% Hispanic and 3% Asian, which when you do the math means that 59% of eligible black voters voted, 58% of white voters, 53% of Hispanic voters and 41% of eligible Asian voters. In other words: high black voter turnout, especially by historic standards; low Hispanic and Asian turnout but rising by historic standards and in particular rising relative to the rest of the electorate:
Geographically, this map shows the distribution of states, with the higher percentages of non-Hispanic whites in darker blue:
Leaving race and age aside, other aspects of the exit polling, like the pre-election national polls and the internals of pre-election state polls, mostly present a picture of an incumbent president doomed to defeat in any ordinary political environment in recent memory. As noted, Romney won independents by 5 points; the last candidate to lose independents by more than 2 points and win the presidency or the popular vote was, again, Carter in 1976, who lost independents by 11 points but took advantage of a depressed, decimated and divided Republican base in the aftermath of Watergate and Reagan's primary challenge to Ford. With the economy the number one issue throughout the election, voters told exit pollsters they trusted Romney more than Obama, albeit narrowly, 49-48. 77% of exit poll respondents said the economy was in not so good or poor shape, and Romney won those voters by 22 points, 60-38. 59% of the voters cited the economy as the top issue; Romney won them 51-47, plus winning 66-32 among the 15% of voters who cited the budget deficit. And this exit poll question was perhaps the most dramatic of all:
In basically any American election before 2012, I would tell you with great confidence that a candidate, much less an incumbent, is toast if he (1) loses independents; (2) loses voters age 30 and up; (3) loses white women by double digits; (4) loses white voters under 30; (5) is less trusted than his opponent on the economy when 59% of voters cited the economy as the dominant issue in the election; and (6) loses voters who prioritized leadership, strong values or a vision for the future. That has never before been the electoral profile of a winning candidate. As I said before the election, if it that changed, we need to rethink everything we know about elections.
We do - at least, for now, when Obama's on the ballot. The OFA theory of the electorate was that "really, it's different this time" - that neither the economic doldrums nor any other factor would dampen the historic levels of enthusiasm for Obama among non-white voters under 30. And as it turned out, OFA was right: they turned out in numbers totally out of step with their historic turnout patterns relative to their share of the voting-age population, and delivered the entirety of Obama's national margin of victory.
Viewing this, to some extent, I feel like a guy who shorted the NASDAQ in 1998, reasoning that the tech bubble couldn't last forever, and ended up getting mocked by the guys who watched all their "new economy" stocks rise without an end in sight. History teaches us that those guys, of course, eventually lost their shirts - but they were awfully proud of their "this time, it's different" reasoning for quite a while. Time will tell if the believers in the new Democratic turnout model go the same way.
If it does, how will we know? Will polls run by partisan Democrats like Tom Jensen readjust their hunches? Or will we have to look outside the polls? I will look at these questions tomorrow in Part III.
November 14, 2012
POLITICS: Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time - A Polling Post-Mortem (Part I of III)
As promised, a mea culpa on my pre-election poll analysis: why I was wrong, why the state poll averages were right - and why I'd say most of the same things if I had to do it over. I suppose I have lost a good deal of credibility with a number of people by making the kind of out-on-a-limb prediction I don't usually make, and being wrong. But my assumptions have always been out in the open. Let's examine why they led to the wrong answer, and which of those assumptions should be re-evaluated in the future.
I. More Evidence Is Better Than Less
Discussions of polling often lend themselves to more heat than light. A lot of the post-election poll commentary is even dumber than the pre-election poll commentary, as victorious liberals spin a narrative that conservatives were all "poll deniers" or "poll truthers" ignoring the polls. Now, it's true that there were more than a few people on the Right who made intelligent discussion of the polls harder rather than easier. It's also true that some of the efforts at "unskewing" the polls were unhelpfully ham-handed; in this pre-election essay I explained why Dean Chambers' unskewedpolls.com was more alchemy than science. Chambers was projecting a strong Romney lead in the polls back in September, when neither I nor almost anybody I knew believed that Romney was actually ahead. My mantra on Twitter in August and September, like that of many conservatives I respect, was simply that it was a close race, that Obama had problems with independent voters and hadn't closed the deal yet, and that there was still time for Romney to catch up to him. While a lot of Romney's problems were baked-in by mid-summer, I don't think that was an unreasonable view to take at the time; as it turned out, there would be twists in the race throughout October. But those of us who attempted to take the polls seriously, and drew conclusions from the polling evidence itself as well as external evidence, were not denying anything; we were just looking under the hood.
A. Believe The Polls, But Don't Believe Only The Polls
Let me start by restating my philosophy of polling, and indeed my philosophy of examining most any question. Polls are not reality. They are a tool for measuring reality. They are traditionally the best single tool, and polling averages make them a better tool by evening out the outliers. But they are not perfect tools: public polls have called the outcome of races wrong before, or been off on the margins of victory by a significant amount. There are reasons why campaigns spend a lot of money on their own polls, which - other than for purposes like push-polling or testing messages - they would not do if an average of public polls was as flawless a guide to the electorate as a thermometer. If you think public poll averages are an infallible predictor, then the uniform practice of actual campaigns is totally irrational. Indeed, listen to Jim Messina, the nuts-and-bolts guru of the Obama campaign, on his view of public polling:
Every night, Obama's analytics team would run the campaign 66,000 times on a computer simulation. "And every morning we would come in and spend our money based on those simulations," said Messina.
Is Messina a "poll truther" or "poll denier" for saying that "American polling is broken" or rejecting "traditional" polls? Was he wasting Obama's money by running his own state and local polls instead of just reading 538? Or is he reflecting the fact that public polls involve a certain amount of guesswork about voter turnout that can only be definitively tested each new election cycle by the final vote tallies?
The most recent set of publicly available polls are also not the only tool for measuring reality. There are all sorts of metrics - some more hard and quantifiable than others - that have traditionally been useful in assessing the state of play: voter-registration numbers, early voting data and absentee ballot data, trendlines in the polls, what the pollsters themselves are reporting about voter enthusiasm, and hazier indicators like small-dollar donations and the size of crowds on the campaign trail. It's hardly anti-empirical to examine these additional facts, and allow them to affect your conclusions. The people who correctly predicted that Harry Reid would hang on to beat Sharron Angle when the final polls said otherwise were looking at this kind of information. If all you did was read the RCP average or 538, you would have missed that.
None of these are reasons to disregard the polls; they should still be the primary item of evidence. But neither does it make sense to treat them with blind reverence and ignore all the external evidence - especially when (1) different sets of polls are in conflict with each other and (2) the internal breakdowns of the polls, which can act as a sanity check on the plausibility of the polls' assumptions, are telling you that the polls in question are predicting something that is historically unlikely to happen.
To go back to one more example from baseball analysis (sabermetrics), this is sort of like the "statheads vs scouts" debate: whether you can better project a player's future accomplishments by looking at his statistics or by listening to experts analyze his "tools." I'm in the stathead camp: I believe strongly in quantifiable data, and I place it at the center of just about any baseball analysis I do. In fact, I probably err more often than not on overemphasizing the numbers. But as Bill James, the father of sabermetrics, has often said, sabermetrics (or any other field of hard science, soft science or would-be science) is not the search for statistics, it's the search for truth, and in searching for the truth, you don't blind yourself to some of the available evidence simply because it doesn't fit in a column of your model. Most statheads today will tell you that no matter how good your statistical measurements and how highly you prioritize them, you can learn things from also listening to the scouts that you might not learn anywhere else. The scouts can't tell you a guy with a terrible stat line is actually a major star - but in a close case, their view can make the difference.
B. Regrets, I Have A Few
If I had it to do over, maybe I'd be less definitive in pronouncing Obama "toast," but for the most part I'd look at the same evidence, see the same things and draw the same conclusions I drew at the time. I do, however, have two main regrets.
First, which is an unfortunate side effect of doing punditry as a part-time unpaid hobby rather than a full time job, is that I should probably have spent more time breaking down the internals of all the battleground-state polls to see exactly how geographically consistent the national trends were: I had seen those trends confirmed in Ohio and a couple of the other key battleground states, and didn't do the deep, time-consuming dive into the internals of every single battleground state. As it turned out, Romney did very well with independent voters in a number of the battleground states, but critically underachieved with them in others and lost those states. Romney beat Obama with independents by 5 points or more in Ohio (+10), Virginia (+10), North Carolina (+15), Nevada (+8), and Pennsylvania (+5). In more lightly-contested states, he won them in Missouri (+26), Indiana (+11), New Mexico (+8) and Arizona (+6). But in two other battleground states, his margin with independents was narrow: Colorado (+4), and Michigan (+1). And he actually lost independents in Iowa (-14), New Hampshire (-7), Florida (-3), Wisconsin (-1), and Minnesota (-4). (It says something about Romney that his biggest failure with independent voters, especially in states with lily-white electorates that didn't present the demographic challenges apparent elsewhere, came in the places where the voters had been exposed at length to his scorched-earth 2008 and 2012 primary campaigns). In non-battleground states where exit polls were taken, independents mostly trended pro-Romney in red states - Alabama (+52), Mississippi (+34), Montana (+7) - and pro-Obama in blue states - California (-12), New York (-4), Illinois (-5), Vermont (-40), Maine (-28), Maryland (-12), Massachusetts (-7), Oregon (-7), Washington (-3), Connecticut (-3). In just two totally non-competitive states did independents buck the state's partisan tilt: Romney won independents in New Jersey (+1), and Obama tied him in Kansas. If Romney had won all the states where he carried independents, he would have won, but not in all the states I thought he would win:
I might have caught some of this with more time to commit to each state, although in some cases, that weakness came out only in the very late polls. Or not; for example, PPP had Romney up by 2 with independents in New Hampshire on October 28, and up by 7 with independents in Florida the same day.
Second, and far more importantly, I didn't do enough to re-evaluate my conclusion after declaring it on Twitter on October 19 and laying it out in detail on October 26, eleven days before Election Day - and that week turned out to be Romney's high water-mark in the national and state polls. Nationally, Romney led in the RCP average all but two days between October 9 and October 31, and Obama was below 48% in the average every day from October 8 to November 5. In four key states, Romney had seized the lead in the RCP average: in Colorado, he led from October 9-29; in New Hampshire, he led from October 19-21; in Virginia, from October 19 to November 2; in Florida, from October 8 to the end of the race. Those leads gave me confidence that Romney's momentum in the national polls was real and would leave him needing to pick off just one more state to win. Instead, he lost all four, and the state poll averages were predicting three of those four losses by Election Day. When I wrote my initial post, I assumed (given the lateness in the cycle and the evident deterioration of Obama's position in the national polls and with independent voters by October 26), that there was not time for any new game-changing events. I was wrong.
I try hard to avoid confirmation bias in evaluating the evidence before reaching a conclusion - but it can be a lot harder to avoid it after publicly committing to a conclusion, which of course is the exact same "painted in a corner" problem I suspected Nate Silver of having. I spent the week after my "toast" post without electricity, internet, heat or hot water and only sporadically able to get to my office (I had written most of this essay when the lights went out on October 29), and probably did not spend enough of my remaining time going back over the subsequent polling to reconsider whether the conditions that seemed to show Obama in an untenable position were abating. (By Election Day, for example, the national poll averages were running in Obama's favor as well). I remain doubtful that Hurricane Sandy had enough impact to swing the election and particularly doubtful that it did much to affect turnout, which decided the election; but its interruption of the dynamic of the endgame probably did do what the final week state and national polls showed happening: cut into Romney's lead with independents and possibly cost him his chance to win New Hampshire, Virginia, and/or Florida. Exit polls showed that late-deciding voters broke in Obama's favor, which I had not expected to happen for an incumbent whose approval ratings and favorability with independent voters had been underwater for so much of his term.
II. Poll vs. Poll
The polls, particularly the national and swing-state polls in the third and fourth weeks of October, were telling consistent stories about the opinions of different groups of voters, but contradictory stories about the numbers in which those groups would show up to vote. I looked at internal evidence, and saw that Romney was winning independents handily and Obama was drawing nearly no crossover support from Republicans, which meant Obama needed to win entirely by having enough extra Democrats vote to overcome Romney's independent advantage. The first premise was borne out by Romney's win with independents and slight edge with crossovers, although his 5-point margin with independents was at least 3 points smaller than the margin most polls had been showing when I first made my "toast" call. Had Romney carried independents by 8 or 9, as the polls were showing at the time, and not lost them in a few key states, Obama would have needed at minimum a D+4 electorate to win nationally. As it turned out, Obama won by about 2 points with a D+6 electorate compared to 2008's D+7; Democratic turnout was down a point from 2008, but Republican turnout matched the 32% of 2008. So, my analysis correctly judged what Obama needed to do. The historic turnout conditions of 2008, which I believed were necessary for Obama to win, were effectively repeated.
There were all sorts of reasons, based in history and observable fact, to believe that those turnout conditions were unlikely to repeat themselves. Republican turnout had been unusually low in 2008 - the lowest since before Ronald Reagan started converting a lot of people to the party - following the historic financial crisis and 8 years of Bush, and had bounced back in 2010. While 2010 was a midterm election and involved a distinct electorate, its results underscored that there seemed no obvious reason to believe it would approach that nadir again. History tells us to treat with caution the assumption that elections held in the aftermath of a catastrophic event like the 2008 financial crisis are representative. The harder metrics, which I will discuss in Part III, also suggested GOP turnout was still doing well, if not as well as in the off-year elections of 2010. And the vaunted OFA turnout machine could only count for so much: certainly, no matter how sophisticated Obama's turnout operation, low GOP turnout was something he could not manufacture through operational efficiency. Obama had polled poorly in areas like job approval for most of his tenure, and campaigns that lose independent voters tend to be losing at least some of the enthusiasm of their base as well. As I will discuss below, virtually all the features of Obama's profile in the polls - mirrored in the post-election exit polls - were traditionally characteristic of losing candidates, as were the nature of the "this time it's different, really!" arguments made by his boosters. It had to be different for him to win. The customary laws of political gravity had to be defied. And they were.
As I'll get to more in Part II, with regard to turnout, what the exit polls show is that Obama really did do something that was very, very historically unusual - and on top of that, and perhaps even more importantly, Romney's GOTV operation (both the mechanics and his ability to inspire marginal Right-leaning voters to show up) turned out to be far less than projected. This time, it really was different. And the challenging question going forward is whether it will stay that way.
Read More »
III. State vs. Nation
For the third consecutive presidential election, the RealClearPolitics averages of state polls correctly called nearly all the states correctly - 49 of 50 states (all but Wisconsin) in 2004, 48 of 50 (all but Indiana and North Carolina) in 2008, 49 of 50 (all but Florida) in 2012. (The four missed calls all involved states that broke late and narrowly to the Democrats). There was a lot of hoopla about Nate Silver's 538 model, and in my poll-reading pieces I noted - as have others - some quibbles with his model, with which I still have issues. But it's not clear that the methodological quirks of the 538 model matter much anyway; they've yet to deliver a different answer than the RCP average in a presidential contest or in any significant number of statewide elections. Ditto for other state poll averages, all of which were basically on the mark. The state poll averages implicitly projected an electorate with a large Democratic turnout advantage, and that's what happened.
That does not mean "the polls" were all correct. The national poll averages at both RCP and TPM had Romney ahead for much of October and ahead at the time I wrote my original "toast" post. This race was often compared to 2004 and ended up much the same, but in 2004, John Kerry never led in the RCP average in October. There were a variety of similar precedential indicators that Obama was in worse shape in the national polls than anybody who had gotten re-elected in the past. And traditionally, we have tended to see movements in the national polls followed by movements in the swing state polls - exactly what was reflected in the RCP average in Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida. By October 29, Rasmussen's state-by-state polls were showing Romney leading in enough states to win the Electoral College. Of course, Rasmussen was wrong.
It is somewhat Orwellian for Obama supporters to paint as "poll deniers" those of us who looked at a conflict between two sets of polls containing two divergent sets of assumptions, and conclude that one of those sets of polls was more likely to be correct because external evidence rendered those assumptions more reasonable.
There was great debate over whether it mattered at all to look at the national polls, since presidential elections are determined on a state-by-state basis. This was really two questions in one: how likely was it that there would be a popular vote/electoral college split, and was it more likely that you could predict the national popular vote from state polls, or predict the battleground state vote from national polls. It is worth noting, on the first score, that the defenders of the state poll averages were only half right. On the one hand, they spent months arguing that Ohio in particular was a firewall that would remain favorable to Obama even if the national vote went slightly for Romney - and if Romney had hung onto his leads in Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia and Florida, Ohio would have been enough to put him over the top. I thought the theory that Ohio would vote more Democratic than the nation was unlikely: Ohio has had an exceptionally consistent record from 1860 through 2008 of being just barely more Republican than the country as a whole nearly every election. I was right about that: Obama won Ohio by less than his national margin. As The New Republic's Nate Cohn notes:
[T]he exit polls show that Obama did worse among Ohio's white voters than John Kerry.... if there was anywhere that the president should have excelled due to the auto bailout, it would have been northeast Ohio. But the president lost northeastern Ohio's two classic white middle class bellwethers: Lake County, home to the overwhelmingly white suburbs and exurbs east of Cleveland, and Stark County, home to Canton. The president also lost additional ground in traditionally Democratic stretches of eastern Ohio, where Obama performed worse than any Democrat since McGovern in a stretch of "coal country" along the Ohio River. And Obama’s problems weren't limited to eastern Ohio. The president performed poorly in southwestern Ohio, including one deeply conservative and culturally southern county where Obama's performance was the worst by a Democrat since at least 1868.
But score one as well for the firewall theory as a whole: Obama could have lost Ohio and Florida (both of which voted more Republican than the nation) and Virginia (which voted more Democratic than the nation) and still won 272 electoral votes.
In theory, you should always look only at the state polls, since that's where the election is; if the state pollsters are as good at what they do and poll as regularly as the national pollsters, there would never be a reason to look at national polling. While we all look at national polls, especially early in the race when states are being polled less regularly, I mainly looked at state poll averages in 2004 and 2008. Which gets to the second point: how likely state polls were to offer a better picture of the national environment than national polls. I agreed with Sean Trende that the potential flaw in this theory was that many of the state pollsters at issue (other than pollsters like Rasmussen or PPP that poll both nationally and in the states) were relatively new to the game or had individually sketchy track records that couldn't be automatically substituted for the record of "state polls" as a whole.
As it turned out, though, the state pollsters were closer to the mark, and should be the main focus of our attention in future races, at least in the closing months. But why were they right when the national pollsters were wrong? For the answer to that, you need to look at how the pollsters decided what the electorate would look like. I will cover that topic tomorrow in Part II.
« Close It
November 7, 2012
POLITICS: The Fall of the House of Romney
Let's not sugarcoat this: last night was a bitter loss for Republicans and conservatives, all the worse because the presidential race - like a number of the key Senate races - was eminently winnable, and down the stretch a great many of us believed we were going to win it. I'll return (hopefully this week) to the poll-reading question of why that was wrong, after more of the final numbers are in. But first, a look at Romney's loss and some initial thoughts on where we go from here.
I Told You So. I Told You So, I Told You So, I Told You So.
I was wrong about the polls the past three weeks. But I was right about Romney the past six years, and as it turned out, vindicated my original view in the primaries that - while Romney could win a landslide race if the bottom dropped out of Obama - he could not win not a close race: "Romney is a terrible general election candidate, who will need a lot of good fortune and outside help to end up winning, and...just about anybody will be able to beat Obama in those circumstances." (Follow more of the links collected here and here for the full archive of my 2007-08 and 2011-12 columns on Romney's flaws as a candidate).
That's exactly what happened. The economy limped to a slightly better state by September, but never did turn up significantly; the headline unemployment rate was no better on Election Day than it had been when Obama took office. Polls never showed Obama with particularly robust job approval, in particular on the economy; his coalition narrowed and he lost independent voters (exit polls say by 5 points nationally, narrower than the spread in nearly all the pre-election polls but wider than any deficit for a winning presidential candidate since Carter in 1976). The foreign policy crisis of the fall in North Africa didn't end up really affecting the race much, and it's hard to say whether the other big external event (Hurricane Sandy) did (more on that below). In short, nothing blew the race open. At this writing, Romney's loss in the national popular vote is narrower than John Kerry's in 2004, and his losses in several key states were close ones - perhaps a point in Florida (not yet called), 2 points in Ohio, 3 in Virginia, 4 in Colorado, 5 in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, 6 in Iowa and Nevada, 7 in Wisconsin.
All of which is a way of saying that Obama - even moreso than Bush in 2004 - was still in a position to be taken, by the right candidate. But as I've said for years, ideas don't run for president; people do. Romney wasn't that candidate, and his loss was due in very significant part to problems particular to Romney. You still can't beat somebody with nobody.
You can't really fault the execution. The selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate was Romney's boldest move, and while Ryan was unable to deliver his home state, there's not much reason to think he cost Romney anything or that the outcome would have been different with, say, Rob Portman or Bob McDonnell on the ticket. The final six weeks of the campaign were about the best you could expect from Mitt Romney, with one exception (his fumble of a clear line of attack on Benghazi in the second debate): he turned in a strong performance in the first debate and was generally solid through the following two, and his campaign raised a ton of cash and generated a lot of enthusiasm down the stretch run. He was, day in and day out, the best Mitt Romney we've seen.
The problems with Romney were, rather, his built-in weaknesses as a candidate and the strategic choices that followed from them. Romney is, as I have consistently noted, an outstanding man - smart, accomplished, tireless, enthusiastic, and of unimpeachable personal character. But his political weaknesses were the same they always were, the same I warned of in the primaries (with one exception: his Mormon faith didn't seem to hurt him too much with evangelical Christians). He remained a poor political communicator with no political principles, and that meant he was stuck selling himself and his reading of the landscape, rather than selling ideas. He was particularly hamstrung by his inability - unique within the Republican Party - to mount a convincing root-and-branch critique of Obamacare, having signed a nearly identical plan in Massachusetts. He might have benefited from the Supreme Court doing his job for him by striking down the individual mandate, but the Court upheld everything but the overreaching changes to Medicaid, and Romney's campaign went off the rails from that date (June 28), not really recovering any momentum until the Ryan pick. He was never a convincing social/cultural populist. He continued to be prone to painful gaffes as he'd been for years, the worst being the infamous 47% video.
In other ways, Romney predictably lacked ways to distinguish himself from Obama and connect with voters. His biography marked him as a business success, but also as a guy without any sort of inspiring narrative of overcoming adversity, and Bain Capital turned out to be more of a liability than an asset, especially with the white blue-collar voters in the Midwest who have never really warmed to Obama. His governorship was too short, too hamstrung by a veto-proof Democratic legislative majority and too overshadowed by Romneycare to produce much in the way of governing accomplishments to run on.
As I noted in the primaries, Romney was the first moderate Republican to run without a serious background in national security or foreign policy since Tom Dewey, and that meant he lacked the gravitas to do more than tread water on foreign policy. His foreign trip over the summer - while overstated by his critics - was not a P.R. success. With Obama having one signature national security accomplishment (the death of bin Laden) to his name and uninterested in engaging in the kind of ideological debate on national security that characterized his campaign against McCain, that left Romney confined to the domestic sphere to score all his points.
And the one area where I felt Romney had gone too far to the right in the 2008 and 2012 primaries - immigration, on which he relentlessly attacked Giuliani, McCain, Brownback, Huckabee, Perry, Gingrich and others from the right - burned his bridges with Hispanic voters, requiring him to focus entirely on maximizing his share of white voters not already ideologically wedded to the Democrats, an unnecessary self-inflicted wound. That's a mistake we as a party cannot afford to repeat in the future; avoiding it was one of my chief reasons for opposing Romney twice.
Unable to run a strong positive campaign on his record, ideas, personality, biography, or identity politics, that left running on a concrete platform. But while Romney rolled out a number of specific policy proposals, he generally preferred to campaign on general frameworks, and depend on the voters trusting him to fill in the blanks in negotiations with Congress. This can, on occasion, be an effective formula for an otherwise-attractive statewide candidate (it's how Chris Christie got elected) and can work as a governing strategy if you get elected doing it, but it's generally a poor way to approach a national campaign, especially for a candidate like Romney who didn't have a lot of the voters' trust to start with. I detailed before how Romney ended up wasting a lot of the summer getting pounded on the ambiguities in his tax plan. Romney's unwillingness to run on a more detailed-yet-concisely-summarizable plan was visibly frustrating to Ryan, who made his name in Congress in large part due to his insistence that the GOP had to offer its own policy proposals. You could tell it pained Ryan not to be able to offer up more specific, numbers-based answers to questions.
This flies in the face of what George W. Bush did as a candidate - and while there's plenty to debate in the Bush legacy, he's the only Republican to win a presidential election in the past two decades, so he was doing something right. Put simply, Bush had principled positions. Bush was governor of Texas for six years, in which he built a governing record; he then ran nationally on a detailed policy platform nearly identical to his Texas record, got elected and enacted it into law. And even lacking eloquence as a public speaker, Bush effectively communicated the outlines of his proposals through concise description and endless repetition (remember the calculator on Bush's website that showed how much money you'd save with the Bush tax cuts? You can do that when your tax plan is fully developed and easy to understand and implement). Bush may have grown in office as Commander-in-Chief, but on domestic policy, his principles, record, rhetoric and platform were consistent and enduring. When George W. Bush said what he meant to do, people knew where he stood and believed him. That - and not Romney's flip-flopping history and strategic ambiguity - is the model for how to become the next Republican president.
Romney and Obama made opposite strategic choices in how and when to spend their money, in part driven by the fact that Romney had to win an expensive primary first. Obama spent a ton of money over the summer doing the big thing you need to do against a non-incumbent: defining Romney in the eyes of voters before Romney could do it himself. Romney, by contrast, held a lot of his money to the end, banking on making a big late surge.
This, too, looks now like a bad strategic choice. One reason is Hurricane Sandy. It's clear that the superstorm knocked Romney off the campaign trail and the front pages for a few days and let Obama collect a lot of plaudits (totally untethered from the miserable actual performance of the federal government in responding to the storm). Romney never looked as good in the national polls after the storm as he had before. That doesn't mean the storm actually changed any votes, let alone enough to make a difference (right now, it's hard to tell one way or the other, although Phil Klein notes that late polling found huge approval numbers for Obama on the storm compared to weak ones on issues like the economy). The more immediate point is that Romney's strategy of hoarding cash for the final sprint ignored the possibility of a large unexpected event dominating the final few news cycles in the middle of early voting.
Nominating Romney was a bad idea, never defensible on any ground other than the argument that the alternatives were worse. His campaign did nothing to advance the popularity of conservative ideas he didn't believe in, missed opportunities to attack Obama over things Romney did believe in, and never had a compelling personal story to tell. Mitt Romney will be remembered as a good man, but a bad politician, and we should know better than to nominate his like again.
We Need Better Screeners
The problem of having a poor front man ran deeper yesterday than just Romney. Across the Senate races, Republicans lost for a variety of reasons (not least the turnout effect from the presidential contest) - but high on the list was far fewer good candidates and far more self-destructive ones than in 2010.
The Tea Party has done a good job of purging one kind of Republican, what you might call the Total Squish - the Republican who just offers nothing on any issue to Republican voters. But to my mind, there are three other species of candidate that we need to do a better job of vetting and avoiding in the primaries, both national and statewide:
1) The Clueless Rich Guy: The wealthy or self-funded candidate with little or no political experience, no firm principles and, as a result, often an undue reliance on political consultants. Romney was not the only candidate of this species - Linda MacMahon also failed in Connecticut for a second consecutive cycle. Rookie politicians aren't all bad (see Ron Johnson, for example), but as a group they make a lot of mistakes, and wealthy ones are often poor messengers for our ideas.
2) The Pulled Hand Grenade So-Con: Social conservatives are a crucial part of the Republican coalition, and I'd be the last person to want to run them out of the party. But it takes a high level of self-delusion to avoid the fact that candidates like Todd Akin simply have no clue how bad their pronouncements sound to voters outside their corner of the base - and in Akin's case, he won the nomination over two equally plausible alternatives who would have beaten Claire McCaskill. Richard Mourdock, unlike Akin, had won statewide races and didn't have a real record of saying things that would set off alarm bells - plus he won his primary against an incumbent far past his sell-by date - but one poor answer in a debate finished him. Social conservatives as a group need to accept the fact that communication and tone matter; people will respect your issue stances, but not if you seem to them like a frightening extremist. We need to find better ways of identifying people who just won't fly with the general electorate before it's too late.
3) The Retread: Two of the failed Senate candidates (Tommy Thompson and George Allen) were excellent statewide candidates...in the 90s. But much like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, they found it hard to adjust to the current political environment. Voters looking for change are a lot less likely to pull the lever for a guy who has been out of the fight that long.
Exit The Fat Man
The 2016 sweepstakes will start painfully early in both parties, but one thing already seems likely: Chris Christie is finished already as a national candidate.
Christie's a great governor, who richly deserves re-election next year. He's been a great spokesman for the need for fiscal sanity at the state level. But 2012 was his moment to go national, and he missed it. He endorsed Romney early, and pushed harder (and in a more aggressively negative posture against Romney's critics) than almost any other elected official in the primaries. His profile as a moderate Northeastern governor will almost surely strike 2016 primary voters as a replay of what didn't work in 2012, regardless of his dissimilarities from Romney. (Having lost with moderates in 2012, 2008, 1996 and 1992, primary voters will be even more desperate to run someone who can credibly be called a conservative in 2016). And Christie's embrace of Obama's response to Hurricane Sandy, right at the crescendo of a bitter, narrowly-lost election, will stick in the craw of partisans for a long time. A successful second term in New Jersey may tempt Christie to run, but I have to think he'll have prohibitive problems getting through a primary, and Christie's personality makes him a poor fit for a VP candidate.
Who will be the frontrunners? It's too early to rule out dark-horse governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, New Mexico's Susanna Martinez or Indiana's newly-elected Mike Pence (who considered a run in 2012 before deciding to get out of DC), but besides Christie the A-list remains three names: Ryan, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio. The relative closeness of yesterday's outcome means Ryan doesn't emerge from Romney's failure as fatally damaged goods, and he'll return to the House with an elevated profile. Jindal offers the most distance in a lot of ways from Romney, and is in fact the top option who endorsed one of Romney's opponents (Rick Perry) and only settled behind Romney when the nomination race was over. And Rubio, of course, offers the prospect of the nation's first Hispanic president. We'll have much more to discuss on all of them as the next two years unfold the potential landscape before the 2016 contest begins in earnest this time in 2014.
Whither The Party?
Many commentators will now rush to declare Republicans an endangered species and pin the blame for the party's woes on conservative ideas. When Ryan was added to the ticket, for example, there was much talk that the Obama campaign would sink Romney by tying him to the unpopular House GOP. But as it turned out, the House GOP fared a lot better than the presidential or Senate tickets, losing seats but easily retaining its majority, and we still have a commanding lead in state Governorships. Obama's 'permanent majority' coalition is actually razor-thin and couldn't retake the House even with its vaunted voter-turnout operation. And now, Obama enters his second term, which are hardly ever better than the first; Republicans are no more doomed by the prospect of an Obama second term than Democrats were by the Bush and Nixon second terms, or even Republicans after the Clinton and LBJ second terms. I don't ascribe to the theory that anybody should ever want to lose elections, but just as with his first term, Obama's second term offers increasing opportunities to frustrate and splinter his coalition, further alienate independent voters and bleed job approval, factors that won't bode well for Democrats in 2014 and 2016. My concern is not for the future of the party, but the country, as four more years gives Obama a lot more time to place increasing numbers of issues outside the reach of democratic self-government, either through judicial activism or inter-generational entitlement programs that are fiscally nearly impossible to unwind.
That's not to say Republicans should do nothing to re-evaluate our agenda. I remain convinced, for example, that the party needs to find a moderate middle ground on immigration. But at the end of the day, the 2012 election was a failure of candidates, not of ideas.
November 5, 2012
POLITICS: My Final Election 2012 Predictions
It's time to start making final predictions for the 2012 election. I'm also rounding up predictions from others who are out on the limb with me predicting a Romney victory. I still feel fairly confident about my bottom line: Romney will win. But until we see the actual voter turnout, it's hard to project more than educated guesswork as to the size of that win.
The Electorate and the Popular Vote
The final week of polling has been even more of a mess than usual in a season in which the polls have made less and less sense both internally (their assumptions about turnout and the conflict between the toplines and Romney's margins with independents) and externally (how the polls' views of turnout conflict with every other item of evidence outside the polling). Josh Jordan notes the particularly unstable polling of independents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
But while some of the more garish double-digit margins are gone, the latest battery of national polls shows Romney's standing vs Obama with independents most likely somewhere around a 7 point lead: CNN/ORC (+22, but with the smallest of sample sizes), Monmouth/SUSA (+16), Rasmussen (+9), WaPo/ABC (+7), NBC/WSJ (+7), Pew (+4), Gallup (-1).
What will turnout look like? First up, we have Rasmussen's October 2012 Party ID survey; I've revised my chart to look at the historical track record since 2004 of his October survey:
That's an R+6 electorate. Obama is clearly, in my view, doomed if the electorate is D+3 (the historical average for presidential elections since 1984) or less, and probably needs about D+6, maybe D+5 (the 2000 electorate) to win. We haven't had an R+ electorate for a presidential election since probably the 1920s (2004 was even); we may not have had an R+6 electorate since Reconstruction ended. If Rasmussen's survey is even half right, Democrats could be in for a very, very rough night across the board. Even as accurate as Rasmussen has been, I'm hesitant to go out all the way on that limb - but it's hard to argue with his record on this front. The survey encompasses a huge sample, on the order of 15,000 interviews.
It may be tough to measure the final electorate, because exit polls won't capture early voters, and in some states that's a lot of people. (The Denver Post cites Colorado Secretary of State figures showing more than 62% of the state's registered voters have voted already, with a turnout of R+2). My prediction for the national turnout is a conservative one: D+2, D 37/R 35/I 28. Assuming Romney wins Republicans 94-6, Obama carries Democrats 93-7, and Romney wins independents 53-47 - again, a conservative projection given the polls - that gives us Romney 50.3%, Obama 49.7%.
(If you run those same assumptions in the electorate from Rasmussen's party ID survey, you get Romney 53.7%, Obama 46.2% - and it gets wider from there if the spread among independents gets into double digits. But I'm being conservative here, as I still expect the more likely outcome to be fairly close).
The Electoral College
I start with this map, with Romney up 235-190:
Obama is still running ads in North Carolina and still contesting Florida; Florida is usually close, but I see no real likelihood that it goes for Obama again.
Then, let's take off the board the states where Romney is only going to win if it's really breaking big for him - I'm actually now including Nevada and not Pennsylvania in that category, and to be cautious, Maine's 2d Congressional District - and the states I'd almost written off in September where I now think Romney is in very solid shape (Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire):
Romney 261, Obama 223. Iowa becomes irrelevant at this point - Romney wins one of the remaining three, or Obama wins all three, and it's game over. But I don't actually see Pennsylvania being the one to get Romney over the line if he loses Ohio and Wisconsin. Playing it safe, I end up with Romney taking just one of those four - Wisconsin - and a narrow electoral college win, 271-267:
If Romney wins, as I project, I strongly suspect that he will win at least one of the other three, maybe all three. But Wisconsin is my pick for the state that puts him over the hump.
Here's RCP's current map of the Senate races, projecting each side picks up 3 seats, netting no change to the Democrats' 53-47 advantage:
That's a very disappointing outcome from where the GOP should have been, but probably not as bad as it has looked most of the past two months. I'm going to be absurdly bullish and say R+2 Senate seats because I can't look across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, and Missouri and see the Democrats going better than 5-for-7. There are different reasons in different races - Mourdock and Akin will have strong GOP turnout advantages at their backs, Scott Brown is just a tough campaigner, and Smith, Mandel, Thompson and Allen all have the swing state ground games behind them. Add in Montana and it will take a big set of Romney coattails for the Republicans to win half or more of those eight races - but 3 out of 8 hardly seems unreasonable if the presidential race is going well.
(It's also impossible to be sure how the Maine Senate race will come out - three-way races are notoriously hard to poll - but I'll nonetheless be surprised if Angus King doesn't win and caucus with the Democrats. A 50 D/49 R Senate with Paul Ryan as the VP could put King in position to be a tremendous power broker.).
Like most people, I'm not even bothering with a House prediction, other than to reiterate a point Neil Stevens has made: if the electorate was really going to look like the D+7 Democratic wave of 2008, we'd be talking about a ton of Democratic House pickups (redistricting or no) and a threat of the return of Speaker Pelosi. But at this point, even the DCCC seems to have all but thrown in the towel; Nate Silver doesn't even seem to be tracking odds for a Democratic House pickup. That suggests that down-ticket Democrats are looking at a much more realistic universe.
Around The Horn
Michael Barone has Romney 315, Obama 223. I'm always in good company agreeing with Barone.
BLOG: 11/5/12 Open Thread
To talk elections or anything else. I had to close most of the recent threads due to a tsunami of spam comments that I was unable to deal with while the power was out (my house was without power, heat or hot water for 6 days from Monday afternoon to last night. Hoping to get internet, cable and phone service back some time today).
November 2, 2012
POLITICS: No, Independents Are Not Just Discouraged Republicans
The centerpiece of my thesis (discussed here and here) that Mitt Romney will win Tuesday's election is his consistently strong showing among independent voters (ie, voters who identify as neither Republicans nor Democrats) across the majority of national and state polls, pretty much regardless of whether those are polls he's winning or losing. On that score, I believe the polls; if they're wrong about the independent vote, my analysis is essentially irrelevant. But if they're right, I believe I'll be proven right. If Romney goes on to win independents nationally by 5+ points and carry independents by more than a few points in states like Ohio and Wisconsin, he will win.
Obama can only overcome that kind of deficit among independents by decisively winning the partisan turnout battle - indeed, the polls that show him winning nationally or on a state-by-state basis do so almost uniformly by projecting a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout - but when you look for evidence outside of the polling samples themselves of that Democratic turnout advantage, you won't find it.
There are two main arguments currently circulating for why Obama will win in spite of these factors. Both are premised upon the notion that the Obama-favoring polls are correctly projecting an electorate on the order of 2008's D+7 (D 39/R 32/I 29) electorate, in which Obama's turnout advantage will outweigh his loss of independent voters. I dealt on Wednesday with the first of those: Nate Silver's polling model, which simply assumes that state-level polls are correctly projecting the turnout, on the theory that state polling averages have historically been trustworthy.
The other main argument comes from Josh Marshall. Marshall's thesis is that independents are supporting Romney because the ranks of independent voters have been swelled by "an exodus from the GOP to the right":
In other words, a lot of people left the Republican party, in identification terms. But they didn't become Democrats. And it doesn't seem (at least from the politics of the last two years) like they became more moderate of 'centrist' in ideological terms. They simply reidentified themselves as independents... I think in a lot of cases they actually re-identified because the GOP wasn't right-wing enough, call it a Tea Party exodus from the GOP.
This is a plausible-sounding theory, if you think independent voters are some sort of strange new phenomenon never before seen on the American electoral landscape, and Marshall backs it up with a colorful line graph showing the results of what he describes as various national party ID surveys. But it does not stand up to scrutiny.
Let's look at a screenshot of Marshall's chart; you can go click over to TPM if you want to play around with the various bells and whistles on it:
First of all, as Marshall himself admits, "we keep this data set of 'adults' rather than registered or likely voters. That makes it somewhat different from the voting electorate. ...These are polls which simply ask people over 18, how do you identify in partisan terms." As anyone who follows elections even remotely closely knows, polls of "all adults" are completely worthless, and a campaign whose supporters are citing polls of "all adults" rather than registered or likely voters six days before an election is doomed.
Second, notice something about the math here: Marshall is citing a collection of surveys that say the population is 32.5 D/25.2 R/33 I at present - which adds up to 90.7% of the people. What happened to the other 9.3%? As of the line in the middle representing the 2010 election, he shows the population as 34.2 D/30.2 R/28 I - again, 92.4% of the people, with 7.6% unaccounted for. Around Election Day 2008, it shows 39.4 D/30.6 R/25.2 I - 95.2% of the population, with 4.8% unaccounted for. It's impossible to translate those kinds of large omissions into a useful tool for analyzing the electorate. (In fact, Marshall shows independents outnumbering Democrats - and if that happens, I promise you, Obama is toast).
Third, it doesn't match up to the actual voter turnout. Exit polls in 2008 show 39% D and 31% R, numbers consistent with the chart, but 29% rather than 25% I. For 2010, it's way off: Marshall's chart has the population at 30.2% Republican and a D+4 advantage for Democrats, when in fact we know the exits showed a D 36/R 36/I 28 electorate. Somehow, the 7.6% of the people not accounted for turned out to almost all be Republicans. Marshall makes no effort to test how any of these surveys (or his rolling average of surveys) has matched up historically to the actual electorate, unlike my comparison of the track record of the Gallup and Rasmussen party ID surveys (both of which he mysteriously leaves out of his average) dating back over multiple elections. I will trust the people who have done this before and been proven reliable.
If it was true that success with independent voters was the result of defectors from the party, you would expect recent and longer-term history to show an inverse relationship between success with independents and partisan turnout - that is, you'd expect to see Republicans doing better with independents when GOP turnout is low, and Democrats doing better with independents when Democratic turnout is low. There is, in fact, some evidence that that was true before 1984, when a lot of independents and "Reagan Democrats" started self-identifying as Republicans. But since then, if you look at the presidential election years and the last two off-year Congressional elections (2006 and 2010), what you see in general is more like the opposite relationship: parties tend to do better with independents when they are turning out a lot of their own partisans. This chart shows the percentage of Democrats and Republicans in the electorate each of those years, along with each party's share of the two-party vote among independents (that is, I dropped out the percentage of independents voting for Ross Perot, John Anderson, etc.):
As you can see, Democrats did well with independents in years like 1996, 2006 and 2008 when Democratic turnout was up, indicating that good partisan environments/candidates drew Democrats to the polls and attracted independent voters. Republicans did better with independents in 2010 when Republican turnout was up. Independents were closely divided in 2000 and 2004. This is what anybody who has spent any time working in the fields of campaigns, polling or election punditry would expect to see - strength with independent voters nearly always goes hand-in-hand with the party-base enthusiasm that drives good voter turnout. A big Democratic turnout year and small Republican turnout year at the same time as a big Republican surge with independent voters is out of whack with history.
I don't doubt that, anecdotally, a fair number of people left the GOP after 2008 to join the long-time Perotista faction and build a core bloc of Tea Party-friendly independents. Rasmussen's surveys suggest that a good chunk of those people came home to the GOP by the time of the 2010 election, and if they didn't, they were replaced by other Republicans, because GOP turnout in 2010 was the best it had been since 2004. Marshall's theory that Republicans have collapsed to something resembling 25% of the electorate is frankly inexplicable in light of the 2010 elections (and the 2012 recall election, in Wisconsin).
For an example of why this makes no sense, let's look at one of the latest pieces of evidence outside the polling that supports a more Republican electorate: as Ed Morrissey notes, a recent study shows voter regstration across 8 states that register voters by party (FL, NC, CO, NV, NM, IA, PA & NH; states like OH & VA don't) shows a net 1.3% increase in Republican registration since 2008 and a net 2.5% decrease in Democratic registration, while independent registration has boomed, up 14.4%. You can read that registration data to show that being an independent is still a lot more popular choice than being a Republican these days; you can't sensibly read it to show that the growth of independent voters is the result of a decreasing base of Republican voters, and you can't possibly read it to show that the total share of Republicans and independents is holding steady or declining relative to the Democrats.
I would be very shocked if Republicans are just 25% of the voters in this election. I bet Josh Marshall would too.