Imagine you’re a Martian visiting the United States to study the presidential election.
You don’t speak any human language, so you have no idea what’s being said in the media, in debates or during campaign speeches. You don’t understand any of the speculation about what influences an election – about the role of the economy or demographic trends or supposed historical patterns. All you know are two things: you know how the electoral college works, and you know how to read a poll.
Not much to go by, but if you’re a Martian, you figured it out long ago: Obama’s gonna win.
To quote Bill Clinton: “It’s arithmetic.” You only need 270 electoral college votes to become president. Give Obama the states where he’s maintaining a lead in the polls and he already has 294. Throw in Colorado, where he’s locked in a complete tie with Romney, and he wins 303.
And here’s the kicker: this is exactly how the race has looked for months! Ever since June, polls put Obama at winning around 290 seats. That number has never fallen below 280.
This might come as a surprise if you read articles in the Baltimore Post-Examiner like “The Race” by Martin Sieff. “Right now I would give it 52-48 to Romney with a wider margin in the Electoral College,” Sieff wrote in his analysis of the third presidential debate.
Really? To do that, Romney would have to hold on to every state he’s already locked down. And all of the swing states he’s currently winning. And Colorado, where he’s tied. And at least three out of six swing states leaning towards Obama – including at least one where Obama is leading by three points.
Sieff’s conclusion isn’t unusual among pundits, but it’s dramatically at odds with the overwhelming consensus of polling. But your average pundit knows a lot more than your average Martians. So why are the Earthlings getting it wrong?
First, we like drama. We treat every bump in the polls like a mountain, every attack ad as a nuclear strike and every gaffe as a game-changer. Paul Ryan tells some boring lie about his running time, and we wonder: what if this is the lie that turns off the crucial voter who decides the election? Even the most trivial incidents and details of the election get amplified, so it’s impossible to maintain any perspective.
Second, we like democracy. We want to believe that nothing’s actually settled until the votes are cast. We want to believe that most people watch debates and read newspapers and discuss the issues over the kitchen table – that they only come to a decision after listening to all of the arguments. We want to believe that a different choice is always possible, so we look for reasons to think that the improbable is still probable. Maybe Romney could still win … right?
And third, we ignore the numbers. Polls are so frequently politicized and abused that Americans in particular have become prone to cynicism. And as everyone but your grade school teachers will admit, math is hard and boring. But shortcomings aside, polling remains our most accurate way of making predictions about elections. It’s much more reliable than trying to extrapolate ballot consequences from Obama’s body language, or than going with our gut feelings about Romney’s poise.
This is the part of the article where most people will hedge. “Anything could still happen,” they write. “We won’t know until election day.”
I guess that’s true, in a pretty trivial sense. But if you’re like our Martian and you’ve done the math, then you’re as sure about this as I am.
Team Obama, lace up those sneakers and get ready for a four -year victory lap. Your guy’s already won.
And take our poll on the right side of the homepage. You might be surprised who is winning.