Post-Debate, the President-Elect Would Be...

As President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney square off against each other tonight in the first of their three debates, the airwaves will be abuzz with pundits analyzing what each says and how that might affect the election outcome. You can judge for yourself or follow along with the analysis, but I, for one, will wait for the hard numbers to tell me who bested whom.

For surely the polls will tell that tale.

To get my data, I'll be heading to Election Analytics, self-described as a "Web tool that tracks and analyzes polling data to forecast who will win the upcoming November 2012 elections." As I write this post, looking at the latest available data, for yesterday, Oct. 2, I can see that if the election had taken place a day ago the Obama team would probably still be raising champagne toasts at the moment. Any way you slice the data, and even if swing states vote heavily Republican, the tool forecasts Obama as the victor.

The infographic below shows one slice of the data, for five days. You can also see results in histograms, sliders, and over longer periods. Election Analytics is tracking Senate races, too.

The data is only as good as the last poll results -- so this could change come tomorrow, post debate, as Sheldon Jacobson, co-creator of Election Analytics, told me in a phone interview last week. He recounted the 2008 election, when in mid-September the Election Analytics tool showed candidate Sen. John McCain having a sizable lead over Obama. "But by the end of September, that lead was gone and McCain never caught back up," according to the tool results.

That's to say, as election day draws closer, the Election Analytics forecasts turn into actual predictions. "Things start to get really interesting three weeks before the election -- that's when the rubber meets the road," said Jacobson, who is a computer science professor with a specialty in operations research at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

The tool becomes most valuable heading into the election, he noted. As the polls change, Jacobson and his team "synthesize and analyze and run the data through our models." Those models, as demonstrated in 2008, seem pretty solid: Election Analytics accurately predicted results in every state but Indiana And even that didn't surprise the team, he told me.

"We looked at the tough states to forecast -- we had a group of really, really close states -- and we knew we'd get it wrong on one of them. We knew one of the states would flip, but we didn't know if it'd be, say, North Carolina, or Missouri, and it ended up being Indiana."

So how, you're probably wondering, as was I, does Election Analytics get it so right? The key is dynamic programming and sophisticated algorithmic techniques, said Jacobson, without revealing too much, of course. Here's a bit of info from the site:

The mathematical model employs Bayesian estimators that use available state poll results (at present, this is being taken from Rasmussen, Survey USA, and Quinnipiac, among others) to determine the probability that each presidential candidate will win each of the states (or the probability that each political party will win the Senate race in each state). These state-by-state probabilities are then used in a dynamic programming algorithm to determine a probability distribution for the number of Electoral College votes that each candidate will win in the 2012 presidential election. In the case of the Senate races, the individual state probabilities are used to determine the number of seats that each party will control.

You can read more about the methodology, including how polling data for each state is weighted and how Election Analytics takes into account swing scenarios, here. In addition, if you happen to be attending the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) annual meeting in mid-October, you can catch Jacobson in person as he'll be presenting on US presidential forecasting.

And, of course, be sure to head back to Election Analytics tomorrow, and then again following the Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 debates, as they're sure to shift the polls, Jacobson said. But back to today, the tool shows Obama would have won an election held yesterday with a 1.000 probability, capturing 342.2 electoral votes.

Do you trust Election Analytics results and other forecasts? Share below, and take our quick poll on the subject at the right.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: election indicators
  • 10/10/2012 4:13:24 PM

@Beth oh, yes, it's a great idea to use cups of coffee as an indicator. I can't quite see Starbucks giving up its mermaid logo in pursuit of the same kind of survey, though.

Re: election indicators
  • 10/10/2012 3:54:59 PM

Ariella, now that's a retailer putting its analytics to very clever use, questionable as the results may be.

election indicators
  • 10/10/2012 2:19:22 PM

Then there is the low tech form of analytics based on a choice of coffee cups at 7-Eleven:

As it has done in every presidential election since 2000, the convenience store chain is selling red and blue to-go coffee cups marked with the names of the major party candidates, as well as regular, unmarked cups for undecided voter in its "7-Election."

So far Obama is ahead nationally by a wide 60-40 margin, although more scientific polls have the national race as virtually a dead heat. In the closely contested swing state of Ohio, where both candidates are campaigning heavily this week, the coffee cup poll favors the incumbent 57 to 43, with undecided coffee drinkers excluded.

Even though the poll bills itself as "unabashedly unofficial and unscientific," it has accurately predicted the winners since it began in 2000. Not only that, the results have hewed within 1 percentage point of the final popular vote. In 2008, Sen. John McCain got 46 percent in the 7-Election and 45.7 percent in the real election, while Obama got 52 percent of the coffee cups and 52.9 percent of the actual votes. In 2004, President George W. Bush beat Sen. John Kerry in the 7-Election 51-49, compared with 50.7 to 48.3 in the real polls.

More from Illinois
  • 10/8/2012 11:30:21 AM

U of I's C.S. department shares more on Jacobson's work here.

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/5/2012 6:25:17 PM


Beth writes


... the 1.000 probability works, though, since the tool forecasts the winner based on that day's poll data.


I'm not convinced that poll data or other sentiment indicators are fully accurate predictors, especially given the unusual conditions prevailing in today's politically charged environment.  For example, the confloption over "Voter ID", early voting, etc. could impact voter eligibility and voter willingness to endure difficult voting conditions.


Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/5/2012 12:55:55 PM

Noreen I think it's an interesting question, I remember watching debates when we looked at people's faces at College campuses in bars etc. Now a lot of the analysis surrounded the social media response and few new channels did the man on the street analysis. So I guess the answer is yes they do care about twitter and facebook, will it make a difference or will it just solidify options and perspectives. That might be the question, could social media move the decision needle or is it just about sharing opinions.

Re: post-debate
  • 10/5/2012 12:15:25 PM

@Ariella, it probably took you a couple minutes to look up the funders for Sesame Street. Hopefully, many folks have the common sense to look for the real answers behind all the half-lies spoken during this campaign, or at least the sense to know that they are half-lies.

Re: post-debate
  • 10/5/2012 8:00:05 AM

But of course! (And I fixed the link -- although I'm sure you can adequately imagine it.)

Re: post-debate
  • 10/4/2012 10:33:13 PM

@Beth I couldn't get the link to work, but I'd venture to guess ... Big Bird.

Re: post-debate
  • 10/4/2012 8:28:00 PM

Romney's Halloween costume?

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