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, Folio.net, and others.

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chicken or egg
  • 10/3/2012 4:30:50 PM
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Which came first: A person's decision to vote a specific way or the results of the poll that influenced him?

Re: chicken or egg
  • 10/3/2012 4:52:37 PM
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@Noreen, scary question. I would hope the former -- that is one reason we host public presidential debates -- but I suspect sadly plenty of people merely follow the crowd.

Re: chicken or egg
  • 10/3/2012 5:50:21 PM
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Beth, - In a way i think polling houses shape the polls. Often though not always i've seen them use samples that are statistically not fair and draw conclusions about leading candidates. The results is that people's minds are influenced in that way and in the end it is a vicious circle. No wonder the politician who's not leading in opinion polls will always cry foul.

Re: chicken or egg
  • 10/3/2012 5:57:24 PM
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This is one of the reasons the predictions are more accurate as you get closer to the event.  1) they become self reinforcing and 2) there's less time for mass changes in distributions to occur.  IF you were to plot the probability that their prediction is correct verses distance from the event I'll bet you'd get a nice smooth line (or at least a curve).

1.000 probability
  • 10/3/2012 6:24:18 PM
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Beth,

Fully agree - the data is more interesting than all the pundits and "talking heads".  (Maybe we think that way because we're the type that likes an analytics site?)

One objection about the Election Analytics projection - it's too early to put a 1.000 probability on any of the elections.  Maybe 0.99, but not 1.000 just yet.

PC

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/3/2012 8:37:32 PM
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PC, the 1.000 probability works, though, since the tool forecasts the winner based on that day's poll data. If it was predicting an outcome, I would agree, it's definitely too early.

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 4:24:43 AM
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@Beth,

So it's okay to "forecast the winner"

but it wouldn't be okay to "predict an outcome"

Got it.... wait. What's the difference?

PC

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 8:46:50 AM
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@PredictableChaos -- no difference between forecasting the winner and predicting an outcome. The distinction I meant to call out is between today and Nov. 6. In other words, the Election Analytics tool tells you who would win if the election took place on the day for which it has the latest poll data. So looking at Election Analytics this morning, we know that if the election had been held yesterday, Obama would be the victor, earning 338.4 of the electoral votes, down slightly from the 342.2 electoral votes he would have earned had the election been held the day before, on Oct. 2. We'll have to see how the numbers shift once Election Analytics takes post-debate poll data into account. As the election date draws closer, and especially after that third and final debate, you can read the results more predictively -- in other words, if the tool shows Romney ahead on Oct. 28 that's a sign he'll be besting Obama come Nov. 6. Did I make sense this time? ;-)

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 8:53:46 AM
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Yep. Now I understand the difference. Thanks!

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 9:14:57 AM
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Debate impressions, anyone?

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 9:25:14 AM
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@Noreen, I'm embarassed -- mortified, really -- to say I didn't watch it. I got caught up in after dinner kid stuff and completely lost track of the night. So I'll have to catch the recaps, print & online ... then head to Election Analytics and take a look at the data.

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 9:55:02 AM
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You missed nothing.

Romney had a better tie-brighter. And a bigger pin.

Obama had the more cloying, romantic message to his spouse.

Boring boring boring.

 

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 9:58:49 AM
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DENVER -- Millions of Americans lost consciousness on Wednesday night between the hours of 9 and 10:30 P.M. E.T., according to widespread anecdotal reports from coast to coast.

The sudden epidemic of sleepiness prevented voters from watching more than a minute or two of the first Presidential debate between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, which the few observers who remained awake have called the most tedious in American history.

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 10:41:30 AM
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Twitter scored Romney the debate's clear winner according to Peoplebrowsr, a web analytics firm. The group found 47,141 tweets mentioning Romney and "win or winner" compared to just 29,677 mentioning Obama and "win or winner."

Romney was also the top tweet in battleground states including Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Colorado, Peoplebrowsr found.

In Ohio, a key swing state where polls show Obama has emerged with a lead in recent weeks, the top two debate tweets were "Romney" with 15,115 and "Mitt" with 5,446. "Obama" placed third with 5,328.



Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 10:47:04 AM
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Recommended read: Lessons Learned from Watching the Presidential Debate–On Mute

My prediction is that the American voters who haven't yet decided might think Obama seemed weary, where Romney–who has been remarkably unexciting during the campaign–appeared vigorous. But the big question, of course, is what will happen in the following two debates: What color ties will the candidates wear then?



Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 1:13:01 PM
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To follow up on Noreen's comment, Time said: "With 11.1 million comments, Wednesday's debate was the fourth most-tweeted telecast of any kind, coming in just behind the most recent Grammy awards, MTV's Video Music Awards and the Super Bowl, according to William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, an election project of Bluefin Labs, a social analytics firm. It was far higher than the previous political record holder: the third night of the Democratic National Convention in September, which drew 2.5 million comments."

 

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 2:13:42 PM
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PBS Moderator, Jim Lehrer stated a recent insight of interest... " There's also a very large difference in where the two men are addressing their responses. Mitt Romney looks at the moderator when answering. President Obama looks at the camera, looks at us when responding " referencing the debate is not an analysis of what the two men said rather of personal impressions of the candidates.

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 3:25:15 PM
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@Noreen, I guess the question is, "Do we care who did what on Twitter?" Is that truly going to tell the tale of this election?

Re: post-debate
  • 10/4/2012 4:38:26 PM
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@Beth I try to ignore must of the political noise that surrounds elections, but now the Sesame Street references have engendered a near meme of Big Bird posts. The whole thing becomes totally ludicrous, especially in light of the fact that most funding for the program, as per  http://www.sesameworkshop.org/partners/supporters/index.html comes from corporate sponsors and private foundations. The list of Major Funding Parners includes:

 

Big Bird is not relying on tax dollars to keep employed, though he may lose some of his sponors if they lose the tax break for charitable donations.

Re: post-debate
  • 10/4/2012 8:28:00 PM
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Romney's Halloween costume?

Re: post-debate
  • 10/4/2012 10:33:13 PM
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@Beth I couldn't get the link to work, but I'd venture to guess ... Big Bird.

Re: post-debate
  • 10/5/2012 8:00:05 AM
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But of course! (And I fixed the link -- although I'm sure you can adequately imagine it.)

Re: post-debate
  • 10/5/2012 12:15:25 PM
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@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: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 8:00:45 PM
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Do we care who did what on twitter? Isn't that the 10 million dollar big-data question?

Re: 1.000 probability
  • 10/5/2012 12:55:55 PM
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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: 1.000 probability
  • 10/4/2012 3:21:27 PM
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@Noreen, ouch. Doesn't seem like these guys gave the pundits much room for analysis.

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

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.

 

Bayesian Estimators: Who Knew ?
  • 10/3/2012 8:57:26 PM
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Thank you Beth for exposing a really unique election polling tool.  I don't believe much in polls, I mean if you are the one ahead then you can take some comfort, I mean it is better than being behind right ?

But when it comes down to it, I really don't think for the most part people know what they will do until it is actually time to decide. But I do find this application fascinating and this interesting mention: 

" The key is dynamic programming and sophisticated algorithmic techniques...."

Well I am certain it is  - fascinating use of Bayesian estimators as it applies here but I can respect their need for competitive privacy.

 

And Election Analytics shows ...
  • 10/4/2012 8:23:13 PM
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Just checked out the Election Analytics tool, and it seems last night's debate did little to change poll-takers' minds. if the election had been held today, the tool forecasts that Obama would have won: 1.000 probability of winning, 338.7 electoral votes. 

More from Illinois
  • 10/8/2012 11:30:21 AM
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U of I's C.S. department shares more on Jacobson's work here.

election indicators
  • 10/10/2012 2:19:22 PM
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Then there is the low tech form of analytics based on a choice of coffee cups at 7-Eleven: http://lifeinc.today.com/_news/2012/10/10/14340658-obama-wins-by-landslide-in-7-eleven-coffee-cup-survey:

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.

Re: election indicators
  • 10/10/2012 3:54:59 PM
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Ariella, now that's a retailer putting its analytics to very clever use, questionable as the results may be.

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

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