Early Voting: The Canary in the Coal Mine?

I try to take the polls with a grain of salt, and I have tried particularly hard this year because of the distinct possibility that Senator Obama’s candidacy could unsettle some traditional assumptions about voter turnout and polling bias.  The race has seemed over for a couple of weeks now, but there was always the chance the polls might be very, very wrong.  And I should say up front:  There still is that chance.

But it is hard not to marvel at this little item from FiveThirtyEight.com:  Early voters in five swing states seem to have gone for Senator Obama by margins that are from 17 to 39 points more favorable to him than the polling results for non-early voters: 

...    Poll    % Voted                  Non-Early
State  Date      Early   Early Voters   Likely Voters
NM     10/13     10%     Obama +23%     Obama +6%
OH     10/13     12%     Obama +18%     Obama +4%
GA     10/12     18%     Obama +6%      McCain +11%
IA     10/9      14%     Obama +34%     Obama +10%
NC     10/6       5%     Obama +34%     McCain +5%

What’s surprising about these numbers is that, in the past, early voters as a group have tended been older, more Republican, and more male than later voters.  In addition, if there were going to be any appreciable “Bradley effect” in the 2008 election, we should expect to see it here, shouldn’t we?  If Obama is cleaning up despite such pro-McCain factors, it is bad news indeed for the McCain campaign.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com adds all the usual and very appropriate caveats about these numbers, which are after all from just one pollster, SurveyUSA.  But the major sites that aggregate and publish state-by-state polling results seem largely in agreement that the race is no longer close. RealClearPolitics is, at this moment, showing Obama with 238 electoral votes solidly on his side (including Pennsylvania) and another 75 leaning his way (including Florida and Virginia) by margins of between 5 and 8.7 percent.  Only six states are toss-ups on the RCP map, and Obama is leading in all of them except Missouri and Indiana.  Indiana!  A state President Bush carried in 2004 by over twenty percentage points! Pollster.com says that Virginia is still a toss-up, but Ohio leans toward Obama and Florida is solidly in Obama’s tally — which Pollster.com says would be 358 if the election were held today.  CNN and MSNBC are more favorable for McCain, with only 264 electoral votes currently going to Obama and 100-111 still in the toss-up category, including both Florida and Ohio.

FiveThirtyEight.com itself adopts a more statistically involved method than the sites above, paying attention not only to the published result of each poll but also the margin of error.  By treating the “result” of any given state poll as a probability distribution within a certain range, FiveThirtyEight.com can simulate the election over and over again and then tally the results of all simulations.  Using this method, FiveThirtyEight.com currently projects that the five most likely electoral vote totals for Obama are 375, 380, 383, 338, and 381.  Four of those five would be comparable to Clinton’s tally against Dole in 1996, and some consider 375 as the threshold for “landslide” status.  Of course, in some of the simulations, the stars align for McCain and all the polls turn out to have overstated support for Obama.  According to FiveThirtyEight.com, the current probability that McCain will pull out such a “margin-of-error” victory has slipped to 4.2% — way down at one tail of the bell curve.

That, I guess, is what makes the early-voter numbers from SurveyUSA strike me as significant.  Barring some pretty big “October surprise” that trends wildly in McCain’s favor, he can only win if actual votes for Obama lag significantly behind the vote totals that the polls would predict.  Since most of these polls track “likely voters,” the assumptions about likeliness are critical.  And if Obama supporters are voting early in numbers that far outstrip the turnout the models would predict, it looks more and more likely that the junior senator from Illinois will have a very big night.


14 Responses to “Early Voting: The Canary in the Coal Mine?”

  1. Timothy Peach Says:

    Granulous, you’re my hero and all that, but come on.

    First, you’d have to have been trapped under a fallen refrigerator since mid-2006 not to know what has been going on in the “early vote” market. We’re talking about the most pervasive, well-organized Dem effort on this front ever.

    Second, you’re trying to predict the precise level of global temperature increase on the planet in the year 2050 based on how fast the icicles on Sarah Palin’s Russia-facing windowsill melt on a single day in April.

    There is so much noise in this election that nobody knows what’s going to happen, except that Obama is much more likely to win. If the only pieces of information I had were the Dow on 1/1 and 10/15, I could have figured that much out.

    Looking carefully for indicators that Obama is really ahead is like looking carefully for heretics at Georgetown University.

    The whole thing is silly. Early voting is silly. fivethirtyeight.com is silly. And you are especially silly.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    You know Tim, I don’t think I deserved such abuse after I deliberately avoided calling you out for your earlier predictions. (Hint to reasonable minds: Type “electoral vote tie” in the search box near the top of the right-hand column.)

  3. Steve Mohyla Says:


    Obama 357
    McCain 181

    The more important tidbit from this site is the poll-predicted result of the Senate becoming 59-41 Democratic. While I believe that the new cloture rules are not in the spirit of the filibuster, (bring on Mr. Smith!) I don’t want one party to run roughshod over legislation in the Senate. With 60, the Dems wouldbe able to do that. (And I am a Libertarian who votes mostly Democratic.)

  4. Tim Naughton Says:

    Wow. You’re right, Mark. He said:

    “ … no Reasonable Mind disputes the fact that this campaign is fundamentally changed by the feisty young woman from the Last Frontier. …

    Here are my thoughts on where we stand post-conventions …, what I think the outcome will be.

    – The pick was a miraculous “two birder” for McCain, satisfy[ing] the base … while … mov[ing] back toward the “maverick center.”
    – Women … are paying attention now, could be swayed if Palin can take the ball in.

    – [W]e emerge from the conventions in a virtual dead heat, with the debating stakes [beyond] imagin[ing].

    – I expect Obama and McCain to battle to a draw within rounding … all eyes are now on the Palin/Biden showdown.

    – Biden is in a hell of a difficult spot…. We now know how capable this woman is on stage in a tight spot — the teleprompter was broken for her speech. By all accounts she’s a quick study…, I’ve got to believe a Biden bungle is more likely than a Palin “potatoe”.

    – When I look at the electoral map …, I’m stunned by how few states I see in play. I don’t think McCain can win Pennsylvania, and I don’t think Obama can win Florida. I see three states deciding this election: Ohio, Colorado, and New Hampshire.

    Big turnout now a given on both sides. I think it’ll be a long night. I see McCain winning Ohio in a squeaker, and then it’s a matter of whether he can flip Colorado. If he does, he wins. If he only flips New Hampshire, and assuming something goofy doesn’t happen in split-able Nebraska or Maine, we have an electoral vote tie. I think that means that the President vote goes to the House, the VP vote goes to the Senate, and the Dems win. Also, another popular vote/electoral vote divergence is totally in play this year. If McCain pulls this off, you could see some serious efforts to kill the Electoral College in the years to come.

    I think McCain/Palin will win another painfully close election, which will be a very divisive outcome. They will struggle to govern in the context of a non-mandate win, with a strongly Dem-controlled Congress. This will be a fair challenge as they are now running as the reform candidates capable of reaching across the aisle. This could be great for America if it works, or a mess that will lead to a Hillary Clinton presidency in 2012. If that happens, the world will end, and we can continue this discussion in another dimension.

    I’m dying to hear divergent views. [End]”

  5. Timothy Peach Says:

    I’m sticking to my story.

    I stand by my prediction of a nailbiter.

    We still have almost three weeks until Decision Tuesday, and there’ll be another 5 game changers in that span.

    Nobody “got anything right” here, incidentally (or wrong, for that matter). Financial chaos and/or Iraq reversal were always the potential “October Surprises” for the Dems. What a great place to be — always rooting against America for political gain. Maybe there’ll be another successful terrorist attack on US interests and the Dems can REALLY celebrate!

    There is still a chance for a stunning snapback here, and if there is, I think there will be few things I’ll ever enjoy more than the bitter disbelief among the elite Socialist class — they can almost taste four glorious years of finger-wagging condescension now and no one has ever felt a greater sense of entitlement (justified by what I have no idea).

    Never has the media been more in the tank with a candidacy, never did it have more at stake in terms of its credibility. Perfection would be another exit polling fiasco, followed by all kinds of inaccurate premature state calls, ending with ugly backtracking and grey faces announcing the unimaginable.

    I just want to see all the toxic elitist pigs squirm with disgust and dispair. A totally miraculous rejection by the Average Joe and Jane of a completely fabricated narrative.

    Obama doesn’t really bother me or scare me all that much. He may unpleasantly surprise his lefty supporters with some unexpected centrism. Will he have the backbone to stand in the way of a Socialist coup? I doubt it.

    Alas, the alternative is still more likely. The Grand Trifecta, Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, energized and eager to perpetrate a series of financial, social, and foreign policy horrors on America that will leave us crippled and rudderless. We’ll come back — we always do. It’ll just be a long, painful retracement.

    McCain has been a real dud lately. He’s no Messiah. He’s just the only thing standing between us and the abyss now.

    Granulous, don’t get all up on your hinds legs about abuse. God made you burly and well-grounded so you can absorb bolt after crackling bolt and keep coming back for more.

  6. Tim Naughton Says:

    “Well-grounded?” Didnt you really mean “well-rounded?” And isn’t it true that “well-rounded” is merely McCain-speak for overweight? The name calling must stop. Next, it will be “Kill Granulous.” Then where would I get my cartoons?

  7. Mark Grannis Says:

    And it’s a short hop from “overweight” to “toxic elitist pig.” Just don’t accuse me of wearing lipstick.

  8. Timothy Peach Says:

    Unfortunately, Fat Granulous’ quaint request to maintain a “family environment” in this dim place makes it impossible for me to respond properly to the last few comments here.

    Bacon Boy gets a free pass at this juncture.

  9. Timothy Peach Says:

    Well, for those looking for REAL canaries in coal mines, the results are in:


    The kids went for Obama by 51% to 49%. Can this possibly be good news for The One?

    Kerry won the Nick vote in 2004 57% to 43%, apparently, only to have Kerry stomped at the adult level.

    Since kids generally reflect the nonsense they hear at home on this stuff, I suspect this is pretty good indication we’re in for a real squeaker on Election Night!

  10. David Fitzgerald Says:

    Or, in light of the current fatwa in effect in the Fitzgerald household against Nickelodeon generally and Sponge Bob in particular (odious!), perhaps the demographic of households who (i) can affrod Nickelodeon, (ii) allow their children to watch Nickelodeon and (iii) actually let them get so engrossed that they respond to Nickelodeon polls, are households that would skew to Ms. Palin anyway (wink!)?

  11. Timothy Peach Says:

    Yes, I think that may well be correct. Those children who are in the middle of childhoods similar to the one Truman Capote apparently enjoyed would, if forced to participate in the Nickelodeon poll, be rather unlikely to pull the lever for the ticket that has spent scant time writing books or studying what is humorously still referred to as “the law”.

  12. Don’t Waste Your Vote! (Third Parties Turn the Tables) « Reasonable Minds Says:

    […] ballot very nearly its only practical function?  That’s where I am right now.  Reasonable minds apparently differ on whether Senator McCain’s goose is cooked nationally, but I don’t think anyone thinks […]

  13. Mark Esswein Says:

    Here’s another canary…

    Thoreau Middle School where my son is an 8th grader, conducted a straw poll of the 8th grade class. The results were Obama 60%, McCain 35% and Other 5%.

    This is not a surprise considering that Fairfax County in general and Northern Fairfax County in particular has moved to the blue column of the last few cycles. I will report back on how close the Thoreau result comes to the actual outcome on Tuesday.

  14. Mark Esswein Says:

    The actual Fairfax County tally was: 58.5% Obama, 40.7% McCain and 0.8% other.

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