A few weeks ago, I was watching Mitt Romney’s polling numbers dive, and, on both sides of the aisle, the conversation — and the conventional wisdom — was starting to ask not, “Who will win the election?” but, “Why will Mitt Romney lose it?” Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight.com, was kind enough to place a number on the probability of President Obama’s re-election, as he does every day, but the number was more or less meaningless. Just how likely is 25%, in real-world terms? Should I join the recriminations crowd, or wait patiently to see whether things changed?
Mr. Silver suggested an answer in an off-hand reference to the apolitical sport where he got his start as a practical statistician: baseball. He linked me to the Win Probability Inquirer at the Hardball Times, and off I went! After all, I’ve only seen four presidential elections, and they’re very complicated games, but I have seen a lot of baseball over the years (thanks, Dad!). If you’re down 2 runs in the top of the first inning, I have a gut sense of what that means — and I know how different it is from being down 2 runs in the 6th. So all I needed to do was look at the daily election forecast at FiveThirtyEight, find a baseball scenario that matched that probability, and, bam, suddenly I knew where the race really stood.
Whenever I was having a hard time figuring out what the polls meant, I’d do a gut-check against the WPI, and I shared my results on Facebook, because that is the sort of thing I do. These stray notes coalesced into something like a coherent series of posts, and, by popular demand (read: one reader suggested it), I am here reposting my week-by-week account of the increasingly exciting 2012 presidential baseball game:
September 17 – 538 forecast: Obama 74.8%, Romney 25.2%
If we think of the election as an average baseball game, Team Romney — playing at Obama Stadium — is down 5 – 3 in the top of the 3rd. Team Romney has a man on first, but two outs.
This first postingcame hours after the infamous “47 percent” comments broke, before the polls had time to respond to it.
September 24 – 538 forecast: Obama 77.7%, Romney 22.3%
Team Romney, playing at Obama Stadium, is down 5 – 3 in the top of the 4th with no men on and two outs.
October 1 – 538 forecast: Obama 85.7%, Romney 14.3%
It’s getting worse for Team Romney! After yet another scoreless inning for his Romulans, the Obamaniacs put another run on the board, making the score 6 to 3, and brought in a fresh relief pitcher as we enter the 5th inning. Three runs down, four innings to go, and a tough pitching environment… it’s still a real game, but it might not be for much longer!
The President’s polling would continue to strengthen, until, during the day on October 3rd — the evening of the first debate — Gov. Romney’s odds fell to just 13%. Then the debate happened.
October 7 – 538 forecast: Obama 78.4%, Romney 21.6%
Is a rally underway for Team Romney? With the debate in the 5th inning, the Romulans put one over the fence for one run, making the score Obama 6, Romney 4 before Friday’s jobs report closed out the inning. We’re now in the top of the 6th inning, where Romney has runners on first and second base — but two outs. A home run here would put him in the lead; a strikeout would leave him right where he started the inning. We’ll be tracking the polls closely to see whether his momentum continues through the inning — or if it’s just a no-conversion bounce.
October 9 – 538 forecast: Obama 71.2%, Romney 28.8%
We are still in the top of the 6th inning, where Romney’s runner on second has just stolen third. Except — a wild pitch at home plate! The runner is going for it! And… oh, he practically walked in. Very safe. The score is now Obamaniacs 6, Romulans 5. Mitt Romney still has two outs and a man on first base, but he remains at bat, and the go-ahead run is at the plate.
This advance represents the polling results from the past couple of days. No new developments in the race (i.e. base hits). The polls are just verifying that Romney made real and substantial gains among voters (i.e. converting hits to runs).
October 12 – 538 forecast: Obama 66.1%, Romney 33.9%
The final pre-debate polls came in today, and Obama/Biden are clearly “at bat” in the polls between now and the next debate. That means we are finally entering the bottom of the 6th inning of this race! But how did that exciting top of the 6th end?
With another solid pair of base hits on Wednesday and Thursday, Team Romney managed to get their man on first all the way around the horn, tying up the score with Team Obama.
After that, the Obamaniacs were finally able to get that elusive third out with a clean strikeout. Romney’s remaining runner was stranded at third. Yet inning had been a considerable success: despite carrying two outs, Romney had snagged two runs, three base hits, two stolen bases (including a run, thanks to a wild pitch), all while the Obama pitching staff — a side of the team renowned for its discipline and aggression — flailed to figure out its next move.
And so, as we enter the bottom of the 6th inning, the score is now Obama 6, Romney 6. A dramatic change from the 6 – 3 lead Team Obama held just nine outs ago! Oh, but, what’s this? Looks like Obama’s Ohio Ground Game just hit a double past the shortstop, and now Joe Biden is stepping into the on-deck circle! We’re about to see just how durable the Romney comeback really is!
UPDATE: Friday’s polls, which are still mostly pre-debate samples, came in shortly after this was posted, and were much better for Romney than expected, increasing his probability to 38.9%. It seems that the batter up just before Ol’ Babyface Joey popped out to right field.
I’ll continue cross-posting these little tidbits as the race develops. I’m enjoying them immensely. Hopefully I am not alone!