Ignore The Electoral College! Follow-Up

I’ve been saying for months that it’s best to completely ignore the electoral college until at least after the conventions. Well, unless you’re making decisions about where to put resources if you’re a presidential campaign; then you don’t have much choice.

A little confirmation that it’s good advice comes from Nate Silver’s latest big look at the electoral college bias. He’s been reporting for months that the electoral college had a slight bias for Barack Obama — that is, if the election was a 50/50 tie nationally, the odds favored Obama to win the election because his votes were likely to be better distributed across the states. Except now…it’s reversed.

I agree completely with Silver that whatever you think of his forecast model, this is exactly the stuff that he’s going to get right. So I’m inclined to accept that if he says that’s where the numbers fall, based on the polls he collected as of this post (yesterday morning), that’s where they fall.

So what value added was there from paying attention to, say, how Florida looked back in May? I just can’t see it. You were way better off getting a good estimate of how the election looked nationally (which at that point would have put very little weight even on national head-to-head polling), and then assume that you’ll get more-or-less uniform swing. And that if it projected as very close, then the best thing you could say was “very close” — you couldn’t actually get any more accurate by looking at individual states.

What I’m not sure is whether there’s any utility even at this point in looking at the individual state polling — that is, if what you’re really interested in is who is going to win the election. (Clarification: it’s certainly worth it to look at individual state polling as part of figuring out the national situation; if we see Ohio and Florida and North Dakota and Utah all move two points to Obama, that tells us something about what’s happening nationally, and the polling aggregators/modelers do and should use that information). I had been saying that now was about the time to start paying attention to the states, but I really don’t know if that’s true. After all, think about it this way: Silver had Wisconsin surprisingly close, and therefore it had moved up to the 4th most likely tipping-point state…but there’s a new poll out today that puts Obama way up there, and I’m guessing that will be enough to move Wisconsin back to a uniform-swing state — and far from the top of the tipping point state list.

Look, eventually, we know that we won’t get 100% perfect uniform swing, and presumably a fair amount of whatever non-uniform swing will happen will be evident as soon as there’s enough state-level polling information. Right? It’s not as if we expect Ohio (or New Hampshire or Virginia or whatever) to suddenly veer off in the last few weeks, for the most part; we expect unusual swing to be the product of longer-term stuff than that. So presumably if there were enough state-level polls, we could pick up on some (most?) of it early on. It’s just that it’s not going to matter unless the race is very close, and if it is we still won’t quite know enough to know about electoral college bias until, most likely, a bit farther down the line.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.