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Why I Think Obama Is Toast

Barack Obama is toast. This is not something I say lightly. I generally try to remain cautious about predictions, because the prediction business is a humbling one. I have never been especially bullish on Mitt Romney, and I spent most of the summer and early fall arguing that this was basically a neck-and-neck race that would go down to the wire. But in the end, two things stand out:

One, Mitt Romney has a consistent, significant lead among independent voters, which increasingly looks like a double-digit lead. This is especially clear in national polls, but can also be seen in the key swing state polls. It’s been a hard enough number for the past few weeks now, even as the last of the debates gets baked into the polls, that there’s little chance that Obama can turn it around in the 11 days remaining in this race. In fact, Obama has been underwater with independents almost continuously since the middle of 2009.

Two, to overcome losing independents by more than a few points, Obama needs to have a decisive advantage in Democratic turnout, roughly on the order of – or in some places exceeding – the advantage he enjoyed in 2008, when Democrats nationally had a 7-point advantage (39-32). Yet nearly every indicator we have of turnout suggests that, relative to Republicans, the Democrats are behind where they were in 2008. Surveys by the two largest professional pollsters, Rasmussen and Gallup, actually suggest that Republicans will have a turnout advantage, which has happened only once (in the 2002 midterms) in the history of exit polling and probably hasn’t happened in a presidential election year since the 1920s.

Those two facts alone caused me to conclude at the end of last week that Obama will lose – perhaps lose a very close race, but lose just the same. That conclusion is only underscored by the fact that, historically, there is little reason to believe that the remaining undecided voters will break for an incumbent in tough economic times. He will lose the national popular vote, and the fact that he has remained competitive to the end in the two key swing states he needs to win (Ohio and Wisconsin) will not save him.

Independents’ Day

Three types of people vote: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Traditionally, Republican candidates get in the vicinity of 90% of the votes of Republicans, and Democrats (for a variety of reasons) get a similar but perhaps slightly smaller percent of the votes of Democrats. This is more or less true over time and in national and state races. In 2010, Republicans carried Republican voters 95-4, Democrats carried Democratic voters 92-7, a 3-point Republican advantage. Absent an unusually large number of party crossovers, then, there are two paths to winning an election: win the remaining, Independent voters; or turn out more of your own.

It is usually the case that if you want to know who is winning an election, you look at who is winning independent voters. This chart, for example, shows the popular vote totals for Republican and Democratic presidential candidates from 1972-2008, juxtaposed with their share of independent voters. As you can see, while the relationship isn’t a perfect one (Bush narrowly won independents while narrowly losing the popular vote in 2000, and narrowly lost independents while winning the popular vote in 2004; a lot of independents also voted for third party candidates in 1980, 1992 and 1996), independent voters tend to mirror the trend of the electorate as a whole. This is not surprising: year to year, the preferences of independent voters tend to be a good deal more volatile than the partisan composition of the R/D portion of the electorate.

The extent to which victory depends on independent voters can vary based on the margin of victory and the turnout of party regulars, of course. Exit polls in 1980 showed an electorate that was 45% Democrat and only 30% Republican; in those circumstances, Reagan’s 9-point popular vote victory (and downticket victories by many GOP Senate candidates) depended on winning a lot of independents (Reagan won independents by 25 in 1980, 27 in 1984) and crossovers. Nobody since George H.W. Bush in 1988 has won independents by double digits.

More recently, we can use the crosstabs in the exit polls to break this down more precisely. In 2000, for example, Bush had an 0.5 point advantage from his 2-point win among independent voters and a 1.5 point advantage from winning crossovers by 3 (he got 11% of Democratic votes, Gore got 8% of Republicans), but Gore won the popular vote because the 4-point Democratic turnout edge gave him a 1.9 point advantage. This graph shows the component parts of the popular vote margins for Gore in 2000, Bush in 2004, and Obama in 2008:

As you can see, Republicans generally help offset Democratic turnout advantages by drawing a slightly larger number of crossover votes. In Obama’s case, 28% of his popular vote margin in 2008 came from winning independents, while the other 72% came from getting more Democratic votes than McCain got Republican votes. But had Obama lost independents by the same 52-44 margin, he would have won 51-48 instead of 53-46, cutting his margin of victory by more than half – turning a 5.9 point margin among loyal partisans into a 2.6 point win.

Here’s another way of visualizing how the share of the electorate broke down in each of those elections by Republicans voting Republican (R-R), Independents voting Republican (I-R), Democrats voting Republican (D-R), etc.:

The problem for Obama, as Josh Jordan has pointed out here (with regard to the national polls) and here (with regard to the Ohio polls) and the Romney campaign addressed in a memo on Ohio on Thursday, is that whatever the toplines say, Obama is losing independents and losing them by a significant amount. Jordan’s analysis of the polls at the time showed Obama down, on average, 8.3 points with independents nationally and 8.7 points with independents in Ohio. If that holds (more on which below), and unless Obama can sustain the kind of significant edge in loyal partisan votes he had in 2008, he’ll end up behind.

This is not a new problem, and if anything it was even worse in the mid-term elections. Independents favored House Democrats by 18 in 2006, House Republicans by 15 in 2010. Independents broke about 2-to-1 for Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in 2009 and Scott Brown in January 2010, and independents favored Republicans in 18 Senate races (15 by double digits) and 13 governors’ races (11 by double digits) in November 2010. In Ohio, independents favored Rob Portman by 39 points and John Kasich by 16; in Nevada, they backed Brian Sandoval by 28 points, Sharron Angle by 4. Turnout still mattered – Ken Buck and Dino Rossi won independents by 18 and 16 and still lost – but there is no question that the big swing of independent voters to the GOP had a huge impact on the 2010 elections, just as the huge swing to Democrats had in 2006 and 2008.

Everything in the latest polls suggests doom for Obama with independents. This morning’s Washington Post poll has him down 20 with independents, 58-38. The Rasmussen national tracker has him down 17 today. Today’s IBD/TIPP poll has him down 10, 48-38. SurveyUSA/Monmouth has him trailing by 19, 52-33. The outlier, SEIU/DailyKos pollster PPP, had Romney up 2 yesterday with independents, 47-45, after the PPP tracker showed him up 10, 51-41, three days earlier. In this morning’s swing state poll, Rasmussen shows Romney leading Obama by 11 with independents.

In Ohio, ARG has Obama down 20 with independents, 57-37, SurveyUSA has him down 8, 47-39; TIME has him down 15, 53-38; PPP has him down 7, 49-42; CBS/Quinnipiac has him down 7, 49-42; Gravis has him down 19, 52-33.

Obama has lost independents. He will lose them nationally by easily 5-8 points, and quite possibly well into double digits. And he will lose them in Ohio by at least 5 as well. With no sign that he’s winning the crossover battle, partisan turnout is his only hope.

Modeling Turnout

We’ve established that Obama, having won independents four years ago, is now losing them. If the electorate looks like 2008, of course, that’s not a fatal problem. But that’s a seriously dubious assumption.

Step back and look at the national party ID figures taken from exit polls back to 1980 (2010 exits here and here):

The Democrats’ enormous, post-New Deal party ID advantage evaporated after Ronald Reagan’s election, but after that, GOP party ID was remarkably steady around 35-36% from 1984 to 2000; what varied from year to year, usually going up a few points in presidential election years, was the relative vote share of Democrats vs independents. All that changed during the Bush and Obama years: Republicans enjoyed a post-9/11 boom in party ID in 2002-04, followed by a crash in 2006-08 (2008 was the first electorate below 34% Republican since 1982), followed by a run-up again in 2010. The obvious conclusion is that the largest factor in the partisan composition of the electorate in 2008 was that Republicans stayed home. Meanwhile, Democrats in 2010 were under 37% of the electorate for only the second time (the other being 1994). Another way of looking at this is to chart the Republican share of the non-Democratic electorate (R/(R+I)) and the Democratic share of the non-Republican electorate:

Looked at in that context, it’s pretty clear that (1) both parties have been steadily losing share to independents since the partisan high-water marks of 2002 and 2004, and (2) by far the bigger factor in 2008 was low GOP turnout. And there’s precious little Obama’s campaign or ground operations can do to keep Republicans home; if anything, the harder he presses social wedge issues to fire up his own base, the more likely it is that he’s helping motivate the GOP base. So he has to squeeze out a really large surge in Democrats to offset that.

That’s asking a lot. If you average out the past 7 election cycles, you get an average party ID split of D+3 in presidential election years (D/R/I of 38/35/27) and D+2 in off-year elections (37/35/27). To believe that the D+7 electorate of 2008 is likely to be replayed in 2012, you have to believe some sort of fundamental shift has taken place…but the 2010 elections don’t support that thesis at all. Nor, in Wisconsin, does the 2012 recall election. Take a look at the charts for Ohio and Wisconsin:

(Per Josh Jordan, I used the adjusted 2008 Ohio D/R/I figures, since the actual 2008 Ohio exits overstated the Democratic turnout advantage – if you added them up, they didn’t produce the same results as the actual vote count. Even exit polls are still polls.)

Obama supporters at this point are shaking their heads, saying that those elections were different: not national elections. It’s worth examining that in more detail another day. Interestingly, among other things, African-American voters were 15% of the Ohio electorate in 2010, compared to 11% in 2008. A look at the black and Hispanic components of the electorates in the six most hotly-contested swing states suggests that the narrative of a sudden shift to a less-white, more-Obama-friendly electorate is really only an accurate description of one of the six (Nevada); even Colorado saw fewer Hispanic voters in 2008 and 2010 than in 2000 and 2004, and if you’re banking on non-white voters to save you in Wisconsin, Iowa and New Hampshire, you are well and truly doomed:

Race aside, there are ways of surveying the landscape to determine what the electorate is going to look like. Rasmussen has conducted a monthly survey of party affiliation since 2004, and Gallup also polls for party ID among likely voters and just this morning released a comparison of its October 2012 figures to its final polls in 2004 and 2008. If you compare the most recent Rasmussen surveys for August and September (averaged out) to how the August-September average predicted the electorates in 2004 and 2008, and compare the October Gallup polls to the final results those years, you can see that they both told similar stories that played out pretty well in November, with Rasmussen’s survey being the more accurate of the two:

Extending the Rasmussen chart to the midterm elections in 2006 and 2010 you see a somewhat less accurate picture – Rasmussen understated Republican turnout in both years (in 2010, his survey only captured a big GOP spike in November) – but still one that communicated the basic outline of where the electorate was headed:

Needless to say, if the Rasmussen and Gallup surveys accurately depict the electorate, this will not even be close. Is that possible? Well, historically, big late breaks to the Republican side have tended to surprise the pollsters; as I noted, 2002 was the most-Republican year on record, and the pollsters in 2002 were especially caught unawares. Check the RCP Generic Congressional average for that year to see how badly off the final polls were and how very, very badly off they were until the final week. More here and here.

If you tick off the list of other signs of turnout – voter registration figures, polls asking which side’s partisans are more enthusiastic, early voting and absentee ballot figures – you get a mess of data, data that can sometimes be misleadingly incomplete or hard to trace to nonpartisan sources…but nearly everything we can verify shows the Democrats in worse shape than 2008. It’s just hard to see where you come up with the evidence of the Democratic turnout wave that Obama needs. Certainly Obama has a sophisticated GOTV operation, well-honed and extensively staffed throughout the swing states. But Republicans had that in 2006, and it was all for naught. The voters themselves still get to decide if they really want to show up and pull the lever for you. And as noted above, Obama can’t do a thing to keep Republicans and independents home. At this point, given all the indicators, Obama’s plan for a decisive enough turnout advantage to overcome a huge loss with independents looks like the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan.

It’s hard to make sense of why so many pollsters are showing this as a tight race under these circumstances, with independents consistently breaking heavily to Romney and all the indicators of turnout suggesting at least a much smaller Democratic advantage than 2008 and – if you believe Gallup’s and Rasmussen’s surveys – a Republican wave unlike any we’ve seen in a presidential election in our lifetimes. Bob Krumm notes that the GOP advantage in national polls is directly correlated to how tight their likely-voter screens are; Romney also, for whatever reason, tends to do better in polls with larger samples. But the reasons can await the inevitable mid-November recriminations over what the polls missed and why. The important point is, a D+7 electorate is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Conclusion

The waterfront of analyzing all the factors that go into my conclusion here is too large to cover in one post, but the signs of Obama’s defeat are too clear now to ignore. Given all the available information – Romney’s lead among independents, the outlier nature of the 2008 turnout model, the elections held since 2008, the party ID surveys, the voter registration, early voting and absentee ballot data – I have to conclude that there is no remaining path at this late date for Obama to win the national popular vote. He is toast.

Obama’s partisans have argued that he doesn’t need to; that he can pursue the rare path of winning key swing states without a national win. Time permitting, I’ll come back later to why I don’t think this flies if you take a close look at the state-by-state polling using the same assumptions about turnout and independent voters. But I don’t buy that either.

Mitt Romney will be the 45th President of the United States.

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