Thursday, 27 September 2012

Election shock: candidates and messages matter

Whisper it softly, but President Barack Obama (above) has been stretching his lead for days and days now. The best statistical probability site gives him an all-time high chance of being re-elected, at nearly 82 per cent. Right now, punters on betting websites are giving him about a 75 per cent chance of victory. He leads in the national polls by an average of four per cent.

How can you tell that conservatives are worried? They are fulminating against pollsters' methods, arguing (largely falsely) that sampling based on the 2008 turnout is likely to be inaccurate. They've even set up their own polling site. Well, we'll know soon, won't we? But questioning the data - and questioning the media, the bearers of that data - is a sure sign that you're losing. Sorry, but there it is.

And why? Well, we should again perhaps keep pretty quiet about this, but it's just because Americans quite like their President as a person, and they like his challenger, Mitt Romney, less and less. They don't really like what they've heard about Republican policies on abortion, pensions, taxes and the economy. They think the Republicans have headed off into a right-wing desert - a fact that the President has very skilfully played on. So although they are unhappy about the state of their country, and they think that the President has been a bit ineffectual and perhaps too left-wing for them, they're willing to give him another chance. That's it.

Americans, of course, think of the 2004 election, when another not-particularly-popular incumbent was narrowly re-elected. But Brits will look historically at the 1992 General Election in the UK, when the Conservatives under John Major were (just) returned to office despite the terrific head-wind of a full-on recession. Why? Well, this is going to sound familiar: voters quite liked John Major, they didn't blame him for the crisis, and they suspected that his opponent (Neil Kinnock) wasn't up to it following his battering by a very right-wing press. Turn those party labels around, and you have 2012 in the USA.

This isn't to say that the economy doesn't matter. Yes, it doesn't look great. Yes, unemployment is high. But the stock market has been booming, surfing on a wave of cheap money from the Federal Reserve - a fact that is boosting pension plans and savings accounts across the USA. And if we look at the situation of the economy in 2009, and compare it to today, there's no contest. America has been slowly, painfully recovering - but moving ahead, inch by inch, all the same. Voters know this. They feel it. Statistical modelling that takes this into accout, indeed, would predict an Obama victory based on the numbers alone - even without his opponents' bungling.

Things will probably be closer in the end than they look today. But remember the lesson: nothing is set in stone, even when an election looks like it should be in the bag for one party or the other. Candidates, policies and messages matter.