Thursday, 1 November 2012

The myth of 'Mittmentum'


The US Presidential campaign continues to amaze. It's a tie in the polls. Swing states seem to lean over towards the incumbent, but early voting makes things look very, very close indeed. Statistical modellers are pretty confident that Barack Obama will be re-elected, but remember that they're still only projecting that by a point of two. It's going to be close. There's no time for the two candidates' lines to diverge much anymore.

We'll be talking about these factors later in the week (including ever-more personal and disgraceful attacks on bloggers who dare to predict an Obama victory), and then trying to peer through the fog of data to 'call' the election (as Americans say) on Monday.

But for now electors should beware anything anyone says about polling. The fog of war has descended, and there will be no 'truths' uttered until Wednesday morning.

Take one example: the much-discussed phenomenon of 'Mittmentum', which is supposed to describe an ever-strengthening tide of support rolling in towards the Republican's election. Republican strategists are saying they're going to win; that the polls are moving in their direction; that they're going to 'expand the map', going into states that Obama won easily in 2008 - such as Pennsylvania or Michigan.

Except that it isn't true.

Take a look at the graph that I've drawn above (click on it for a better look). What do we see? Governor Romney shot up in the polls after his successful drubbing of the President in the first debate in Denver (by far the worst, most disastrous performance by an incumbent in the history of these debates). He really did have 'the big mo' in the first few days of October. That's for sure. But then his position stayed static, with perhaps a teeny, tiny drift towards him until the last week or two, during which the Democrats have begun to reverse the tide a little.

'Mittmentum'? Don't you believe it. It's a mix of a bluff and an inappropriate methaphor. What does 'momentum' mean, anyway? Dictionaries record that the word carriers with it the connotation of ever-building, irresistible, inevitable force. And in politics, nothing is inevitable.

And by the way: you shouldn't believe anything you read that comes from the ideologically-committed from now until you see actual hard data spewing from computers on Tuesday night.

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