Election Oddsmakers Suffering From Fuzzy Math

Posted October 18, 2012 at 3:46pm

I don’t get it. The oddsmakers and the public seem to think strongly that President Barack Obama is going to get re-elected. I’d say, this is a 50-50 down-to-the-wire nail-biter.

Nate Silver, the New York Times’ election modeler, gives Obama a 65.7 percent chance of winning. Granted, this is down from 85 percent before Obama’s disastrous first presidential debate, but it still strikes me as out there.

Intrade, the share-buying website, had Obama as a 64.2 percent favorite as of today. He was at 66 percent before the first debate and 62 percent just after, and he seems to be climbing back since the second, which he won on performance, if not substance. Also, out there.

The London bookmakers have Obama as a 1:3 favorite (if you bet 10 pounds, you’d get just three back), whereas GOP nominee Mitt Romney is a 2:1 underdog (if he wins, you get 20 pounds back.)

Closer to home, 57 percent of voters in the Washington Post/ABC poll between debates thought Obama would win, down from 63 percent in September.

My read is that, in the first debate, Romney came off as a plausible president, knowledgeable on the issues and a decent guy — while Obama didn’t engage — and that the election’s been moving in Romney’s direction ever since.

Whether that process was arrested by the second debate is still an open question. The insta-polls and pundit opinion all gave the win to Obama, and there’s no question that he was aggressive and agile, while Romney was defensive and got tangled up in minutiae such as oil lease numbers.

Obama, in fact, was more than aggressive — he was downright nasty, accusing Romney off the bat of having “a one-point plan … to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. … You can make a lot of money and pay lower taxes than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions and you still make money.” In other words, your plan is vulture capitalism.

Weirdly, by 49 percent to 35 percent, respondents to CNN’s insta-poll afterward said Obama went on the attack more than Romney, but by 47 percent to 41 percent, they found Obama more likeable.

But I think it’s more significant that by wide margins, Romney came off better in both CNN’s and CBS’ polls on who had the better economic plan.

Obama, in fact, had next to none. He ticked off a long list of what he’d done in his first term but utterly failed to make clear what he’ll do in his second.

Romney was strongly effective in reciting the litany of economic woes facing voters after four years of Obama management and saying, “We can do better than this. … We don’t have to settle for this. .. We don’t have to live like this.”

On the other hand, Romney is still not clear on how his tax reforms will pay for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut and a significant increase in defense spending.

He did unveil one new wrinkle — that taxpayers might have a pot of deductions (“I’ll pick a number — $25,000”) to allocate to mortgage interest, health insurance, charity, etc. But he’d have been better off explaining how it might apply to a family making, say, $50,000 a year.

The punditocracy made all too much of Romney’s failure to nail Obama on the administration’s shifting explanations of the terrorist attack that killed our ambassador to Libya on Sept. 11.

Romney will have every opportunity to explore that further in the upcoming foreign policy debate — and also to explode Obama’s assertion that he would never play politics with foreign policy. Think of the leaks of classified information on the Osama bin Laden raid, drone attacks and computer viruses afflicting the Iranian nuclear program — all obviously designed to help Obama politically.

But moderator Bob Schieffer will make a mistake if his first question is about Libya. It ought to be about the impending world recession and the possibility of ruinous currency wars — all laid out in a frightening op-ed by David Smick in the Washington Post on Wednesday.

(Smick, once chief of staff to GOP Rep. Jack Kemp of New York is now a successful investor, editor of International Economy magazine and author of “The World Is Curved,” ought to be on Romney’s short list for secretary of the Treasury.)

Contrary to the oddsmakers, I think this is a 50-50 race because national polls show a near dead heat and because, even if Obama leads in most of the swing states, his margins are shrinking by the day.

The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls has Romney up by 1 point — meaning, a tie — but the Gallup seven-day tracking poll shows Romney up by 7 points among likely voters. Granted, this does not account for reactions to the second debate.

Assigning electoral votes to the candidate who’s ahead in state polls, Real Clear Politics gives Obama 294, which is 23 more than he needs to win. But Romney has moved ahead in polls in Colorado, North Carolina and Florida.

And, since the first debate, he’s moved up 11 points in New Hampshire and 4 points in Virginia, now virtual ties, and almost 4 points in crucial Ohio, where Obama now leads by only 2.4 percent. Iowa and Wisconsin are also in play.

So, bottom line, legally you can’t place a bet in Las Vegas on the outcome of this election, but if you did so in London, you might just make a pile.