Sean Trende | 2012: A Close Race, With a High Degree of Uncertainty

Though it’s always tempting to draw historical analogies between elections, each contest is invariably unique. This year is no exception. We have an incumbent president — who also happens to be the nation’s first African-American to hold that office — facing the electorate in challenging economic circumstances. He is trailing his opponent with independent voters and on many of the issues that voters say they care most about, yet on Election Day his approval rating is right up against the 50 percent mark and he maintains a slight edge in the polls.

As a political analyst, this election is also unique in that it’s the country’s first true “data-driven” election. I mean two things by that; first, that statistics-based political analysis has become a booming cottage industry over the last four years. We now have more “data junkies” providing often thought-provoking analysis than ever before.  In fact, as someone who began his writing career attempting to apply a more rigorous approach to political analysis, I can honestly say we’re probably at the point where a course correction is necessary the other way.

The second thing I mean about this being a “data driven” election is that, unlike the five previous elections I’ve covered closely, as we sit here on Election Day we still have multiple data points to evaluate. Remember, data is the plural form of datum. Usually by this point in an election, we don’t have data; things have converged to form a single datum, which you don’t have to squint very hard to see.

For example, in 2008 some of the state polls were off (about which more later), but the errors canceled each other out, as we’d expect. But the big picture was clear.  Weighted by the number of votes cast in each state, the 2008 state polls projected that Obama would win the popular vote with 53.5 percent to McCain’s 46.4 percent. This was roughly the same projection as the national pollsters found, and indeed is roughly the same as the final total.

But this year, there is a divergence between what the state polls are seeing and what the national polls are seeing. Right now the RCP Average has Obama up 0.7 points. That’s probably a bit favorable to him: the median and mode for the distribution is a tie.


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