The Field Projects the 2012 United States Election Results
By Al Giordano
Four years ago, I intensively covered the 2008 presidential elections in the United States, from the first caucuses and primaries through the final result.
This year, not so much, and since it became clear that the Republican nominee would be former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, not at all. Since then, I've not wavered once from my view that President Barack Obama will be reelected tomorrow. And today, after carefully examining the polling, early voting and field organization numbers state-by-state, and daily interviews in recent weeks with people on the ground in the "swing states" (in order of Electoral Votes: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa) and also the "faux-swing states" (those states that many in the media try to convince you are still up for grabs: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire), The Field projects Obama to win tommorow with 318 Electoral Votes to 220 for Romney.
This projection does not differ all that much from those generated by aggregating polling numbers and weighting them, with the exception that I'm projecting North Carolina for Obama while projecting a Romney win in Florida. (Caveat Emptor: Florida is the only state I've projected incorrectly twice in the last two presidential elections, and so it won't suprise me if I'm wrong about it, but I'll explain my logic here.)
When statistical models state that a candidate has a 75 percent chance to win a state, that means that one of four times the other candidate will win. Yet one of the frustrations of working strictly off polling data is that until recent cycles there wasn't anywhere near as much polling being done by as many polling organizations. Therefore, "polls" lack a depth of historic memory.
What are the factors that have made polls differ with the final result before?
The most important is field organization. An example of that came in 2004 when the southern Appalachian region of Ohio saw higher turnout among Evangelical voters than expected: Karl Rove, working under radar with the Christian Right, in effect, "expanded the electorate" for the George W. Bush campaign, and that had not been picked up by the pollsters who had projected an edge for John Kerry. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, the Obama campaign's more advanced field organization trumped the Hillary Clinton campaign and those of other rivals in multiple states, and delivered an encore performance in the general election.
It is astonishing to this observer that the Romney campaign, with the unlimited resources of a billionnaire candidate and that of other Forbes list Goliaths unleashed by the US Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, did not construct its own field organization and instead left Get Out The Vote efforts to the Republican National Committee. One would think Romney would have at least tried to mimic the advances in micro-targeting and intensive training of field organizers that were key to Obama's 2008 victory.
And yet I'm not surprised. I've known Mitt Romney up close since 1994 when he waged his first campaign, an unsuccessful one, against the late US Senator Ted Kennedy and I reported the battle for The Boston Phoenix. Willard Mitt Romney is a strange bird. He reminded me then of the fictional character Biff Howard Tannen from the 1985 motion picture Back to the Future: a dimwitted high school bully who made other kids do his homework for him (a Washington Post story earlier this year that looked at Romney's time in an elite prep school only confirmed that preconception, disclosing that Mitt had been an actual bully who wrestled another boy to the ground to forcibly cut his hair).
I reported a story, in '94, about how Romney, as Bishop of the Mormon church, tried to bully a young mother out of having an abortion while he was running for office in the Bay State as a supposed backer of a woman's right to choose. And I also reported how the Kennedy campaign completely overwhelmed Romney at the polls through a superior field organization that had been decades in the making. But not even that caused Romney to correct his mistake; not in the 2008 presidential primaries and not in those of 2012, when he utilized his larger bank account, and that of other billionnaires supposedly acting "independently," to squash one rival after another: Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum... none of those politicians had built even a half-decent field organization and thus were crushed, one at a time, by Romney's financial advantage. Romney, the governor's son, has always had a smirk on his face that suggested that he and he alone knew that it was his destiny to become president of the United States, and that his money would buy it for him.
From the beginning of 2012 it was clear to me that the Obama campaign had executed a plan to surpass even it's historic 2008 field organization. The only open question was whether it would find enough volunteers to carry it to fruition. By early summer, when filing reports to the Federal Elections Commission revealed that Obama was easily surpassing his 2008 small donor numbers, and such a high percentage of these people were first-time donors, it was clear to me that even if half of his 2008 volunteers had moved on to other things, there would be plenty of fresh replacement power to replenish the phone bankers, door to door canvassers and data entry wizards who are the foundation of Obama's campaign. In recent weeks that has become tangibly evident. There are more troops on the ground today than he had four years ago. In the language of the architect of the most recent Super Bowl victor, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, they are "finishing" strong.
Another factor that can cause results to be different than what polls predict is that of voter and ballot suppression. One need only remember the debacle of Bush's Supreme Court-ordered "victory" in Florida in 2000 to cite a fresh example. The incidents, in 2012, of malicious anti-democracy efforts to sabotage a fair election in swing states are most extreme in Florida and Ohio, and they are targeted most precisely against African-American and young voters. (Ohio Secretary of State John Hunstead's one-man campaign to suppress the vote is on a scale not seen since before Southern racist "poll tests" were prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and, worse, he keeps getting slapped down by the Courts and just goes out and disobeys the court orders anyway.)
The aggregate polling data from Ohio gives Romney a one-in-seven chance to overcome Obama's lead there. Add to that Obama's clear advantage in field organization and the vote will not be close enough for these suppression techniques to carry the day. The Obama campaign also has 2,500 lawyers on the ground in Ohio to push back strongly on these efforts. The best Hunstead can possibly accomplish is to delay the full counting of the votes for days after Tuesday, but the result will still end up as an Obama victory in the Buckeye State. (I know there are also people sincerely concerned about vote theft by machines which are made by a company that has interlocking relationships with companies related to Tagg Romney, the candidate's son. Let's simply say that the national public unrest that would be unleashed if Ohio alone changes the Electoral College victor with outlier results is not a Pandora's Box that even Romney would want to open. But if anything truly bizarre like that occurs, head to this page for Civil Resistance training and a plan.)
Florida, according to the aggregate of polls, is the closest of the swing states, with Romney having a 6-to-5 chance of winning and Obama at 5-to-6 underdog odds. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Republicans in the legislature severely curtailed early voting (limiting it to 96 hours in only eight days, compared to 120 hours in 14 days back in 2008) and the lines have been so long that many waited for hours and were still unable to cast a ballot. So while in a fair fight, Obama's field organization would likely be able to overcome a modest disadvantage in the polls, Florida is not right now a fair contest. The vote is being stolen again as it was in 2000. And it's likely to be close enough where that really makes the difference.
Interestingly, the conditions in North Carolina for a fair and free election are among the most exemplary in the nation. A Democratic governor has determined the majority in every local election board and from Asheville to Greenville this year's cycle has been meticulously free of voter suppression. More than 2.7 million North Carolinians have voted early, and that's 4.4 percent more than did four years ago. Among African-Americans, it's 7 percent higher. Romney recently made a desperate email plea for out-of-state volunteers to head to North Carolina whereas the Obama campaign locked in its troops on the ground well in advance, leaving nothing to improvisation. Some of my friends in New York have been part of the phone bank in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that for weeks has been hammering at key North Carolina precincts with persuasion and Get Out The Vote calls. The phone bank's coordinator, Jordan Thomas, is one of the unsung heroes of this election cycle. Not only that, he's got me pinned down with a commitment to buy a round for all his volunteers when I visit New York next month. Now, that's organizing.
The aggregate polling data gives Obama only a one-in-four statistical likelihood of winning the state. But one out of four is not bad odds if you have a clear advantage in being able to get out the vote. The aggregate of polls, according to Nate Silver, has Romney ahead by 1.9 percent. Field organization superiority has overcome that narrow a lead before. (In 2008, the polling organizations SurveyUSA, Mason-Dixon, Rasmussen and Zogby all had McCain beating Obama in North Carolina in their final pre-election polls. How did Obama overcome that to win? Superior field organization.)
Beyond field organization and voter suppression tactics (or outright fraud), what else has historically been a factor in shifting the results? One is that sometimes the motiviation and enthusiasm of voters for one candidate overrun those of the rival candidate. Early voting numbers in North Carolina give an advantage to Obama there on those measuring sticks.
Another is the national media narrative and the intangible thing called "momentum." It is also in the media's nature to create the belief that a contest is "going down to the wire" because when people don't panic they don't watch or click or read the product of news organizations as much. We all saw that happen after the first presidential debate in a cycle that, until that night, had been impressively free of Chicken Little clucking. The media was determined to declare Romney the "winner" of that debate before its first word had been spoken, because prior to then most of the nation believed Obama would win reelection. The panic and teeth-gnashing in the days after the debate should be embarassing today to those who engaged in it. If you were one of those people, think hard about how the media led your emotions around by the nose ring the next time it tries to do that. I watched that debate and thought that Obama had done what he needed to do, and did not see it as a game changer. Weeks later, nobody is really pedaling the snake oil that it somehow was.
Post-tropical storm Sandy came and destroyed many things. One of them was Romney's last chance to build a new media narrative that might give him momentum. Instead it gave Obama a photo op and kind words from the Republican governor of New Jersey and an endorsement from the Republican mayor of New York.
All of that, as electoral factor, is over now.
All that is left is field: The side that gets its voters to the polls or successfully suppresses opposing votes will be the victor on Tuesday. To understand what will happen, those are the only two things to watch. And they are both factors that you and I can still influence.
A friend of mine asked me if I would be willing to place a wager on my North Carolina projection. Of course I will. And since I work for myself, there will be no "public editor" to undercut me in these final hours of the 2012 campaign, as so unfairly the New York Times did to Nate Silver the other day only because he had said he would put his money where his projections are.
Well, that's the commercial media for ya. His projections based on hard numbers are undercutting the media narrative that this thing is still so close you can't turn off your TV or Internet screen and go turn out some voters instead. And I think his map is essentially correct, with the exception of North Carolina... because I believe in field. And that means I believe that you and I can always make a difference in history, not by being spectators, but by rolling up our sleeves and making a few more calls until every last vote is made real.