Let the Political Games begin

“I was very involved in the McCain campaign, and I love McCain a lot. But I never felt this good about our chances four years ago.”

That was Brian Ballard, a co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s finance team, talking to the New York Times about the Republican candidate’s chances of beating Barack Obama in the November presidential election (http://nyti.ms/LSDQIT). (Photo above: Mitt Romney & John McCain at Memorial Day Service. Sam Hodgson for NY Times)

Yes, as hard as it is to believe, the Republicans have united behind Romney, who will become the party’s official presidential nominee at the convention in August, after he achieved the magic number of 1144 delegates in the Texas primary this week.

Months of backbiting by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, criticising Romney for being too much like the 2008 Republican candidate, John McCain, in other words, not conservative enough, have been put aside to welcome the man who might beat President Obama.

And yes, it is possible, that Romney can win, as the polls have been narrowing ever since the Republican candidates realised most of their previous soundbites would wind up in negative ads in the Obama campaign. I predict this will be a particularly dirty election.

Speaking of predictions, I attended a fascinating discussion led by Professor Kenneth R. Mayer of the University of Wisconsin at the US Consulate General in Sydney yesterday. The title said it all: Forecasting Presidential Elections: Obama, Romney or What?

It was a lecture Professor Mayer has obviously given to his students at Wisconsin, complete with a remote and a screen projecting all the points he made to the audience, including local academics, the US Consul General, Niels Marquardt, and at least one politician, Eric Roozendaal, the former Treasurer in the NSW Labor Government. Mr Roozendaal must have been warming up for his criticism of the O’Farrell Government, after legislation to sell the state’s electricity generators passed the Upper House. Mr Roozendaal supports the sale, but voted against it last night, saying the Coalition should have backed Labor’s sale bid in 2008: “I wouldn’t trust these bozos to do it in a month of Sundays.” (http://bit.ly/Jvq6jC) Don’t you just love politics?

Sorry I digress, back to the discussion. Professor Mayer’s research shows that forecasting is difficult to do, which is not surprising, given the tasks presented to meteorologists, seismologists, market analysts, real estate sales people, traffic authorities, even a unit in the US Defence Department whose job is to predict terrorist attacks.

Professor Mayer’s sense of humour helped to lighten what could have been a dry academic lecture, although as soon as he mentioned models of forecasting, my non-business mind started to drift off. But it was awakened by one of the titles under the Expert Methods model called BOGSART. Prof Mayer asked one of his colleagues at the Rand Corporation, where he once worked, what it meant. “It’s an acronym,” he said. “It means a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around The Table.”

Some of the other models were: Trial Heats, asking people who they would vote for; Economic Performance, Incumbent Popularity and Market-Based Models, the last being Prof Mayer’s favourite.

Why? According to the good professor, it’s based on the wisdom of crowds. In other words, groups of people tend to predict things better than individuals. For example, people guessing the weight of a cow at a State Fair came closer as a group to the exact poundage than individuals. And something I didn’t know: the University of Iowa runs a future market in political candidates. You can buy and sell shares on the candidate of your choice as you would at the Chicago Mercantile Market.

It’s called the Iowa Electronic Market (IEM), and you’re limited to $500, but you can bet from $5 up, and it’s a Winner Take All (WTA) or Vote Share (VS) market based on the popular vote plurality of the two major party candidates or the vote shares won by the candidates respectively. Here’s a link if you want to try your luck, but I warn you, you have to read the instructions carefully: http://bit.ly/KeDJcs However, Professor Mayer says this market is surprisingly accurate in predicting the winner ahead of time, despite all the difficulties and unknowns connected with forecasting. I just checked and the Democrat candidate (Obama) is selling at around 58 cents and the Republican candidate (Romney) at around 42 cents.

All the graphics yesterday showed the same thing from trial heats to market-based models: Romney creeping up on Obama, pointing to a rough road for the President’s re-election. These are the polls from RealClearPolitics today: http://bit.ly/LhvOXW. As Professor Mayer put it: “Employment in the US is at 8.2 per cent and the economy is growing, but it sure doesn’t feel like that, and to make matters worse, consumer confidence is going down.”

WHO IS GOING TO WIN?

So the answer the Professor gives to his students to the question — “Who is going to win?” – is “Nobody knows,” but he tells them there will be a quiz in November. I asked him about “numbers men” like Graham Richardson, former Labor Minister under Paul Keating, who predicted his boss would beat John Hewson in the so-called “unwinnable” election of 1993 a week before the poll. (I was Paul Lockyer’s producer at Sunday when he asked Richo who would win on the Monday before the election, and Richo said: “I just got a call from one of the electorates, and I couldn’t say this before, but we will win.”) Professor Mayer pointed out that it’s much easier to predict a victory that close to an election, and there was a similar situation in the US presidential poll in 1980 when Jimmy Carter was favoured to beat Ronald Reagan until 24 hours before the voting began.  A late poll showed the voters were swinging to Reagan, who won easily. It didn’t help that the election was held on the first anniversary of the hostage crisis, when 52 Americans were taken hostage in the US embassy in Tehran and the Carter administration badly botched a rescue operation.

And, of course, a lot depends on how people vote in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin; according to Professor Mayer: “Whoever wins those will win the election.” The New York Times latest electoral map shows Barack Obama likely to get 217 Electoral College votes (270 are needed to win), Mitt Romney with 206; and 115 in the swing states (called the Tossup Votes in the Times map). If you want to be an instant expert, or at least pretend to be one, study this map closely, as it holds the key to the election: http://nyti.ms/LFOtLM

Professor Mayer also had a few interesting things to say in the Q & A session at the end. He said of the political coverage: “People say the real villain is Fox News. But the real reason they are angry at Fox News is that they are the only news organisation making money.” He said it was true that the mainstream media had a pro-left bias. Perhaps this is why Australian news organisations are turning to the right. Conservative magazines were suggesting last year that what we needed was an Australian version of Fox News. God forbid!

And the Wisconsin academic whiz forecast Mitt Romney’s running mate will be Mario Rubio, a Senator from the key state of Florida, Hispanic and the “crown prince” of the conservative Tea Party. In other words, he ticks all the boxes, and is no Sarah Palin. The Republicans have apparently learned their lesson after her disastrous campaign as John McCain’s running mate.

So the stage is set for a rip-roaring election, pitting the incumbent president running on his foreign policy successes, like the killing of Osama bin Laden, and hoping for the economy to continue to grow, against a Republican rival, running on his record as a successful businessman and constantly criticising Barack Obama for his lack of economic expertise.

The London Olympics will be exciting, but for political junkies, the next five months — until election day on November 6 — will be gold.

Let the Political Games begin.

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