Electoral College Prediciton

“Jimmy Carter may well make it. One must start with that observation. Obviously, he’s either tied or a little ahead or a little behind. The pollsters are only agreed that this race is extremely close — and that a last-minute surge by either candidate could be decisive in the outcome.” — Godfrey Sperling Jr; Chief of the Monitor’s Washington Bureau, The Christian Science Monitor , November 3, 1980, one day before the election. Ronald Reagan won by over 10% of the popular vote and 489 of a possible 538 electoral votes.

Given the fact that I am running a contest asking readers to predict the outcome in the Electoral College of the US Presidential Election, it is only fair that I expose myself to the same potential of looking foolish after the elections. This also gives me the opportunity to indulge the bad habit of excessive application of mathematics to social phenomena.

As I am writing this, it has been twenty-four hours since the story of Governor Bush being convicted of “Driving Under the Influence” twenty-four years ago has broken. I can make a plausible case in my mind that this information will hurt Bush’s chances by chipping at Bush’s reputation for forthrightness.

I could also make the opposite case. Since the information was released by a Maine Democratic partisan who was a candidate for Maine governor and a Gore delegate to the Democratic National Convention, the entire situation smells like part of a dirty tricks campaign.

Political guru Dick Morris, appearing on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, suggests this whole issue will damage Gore’s chances. Gore, according to Morris, is a few percentage points behind in the popular vote, but this story will not make up that gap. However, the story will keep Gore’s message off the air, freezing the campaign. My presumption at this point is that the issue will prove to be a wash. No candidate will gain an advantage.

No major current poll shows Gore ahead and the consensus of the polls suggests that he is about 3 to 4 percentage points behind among likely voters. What does this imply about the Electoral College results? Many political analysts try to examine votes state-by-state. This might have made more sense decades ago when there was a greater difference between states. Mass communications and the ease of travel have to a large extent homogenized the population. Hence there is too strong a correlation between states to effectively separate them. Similar states will tend to move to the same candidates. Looking too closely at each state may prove to be a case of missing the forest for the trees. The national polls are more instructive.

Consider the graph below. It shows the margin of victory in the Electoral College as a function of the margin of victory in the popular vote for all the elections in the twentieth century. The Electoral College vote count is normalized to the 538 current total. This allows us to compare recent results with results in 1900 when there were only 447 electoral votes.

The points are plotted on a log-log plot to make small values a little clearer. The graph shows that once the popular vote differences grows to about 10%, the margin of victory in the Electoral College grows to over 100 votes. The closest election in the Electoral College was the Woodrow Wilson versus Charles Hughes contest in 1912 where only 23 votes separated the winner from the looser. The popular vote difference was 3.3%.

Among the more modern elections, the popular vote in the John Kennedy versus Richard Nixon race in 1960 was separated by only 0.2%, while the Electoral College vote difference was a large 84 votes. The closest Electoral College separation in the post-World War II era was the Jimmy Carter versus Gerald Ford contest in 1976. Carter earned a 57 vote Electoral College margin with only a 2.1% difference in the popular vote.

In the current race, I assume that I can believe the polls and Bush will defeat Gore by 3% in the popular vote. The above graph suggests that this will translate into about an 80 point margin in the Electoral College vote.

My prediction: Bush 309, Gore 229.

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