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What the 'insiders' don't know

October 24, 2012|By David Lauter
  • President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney greet their families after the final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.
President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney greet… (Michael Reynolds / EPA )

In horse races, the stock market and in politics as well, nothing seduces the audience quite so well, or with such risk, as the hint of “insider” knowledge.

The quest for insiders with information to peddle grows increasingly intense as an election year moves into its final stretch. News organizations, including this one, compete intensely to find campaign sources willing to talk, and those knowledgeable sources turn to favored reporters to explain why their strategic insights pushed their candidate into the lead. (That’s a one-way street, of course: When the candidate loses, his own failings, rather than the strategists', typically receive the blame).

If insiders can’t be coaxed into talking, reporters will try to draw conclusions from their appearance, writing or talking about how advisors for one side or the other seemed “confident” or “worried.”

In the spirit of a consumer warning, here’s one tip to keep in mind amid the clamor: “Insiders” don’t really know who’s going to win any more than you do.

Smart people have educated guesses, of course. They track polls, study focus group results, count door-to-door voter contacts and analyze statistics on the more than 6 million Americans who already have voted (out of 133 million or more who eventually will).                      

Campaigns know a lot about voters in the most hotly contested states. Mitt Romney’s campaign, for example, has spent at least $4.7 million on polling, according to campaign spending reports, with nearly all of that going to survey voters in the key battlegrounds. President Obama’s campaign has similarly spent millions, although the exact amount is difficult to determine from his disclosure forms. The amount of information campaigns have on swing states dwarfs what the public has access to.

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They also know their own strategies, in particular how much they plan to spend in each of the contested battlegrounds.

But all the data money can buy still won’t tell you what the turnout of Latinos will be in Florida or the number of pro-Romney voters who actually will go to the polls in Warren County, Ohio. Educated or not, a guess remains a guess.

In a close race, as the presidential contest currently is, the critical questions that most people really want to have answers for — who is going to win in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other key states — remain in the category of mysteries (questions without answers), not secrets (hidden, but knowable, facts).

In 2004, for example, Neil Newhouse, who is currently Romney’s chief pollster, handled polling in Ohio for George W. Bush’s campaign. As he told reporters at a breakfast last fall, he had more data about the state than anyone, and he woke up on election morning convinced that Bush would lose the state. That evening, he was delighted to find out he was wrong.

The reason these questions remain mysteries is because we have limited ability to predict the behavior of millions of people. With lessons from psychology, campaigns have grown increasingly sophisticated in their ability to predict turnout and to motivate people to vote. They’ve learned, for example, that the simple act of asking a person what time of day she’ll vote increases the likelihood that she will, in fact, go to the polls.

But the uncertainty about who will turn out continues to bedevil any effort to make absolute forecasts. That’s why, despite an apparent small lead for Mitt Romney in Florida, Democrats continue to pour millions of dollars into advertising there. Just a small uptick in the share of the electorate favorable to President Obama — Latinos, in particular — could tip the state back into the president’s column.

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And it’s why Romney continues to schedule campaign stops in Nevada, a state where Obama has held a consistent lead in polls. A relatively small rise in the share of votes cast in rural parts of the state, many of which have large Mormon populations, could outweigh Obama’s expected lead in the Las Vegas area, Republican strategists believe.

Similarly, the share of the electorate made up by blacks in Virginia will probably determine the result in that state, which remains a true tossup.

As always, the best way to tell what campaign strategists really think is to watch what they do, not try to analyze what they say.

Republicans have talked often about the possibility of winning Pennsylvania, but the Romney campaign has spent no significant money there.

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