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2008 third presidential debate, John McCain vs. Barack Obama, at Hofstra University in New York
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and Democrat Sen. Barack Obama faced off at Hofstra University on Oct. 15th, 2008, in their last debate before Election Day. Bob Schieffer of CBS News was the moderator, for the third and last presidential debate of 2008, sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.
The subject was domestic policy. The rules were: the hour-and-a-half was divided into nine-minute segments. The moderator asked a question at the beginning of each segment. Each candidate then had two minutes to respond, and then a discussion would follow.
With only 19 days until the election, McCain needed a "knockout" in order to overturn Obama's advantage because of the financial crisis, dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, and McCain's association with Pres. Bush on both of those dominant issues. While McCain did well in this debate, he did not score the necessary "knockout". Obama succeeded in this debate in maintaining his image of calm under pressure; of being McCain's equal; and of allaying voter apprehension about his qualifications for the presidency. Therefore the election will be Obama's to win or lose in the next 19 days.
However, winning and losing in the next 19 days remains highly unpredictable. And we mean "unpredictable" in its most literal sense. As of today, Obama is ahead by 10 points in the polls (while earlier in the week he was ahead by only 5 points). But this election has two major factors that make the election outcome very difficult to predict: one factor in favor of McCain and the other factor in favor of Obama.
The first factor, in McCain's favor, is known as "the Bradley effect". The term "Bradley effect" comes from the 1982 election, when Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, an African American, narrowly lost his reelection despite polls that showed a lead. The theory behind the "Bradley effect" is that some white voters will tell pollsters that they plan to vote for a black candidate, because they do not want to appear to be racist in the presence of another person. But once in the privacy of the voting booth, some white voters will vote against the black candidate on racist grounds. The "Bradley effect" accounted for about a 3% to 5% error in the polls in the 2006 Senate election losses of Harold Ford (D, TN) and Michael Steele (R, MD), both black candidates who were slightly ahead in the polls immediately prior to election day, but both of whom lost to their white opponents. Obviously, the "Bradley effect" has never been tested in a presidential election -- hence how strongly it affects the poll numbers is unpredictable.
The second factor, in Obama's favor, is determined by how pollsters construct polling results. Pollsters want their polling results to be as accurate as possible in predicting the actual election results (as opposed to actually reporting how many people tell them they will vote for one candidate or the other). Hence pollsters routinely "weight" their polling data by demographic classes of voters. For example, pollsters all know that people aged 65 and over vote very consistently at high rates in every election, so they weight their poll responses accordingly highly. On the other hand, people aged under 30 vote in elections at rates around 10% (i.e., only one in ten young people actually vote); hence their responses to polls is accordingly weighted very low. In other words, pollsters intentionally discount responses from younger people compared to older people, so that their weighted data more accurately reflects the likelihood of each respondent actually voting. The same logic applies to a lesser extent to black voters vs. white voters, since black voters have a lower turnout rate in most elections than do white voters.
How does that play into Obama's favor? Well, Obama appeals very heavily to young voters and to black voters. Pollsters discount poll responses from young voters and black voters. Therefore, if voter turnout among those young voters and black voters is at higher rates than the pollsters account for, the polling numbers will be lower for Obama than the actual election results. Of course, pollsters recognize that in this election, voter turnout for young voters and black voters will likely be high -- but HOW high? Will young people vote at a rate of 20%? 30%? Or what? Pollsters have to guess -- and that means their predictions are based partially on guessing. Pollsters in a similar situation in the 2000 Minnesota gubernatorial race showed Jesse Ventura behind in the polls right up until election day. But Jesse became Governor Ventura because he appealed strongly to young voters, whose turnout was higher than the pollsters predicted.
In summary, these two opposing factors make predicting this election more guesswork than science. We'd give Obama the edge because of the underlying "three strikes" against McCain (economy, Iraq, and Bush). But any Democrat would have that edge. We DON'T give Obama the edge just because he's ahead in the polls today. So enjoy the show -- it'll be unknown until late in the evening on Nov. 4th!
--Jesse Gordon, jesse@OnTheIssues.org, Oct. 16, 2008