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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What 2010 Can Tell Us about How Accurate the Polls Are a Week from Election Day

With polls showing Republicans in good shape as Election Day approaches, one may wonder: Are these polls accurate? In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, we can look to the previous midterm election for some empirical data to help answer that question before we actually see the results on election night. It's especially helpful because most of the states with competitive Senate races this year--including New Hampshire, North Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and Alaska--all had Senate races in 2010 as well. So, how were the Senate candidates in those states doing in the polls one week out from Election Day four years ago?
The short answer is: In all of the aforementioned states except Alaska (where incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) was campaigning as a write-in candidate against Republican Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams), the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate led his/her Democratic opponent in all or most of the polls heading into the final week of the campaign. Were the polls correct? Well, sort of...
In New Hampshire, Republican Kelly Ayotte had a nine-point lead over her Democratic adversary, then-Congressman Paul Hodes, in the RealClearPolitics Average of polls on October 26, 2010 (one week before Election Day 2010). Ayotte continued to expand her lead and ended up routing Hodes, 60% to 37%, in the general election. This year, the Senate race in New Hampshire is much closer: As of today, the incumbent, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D), holds a lead of 2.2 percentage points in the RCP Average over her challenger, former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA). If Brown finishes strong the way Ayotte did in 2010, then he may yet return to the U.S. Senate.

Similarly, in Iowa, the Senate race in 2010 wasn't competitive, unlike the one this year. Four years ago, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) was such a heavy favorite to win re-election that there wasn't much polling of the race, at least not by independent (unaffiliated) outfits. A Des Moines Register poll conducted in late October nailed Grassley's margin of victory over former U.S. Attorney Roxanne Conlin (D): 31 percentage points. This year, the Register's latest poll found state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) ahead of Rep. Bruce Braley (D) by just one percentage point, 47% to 46%. That comports with the current RCP Average of polls, which has Ernst leading Braley by 1.7 percentage points.

Same story in Georgia: The Senate race in 2010 wasn't competitive at all; this year it's a nail-biter. However, there was something unique about the Georgia Senate race four years ago. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) handily defeated his Democratic challenger, State Labor Commissioner Mike Thurmond, 58% to 39%, but polls overestimated his margin of victory. All the publicly released poll results in late October that year showed Isakson winning by anywhere from 21 to 30 percentage points. This year, the polls are showing a virtual tie between businessman David Perdue (R) and Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn (D); Perdue's lead over Nunn in the RCP Average today is one-half a percentage point. Because this race will go to a runoff if no candidate wins an outright majority of the vote in the general election, and because all the polls are indicating that is exactly what will happen, further analysis of this race seems premature right now.

Admittedly, the dynamics of an open race are so different from a race with an incumbent in it that trying to use one to predict what will happen in the other may not be empirically sound. So, what races can we look to for an apples-to-apples comparison? Try Arkansas, where Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) was probably the most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. Senate in 2010, and she lost in a landslide to then-Congressman John Boozman (R), who won Lincoln's seat with 58% of the vote. (Lincoln received 37%, almost exactly her poll position in the RCP Average--37.8%--on October 26, 2010.) Late deciders must have broken for Boozman, who stood at 54.5% in the RCP average one week out. If history repeats itself this year, then the lone remaining Democrat in Arkansas's congressional delegation, Sen. Mark Pryor (D), will soon be replaced by Rep. Tom Cotton (R), who today leads Prior by five percentage points in the RCP Average, 46.8% to 41.8%.

Colorado was one state where the pollsters really missed the mark in 2010. A week before Election Day that year, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R) led Sen. Michael Bennet (D), who had been appointed to the seat in 2009, by one percentage point in the RCP Average. By Election Day, however, that lead had grown to three percentage points. Buck appeared to have the momentum going into the election, but Bennett managed to pull out one of the tightest victories that year, winning election to a full term by less than 2% of the vote. (Buck received 46.4% of the vote, significantly less than his 49.3% standing in the RCP average on Election Day, while Bennett took 48.08%, slightly more than the 46.3% the RCP average of polls had him winning. What probably happened is that a lot of voters who were going to vote for Buck ended up voting for one of the third-party or "Independent" candidates on the ballot, or maybe they just didn't vote.) This year, Rep. Cory Gardner (R) has a slightly larger lead over incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D), 3.3 percentage points in the RCP Average, and he hasn't made a lot - or really any - of the stupid mistakes Buck made four years ago. Republicans are also determined this year not to get caught off guard again by the Democrats' ground game. Suppose for a minute, though, that this race plays out from here just like the 2010 contest did. That would mean Gardner would continue to gain in the polls and head into Election Day with a lead of between five and six percentage points in the RCP average. If the actual election results then showed a four-point swing towards Udall, then Gardner would still win. It's also worth noting that Udall is polling much lower than Bennett was four years ago. However, there are also more "undecided" voters than there were at this point in the 2010 race, so while Udall has more ground to make up than Bennett did in the last week of the campaign, there are also more potential late deciders who could swing this race.
In North Carolina, the polls were much more accurate in 2010. Incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R) led his Democratic challenger, then-North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, by 10.7 percentage points in the RCP Average on October 26th, and he won re-election by a twelve-point margin, 55% to 43%. (One interesting thing to note is that, in that race, undecided voters appear to have split evenly between the two candidates, something we don't usually see in a race where one candidate has a comfortable lead in the polls and is expected to win.) That may be good news for Sen. Kay Hagan (D), who is currently clinging to a one-percentage-point lead over her Republican challenger, State House Speaker Thom Tillis (R). Unlike Marshall in 2010, however, Tillis appears to be chipping away at the incumbent's lead, which was 3.8 percentage points in the RCP Average at the beginning of this month. But Hagan may be helped by the Libertarian candidate in the race, Sean Haugh, who was not a factor in 2010.

In Louisiana four years ago, Democrats tried to pick off incumbent Sen. and probable prostitute patron David Vitter (R) with Rep. Charlie Melancon (D). In another state where a candidate must receive a majority of the vote to win, Vitter avoided a runoff, winning 57% of the vote to Melancon's 38%. One week before Election Day, Vitter led Melancon by exactly sixteen percentage points in the RCP Average. This year, it's Republicans who are trying to pick off a Democratic incumbent, and let's just say it's going to a runoff; the latest polls indicate that Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) will likely receive a plurality of the vote in the "jungle primary" next week but not even close to the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, which would likely be won by Rep. Bill Cassidy (R). In a one-on-one matchup, Cassidy leads Landrieu by 4.5 percentage points in the RCP Average. 
Although there were also Senate races in Kansas and Alaska in 2010, those races were so different from the ones in those states this year that I don't think it's useful to look at them. Also, while there was a Senate race in Kentucky four years ago, I don't really consider the race between incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) to be "competitive" at this point; McConnell has a small but consistent lead, and Grimes is showing no traction whatsoever.

What about the "generic ballot"? Republicans have a six-point advantage among likely voters in the Washington Post/ABC News poll out this week. That's even better than they were doing four years ago, writes FOX News digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt:
Double, double, toil and trouble - Struggling with female voters and young voters, Democrats fare worse in the latest WaPo/ABC poll than they did at the same point ahead of the disastrous 2010 election and at the same level as the punishing 1994 midterm elections that cost them both houses of Congress. Without any significant increase in Democratic intensity since the previous polling cycle, the auguries are getting dire for the president’s party.
Among registered voters, Democrats lead Republicans in the poll, 47% to 44%, but that's "identical to the difference recorded at this point in 2010." That poll may actually be good news for Democrats when compared with the results of a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Annenberg survey, in which 52% of likely voters in the survey said they wanted the election to produce a Republican-led Congress, while 41% favored Democratic control.

"By historical measures, an 11-point lead on the question of which party should control Congress is large," Janet Hook wrote for the WSJ. "Republicans held a seven-point lead on the question at this point in the 2010 election in a Journal/NBC survey, which used a different method to determine which voters were most likely to cast ballots."

Finally, if you're one of those statistics-mongers who just can't get enough data and analysis, or if you're looking for a number to put on the GOP's odds of taking over the U.S. Senate this cycle, then consider this:

Today, One week out from Election Day 2014, Nate Silver’s infamous FiveThirtyEight gives the GOP a 64.6% chance of winning the Senate, and "the Upshot" (a similar thing affiliated with the New York Times) says there’s a 70% likelihood of the same. The Washington Post’s Election Lab, meanwhile, forecasts that Republicans will see a net gain of seven Senate seats and projects a 93% chance Republicans take the upper chamber. Make of this what you will; I'm going back to running my law practice.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day of the Upset ... but not in Austin

I am admittedly a little late getting this post up, but then, I don't write about sports for a living. (To loyal readers and followers of this blog, sorry it has been so long since I've posted something. I've had ideas, believe me, but starting a law practice from scratch and keeping it afloat are very time-consuming.)

It's been a while since there's been so much upheaval in the NCAA football rankings in one week, or even in one day. On Saturday, 11th-ranked Mississipi ("Ole Miss") beat No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma lost to TCU, which had just made it into the AP Top 25 this season, and 12th-ranked Mississippi State battered some stupid cow college that was ranked No. 6. Add to that No. 2 Oregon's embarrassing home loss to unranked Arizona, and you had four of the top six teams losing this week, causing a scrambling of the rankings at the top of the AP poll. No. 17 Wisconsin and 18th-ranked Brigham Young University also lost to unranked teams, (Northwestern and Utah State, respectively).

Other top-ranked schools avoided being upset, most importantly No. 7 Baylor, which handed Texas its third loss at home this year. The Bears almost shut out the Longhorns, but two costly penalties against Baylor's defense on UT's last possession of the game allowed them to score a touchdown with 2:14 remaining.

The 'horns nearly scored twice in the first half, but Baylor defensive lineman Beau Blackshear successfully blocked a 52-yard field goal attempt, and safety Terrell Burt scooped up the ball and returned it 62 yards for his second career touchdown. Then, right before halftime, Texas quarterback Tyrone Swoopes fumbled the snap at the 1-yard line, and Blackshear was there to recover the ball.

The most spectacular drive of the game was easily the one kept alive by Baylor punter Spencer Roth’s faked punt and 19-yard run on fourth-and-5 in the third quarter. Three plays later, quarterback Bryce Petty completed a pass to Antwan Goodley, who ran it into the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown.

The 28-7 final score could easily have been more lopsided, but the referees took six points for Baylor off the scoreboard in the second quarter after an official review determined that Petty was stopped short of the goal line when he ran with the ball on 2nd & Goal from the 5. Texas's surprisingly strong defense managed to keep Baylor out of the end zone on its ensuing two attempts, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Much to my chagrin, the Bears chose to let our QB take a knee on the last play of the game, when Baylor had the ball on the Texas 7-yard line with one second remaining on the clock. The obvious call for me would have been to let Chris Callahan attempt a field goal. I know we didn't need the extra points, but our poor kicker could have used a confidence boost after missing five of his six field goal attempts so far this season, and to deny him that opportunity, when there was nothing on line, came across (to me, at least) as a slight at the young man.

For those of you not familiar with the history and dynamics of the Big Twelve, let me explain why this game was such a big deal. Texas used to be the big dog, the king of the conference. They're the most recent Big 12 team to win a national championship (in 2006). They are the school that produced Earl Campbell and Dallas Cowboys icons Tom Landry and Tex Schramm. Movies have been made about Texas football, even about their cheerleaders.

But, in recent years, the mighty have fallen. As mentioned earlier in this post, Texas has lost three home games already this season, putting them at 2-3 overall and 1-1 against conference opponents. They are 14½-point underdogs going in to this Saturday's game against Oklahoma, perenially played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Longtime coach Mack Brown, who led them to that national championship and another Big 12 conference title in 2009, stepped down at the end of the 2013 season, and the team has apparently not been doing well under his successor, Charlie Strong.

Even before Brown’s exit, the school's football program was clearly in decline. I'm told that that their 8-5 record last year made Brown the first coach in Texas history to have four straight seasons with at least four losses.

Texas's decline overlapped with Baylor's rapid ascent. In the past four years, my alma mater has played in four consecutive bowl games--a first in school history--turned out a Heisman trophy winner--another first--and won its first Big 12 title. Oh, and we've got a fancy new stadium on the north bank of the Brazos River now, too.

The unofficial passing of the torch may have come last December when Baylor defeated Texas 30-10 to win that conference title.

The feelings of resentment among other teams, especially Texas, are stark, as Jordan Garrettson reported for the AP last week:

"They're still Baylor," said John Harris, who leads Texas with 336 receiving yards. "Just because they started playing better, that's good for them. We're still Texas."
Those remarks came about six months after Longhorns linebacker Steve Edmond was reprimanded by the Big 12 for his disrespectful comments toward the Bears after spring practice.
"I really don't like Baylor. I still feel they're trash," Edmond said. "Y'all think it's funny, but I'm dead serious. They've had some good players. But I don't understand how we lost to Baylor."
These players' jeers at the new king of the Big 12 underscore what is becoming an undeniable fact: the upper echelon of the NCAA bowl subdivision (the FBS) is, to many schools, an elite club of historically dominant teams, and they don't like it when schools they used to beat the tar out of improve themselves and break into that upper echelon. I'm sure it hasn't been fun for Texas, Oklahoma or Baylor's old archrival, Texas A&M, to hear sportscasters gush over Baylor this season and last and how we're now the stars of the Big 12 and had the No. 1 offense in the FBS last season after years of ridicule and derision.

Baylor's upcoming game against TCU is also significant for many reasons, including some of the same. See, no matter what they say now, TCU was grateful to be a part of the Big 12 after the conference reshuffling in 2011-12. For years, the Horned Frogs felt that their football team was underrated and underranked. A 13-0 record and a Rose Bowl victory in 2011 brought them national renown on a level they had not enjoyed since the days of Abe Martin. (I'm sure former Horned Frog LaDainian Tomlinson's star power helped as well.) It's fair to say that a lot of TCU students, alums and other fans expected them to be the talk of the Big 12 when they joined the conference in 2012.

But it was not to be. Roughly eleven months after the Horned Frogs capped their undefeated season with their first Rose Bowl win, Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy, a high honor in a remarkable season for Baylor. RG3 proved to be not only a stellar quarterback but a recruiting boon like nothing Baylor's football program had ever had before. Although they had some adjustments to make in its first season post-RG3, the Bears still managed to finish a respectable 8-5, including a stunning upset of then No. 1-ranked Kansas State and a Holiday Bowl victory over UCLA. Meanwhile, despite a 49-21 rout of Baylor in October, TCU finished their debut season as a Big 12 team with a bowl game loss to Michigan State and a 7-6 record overall (4-5 in conference games). They ended the year unranked for the first time since 2007. More importantly, Baylor was picking up a lot of high school talent that would otherwise have gone to other schools, such as TCU. One of BU's most potent weapons this year and last, running back Shock Linwood, was once a commit to TCU. So was current Baylor defensive lineman Andrew Billings.
The long-running Baylor-TCU rivalry (which I've just learned has been nicknamed "The Revivalry") got even hotter last year, when Baylor defeated the Horned Frogs 41-38 in Fort Worth on their way to that Big 12 title. After the game, TCU coach Gary Patterson unloaded on his Baylor counterpart. Sports columnist Gil LeBreton wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

“The bottom line,” Patterson said, “is he’s picking on the wrong guy.”
It was one of a steamy series of Patterson-issued “bottom lines” Saturday. His voice shook with anger, even though Patterson claimed he wasn’t mad.
He professed, more than once, that he had “respect for him” and “respect for his program,” even as he questioned the Bears’ class.
At the root of it, Patterson tried to explain, was Baylor senior safety Ahmad Dixon’s targeting penalty on Frogs receiver Trevone Boykin and what Briles did or didn’t do in the wake of it.
“Here’s the bottom line to it,” Patterson said, “No. 6 [Dixon] beats a guy up at the beginning of the season and he didn’t get suspended. He takes a shot today, and I want him kicked out.
 And the head coach comes across the field at me.”
Patterson contended that while officials were discussing the penalty, Briles came onto the field and yelled something at him.
Their postgame handshake later, Patterson reported, was brief, but went right to the sore spot at hand.
“I didn’t say anything,” the TCU coach said. “He said, ‘Leave it on the field.’
 I said not. You come across the field at me and later you want me to leave it on the field? No.”
Dixon was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge in a September incident. He was not suspended from the team, leading Patterson to say Saturday, “They didn’t correct the problem a long time ago.”
Instead of Briles admonishing Dixon for Saturday’s illegal third-quarter hit, Patterson became further agitated that TV cameras spotted the ejected player still sitting on the Baylor bench.
“I’ve got coaches up in the box saying he’s laughing on TV underneath his towel,” Patterson said. “Well, I didn’t think it was that funny.”
Patterson continued, “The bottom line is, we’re not going to do that. Gary Patterson lives in Fort Worth. If he’s got a problem with me, here’s where I live.”

“No, I just told him his kids did a great job and good luck during the rest of the year and then in recruiting,” Briles said.
But Patterson took the brief interchange more personally.
“He comes across the field at me?” Patterson said. “Nuh-uh.
“I didn’t build this program to back down to anybody, and I’m not going to do it to him. Not in recruiting or in anything we do.”
Briles, expectedly, responded to Patterson's rant with customary Baylor class:

“No, I just told him his kids did a great job and good luck during the rest of the year and then in recruiting,” Briles said.
But Patterson took the brief interchange more personally.
“He comes across the field at me?” Patterson said. “Nuh-uh.
 I didn’t build this program to back down to anybody, and I’m not going to do it to him. Not in recruiting or in anything we do.”
Perhaps Patterson, who deserves credit for what he's done as TCU head coach, was truly upset about what Dixon did (BTW, Gary, football is called a "contact sport" for a reason.) and what he perceived as Baylor's failure to "correct the problem" sooner, but methinks it was a column by the very popular and respected Randy Galloway in the Star-Telegram earlier that month that really got the notoriously hot-tempered coach's goat. Under the biting headline "Gary Patterson is no longer the flavor of the fall," the doyen of Texas sports writers described the recent (and sudden) reversal of fortune for the Horned Frogs' football program and its illustrious coach thusly:
What the heck happened to Gary in Fort Worth?
Just one year ago, after taking a backup quarterback into Austin on Thanksgiving night and beating Texas, there were columns being written on why Gary Patterson should NOT be the leading candidate to replace Mack Brown.
Those columns were in response to Austin stories that the UT money boys wanted to hire GP, hire him like right now. But with all the outside crap involved with that particular job, a dug-in Patterson didn’t seem to be a guy who would tolerate the program’s built-in distractions.
Even in a somewhat disappointing first season (2012) in the Big 12, Patterson’s reputation didn’t lose luster. In August, in a conference poll of players, the question was what coach would you like to play for other than your own?
Patterson was the players’ choice.
But at the moment, with TCU struggling, GP has dropped off the hot list of college coaches. He’s not even lukewarm.
Guess who Randy called "the new football flavor of the fall"?

I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. But you can see him and his team in action Saturday afternoon against TCU.