If you are a political junkie, you are probably a regular reader of Nate Silver. He has a seemingly endless server farm going 24 hours a day crunching state and national polls, picking up small tremors in the race on almost a daily basis and factoring them into his analysis. What's fun (and rare) about Silver is that he not only gives you the numbers, he makes specific predictions. For example, according to Silver, President Obama has a 70.3 percent chance of winning the election (as of today), and Ohio has a 50-50 chance of deciding the electoral college outcome (as of today).
The key caveat (mine) in Silver's really interesting analysis remains inside the parentheses. Silver has taken political polling analysis to a different level, but it still predicts the future based on the present, which is a risky business.
Of course, to venture beyond today and predict where the race will be in two weeks is the purview of pundits, amateur and otherwise, not statisticians. When one is unfettered by data and free to speculate, it is possible to go beyond the two presidential candidates' obvious political strengths and weaknesses and try to pick up on deeper forces that may drive the outcome on Nov. 6.
The election partly hangs on this question: Will enough swing voters find Mitt Romney an acceptable alternative to a president about whom they have deep reservations? For months, the answer to this question was no, but in recent weeks Romney has used the debates masterfully to present himself as a reasonably competent and moderate choice. (This is what Romney's whole debate strategy was about: In last night’s debate, for example, with an eye to closing the gender gap, Romney mentioned “women's rights" in the context of the Middle East in the debate's first segment.)
But my question is this: Has Romney peaked too soon? Has he pushed the moderate card too far? Has his cleverness and reinvention taken one too many turns? Will the perception that Romney is a phony and a little lightweight start turning off some independents? Those are questions of character that individual undecided voters will sort through. And there is a whole other factor on which this election will be decided: the mechanical. Which campaign has the better turn-out operation? Who can more successfully get their voters to the polls? Those answers lie not in the servers, but in the hearts and minds of voters, and in the determination of the campaigns themselves.