The Election: Religion, Simulation and Prediction

The topic of the hour (and year) is the 2008 presidential election. What follows are comments on religion, online election simulation and a few other political (or poll-itical) matters associated with the race.

Religion and Presidential Politics

Candidates naturally do not want to offend large, organized groups of voters, a tendency that at times leads them to pander. This happens particularly often where religious voters are concerned. A recent example is pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren's extensive interview of Sens. Obama and McCain last month, which contained a number of questions that were, in my opinion, inappropriate, as well as a number of answers that were quite understandably pat, evasive or nonsensical.

A decidedly different set of (ir)religious questions appears in a previous Who's Counting column of mine.

Relevant to the issue of presidential politics and religion was Warren's later statement that he'd never vote for an atheist for president, since, he claimed, atheists are arrogant people who think they have no need for any help in their endeavors. I know of no studies showing that atheists and agnostics are more arrogant than believers. In fact, given that they make no unverifiable religious claims, they are decidedly less sure of ultimate matters and their exalted place in the universe, and thus, arguably at least, less arrogant.

I was disappointed too that neither candidate mentioned non-believers during the interview (although Obama has in other venues), even in a pro forma expression of inclusiveness. More significantly, until last month when Obama provided answers to 14 important scientific questions posed by a consortium of science organizations, none of the many candidates who ran for president has responded to repeated invitations to participate.

Certainly Gov. Palin is unlikely to do so. Her chirpy denial of human involvement in global warming and support for the teaching of creationism bespeaks an especially vexing indifference to science not only by her, but by the man who recklessly picked her.

The mildly offensive term "values voters" to describe fundamentalists, evangelicals and the very religious generally should also be noted. The term seems to suggest that the irreligious, the secular and the moderately religious lack a concern for "values" when they are merely possessors of different ones. Nor is the latter class of voters small, just unorganized. A poll by the PEW organization found that one in six of the respondents said they were not affiliated with any particular religious faith, a figure that rises to one in four for those 18 to 29 years old. Unaffiliated does not mean irreligious, of course, but 4 percent of Americans, likely a significant undercount, do explicitly say that they are atheists or agnostics.

Simulations of the Race

Whatever religious voters' influence is, the essential question about the election is, Who is going to win? To help with that question there are a number of online sites that attempt to simulate the presidential election results if the contest were held today. The rough idea is that they run thousands of virtual elections given the polling data available and see who wins in most of them.

In a bit more detail, almost all the simulations begin with polls in the so-called battleground states and use them to estimate the probability of one candidate or the other (either will do, but most use Obama as a base) winning each of these states. If, for example, Obama leads McCain 52 percent to 48 percent with a margin of error of 4 percent in a given state X, then standard statistics might tell us that his chance of winning the state is roughly 85 percent. (That is, because of sampling error there's an 85 percent he'll get at least 50 percent of the vote in state X.)

If there are other polls in the state or sources of relevant demographic data, they are averaged in, with more consideration given to recent data and polls as well as to those that have been more accurate in the past.

These computations are done for all states, and then a computer runs thousands of virtual elections in which Obama has an 85 percent chance of winning state X, McCain has a 60 percent chance of winning state Y, and so on for all the other states. The various ways that Obama can attain at least 270 electoral votes and hence win the election are determined, and then the overall likelihood of his winning is calculated.

The state probabilities can be combined in this way to yield a probability of winning the election as a whole since, if the election took place today, there's little reason to believe that sampling errors in the various states would be correlated. But things do happen, and this is not the case if what we want is a prediction of the November result and not the September result.

Some states tend to shift together over time, but more importantly and more generally the polls are particularly volatile during the two to three months before an election. There are the two conventions, the four debates, the inevitable gaffes and scandals, the advertising campaigns (the despicable but effective Swift Boat smear, for example), and external events, each of which can change the electoral total by 10 to 50 votes and which together can change it by much more.

So unless one candidate or the other is ahead by more than the algebraic sum of these anticipated swings, a prediction now is much less reliable than today's latest simulation, poll of polls, or online market might suggest. Combining the uncertainty of these various swings increases the overall uncertainty. In probability-speak, variances add. As we near the election, the opportunity for sudden swings in sentiment declines, and polls, simulations and markets become much more predictive of the actual result.

My Prediction

Finally, much has been written about the crucial importance of, and extreme interest in, the 2008 election. This is a welcome bit of news. It can, however, also be seen as an indication of how far from constitutional government we've come. If Congress had asserted itself more forcefully in recent years and occupied its rightful place as a co-equal branch of government, it would matter less which presidential candidate wins since he would not have quasi-imperial powers. Nevertheless, the races for the House and the Senate are also extremely important this year.

From the sputtering economy and health care to the disastrous Iraq war and the erosion of civil liberties (including the right not to be tortured), it seems that we're at a crossroads. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 80 percent of Americans say that we're heading down the wrong track. This poll is robust and unlikely to oscillate nearly as much as the daily polls of the candidates.

So who's going to win? Being a pundit and not a prophet, I can only predict the past, so ask me on Nov. 5. My guess (and hope) is that it will be Sen. Obama.

John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is the author of the best-sellers "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper," as well as of the just-released "Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why The Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up." His "Who's Counting?" column on appears the first weekend of every month.


Princeton Election Consortium

FiveThirtyEight - an electoral predictions Web site

Sciencedebate2008 - a consortium of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens