BLUE ASH, Ohio -- Tens of thousands of Republicans were jammed into a Friday night rally in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, and Ron Sokol leaned over the crowd-control barricade to talk about what he's witnessed during his door-to-door canvassing expeditions.
"Between now and 2008, I see a world of difference," Sokol said, explaining how much more enthusiasm there is for GOP nominee Mitt Romney -- and how much less for Barack Obama. Sokol also mentioned that Republican get-out-the-vote operations here in Butler County have been bolstered by an influx of volunteers from around the country. "I see people from Tennessee, Texas, Indiana -- everywhere."
Eyewitness accounts like Sokol's are routinely dismissed by analysts as mere anecdotes and, even though it is proverbial that the plural of "anecdote" is data, such tales don't count for much among the gurus, soothsayers, and other savants who arrogate to themselves the mantle of political expertise. But why bring up Nate Silver at this late stage of the campaign?
The statistical wizard of the New York Times has gone so far out on a limb with his prediction of an Obama victory that Silver might as well pull a Joe Namath and guarantee it. Late Saturday, he peered into his vaunted "Forecasting Model" and raised the likelihood of the president's election to 85.1 percent, the one-tenth of a percentage point being the gimmick by which Silver provides his guesstimate with the illusion of scientific precision. Whatever his qualifications as a political analyst, Silver may be the most successful public-relations man since Eddie Bernays. His self-created aura of infallibility has made Silver a vital bulwark of the Obama campaign, which fed him their internal polling data (and signed him to a confidentiality agreement) in 2008 when he was openly advocating the Democrat's candidacy on his own blog.
These days, as Mike Flynn of Breitbart.com says, Silver has become "the patron saint of confirmation bias," providing statistics that support the liberal True Believer's faith in the ultimate triumph of Obama. Silver has never projected Obama's chances at worse than 60 percent and in early September was already rating the president's re-election chances at 4-to-1 (see my Sept. 10 column, "Omens of Doom?"). Before Romney's one-sided romp in the first debate Oct. 3, Silver had raised Obama's chances to precisely 87.1 percent (nearly 7-to-1), but after a nine-day tumble that took the Democrat's number down to 61.1 percent -- still more than a 20-point favorite over Romney -- Silver announced that the Republican's momentum had stopped. This was, perhaps not coincidentally, the message being trumpeted simultaneously from Obama HQ in Chicago, and Silver has since then relentlessly raised the odds in the president's favor.
This gives hope to the Obamaphiles, although there are frequent indications that Silver's fair-sky forecasts haven't calmed the jitters among Democrats. For example, The Nation has already started claiming "voter suppression" (a favorite theme of the Left since the contested 2000 election) because Ohio's Republican Secretary of State, Jon Husted, issued a directive that might have the effect of disqualifying some incorrectly filed provisional ballots. Regardless of the merits of the case, for the Left to begin playing the "stolen election" card two days ahead of Election Day suggests a lack of confidence in claims that Obama is sailing to an easy win in Ohio. One recent poll, showing Obama ahead by 6 points, had a survey sample composed of 38 percent Democrats and 29 percent Republicans -- a D+9 oversample that actually exceeds the Democrat advantage in partisan ID reported by 2008 exit polls, when Ohio went to Obama by a 5-point margin, 52-47, over John McCain. Such implausible oversampling of Democrats has become routine in polls this year. A CNN national poll released Sunday had the race tied at 49 percent each for Obama and Romney, but with a D+11 sample that prompted my Republican operative friend Ali Akbar to remark, "They might as well be polling San Francisco."
Akbar stayed up all night Saturday poring over Ohio early-voting totals, comparing them to previous elections, studying recent Buckeye State polls, and crunching the numbers before waking me up before 8 a.m. Sunday to declare, "We've got Ohio." His analysis of the early-vote numbers and his interpretation of the latest Columbus Dispatch poll as bad news for Obama quickly inspired an online buzz among Republicans who have been worried sick over Ohio. Even at the mid-October apex of Romney's surge, the Republican never led the Real Clear Politics average of polls in this crucial battleground state. Although Obama's lead has never been large -- as of Sunday, he led the RCP Ohio average by 2.8 points -- it has been remarkably persistent, prompting much theorizing about the factors behind it. The economy in Ohio hasn't been quite as hard-hit as some other states; unemployment is only 7 percent. Ads from the Obama campaign have hit Romney hard for his opposition to the GM and Chrysler bailout, a reasonably popular measure in Ohio, where auto manufacturing jobs are a vital part of the state's economy.
Despite the deluge of attack ads and the worrisome polls, Romney approaches Election Day within reach of victory in Ohio. The most recent Rasmussen poll shows the state a dead heat at 49 each for Romney and Obama, which means that a strong turnout effort by Republicans could provide the margin of victory. And the GOP and its allies have organized a get-out-the-vote blitz of unprecedented vigor in the Buckeye State this year. In addition to the usual barrage of pre-recorded "robo-calls" and extensive live phone-banking, the Romney campaign has done more door-to-door canvassing here than in any Republican campaign in recent memory. Romney's Ohio field director told the New York Times that they have been "knocking on 19 times as many doors as Senator John McCain's campaign did four years ago." (This rather important bit of news was buried in the 57th paragraph of the Times article.) The official Republican campaign operation is bolstered by similar efforts from a number of outside groups, among them Americans for Prosperity, which made more than 23,000 door-to-door contacts statewide Thursday through Saturday and expected to make thousands more in the final days of the campaign.
Early Sunday morning, an AFP van pulled up to a motel here in the Butler County suburbs of Cincinnati. The van driver waited to load up volunteers for another day of door-knocking. The six passengers had hit a total of 800 doors Saturday, half of them in affluent West Chester, the other half in blue-collar Middletown. One of the teenage volunteers displayed a cellphone photo he had taken of the front door of a house in a particular rough section of Middletown. A sign on the door read, "Is there life after death? Trespass here and find out."
Was this homeowner a "likely voter"? Is he a Republican or Democrat? Did Gallup ever call him? How do the sentiments of such people figure into the calculus of Nate Silver and all the other political wizards who tell us what's going to happen on Election Day?
Questions like that multiply endlessly in the waning hours of a long campaign. Within 48 hours, we'll know the answer to the big question, no doubt to the great relief of the much-harassed citizens of Ohio.