Nate Silver and Jonathan Chait on Early Voting and the Latest Sarah Palin Rumor

Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and The New Republic's Jonathan Chait discuss the latest Sarah Palin 2012 rumor, how much the African-American vote will matter, and why you should never underestimate the Republican base.

J.C.: You know what you should do? Some deeper analysis of polling. I feel like there's a need for it. Maybe throw in some semi-nude pics to juice your hit count.

N.S.: I'm surprised, quite honestly, that there wasn't more analysis going on before. There are probably as many hard-core politics geeks as there are baseball geeks, and there was tons of analysis in the latter, but very little in the former.

We did have a picture of Miss Virginia up the other day, by the way.

J.C.: Yep, everything I've been reading about polls before 538 has been crap.

N.S.: Well, there was Chuck Todd, and Jay Cost, and Chris Bowers. But not a lot to look at, certainly. And the Pollster.com guys. Can't leave them out.

FWIW, I think I might have cursed the Cubs, since I was sort of like "if they're going to win the World Series, does it have to be in an election year?"

J.C.: My friends have always (and still do) posed questions to me pitting my Michigan-football loyalties against my political loyalties — i.e., would you rather Michigan win the national championship or Bill Clinton win the White House? This year feels like I somehow made one of those horrible choices.

N.S.: Well, having the Cubs win the World Series and the black guy win the presidency would probably be too much change in one year.

J.C.: Let me throw out another question: How are you going to spend election night — your setup, your mood, your company? I kind of see you in a NASA commandlike room with scores of computers and monitors.

N.S.: I'm going to be on set with the HDNet people in Washington. But I'll be in some kind of war room with lots of computers and Red Bull. No John King–style maps though, unfortunately.

J.C.: Will you be sweating?

N.S.: Have you ever been inside a studio? It's usually like 40 degrees in there.

So what's your gut feel here? Big Obama win? Small Obama win? Nail-biter?

J.C.: I say Obama by five. Can't give you a reason, though.

N.S.: That sounds about right. Races like this usually do tighten down the stretch run.

On the other hand, sometimes I look at the early voting numbers and think the pollsters may be missing some sort of turnout wave.

And sometimes I remember that Democrats have a track record a lot like the Cubs in the clutch.

J.C.: Hmm. I do have a problem seeing any registered African-American, anywhere, not voting. By which I mean don't you think turnout among the registered black voters will be close to universal? How can it not be?

As for early voting, it's higher, but is it that much higher than 2004?

N.S.: I know a lot of Obama volunteers who are heading down to Gary, Indiana, every weekend, and the joke there is that Obama is going to get about 105 percent of the available votes.

Re: early voting. I haven't done a side-by-side comparison, but it looks like the numbers are maybe 50 percent ahead of their pace from last election in the battleground states.

J.C.: For me, I want to take my kids to the polls, bring a camera — the history of the occasion is not going to be lost on the black community.

N.S.: No, it won't be, and I think people forget that there's actually a difference between winning the black vote 89-11 and 95-5, especially if you're also increasing their turnout by 10 to 20 percent. If both those things happen, that's worth something like three points nationally.

J.C.: Another topic: Doesn't it seem like anecdotes and reporting are making Palin out to be a bigger liability than shows up in her polling? It feels like 10 percent of the electorate switched from McCain to Obama because of her, based on what you hear anyway. Her numbers don't make it look quite that bad.

N.S.: Well, in the NBC/WSJ last week, Palin came out as McCain's biggest liability — bigger than even his connections with George W. Bush.

J.C.: You're right. I'm referring more to positive/negative numbers.

N.S.: The thing is, I think she's a double whammy. There are people that simply don't like her. And then there are people who like her well enough but think she reflects poorly on McCain's judgment.

I'm definitely in the camp that thinks that she's not an especially talented politician. I think she's more of a vessel for the way that certain conservatives want to see themselves.

J.C.: Have you heard that Palin demanded the McCain campaign send her to Iowa, to help for 2012? It's a crazy rumor, but how else do you explain that they keep going to Iowa?

N.S.: The Iowa thing is really bizarre. It ought not to be a difficult state to poll; it's relatively homogenous, very high turnout. So even if their internals have them doing a bit better there, I'm not sure I'd trust those internals.

J.C.: Can you explain internals? My understanding is that the point is to test messages and get deeper info. They can't be for the purpose of getting another top-line number on who's ahead by how much, right?

N.S.: At this stage of the cycle, the campaigns definitely are looking at the top-line numbers. Especially in states like, say, Indiana or Georgia, where the electorate might look very different than it did four years ago and the public polling might be erratic.

J.C.: Why not freeload off the public polls, hire their own Nate Silver to make sense of them?

N.S.: The Obama people are very data-driven, so I wouldn't necessarily assume that they aren't looking really deeply into the numbers. The McCain campaign seems very right-brained, on the other hand.

J.C.: Right-brained is a kind term. But you raise an interesting concept — an election pitting reason versus intuition, two contrasting styles of looking at the world. It goes deeper than campaign tactics.

N.S.: I don't disagree, but arguably one of the problems for the McCain campaign is that they ultimately bucked the candidate's intuition, especially on the V.P. pick.

McCain, Mark Salter, and Mike Murphy all seem to understand one another … that would have been a formidable team.

J.C.: You think they wish they stayed in Georgia now? For the Senate race if nothing else.

N.S.: It does seem like they got a fair number of people registered when they were there over the summer.

Obama could probably draw 80K people in Atlanta. Would that look bold and confident, or hubristic?

J.C.: I think the fear of the GOP right sitting out is misplaced. Far as I can tell it's never happened. They would have kept the base even if they nominated Lieberman. They're all voting against Obama the socialist/terrorist anyway, not for McCain.

But you should examine the history of the GOP base sitting out. Every time the GOP loses, conservatives say it's because they moved to the center and the base stayed home. I have never detected this result, but I'm using pretty crude measures.

N.S.: The thing is, I don't really think they were left with much choice. Even if the base does turn out, McCain still would need to win independents by something like seven, ten, twelve points to win the election, and/or maybe pick off a significant number of Clinton Democrats.

J.C.: Exactly. McCain's failure to move to the center is mystifying. The poll you cited showing the overwhelming majority think McCain is for the rich crystallized that failure.

N.S.: What was especially weird is that he spent February and March and April running to his base, even after he had the nomination locked up. And this was at a time when Obama and Clinton were still trying to out-liberal one another on issues like health care.

There are some policy failures too. His health-care plan is a complete mess, and it's surprising that he didn't find a way to undercut Obama (literally) on middle-class taxes.

J.C.: He's surrounded by operatives who, in their gut, think Bush was a good president whose only flaw was to spend too much on social programs. They believe their own propaganda about how it's a conservative country, and misapply whatever truth there is in that statement.

N.S.: Well, if you saw that Frontline special last week, it was portrayed as though Steve Schmidt was sort of Bush's parting gift to John McCain. But really he was more of a poison pill, maybe.

N.S.: The other thing about Schmidt, etc., is that they forgot that the strongest part of the Rove operation might not have been the messaging, but rather the terrific turnout operation.

J.C.: Rove was good at picking a caricature of his opponent and sticking to it, not going from naïf to flip-flopper to celebrity to snob to socialist.

N.S.: I do think Obama is a difficult guy to attack. But perhaps if they had couched their attack in more concrete terms — tying his flip-flops to his inexperience, etc. — they would have gotten more mileage. Obama got a complete pass on his flip-flops in June and July.

J.C.: Disagree on the flip-flops. That was a major media theme for about a month, and I think it hurt Obama.

N.S.: I think it hurt Obama in the sense that he wasted a lot of media cycles that could have been spent more constructively. I don't think they had a good summer, really. But then again, the summer is the preseason, and they were always playing for the long haul.

I think there have been like 36 new polls out since we started this chat, by the way.

J.C.: We're almost out of time, so let me just throw this out: Records show that you paid no income tax in the years 1990 through 1997 and have no public position on whether squirrel mutilation is a good thing.

N.S.: My tax returns were handled by Rezko & Associates. Are you saying there was some sort of problem?

J.C.: Can America really trust Nate Silver?

N.S.: I did live in Hyde Park for four years.

J.C.: P.S. — if Obama loses, we're coming after you.

Earlier: Dahlia Lithwick and Ayelet Waldman on Michelle Bachmann and Why They’re So Worried About Voter Suppression

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.