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Intellect

BYU statistician simulates “If the election were held today”

Analysis: Obama and Southern Senate candidates' fates tied

A new method of simulating elections shows that if the election were held today, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama would beat Republican John McCain 353 to 185 in the Electoral College, and Senate Democrats could come away with 59 seats.

Emphasis on “if the election were held today,” says Brigham Young University statistician William Christensen, who notes that not quite a month ago the simulations indicated a tie in the Electoral College was a credible scenario.

Christensen and BYU student Alan Vaughn run 50,000 simulations daily based on state-by-state polling and post the results online. The academic journal The American Statistician recently published the BYU team’s method of simulating election outcomes.

“This approach is on solid scientific footing and provides a really interesting picture of how the probabilities of winning in each state add up,” said Peter Westfall, a statistician at Texas Tech University and editor of the journal, a publication of the American Statistical Association. Westfall was not involved with developing the simulation method.

Currently Missouri andNorth Carolina appear to be the most closely contested states.

To do the simulations, the researchers flip 50 virtual weighted coins – one for each state – 50,000 times. Each figurative coin reflects the odds of that state going for McCain or Obama according to that state’s combined poll results. The more recent the poll, the more influential it is in the simulation.

“This helps cut through the news chatter about national polls and directly states the candidates’ odds of winning,” Christensen said. “Along the way, the students in my class have fun getting their hands dirty using statistics on a topic they’re already interested in.”

One observation Christensen and his students make is the strong connection between Obama and Senate Democratic candidates in the South. The Senate contests in Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky see the highest correlation between how Obama and the Democratic candidate fare in state-level polling, suggesting that they are riding the same wave. Republicans currently hold all four of those seats.

To follow the daily simulations as the election progresses, visit this web page: http://statistics.byu.edu/faculty/wfc/2008Election/

Writer: Brady Toone

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Photo by Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo

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