Staff Writer, CNET News.com
With just hours left before voting is scheduled to end in one of the most-anticipated presidential elections in U.S. history, political pundits ranging from the amateur to the academic are scrambling to update their Web sites with final forecasts.
Projecting the outcome of Tuesday's vote has become a popular sport among political watchers with a programming bent. Thanks to common tools like Java and statistical software, computer-generated maps showing America dotted with crimson and blue have become a common feature on home pages.
Sam Wang, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University, updated his election map on Monday to predict a John Kerry victory based on software he wrote that churned through 8.4 million possibilities.
"There's this weird boom in sites like mine," Wang said. "My last count is that there are something like over 50 sites that do this. As far as I can tell, most of them are run by amateurs like me."
Using Matlab, a software package that many academics rely on for number crunching, Wang analyzed all the polls available in 23 states that could be in play on Election Day. George W. Bush would win a narrow victory based only on the poll data, Wang concluded, but injecting the two additional factors of undecided voters and turnout give Kerry the victory.
"If you add in the likely effect of undecided voters based on previous years, it turns it around to a slightly favored Kerry win," Wang said, though he cautioned "it's not possible to predict with great confidence what's going to happen."
Election watchers are tuning in to the faintest signal that might indicate the winner, from the bizarre to the ridiculous.
Oddsmakers are a leading indicator, buoyed by some past successes. Betfair, an online betting exchange, claims to have accurately picked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Australian Prime Minister John Howard as the winners in their respective elections. As of last week, Bush was at 1-5 odds to stay in office, with 2-1 odds on Kerry to win.
Likely one of the strangest election barometers around links the presidential winner to the Washington Redskins' fortunes on the gridiron. Since 1936, the win-loss record of the presidential incumbent has accurately tracked the Skins' showing in each of their last at-home games before the election. After the Skins' 28-14 loss on Sunday to the Green Bay Packers, Bush must also lose for the streak to hold.
By comparison to this yardstick, statistical poll analysis seems downright scientific.
Tanenbaum admits he favors Kerry but says his method of surveying state-by-state polls is nonpartisan. His predicted final results show Kerry with 306 electoral votes and Bush with 218 (at least 270 are needed to win) thanks to projected wins with "razor-thin" margins in Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
"It could be a long night, especially if Bush picks up either Florida or Ohio and a couple of small Kerry states in the East or Midwest, so everything depends on New Mexico," wrote Tanenbaum, a U.S. citizen who teaches at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Ten states, including Florida and Indiana, are scheduled to close their polls by 7 p.m. ET. Tanenbaum says he'll update his red-and-blue map as the results come in.
A rival site at ElectionProjection.com predicts that Florida and Ohio will tilt toward Bush, giving the president a total of 286 electoral votes to Kerry's 252.
Scott Elliott, a self-described conservative Republican who runs the site, says he reached his conclusion by using the 2000 election as a "baseline," and infusing data reflecting Bush's job approval rating and state-by-state polling data weighted by how recent the numbers are.
Probably the most unusual prediction comes from Larry Sabato, who runs the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Sabato's online map projects a tie: that Kerry wins in Florida and Pennsylvania will be counterbalanced by Bush victories in Nevada and Ohio. That would give each politician 269 electoral votes and toss the election over to a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives.
And the political pros? Their political preferences tend to influence their prognostications, according to an informal "Crystal Ball" survey published over the weekend by The Washington Post. There's one glaring exception, though. Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, a past winner of the newspaper's Crystal Ball contest, says that Kerry likely will win with 278 electoral votes to Bush's 260.