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15 Clarifying Questions For Close Elections

In 1994, baseball statistics godfather Bill James developed the Keltner List, a series of 15 gut-check questions that he suggests should be asked of players who are close calls to enter the sport’s Hall of Fame. In thinking through my “call” of New Jersey, which I’ll issue later today, I realized that there are a similar set of questions that I pose to myself in the event of elections that are too close to call from the polling alone. Some of these questions are subjective, while others will require a little bit of research, but for the most part they should lend themselves to relatively clear answers.

As you look at these questions, think about how you’d answer them for New Jersey, or NY-23, or perhaps Barack Obama’s election last November, or George Bush’s in 2004. The way that I prefer to do this is to assign up to 3 points to either of the candidates (but never both) for each question, depending on the magnitude of their advantage — no points need be awarded if the factor is inapplicable or neither candidate has a discernible edge. When I do this for New Jersey, I come up with a relatively clear answer, as you’ll see later.

1. Which candidate’s supporters are more enthusiastic?

2. Which candidate is liable to have the better turnout operation?

3. Is one of the candidates a challenger to an incumbent, who might benefit from the ‘incumbent rule’?

4. Do the demographics of the undecided vote, or the weakly-attached third-party vote, favor either of the candidates?

5. Which candidate got the more favorable coverage in the morning newspaper, or on the local evening news, on the Sunday before the election?

6. Which candidate has the better ‘elevator pitch‘, particularly as encapsulated by the commercials they’re running in the 48 hours before the election?

7. Which candidate has a headwind at their back from the national political environment, or has a message that squares better with the national political mood? Which candidate’s party is liable to have the better Election Night nationwide?

8. Does either candidate begin with a built-in lead from early or absentee voting?

9. Which candidate, if any, stands to benefit from upballot or downballot races?

10. Which candidate stands to benefit from cellphone-only voters, or other voters who may not be represented in the polls?

11. Has the polling in previous elections in the state, or in similar elections in similar states, tended systematically to underestimate the performance of either candidate’s party?

12. Which candidate drew more people to their campaign appearances in the state over the last two weeks of the campaign?

13. Which candidate got more contributions from voters within the state over the last six weeks of the campaign?

14. Which candidate has run the more positive, optimistic campaign, and will leave voters feeling better about themselves as they exit the polling place?

15. Which candidate’s party controls the state’s electoral and judicial apparatus, in the event of a recount or otherwise disputed election?

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.