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Prof. tops pundits with perfect presidential prediction

Josh Putnam

Josh Putnam of Davidson College was one of a handful of election watchers to call the presidential race accurately. (David Boraks/DavidsonNews.net)

By DAVID BORAKS
DavidsonNews.net

News coverage of polls leading up to Tuesday’s election made the presidential race seem like a neck-and-neck battle – a nail-biter whichever side you were on. But poll-watcher Josh Putnam has known how it would turn out for months.

The Davidson College political science professor came out on top among those tracking the presidential polls this time around, accurately predicting how the Electoral College votes would fall: 332 for President Obama, 206 for Mitt Romney.

slate pundarts ranking

Slate.com made Josh Putnam one of those three blue darts in the bull’s eye in a ranking Wednesday. Click to see the graphic on Slate.com.

His spot-on Electoral College tally put him in elite company – one of three nationally known prognosticators to get it right, according to Slate.com’s “Pundit Scorecard,”published Wednesday.

Besides Prof. Putnam, others who nailed the Electoral Vote totals were Nate Silver of The New York Times and Democratic adviser Chris Lehane.

In fact, Prof. Putnam’s prediction of 332 votes for President Barack Obama and 206 for Republican challenger Mitt Romney has remained the same since he began tracking the numbers earlier this year on his blog, “Frontloading HQ,” or FHQ. (http://frontloading.blogspot.com/.)

[The 332-206 tally puts Florida’s 29 electoral votes in the Obama column. President Obama leads in Florida by about 46,000 votes, though officials were still counting absentee ballots on Thursday.]

So how did he do it?

Prof. Putnam looks at all the scientific polls he can find, and calculates a weighted average of the results in each state. His formula gives more weight to the most recent polls, and discounts older ones.

“You can so easily get on the roller coast ride of looking at the polls,” he said Wednesday. “This smoothes it out.”

He also successfully studied poll results in the 2008 election, taking a cue from his dissertation adviser, Paul Gurian, at the University of Georgia. (As it turns out, Prof. Gurian has an office down the hall in the Chambers Building this year, as a visiting professor at Davidson.)

“He had done something similar, and I took the torch from him in 2008,” Prof. Putnam said. He created a model that “tried to arrive at something that made sense.”

Prof. Putnam has a PhD from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been a visiting assistant professor in Davidson’s political science department since January 2011. His research looks at elections and at the rationale state political parties use as they move their presidential primaries ever earlier in an election year.

“All my work in political science is based on rules,” he said. “This (the Electoral College tracking) is just an offshoot of that.”

Prof. Putnam was interviewed by national media often during the election season for his latest take on the vote. After staying up until past 4am on Election Night, it was back to classes Wednesday, which kept him off phone calls with reporters.

But it’s not the attention that drives him: He just loves the science. “I can’t not do it,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t having fun.”

That’s the advice he gives students who come through his door with questions about careers.

He asks: “Are you willing stay up late to do it?” Answer yes, and you’ve found your calling.

AUDIO INTERVIEW

Listen to an audio interview with Josh Putnam by David Boraks. Click the play button to start. Can’t see the player or hear the audio? CLICK HERE> (MP3, 5 mins., 51 sec)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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This post was written by:

- who has written 264 posts on Election.

David Boraks is the founder and editor of Davidson News LLC, which started in 2006 as a neighborhood blog and evolved into a regional community news network. He is a print, magazine, web and radio journalist, with experience in every nook and cranny of the news world, covering everything from local news to Fortune 100 companies to technology to Asia. He lives on South Street in Davidson, in a house that was at the center of a 1914 murder case. Ask him and he'll tell you that story.

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2 Responses to “Prof. tops pundits with perfect presidential prediction”

  1. Well played, Prof. Putnam. Well played.

    Lex Alexander
    Davidson College ’82 (English, not poli sci, but longtime political reporter)
    http://www.lexalexander.net

  2. David Boraks says:

    Just added to this post: An audio interview with Josh Putnam.

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