Author Archive | Hans Noel

I have a theory

I have a theory about the nerd fight over political science forecasting models.

So far, the debate has touched on a number of very interesting issues, but the thrust is whether political scientists are “too confident” in the models that predict the outcomes of elections on the basis of the economy, or whether there is room for the campaign to “matter.” The conclusion, which most reasonable people seem to agree on, is that of course there is room for the campaign to matter, but the fight continues over what that means about the importance of the economy.

But I think the main source of conflict is a different perspective on why one might run these models in the first place. (And some political scientists may share that perspective.) Political scientists are not in the business of predicting the future.  (I never thought journalists were, either.) Forecasting is good because it keeps us honest. Predicting outside the sample ensures you are not inventing an ad hoc explanation. But models built just to predict are not the point.  Generally, political scientists do statistical modeling because we want to test a hypothesis. And we want to do that because we have a theory.

For instance, we might theorize that voters reward candidates or parties who have served them well, and punish those who have not. One way to measure a high-performing president is by looking at the state of the economy. Another is to look at foreign policy failures, especially wars. Theory says we should think about measures that might be felt by ordinary voters, so disposable income is probably better than GDP, and American casualties are probably a better measure than total casualties. These are the variables in the very influential Hibbs’ Bread and Peace Model.

The model performs well. And from that, we conclude that the theory is likely true. We don’t learn who will win in 2012, because that’s not what the model was for. We learn that the theory is likely true. We then go on to test the theory in many, many, many other ways. We start to believe that the fundamentals of the election, things that have little to do with the campaign and everything to do with what has happened in the last four years, matter a great deal.

This does not mean that nothing else matters, because we have not built a model that attempted to maximize the amount of variation we are explaining. We built a model to test a theory. There are other theories, of course. One is that voters vote primarily on the basis of ideology. This theory has generated mixed results. It predicts, for example, that both parties will nominate centrists. and while presidential candidates are rarely very extreme, candidates from all levels of office are also rarely centrist. So while we think voters do punish candidates who are too extreme, we think parties can get away with nominating someone who is not moderate.

And when we go to test the effect of campaigns, the results are again at best mixed. Campaign advertising definitely moves people, but the effect decays rather quickly, and meanwhile, there are a lot of competing messages. Most of the campaign gaffes that fascinate political journalists and political scientists are often completely unknown to most voters. And the most attentive voters are highly partisan, so they filter those events anyway. In short, while no one thinks the campaign is meaningless, there is little reason to believe it can have the kinds of effects that many attribute to it.

One could build models designed just for predicting the future, and some scholars do. If so, one might include, for example, presidential approval as a forecasting variable. That variable “predicts” very well. But it is theoretically uninteresting. The variables we want to test, like the economic variables, will also affect presidential approval, and so including it hinders our ability to estimate the effect of the variables we care about. Such a model might be great at predicting the future, but it’s lousy for social science.

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One man’s outlier is another man’s high-leverage case

Nate Silver, over at fivethirtyeight, objects to the conventional wisdom that Herman Cain, despite his place in the polls, has little chance of becoming the Republican presidential nominee. That wisdom, consistent in this case with our book, The Party Decides, is that that Cain may have some appeal with some elements of the party, but he is not broadly appealing among political leaders, and so the party leaders will find a way to nominate someone else.

Cain is an outlier, in that his poll performance is high, but his ranking on various non-poll measures, such as support from political insiders, is low. Silver presents a great graph showing the relationship, using a new measure. Since these various measures of candidate strength are highly correlated, Cain is unusual. If you wanted to predict his poll position from his non-poll strength, you’d miss. (Although notice that this poll of political insiders shows more favorable attitudes toward Cain than a lot of other conventional wisdom.)

Silver concludes from this that pundits should stop saying that Cain has no chance. We don’t know what will happen, but we could be in a “new normal,” in which support from others in the party is not as important as getting respondents in polls to say they will vote for you.

I think I look at Silver’s data differently than he does. Cain is an outlier in the relationship between poll standing and insider support. But that’s not the relationship that matters. What matters is the relationship between these factors and winning the nomination. Figuring that out is hard, though, precisely because they are so related to one another. Polls and elite support (and media coverage, and money raised) are what we call multicolinear. In such a case, it’s hard to say if raising more money is more important than getting insider support, because the people who get one also get the other, and then they win.

So you look for high-leverage cases. That is, cases that don’t fit the relationship among your predicting variables. There have been some. Certainly many early poll leaders were busts, although it is getting later. Still, what matters is not whether you can get a plurality in Iowa. What matters is whether the party will support you or oppose you if you do. Similarly, we can learn that money isn’t very helpful without elite support from folks like Pat Robertson and Steve Forbes, who had lots of money but little elite support. The analysis we do in the book suggests that polls are not more important than elite support, so pundits who see Cain as an outlier and go with the non-poll measures are probably doing the right thing. But all of this is hard to measure, and Silver’s new measures may be very helpful.

Cain is the next high-leverage case. If he gets the nomination, especially if he does so without getting any more support from party insiders, then that is evidence against the argument, which we advance, that party leaders generally get their way. But if he doesn’t get it, then that is still more evidence that a narrow focus on polls is less helpful than understanding the preferences of the people who devote their lives to party politics. We won’t know for sure until we see the dependent variable—who wins the nomination.

So I’m waiting for the outcome, but there’s nothing wrong with predicting which way you think it’s going to come out. Our best understanding of how these things work says Cain isn’t the next nominee. I don’t think pundits who say he has essentially no chance are really wrong. They are no doubt responding to the equally loud voices that keep calling Cain the front-runner. The evidence we have so far is that popular support without insider support isn’t good enough. It’s good journalism to communicate that.

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Accountability and dishonesty

A while back, John Sides and I had a discussion, motivated by Seth Masket’s new book No Middle Ground, about the relevance of the "true preferences" of politicians. That got me thinking about the sincerity of preferences, which led to a post a few days ago, where I argued that we shouldn’t care so much if politicians offer us arguments that they themselves don’t seem to believe. The discussion got pretty metaphysical, which is cool. But the general idea is something I would hope journalists and commentators would pick up on. Having gone deep on the arguments, let me make the possibly less intense claim: We shouldn’t care so much whether politicians actually favor the policies they say they stand for (forget about why they say they favor them). To get there, we need to stop off at some political theory and some political science.

First, the political theory:

As much as we might value character and principles, we generally think that democracy is supposed to be about accountability and representation. By accountability, I mean that when political leaders do something, someone else—ultimately voters—ought to be able to identify who has done that something, and then punish or reward them if they like it. We like to think that such accountability enables representation. Whether you think representation is about delegation (your representative is supposed to do what you would do if you were there) or trusteeship (your rep is supposed to do what they think is right, and you just try to put someone into office who you think will do god things), you retrospectively get to reassess your decision. Knowing this, representatives will try to be good delegates, trustees, or whatever it is they think you want.

Then, the political science:

So far so good on accountability, but the obvious next question is, accountable to whom? We think "the voters," and there is at least some good evidence that they can hold leaders accountable for broad successes and failures, like good economic performance and poor foreign policy. But a different group that politicians heed is political activists, notably partisan activists. After all, the party hold the keys to renomination. And party activists are the foot soldiers in re-election campaigns. Their cooperation is also critical in policy fights. So politicians are accountable to voters, but also to the party.

That’s what Masket was arguing. And what I (with co-authors) and Masket and I (again with co-authors) have argued. If we’re right, then what it means is that if you want to know what a politician will do, you should think about what that politician thinks voters and his party want him to do, more than what he himself thinks is right. (Of course, the voters and the parties would do well to put people who share their true preferences into office, but that assumes you could ever know what they really think, given their incentives to deviate).

Now for a two contemporary examples:

1. As several people have pointed out recently, Obama has the same policy preference on gay marriage as Carrie Prejean. Conservatives seem irked that liberals are mad at Prejean but not at His O-liness. They think the same thing. (And, come to think of it, Kerry and Bush thought the same thing in 2004, and Palin and Biden agreed to it in their debate as well).

But Obama (and Kerry, and Biden) are Democrats, and the Democratic Party includes within it activists for gay rights, including marriage. And so Obama opposed Proposition 8, even as he doesn’t move to revoke Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Liberals can be mad that he’s not moving fast enough, and conservatives can suspect that his true feelings are hidden. Obama’s position is best understood as a struggle to be accountable to the Democratic activists, who favor gay marriage, and the genereal election voters, who are on balance opposed.

2. When Arlen Spector skipped out on the GOP, a lot of people called him opportunistic. He’s not doing it because he’s in principle opposed to the Republican Party, but because he wants to keep his Senate seat. But political scientists correctly asked just how much a switch from being accountable to one party to another matters, especially for someone who seems to be not that accountable to either (and yet apparently satisfactory to the voters of Pennsylvania.)

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I might not even believe what I am writing, but that doesn’t matter.

Recent debate over the Credit Cardholder’s Bill of Rights Act of 2009, which just passed the House, reminds me of an issue I think is widely ignored or misunderstood by the media and political commentators: Does it matter whether the preferences and arguments advanced by political actors are sincere or strategic?

I think it matters less than we often think, and the pro-credit industry arguments are a good example. The bill restricts credit card companies from a variety of practices that hit hardest on those likely to miss payments. For instance, creditors have to send you your bill at least 21 days before it is due, so you are less likely to run out of time in sending in your payment. That sort of thing.

The bill seems good for consumers, but some argue that if the bill passes, credit card companies will have to pull some of the benefits given to good debtors (who pay their bills on time) to make up for the lost revenue they can no longer pull in from bad debtors. See for instance GOP Whip Eric Cantor, as quoted by the New York Times.

“While perhaps well intentioned, this bill will make credit less available to hard-working families, small businesses, and consumers who are already struggling,” said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican. “Simply put, the bill forces good actors who have managed their finances responsibly to subsidize the bad actors that did not.”

Do you suppose Cantor really thinks that? I don’t. The idea that credit card companies need tricks and traps (like morning due dates that pass before the mail is delivered) to make "bad actors" pull their share of the load doesn’t fly. It probably is true that, ceteris paribus, anything that makes the credit industry less profitable could make credit less available. But that doesn’t mean that those who get caught in credit traps were "bad actors."

But whether he believes the argument or not, it is a very clever rhetorical device. It echoes the complaint that any interventions in the housing market mean that those who pay their mortgages on time have to subsidize those who cannot. It clearly conveys who they think is on their side, and who they want on their side.

So it’s a bad argument, but that’s not my question. My question is, does it matter that no one could seriously believe it, that it’s merely a strategic argument? I think no. It’s clearly such a bad argument that almost no one in the House or Senate seems to have taken it seriously. The bill appears popular enough with voters that even donations from the industry didn’t stop them from voting for it. Meanwhile, supposing it were a good argument, would it matter if the people making it were making it for merely strategic reasons? Someone has to have an incentive to think through possibly bad implications for an otherwise popular policy. So I’m not making the case that this is all cheap talk, or that the arguments themselves don’t matter at all. Only that their sincerity doesn’t matter.

I want to build on this idea tomorrow, and claim that the sincere preferences of elected officials matter even less than the arguments they use. But first, I want to know what you think. Does it matter if the policy advocates don’t even believe their arguments. (And, just to be fair, am I right that it’s hard to believe Cantor believes this one?)

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Abortion identity or abortion attitudes

A couple of days ago, John Sides sparked an interesting conversation here at the Monkey Cage by pointing out that the survey results that have "pro-life" outnumbering "pro-choice" for the first time. John’s point—which is absolutely right and absolutely necessary in the coverage of that survey—is that many people who self-identify as pro-choice support some restrictions on abortion, while many who self-identify as pro-life support allowing abortion in some circumstances.

So the raw pro-life/pro-choice question is misleading. Since most people’s abortion position is conditional on some circumstance or another—the who and why of the abortion—we should ask questions about those nuances. And of course we should.

But the question is not entirely misleading. The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" have about as much meaning as a lot of other survey items that we use routinely, such as the ideological and partisan self-identification questions. Those, too, depend on context. But trends in them are interesting, because those terms are political objects, about which voters make decisions.

And abortion is too. If more people are self-identifying as "pro-life," what that means is that more people think that the level of compromise they subscribe to is closer to being "pro-life." That might be because their position moved to the right, or it might be because pro-life activists have succeeded in characterizing the "pro-choice" label as meaning "abortion on demand." So it is possible (although still not clear) that more people simply think they are "pro-life" with a little bit of compromise, rather than "pro-choice" witha little bit of compromise. As those people go to the polls, they may evaluate a candidate who self-identifies as "pro-choice" differently, even if they largely agree on the issue.

What’s more, the direction that most voters are coming from may actually be more important than their specific position on all the messiness. Ordinary voters are not charged with setting abortion policy. Even those who care intensely about the issue do not, in the end, get their way. The people who will have to work out the messy compromise need to know that, as John pointed out, most Americans favor some sort of middle ground. But the political impact of their positions may mostly be felt through the blunt instrument of voting, where the middle ground gives way. That’s especially true if most middle-ground voters feel their own conflictedness on the issue, and so don’t let it determine their vote.

In other words, the whole mess is very complicated, and we should make use of every question—including the potentially misleading ones. Trends in pro-life self-identity (even very tiny trends—because of course it is a tiny trend) are still worthy of attention.

The calls for more nuanced questions call to mind Obama’s speech at Notre Dame Sunday. Obama acknowledged both the complexity that survey questions obscure, but also that there are two poles, and that compromise is hard.

Because no matter how much we may want to fudge it—indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory—the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.


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