Archive | Political science

More Evidence that Obama’s Victory Reflects the Economic Fundamentals

The following is a guest post from NYU political scientist Patrick Egan on a topic near and dear to the Monkey Cage, the fact that the economic fundamentals (defined here as GDP growth) of the election suggested the likelihood of a victory in 2012 for the incumbent – albeit a fairly narrow one – and not the challenger.


If you think the “fundamentals” (and by the “fundamentals,” I mean the economy) were stacked in Mitt Romney’s favor in the 2012 presidential election, you’re not alone.  You share the prevailing beliefs of many political observers.  “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections. That’s bad news for Barack Obama,” wrote the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Barone in a National Review post on November 5.  Barone was referring to what he called the “very sluggish economic recovery”—dissatisfaction with which he predicted would cause challenger Mitt Romney to prevail with 315 Electoral College votes.

In his mea-culpa column that inevitably followed Obama’s victory on Tuesday, Barone graciously—and repeatedly—conceded his forecast was “wrong.”  But he clung to the justification for his prediction. “The outcome of the election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by fundamentals,” he wrote. “Fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.”

Barone’s analysis sums up much of the conventional wisdom about the results of the 2012 presidential election that has crystallized among pundits across the political spectrum.  Most versions of their explanations go something like this: the fundamentals were in the Republicans’ favor, but the Democrats overcame them with better ads, a better “ground game,” successful appeals to a racially diverse electorate, or a better candidate.

These observations make for interesting and colorful post-mortem accounts of the campaign, but they start from a premise that happens to be false.  By September, the fundamentals had improved enough to make Obama a slight favorite.  The figure below plots the incumbent party’s share of the two-party presidential vote against the average growth rate in the nation’s GDP over the three quarters preceding the election.  Separate regression lines trace the relationship for years when an incumbent was actually on the ballot (like 2012) and those when he was not (like 2008).   (The steeper slope of the first line indicates that the economy affects election results more strongly when the president is actually running for reelection; the fact that it lies above the second line illustrates the advantage enjoyed by incumbents.)

The growth rate between January and September of 2012 averaged 1.8 percent.  As shown in the figure, this yielded a predicted share of 51.2 percent of the two-party vote for incumbent Obama.    How well did this forecast the actual outcome?  Right now (as of noon on November 8th) the popular vote totals stand at 60,771,081 for Obama and 57,876,223 for Romney—exactly 51.2 percent for the incumbent.  The results stand exactly—one might even say fundamentally—where the fundamentals would predict.

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Is Nate Silver’s popularity good or bad for quantitative political science?

The following is a guest post from political scientists Adam Berinsky (MIT), Neil Malhotra (Stanford) and Erik Snowberg (Caltech).


Nate Silver’s work at has undoubtedly drawn positive attention to quantitative political science. A rigorous approach to aggregating polling results in election forecasting is a huge improvement over the finger-in-the-air prognostications employed by most political pundits in both the broadcast and print media. Further, Silver’s analyses have confirmed the general finding in political science that the impact of campaign events such as debates, conventions, advertisements, and gaffes is largely overblown.

As Silver’s work has increased in popularity, so has the scientific approach to studying politics, which is good news for political scientists who want to share their work with a broader audience. Much like the publication of Moneyball sent shivers down the spines of traditional baseball scouts who feared for their jobs, the traditional pundit class knows the more quantitative approach is catching on and has therefore been highly defensive (as witnessed by the attacks by David Brooks and Peggy Noonan).

Silver draws a mixed reaction from an informal poll of political scientists. While we don’t fear for our jobs, there is no doubt there is some professional jealousy at Silver’s success. But there are good reasons for some healthy skepticism while at the same time respecting Silver’s work ethic and flair for explaining statistics to the public.

A major concern is that Silver’s aggregating model is not publically and completely presented, making it impossible to replicate any given projection, whether at the state or national level. Silver does provide some information about his methodology, but it would be unlikely to pass through the replication review at the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, for example. On the other hand, his public forecasts can be rigorously evaluated and compared to other techniques, if only after the fact, for example in this paper.

This may seem like a quibble, but it has important implications. How can we, or the public, evaluate Noonan’s claim that Silver is biased against Romney? Or our own belief that he consistently overstated Romney’s chance of victory? We could begin by looking at other models (e.g. those of Sam Wang, Drew Linzer, and Simon Jackman) with publicly disclosed methodologies, but without Silver’s model it is difficult to know where the disagreements lie, and whose side to take. Instead, we are left to speculate about motivations: the media prefers close races where the “horse race” style of coverage draws the most viewers. Given that Silver is paid by a major newspaper, these incentives should also theoretically apply to him. Of course, right before the election his incentive is to get the outcome right—and it seems that his model has converged with others over time. However, as with public opinion polling, there are no benchmarks that can tell us which model is correctly forecasting the race in September and October.

This point is especially important given the controversies around political polling that erupted this election cycle. In the last few months, we have seen accusations from conservative commentators that the polls were wrong because they had too many Democrats. One website went so far as to “unskew ” the polls to show a large Romney lead. By not making his methodology fully transparent, Silver opens the door to (false) insinuations that he is “adjusting” his predictions to fit his personal political views (see, for example, this ). We should like political prognosticators because we respect their methods. We shouldn’t respect someone merely because were like their conclusions – a warning that applies both to the right and the left. Without transparency. poll aggregation sites become just one more forum for partisan bickering.

Overall, we are grateful to Silver for the attention he has drawn to rigorous political science. But the discipline might be best served by keeping three things in mind. First, predictions from any model have uncertainty attached to them. A prediction that Obama has a 51% chance of winning California is not a prediction that got it “right”, as it would be wrong 49% of the time. Indeed, that is just proof that the model got it wrong by being too conservative. Second, we should choose our projectors based on a track record of forecasts and their methods, with the latter being especially important when there is no way to assess projections. Third, and finally, we should create professional incentives around tenure and promotion for producing high-quality work that is of contemporary political relevance, and should not be content to outsourcing projection to any one source. Political scientists have the ability to raise the level of public discussion around opinion polls. As a profession, we should make sure that we put our best foot forward.

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How (My) Science Works

A group called EGAP (Experiments in Governance and Politics) is considering a proposal to establish a “Pilot Registry for Research Designs” where scholars could register new research projects, specifying in advance the topic, data to be collected, hypotheses to be tested, data analysis to be conducted, and conditions under which the hypotheses would be accepted or refuted. Once the research was conducted and written up, journal editors and referees would have access to the corresponding prospectus in order to verify that the results reported in the paper were not instances of “publication bias” or mindless “fishing” for statistically significant results. Upon publication, or after some pre-specified period of time, the corresponding research prospectus would be in the public domain.

The focus of the pilot proposal is on “Prospective Research” designs, whether experimental or observational, ”for which outcomes have not yet been realized.” That is mostly not what I do. Nevertheless, a friend—perhaps inspired by the proposers’ interest in expanding the system to include “retrospective studies,” and in using experience with the proposed pilot registry to decide “whether to make registration mandatory for some kinds of research”—asks, as a “thought experiment,” how such a system would affect my work, suggesting as an example my 1996 article on “Uninformed Votes.” My response is below the fold. Continue Reading →

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The narcissism of the narcissism of small differences

In an otherwise reasonable article, Felix Salmon writes:

In America’s two-party system, you’re given a simple choice: this guy, or the other guy. If you find yourself in wholehearted agreement with one of the two, then the other one becomes the enemy, the obstacle standing in the path leading your guy to the White House. And under the rule of the narcissism of small differences, everything which separates your guy from the other guy becomes a monstrosity to be fought at every turn, and a grievance to be nursed and rehearsed ad nauseam. (Liberals, in truth, are even better than conservatives at this kind of thing: just remember what they thought of Reagan, whose policies were not particularly to the right of Obama.)

Huh? Ya gotta come up with a better example than that! Reagan wasn’t running against Obama, he was running against Carter and Mondale (and, in policy terms, against congressional Democrats such as Tip O’Neill). I think it’s safe to say that Reagan’s polices were to the right of Carter, Mondale, and Tip O’Neill.

This is not to say that all anti-Reagan sentiment was at the policy level, but the differences between Reagan and Mondale, or between Romney and Obama, are not so small. In a comparative study, my political science colleagues John Huber and Piero Stanig find the differences on economic policy between Democrats and Republicans to be relatively large (compared to left vs. right in other countries). And, indeed, the rich-poor gradient in vote preferences is larger in the U.S. than in most other countries too. (We also discuss this in chapter 7 of Red State Blue State.) And, sure, Carter was a moderately conservative Democrat, but Reagan was a far-right Republican for his time. So I don’t think “narcissism of small differences” is an appropriate description.

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The Flake Amendment and the Politics of “Limitation Riders”

This is a guest post by Jason MacDonald.  For more on limitation riders, see his research here (ungated).  In addition, see the new issue of “Extension of Remarks,” the newsletter of the American Political Science Association’s Legislative Studies Section.


As is well known within the political science community, the U.S. House included language, the so-called “Flake Amendment,” in its version of the fiscal year 2013 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related agencies appropriation bill that prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding research within its political science program— a ban that will take effect if the language is included in the version of the bill that becomes law.

One detail lost in political scientists’ responses that understandably focus on explaining the benefits of political science research, is the policy-making tool used by lawmakers to execute the ban. This tool, the “limitation on appropriation” or “limitation rider,” enhances Congress’s capacity to affect public policy within the separation of powers system—a capacity increasingly challenged by assertive presidents.

Limitation riders are provisions within appropriations bills stating that “no funds” or “none of the funds” can be used for specific purposes. In the early 20th century, House majorities set precedents allowing for such provisions in appropriations bills despite objections that the provisions have no place in appropriations bills because they have the effect of changing the law (if only for a year). Along these lines, even though the law allows the NSF to provide grants under its political science program, the agency will be unable to do so for the next fiscal year if the Flake Amendment is enacted.

Limitation riders are particularly effective because they are written into appropriations bills.  If these bills are not enacted, the government, or sizable parts of it, will shut down. This makes it harder for the president to prevent Congress from using limitation riders to influence the bureaucracy’s actions (or more accurately, stop the bureaucracy from taking action). If President Obama received a “normal,” or non-appropriations, bill eliminating funding for political science research, he would be able to veto it with no consequences other than maintaining the status quo. However, if Obama vetoes this year’s Commerce appropriations bill because of the political science provision, whole government departments will shut down. I would like to think that President Obama is a fan of some political science research—but I doubt he’s that much of a fan! By making it easy to write provisions that affect policy into appropriations bills, Congress has enhanced its power over the executive branch.

This enhanced power is valuable in a separation of powers system because it allows members of Congress to promote the interests of constituents and stakeholders even if the executive branch cares less about those interests. As explained in more detail in the newsletter, one example involves Congress’ preventing the Bush administration from allowing Mexican-based trucks from entering U.S. transportation markets for the duration of the Bush presidency. Free trade advocates, among others, viewed this as bad policy. Nevertheless, labor organizations and domestic competitors to Mexican-based trucks benefited from this rider.

What is the take-away for political scientists and other observers of politics and government who care about how well political institutions provide representation? My view is that limitation riders help Congress compete with the executive branch in an era in which executive power is ascendant—and this is good if we want the separation of powers system to perform as Madison envisioned in Federalist 51. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised if this power enables Congress to do things that Madison worried about in Federalist 10 or simply do things that we might view as unwise and/or parochial. Of course, as we learned from Madison, if we don’t like what the House has done, we can always follow the advice of national political science organizations and lobby our senators. If President Obama is unlikely to veto the Commerce appropriations bill because of the ban on political science funding, then keeping this rider out of the Senate version of the bill represents the best shot for opponents of the Flake amendment.

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Grievances and civil war

I’m late to the Jacqueline Stevens’ op-ed party, and don’t think I have much to add on the main issues – about forecasting, capital ‘S’ Science, etc. – discussed by Henry, Erik, and Andrew (or others linked to here).  But Stevens also gave an interpretation of the core argument in Laitin’s and my 2003 APSR paper that, for what it’s worth, I think is a misreading.  Since I’ve seen this elsewhere over the years, I thought I’d try to speak to it.

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Dart-Throwing Chimps and Op-Eds

When the House passed the Flake amendment to cut NSF funding for political science The New York Times (and most other newspapers) did not find the event sufficiently interesting to be worthy of valuable newspaper space.  So why then does the editorial page seem so eager to debunk political science as a “science?”  We as political scientists have barely recovered from the alleged inferiority complexes we suffer as part of our apparent inability to overcome “physics envy” and now we hear that “political scientists are not real scientists because they can’t predict the future.”

One would almost be tempted to think that the message conveyed in these pieces suits the editorial page editors just fine. Indeed, Stevens explicitly writes that policy makers could get more astute insights from reading the New York Times than from reading academic journals. If this was the purpose of placing the op-ed, then the editorial board has been fooled by what can charitably be described as Stevens’ selective reading of the prediction literature; especially Tetlock’s book. Here is how Stevens summarizes this research:

Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.

But Tetlock did not evaluate the predictive ability of political science research but of “experts” who he “exhorted [..] to inchoate private hunches into precise public predictions” (p.216). As Henry points out, some of these experts have political science PhDs but they are mostly not political science academics. Moreover, Tetlock’s purpose was not to evaluate the quality of research but the quality of expert opinion that guides public debate and government advice.

Two points are worth emphasizing. The first is that the media, and especially editorial page editors, make matters worse by ignoring the track record of pundits and indeed rewarding the pundits with personal qualities that make them the least likely to be successful at prediction. Here is how Tetlock summarizes the implications of his research for the media:

The sanguine view is that as long as those selling expertise compete vigorously for the attention of discriminating buyers (the mass media), market mechanisms will assure quality control. Pundits who make it into newspaper opinion pages or onto television and radio must have good track records; otherwise, they would have been weeded out.

Skeptics, however, warn that the mass media dictate the voices we hear and are less interested in reasoned debate than in catering to popular prejudices. As a result, fame could be negatively, not positively, correlated with long-run accuracy.

Until recently, no one knew who is right, because no one was keeping score. But the results of a 20-year research project now suggest that the skeptics are closer to the truth.

I describe the project in detail in my book Expert Political Judgment: How good is it? How can we know? The basic idea was to solicit thousands of predictions from hundreds of experts about the fates of dozens of countries, and then score the predictions for accuracy. We find that the media not only fail to weed out bad ideas, but that they often favor bad ideas, especially when the truth is too messy to be packaged neatly.

The second point is that simple quantitative models generally do better at prediction than do experts, regardless of their education. This is not because these models are that accurate or because experts don’t know anything but because people are terrible at translating their knowledge into probabilistic assessments of what will happen. This is why a simple model predicts 75% of the outcome of Supreme Court cases correctly whereas constitutional law experts (professors) get only 59% right. Since predictive success is not the gold standard for social science, as Stevens would have it, this has not yet led to a call to do away with constitutional law experts or randomly allocate them research funds.

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Traditionalist claims that modern art could just as well be replaced by a “paint-throwing chimp”

Jed Dougherty points me to this opinion piece by Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of art at Northwestern University, who writes:

Artists are defensive these days because in May the House passed an amendment to a bill eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts. Colleagues, especially those who have received N.E.A. grants, will loathe me for saying this, but just this once I’m sympathetic with the anti-intellectual Republicans behind this amendment. Why? The bill incited a national conversation about a subject that has troubled me for decades: the government — disproportionately — supports art that I do not like.

Actually, just about nobody likes modern art. All those soup cans—what’s that all about? The stuff they have in museums nowadays, my 4-year-old could do better than that. Two-thirds of so-called modern artists are drunk and two-thirds are frauds. And, no, I didn’t get my math wrong—there’s just a lot of overlap among these categories!

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of art that I like (the field’s benchmark for what counts as art), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money. The most obvious example may be artists’ insistence, during the cold war, that Abstract Expressionism was not a complete and utter joke. We know how that turned out.

Art has also failed miserably at its secondary goal of protecting us from terrorism. Did any prominent N.E.A.-financed researchers predict that an organization like Al Qaeda would change global and domestic politics for at least a generation? Nope. Or that the Arab Spring would overthrow leaders in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia? No, again.

How do we know that these examples aren’t atypical cherries picked by a retro salon-style artist munching sour grapes? Because in the 1980s, the art historian Philip E. Tetlock began systematically quizzing 284 art experts — most of whom were fine arts Ph.D.’s — on dozens of basic questions, like whether a Motherwell would sell better than a Rauchenberg, when a prominent art movement would diffuse, and what exactly was the point of that “Piss Christ” painting that everybody was talking about a few years ago. His book “Expert Art Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” won the American Fine Arts Association’s prize for the best book published on the arts.

Professor Tetlock’s main finding? Chimps randomly throwing paint at a canvas would have done almost as well as the experts.

Actually, I’d go further and say that a well-trained chimp could do better than the average installation in any given Whitney Biennial.

These results wouldn’t surprise Karl Popper, whose 1934 book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” remains the cornerstone of the artistic method. Yet Mr. Popper himself scoffed at the pretensions of the arts. As Popper put it: “My four-year-old could paint better than that Picasso guy. I could draw ugly women with both their eyes on the same side of their face too. I just don’t do it because it’s so stupid. Sure, Picasso gets the babes, but in the long run he is sooooooo falsified.”

OK, Popper sounds better in the original German. My point is: Government can — and should — assist artists, especially those like me who use history and theory to explain shifting artistic contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines.

But, please, none of this modern-art stuff. Everything was just fine in the 1870s before those newfangled Impressionists started in with all their gimmicks.

I disagree with Prof. Stevens—somewhat. I too am less than impressed by Jackson Pollock and am even less of a fan of the Abstract Impressionists. On the other hand, I love Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc., and I think Stevens went way over the top in wanting to stop progress at 1870.

Also, for full disclosure, I should admit that I applied for a job at at the Northwestern University art department in 1996 and got turned down. Actually, it was worse than that—they not only dinged me, they also refused to reimburse all my travel expenses. So maybe I’m just bitter.

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Concrete Steps to Voice Your Support for NSF Funding for Political Science

From the Midwest Political Science Association:

Three weeks ago, the House voted to prohibit the National Science Foundtation (NSF) from funding Political Science research . This will not reduce government spending, but instead makes funding decisions based on politics rather than merit. This week, the Senate decided to delay their vote, allowing us to have some additional time to provide input. Please contact your Senators and ask them to continue NSF funding for Political Science research.

It is just as important for you to contact your Government Relations Office at your university and ask them to contact your Senators as well. We have put together a sample email for you to use, and more information is available on our website: They can contact our office if they have any questions.

Please forward this information to colleagues so they can get involved. The American Journal of Political Science has also published a free virtual issue that showcases articles that use NSF funded data.

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