Campaigns and elections

The attack on election forecasting straw men

Nov 16 '11

I agree (again) with Brendan Nyhan here.

As I wrote recently, I’m thrilled that, in the words of Michael Tomasky, “the conventional wisdom in the political press is largely driven by the political-science theory of presidential elections and economic determinism: that is, that the results of presidential elections are pretty much strictly a function of economic conditions, and if those are bad (defined by various measures, chiefly the jobless and growth rates), the incumbent will lose.”

When Gary King and I were working on our project that resulted in our 1993 article, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?” the conventional wisdom in the political press was that elections were driven by campaign events, debates, charisma, etc. The new conventional wisdom is much better!

By “pretty much strictly,” I assume Tomasky is referring to the prediction error from a regression model. The prediction can be off by a few percentage points in either direction.

We don’t know what economic conditions will be next year, hence the prediction model can be just fine and there is still uncertainty about the election.

As Gary and I discussed in our paper, approximate economic determinism is consistent with the campaign mattering. The efforts of the two campaigns help to push voters toward the choices that would be expected based on the fundamentals. This argument works because the general election has two major candidates who clearly differ in ideology.

P.S. No, I’m not talking about dumb models like this one.