What Would an Obama Victory Mean for Political Science?

Jul 9 '12

Noam Scheiber tweets:

This prompted replies from me, “Dave McW,” Brendan Nyhan, and Michael Wagner.  Here’s the thread.  I want to make 2 points:

First, Scheiber is poking at the political science conventional wisdom, which privileges “structural forces like the economy” (his phrase from a later tweet in the thread).  But an Obama victory, as Brendan quickly pointed out, would confirm — or at least not contradict — the influence of structural forces.  I don’t know of a forecasting model that relies only on the economy.  However, if you take Nate Silver’s analysis of various economic indicators, they hardly point to a certain Obama defeat.  Silver’s economic index suggests that as of right now, the economy is better than it was on Election Day in 1980 or 1992, and most similar to 2004 — i.e., an election in which a first-term incumbent president who occupied the White House after 2 terms of opposition control won the election amidst a middling economy.  This amplifies a point I’ve made before: it’s important to accurately calibrate expectations about the election outcome to the underlying structural conditions.  I think Scheiber underestimates Obama’s current position vis-a-vis those conditions, which then leads him to assert that an Obama victory must derive from “personality and advertising.”

Second, I’ve been pretty clear that political scientists are not economic determinists who believe that, even in presidential campaigns, things like personality and advertising “don’t matter.”  There is an important difference between Scheiber’s categorical statement and subtler statements that are more in line with the research.  From an earlier post, here is my attempt at a careful statement:

Presidential elections are the elections where we would expect the campaign to persuade relatively few voters.  People tend to have stronger opinions about presidential candidates than candidates at other levels of office.  And, in the age of public financing, at least until 2008, opposing presidential candidates have had roughly equal amounts of money to spend in the general election. Campaigns matter more when the candidates are unknown and when opposing candidates have asymmetric resources so that one can out-spend or out-campaign the other.  This is why campaign events and spending tend to matter more in presidential primaries and congressional elections than in presidential general elections.

Because people continually overestimate the effect of campaigns, this blog holds up the other end of the dialectic by emphasizing the economy and defending those who do.  But plenty of research has identified the effects of campaigns too—research discussed on this blog, e.g., here, here, here—and so it’s time to abandon this whole it’s-either-the-economy-or-the-campaign dichotomy, which seems implicit in M.S.’s portrayal of my position.

And we can do a lot better than just saying “well, it’s both” or saying “campaigns might matter at the margins.”  We have a much better sense of (1) when campaigns matter, as discussed above, and (2) how much they matter.  To give you an example of “how much”: in counties where Obama aired 1,000 more ads than McCain, he received about 0.5% more of the vote than John Kerry did in those same counties (from this article (pdf) by Michael Franz and Travis Ridout).

I’ve certainly tried to knock down categorical statements that things like personality are the key to victory, but I’ve also tried to talk in nuanced ways about when and why campaign advertising might matter. I’ve also talked about how we cannot easily separate the effects of the economy from the effects of the campaign.

In other words, I’ve tried to push against a simple dichotomy between “structure” and the campaign, which seems to be what Scheiber is assuming.  I’m glad that people like Scheiber pay attention to political science, but his thinking seems to reflect more of a caricature than the actual political science literature.