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April 24, 2012 11:08 AM Models and Moments

By Ed Kilgore

Ezra Klein has an illuminating conversation with himself at Wonkblog today on a topic familiar to all political junkies: the accuracy of presidential election forecasting models. He asked three leading political scientists to build one for him (a fairly simple model utilizing just three variables), and it turns out it’s far from infallible:

The question is what happens when you add contemporary context back in. The model, for instance, assumes that voters will have the same reaction to slow economic growth in 2012 that they would have had in 1996/ or 1964. But the past four years have seen the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Voters might be much less willing to forgive slow growth. Or, since many place the bulk of the blame for the crisis on George W. Bush, perhaps they’ll grade Obama on a kind of curve. The model can’t tell us.
And, sadly, neither can the past. Since 1948, there have been only 16 presidential elections. Which is another limit of models like this one: a relatively thin data set spread over a relatively long time. It would be nice to have more examples of presidential elections conducted during once-in-a-generation crises, in the Internet era, with serious third parties, with African American incumbents, with Mormon challengers, etc. And as Nate Silver, a statistician and blogger at the New York Times, points out, these models often do much worse when tested against new elections that are not in the original sample.

Ezra gets into the whole topic by stipulating that the “tornado of idiocy that seems to accompany modern presidential campaigns” probably has little or nothing to do with the likely outcome. He seems to come out pretty much where I am on the subject of “what matters” in elections: somewhere in the vast middle between those who think it’s a remorseless process of objective indicators that make actual campaigns irrelevant, and those who think key moments in a campaign frequently have “game-changing” implications.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • T2 on April 24, 2012 11:38 AM:

    this time around, I doubt much of anything is going to change somebody's mind about which candidate to vote for. An "October Surprise" always gets some press as, well, October gets closer. But world volatility seems less on our minds these days since it is pretty much the way of life now. We've had the Great Recession, so that's done. The GOP blamed Obama for rising gas prices, but now they are dropping (don't hear much about that anymore, do we). Iran, N. Korea....eh.
    Nope, I think the polarization of the nation is to the point that a vote tomorrow will look much like the vote in November.

  • Ron Byers on April 24, 2012 12:09 PM:

    Ed, What is there to be surprised about.

    The Republicans have jumped off the deep end and the Democrats are running around saying "we aren't wingnuts." Not much room in the middle and no compelling Democratic message. Wingnuts are just that, nuts. The country is rapidly picking up sides and living day to day in their own reality. I am afraid that the folks on the right are itching for a fight. I hope it isn't too violent.

    What we are lacking right now are statesmen. We had them in abundance but not so much after the turn of the century. Just a lot of little people pushing their single issues.

  • Peter C on April 24, 2012 12:29 PM:

    I agree with T2; I don't expect the campaign to change many minds about 'who' to vote for. I think that the 2012 election will be a massive experiment about the power of money and its efficacy in influencing 'whether' people vote. Both Citizens United, and the vicious State-level efforts at voter-suppression make me very worried.

    In the best scenario, the record-breaking spending I expect the Republicans to employ will be countered by increasingly effective grass-roots and electronic networking to get out the vote on our side. I also hope that the Evangelicals feel sufficiently uncomfortable about Mormons to be less enthusiastic (since they provide the bulk of the GOTV machine for the Republicans).

  • T2 on April 24, 2012 12:35 PM:

    I feel the same as Byers....where are the statesmen? You won't find them on the GOP side - a collection of crooks and liars that have concluded that fanning racial fires and insuring continued wealth for the wealthy is the purpose of politics.
    On the Dem side it would be tempting to point out the collective sigh of relief around the world when the reasonable, well-spoken Obama was elected. But I'm not sure I'd call him a Statesman. And in the wings for the Dems....really not much there that commands high admiration these days. Maybe the time for statesmen has passed - someone who puts the good of all above the good of the few. You sure won't find them in GOP ranks.

  • Doug on April 24, 2012 5:01 PM:

    I think a most, if not all, of the "worry" about what the Democrats' message(s) will be are, to put it mildly, premature.
    A lot of very good legislation was passed between 2009-2011. We can run on that. A lot of very bad legislation has been stymied since 2011. We can run on THAT as well. The conventions are still two/three months away and we don't even know yet what the platforms will embrace. (Sorry, I don't have the exact timeframe. I'm interested in politics, but there ARE limits...)
    Much the 2012 Democratic campaign is going to have to be based on what the Republicans propose for THEIR platform. The remainder will be on what Democrats want to accomplish and at this point I have no idea what the exact mix will be.
    I DO know that, if at this point, progressives/liberals/Democrats aren't solidly behind President Obama and ALL other Democratic candidates (Blue Dogs are left to the discretion of the individual voter), there isn't much the incumbents/nominees can do.