Political Animal


August 24, 2012 3:14 PM This Year’s Model

By Ed Kilgore

I occasionally annoy my good friend Jonathan Bernstein by cracking wise about the iron conviction of some political scientists that most of what the teeming masses pay attention to in campaigns is a crock because this one model or this one variable is the only thing that actually matters. I will cheerfully admit that I prepared for a life in politics by taking exactly one political science class in politics—and that one was on the political theories of the Greeks—so I’m in no position to mock my betters so long as they keep the arrogance index down. Here, then, is the more strongly qualified Nate Cohn of TNR on the latest “can’t miss” predictive model from a couple of professors in Colorado:

A widely publicized political science forecasting model by Ken Berry and Michael Bickers in Colorado projects that Romney should win big
My take? Add it to the pile.
There are dozens of political science models. Some are good, some are bad. Some say Obama will win. Others say he will lose. Is there any reason to believe that this model is any better or worse than the others? At the very least, there’s not much reason to assume it’s any better than the competition. The press release reveals it’s predicted every election since 1980. If it hadn’t, that would be pretty embarrassing. In the eight presidential elections since 1980, six have been 7+ point blowouts in the two party vote. So all you need is a model that gets 2000 and 2004 right without missing the other six elections. Call it 2-0, in my book.
I can even prove that it’s not difficult: there are a million other political science models running around with a similar claim to accuracy over the last eight elections. And do those models point toward a clear Romney or Obama victory? In the aggregate, the political science models point toward a competitive race, but there are models showing a clear victory for either side. The Colorado model has a mirror-image counter by Drew Lizner of Emory University, who gives Obama a 99 percent chance of victory. The FiveThirtyEight model integrates economic variables and it finds Obama with a modest advantage, and so does a model built by John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, Seth Hill for the Washington Post. The famous Abramowitz “Time For a Change” model points toward an extraordinarily tight race. So, contrary to popular belief, the fundamentals do not clearly point to a victory for either side. And not only do the economic-based models show a tight race, but Obama’s approval rating is at about 48 percent, which most agree is a product of fundamentals like economic performance.

We’re just going to have to wait for November 6, I’m afraid, and then see which political scientists (a) get it right and (b) are now in a position next cycle to publish something on their new model that’s absolutely infallible.

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.


  • Keith M Ellis on August 24, 2012 3:30 PM:

    Ed, if you haven't read Nate Silver's comprehensive March post on poli-sci models and "fundamentals", it really is definitive on the topic.:


  • c u n d gulag on August 24, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Sadly, when we go the supermarkets nowadays, they gut the chickens - or else we could all pull out the entrails, and all do our won prognosticating.

    Oh, if only I could find a butcher who took the feathers off, but left the insides in!

    Then, I too, could make a fortune modeling crappy predictions from chicken intestines, and come to chicken-sh*t conclusions!

  • Peter C on August 24, 2012 3:35 PM:

    Any model which (before 2000) correctly predicted a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court for Bush over Gore, ... oh never mind.

  • Mimikatz on August 24, 2012 4:41 PM:

    First, only at most 8-10% of the electorate is really up for grabs, now. Within that, it is chiefly a combination of economics and likeability. No model predicted what an awful candidate Mitt is and what an awful campaign he has run. Without even reading the article i would predict that is what is wrong with the CO guys. Most dramatic events one can imagine would actually cut in Obama's favor in a rally-round-flag and better-the-devil-you-know calculus.This just isn't 1980 and Romney really isn't Reagan.

  • John on August 24, 2012 5:03 PM:

    Any model which claims to have "accurately predicted" earlier elections because it retroactively created a model which fit the data for those elections should be actively distrusted

  • TCinLA on August 24, 2012 6:45 PM:

    "political science" is a logical contradiction, which only attracts the otherwise-unemployables into perfessin' it.

    Politics is an art, not a science, and these two morons are further proof why I respect corporate lawyers more than I do the average college perfesser - and I don't respect corporate lawyers at all.