Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Close Election? Maybe!

In general I think Kevin Drum is on the right track in his comments about the competitiveness of the general election, but I have to nitpick a bit. He says:

As near as I can tell, it's nearly unanimous conventional wisdom that this is going to be a very close race despite the fact that the Republican field is weak. Hell, Intrade has only intermittently put Obama's chances over 60% for the past year, and he's barely been better than an even bet for the past six months...So Obama is hardly a dead duck. But he's not a shoo-in either, and I really don't think anyone over the past year or so has ever suggested he is.
Is it going to be a very close race? I have no idea! Nate Silver has made this point several times, but the track record of economic predictions is, well, lousy. It's really very plausible to imagine that the recent stretch of good news about the economy continues, solidifies, and turns into a very robust recovery. It's also very plausible to imagine the trouble in Europe or an oil shock derailing the economy and leading to a new recession...or just the current marginal good news fizzling out again, as has happened repeatedly during Obama's presidency. It's also possible to imagine any number of other events that could help, or more likely hurt, Obama. That is, this isn't economic determinism; it's events (close to) determinism, with the economy as the most likely event to influence voters.

What I think we should be saying is that based on what we know right now, the chances of Obama winning reelection appear relatively close to 50/50. In other words, I think the second two sentences I quoted from Drum are correct. It's just that saying the chances are 50/50 now isn't at all the same thing as saying that it will therefore be a close race in November. From the point of view of observers, that means that we really don't know yet whether the election will be close enough that electioneering (including the strengths and weaknesses of the out-party nominee) will be important to the outcome. From the point of view of the parties, of course, it makes sense to attempt to maximize vote share regardless of the chances that it will matter, so for them it doesn't really matter how likely it is that the election will be close.

11 comments:

  1. Plus we don't know what other candidates will be running for President aside from Obama and the GOP nominee. Who the Americans Elect candidate and Libertarian Party candidate (and possibly other candidates) will be could make a difference in a handful of states a la the 2000 election.

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  2. FWIW, your interpretation is the one I meant. By "close race," I wasn't making a prediction about the final vote, just saying that right now it looks a lot like a tossup. (And will probably continue looking that way for a while.)

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  3. What do we have to do to get an intelligent mass media that can recognize the sort of nuance and fundamental uncertainties that Jonathan lays out here? The media's need to deal in black and white, to make predictions today that claim to have absolute solidity regarding events in the future, doesn't serve the liberals, doesn't serve the conservatives, doesn't serve the confused folk in the middle looking for some answers.

    They just can't do it in their current incarnation. The masters of the media could change their assumptions and attitudes to make the change any day; they could wake up tomorrow and say "Instead of having people with $50 haircuts delivering 5-cent opinions, why don't we go with ordinary-looking people who are qualified to give $50 opinions." They think they could never do such a thing (because of the business culture they have created, the culture whose rules they applied to climb the corporate ladder) but it's a self-imposed cage. Their own change of mind could change things tomorrow.

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  4. Just to clarify: Silver's point is that our predictions ABOUT economics are iffy, not that our predictions about vote shares using economic variables are iffy, right?

    Thus, the economy could determine the winner, but right now, our confidence about what the score is on the IV is exceedingly low.

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    1. Actually, Silver also is also skeptical of the relationship between economic performance and vote share (that is, he thinks it explains much less than most political scientists believe it explains). Which I mostly disagree with him about. But I think he's right about the economic predictions.

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  5. Am I alone in thinking that actual campaigning, the day-in-and-out appeals to the electorate starting in May, counts? That Obama is very good at it and Romney looks so far to be just awful?

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  6. I find it curious that everyone overlooks the fact that the Democratic nominee has won the popular vote 4 of the past 5 elections; the only time the R won was when the incumbent GWB was running for reelection. Given that this election is about an incumbent Democrat running for reelection, I would think that structurally the odds are decidedly in his favor.

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  7. Agreed. Romney's stump speech stinks and his ability to work a rope line is worse than mine. But most importantly, this candidate is not laying out a positive vision. He's trying to get people to agree that current president is ruining the country. Ideologically, he can't posit a positive and active vision since his party has long since crossed the line between reduced government and basic federal viability. You can't offer a square deal, new deal, great society, bridge to the 21st century, city on a hill or even compassionate conservatism in this political moment if you are a Republican. And this, above all else, renders him rudderless. All he can offer is the thin gruel we've been getting. So yes, the man that stinks on the stump and glad hands like a CEO on employee appreciation day will continue recite portions of America the Beautiful to Get The People Going. And he will lose.

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    1. Hopefully! I'm impressed by your confidence! But electorates also simply tend to throw out the incumbent when things are bad enough, irrespective of who bears responsibility for that or who has a plausible plan going forward.

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    2. Okay, the electorate 'threw out' Hoover, Ford, Carter, and G H W Bush. The first man was utterly tone deaf to the country's needs at the worst moment in its history; the second had the yoke of the Nixon years (and the pardon) on his shoulders, and famously "told" New York: "Drop Dead" (see tone deaf, above.) Carter was doing pretty well public opinion-wise until he Fired His Whole Cabinet. And GHWB campaigned like he really didn't want the job ("Message: I care". yes, tone deaf.) I'd say electorates punish sitting presidents when times are bad AND their combined actions indicate a profound misunderstanding of what's at stake. I'd posit that is very much not the case this year.

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    3. Obama clearly doesn't know what to do. I'd say he is up there with Hoover.

      Tone deaf? I don't know. Maybe about half the time. The question is how quickly indendents will forgive him for last year. Given how bad he republican candidates are -- Rommey is far more tone-deaf -- I'd give him a passing grade there. Much like Bush in 04.

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