Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fundamentals and Campaigns 2

Continuing on my reaction to yesterday's discussion of whether a result in this year's election could mean that political scientists have been wrong about presidential elections. In this part: what it might mean if the models do get this year's election wrong.

Noam Scheiber at one point in the twitter thread says that "If Obama wins, it will not be a very good day for political scientists who study US presidential races." Now, I agree with the political scientists in the threat who note that in fact Scheiber is just plain wrong about the prediction models (remember, Larry Bartels has a model which strongly favors Obama, and the general impression I get is that the models overall predict a close race). 

But beyond that: look, there are lots of reasons that a relationship which appeared to exist in the past would not hold up in new events. One is, to be sure, a possibility that the relationship was never there in the first place and that scholars got it wrong. Another possibility, however, is that the relationship held in some circumstances and not in others. For example: it's possible that the relationship between economic performance and vote might turn out to be more complex than previously understood, with new and unexpected results during economic conditions we rarely encounter. If that turns out to be the case (and I'm certainly not saying that it is!), it wouldn't fit Scheiber's put-down: "a theory that says structural factors shld predominate, except when they dont, isnt so impressive." Indeed, that situation would tell us nothing new about the balance between fundamentals and campaigns; it would just say that it's harder to understand the effects of fundamentals. (Indeed, it might be impossible; there could be an underlying real but complex relationship which is impossible to understand from our limited observations, at least beyond a narrow range of typical situations).

And that's not all. Another possibility would be that the world has changed. It's possible, although in my view unlikely at least in the short term, that voters could change over time, becoming more (or less) responsive to campaigns (or that campaigns changed, and become more or less effective at getting to voters). If that's the case (and again, I don't actually see any evidence for it from this campaign), then once again that doesn't reflect badly on political scientists who had the earlier findings; it's just something new to study and understand.

So what would reflect badly on political scientists? Other than that first one (the relationship was never there and people got it wrong), what would in fact reflect badly on us is if we made claims that were too strong based on what we had. I think most of us try to be careful not to do that, but I'm sure I've fallen short at times, and I suspect others have as well; Nate Silver in a post a while ago pulled up several claims about prediction models (not necessarily made by actual political scientists, however) which were way over the top, so obviously there are some mistakes, and I think it's absolutely right when we're called on it. But it's not always easy. I've referred to this in the past...when you're writing for a larger audience it's difficult to include all the proper caveats without sounding wishy-washy and, even worse, so inconclusive that no one is going to read it. Hey, political scientists: if you read something that I write or John writes or Seth Masket writes or one of the others of us writes that sounds too certain, please let us know! I know I definitely want to hear it -- as I always want to hear if I say something based on out-of-date research, or if I just bungle applying perfectly good research to some event.

I think that's it. As I said, I think John's discussion of it is very good, so if you're interested in the substance here you should jump over to him.


  1. Two things:

    It seems possible that the relationship between economic fundamentals and elections is predicated on specific timing of certain economic events. An incumbent facing sluggish growth coming out of a recession that began after 8 years of rule by the out-party (punctuated by unpopular wars) is jut too specific of a situation to be sure that previous models will predict it cleanly when extrapolated. You also have the weird scenario where certain lagging indicators got much worse after the incumbent assumed power but before he had a chance to implement any real policy agenda. So any of these variables unique to this cycle could cause observed data to diverge from what the fundamentals models predict in ways that are hard to anticipate.

    The second thing is that I wonder if there is some sort of Nash equilibrium that has been reached in presidential campaigns. In other words campaign infrastructure and the professionals who man it have gotten so good that there is really no room for one campaign to out-campaign the other. And they are just playing to a draw at which point fundamentals take over to determine the winner. This could be analogous to two AI chess robots of perfectly equal skill playing each other. With a large enough n they will both have the same record. If this isnt the case currently, with political campaigns, surely it has the potential to be in the near future.

  2. I appreciate this post. I think that you and other political scientists have fallen into the trap of rolling your eyes just a liiiiiiittle bit too often at journalist X or Y stating that gaffe Z could determine the election. The problem political scientists face is that the most likely answer a political scientist is going to give to any given question is "has no effect." The story about Romney's dog? Has no effect. Romney's slip about loving to fire people? Has no effect. Poor employment numbers have an effect, sure, but most of the time? Has no effect.

    It's funny, because I've been meaning to write you offline to ask a question I had about the new GOP, but I couldn't quite figure out how to frame it. The simplest way to express it is, if the new GOP is truly insane in a new way and has access to media channels that are new and that benefit it and it alone, does that not mean that the old models do not function? I put it like that but the question was really about you and things you've written, and it was hard to write the question because although I'm a dedicated "plain blog" reader and enjoy the blog a great deal, I didn't have chapter and verse memorized and couldn't describe your own inconsistencies well enough -- or apparent inconsistencies.

    It does feel like that occasionally you will write a post that seems consistent with the idea that the new GOP is a new and scary threat to existing norms and so on, but then three days later you'll write a post as if that had never happened. Sometimes, as someone trying to figure out what to do about the new GOP and what it all means, I recall feeling a bit abandoned by that. It was like you had taken off your poli-sci sunglasses for a moment and beheld the true horror of the GOP, but then later had put the sunglasses back on again, assuring us that institutions matter and fundamentals would decide it and so forth. I remember a little whiplash from that.

    If this stems from your own doubts about the meaning of wholly new electoral and political situations, I'm sympathetic! But if fundamentals sort of generate 80% of electoral outcomes and contingent decisions by fallible humans the other 20%, then it might be better to withhold judgment on fast-changing contingent circumstances a bit. It only occurs to me now that your recurring feature "What Mattered This Week?" smacks more than a little of your sunglasses-wearing incarnation, the guy who knows, just knows, that most of what happens in a given week doesn't "matter" -- even though you know damn well that everything matters in its own context. Tax cuts, cancelled programs, and so forth all "matter" if you're the one who happens to fall below the poverty line as a result.

    I get that you're trying to act as a counterbalance to the overdramatizing daily press corps, but sometimes the Spock routine wears a little thin. Explain to us how institutions work, explain how it is that good candidates happen and bad candidates happen. I remember you saying about two months ago on the Plum Line that Romney would probably be an "adequate" candidate for president -- I asked you in comments here for a list of major-party candidates since 1976 or something who were not adequate. I don't think you ever responded. If fundamentals result in a definition of adequacy such that ALL of the nominated candidates qualify, doesn't that mean that the term adequate isn't the right one? Or does it mean that there is no contingency? As I say, in these areas the plain blog has been intermittently frustrating.

  3. 2000 was an election where the models really did get it wrong, at least those that predicted a Gore landslide. What went wrong then?

  4. I wouldn't be surprised if this election doesn't fit the models. There has been a huge upheaval due to Citizens United. Even politically-unaware people probably notice that TV is flooded with ads. Maybe that is making people more wary. One can hope, at least.

    I also wonder the effect of alternative outlets for information, particularly the web but perhaps other outlets too. Are people depending on other sources for political information? If so, what sources? [Shameless plug -- please read my political blog.]

  5. Silver pointed to the most famous support for econometric models: 1980's Reagan landslide, which was predicted by economic models, but not by ~Labor Day polls, which were more or less dead even.

    Question for the experts: does anyone have an opinion about what happened to the ~10% of the electorate who said to Zogby, on Labor Day 1980, "sure I'll vote for Carter", but on Election Day 1980 said "No way"? Is the theory that those voters aren't thinking about the economy, talking to a pollster on Labor Day, but are thinking about the economy in their middle school gym on Election Day?

    From here in the cheap seats, 10% seems an awfully large delta to explain a change in behavior between Election Day and a poll two months earlier, imagining Election Day. Awfully large, unless of course something changed between Labor Day and Election Day. My understanding of the econometric models is that nothing changed, Carter's loss was a fait accompli on Labor Day.

    Are polls really that bad?

    1. Somewhere I read an account of the campaign that corresponded to the vague memories I had: that a lot of people were suspicious that Reagan might be a Goldwater-type, frothing Bircher, bomb-the-Russians conservative. But during the debates he had none of that vibe, and he seemed like a plausible choice for President. Then all of Carter's negatives, which were always there, welled up because Reagan just wasn't scary to a lot of middle America.

      So Carter's loss wasn't a fait accompli on Labor Day because at that time there were serious doubts about Reagan.

  6. As usual, I wish I had more time to respond.

    On CSH's point: my guess is that in 1980 you have a few things. One is that IIRC a fair amount of that wasn't shifts from Carter to Reagan, but from John Anderson to Reagan, as the logic of first-past-the-post kicks in. Other late movement might be because as voters really start to pay attention, the fundamentals kick in...it's not that they change what they're thinking of, but that they switch from not thinking about it at all and just plugging in their standing decision if they happen to get asked, to actually making a decision.

    What's probably different in 2012 from 1980 is that the partisan press (and perhaps the campaigns, too) is probably more efficient at, to put it bluntly, teaching partisans what they're supposed to think.

  7. First of all, "fundamentals" does not just mean *economic* fundamentals. (For example, only two of Allen Lichtman's thirteen keys are directly related to the economy. I know Lichtman's model has been much panned by other political scieintists, but the fact remains that he has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in every election from 1984 on--and sometimes, as in 1988, those predictions were made when polls showed the other canddiate leading. Anyway, while other "fundamentals" models may give more weight to the economy than Lichtman's, they are not based solely on the economy) In 1980, there was not just the bad economy but the Iran hostage crisis (and other things, like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, just added to the perception of US weakness in the world) and what was particualrly devastating for Carter was that Election Day was the first anniversary of the crisis, as the media kept reminding people. (This publicity and the flurry of last-minute rumors that the hostages would be released, followed by no actual release, hurt Carter very badly in the last week. He was already trailing, but not by the ten points with which he ultimately lost to Reagan.)

    Second, Carter's approval ratings were *much* worse than Obama's--they were actually in the low thirties in the summer of 1980.

  8. Thanks for the comments, guys. When I first read them, I was a bit like ModeratePoli: something must have changed btwn Labor and Election Day 1980. If we assume a rough split, (net of Anderson), of: 40% = committed Democrat, 40% = committed Republican, 20% = persuadable, mostly low-information, voters, then Carter's ~10-point drop between Labor and Election Day would mean that half the total persuadables would have abandoned the President in the last 8 weeks of the campaign. Seems high, no?

    Maybe not. Gallup calls Joe Low-Information Voter on Labor Day, asking him if he'll re-elect the President, and Joe LIV says "Carter? Fine Christian man. Doin' all he can. Tough times. Sure I'll re-elect him" - against the backdrop of family, barbeque, holiday, an episode of MASH, and Americana. Two months later, in the voting booth, that same voter's thinking "Have you seen the price of gas? NO WAY I'M VOTING FOR THIS GUY AGAIN!" There very easily could have been many, many such situated voters.

    Which means, for our Obama Re-election operatives reading this, the challenge is to find a way to get Joe Low-Information Voter to commit, publicly, to his lightly-considered, Labor Day endorsement of the President. No easy task, obviously, but if anyone ever cracked that code, it could totally change the dynamic of an incumbent campaign (and upset the models of political science!)

  9. Also, if its true that the low-information voter faces the moment of truth (the voting booth) and only then considers how much it sucks to re-elect the President, I still believe the Obama team's overemphasis on Romney's shady business past can only help Obama in that decisive moment. If this November's moment of truth involves low-information voters thinking about jobs, might the other guy on the ballot look even worse to enough such voters for Obama to peel away a victory?

    Curiously, this particular issue also breaks correctly for Obama, at the level of (low) voter engagement. For example, the folks at factcheck.org recently investigated Team Obama's outsourcer/corporate raider claims. Obama is in the wrong, they say. But read the link. Romney's innocence of the charges is based on technicality that no low-information voter would ever process.

    (About 3/4 of the way down, they address the corporate raider sling. Its true, factcheck says, that Romney's Bain invested in several companies that went bankrupt, laid off hundreds of workers and profited handsomely, but that does not make Romney a corporate raider, which has a very particular dictionary definition not applying here.

    I'm confident Team Romney will find great comfort in the fact that he is not, according to Hoyle, a corporate raider. A distinction that will surely hunt with low-information, swing voters (backslash sarcasm)).

  10. By the way, for people who think the polls showed a close race in 1980 until the end--see http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=4J8rAAAAIBAJ&sjid=V_wFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5561,2362360

    An Associated Press--NBC poll before the Republican convention showed Reagan leading Carter 41-27 (with 18 percent for Anderson).

    And as for comparing Carter's approval ratings with Obama's--Carter's were down to *22 percent*! (Admittedly this was just after the GOP convention, but still...)


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