Friday, July 12, 2013

Patterns

Oh, I hate when this happens. Henry Farrell not only beat me to an obvious response, but came up with exactly the XKCD strip that goes with it.

I suppose I should back up. This is about a Megan McArdle item this morning...actually, two items, but the relevant one is a follow-up in which she defended her assertion of a 70% chance of unified Republican government after the 2016 elections. Why? Because there's only been one time since World War II that a president has been elected to replace a same-party president. Henry nails it:
Human beings are cognitively predisposed to perceive patterns in the world. Many, likely most of these patterns are garbage. Without good theories, and good ways of testing those theories, we’ll never be able to tell the garbage patterns from the real ones.
Okay, but what we need is an intermediate step. I mean, sure, political scientists can look at election results carefully (that is, using the well-developed information we have about how US elections work in general) and get a general sense of which patterns to test for, and then design sophisticated tests to get that final step. But that's not available on the fly to lots of people who are still going to want to figure out what to do with a pattern they find. So what can we recommend?

Here's a three-step test to check to see if the pattern you've noticed is worth tossing into a blot post or not.

First of all, look at how many times the pattern has recurred. In McArdle's case, we're talking about times when a president stepped aside (making a same-party succession possible). That happened in 1952, 1960, 1968, 1988, 2000, and 2008. So her pattern, to begin with, is one out of six. That's perhaps something...but it's not exactly an Iron Law of Politics, is it? 0 for 10, or 1 for 50, would be a lot stronger.

Then, next, we can check the qualifiers to see if they're making the pattern look stronger. In this case, there's one: postwar. If we put that aside and go with "20th century," then we add 1908, 1920, and 1928 -- and get two hits, with TR/Taft and Coolidge/Hoover. Is there some special reason that the postwar era should be different? Not that I can think of, and if we include those the pattern drops to three in nine -- hardly something to get worked up about. Note that the more qualifiers you toss in, the more likely you are to be creating the pattern that you're seeing, so this is an important test.

What's next? Well, are the cases you are using strong evidence of something, or weak? Here, out-party replacements by Ike in 1952 and Obama in 2008 were both pretty solid...but so was George H.W. Bush's counter-pattern win. The rest were toss-ups: Nixon/Kennedy, Humphrey/Nixon, and Bush/Gore, with the latter of course counting the other way on the national vote. Overall, that seems a lot closer to a coin-flip than an Iron Law.

Actually, I suppose that this suggests a simple rule of thumb for presidential general election patterns: if the pattern depends on how one scores Bush/Gore, it's probably not a pattern worth caring very much about.

But of course, as Henry suggests, this kind of thing comes up all the time, and it's going to; we are pattern-finders. And yet it's unfair to say that reporters and pundits should rigorously test every pattern they notice. In this case, it is in fact probably true that extra terms in the White House make electoral defeat more likely...but to the extent that kicks in after two terms, it's going to be a fairly small effect.

So, go ahead and pattern-spot. Just be aware that (as Henry says) most patterns are garbage, so be careful -- and do a quick self-exam of your pattern before you invest any meaning in it at all.

34 comments:

  1. "Here, out-party replacements by Ike in 1952 and Obama in 2008 were both pretty solid"

    Also worth noting that the in-party incumbents were incredibly unpopular.

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  2. The XKCD comic is wrong.

    Eisenhower did not win without winning the House or Senate in 1952. Republicans took over both chambers of Congress in 1952

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  3. Here's a pattern I've noticed: Megan McArdle is always wrong.

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    1. lol, I've noticed that pattern too.

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  4. My own favorite example of a "pattern" that held until it didn't is one I heard in 1987 and 1988: "No sitting vice-president is ever elected president. [Of course he may succeed to the presidency after the president's death, and *then* win the next election, but that's another matter.] It hasn't happened since Martin Van Buren in 1836." But then in 1988, GHW Bush easily broke this "law." And the fact that Richard Nixon had come so close to breaking it in 1960 should have been a clue that it was not an iron law.

    The "law" *did* have something to it: a lot of nineteenth century vice-presidents were non-entities who were not very plausible presidential candidates. And even vice-presidents who were obviously presidential caliber like Hubert Humphrey paid a price for their loyalty to their president. Fortunately for GHW Bush, his boss was still pretty popular in 1988.

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    1. So the Dan Quayle concept was alive and well in the nineteenth century?

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  5. Patterns are funny things. Keep these facts in mind, tho. 1912: Wilson only won because of TR running as Bull Moose split the Republican vote. Had TR stayed out, Taft would have cruised to reelection - making a solid 20+ years of straight Republican rule.
    Hoovers reaction to Great Depression caused FDR and national realignment. Some historians think FDR's realignment would not have happened had WWII not begin and/or he decide to follow precedent and not run past 2 terms. Truman only won by embracing memory of FDR, but the country was growing tired of Dems and swept GOP into power in off year elections. IKE might have been seen as starting a Repub era had JFK not stolen 1960 election. (And it was stolen folks.)
    http://bztv.typepad.com/Winter/DarkSideSummary.pdf
    1964 LBJ won because of JFK assassination. 1968 Nixon won because of chaos in New deal coalition not because of split vote, Nixon would have won most Wallace supporters.
    1976 the GOP coalition Nixon had assembled almost held even in disgrace of Watergate-this shows a solid coalition, but Carter played up his Southern-ness and peeled away enough of the South to win.
    1980 Carter was leading in polls until Debate with Reagan. Reagan's performance assured the American people he was not crazy, his campaign proved superior, and foreign events worked against the power of incumbency and Carter was fired.
    1984 Reagan walked away with the expolding economy.
    1988 the Nixon/Reagan coalition held together, and would have again in 1992-in spite of recession, if Perot would not have run or dropped out and stayed out. The exit poll data from 1992 showed most Perot voters still would have voted for Bush by about 2/3,
    (I remember reading the exit polls after the 1992 election but have not been able to find the ones online I read in the papers right after the election)
    giving Bush a second term. and had this happened, the growing economy of 1996 probably would have given Dole the presidency. Things were changing by 2000 and the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Dole coalition that would have been, would be tired and would have fallen apart by then-probably over social issues.

    2008 Obama won because of collapse of Lehman Brothers:
    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/01/democrats_year_less_change_tha.html

    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2010/09/15/september_15_crash_explains_obama_democrats_woe_107164.html


    But the point is this: History and elections are results of individual actions made in response of events or historical events intervening in human affairs.

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    1. I disagree with the idea that Taft would have defeated Wilson in 1912 if not for TR's third-party candidacy. IMO it is based on the false premise that 1912 TR voters would have voted overwhelmingly for Taft. for my argument against this, see https://groups.google.com/forum/#!msg/soc.history.what-if/NZXQky_Jgpk/OhWnTSyjfwoJ

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  6. I just want to point out the subtitle to McArdle's blog: "writer, blogger, author of The Up Side of Down, forthcoming from Viking in February 2014" -- I edit books for a living, and I have to deal with an unimaginable number of endnotes and bibliographic entries. To use the phrase "forthcoming from Viking in February 2014" is an unutterably pretentious way of presenting that information, and frankly only someone who had significant doubts about his or her own academic bona fides would phrase it that way. How about just "available from Viking in February 2014," Megan? Doesn't that seem like the way a human being might phrase that?

    "Forthcoming" has a very specific use when you absolutely have to cite a source that you (for whatever reason) have seen but isn't available yet. So you say, "23. Jason Smith, A Very Good Book (Boston: MIT Press, forthcoming)" or something like that. The thing you don't do is say at a dinner party, "Oh yeah, my next book is forthcoming from Viking Press in February 2014," which is pretty much what McArdle did in her blog's subtitle.

    Thank you very much.

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  7. Of all the criticisms of the frequently infuriating McArdle, I have to say that's pretty much the least convincing I've heard.

    Adam

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  8. In fairness to Megan, she does acknowledge that her assessment is a "hunch" that she will duly modify when Nate-Silver-quality stats come along.

    Certainly the data under discussion is decent enough for a hunch, no? Is there any floor on data quality for a hunch?

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    1. Here's your Silver-quality stats: http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/

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  9. What is your estimate of the probability of unified Republican government in 2017: roughly 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, or 100%? (Judging from your previous comments, I think your answer is roughly 25%.)

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    1. Imagine that the likelihood of keeping a Republican majority in the House is slightly better than even, given district apportionment (~60%)

      Imagine that the likelihood of Republicans taking the Senate is slightly less than even (~40%)

      Imagine that the likelihood of Republicans taking the White House is close to 1 in 3, given Democratic advantages in the Electoral College (~33%)

      0.6 * 0.4 * 0.33 = 0.08

      provided that the events are unrelated. Which they mostly are.

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    2. This early? I'd pre-set the presidency chances as 50/50. I'm open to arguments that the Republican chances are as high as 60% or as low at 40%, but I'd probably take the points if you give me them in either direction.

      I do think it's very unlikely that we'll have a Republican president with a Democratic House in 2017. Given a Republican president, I'd say the chances of a Republican House are better than 90%.

      The Senate is a lot harder to guess at...with a Republican president, I'd probably think it's more likely than not that Republicans will have at least 50 Senators and control, but I don't really have any sense of *how* likely.

      So all told, I guess I'm somewhere south of 50%, but north of 25%

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  10. Those seem very high odds for Dems taking the House. Failing some sort of Republican catastrophe in the next year, it seems highly unlikely.

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    1. Okay, if the odds of Democrats taking the House are the same as Republicans taking the White House (1 in 3), the math becomes

      0.66 * 0.4 * 0.33 = 0.087

      Still less than 1 in 10. There's a reason why divided rule is the norm.

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    2. Hard to say divided rule is the norm when control of the House has only changed three times since the Eisenhower Administration, I think. I wonder if the myth that voters love divided government owes to the fact that Southern whites started voting for Republican Presidents in 1968 and took a lot longer to start voting for Republican legislators?

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    3. It is not by any means impossible for the Democrats to take the House in 2016. True, districting is very much against them--the extent to which that is due to deliberate gerrymandering or simply to the fact that Democratic votes are clustered in a few areas can be debated, but there is no doubt it has them at a disadvantage. However, the same thing was true about the redistricting in 2001-2--especially when supplemented by the mid-decade redistricting in Texas and Georgia. It too favored Republicans--yet Democrats managed to win control of the House in both 2006 and 2008.

      However, if the Democrats win the House in 2016 it will only be because they had a good year--which means they will almost certainly have taken the Presidency and the Senate. So the chances that the Democrats will control the House *alone* are essentially zero, at least until 2019.

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    4. Perhaps my assumption, that elections for the House, Senate and White House are independent, is probably untrue to some extent. Nonetheless, partisans thinking that they are all tightly connected, and that there's a majority chance for one party to control all the levers of government, is really sloppy.

      It also emotionally supports the idea that maintaining purity is more important than deal-making. That was Rove's dream. It's a poison for all of us.

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  11. I'm reminded a little of a remark I heard from George Will on one of his TV programs last year. He asserted that only three Democratic presidents in history have won with over 53% of the popular vote. (I checked whether this statement was accurate, and it seems to be, if you consider Andrew Jackson the first Democrat in the White House.) This is typical Will: mention some obscure bit of trivia to make himself sound smart, as a way of distracting from the fact that it has no particular significance to what he's saying. McArdle's statement "Since the Civil War, only two Democratic presidents have been succeeded by another Democrat" runs along similar lines. Both statements embody what I call the Eternal Parties Thesis, which is the idea that the two major parties have remained essentially the same since they first came into existence, so that the fate and character of 19th-century Democrats and Republicans invariably tells us something important about their successors in the present day. Pundits who adopt this thesis may admit, if pressed, that the parties have changed in some ways, but they still seem unable to let go of the notion that there is some Essence of Democrat and Essence of Republican stretching back to the parties' very origins.

    From what I've seen, the Eternal Parties Thesis is especially popular among Republicans. It's a useful tool when they (like Rand Paul recently) want to bask in the exalted legacy of Abraham Lincoln and tar today's Democrats with the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. Will and McArdle are using the thesis in another way: to suggest that Democrats have some eternal difficulty in reaching the White House. It is, of course, true that it took Democrats a while to get back into power after the Civil War (though Samuel Tilden won the popular vote little over a decade after the war ended), and it is also true that their longest period of presidential dominance since then, 1933-1953, involved just two presidents (though one of them was the only president ever to serve for longer than two terms). The patterns, in this case, are significant only if you ignore the features that make each example unique.

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  12. If Nate Silver says the GOP has a 70% chance of unified government, that means something. When Megan says it, it's blather.

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    1. True. But then, Nate Silver, being Nate Silver, isn't likely to make such a bold statement this early. (Or to put it more quantitatively, it is my hunch that there's less than a 5% chance that Nate Silver will claim in 2013 that the GOP has a better than 50% chance of unified government by 2017.)

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    2. In other words, Nate Silver wouldn't be that stupid....which is why he's Nate Silver.

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  13. If you followed these principles, I feel like a lot of your own analysis would have to go out the window, too. Basically, almost any widely held principle about Presidential politics would. Not that that's a bad thing, but this is a silly thing to single out.

    Also, you forgot something else: whether or not the pattern can be attached to a common-sense theory. In this case, it can: political fatigue.

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  14. If I'm not mistaken, the GOP was cocksure that they would win the White House in 2012 because they were looking for patterns rather than reading actual polling data. Well, actual *unbiased* polling data.

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    1. I find it believable that republicans can hold onto the house and even take the senate but there is no way they can simultaneously hold onto their social conservative platform of bullying everyone who isn't a white conservative christian and take the white house.

      People in 2016 are going to be even more for gay rights than in 2012. Being the party of Rick Santorum is a losing propisition.

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  15. This all assumes that the electorate has not fundamentally changed [it didn't for the prior elections]. It has now. It ain't your daddy's America anymore and it won't be voting that way.

    When mccardle bets her house then I'll pay attention. Historians sometimes need to pay closer attention to current events and developments.

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  16. I remember someone telling me last year that Obama wouldn't win re-election because he was following two presidents (Clinton and Bush 2) who had both served two full terms in the White House, and never before in history had three presidents served two full terms back to back to back. Well guess what, Obama won re-election and will likely serve a full 8 years in office. That means we'll have had 3 presidents over a period of 24 years. Only once before have we gone so long with so few faces in the White House (FDR/Truman/Eisenhower over 28 years). Goes to show you can't fully rely on history to predict the future.

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    1. A few months ago, some bloggers noted that this was the first time since Jefferson/Madison/Monroe that there were three two-termers in a row. My personal theory about this is that presidential deaths have become less frequent. For example, if JFK had lived he very likely would have served two terms. And it's quite possible he'd have been followed by another two-termer (whether Nixon or someone else). But when you take into account how many presidents have not completed a term (four deaths in the 19th century, four in the 20th, plus Nixon's resignation) and add in the number who have not been reelected, it's not so surprising we haven't had back-to-back two-termers since the early days of the Republic.

      And why would it start to happen now? First, the security protecting presidents from assassination has become a lot stronger. Also, the medical care they receive is a lot better, which not only keeps them healthy but is probably better at dealing with an attempted assassination. (Garfield's death in 1881 from a shot wound was partly due to the doctors' incompetence; a century later, Reagan survived a much worse injury due to the excellent and immediate medical care.) Furthermore, there's so much scrutiny of presidential candidates today that it's much harder to get away with concealing a serious illness (such as JFK's Addison's Disease).

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  17. This also ignores 2 critical factors:

    1) House Republicans are incredibly unpopular and sullying the party's reputation. Instead of Americans feeling nostalgic for GOP return, Americans get a constant reminder of how bad Republicans are. Look at the debacle over the Farm Bill.

    2) Hillary Clinton is leading polls in states that are heavily Republican-leaning like Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas. She leads Rubio and Bush in their home state of Florida. If a generic Democrat were running, this would be more easily dismissed, but Clinton may be the most likely non-incumbent to run since Eisenhower.

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    1. "Hillary Clinton is leading polls in states that are heavily Republican-leaning like Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas."

      It's adorable that you think this means anything other than that she has a lot of name recognition.

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