Monthly Archives: June 2012

Pay No Attention To Those Polls (Or To Forecast Models Based On Them)

Brace yourselves. With the two main party nominees established, we are now entering the poll-driven media phase of presidential electoral politics.  For the next several months, media coverage will be dominated by analyses of trial heat polls pitting the two candidates head-to-head.  Journalists will use this “hard news” to paint a picture of the campaign on an almost daily basis  – who is up, who is not, which campaign frame is working, how the latest gaffe has hurt (or has not hurt) a particular candidate.  Pundits specializing in election forecasting, like the New York Times’ Nate Silver, meanwhile, will use these polls to create weekly forecasts that purport to tell us the probability that Obama or Romney will emerge victorious in November.

Be forewarned: because polls are so volatile this early in the campaign, it may appear that, consistent with journalists’ coverage, candidates’ fortunes are changing on a weekly, if not daily basis, in response to gaffes, debates, candidate messaging or other highly idiosyncratic factors.  And that, in turn, will affect the win probabilities estimated by pundits like Silver.   Every week, Silver and others will issue a report suggesting that Obama’s chances of winning has dipped by .6%, or increased by that margin, of some such figured based in part on the latest polling data.

Pay no attention to these probability assessments. In contrast to what Silver and others may suggest, Obama’s and Romney’s chances of winning are not fluctuating on an almost daily or weekly basis.  Instead, if the past is any predictor, by Labor Day, or the traditional start of the general election campaign, their odds of winning will be relatively fixed, barring a major campaign disaster or significant exogenous shock to the political system.

This is not to say, however, that polls will remain stable after Labor Day.  Instead, you are likely to see some fluctuations in trial heat polls throughout the fall months, although they will eventually converge so that by the eve of Election Day, the polls will provide an accurate indication of the election results.  At that point, of course, the forecast models based on polls, like Silver’s, will also prove accurate.   Prior to that, however you ought not to put much stock into what the polls are telling us, nor in any forecast model that incorporates them.

Indeed, many (but not all) political science forecast models eschew the use of public opinion polls altogether.  The reason is because they don’t provide any additional information to help us understand why voters decide as they do. As Doug Hibbs, whose “Bread and Peace” model is one of the more accurate predictors of presidential elections, writes, “Attitudinal-opinion poll variables are themselves affected by objective fundamentals, and consequently they supply no insight into the root causes of voting behavior, even though they may provide good predictions of election results.”  In other words, at some point polls will prove useful for telling us who will win the election, but they don’t tell us why.  And that is really what matters to political scientists, if not to pundits like Silver.

The why, of course, as longtime readers will know by heart, is rooted in the election fundamentals that determine how most people vote.  Those fundamentals include the state of the economy, whether the nation is at war, how long a particular party has been in power, the relative position of the two candidates on the ideological spectrum, and the underlying partisan preferences of voters going into the election.  Most of these factors are in place by Labor Day, and by constructing measures for them, political scientists can produce a reasonably reliable forecast of who will win the popular vote come November.  More sophisticated analyses will also make an Electoral College projection, although this is subject to a bit more uncertainty.

But if these fundamentals are in place, why do the polls vary so much?  Gary King and Andrew Gelman addressed this in an article they published a couple of decades ago, but whose findings, I think, still hold today.  Simply put, it is because voters are responding to the pollsters’ questions without having fully considered the candidates in terms of these fundamentals. And this is why, despite my claim that elections are driven by fundamentals that are largely in place by Labor Day, campaigns still matter. However, they don’t matter in the ways that journalists would have us believe: voters aren’t changing their minds in reaction to the latest gaffe, or debate results, or campaign ad.  Instead, campaigns matter because they inform voters about the fundamentals in ways that allow them to judge which candidate, based on his ideology and issue stance, better addresses the voter’s interests.  Early in the campaign, however, most potential voters simply aren’t informed regarding either candidate positions or the fundamentals more generally, so they respond to surveys on the basis of incomplete information that is often colored by media coverage.  But eventually, as they begin to focus on the race itself, this media “noise” becomes much less important, and polls will increasingly reflect voters’  “true” preferences, based on the fundamentals. And that is why Silver’s model, eventually, will prove accurate, even though it probably isn’t telling us much about the two candidates’ relative chances today, or during the next several months.

As political scientists, then, we simply need to measure those fundamentals, and then assume that as voters become “enlightened”, they will vote in ways that we expect them to vote.  And, more often than not, we are right – at least within a specified margin of error!  Now, if a candidate goes “off message” – see Al Gore in 2000 – and doesn’t play to the fundamentals, then our forecast models can go significantly wrong.  And if an election is very close – and this may well be the case in 2012 – our models will lack the precision necessary to project a winner.  But you should view this as strength – unlike some pundits who breathlessly inform us that Obama’s Electoral College vote has dropped by .02% – political scientists are sensitive to, and try to specify, the uncertainty with which they present their forecasts.  It is no use pretending our models are more accurate than they are.  Sometimes an election is too close to call, based on the fundamentals alone.

The bottom line is that despite what the media says, polls – and the forecast models such as Silver’s that incorporate them right now – aren’t worth much more than entertainment value, and they won’t be worth more than that for several months to come.  As we near Election Day, of course, it will be a different matter.  By then, however, you won’t need a fancy forecast model that incorporates a dozen variables in some “top secret” formula to predict the winner.  Nor, for that matter, do you need any political science theory. Instead, as Sam Wang has shown, a simple state-based polling model is all you need to predict the presidential Electoral College vote.  (Wang’s model was, to my knowledge, the most parsimonious and accurate one out there for 2008 among those based primarily on polling data.)  Of course, this won’t tell you why a candidate won.  For that, you listen to political scientists, not pundits.  (In Wang’s defense, he’s not pretending to do anything more than predict the winner based on polling data alone.)

So, pay no heed the next time a pundit tells you that, based on the latest polls, Obama’s win probability has dropped by .5%.  It may fuel the water cooler conversation – but it won’t tell us anything about who is going to win in 2012, and why.

“41” The Movie: “When We Saw What He Had Done”

Thanks to a timely heads up by Stanis Moody-Roberts, I was able to catch the HBO premier of “41” two nights ago.  It is well worth watching, not so much for breaking new ground – it mostly skimmed the most significant events of Bush’s life – but for providing an intimate glimpse at a man looking back on a career that saw him reach the pinnacle of political power, only to be voted out of office by the people he tried to serve.  In watching the movie, I was reminded of just how prepared George H. W. Bush was as president to handle a series of extraordinary foreign policy crises, beginning with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in China through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War to the decision to repel Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait. These were momentous events and, for the most part, he handled them with extraordinary skill.  And yet, he was voted out of office, the victim of an economic downturn that had almost nothing to do with his policies. Indeed, it was his decision – one he stands by to this day – to break a campaign promise and raise taxes that helped close the budget deficit and set the stage for the surpluses during Clinton’s second term.  For that act, against the backdrop of an economic recession, Bush was booted from office. The film is an extraordinary reminder of how much our evaluations of presidents often turn on events about which they have little control and that even when they do make the “right” decision, they aren’t always rewarded.

When Bush ran for president against Ronald Reagan in 1980, detractors chided him as the “resume” candidate – someone who had numerous job experiences, but who hadn’t really shown signs of leadership.  However, while it is true that there is no way to truly prepare to be president,  Bush came as close as any president in recent memory to taking office with a deep understanding of how government works at the national level and with a strong network of relationships with leading political figures both home and especially abroad.  He also was, by all evidence, a man devoted to family, and to the patrician principles instilled in him during his upbringing: duty, honor, love of country and a certain personal code that, among other virtues, precluded drawing attention to one’s self or directly criticizing others.

The son of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, George grew up in a privileged childhood, much it spend at the family compound at Kennebunkport – a location that Bush clearly loves, and which figures heavily in the film. In 1941 Bush was attending Phillips Academy in Andover, where he was by his own admission a middling student, but otherwise a B.M.O.C (Big Man on Campus) due in no small part to his athletic prowess when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.   Although he had been accepted to attend Yale that fall, Bush instead at age 18 immediately enlisted, against his father’s wishes, in the Navy’s aviation wing and became the youngest commissioned pilot in the country at that time.  One of the more poignant moments in the film is when Bush recounts getting shot down on a bombing run in the Pacific.  Although Bush was able to bail out of his damaged aircraft, both of his crewmates died (one ejected but his parachute failed to open, and the other went down in the craft) – an event that still haunts him.  One can’t help but wonder if Bush’s wartime experience – particularly his experience with death – contributed to his decision to halt the carnage the U.S. was inflicting on Saddam Hussein’s military forces during the First Persian Gulf War.

After successfully entering the oil business in Texas, Bush embarked on a political career, beginning with an unsuccessful attempt to unseat incumbent Democrat Senator Ralph Yarborough in 1964. He followed that by winning a House seat in 1996 for the 90th Congress, part of a large Republican freshman class that election cycle.  Bush then served in a series of high-level appointed positions: Ambassador to the United Nations (1971-73), chair of the RNC during the Watergate period (1973-74 – Bush eventually broke with Nixon); ambassador to the People’s Republic of China (1974-76 – he remembers spending a lot of time bicycling through Beijing), and finally director of the CIA (1976-77 – a key period in which Bush help restore the CIA’s reputation).  In 1980, he was Reagan’s main rival for the Republican nomination but despite an unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa, he lost to Reagan in New Hampshire after the famous debate debacle in which an angry Reagan issued his celebrated “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green” line.

Arguably, it was his 8 years as Reagan’s VP that best prepared Bush for the presidency. Although Bush acknowledged that he took a lot of grief for spending so most of his time as VP attending state-level funerals,  he recall that he developed relationships with numerous rising leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, during these trips.  It was that relationship with Gorbachev that helped Bush steer the U.S. through one of the potentially most perilous periods in his presidency: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.  In “41” Bush recalls that he took tremendous criticism for not flying to Berlin to openly show  U.S. support to the thousands of demonstrators who were celebrating the end of Communist rule, symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  But, as I suggested in my earlier post on this topic Bush is adamant that appearing to gloat at the moment of East Germany’s collapse would have been the worst possible signal to send, with Gorbachev in such a precarious position trying to manage the transition to democracy in Russia.  It might have provoked a military backlash there, diplomatically, as the Soviet empire unraveled.

It was this type of prudence that characterized much of Bush’s foreign policy.  Ultimately, of course, it was the economic recession, and his breaking of his famous “read my lips” pledge that led to his 1992 loss to Bill Clinton.  Although Bush stands by his decision to break the no taxes pledges, he does express regret that he made that original pledge using such forceful and unambiguous language.   (The words were actually written by Bush’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan and they are a reminder that while speechwriters are motivated to craft memorable lines, they don’t always think enough about the potential political ramifications of uttering those lines.)  That stark wording, Bush acknowledged, made the fallout from breaking the pledge that much more severe.

It is clear in the film that Bush still bears the scars from that loss to Clinton.  There are two indications of this. First, in the only direct attack on another individual that you will hear from Bush in the film, he flat out states that he doesn’t like H. Ross Perot who, in Bush’s view, cost him the election.  (Perot won about 19% of the popular vote in 1992).  He also suggests that the media was in the tank for Clinton.  These are strong words from a man who does not express very many regrets in his life, and who seems generally to be quite content with what he has accomplished. Clearly, the loss in 1992 still hurts.

Although slowed by Parkinson’s, Bush continues to be active.  He spends much of his time at Kennebunkport piloting his kick-ass speedboat at high speeds through the Atlantic, tailed by Secret Service agents who must be cringing at the sight of this 88-year old man jumping the waves.  As Bush (who was a very good three-sport athlete) somewhat wistfully relates,  however, no one will pick him “for the team” anymore, given his physical infirmities. So driving his speedboat is one of the few ways he can still “stay in the game.”

Interestingly, and perhaps consistent with those patrician values that included an aversion to self-promotion, Bush did not write the standard post-presidential memoirs.  Instead, he co-authored a book with his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft that focuses almost exclusively on foreign affairs.  And that’s why “41” is well worth watching – it provides an intimate glimpse into a man who has spent much of his life deflecting personal attention even as he served in the most high profile position in the world.

How should we remember George H. W. Bush’s presidency?  Inspired by Lizzie Borden (the Fall River, MA. woman charged with hacking her father and stepmother to death with an axe), I penned the following tribute, which I think captures the essence of Bush’s time in office:

We gave George Bush a budget axe

Instead he chose to raise our tax.

When we saw what he had done.

We voted out “Forty One”.

Romney or Obama: Who Wins the Beer Test?

The other day I was watching my go-to source for informed political analysis, ABC’s The View, where the topic du jour was whether one would prefer to have a beer with Mitt Romney or President Obama.  This “beer test” question, of course, is supposed to measure a candidate’s likability factor.  How well does he empathize with the common man?  I first heard the question used to explain why Al Gore barely won the popular vote, and lost the Electoral College, to George Bush in 2000, despite running as the incumbent party standard bearer during a time of peace and prosperity.  Gore may have been smarter, the pundits suggested, but the thought of listening to him drone on about the social security lockbox was enough to swing more than a few votes to Bush. Simply put, more people preferred to down a pint with George than with Al.

Pundits believe strongly in the likability factor, and they often trot it out to explain why a candidate did unexpectedly well, or not so well.  Consider National Review’s Jonah Goldberg explanation for Michael Dukakis’ defeat by George H. W. Bush in 1988: “At least one of the myriad reasons for … Dukakis’s loss in 1988 was that he seemed like the kind of guy for whom the best time of his life was when as VP of his high-school chess club, he ascended to the top spot when the president got mono.”  Of course, almost everyone cites the beer test as an explanation for why Bush the Younger bested John Kerry in 2004. This USAToday columnist even cited polling data to make the case for Bush as a better beer companion that year: “President Bush, despite his many problems, strikes most of the American people as a pretty nice guy — the kind of guy they would feel comfortable with if he showed up at their front door. The more standoffish Kerry projects little warmth. A recent Zogby/Williams Identity Poll reflected that. It found that 57% of undecided voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry. (In Bush’s case, it would be a nonalcoholic beer.).”

It’s intuitively appealing to believe that the candidate who is viewed as more likable is likely to do better in the presidential election.  And, all other things being equal, it is probably better to be viewed as likable rather than unlikable. But when we look at the factors that drive election results, likability simple hasn’t proved very predictive, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina pointed out last week in this New York Times editorial. Along with Sam Abrams and Jeremy Pope, Fiorina compared the public’s evaluation of presidential candidates’  personal qualities (separate from policy stances or experience) with election results in the period 1952-2000. Their conclusion? As Fiorina wrote in his op ed piece: “Over all, in the 13 elections between 1952 and 2000, Republican candidates won four of the six in which they had higher personal ratings than the Democrats, while Democratic candidates lost four of the seven elections in which they had higher ratings than the Republicans. Not much evidence of a big likability effect here.”  This table shows the relative standing on the personal dimension of the major party candidates during the 13 elections from 1952 through 2000:

As Fiorina suggests, there’s no immediate pattern linking higher ratings on personal qualities to victory in the election. Moreover, Fiorina notes that in 1980, Jimmy Carter was rated the highest on personal qualities among all Democratic nominees in this period, and yet he was soundly trounced by Ronald Reagan. In 1996, on the other hand, Bill Clinton was the lowest rated candidate – either Democrat or Republican – to run in the 13 elections Fiorina studied, and yet he easily bested World War II veteran Bob Dole.

The point here is one I’ve made before: presidential elections are driven by fundamentals – national conditions and candidates’ issue positions – far more than they are by the candidates’ personal qualities. Indeed, I don’t know of a single reputable presidential election forecast model that incorporates likability ratings.  Knowing which candidate the public prefers to have a beer with isn’t going to be very helpful in predicting who is going to win the election. Alas, this is a point that will undoubtedly get lost as pundits like those on The View begin applying the beer test to judge the likability of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama.  For what it is worth (and my point is that it is not worth much relative to other factors), Obama has the likability edge over Romney, at least based on recent Gallup poll.

His edge extends to independents, but not Republicans.

And yet, at the same time this poll was in the field, Gallup’s daily tracking polls had Romney and Obama in essentially a dead heat.  The reason why, I suspect, has something to do with the split among independents on questions 4 – agrees with you on the issues – and 5 – who can manage government more efficiently.  The answers to those questions, history indicates, will tell us more about the election outcome than will the likability gap.

For what it is worth, I’m not sure I want a beer with either candidate. Mitt, who doesn’t drink, would just make me feel guilty as the night dragged on and he sipped on his non-alcoholic beverage.  And Obama might be sitting at my table, but I’m guessing he wouldn’t be talking to me so much as at me.  With either one, then, it would be a long night, and not in an enjoyable way.

All in all, I’d rather drink alone.

Is George H. W. Bush the Best President Not To Win Reelection?

George H. W. Bush turned 88 yesterday, and the milestone got me thinking: is he the best president not to win reelection?

Bush, as most of you know, served one term before losing in 1992 to Bill Clinton in a three-way race that also involved Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot.  Bush received only 38% of the vote – less than any incumbent since Taft (who also lost in a three-way race). It was a loss that, by his own admission, hit him very hard. As he told his granddaughter Jenna in this Today show interview, it was a “terrible, awful feeling” to lose. “I really wanted to win and worked hard,” Bush said. “Later on, people said, ‘Well, he didn’t really care,’ which is crazy. I worked my heart out.”

His defeat was caused in large part by the public perception that although the economy was coming out of a recession, economic growth was more sluggish than it actually was. In addition, after 12 years of Republican control of the White House, there was growing sentiment that it was time for a partisan change.  Bush was also painted by Clinton as out of touch (many will remember his evident bafflement over seeing a grocery checkout scanner), and castigated by some conservatives for breaking his “no new taxes” pledge.  Despite this, there is evidence suggesting that had Bush begun campaigning earlier and more effectively in 1992 (he installed Secretary of State James Baker as campaign manager too late to overcome Clinton’s early polling lead), he might have won reelection.

Bush’s most publicized successes as President came in foreign policy.  In an almost bloodless campaign, he authorized the use of military force to remove Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega from power.  And when in 1990 Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait as a possible prelude to invading Saudi Arabia, rather than fulfilling Margaret Thatcher’s fears that he might “go wobbly”, Bush instead put together a domestic and international political and military coalition that drove Hussein out of Kuwait in less than a month of combat and with a minimal loss of American lives.  (We forget just how close was the vote in Congress giving Bush authority to use military force against Hussein; the resolution passed the Senate by a scant 5 votes, 52-47.  This was a far closer vote than what Bush’s son received when he sought congressional approval to go to war in Iraq.)  Most notably, when Iraq’s military forces were routed and Hussein most vulnerable, Bush chose to halt the military carnage rather than pursue regime change.  His decision not to remove Hussein from power was heavily criticized at the time, and for years after, but today, as the violence continues in post-invasion Iraq, many now laud Bush’s prudence and foresight.

Bush also presided with deceptive ease over the end of the Cold War; we now view German reunification as the natural result of the collapse of East Germany, but had Bush overplayed his hand, he could easily have undercut Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s political support back home and triggered a backlash among European nations to the specter of a unified Germany. Similarly, when the Soviet Union subsequently dissolved in 1991, Bush again confronted a potentially volatile period as Eastern bloc nations, freed from the yoke of Soviet dominance, struggled to remake themselves as democracies. If Bush’s leadership during this time lacked Reagan’s inspirational flourishes, he more than compensated by exercising a steady, if understated, diplomatic hand.  He recognized, despite pressure from critics to more actively intervene in the restructuring of Eastern Europe, that leadership sometimes means doing less, not more.

Bush’s political downfall, however, was rooted in domestic affairs, particularly the economy, which slid into a recession on his watch.  As with all modern presidents, he was held accountable for the state of the economy although he lacked many tools to influence it. Indeed, one of his most courageous but politically disastrous acts was to negotiate, in the face of growing budget deficit, a budget deal with Democrats in Congress that included additional revenue – thus breaking his famous “read my lips, no new taxes” pledge that was a cornerstone of his 1988 campaign.  For that act of treason he was pilloried by the Gingrich-wing of the Republican Party while receiving scant credit from liberals.  Sensing Bush’s political vulnerability, social conservative Pat Buchanan, touting his pitchfork brigade, unsuccessfully challenged the sitting President for the Republican nomination.  That was an early indication that Bush was in electoral trouble. With hindsight, of course, the Bush tax hike served as a downpayment that contributed to the budget surplus that was briefly enjoyed during Clinton’s last term.

Since leaving the White House Bush has largely stayed out of the limelight, except for his occasional leap from airplanes (he is promising at least one more jump on his 90th birthday). Here he is jumping on his 85th birthday.

Rather than actively engage in national politics, he has limited his public involvement to bipartisan goodwill missions. Notably, he kept a very low profile during his son’s eight years as president.  Rather than engaging in national politics, he spends much of his time on the water at Kennebunkport, Maine, and enjoying his grandchildren.  He did recently attend the unveiling of his son’s portrait at the White House.

So, is he the best president not to win reelection? By my count, there have been at least 11 polls ranking the presidents since Bush left office.  His aggregate place in the rankings is 21st (standard deviation 3.2), with his highest ranking 18th (twice) and one poll placing him as low as 31st.  Typically he is clustered in a pack that includes Taft, Martin Van Buren and the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton. I’ve  written previously about the unreliability of these rankings, but there does not seem to be any evidence that Bush’s historical standing will change appreciably in the foreseeable future – his presidency, rightly or not, is deemed average.  Interestingly, in the aggregate presidential rankings, only the two Adamses – John and his son John Quincy – rank ahead of Bush among those presidents who sought reelection but were defeated.  Both Adamses may benefit historically due to their accomplishments outside the presidential office – an advantage Bush does not enjoy.

In his interview with his granddaughter (see below), Bush read from a letter he wrote that addressed, in part, the process of aging. He wrote: “As the summers finish out, and the seas get a little higher, winds a little colder, I’ll be making some notes, writing it down lest I forget so I can add to the report on getting older. Who knows, maybe they will come out with a new drug that makes legs bend easier, joints hurt less, drives go farther, memory come roaring back and all fears about falling off fishing rafts go away. Remember the old song, ‘I’ll be there ready when you are’? Well, I’ll be there, ready when you are, because there’s so much excitement ahead, so many grandkids to watch grow. If you need me, I’m here. Devotedly, Dad.”

Here he is reading that letter and talking about his presidency more generally. (The exchange in this video between Jenna and Bush regarding “the Bieb” is priceless.)

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George H. W. Bush.  Possible the best president we never reelected – and a pretty good grandfather too.

Here’s to you, Poppy.  May you enjoy many more birthdays (and sky dives) to come!

P.S. For a discussion of his son’s rankings, see  my analysis here.

Joe Biden: Our Secret Weapon On The War On Terror

One of the great ironies of this presidential campaign is that President Obama, who won election in 2008 in part due to his promise to reverse his predecessor George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy, is now trumpeting his aggressive war on terrorism.  As I’ve documented in previous posts, Obama has adopted and in some cases expanded on many of Bush’s foreign policy precedents, including an increased reliance on  drone strikes, even when it involves violating other states’ national sovereignty or targeting American citizens.  The centerpiece of this campaign, of course, is Obama’s decision to send the Navy Seals into Pakistan to assassinate Osama Bin Laden.  As the following pictures indicate, the decision to send the Seals into Pakistan to kill Bin Laden was fraught with tension.

Remember that 3 a.m. phone call?  Obama handled it, but Hillary was listening in.

What many people don’t realize is how involved Vice President Joe Biden was in training the Seals.  Here he is giving pointers to some recent recruits.  Note how comfortable he is handling his assault rifle!


Looking at these pictures, you can understand why our Navy Seals are willing to put their life on the line for our country. Joe is one inspirational dude!

Joe Biden. He’s high-fiving America. (Hat tip to Kate Hamilton).

I should probably clarify that these pictures come from the Vice President’s annual beach bash.

Reportedly, the event is a lot of fun for the kids and VP too.  Go get ’em Joe!