Tag Archives: 2008 election

Game Change? Alas, Not So Much

Amid much anticipation, and not a little controversy, the HBO docudrama Game Change aired last night. Based loosely on the book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book), the movie focuses on Sarah Palin’s role in John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Like Palin herself, the movie has provoked a rather polarized reaction, based in part on advance screenings.  Critics (including Palin although it’s not clear to me she has watched it) trashed the movie as another liberal smear job on the former mayor and Alaskan governor. Some of Palin’s harshest critics, on the other hand, believe Julianne Moore portrays Palin far too sympathetically.  For what it is worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much) I thought that rather than smearing or favoring Palin, the movie’s dominant frame is one of soft sexism that one still finds permeating national media coverage of women politicians more generally. That’s because the primary emotion most nonpartisan viewers will feel after seeing Game Change, I think, is pity toward the Palin character.  She comes across as a well-meaning but unprepared politician thrown into the consultant-infested deep waters of national politics. At one point it is suggested that Palin is on the verge of an emotional (hysterical?) breakdown, but she is rescued by the sympathetic support offered by McCain campaign strategist Steven Schmidt (portrayed by Woody Harrelson) who cuts back her workload and simplifies her strategy leading up to her much anticipated debate with Joe “O’biden” Biden.  Never mind that the strategy Palin used in debating Biden – a key moment in the film – almost exactly reprised the filibuster/stay on message/ignore-the-question debate tactics she employed in previous campaigns in Alaska. The Game Change audience is led to believe that Schmidt rescued poor Palin from certain disaster.

I will leave it to others to parse the meaning of Game Change, and what it reveals – or doesn’t – about Palin the politician and the person.  (Full disclosure: I watched much of the movie while reading a dull political science book, so I may have missed its true import.)  Rather than rely on Hollywood, I think better insights into Palin as politician come from reading some of the 25,000 heavily redacted emails covering her time as Alaska governor from December 2006 through Sept. 30, 2008, a period ending shortly after she accepted McCain’s offer to run as Vice President.  I’ve read only a smattering of these, but the ones I have scanned reveal that rather than someone to be pitied, Palin is instead a savvy politician who actively sought to shape media coverage and her relationship with other politicians in ways that boosted her political standing and her policy goals. In short, she comes across like a lot of politicians.

Perhaps her most controversial act as Governor was to work with Democrats to push through legislation increasing taxes on oil companies, a delicate legislative balancing act that often put her at odds with not just the oil companies but also her own Republican Party members. To give you a flavor of Palin at work, here she is  emailing aides regarding mediation efforts with stakeholders in the gas line revenue  controversy.

from: Gov. Sarah Palin
to: Balash, Joseph, Irwin, Tom E (DNR) [tom.irwin@alaska.gov], Joseph R Batash (GOV), Marty Rutherford , Pat Galvin
cc: Gov. Sarah Palin

“Sheeesh- I heard her comment tonight also. I met with Exxon the other day, then with CP, we all (naturally) agree that everyone will come to the table with TC-Ak AFTER TC is licensed. Everyone agrees BP will be there too. Mulva said he looks forward to me “bringing them all together” – he pointed to my conf table and we agreed we’d all be around that table at the appropriate time (I said that would be after the legislature votes for AGIA/TC). So… there you have the “mediation” vehicle. Lesil need not call for it – we’re on it. We don’t need to be told what to do on that front.

Sent from my BlackBerry device from Cellular One”

In the midst of these negotiations, however, she also accepts her aides’ advice to forward positive press coverage of her gas line deal mediation efforts to the McCain campaign organization, as part of an active effort to get her considered as a potential running mate.  This and other emails are hardly the picture of a political neophyte cast into the den of political consultants and left to fend for herself.  Hate her or love her, the evidence from emails suggest that Palin was an ambitious and adroit political operator.  The Moore portrayal only begins to hint at this dimension of Palin’s character near the end of the movie.

Portrayals of Palin aside, probably the most misleading aspect of Game Change is the movie’s title, which implies that Palin’s selection had a significant impact on the outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign. Longtime readers will recall that I started this blog during the 2008 presidential campaign, and I posted more than one comment regarding Palin’s extraordinary capacity to draw boisterous, supportive crowds during the waning days of that process. But, contrary to what the movie implies, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of her candidacy on the 2008 race. Consider, as evidence, the 2008 presidential exit poll. As the table below indicates, only 7% of voters surveyed in the presidential exit poll said that Palin’s selection was the “most important factor” in their vote for President, and they went for Obama by 52% to 47% for McCain. Note that this split is almost identical to the overall split in the popular vote between the two candidates; Obama beat McCain by about 52.9%-45.6%.

However, McCain actually won a majority of those 33% of voters who said the Palin pick was an “important factor.”  On the other hand, fully 33% of respondents said Palin’s pick was not a factor at all – and they went much more strongly for Obama, at 65%-33%, over McCain.

Palin’s Pick Was…. Voted for Obama For McCain Other/Didn’t Answer
Most Important Factor (7%) 52% 47% 1%
Important Factor (33%) 47% 52% 1%
Minor Factor (20%) 33% 66% 1%
Not A Factor (33%) 65% 33% 2%

Put another way, of the 60% of voters who said the Palin pick influenced their vote in any degree, from “most important” to playing a “minor” role, McCain easily beat Obama, 56%-43%.   In short, if exit polls are to be believed, the Palin pick may have helped McCain at the margins.

Of course, exit polls don’t allow us to evaluate the Palin pick while controlling for other factors, such as voters’ ideological and partisan predispositions. Political scientists who have sought to estimate the impact of the Palin pick while controlling for these and other factors, and using other data such as the American National Election Studies, have generally found that her selection had a slight negative influence on McCain’s support. Thus, Elis, Hillygus and Nie suggest the Palin choice cost McCain 1.6% in his overall popular support. Jonathan Knuckey comes to a similar conclusion, finding that “the effect of evaluations of Palin on vote choice was heavily conditioned by party identification”, with Palin helping to mobilize the Republican base for McCain, but probably costing him support among independents and swing voters.

Whether the impact on McCain’s chances was positive or negative, Palin’s selection was, and remains, controversial.  But while it was not inconsequential in the 2008 race (particularly compared to the lack of impact of most V.P. picks on previous presidential elections), given Obama’s final margin of victory Palin’s selection can hardly be characterized as a “game changer.”

But then, why let the facts get in the way of a great story?  It’s Hollywood, after all. When it comes to understanding Palin as politician, however, that’s more the pity

It’s Obama! (Or is it?): Forecasting the 2008 election

Who will win the 2008 presidential election? For those political scientists who specialize in modeling elections with the goal of predicting outcomes, the verdict is already in. Barring some unforeseen or atypical event(s), they have already predicted the winner. Who is it? Before providing the answer, let me first explain the process by which political scientists construct their forecast models.

For years I have told my students that if there is any aspect of political science that can truly be described as a science, it is forecasting presidential elections. Presidency scholars can, with surprising accuracy, predict the winner of the two-party popular vote, within 2-3%, in a presidential election several months before the election takes place. Of course, they aren’t always correct. But they predict the winner far more often than not. In 2004, for example, 7 of the 8 forecast models that I consulted prior to Labor Day predicted George Bush’s reelection that year with an average popular vote of about 53%. He actually won with about 51%.

How do they do it? How can political scientists predict elections before any of the events that the media emphasizes – campaign advertising, debates, and the other myriad daily incidents on the campaign trail – have occurred? They begin with a basic premise: that the voting public, in the aggregate, is rational. That is, voters can differentiate the two candidates, broadly speaking, along an ideological continuum, and generally vote for the candidate who falls closest to their own political views. Moreover, voters are aware of how things are going in the world, based on tangible measures – gas prices, food costs – and by paying at least limited attention to the news and through conversations with family, friends, and coworkers. As political scientists, then, if we can create measures for “reality”, and for voters’ preexisting political preferences, we can construct a reliable forecast model. That’s the basic approach adopted by all these forecasters, although their models differ in the particulars.

There are a variety of forecast models, then, but they all are based on some variation of the following approach. First, establish some measure for the state of the economy, such as the unemployment rate, or the quarterly change in the Gross National Product, since most voters pay attention to the economic health of the nation and often vote the nation’s “pocketbook”. Second, measure the partisan distribution of voters in country – how many people call themselves Democrats? Republicans? This is crucial to forecasting, because party affiliation is the single bigger predictor of the vote in a presidential election. Most voters tend to view politics through a partisan prism that colors their evaluation of candidates and issues, and they typically support the candidate who shares their party preference. Democrats may not know the details of Obama’s health plan, but they know he’s a Democrat, and that tells them they are likely to favor his plan over McCain’s. So if forecasters know the partisan breakdown of the likely voters, it helps establish a baseline for predicting the presidential vote.

All forecast models are predicated on an expected level of turnout among voters. Some also include additional variables that measure how long one party has occupied the presidency, or the popular approval of the current president, in order to assess the pressure for “change” in Washington.

In sum, the typical forecast model predicts the distribution of the two-party vote as a function of economic conditions, the partisan breakdown of voters, approval ratings of the party or president in the White House, projected turnout, and sometimes, length of time the incumbent party has held office.

Note what these models seem to ignore: campaign advertising, debates, the daily tactical skirmishing between candidates that forms the gist of campaign reporting – indeed, almost the entire general election campaign! And yet they have accurately, within a specified margin of error, predicted the victor in almost every presidential election dating back to 1980. (I will deal with the “almost” in a separate post). Forecasters ignore the daily minutia of campaigns because, for the most part, they believe that fundamentals drive the vote, not campaign tactics. Both candidates will try to “frame” the campaign in a way that is most advantageous to them. For Obama, that means characterizing this election as a choice between change and four more years of the “failed” Bush-Cheney policies. For McCain, it is also about change, but change driven by a maverick who has the experience to do what is necessary to guide the nation in perilous times. For forecasters, these efforts largely negate one another; few voters are persuaded by the campaign advertising and debates to abandon their long-standing predisposition to vote for the candidate of their preferred party. Indeed, polls show that already 80% of the electorate has made up their mind regarding which candidate they will support this year.

In short, the models work because voters are rational. They don’t make a blind leap of faith in the voting booth. Instead, they base their vote on a retrospective evaluation of how things are going under the current party in power and a prospective estimate of how things are likely to go if they change parties or not. Each candidate, meanwhile, will do his best to frame the campaign using the raw material the political environment provides, but they can’t simply create a reality that is at odds with what the voters see. As a result, campaigns may be more or less effective in mobilizing voters to come out on Election Day, but they tend to have very little persuasive effect regarding how voters cast their ballot.

But what about the undecided voters – those 15-20% of the electorate, most of whom are independents, that don’t decide for whom to vote until the last two weeks? Forecasters assume that their vote will break down roughly according to the distribution of the more partisan voters, so that these late voters typically do not change the outcome of the race.

This is a very simplified and abbreviated explanation for how presidency scholars construct their forecast models. You will undoubtedly question many of these assumptions – as you should. Rather than try to anticipate all your objections, let me instead tell you what the forecasters are predicting for 2008. Then I will try to respond to the inevitable barrage of criticisms. Please post your comments on my website https://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/ if possible, since I anticipate a rather vibrant discussion on this topic. And now, without further ado, here are the forecasts for this election. I list the date of the forecast (notice most are made prior to the party conventions), the name of the forecaster, and the percentage of the two-party vote that they predict the Republican candidate will receive. Drum roll, please:

09/08/2008 Jim Campbell 52.7

09/03/2008 Andreas Graefe and Scott Armstrong    48.0

08/28/2008 Michael Lewis-Beck and Charles Tien 49.9

09/05/2008 Tom Holbrook 44.3

06/30/2008 Brad Lockerbie    41.8

08/27/2008 Alan Ambrowitz 45.7

08/02/2008 Charles Bundrick and Alfred Cuzan   48.0

08/28/2008 Robert S. Erickson anbd Christopher Wezlien 47.0

07/28/2008 Carl Klarner    47.0

06/07/2008 Doug Hibbs, Jr.   48.2

07/31/2008 Ray Fair    48.5

01/15/2008 Helmut Norpoth 49.9

09/08/2008 Average Forecast of Republican Share of the Popular Vote: 47.6

Note that these models differ in their particulars. I can discuss the details of the models if you’d like. Not all are equally reliable, based on past performance. Nonetheless, they all – with one exception (the Campbell forecast), project that Barack Obama will win the 2008 popular vote. The average predicted share for McCain is just under 48%, so the election will be close. But given the margin of error of most of these forecast models, we can safely assume that Barack Obama will be our 44th president. 

Or can we? Before assessing potentials pitfalls in these forecasts, I’m eager to hear your reactions. Do you trust these projections? Why or why not?