Tag Archives: forecast models; 2012 presidential election

The Media and the 2012 Election: Taking the “Fun” Out of the Fundamentals?

Although the next presidential election is more than two years away, pundits are already trying to parse the meaning of polling data even though trial heats polls this far in advance of the election are practically worthless. The same goes for the recently concluded  Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll won by Rand Paul for the second year in a row – it likely tells us little about who the Republican nominee will be. No matter – the fact that these polls don’t tell us much won’t stop pundits from endlessly hyping them – after all, they have to write something! Before we wander too far down the garden path of media misinformation, however, it might do well to revisit some of the more glaring media misconceptions regarding the 2012 presidential election.  In a piece I have coming out in the American Political Science Association journal Perspectives on Politics I take aim at what I see as five enduring myths promulgated by many (but not all!) journalists in the aftermath of that contest.

1.  Obama won despite a poor economy that normally would have doomed the incumbent president.  In May, 2012, for example, the New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, echoing sentiment expressed by many pundits, wondered, “Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.”  In fact, however, most of the political science forecast models whose projections are based in part on the economic fundamentals had Obama a slight favorite to win the popular vote. In the aggregate, those models suggested Obama would garner a shade more than 50% of the two-party vote – he actually won bit more than 51%.

2. Obama’s victory owed much to the fact that voters found him more likable than Romney. A common conceit among journalists is that when it comes to attracting votes, candidate likability matters.  In a characteristic media assessment, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argued, “Presidential elections are rarely won and lost on policy. Voters instead tend to choose the person they most want to be president based on who they like… Call it the empathy factor. And it matters. A lot.”  Actually, it is not clear likability matters much at all. Research by Morris Fiorina finds that in the 13 presidential elections from 1952 to 2000, the candidate with the net advantage in personal ratings won only seven times.

3. Obama’s early advertising blitz in key swing states effectively defined Romney as a heartless capitalist out of touch with the concerns of the middle class. One oft-cited example was the “brutally effective” series of ads run by the Priorities USA Super Pac in Ohio that depicted Romney “as a cold-hearted plutocrat, ruthless in his pursuit of profits and unaffected by the human toll of Bain’s brand of buying and selling companies”.  The best evidence, however, suggests these ads had limited staying power and likely didn’t change many votes in the long run.

4. Romney’s numerous campaign gaffes doomed his election chances. The most conspicuous, perhaps, was the infamous secret recording showing Romney condemning the 47% of voters who are “dependent on government,” but critics also cite his remarks favoring self-deportation by illegal immigrants, his failure to release individual tax returns, and his ill-timed criticism of Obama as sympathetic to anti-American interests in the Middle East in the aftermath of the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound, to name the most prominent. As one postmortem summarized, “Obama, weighed down by a poor economy, also needed help—and he often got it from Romney”. National and state level polling, however show very little variation in Obama’s lead over Romney throughout the campaign, with the exception of a short-lived post-convention bounce in Obama’s favor. In this vein, the “devastating” secret “47%” video recording appears to have had minimal effect on Romney’s polling support.

5. Obama’s vaunted ground game easily outclassed Romney’s poorly run get-out-the-vote efforts. This proved to be a staple of the numerous media post-mortems. However, it is not clear that the marginal effect of Obama’s allegedly superior ground game was big enough to change the outcome of the race. Indeed, overall turnout in 2012 was down from 2008, by 3.4%, as was Obama’s share of the vote, which dropped in that same period by 1.9%. Moreover, in five of the eight key battleground states where his get-out-the-vote efforts was concentrated, the drop off in Obama’s vote was greater than the decline in his overall national vote. In short, while it is possible that Obama’s vote share would have declined even more without his advanced voter outreach effort, it is hard to prove that he won because his ground game outperformed Romney’s.

So why did Obama win reelection in 2012, if not because of the factors frequently cited by many journalists and pundits?  For the same fundamental reasons that have largely dictated the outcomes of most presidential elections in the modern era.  Simply put, it is very difficult to defeat a sitting president in a time of economic growth – even tepid economic growth – particularly when that president’s party has been in control of the Oval Office for only one term prior to the election.  With the exception perhaps of media pundits, who depend on these campaign myths to attract and hold viewers, most of us should find this debunking reassuring. Although the horse-race perspective adopted by most journalists that focuses on candidate personality, campaign strategy and gaffes fits well with their need to attract and maintain a daily audience, it is not a narrative that is particularly flattering in its portrayal of the electorate. Fortunately, while entertaining, this media perspective is not very accurate. The overwhelming evidence is that voters, while perhaps not deeply informed regarding candidates and issues, do cast their vote based on their understanding of fundamentals, such as the state of the economy, as viewed through their own partisan predispositions. Viewed collectively, then, voters are quite rational. That is good news for the future of political science forecast models—and, more importantly, for the future of the US political system, and it something worth remembering as the media gears up for what promises to be another round of entertaining, if misleading, presidential campaign coverage.

The Big Winner Last Night? Political Science!

For a political scientist, last night’s outcomes were very, very satisfying.  To begin, viewed in the aggregate, the structural-based forecast models issued by last September hit the two-party popular vote share almost exactly on the head, as of this moment.  (As long time readers know, because there are so many different structural models, I take their average and median forecasts as my best estimate of what is going to happen.)  To refresh your memory, those models indicated that Obama would win 50.3% of the two-party vote, on average, with a median forecast of 50.6%.  Right now, Obama’s share of the two party vote is about 51%.  Not bad.

Meanwhile, the state-based polling aggregators also performed as expected, with Sam Wang and Drew Linzer and Simon Jackman (I apologize to the others out there who also got it right) – pending the Florida outcome – also hitting their Electoral College projections exactly on the mark.   Yes, these models don’t tell us why the election turned out as it did, but they demonstrated once again that the best way to predict an election is to ask a sample of voters the day before how they are likely to vote.

So yesterday was a huge victory for political scientists.  But we can’t, as a profession, let down our guard.  There are pundits out there, still roaming the political landscape, spreading their punditry to the unsuspecting masses.  As I drove home last night, I heard on the NPR the first discussion of the “M-word” – (pssst – “mandate”).  Let’s be clear, no matter how much pundits say otherwise, Obama did not win a mandate last night, either prospectively or retrospectively.  What he won was a seat at the governing table for another four years – a seat from which he will find his reach growing gradually shorter as his term progresses.  All this seat provides is an opportunity to do what most presidents are allowed to do: suggest an agenda, and then draw on one’s formal powers and whatever residual influence one might have by virtue of public support and reputation to bargain with the opposing party to implement that agenda.  In this case, Republicans are going to point out that the election essentially was a vote for the status quo – not for change in Democrat’s direction.  Let the bargaining begin, starting with that fiscal cliff.

I’ll be on with a more extensive post-election analysis, but I leave you with a final warning:  now that the election is over, pundits can go back to pundicating without fear that results might prove them wrong.

Meanwhile, I leave you with this visual image (pardon my French):


Different Forecast, Same Result: More Political Science Models

Politico’s Dylan Byers created a minor dust-up in the twitterverse today when he posted an article that appeared to take a shot at the New York Times’  Nate Silver’s prognosticating skills. Byers writes, “Prediction is the name of Silver’s game, the basis for his celebrity. So should Mitt Romney win on Nov. 6, it’s difficult to see how people can continue to put faith in the predictions of someone who has never given that candidate anything higher than a 41 percent chance of winning (way back on June 2) and — one week from the election — gives him a one-in-four chance, even as the polls have him almost neck-and-neck with the incumbent.”  Byers’ article almost immediately created pushback from others who pointed out that the win probability is not the same as projecting a popular vote percentage.

That distinction is likely lost on many Romney supporters who have been criticizing Silver’s forecast for some time now.  But while Silver’s highly publicized work has attracted many Republicans’ ire, it is important to realize that several political scientists have developed their own state-based forecast models that are every bit as good as Silver’s and have the added virtue of being completely transparent and which have been vetted by other political scientists.  Those models are, as of today, also forecasting an Obama Electoral College victory.

In my last post I discussed one such model – the one developed by Emory political scientist Drew Linzer and featured at his Votamatic website.  As of today, Linzer’s state-based polling model continues to forecast an Electoral College victory for Obama with 332 Electoral College votes to Romney’s 206. I’ve discussed some of the assumptions built into Drew’s model in a previous post.

Today I want to discuss a second state-based forecast model created by political scientists Tom Holbrook and Jay DeSart.  Their model is even simpler and more parsimonious than Drew’s. Essentially, they look at three variables: the average Democratic vote share in all trial-heat polls in the field during October, the average Democratic share of the two-party support in national polls taken in the October prior to the election, and the average Democratic two-party state vote share in the four previous presidential elections. Like Drew’s model, then, they are incorporating both a long-term factor – the previous state-level election results that provide a window into a state’s ideological leanings – and short-term factors captured by the October state-level polls during the current election year together with the candidate’s standing in the national polls.

In 2008, the model successfully called all but 3 states: Missouri, North Carolina and Indiana.  (It’s not clear to me what they did for the split vote in Nebraska.) This prediction isn’t quite in Sam Wang territory (Sam nailed everything but Nebraska, as I recall), but it’s not too shabby either.

For those of you interested in playing at home, here’s the equation for their 2012 forecast model:

VOTEi = -29.454 + .575(POLL)i + 0.57(PRIOR VOTE)i + .44(NATIONAL POLL).

As of today that model is also projecting an Obama Electoral College victory, but by a closer margin, 281-257, than the Votamatic projection. Despite the closer Electoral College projection, they still estimate that Obama’s win probability is more than 86%.  Here are the current state-by-state projections:











New Hampshire










North Carolina
















South Dakota






New Mexico


South Carolina










New Jersey














West Virginia












North Dakota


New York




Rhode Island






















Note that according to these win probabilities, it is more likely that Obama would “win back” Virginia, Florida or Colorado than it is that Mitt can take Ohio. Indeed, those are the three states that Drew currently has in Obama’s column.  That’s a total of 51 Electoral College votes in those three states alone, and it is the difference between Obama winning 281 Electoral College votes versus 332.  So clearly these forecasts are amenable to change, even with the dwindling number of undecideds.  Given the close nature of the race, several states can tip in either direction.  However, both models suggest that, based on current state polling, Romney has a bigger hurdle ahead of him if he is going to pull this out.

I want to stress that these models use the latest polling in each state to project the winner.   As such, they tend to be more accurate than the structural forecast models political scientists issue by Labor Day based on the “fundamentals” that I’ve discussed in several previous posts.  The drawback, of course, is that these state-based models don’t help us understand why people are voting for a particular candidate.  In effect, they use current support to predict future support.  That works well if all one is interested in is predicting the election outcome, but they aren’t very theoretically satisfying.

Note that both the Linzer and the Holbrook-DeSart models are premised on the assumption that state-based polls this late in the year are generally accurate.  Is that a safe premise?  In fact, as John Sides discusses here citing research by Robert Ericksen and Christopher Wezlien, they are.  As this graph shows, the share of the Democratic vote based on polls in the last week of the election closely aligns to the actual vote percentage received by the Democratic candidate in the period 1952-2008. (If the alignment was perfect, the data points would fall directly on the diagonal line.)

So, using conceptually simple (and transparent!) methods, political scientists still see this race as Obama’s to lose. This does not mean, however, that this election is over.  The key – and as yet unanswered – question is whether Mitt can, through a combination of winning over undecided voters and gaining a turnout advantage, rope in the 1-2% more support he needs to flip Ohio, or some other combination of swing states.   Your answer to that question may depend on whether you think there continues to be movement toward Romney, however slight, during these last eight days. If there is, both models should pick this up, and adjust their projections accordingly.  If there is not, however, and this race has entered a stable equilibrium, the odds seem to be in Obama’s favor.

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