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):



  1. Thanks! And Well Done, Matt! Twas fun to follow your reports and recall comments you made at Alumni College! Added a lot to my following of this L O N G campaign.

    Nancy Faulkner ’55

  2. It is all in the GOTV. In 2008 it was D+8; some were expecting a return to the old “norm” of D+ 2 or 3; it turned out to be D+6. Maybe, a new “norm”, maybe not. 2014 will tell us more.

    I am still wiping the mud and egg off my face.

  3. Sheldon – There’s no mud and egg to wipe off. You made a good faith prediction based on the data. There’s always some uncertainty involved in these things. As my longtime readers know, I have missed 2 out of the last 7 presidential races. I think you are right that turnout was a key part of the story. I will do a more extended post when I get a chance.

    Also, yours is a valuable opinion on this site – you expose my mostly liberal students and colleagues to another perspective, so I hope you keep posting comments. I am very proud that this site encourages the (polite!) exchange of differing perspectives, rather than degenerating into one of those echo-chambers sites where liked-minded people sit and worship from the same hymnal.

  4. Hi Nancy,

    I’ve removed your old email address. Meanwhile, remember that today is the first day of the 2016 presidential campaign – and so it begins again!

  5. Two things:

    1) Where is Nate Silver’s name?

    2) As the dust settles, I agree that Romney did the correct thing in not releasing his tax returns, but for different reasons than yours. They would have been so embarrassing that a defeat would have become a disaster.

    Your devoted reader,

    Marty Lapidus

  6. Marty,

    As a political scientist, I’m part of community of scholars who are committed to exchanging ideas with the goal of building our understanding of politics, including elections. That means a commitment to transparency, and a free exchange of ideas. Nate, understandably, has a different purpose, but it means no one has seen the moving parts of his model. Without that transparency, we can’t learn from it. Since there are so many good political science models out there with results as good as Nate’s – and because I only have so many hours in the day! – I focus on the models that are transparent. That’s no knock on Nate. And he’s doing fine on his own!

    You may be right about the tax returns. But I will point out that all the supposed “gaffes” – Big Bird, the 47% remark, “you didn’t build that” didn’t seem to alter the results too far from what we predicted back in September. That suggests they either didn’t have a big impact, or they cancelled each other out. I tend to think the failure to release the tax returns falls in that category, but I could be wrong.

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