Tag Archives: 2012

No Bread, No Victory: Why Obama Might Lose in 2012

Another day, another political science forecast.  This one, Professor Doug Hibbs’ Bread and Peace model, is one of the more parsimonious forecast efforts around.  He essentially uses two variables – a weighted average of the per capita disposable personal income growth rate across the President’s term and U.S. military fatalities in unprovoked wars – to estimate the incumbent party’s share of the major party vote.   Of the two variables, the weighted average of quarterly income growth (his personal income coefficient includes the election term growth rates dating back through the first quarter of the president’s electoral term, with most recent income growth rate carrying almost 4 times the weight as the earliest) as the single best indicator of voters’ perception of the state of the economy.  But Hibbs argues as well that a party initiating an unprovoked war will also suffer electorally, with the size of the electoral penalty increasing in proportion to the cumulative number of U.S. military casualties per capita.

The underlying logic driving the Hibbs’ model is the idea that I have addressed in previous posts: that presidential elections are largely retrospective referendums on the performance of the party in power.  Note that typically this referendum centers on the incumbent party’s handling of the economy; as this chart shows, Hibbs’ disposable income variable does a good job predicting election outcomes since 1952 all by itself.

You can see, however, that the economic variable didn’t do very well in 1952 or 1968; in both cases the incumbent  party’s candidate did  much worse than economic conditions seemingly warranted.  The reason why, Hibbs’ argues, is because voters were blaming the incumbent party’s candidate for unpopular wars in Korea and Vietnam. Hence the addition of the fatalities variable in his model.  Note that this variable will come into play, according to Hibbs, in 2012, since Obama chose to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.  But, as we’ll see below, it won’t have nearly the impact on Obama’s vote share that the slow growth in disposable income will have.

Note that Hibbs shows particular disdain for forecast models that include what he views as ad hoc variables designed to better fit the prediction to actual election outcomes, but which add nothing theoretically.  Thus, in contrast to the Abramowitz model that I’ve discussed here and at the Economist DIA site, he has no use for presidential approval variables.  Although knowing how popular a president is may improve the forecast’s accuracy, it doesn’t tell us why the President has this approval rating. Presumably it has something to do with the state of the economy – but Hibbs already accounts for that.  (Indeed, he finds that his “bread” and “peace” variables account for almost half the variation in presidential approval ratings).  So in his view approval ratings aren’t very helpful in understanding what causes a particular election outcome.

For somewhat different reasons he dismisses the inclusion of time-related variables, including that used by Abramowitz,  that punish or reward a president depending on how long his party has held the presidency.  As Hibbs writes, “I regard the rationalizations of the time-coded variables …as fanciful and ad-hoc.”  He shows that when these time variables are removed from some of the more well-known forecast models, their predictive capacity drops substantially.

I’ve gone through Hibbs model in some detail to remind you of two points I made in my exchanges with Nate Silver regarding the difference between political science forecast models and what Silver does.  First, Hibbs’ entire forecast model is open to scrutiny by others, so that when it goes wrong, we can see why.  And that gets to the purpose of this forecasting enterprise:  political scientists want to do more than simply predict the outcome of an election.  Doing that is quite easy: just aggregate all the most recent state level polls on the day before the election. You will hit the final Electoral College vote tally almost squarely on the head.  But that doesn’t tell you why someone won the election – for that you need a theoretical explanation that you can put to the test.  Hibbs’ theory says voters in 2012 will vote largely on the basis of their evaluation of Obama’s handling of the economy and, to a lesser extent, the fatalities resulting from his decision to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

So this brings us to Hibbs’ prediction for 2012.  Looking only at disposable income alone, he argues the situation does not look good for Obama; the weighted average quarterly growth rate since Obama took office is only .1%, far below the post-World War II average of 1.8%.  His model suggests that the U.S. has to experience at least 1.2% growth for a president to win 50% of the two-party vote. Barring spectacular growth in the next two quarters, then, Obama is going to fall short of rate needed to win a 50% share of the vote. When you include the  Afghanistan-related casualties – actual and projected – and assuming a growth rate in disposable income of between 1 and 2% in the last two quarters of 2012, Hibbs’ projects that Obama will likely lose the election, garnering only about 47.5% of the two-party vote.

As he readily acknowledges, his forecast is something of an outlier compared to the predictions of several other political science models, including Abramowitz’s, that forecast a narrow Obama victory. Nonetheless, he is sticking by his model, albeit with the understanding that some unforeseen event or idiosyncratic factors related to this election could through his projection out of  whack.

What might those be? If  you look  at the graph above, you’ll see that his forecast model didn’t do a very good job in either 1996, where it underestimated Clinton’s vote share, or in 2000, when it overestimated Gore’s vote share. He thinks Clinton’s legendary “charm” and Gore’s rather wooden campaign style may have thrown his projections off. Of course, as I’ve noted in earlier posts, almost none of the forecast models did well in 2000, a fact that some analysts attribute to Gore’s poor campaign strategy.  Looking toward 2012, Hibbs acknowledges the possibility that idiosyncratic factors associated with election-year issues and candidate characteristics could come into play.  Among the former are controversies regarding gay marriage and immigration policy and the recent Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act.  Of the latter, Romney’s Mormon faith could turn some voters away.  Interestingly, Hibbs does not view Obama’s race as one of them, declaring that because of Obama’s 2008 victory:  “Race will never again figure significantly in presidential politics, and that will be Obama’s greatest positive legacy to Democracy in America.”

Note that the Hibbs model is not without its critics. As Harry Enten tweeted, one might take Hibbs to task for the rather ad hoc nature of his estimate of the impact of fatalities on vote share, which varies by wars.  Moreover, Hibbs gives presidents a “one-term grace” period for wars inherited from a previous administration of the opposing party.   Some might argue that this is no less ad hoc than the inclusion of a time variable that rewards the incumbent party for holding office for one term, but penalizes that party after three presidential terms.  The important point, of course, is that we can make these criticisms because Hibbs shows us his model, warts and all.

And this brings me to a more general point.  In 2008, as I noted in my Economist post, political  scientists seeking to predict the outcome of the  presidential race had it rather easy, since the contest was not that close.  Every forecast model, save one, predicted Obama’s victory. However, it may very well be the case that in 2012, the forecast models will be equally accurate in terms of projecting the likely vote share, but that a number of them won’t get the winner right. That’s because the forecasters usually construct a confidence interval along with their forecast – that is, they are really estimating the probability that a candidate’s share of the major party vote will fall within an upper and lower value. So, for example, if a forecast model projects Obama to win just over 50% of the vote, but with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 49.1 to 51.1, and Obama ends up losing the election with 49.3% of the vote,  that is still a pretty damn good projection by political science standards.  That is, the model worked as well as any forecast model can hope to work, even if it didn’t predict the winner. This point, of course, will be lost in the post-mortem of the “incorrect” forecast models by critics, but it’s worth stating now because by all measures to date this election remains one of the closest in recent memory – one that may be too close to call given the uncertainty associated with most forecast models.

And this is a reminder, once again, that for political scientists,  predicting the election winner is a means to an end – it’s not the end itself.

UPDATE: 12:50.  Since I’ve already gotten several emails about this – yes, I think there are potential flaws in Hibbs’ model.  To begin, he has decided that Obama will pay a penalty for the casualties resulting from the Afghanistan “surge” he initiated. To Hibbs,  this evidently counts as an unprovoked war.  But one might easily argue that he inherited the war from Bush, and that he established a deadline to withdraw troops after the surge – and was it really an unprovoked war in any case?  Add to that the credit he will receive for orchestrating Bin Laden’s death and maybe the negative impact of the war will actually be a positive?  On the other hand, Hibbs’ final estimate doesn’t put  much weight on the  war variable – it costs Obama maybe .25% of the popular vote share.  His estimate is almost entirely a function of the sluggish economy.  And Hibbs’ model does have a good track  record.

*Hat tip to Mo Fiorina for alerting me that the latest Hibbs’ forecast was up.

Palin, Women and the Future of the Republican Party

When a political party loses a presidential election as decisively as the Republicans did this year, party members inevitable engage in a very public spectacle of playing the blame game. Amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth, they exchange recriminations, dissect candidate choices, replay campaign strategies, and generally proclaim that the party’s very existence is in jeopardy unless some dramatic changes are made.  As I noted in an earlier posting, it was only four years ago that Democrats openly worried that they had become a permanent minority party, geographically marginalized to urban centers on the coasts along with decaying Midwest rust-belt cities, with a constituency consisting primarily of cultural and intellectual snobs (i.e., college professors!), African-Americans and labor union leaders.

Now it is the Republicans turn to despair. They are now, if media reports are to be believed, the geographically isolated party, their support limited to the South and Great Plains, and their constituency reduced to the famous bible-thumping, gun toting rural white voters. Media stories are replete with accounts of battles between cultural conservatives, small government fiscal conservatives, and social libertarians for the soul of the Republican Party.

What are we to make of this?  Accounts of the death of the Republican Party, I would suggest, are greatly exaggerated. I see little evidence that the 2008 election presages an era in which the Republicans are destined to wander in the political wilderness for 40 years any more than the 2004 results foretold a similar story for the Democrats. In part, this is because Obama won not on the basis of any particular set of ideas or overriding political or governing philosophy so much as on his ability to present himself as an agent of “change.” As I’ll show in another post, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee, she likely would have won by a similar margin of victory.  In short, this was a Democratic year not because of what Democrats stand for, but because of what the Republican administration did for the previous 8 years. There was no single issue or cluster of issues separating the two parties ideologically in a way that caused a fundamental shift in voter allegiances, as is usually the case with a realigning election.  This was not an election that turned on an issue equivalent to slavery, or currency based on gold or silver, or the role of government in the free market.

Nonetheless, this is not to say that the political winds will necessarily reverse themselves again in four years to favor Republicans. The biggest obstacle to regaining the presidency, I argue, is the failure to attract women voters. In 2008, according to exit polls, women voted overwhelmingly for Obama over McCain, 56-43%. In contrast, the two candidates essentially split men.  This is a gain among women voters of 10% since 2004, and is the largest gender-based differential in a presidential election since 1996, when women supported Clinton 54-38% over Bob Dole (with another 7% siphoned off to a 3rd party candidate). (To be sure, Obama also gained 10% among men from Kerry’s performance in 2004, but it only brought him even with McCain among these voters).  It is also the 5th presidential election in a row, and 7th of the last 10, in which Republicans received less than 50% of the women’s vote. Of perhaps greater concern, the 2008 results reverse the trend evident in the two previous presidential elections, in which George Bush, largely on the basis of security concerns, had cut into the traditional Democrat edge among women, gaining 8% between 2000 and 2004.

The media has made much of Obama’s gains among young (18-29 year old) and African-American voters. But African-Americans comprised only 13% of voters in the last election (about a 2% increase over 2004), and the 18-29 year olds were but 18% of the vote. In contrast, women constitute more than half (53%) of voters (I’m ignoring overlap among the demographic categories for the moment). They thus represent the single biggest voting bloc (assuming, of course, that women can be viewed as a voting bloc – more on that below) in the electorate.

What can Republicans do to cut into this gender gap? First, it is important to realize that the gap is not due to party differences regarding what the media often describe as “women’s” issues: abortion and reproduction rights, equal pay and workplace discrimination, child care, etc.  Instead, the difference is primarily due to Democrat’s greater willingness to support government action to protect the less powerful in society: children, the poor, the less educated, etc.  Women, more than men, are motivated to vote based on these issues.

If Democrats “own” these issues, however, as voting in recent presidential elections suggests they do, might the Republicans cut into this gap through other means?  Might they play their own version of identity politics by running a woman at the top of their ticket in 2012?  And, if so, isn’t Sarah Palin the ideal candidate?

Yes and No. Yes, it could be that by running a woman at the top of the ticket, Republicans might make some inroads among women voters. But it’s not clear to me that Palin is the ideal candidate to do so, at least not based on the 2008 results. Those of you who have followed my posts throughout the campaign season remember that Palin’s selection by McCain to be his vice presidential nominee prompted an initial surge in support among women voters for the McCain ticket. Indeed, it was the only moment in the entire general election that McCain actually led Obama in polls. But in the end, Palin proved to be a very polarizing figure, in large part, I would argue, because the McCain campaign used her in the traditional vice presidential candidate role – as partisan attack dog.  Although she helped bring the social conservatives back into the Republican fold, her strident attacks on Obama undercut, I think, her ability to reach out to disaffected Clinton supporters, particularly women who in the end voted in overwhelming numbers for Obama.

This is not to say that Palin’s choice was a mistake – in fact, the exit polls suggest the opposite: McCain rolled the dice and it paid off, although the payoff was perhaps less than it might have been. Thus, 60% of respondents said Palin was not fully qualified to be president, and they went for Obama 82-16%.  Thirty-eight percent said she was qualified, and they voted for McCain 91-8%.  (This is almost the mirror image of Biden’s numbers; 66% said he was qualified, and 32% said he was not). However, as I suggested back in September when Palin was chosen, vice presidential picks are rarely consequential in terms of their impact on the presidential vote.  Biden’s selection, for instance, appears to have had almost no impact on Obama’s support.  However, Palin’s pick proved more influential than most previous V.P. picks (certainly more than Biden’s); fully 60% of voters said it influenced their vote. Of these,  7% of voters said McCain’s choice of Palin was the most important factor in how they voted, and they broke exactly along the lines of the overall presidential vote: 52-47% for Obama.  Fully 33% of voters said Palin’s selection was an important, if not the most important, factor in their vote, and they went for McCain in much greater numbers – 52-47% – than did voters as a whole. Another 20% said it was a minor factor in their vote, and they also went for McCain by 2 to 1, 66-33%. In short, among those voters (60% of the total number of voters) who mention Palin’s selection as influencing their vote, McCain did much better, winning this group 56-43%, while losing those who did not consider Palin’s selection at all when voting by 65-33%.  In other words, when voters factored the Palin choice into their vote, they were more likely to support McCain.  Obama won only among the 7% who said Palin was the most important influence on their vote, and even here he did no better than he did among voters overall.

In short, the exit polls numbers indicate that Palin was a net benefit to McCain; voters who used her selection as a factor in their vote were much more likely to vote for McCain than those who did not.  (Of course, we always have to be careful about inferring causality when identifying correlations of this type.)  However, even if we accept that Palin helped bolster McCain’s support – and the exit poll evidence is consistent with this claim – it doesn’t appear to be the case that she boosted his support disproportionately among women.  Keep in mind that Obama’s gain among women was no bigger than his gain among men, compared to 2004, so it is possible that Palin’s impact was a wash, in terms of gender.

Unfortunately, exit polls numbers do not provide data regarding the breakdown of support for Palin by gender.  They do reveal, however, some differences among women voters that suggest what Palin must do to win back women voters in 2012.  To begin, McCain did about equally poorly among women with children as among those without (57-41 Obama compared to 56-43%)  Interestingly, McCain won the father’s vote 50-48% – men without children went for Obama 51-48%. When we look at marital status and the vote, we see almost no difference between married men and married women – except among married men and women with kids.  Married fathers support McCain, while married mothers back Obama.  However, McCain lost “working women” badly, 60-39%, while just about breaking even in the “all other women” category (70% of voters) by 50-48%.  (Keep in mind that if we control for race, however, we see that McCain actually won white women by 7% – still a far smaller margin than his winning margin of 16% among white men.)

What does this suggest for 2012?  That the “women’s” vote is not as monolithic as one might think.  In fact, there are differences among women based on marriage, children and work status.  This suggests that if Palin is to gain traction at the national level during the next four years, then, she is going to have to broaden her appeal by playing up her hockey Mom credentials to win over mothers with children, while downplaying her social views that may cost her support among educated, single working women.  It may be, however, that Republicans would do far better by choosing a candidate – man or woman – who can make a credible case that her or his policies on issues like health care, education and the economy align more closely with women voters’ views on these issues than they would by playing identity politics.

Or they could nominate Condi Rice!