Taking all the fun out of election punditry

In his Financial Times column, Clive Crook gives away the game and explains why nearly all political scientists believe that Barack Obama will win the election this fall:  Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not ...

In his Financial Times column, Clive Crook gives away the game and explains why nearly all political scientists believe that Barack Obama will win the election this fall:  Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not much better.) Instead, he has a simple “electoral barometer” that weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy’s economic growth rate and whether the president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms (the “time for a change” factor). This laughably simple metric has correctly forecast the winner of the popular vote in 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections. The only exception is 1968, when the barometer (calibrated to range between +100 and –100) gave Hubert Humphrey a wafer-thin advantage of +2; he lost, with a popular vote deficit of less than 1 percentage point. The barometer not only picks winners but pretty accurately points to winning margins, too. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had the biggest postwar negative reading (–66); Ronald Reagan beat him by nearly 10 percentage points. President George W. Bush’s net approval rating (favourable minus unfavourable) is currently –40; the economy grew at a 1 per cent annual rate in the first quarter; and Republicans have had two terms in the White House. Plugging the numbers into Mr Abramowitz’s formula gives the Republican candidate a score of –60, about as bad as it gets: second only to Mr Carter’s in the annals of doomed postwar candidacies. The barometer says Mr Obama is going to waltz to victory. Again, this is not a commentary on the intrinsic value of the candidates -- it's just how politics works.  [But the closeness of the current polls!  Obama's race!!--ed.  You'll have to read Crook's column to see the answers to those questions.  Let's put it this way, however:  if, given the current structural conditions, the Democratic Party fails to win in November, the party should simply disband.] The problem, appropos of a recent post, is that this makes for lousy punditry -- it says that there is little in the day-to-day nature of the campaign that will have any effect.  Pundits who say, "it doesn't make a difference" are not invited back to do more punditry.   

In his Financial Times column, Clive Crook gives away the game and explains why nearly all political scientists believe that Barack Obama will win the election this fall: 

Alan Abramowitz, a politics scholar at Emory University, has shown that summer head-to-head polls convey almost no information about the forthcoming election. (Subsequent head-to-head polls are not much better.) Instead, he has a simple “electoral barometer” that weighs together the approval rating of the incumbent president, the economy’s economic growth rate and whether the president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms (the “time for a change” factor). This laughably simple metric has correctly forecast the winner of the popular vote in 14 out of 15 postwar presidential elections. The only exception is 1968, when the barometer (calibrated to range between +100 and –100) gave Hubert Humphrey a wafer-thin advantage of +2; he lost, with a popular vote deficit of less than 1 percentage point. The barometer not only picks winners but pretty accurately points to winning margins, too. In 1980, Jimmy Carter had the biggest postwar negative reading (–66); Ronald Reagan beat him by nearly 10 percentage points. President George W. Bush’s net approval rating (favourable minus unfavourable) is currently –40; the economy grew at a 1 per cent annual rate in the first quarter; and Republicans have had two terms in the White House. Plugging the numbers into Mr Abramowitz’s formula gives the Republican candidate a score of –60, about as bad as it gets: second only to Mr Carter’s in the annals of doomed postwar candidacies. The barometer says Mr Obama is going to waltz to victory.

Again, this is not a commentary on the intrinsic value of the candidates — it’s just how politics works.  [But the closeness of the current polls!  Obama’s race!!–ed.  You’ll have to read Crook’s column to see the answers to those questions.  Let’s put it this way, however:  if, given the current structural conditions, the Democratic Party fails to win in November, the party should simply disband.] The problem, appropos of a recent post, is that this makes for lousy punditry — it says that there is little in the day-to-day nature of the campaign that will have any effect.  Pundits who say, “it doesn’t make a difference” are not invited back to do more punditry.   

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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