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Nate Silver’s excellent look-ahead at the race for prez

From Nate Silver’s excellent piece today in which he tries to identify the factors that might most reliably allow a serious person to look ahead at Pres. Obama’s chance of being reelected:

“In a survey conducted in late September 1983, Ronald Reagan actually trailed Walter Mondale by 2 points, and in October 1991, George H. W. Bush led Bill Clinton 55 to 20.”

Okay, we know how the elections of 1984 (Reagan by 49 states to one) and 1992 (Clinton by 370-168 in electoral votes) turned out. So we know that trial-heat matchup polls a year before the election don’t always predict the future (and frankly, I wish they weren’t even conducted).

Silver, the political number cruncher who now crunches for the NY Times, knows it too. And he isn’t attempting to predict the outcome (in the end he calls it a near toss-up from here, with a slightly greater likelihood of Obama losing than winning but with big huge caveats about a variety of factors — like how the economy is doing and whom the Repubs nominate, which could dramatically change that outlook).

As an exercise in working through the knowables and the unknowables, I thought the piece was brilliant and I commend it to you for a full read. But it’s quite long (who am I to talk) so for those who don’t click through I’ve selected a few excerpts that made me think or made me laugh.

Here, Silver describes the period when Obama stopped seeming like the favorite for reelection:

“Then came the debt-ceiling debates of July and August, which seemed to crystallize Obama’s vulnerabilities in a way that even the Democrats’ midterm disaster of 2010 did not. It’s probably because he handled the situation so poorly, simultaneously managing to annoy his base, frustrate swing voters, concede a major policy victory to Republicans and — through the fear imported into the market by the brinksmanship in Congress and the credit-rating downgrade that followed — further imperil the economic recovery. On Aug. 12, a week and a half after the debate ended in Congress, Obama’s stock on Intrade, a popular political betting market, dipped below 50 percent for the first time. It has hovered just below the 50 percent threshold, usually at about 48 percent, ever since.

Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog. Let’s not oversell this. A couple of months of solid jobs reports, or the selection of a poor Republican opponent, would suffice to make him the favorite again.”

A few generalizations about voter sentiments that add up to Obama-could-lose:

“… three fundamental misgivings shared by much of the American electorate.

• First, many of us understand that Barack Obama inherited a terrible predicament. We have a degree of sympathy for the man. But we have concerns, which have been growing over time, about whether he’s up to the job.
• Second, most of us are gravely concerned about the economy. We’re not certain what should be done about it, but we’re frustrated.
• Third, enough of us are prepared to vote against Obama that he could easily lose. It doesn’t mean we will, but we might if the Republican represents a credible alternative and fits within the broad political mainstream.”

Silver explains two leading theories about what determines the outcome of presidential elections: a “referendum” paradigm, in which the key question is how people feel about the incumbent’s performance and the identity of the opponent barely matters; and a “median voter” paradigm, in which the candidate whose views are closest to those of the voter at the exact middle of the spectrum should win. Silver assumes that of the of the plausible Repub nominees, Mitt Romney will give the Repubs the best chance under the “median voter” model, and that under the “referendum” model, the main indicator will be the performance of the economy.

Therefore, if the Repubs nominate Romney and the economy gets even worse (this is the bit that made me laugh) Silver assumes Obama is pretty near toast:

“[Obama’s] chances are slim enough in this case that if I woke up next November to discover that we would have four more years of Obama, I might ask whether there was some sort of October surprise: ‘Mitt in Torrid Affair With Filipina Housekeeper.’ Subhead: ‘Illegal Immigrant Got Free Romneycare.’ Then I might ask if Sarah Palin had run on the Tea Party ballot line and taken 6 percent of the vote.”

Silver’s final summation:

“With Perry having slumped in the polls, however, and Romney the more likely nominee, the odds tilt slightly toward Obama joining the list of one-termers. It is early, and almost no matter what, the election will be a losable one for Republicans. But Obama’s position is tenuous enough that it might not be a winnable one for him.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/03/2011 - 04:44 pm.

    OK, what Silver took 50 paragraphs to tell you I can tell you in two.

    In head-to-head polls against any opponent, even a nameless one, notice how Obama rarely if ever breaks 50%. When any incumbent polls in the 40s it doesn’t matter what his opponent’s poll number is. The undecideds will always break for the challenger.

    For example, in a poll yesterday, it was Obama 44% to Cain 37%. Some people would say that Obama was up by 7 over Cain when in reality, he was down by 6 because he’s 6 shy of a majority.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2011 - 05:12 pm.

    Dennis is still having trouble with arithmetic.
    Unless he expects another Bush v Gore, where Obama would have to win by at least 10 percent to survive a Republican Supreme Court.

    More seriously, Silver (who have I great respect for) tends to underestimate the historic value of incumbency.
    It’s still Obama’s to win or lose.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/03/2011 - 05:35 pm.

    A very interesting read. A year in advance makes it very hard to predict what will happen and it’s useful to have some kind of signposts put up.
    #2 Paul, I’m in awe of how much work Silver has put into historical research and he’s much better with numbers than I am. Can you expand on where he’s underestimating incumbency?

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/03/2011 - 06:50 pm.


    It’s an interaction thing — hard to estimate how different variables interact with each other. When you build a model you usually use constants to weight variables, whether they’re additive or multiplicative.

    Historically, incumbents are much more likely to win than to lose, so it’s how you figure that into your model.

    Numbers from one source:
    “incumbency has a significant causal effect of raising the probability of subsequent electoral
    success by about 0.40 to 0.45.”

    So I have an intuitive feel that Nate is not giving it as much weight as he might.

    It might be significant that one source cited a ‘scare off’ effect — people who chose to run against an incumbent are less strong candidates than those who chose to run for open seats. I’ll leave it to the readers whether that is the case in this election.

  5. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/03/2011 - 08:26 pm.

    Romney’s is well educated, an experienced leader, and a successful businessman. With the poisonous split in the country today and the disappointment in Obama’s performance, there is evidence that many Democrats are going to vote for Romney especially those with deep pockets. These are Romney Democrats just like the Reagan Democrats.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 11/04/2011 - 07:56 am.

    Richard, more likely, it’s democrats, having assuaged their white liberal guilt back in 2008, feel secure that they can go back to supporting a candidate based on his qualifications. Romney would make most democrats comfortable with their choice.

    That’s certainly the case with so-called independents who voted for Obama last time. He’s lost them and they’re not coming back. Obama has seen the last of 50+ approval ratings regardless of what the economy does because he’s lost the formerly-idealistic independents.

  7. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 11/04/2011 - 08:03 am.

    #4 Paul: oh. It seems that he did include quite an incumbency measure in his models. I thought you might have had something more direct of a criticism.

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/04/2011 - 09:35 am.

    Sorry. I spent a career (in part) looking at mathematical models of behavior, so I can’t take them to seriously.
    There are too many amateur psychologists on this list.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/04/2011 - 12:56 pm.

    Speaking of psychology, I think one element that’s not being considered is Romney’s difficulty with the right wing. He may capture some moderate votes but he’s clearly not trusted by the tea party and libertarian block that Republicans have been counting on. If they stay home, or vote for someone else, Romney’s in trouble.

  10. Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 11/04/2011 - 01:27 pm.

    This isn’t amateur psychology, it’s sloppy and non-rigorous thinking, if you can call it “thinking.” It’s too glib, too abstract, and makes unwarranted assumptions. For example, I don’t think it makes sense to consider being “a successful businessman” (whatever that means–does it mean being rich? if so, let us remember GWB) a positive attribute for a presidential candidate simply because of the condition of the economy. For one thing, Obama appointed many Republican financial folks; for another, economic policies that “favor business” (which usually means lower taxes) are not going to be the answer in this case because the economic doldrums are caused by weak consumer demand, not high taxes on business. It may be that voters reflexively vote for the opposing candidate when they’re not happy with the way things are, but that could be utterly disastrous if that results in a president who doesn’t understand foreign relations and social issues, to name two key requirements for a successful presidency. Unfortunately, our presidential cycles don’t necessarily parallel economic cycles, and the previous administration, with its wars and indifference to effective financial regulation, seems to have dropped an egg on the economy rotten enough to last for a long time. It may be naive to continue to hope that at least a significant number of voters will THINK, but if at all possible, our efforts should go toward thoughtful analysis and constructive solutions rather than impoverished doomsaying. Romney may be the best of the lot, but we have yet to see a Republican candidate that is a real winner.

  11. Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 11/04/2011 - 06:30 pm.

    Okay, so I got distracted from the subject, which was Silver’s clever piece, not the election in general. But geez, guys–let’s not make light of how serious this is. We may have a flawed president–I’m disappointed along with many others–but postulating that the ultimate result of his election will be the subsequent election of a far more seriously-flawed candidate is very distressing. The real problem, at the “voter-perception” level, is that voters who ought to know better are being convinced that their complaints will be effectively addressed by electing a “pro-business” candidate. For Pete’s sake, I’m not anti-business; I’m just anti-the idea that a society that we all would like to live in–including non-collapsing infrastructure, decent education, no beggars in the gutters, and no one dying from lack of medical care–can be financed without taxes.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 11/04/2011 - 08:28 pm.

    @6 Whatever. There is no drama here. Mr. Romney is perfect for the nomination, completely middle-of-the-road and promising not to change anything in Washington. Evidently the Tea Party movement, hype aside, has proved quite unable to reform the hidebound Republican Party; it is still 100% un-reconstituted and plans to conduct business as usual — same old wars (military and social), welfare (corporate included), regulations (& privileges), spending increases, steady erosion of liberty, outright hypocrisy, and endless blame and buck-passing. (Just like Obama, I might add.)

    Possibly, too, is that the Republicans want their least-inspiring candidate to run because, deep down, they’d really rather not assume the responsibility for healing the country or take the blame for their inevitable failure to do so. The Party has no new ideas. And don’t for a second fool yourself or pretend that they care about the citizens, the republic, or our economy. Bottom line: they might not want to win the 2012 election; they’d rather sit on the sidelines and blame Democrats.

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