The unknowable future of the presidential campaign

On the one hand, it’s kind of obvious that no one really knows how the presidential election will turn out, and I often wish journalists and the TV talking heads would do a better job of explaining that their job is not to predict the future but to describe and document (and perhaps raise some questions for further thought about) things that have already happened.

But the breathless poll-by-poll, gaffe-by-gaffe, talking-point-by-talking-point, attack-ad-by-attack-ad coverage of the campaign often encourages us to believe that something really big has just happened that is likely to affect the outcome of the race.

Ezra Klein of the Wash Post’s Wonkblog did a good job yesterday of expressing humility about the unknowability of the future, and especially of documenting the silliness of the many recent supposedly epochal developments that actually seem to have had very little impact on the race — which, at least as measured by all those annoying polls, has been quite stable for quite a while. Good for him. He ended with a plea for answers to the question of what might end up mattering in determining the final outcome.

Over at The Monkey Cage, a joint blog of several political scientists, Prof. John Sides of George Washington University took up Klein’s question and gave a three-part answer of things that might matter: The performance of the economy; the ads; the ground game.

Sides’ piece, however, also drips with humility about even these factors and shows an admirable (if frustrating for those who insist on knowing the future) reluctance give any predictions.

As you may know, several political scientists have developed actual equations which, when you plug in the variables, supposedly predict presidential elections with a high degree of accuracy. Color me humbly skeptical.

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