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Going Half-Way Out On A Limb

Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I am getting very tired of being wrong all the time.

In 2004, I was pretty confident that George Bush was going to lose. The underlying economic fundamentals and sense that the country was off on the wrong track made me figure he was probably a goner. I deliberately ignored my political science training, which told me that incumbent presidents get their approval rating (51%), probably because I wanted to believe it. I was so unhappy with Bush, so desperate for his defeat, that I lost my analytical objectivity.

I was determined not to do that this year, and thus far it's been equally embarrassing. The basic pattern of presidential nominating contests is that one candidate builds a sufficient degree of momentum that there is a rally effect as the primary continues, i.e. the frontrunner consolidates political support and the other candidates are forced to drop out after repeated defeats and lack of money. The frontloading process has only exacerbated this trend. Obama's victory in Iowa, and what I suspected were his strengths in New Hampshire, should have spelled a 2nd victory since the primary was only a few days, which in turn should have led to a collapse in Clinton's position. That didn't happen, obviously. Then I decided that after a string of Obama victories in February, Clinton would falter in Ohio & Texas. That didn't happen either. And by the way, I thought McCain was toast last summer, and now he's the nominee. In short, this primary season has inflicted a great deal of humiliation on political analysts (including myself).

Why is this important? Well, the fundamentals of this election season are overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats. The ailing economy, exhaustion with the Iraq War, and Bush's sky-high disapproval ratings (now at an all time record) should mean that any Democrat will be able to best McCain. But...conventional analysis like this hasn't fared very well this year, has it? Could the campaign dynamics overcome the fundamentals? Will the divisive Democratic primary and McCain's (unfathomable) reputation as a good guy allow him to win anyway?

The vagaries of the primary season shouldn't be all that surprising, in retrospect. Primaries are, by their natures, extremely unpredictable affairs. General elections are pretty straightforward: party loyalists vote for their nominee based on stable issue preferences, and independents vote "nature of the times" (for the incumbent or his party when times are good, for the other party when times are bad)*. In primaries, none of these basic voting cues are available, so personality, identity, and campaign ephemera become important. Now in most cases all but one of the primary candidates loses viability and has to drop out quickly, but sometimes strange circumstances develop and the race goes on and on - as in 1984 and 2008. This primary is weird because LOTS of primaries are weird.

I suspect (hope) that in the general election the basic structure of presidential politics will re-assert itself. If Obama or McCain run a superior campaign or is grossly advantaged in terms of media coverage (cough McCain! cough), it could shift the final percentage by a point or so. But McCain is playing such a weak hand, and his vulnerabilities are so obvious, that in the final analysis it shouldn't make any difference. If the economy or Iraq improves, then things might change. I don't think that's going to happen, and I don't know many people who do. So I think that Obama will wrap up the nomination with superdelegate support by June, rally the party behind him in August, and defeat McCain comfortably in November- by around 5 points or so in the national popular vote. That's what my political science training tells me, and THIS time I'm going to listen.

*One might argue that 2000 was an exception. Times were perceived to be good in 2000, but Gore still lost because of a hostile media and a poor campaign - or so goes the story. I have four responses to that argument. First, Gore didn't lose the national popular vote (he won 48.4% to 47.9%) and probably should have won Florida. Second, times were not perceived as great as one might think - change in real disposable income (the key economic indicator) was slightly negative in the fall of 2000. Third, I did say that campaign effects have some role. Bush probably shaved a point off of Gore's margin as a consequence. And let's not forget the intervention of Ralph Nader (exit polls indicated that 60% of Nader voters would have turned up and voted for Gore). In a "fair" election without Nader and a media that didn't personally loathe Al Gore, Gore probably would have won a fairly comfortable 51.6% to 47.4% victory. So, the evidence still indicates that campaign effects only have effects on the margin in general elections, whereas they are hugely important in primaries.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:03 PM
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