This Year’s Model

I occasionally annoy my good friend Jonathan Bernstein by cracking wise about the iron conviction of some political scientists that most of what the teeming masses pay attention to in campaigns is a crock because this one model or this one variable is the only thing that actually matters. I will cheerfully admit that I prepared for a life in politics by taking exactly one political science class in politics–and that one was on the political theories of the Greeks–so I’m in no position to mock my betters so long as they keep the arrogance index down. Here, then, is the more strongly qualified Nate Cohn of TNR on the latest “can’t miss” predictive model from a couple of professors in Colorado:

A widely publicized political science forecasting model by Ken Berry and Michael Bickers in Colorado projects that Romney should win big

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My take? Add it to the pile.

There are dozens of political science models. Some are good, some are bad. Some say Obama will win. Others say he will lose. Is there any reason to believe that this model is any better or worse than the others? At the very least, there’s not much reason to assume it’s any better than the competition. The press release reveals it’s predicted every election since 1980. If it hadn’t, that would be pretty embarrassing. In the eight presidential elections since 1980, six have been 7+ point blowouts in the two party vote. So all you need is a model that gets 2000 and 2004 right without missing the other six elections. Call it 2-0, in my book.

I can even prove that it’s not difficult: there are a million other political science models running around with a similar claim to accuracy over the last eight elections. And do those models point toward a clear Romney or Obama victory? In the aggregate, the political science models point toward a competitive race, but there are models showing a clear victory for either side. The Colorado model has a mirror-image counter by Drew Lizner of Emory University, who gives Obama a 99 percent chance of victory. The FiveThirtyEight model integrates economic variables and it finds Obama with a modest advantage, and so does a model built by John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, Seth Hill for the Washington Post. The famous Abramowitz “Time For a Change” model points toward an extraordinarily tight race. So, contrary to popular belief, the fundamentals do not clearly point to a victory for either side. And not only do the economic-based models show a tight race, but Obama’s approval rating is at about 48 percent, which most agree is a product of fundamentals like economic performance.

We’re just going to have to wait for November 6, I’m afraid, and then see which political scientists (a) get it right and (b) are now in a position next cycle to publish something on their new model that’s absolutely infallible.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.