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The success of models predicting the election outcome from the economy

- November 11, 2008

Mark Schmitt writes:

The long election cycle featured as many theories about how the election would turn out as there were presidential candidates in those first debates in 2007. Let’s give some of the theories a post-final-exam assessment.

He discusses a bunch of things here, but the one that interests me the most is:

Economic Determinism: B.
Some political scientists and economists like to remind us that for all the Palin jokes and PUMAs and debate gaffes, elections are pretty simple — a good economy benefits the party in power; a bad economy creates a change election. There are various models that, ignoring all polls, aggregate and weight economic data to predict the outcome. The best known model is that of Yale’s Ray Fair, which predicted an Obama victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, off by just a percentage point. Other models were also accurate.

My comment: Regarding the political science theories, I think “economic determinism” is a bit strong. These models do have other predictors and they also acknowledge error. Also, I know that Ray Fair did this stuff early on, but nowadays I think that political scientists such as Bob Erikson, Chris Wlezien, Doug Hibbs, Jim Campbell, and Larry Bartels are the more serious researchers in this area. If you want to read a whole book about the topic, I recommend Steven Rosenstone’s Forecasting Presidential Elections from 1983. “Economic determinism” may look kind of simplistic, but I think the work of Rosenstone and his successors captures important truths.