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Truths and Myths about the 2008 Election, Part I

- November 5, 2008

I’ve been nattering on about this, as have Brendan Nyhan and others. Even the Washington Post finally noticed yesterday. If you look at the forecasting models by political scientists (summarized here) and also include the models of Ray Fair and Doug Hibbs, Obama’s predicted share of the two-party vote was 53.8%. He won 53%.

What this means: first, he did no better or worse than expected. His victory is historic because he is our first African-American president. But his victory was not a surprise. Moreover, the 53% margin means that he did not squeak by, but neither did he win some landslide.

Second, beware interpretations of the election that fixate on the campaign. Journalistic accounts of this election will undoubtedly emphasize how good Obama’s campaign was and how bad McCain’s campaign was. This New York Times story — headlined “Near-Flawless Run From Start to Finish Is Credited in Victory” — gives you a taste of that kind of interpretation. (See Larry Bartels in the Post story on why journalists and politicians have a “fundamental conflict of interest” on this issue.)

But the fundamentals are arguably more important. I’ll paraphrase something I heard Tom Mann say last week. As Obama, would you rather have a bad economy and an unpopular president, or a 2-to-1 spending advantage? You’d take the bad economy and the unpopular president.

Also note that there was a great deal of stability in the polls in the last month. Jim Stimson’s graph and commentary is worth reading as a blow-by-blow narrative of what wasn’t changing. Mark Blumenthal at Pollster and Nate Silver at 538 have also diligently refused to overinterpret every wiggle in the polls.

Of course, this is not to say that the campaign didn’t matter. It may be that the campaign helped move voters in line with the outcome that the fundamentals predict; see Andy’s work here and here, as well as Tom Holbrook’s book.

It may also be that some dynamics in attitudes helped produce Obama’s victory. See this report (pdf) by Samuel Popkin and Doug Rivers, which identifies some relevant trends, such as the growing perception that Obama “understands people like me” and promotes policies that would benefit the middle class. Further analysis will tell us whether those trends were truly consequential to the outcome.

It may also be that the campaign helped mobilize some voters to go to the polls, in line with Don Green and Alan Gerber’s research on get-out-the-vote campaigns.

Ultimately, we won’t know how much the campaign mattered until much later, when we can analyze some systematic data. In the meantime, expect impressionistic renderings to dominate, but read them skeptically. I also hope that journalists will note this success of political science theories of elections and take them more seriously in the future. This piece at Inside Higher Ed is a nice start.