Prediction in the Presidential Race

The world is full of political predictions that subsequently only provide clear evidence of how very difficult it is to make such predictions in a diverse culture, that is nearly evenly divided. Political predictions from partisans are almost worthless because they are not so much a dispassionate assessment as an attempt to push the electorate. There is something of a bandwagon effect. Those who are undecided may try to go with the anticipated winner. Supporters of the expected loser may become discouraged and unwilling to endure the inconveniences of voting.

On the Saturday before the 2000 election, the consensus of the national polls had the then Governor George Bush ahead of Vice-President Al Gore by about 3%, very close to the current margins in the national polls between Bush and Senator John Kerry. Given the general relationship between electoral votes and popular vote totals and this points spread, I expected a 3% Bush victory in 2000 with a corresponding 80-point margin in the electoral college. This would have represented a relatively close, but still comfortable victory.

Of course, we remember the actual results. Gore won the popular vote by about 0.5%, 48.38% versus 47.87%. Despite an election controversy that went to the US Supreme Court, Bush won the election in the Electoral College by a tiny five votes, 271 to 266.

Looking back at the contemporaneous polls just before the 2000 election reveals a mixed bag of results. See the table below. Zogby is often credited with picking the last minute movement toward Gore perhaps caused by the eleventh-hour revelation of Bush’s drunk driving arrest decades earlier. Zogby nailed Gore’s popular vote percentage on the head. As of this writing, Zogby now shows a movement for Senator John Kerry who enjoys a small 1% lead, but more importantly Zogby sees momentum for Kerry. Zogby did indeed accurately predict the Gore percentage, but significantly underpredicted Bush’s strength. Zogby expected Bush to only have 46% of the vote, nearly 2% less than his actual total. Zogby overpredicted the final popular vote for Nader. In retrospect, perhaps the CBS and Fox polls really did the best giving Gore a 1% margin and calling the election a dead heat, respectively.

Bush Gore Buchanan Nader
CNN 47% 45% 1% 4%
Zogby 46% 48% 0.5% 5%
ABC 48% 45% 3%
Battleground 50% 45% 3%
Newsweek 45% 43%
CBS 44% 45%
Fox 43% 43% 1% 3%
Wash. Post 48% 45% 1% 3%

This election is so peculiar, in so many ways, that it is almost impossible to generalize from history. However, some factors that argue against a Bush victory are:

  • The stock market has at best been even over the last year. Winning incumbents are usually associated with increasing stock markets.
  • Although there has always been such leftward tilt to the press, there has been nothing like the efforts of the mass media in this election to drive the people to Kerry. Nothing in memory corresponds to the remarkable credulousness of CBS News in allowing themselves to be duped into using forged documents to question President Bush’s National Guard service. Nothing in memory compares to the blinders the national media has put on about the irresponsible sweeping accusations of atrocities that John Kerry made about his fellow soldiers. Nothing in memory compares to the way the national media have not questioned Senator Kerry’s voting record in the Senate.
  • No sitting president since Harry Truman has won an election if during the previous year, he was at sometime losing in the polls. Though he enjoys a small lead in the polls now, in August, Bush was behind in the national polls.
  • The election is close and the conventional wisdom holds that undecideds typically break towards the challenger. This would tend to give the edge to Kerry.
  • More voters have been registered this year. Polls indicate that Kerry chances improve when registered voters rather than likely voters are tallied. One suspects that a significant number of these new registrants will vote and this will help Kerry.

Other factors that weigh on Bush’s behalf are:

  • Americans are loath to switch presidents during war.
  • Unemployment is low by conventional standards and people vote according to their personal circumstances.
  • The economy has been growing at a rapid pace during the past twelve months.
  • Kerry is a Massachusetts Liberal.
  • Political models predict that Bush will gain 53% of the vote. This promising prediction is mitigated by the knowledge that such models also predicted that Gore would win the 2000 election by a comfortable margin.
  • Bush won the Weekly Reader poll among youngsters. Unlike other, more conventional and rationally constructed polls, the Weekly Reader poll has correctly predicted the eventual winner in every election since it began in 1956. That’s twelve in a row, with no mistakes.
  • Betting polls which accurately predicted the recent Australian and California elections pick Bush by a comfortable margin. There is something about betting your own money that forces people to make more dispassionate analysis.

The mean of the polls shows a narrowing lead for Bush. As of this writing, an extrapolation of these polls does not close the gap fast enough to give Kerry an election-day victory. Nonetheless, given the number of newly registered voters, I do not believe that models for likely voters are accurate. They are at the very least untested. Among all registered voters, the polls show a tie, so I suspect that the Kerry will win.

Prediction 1: Kerry by 1.5% in the popular vote and 60 electoral votes. Bush supporters, like myself, should take heart in that my expectation of the popular vote totals was very wrong in 2000.

Prediction 2: Osma Bin Laden and his followers will believe (or at least claim) that the recent tape threatening America, released Friday before the election, was responsible for the Kerry victory. The truth of that assertion will not matter, as much as the perception. Fairly or unfairly, the international perceptions growing out of a Kerry victory would damage the war on terror and that is a very bad thing.

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