The success of models predicting the election outcome from the economy

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.

1 thought on “The success of models predicting the election outcome from the economy

  1. I agree that economic conditions don't explain everything, but they consistently rank among high among the electorate – even in times of relative prosperity. From an earlier blog post…

    Economic downturns rarely occur in the run up to general elections. In the ten presidential campaigns since 1968, only once has annual GDP growth been less than 2% in an election year (1980: -0.2%). Just twice has annual GDP growth been less than 2% in the year prior to an election year (1975: -0.2%, 1991: -0.2%) In all three of these cases the incumbent party was voted out of office.

    Jimmy Carter was the only sitting president forced to endure negative annual economic growth in an election year (1980). The result? Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in an electoral landslide. Four years earlier in the 1976 election, however, Carter was able to take advantage of a hangover from the poor economic conditions of 1975 to narrowly defeat the incumbent, Gerald Ford. In 1992 Bill Clinton also benefited from economic woes. Even though the U.S. economy was well into recovery mode after the 1991 recession, Clinton kept the public’s attention on the recent slowdown. He defeated George H.W. Bush in part by reinforcing the message, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

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