Two stories about the election that I don’t believe

I don’t exactly disagree with the two arguments that I reproduce below, but I think they miss the point.

Is “the battle over elitism” really central to this election?

First, the easy one. Peter Baker in the New York Times, under the heading, “Elitism: The Charge That Obama Can’t Shake”:

For all the discussion of health care and spending and jobs, at the core of the nation’s debate this fall has been the battle of elitism. . . . Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist, said Mr. Obama had not connected with popular discontent. “A lot of people have never been to Washington or New York, and they feel people there are so out of touch,” he said. . . . Rather than entertaining the possibility that the program they have pursued is genuinely and even legitimately unpopular, the White House and its allies have concluded that their political troubles amount to mainly a message and image problem.

I think this is misleading for the usual reason that these message-oriented critiques are misleading: When things are going well, your message is going to sound good; when things aren’t going so well, it doesn’t matter much how you spin things. Baker recognizes this: “the debate has taken on particular resonance in a time of economic distress.” To put it another way, I disagree that the battle of elitism is “at the core of the nation’s debate this fall.” I think it would be more accurate to say that economic policy and outcomes are at the core of the debate, and “elitism” is just being attached to that debate. If it wasn’t “elitism,” it would be something else.

Is it really true that you can’t blame the Democrats for their anticipated poor performance in the upcoming election?

Here’s the second story I’m not thrilled with, this time from Jonathan Chait in the New Republic:

Republicans are going to gain a lot of seats in the midterm elections. The big question is why. Political punditry has been saturated with arguments interpreting this result as a verdict of sorts on the Obama administration. Liberals are interpreting the incipient GOP win on poor communication or perhaps timid policies by the Democrats. Conservatives are interpreting it as the natural punishment for a party that moved too far left. . . .

But in order to have that conversation, you need to begin with a baseline expectation. What sort of performance should we expect normally? Clearly, in the current environment, it’s not rational to expect the majority party to escape any losses whatsoever. If you want to blame the Democrats’ loss on bad messaging or wimpy policies or rampaging socialism, then you need to establish how you’d expect them to do given normal messaging and policies.

Chait then discusses Doug Hibbs’s model, featured on this blog before, which predicts midterm election outcomes given incumbency, the current distribution of House seats, and recent economic performance. Given that Hibbs’s model–which does not use any polling data–predicts a Republican gain of 45 seats, Chait concludes that you can’t blame Obama (or, by extension, congressional Democrats) for what’s happening now. In Chait’s words, “If you want to have the “what did Obama do wrong” argument, you first need to establish what “wrong” would look like. That’s probably a 50 seat-or-more loss.”

But I don’t think that’s right. From Paul Krugman on the left to Casey Mulligan on the right, commenters have been arguing that the governing party can make a difference. Whether it’s Kruguman recommending a larger stimulus or Mulligan saying the government should avoid intervention into the financial sector, the claim is that that the economy could be doing better (or worse). In statistical jargon, recent personal income is “endogenous.”

Or, to put it another way, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for liberals to interpret some of the current state of the economy, and thus the predicted election outcome, to “timid policies by the Democrats.” That’s what Krugman is saying every day. Similarly, why shouldn’t conservatives think that the current economic doldrums are partly explained by the Democrats’ policies, from regulation to stimulus to health care? Republicans have been making this argument for awhile, that these activist government policies are counterproductive.

I see where Chait is coming from, and I agree with him that it’s silly to say that the Democrats are losing because of bad messaging or any such shallow thing, but I think he’s too quick to dismiss the idea that different policies on the part of the Democrats could’ve led to better (or worse) economic outcomes.


Baker is following a traditional path in political journalism by focusing on what seem to me to be superficial issues–the kinds of things that voters sometimes tell pollsters but I think are ultimately driven by more fundamental concerns (the economy, security, etc).

Chait is making an opposite mistake. He’s right that elections are largely determined by the fundamentals, but he’s wrong to think that the governing party has no effect on the economy. (Or, maybe he’s right, but if so, he should take this up with Krugman et al., not me.) To say that the fundamentals matter, that the economy is key, is not the same as saying that the president and Congress can’t influence elections. The 2010 economy was not predetermined as of January, 2009. Or, if it was, a lot of people were wasting their time arguing about the macroeconomic consequences of the stimulus, the bailouts, the deficit, the tax cuts, etc etc etc.

2 thoughts on “Two stories about the election that I don’t believe

  1. Keeping in mind that I'm not a political scientist or a statistician, my interpretation of the quote from Chait was that the election was not "predetermined" by January 2009, but rather that any observed outcome needed to be interpreted as a deviation from that expected as of January 2009. So policies and message do have an effect, but relative to what the fundamentals predict, rather than to a naive prediction of no change.

    My interest in your response was piqued because this "null model" approach is common in ecology, where we use some underlying expectation based on a theoretical model to say what we expect to happen, and then compare the observed outcome to the expected to see if the observation isn't behaving as expected.

  2. "a lot of people were wasting their time arguing about the macroeconomic consequences of the stimulus, the bailouts, the deficit, the tax cuts, etc etc etc."

    Sounds about right. Or more to the point for this blog, most of the arguments are poorly founded methodologically and statistically as well as being motivated by politics and self-interest rather than overall economic well-being.

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