Jonathan Chait and I agree about the importance of the fundamentals in determining presidential elections

Johathan Chait writes:

Parties and candidates will kill themselves to move the needle a percentage point or two in a presidential race. And again, the fundamentals determine the bigger picture, but within that big picture political tactics and candidate quality still matters around the margins.

I agree completely. This is the central message of Steven Rosenstone’s excellent 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections.

So, given that Chait and I agree 100%, why was I so upset at his recent column on “The G.O.P.’s Dukakis Problem”?

I’ll put the reasons for my displeasure below the fold because my main point is that I’m happy with Chait’s quote above. For completeness I want to explain where I’m coming from but my take-home point is that we’re mostly in agreement.

OK, so what upset me about Chait’s article?

1. The title. I’m pretty sure that Mike Dukakis, David Mamet, Bill Clinton, and the ghost of Lee Atwater will disagree with me on this one, but Dukakis actually performed just as well in 1988 as predicted based on the fundamentals! There is no evidence he was out-campaigned by Bush. Please see my 1993 paper with Gary King, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?”, for an exhaustive discussion.

2. His article did not include the boldfaced sentence above. (That appeared in his blog reply.) So it wasn’t clear that his entire article was about 1 or 2 percent of the vote.

OK, fine. That’s journalism. Had Steven Rosenstone been asked by the New York Times to write an article on the Republican presidential candidates, I’m pretty sure he would’ve emphasized that the #1 determinant of the forthcoming election will be the economy, with candidate ideology being a distant #2. In short, what the Republicans need to win is a weak economy, and it would also help if they run a moderate rather than an extremely conservative candidate. I doubt Rosenstone would’ve talked about candidates’ height, weight, and hairstyles.

But the Times didn’t ask Rosenstone, they asked Chait. Or perhaps Chait submitted the article to them and they published it. Either way, the Times editors made their choice, and I’ll have to respect their (and Chait’s) judgment that the bold-faced quote appearing above would not have fit in the article. Perhaps the point was too obvious to mention. As a teacher, I’m used to making the obvious point, but, again, I’ll defer to Chait on what works in a magazine article.

I’d made an offhand remark that Chait wasn’t familiar with the political science literature on elections. Given his recent reply, what seems more likely is that he is familiar with the literature, possibly so much that he takes for granted that his readers will be also.

One of the great things about blogging is that it allows for this sort of public clarification. In the space of a couple of columns we are able to clear up some confusion and come to a key point of agreement (see the boldface quote above).

My main substantive disagreement with Chait is on his recommendation to the Republican party establishment. Chait writes, “The candidates they are recruiting . . . are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president.” My recommendation would be, go with the candidate who you think will govern best. And if you want your best chance of winning, if you want that extra 1 or 2% of the vote, pick a moderate. Or go with a conservative if you think that will advance your policy goals even while reducing your chance of winning. I think Ford would probably have done better than Reagan in 1980 but the resulting policies probably would’ve been different.

P.S. Just to clarify one thing. Chait writes that I was making a “condescending demand” that he familiarize himself with political science research. I recognize that when you deal with Ivy League professors you’re going to expect some condescending demands, so I can see where he’s coming from on this, but . . . I was serious when I said that I wouldn’t expect Chait to be familiar with all the political science research, all the way to a book from 1983 and an article that appeared in the British Journal of Political Science ten years later. After all, I’m not familiar with back issues of the New Republic! I’m honestly not expecting a political pundit to be familiar with 20-year-old journal articles, just as, in the other direction, I’m pretty clueless about a lot of the details of what’s going on in Washington. Life is short and we have different areas of expertise. No condescension was or is intended here.

P.P.S. The fundamentals are particularly relevant for the general election for president, where candidates are clearly distinct in party and political ideology, campaigns are comparable in resources, and there are only two major candidates. Factors other than the fundamentals can loom larger in primary elections, referenda, local elections, nonpartisan races, and elections with multiple candidates. For example, when Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and others were running in 2008, the Democratic primary voters faced multiple candidates with the same party identification, similar or indistinguishable political ideologies, and the instability of a multi-candidate election. In that sort of scenario, perceptions are huge.

4 thoughts on “Jonathan Chait and I agree about the importance of the fundamentals in determining presidential elections

  1. Don't you really think that this should be on the Monkey Cage, which has heavier traffic and is where the original criticism appeared?

    I suspect that many Monkey Cage readers will never see this.

  2. Gerald:

    No, this blog gets more readers than the Monkey Cage. Frum Forum (where I also posted the earlier item) perhaps gets more readers still.

  3. Andrew, I don't understand why you're not sticking to your guns on this. I just went back and reread Chait's piece, and it reads as if he was unaware that anything other than superficial characteristics and ideology matter. The position he takes in his article is not that charisma is worth a point or two; it's that if you don't have it, you can't win.

    Chait says: "…an agenda tilted toward the desires of the powerful requires a skilled frontman…". Note the word "requires."

    He also says, of the crop of Republicans being discussed as nominees, that "They are qualified enough to serve as president, but wildly unqualified to run for president." Wow, not just "unqualified", but "wildly unqualified" because they're not charismatic. Chait might argue that when he says someone is "wildly unqualified" to run for president, he means they're at a disadvantage of a percentage point or two compared to a more charismatic candidate. But that's surely not what his readers think "wildly unqualified" means.

    And of course they're the closing paragraph — the one, we are taught in school, that is equal in importance and weight only to the opening paragraph. Chait closes with this: 'In an old “Simpsons” episode, the unlikable brainiac Artie Ziff is elected prom king. Instead of voting for some athletic hero or a pretty boy, you have elected me, your intellectual superior, as your king,” he says. “Good for you!” It’s funny because it hardly ever happens in real life.' That's Chait suggesting that in real life, you pretty much can't win if you're not an athletic hero or pretty boy.

    Where I think Chait is probably right is that he, Chait, does know better. You assumed that Chait wasn't familiar with the fact that the economy is by far the most important influence on voter preferences, but he says he knows that perfectly well, and I believe it. I think he wanted to write a provocative piece and to make fun of some potential Republican presidential candidates, so he did. It's all good fun. If his readers are misled about the importance of that all-powerful trait, charisma, well, who cares?

  4. Phil:

    1. My #1 concern on this is clarity on the political science. Since Chait basically got it right in his response, that's what I want to focus on. In his response, Chait did not double down on his claim that superficial factors are central; instead he limited their impact to a percentage point or two. In this case I still think it's an overestimate–I doubt that, when the general election comes, it will matter much which particular conservative Republican candidate is running–but basically hait and I are in agreement, and I was happy that the blogging process got us here. Maybe this discussion will inspire Chait, when writing some future magazine article, to lead with an informative sentence about the fundamentals, before getting to the fun stuff about candidate appearance

    I pretty much agree with your last paragraph, but . . . I doubt that Chait thinks he's misleading his audience. I'm guessing that Chait thinks that everybody knows that the fundamentals matter, thus why bother bringing it up? From Chait's perspective, the bit about the fundamentals is boring old news, and what he's supplying to the NYT readers is new news. This makes sense to me, but, as noted, I'd have preferred him to have dumped the Dukakis connection (unless it were used to point out that even the famously dweeby Dukakis performed about as well as predicted by political science models) and to have led off with the bold-type sentence given at the top of this blog.

    In summary, though, Chait was basically agreeing with my political science message, and that's what I want to emphasize.

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