The Campaign Spot

Election-driven news and views . . . by Jim Geraghty.

Past Performance Is No Guarantee of Future Results!


The Thursday edition of the Morning Jolt examines what looking at recent history can, and cannot, tell us about the likely course of this year’s presidential race.

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Things Stay the Same, Until They Don’t

Remember the “Redskins Rule”?

Wikipedia summarizes it:

If the Redskins win their last home game before the election, the party that won the previous election wins the next election. If the Redskins lose, the challenging party’s candidate wins.

The Redskins Rule was first noted by Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, in 2000

In 2004, the Redskins lost their last home game before the presidential election, indicating the incumbent should have lost; however, George W. Bush (the incumbent) went on to defeat John Kerry. Steve Hirdt, credited with the discovery of the rule, then modified it to refer not to the incumbent party in the White House but to the party that last won the popular vote.

No one would argue that the American electorate takes its cues from the performance of the Washington Redskins. At least, I hope no one would seriously argue that. If you’re taking your cues on who to vote for based upon the performance of the NFL team with the most manic-depressive fan base in the National Football League then . . . (sigh) go Carolina Panthers, I guess.

Anyway, the point is that you can find a lot of trends or formulas or rules by looking back and finding events that align . . . but correlation does not prove causation. Thus, political scientists are always going back and calculating that the incumbent “always” wins as long as unemployment is above THIS and GDP is above THIS and median income change is above THIS and inflation is HERE and the price of gas is between HERE and HERE and the moon is rising over Saturn for Gemini . . .

A presidential election is made up of the decisions of millions upon millions of people — the decision to vote or not vote, the decision to vote for this candidate or that one, the decision to volunteer for the candidate, the decision to donate to the candidate, and so on. Those decisions are shaped by all kinds of outside influences — by economic factors, yes, but also by the quality of the candidates and their campaigns, by the state of the world, by the dominant issues in the final weeks, by events and October surprises.

David Frum observes in light of Romney’s surge, “Political science proclaims, ‘debates don’t matter.’ After this election, we may need to retire a lot of political science.”

Ezra Klein, among those who would like to believe Romney’s debate performance won’t have much of a lasting effect, argues that the political scientists’ assessments are to be trusted much more than (sniff, sniff, sneer, sneer) mere pundits! (Hey, does Ezra Klein consider himself a pundit?)

Perhaps last Wednesday’s presidential debate will decide this election. According to Gallup, which has also thrown cold water on the idea that debates routinely decide elections, Romney’s victory in the debate was more lopsided than any other debate victory in the history of their polling. So maybe this really is a game-changer.

But then again, maybe not. When political scientists say debates don’t tend to decide elections, note that they use the plural. They’re looking at the change in polls from the beginning of the debates to the end, not the change in polls from the beginning of the debates to the end of the first debate . . .

I would say that the last week has been an object lesson in why it’s worth paying attention to the evidence gathered by political scientists and tuning out some of the more excitable pundits. Pundits have every incentive to make sweeping pronouncements based off incomplete data. The work political scientists have done gives us some body of past evidence against which we can check those sweeping pronouncements. It’s too early to say how much this debate mattered, but the wild reaction it’s generated among political pundits has convinced me, more than ever, that political science matters.

The thing is, every election is a little different. Some years, the stage is set so thoroughly in favor of one side that by the time the debates occur, they’re almost superfluous to the pre-existing momentum. In 2008, the debates were pretty mild factors in Obama’s win over McCain, compared to the economic meltdown, the country’s Bush fatigue, frustration over the war in Iraq, desire to make history with an African-American president, and so on. Remember, Lehman collapsed right before the first debate; one might argue that by mid-September, the financial meltdown created a political environment where a McCain victory was almost impossible.

This year pitted an incumbent whom most Americans found pretty disappointing, against a challenger who was largely unknown and who had been caricatured relentlessly by his opposition all summer long. This challenger has no natural geographic base, is a religious minority, and was viewed warily by a significant number of Republicans in the primary. For whatever reason, swing voters and those wavering on Obama didn’t tune in to the GOP convention, which was expected to be Romney’s first big opportunity to make his sales pitch. But this year, the stars aligned for the debates to have an enormous impact — a strong performance by the challenger, a weak performance by the incumbent, a monster audience with a significant number of voters willing to give Romney a real look.

Tags: Barack Obama , Campaigns , Elections , History


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