The Decision Tree

Decision-making from all perspectives

Why Did Obama Win?

The campaign doesn't matter much, even though it feels like it does

2008 was the year of Obama, and 2010 was the year of the Tea Party. 2012 was the year of Nate Silver.

We had good models of the election before, but 2012 was the year everyone had to have an opinion on Silver and the other quants, and on the statistical methods they use to predict the election.

Silver and his cohort were loudly opposed by the pundits - the smart voices in the Op-Ed pages who used common sense and political savvy to make pronouncements. The nerds won because they asked one question: "Is there evidence for that?" They used evidence and reason to make principled predictions.

And now that the election is over, we know that the stats nerds won. Silver predicted all races correctly, and Wang, Linzer, and others were essentially just as accurate. 

Now that math has succeeded, can we accept the rest of what political science says about elections?

The outcome is determined almost entirely by the state of the economy. 

According to the simplest, plain vanilla models, the economy was crummy but then started to get better at the very end, and given its status on election, Obama was expected to get 51.2% of the popular vote.

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In the end, he got 51.2% of the popular vote. 

Right now, several Democrats, especially David Axelrod, are being carved into the Mount Rushmore of campaigns. And some Republicans, especially Karl Rove, are being burned in metaphorical effigy.

This is the same Karl Rove who won two elections for Bush and got him pretty much exactly the vote that the economic fundamentals predicted. He was hailed as a genius. This year, the GOP lost big, just as the economic fundamentals predicted. Now he's pilloried.

That doesn't mean campaigns are useless. Poorly run campaigns certainly can lose elections. Just ask Todd Akin, who likely would have won had he not run a poor campaign. But probably nowadays presidential campaigns are run so well that they cancel each other out.

That means the election doesn't represent a triumph of any particular ideology. When you read the Op-Eds from the pundits, they act like the election is a triumph for the idea of the neoliberal state, and a repudiation of the overly capitalist ideas of the Republicans. 

The outcome of the gay marriage votes demonstrates changing attitudes towards gay marriage. But the presidential election was almost certainly unaffected by either candidates stance on gay marriage.

The same is true all down the list. So when you read the analyses of the election, remember they are written by pundits who have to fill words, and can't get away with saying what the numbers say. The fundamentals determine almost everything.

 

Ben Hayden, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester.

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