Matt Qvortrup: Victory for Obama a tall order
Scientific models favour a victory for Barack Obama in the upcoming US presidential election, but the run-in may be hair-raising for the incumbent, writes Matt Qvortrup
Who will win the US presidential election? The polls are inconclusive and the margin of error is so narrow that it is impossible to say. But maybe the polls are not the best way to forecast the outcome of the contest.
For more than half a decade, pundits have proposed different theories. Some of these are fanciful, others based on scientific models of the kind we use to forecast the weather.
Since 1960, it has been the received wisdom that the candidate with more hair wins: obviously a balding Al Gore had to lose to George Bush, and John McCain’s receding hairline was no match for Barack Obama’s trimmed Afro.
Another, perhaps equally fanciful theory – originally suggested by the New York Times in the 1960s – suggests simply that the taller candidate will win.
Consider it for a moment. In 1980, Jimmy Carter (5ft 9½in) obviously was no match for Ronald Reagan (6ft 1in), nor was Walter Mondale (5ft 11in) a match for the tall ex-actor. And, as if the Democrats hadn’t learned their lesson, no-one should be surprised that George Herbert Walker Bush handsomely defeated governor Michael Dukakis, who stood at a mere 5ft 8in.
The worst defeat in any presidential election was in 1964. Not surprising at all really; Lyndon B Johnson, a giant of a man (6ft 4in) annihilated poor Berry Goldwater (5ft 11in).
In 1960, in one of the closest elections ever, 1960 John F Kennedy (6 ft) only just beat Nixon (5ft 11½in).
In more recent times, it was obvious, of course, that Obama (6ft 1in) was bound to beat John McCain, who stood at 5ft 9in.
So how do these theories fare this time around? Whether Obama’s trimmed curls will swing the vote is an open question, but Mitt Romney certainly has a good crop of hair. But, the president – sadly for him – could not have failed to have noticed that he is a full inch shorter than his opponent; Mitt Romney stands at 6ft 2in.
Of course, there are exceptions, George W Bush (5ft 11½in) should not have beaten Al Gore (6ft 1), but, then again, he only did so with the help of the Supreme Court.
Nor according to the pattern, should “Dubya” have beaten John Kerry, who at 6ft 4in was the tallest man ever to contest the highest office in the United States. But this is the only exception.
But luckily for Obama, there are other – more scientific – reasons that Romney will lose. Bill Clinton famously reminded his staffers that “it’s the economy, stupid”. This was more than a mantra to keep the backroom boys and girls on their toes. For several decades, political scientists have developed models for predicting the presidential elections.
The models are based on the same logic as the forecasting models used by economists to predict economic growth, unemployment and inflation.
The idea is, basically, that presidential elections are like referendums on the president’s economic record in office. Voters do not look ahead, nor do they base their decisions on promises made by the candidates. Rather, they look backwards and reward presidents who have presided over economic growth or punish those who have been in the White House during a recession.
Political scientists say that voters “vote retrospectively”. A presidential election is, according to a famous quote by VO Key, “appraiser of past events, past performance, and past actions”.
In recent years, this model had been turned into a proper scientific, or mathematical, model. And this is where it gets complicated. One model in particular has attracted attention because it has predicted the result of the elections in all cases since 1948. This is a bit thorny, so read this next section carefully.
According to Professor Michael S Lewis-Beck, the presidential election can be predicted on the basis of the GDP growth in May of the election year and the president’s popularity in the same month.
These figures are put into an equation which looks like this: President’s Vote Share = -20.9 + 6.83 x GDP-Growth + 1.4 x President’s Popularity.
The figure -20.9 is a constant that has been determined by computer models and need not worry us here. But what might worry Romney is what happens if we put figures into the equation. In May 2012, the GDP growth was 1.3 and the president’s popularity was 47 per cent. The calculation using the scientific model shows that Obama would get 53.7 per cent of the vote: -20.9 + 6.83 x 1.3 + 1.4. x 47 = 53.7.
Of course, even these models can be wrong. Politics cannot be reduced to an exact science and, in any case, under the US presidential system it is not just about winning the overall vote. What matters is to win the so-called Electoral College votes. Each state selects as many members of the Electoral College as they have Congressmen. So, Romney may still win.
But given that the scientific model has been correct in all cases since Harry S Truman sensationally defeated governor Thomas Dewey in the 1948 poll, it would be a major surprise if the current incumbent were to lose to Romney.
As the reader would have noted, the scientific model is based on the economic performance. And, given the importance of the economy, it is, in fact, surprising that Romney is not further behind in the polls. Presidents lose elections in times of recession. Sadly for Romney, Obama is unlikely to suffer the same fate as George HW Bush in 1992. Welcome back Mr President!
• Dr Matt Qvortrup is a psephologist at Cranfield University
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
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