Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who's going to win?

In my August political analysis at Research magazine, I discuss efforts to predict the outcome of the presidential race. A longish excerpt, with emphasis added at the end:

Thus, some broad numerical pictures of the race have given a clear, but not overwhelming, edge to Obama. To be sure, those pictures are snapshots, and there could be sharp fluctuations in the months ahead in the polls, prediction markets and forecasting models. The sensitivity of [Nate] Silver’s model to a shift in the S&P 500 illustrates the Obama campaign’s vulnerability to negative economic and financial-market data. 
Moreover, quantitative methods carry the risk of obscuring or downplaying factors that are not readily quantifiable. In the presidential race, one such factor may be the presidential debates, scheduled for October. Both Obama and Romney are capable debaters, albeit ones with somewhat mixed records versus various opponents. In 2008, Obama seemed to win some, lose some versus Hillary Clinton; and to gain an edge in debating John McCain largely because of McCain’s limitations as a debater. 
The 2012 Republican primaries featured an unprecedented number of debates. These encounters had major impacts on the race—undermining Rick Perry, for instance, and for a time aiding Newt Gingrich. Moreover, they gave Romney intensive practice at such encounters. 
By contrast, President Obama goes into this fall’s debates without recent debating experience (except mock exercises with supporters) but now with an extensive White House record to defend. He also has a reputation for eloquence that will raise expectations that he will perform well in debates, and yet as president he also has had some tendency to seem thin-skinned in response to criticism. 
It seems plausible that Romney will benefit considerably from this fall’s debates. Moreover, such a prospect—involving unique, personal interactions that have not taken place yet—is the sort of thing that likely would not get adequately taken into account in polls, prediction markets and forecasting models, showing up only after the fact. 
Prediction: The debates will matter and push poll numbers Romney’s way. But let’s go out on a limb. Prediction: Romney is going to win the election.
There you have it. Now, I won't claim great confidence in this prediction, and won't be making any $10,000 bet. But I think the line of reasoning is valid. I've tried to calibrate my thinking to acknowledge some biases of my own. For one thing, I am an enthusiast of debates, so I may be overstating their importance; on the other hand, their importance in the primaries was even greater than I would've guessed. Moreover, I am planning to vote for Romney, as noted in a recent post, but I think that post and other writings should make clear that I'm not exactly brimming with partisan enthusiasm these days, so wishful thinking is plausibly a fairly small factor in shaping my prediction.

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