FRONT PORCH: The folly of electoral predictions

Psephology is “the statistical study of elections and trends in voting”. Along with seasoned political analysts, psephologists carefully examine elections. They offer insight on the decisions and behaviour of voters and the performance of political parties.

Contrarily, many supposedly professional prognosticators and pundits are more often in the business, literally and figuratively, of offering less informed predictions and analysis. Sometimes they are on the mark. More often, they are egregiously wrong.

These political soothsayers occupy cable television sets, talk radio, and other haunts, dissecting and trumpeting the latest polls and their supposedly vaunted experience as journalists, former politicians or political advisers.

The worst in the prediction business are cossetted and removed journalists, who travel in packs in designer bubble wrap disconnected from many of socio-economic realities in which voters live.

They are often mesmerised by the news cycle, the relentless stream of social media posts, gossip from party insiders, and the latest polls, much of which are often meaningless and reliably trite.

Approximately 50 percent of people in the world will go to the polls this year, which, according to Time, includes at least 64 countries plus the European Union.

The recent surprising election results in India, which saw Narendra Modi’s, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lose its majority; the further collapse of the African National Congress’s vote in South Africa; the two-thirds majority attained in the Mexican Congress by incoming president, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo’s, Morena Party; and the mixed results of the European Union’s parliamentary elections, have given psephologists and journalists much to digest.

What are some of the ingredients for understanding elections and campaigns? The best predictors are individuals like David Axelrod in the United States, an experienced politico who helped Barack Obama win the presidency.

A political consultant, he also worked as a White House advisor, after which he served as director of the non-partisan University of Chicago Institute of Politics. A regular contributor on television, he hosts the CNN podcast, The Axe Files.

The best observers of elections and politics are typically those with experience in campaigns and government. This experience hones instincts and engenders a more informed perspective than those opining from the proverbial armchair or arms lengths.

Individuals like Axelrod, possess experience, calm, and a perspective borne of electoral wins and losses. Which is not to say that they always get it right. They also bring humility and the refreshing honesty to say, “I don’t know!”

In 2016, many people, pollsters and pundits were convinced that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump for the presidency. Many of us could not conceive that the US would elect Trump. The polls appeared to align with our presumptions. Quite a number in Trump’s campaign did not foresee his victory.

In the lead-up to the election, Axelrod, who has a home in rural Pennsylvania, was seeing increasingly more Trump signs in the yards of neighbours and others. He reportedly reached out to the Clinton campaign, informing them of what he was spotting on the ground.

Clinton won the popular vote convincingly. However, because of the nature of America’s Electoral College, Trump won. There were varied reasons for Clinton’s loss. Some polls in the pivotal states Trump eventually won were close, eventually breaking for him. It is a reminder of the limits of internal and independent polls.

Axelrod blamed mistakes in the Clinton campaign for her loss. These included two key states she lost. He believes she should have campaigned in Wisconsin after the Democratic Convention and invest more resources into Michigan before the final week of the campaign.

Despite the numerous and sophisticated assets at hand, and varied human and signal intelligence, intelligence agencies and militaries often fail to see looming and near obvious catastrophic failures and disasters on their doorstep.

Likewise, campaigns and governments often suffer from a similar failure of imagination. A failure to believe that something can or cannot happen.

It remains unfathomable to many that the last FNM government called an early general election amidst a deadly COVID-19 wave, and without health protocols for Election Day, such as were enforced in Jamaica.

Fast forward to today. Many in the PLP giddily believe they will win the next election. Ah, well, here we go again. The cost of living crisis is burdensome for scores of voters. A number of cabinet ministers in the PLP are conducting themselves with the same arrogance as the last FNM government.

The PLP has made a number of errors, some unforced. There are numerous unfulfilled promises. There is a tone deafness by some. We have not re-elected a government for decades, which poses a structural problem for both major parties. With two and a half years to go, there will inevitably be more mistakes.

Still, the PLP may win the next election. But those in the PLP convinced that they will be re-elected are as foolhardy as those in the FNM who believe that they will definitely defeat the PLP. However, the FNM may win the next election.

At the next election, what will the economy look like? How will the leaders of the major parties perform in the months ahead? What scandals may unfold on both sides? What role will third parties play in siphoning votes? What are the many other unknowns?

If someone brings you a poll right now that they believe is predictive of the next general election, offer this insight from The American University Professor of History, Allan Lichtman, who correctly predicted the outcome of nine of the past ten presidential elections since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election.

His advice: “Forget the polls, forget the pundits. Polls six months, five months, even closer to the election have zero predictive value.”

Lichtman predicted Al Gore would beat George W Bush in 2000. If a partisan Supreme Court did not hand Bush a victory based on what many believe was specious legal reasoning, Lichtman would be 10 out of 10. He correctly predicted that Trump would beat Clinton.

But back to polls. A colleague who is something of a statistics and data nerd offers that polls are probabilities that certain numbers are correct. He notes that polls offer a range or band of possibilities, especially when they are relatively close. A margin of error means there is no certainty.

He emphasises that polling is rightly ironically labelled an “inexact science”. Many elements go into polling including sampling size and demographic analysis, along with how and when a poll is conducted.

It makes a difference whether one is reaching a respondent by landline or cell or another means. A friend with a mordant wit quips: “Polling is a snapchat of the schizophrenic human mind at a given moment.”

Professor Lichtman is not a fan of polling for presidential races. Instead, his metrics are 13 historical keys or factors. A USA TODAY article notes: “four of those factors are based on politics, seven on performance, and two on the candidate’s personality. The incumbent party would need to lose six of those factors, or keys, to lose the White House.”

In a May article in the journal, Elizabeth Beyer interviewed Lichtman, who commented: “In 2019, Trump was only down four keys. Remember, it takes six keys to count out the White House party. I hadn’t made a prediction yet, but things were looking pretty good. Then the pandemic hit.

“The big message: It is governance, not campaigning, that counts. Trump didn’t understand that. So when the pandemic hit, instead of dealing substantively with the pandemic like the keys would have indicated, [Trump] tried to talk his way out of it.

“Of course, it didn’t work; the economy tanked, and he lost two additional keys: The short- and long-term economy. That put him down six keys, enough to predict his defeat.”

And what of the upcoming election? Notes Lichtman: “Forget all of the pundits who have said Biden’s too old. Democrat’s only chance to win is with Biden running for re-election. One of my keys is incumbency, he obviously wins that.

“Another key is party contest, he’s not been contested. That’s two keys off the top that Biden wins. That means six keys out of the remaining 11 would have to fall to predict his defeat.” Lichtman does not have a final prediction for this November.

“I’ve also said while I have no final prediction, a lot would have to go wrong for Biden to lose. Right now, Biden is only down, for sure, two keys: The mandate key, because the Democrats lost seats in the House 2022 elections; and the incumbent charisma key because Biden is no JFK. But there are four very shaky keys.”

It is a long way from the US general election. It is even longer to ours. While one may make relatively educated guesses about electoral outcomes, only the foolhardy and the true believers would dare predict.


Porcupine says...

Excellent analysis of the human condition.
Since, I believe, that is basically what your friend says, mordant quip or not.
“Polling is a snapchat of the schizophrenic human mind at a given moment.”
What we should bear in mind here in The Bahamas is that is significant amount of hard cash is handed out prior to and during voting day, directly to voters.
The PLP has saved a lot of money from their budget, as outlined in this paper, for what reason? Your guess is as good a s mine.
But, thriftiness aside, my guess is that a significant amount of hard cash will be put into the pockets of PLP operatives to hand out to their prospective voters.
All supposition of course, unless one has been a witness to these tactics before.
What polls take the outright purchase of votes into account.
Otherwise, a lovely and entertaining description of the perils of democracy.

Posted 14 June 2024, 8:51 a.m. Suggest removal

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