Sunday, September 13, 2015

The folly of predicting presidential elections

Alex Knepper observes:

Every presidential election cycle so far has increasingly taught me how full of shit 98% of political pundits are when they make predictions -- especially short-term predictions. And most have zero sense of irony or self-awareness about the nature of what they are doing. They mostly act as if they are doing God's work. . . .

One of the reasons bad popular narratives evolve is because there's a demand for them. A lot of people (maybe most people), pundits included, are lazy, plus there's a kind of bet-hedging involved in attaching yourself to the dominant narrative: Hey, you were wrong, but so was everyone else, right?
Ever since the 2004 primaries, when the media acted like Howard Dean was the only Democratic candidate who mattered (until the actual voting started), I've been highly skeptical of the media's election predictions.

The one thing you can count on: in every presidential election, there's going to be at least one major turn of events that's a huge shock, that goes against all the conventional wisdom. At least one thing.

Knepper points to this argument by Jay Cost in the Weekly Standard as an example of a dubious prediction:
Trump is never going to be the nominee. Voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina care about the issues a lot more than Trump does. If he is still in first place by the new year, the candidates, their super-PACs, and outside groups will blanket the airwaves with attacks on his many deviations from conservative orthodoxy. That will surely be the end.
Knepper says:
I think it's wishful thinking to believe the voters care about the issues more than about style. . . . I'm not saying that Trump is going to be the nominee, necessarily. But how can people keep saying that with such confidence after the conventional wisdom about Trump has proven wrong over and over and over and over again, week after week?
I agree: the extent to which voters vote based on "the issues" is overstated. They vote for the whole person, and they vote for the person they like. And voters are smart to do this, since there's a limit to how much we can know in advance about whether a candidate will do about "the issues" once in office. Candidates break their promises, they find it isn't as easy to pass their agenda as they thought, unexpected circumstances come up, etc. So it can be naive to put too much emphasis on (what seem to be) the candidates' positions on "the issues."

Jay Cost's prediction that Trump will be destroyed once the public hears about his "deviations from conservative orthodoxy" also seems to be based on two incorrect assumptions: (1) that "deviations from conservative orthodoxy" are fatal to a Republican candidate, and (2) that the public hasn't already heard about Trump's deviations. "Deviations from conservative orthodoxy" didn't stop Romney or McCain from being nominated. And Trump's flip-flops have already been the subject of blistering attacks by the media and candidates like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, but none of that seems to have made a dent in Trump's poll numbers.