by Doctor Science
The 2012 Presidential campaign can be explained with a single image:
Huh? you say: that looks almost exactly like the final result:
Yes. And yet, that first map is based on predictions made by David Rothschild and Chris Wilson at Yahoo's The Signal blog, in February.
With fewer than nine months to go before Election Day, The Signal predicts that Barack Obama will win the presidential contest with 303 electoral votes to the Republican nominee's 235.This was not a fluke. On May 31, Wiesman and inuyesta at Some Disagree prepared their predictions:
In other words, they agreed -- correctly -- on 49 out of 50 states (and also on the District of Columbia), and they agreed that Florida was a true tossup.
Another data point: on July 26 , Nate Silver's electoral vote simulations showed:
That big peak is for 332 electoral votes, the total we actually arrived at. This is one reason for all the jokes about "Is Nate Silver magic?" -- because he apparently predicted the outcome of the election 4 months in advance.
But it wasn't just him, and it wasn't only since mid-summer. I've look at The Signal's data in more detail (Google spreadsheet link). When I take their state-by-state February predictions for Obama's share of the vote, multiply them by the number of actual votes cast in each state in November, and add them all up I get a predicted vote share for Obama of 50.18%. His actual share? 50.37%. So 9 months ahead of time they predicted the popular vote to within a quarter of a percent.
Now *that* is getting to be creepy. It's as though we had an entire Presidential campaign and nothing happened.
All those stories you're seeing about how "Obama won the election because he did X, Romney lost because he didn't do Y" -- they are, statistically speaking, fairy stories. There is no evidence so far that *anything* made a difference, not even the choice of Romney as the Republican nominee. The whole bloody hellishly expensive campaign did nothing.
Here's another crucially informative graph, this from Votamatic:
Those lines are what we technically call "flat". The uncertainties decreased as election day neared, but the trend line was unchanged. Statistically speaking, nothing happened.
Seth Masket noticed, too, that I spent $6 billion and all I got was this lousy economic retrospection election, but he says
So was this all a waste of everyone's time and money?This can only be true, I think, if all the efforts to inform and mobilize were "baked in" to the February model. In particular, it means that, if the Obama campaign's GOTV organization was excellent and the Romney campaign's was inadequate -- as all seem to agree -- this was only to be expected. Good GOTV by the Democrats and poor GOTV by Republicans did not have a significant effect on the national-level results, they seem to be built into the data used to build the model.
No, not really. A large part of the reason the results are so close to the line is that the campaigns were pretty well matched. Spending, if you include independent expenditures, was remarkably similar across party lines. The campaigns largely identified the same states and the same demographic groups as persuadable and they threw everything at them. And they were both quite effective in turning out their bases.
And if the amount of money that went into this irks you, keep in mind that this is what it takes to inform and mobilize a large electorate.
I suspect that neither Romney's winning the Republican nomination nor the fact that the economy slowly improved changed the game because both events were undramatic and likely, and so were also built into the model.
I find it really emotionally difficult to let go of the idea that things that happened during the last 9 months *mattered* for the election, but the math is staring me in the face. I'd say we can *certainly* rule out the following factors:
- Hurricane Sandy
- Romney's choice of Ryan for VP
- Aken and the other rapologists
- the debates
- the conventions
- the ads
- the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare
- any other development that pundits have called "game-changing".
Most people -- and pretty much all journalists -- never noticed that nothing was happening during the campaign, because the sound and fury had been cranked up to record levels. We continued to talk about it as though it was a horse race, even though that's clearly the wrong metaphor.
So what's a good one? Was the campaign like a race with this kind of horse:
Noise, excitement, bouncing and jolting -- but no actual movement. In this metaphor, almost all the money and human effort of the campaign were essentially burned up, wasted uselessly.
Or was it this kind of race:
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" That is, was the situation a high-energy stalemate: each campaign put out an enormous effort, which was precisely counterbalanced by the other campaign. Net movement: zero -- but if either campaign had slackened off, the other would have steamrollered to victory.