Man Without Qualities

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Undecided Voters Break Towards The Challenger? II: The Voice From The Thermos

[Kausfiles readers try this post.]

The Man Without Qualities is not the only, or the first, or the smartest person to suspect that too many pundits and pollsters and pundit/pollsters take too many of their political temperature readings in a vacuum, or a bubble, or both - in a political thermos*, if you will. As election day approaches, the increasingly involuted thermos contingent begins to look a lot like stock market "chartists" - technical analysts who believe recurrent trading patterns can assist them in forecasting future price movements. There may be a bit of truth in such analyses. But just as financial "chartism" runs against all forms of the Efficient Market Hypothesis (which is a lot sturdier than its critics allow) political poll "chartism," which seeks to predict results based on the relationship between past elections and past polls (on the one hand) and upcoming elections and current polls (on the other hand) is a very tough way to make a living, politically, intellectually or financially. Of course, the most basic tenet of political chartism, that election returns look like poll results taken soon before the election, has a lot of truth in it - but things get very dodgy after that. What Kausfiles calls the venerable "Incumbent Rule" (in the campaign's last hours, we tend to see "undecided" voters "break" for the challenger), that darling of Conventional Wisdom mongers everywhere, is a form of political "chartism." The Man Without Qualities remains skeptical of all such chartism, even versions enhanced by complicated epicycles - because they seem too much the products of political professionals impressed by a basso profundo that is little more than the sound of their own voices echoing from the depths of an empty thermos.

For example, it is sometimes said by the voice from the thermos that empirical support for the Incumbent Rule is provided by a 1989 study by Nick Panagakis, president of Market Shares Corporation (the firm that polls for the Chicago Tribune), which analyzed results from 155 surveys, most from the late 1980s, all conducted during the last week before an election. In a "famous" article in The Polling Report, Panagakis found that in 82% of the cases, the undecideds "broke" mostly to the challenger.

That's all very nice for Mr. Panagakis. I hope he made a bundle. But his "cases" weren't all taken from presidential elections - there haven't been that many. So he performed a triage on his data to decide what cases to include. But it's very unlikely that any of his cases were similar to a presidential election in which the best economic model for the election gave a prediction of 57.48 percent of the two-party vote for the incumbent - in this case President Bush (odd the way Yale keeps popping up this year). Are we supposed to believe that late deciders are going to vote as if they really don't care about the economy that much, after all? Instead, they're going to discover they're all really, really angry about Iraq? - even though John Kerry is the Democratic nominee exactly because even Democrats weren't angry enough to choose Howard Dean in the primaries? [UPDATE: Polls, of course, are stationary snapshots - not, in themselves, intended to be predicative at all. Pollsters are still-photographers. Prediction is the job of pundits and public markets - and the public markets in Bush v. Kerry futures very much favor Mr. Bush at this moment.]

For those who just can't break the chartism habit, Michael Barone, with the help of Steven Den Beste, turned the whole chartist enterprise on its head:

Blogger Steven Den Beste has prepared an interesting chart. ... Eliminating some of the peaks and valleys of the Bush and Kerry percentages in's average of recent polls, Den Beste shows that Bush's percentages have tended to rise over time while Kerry's have risen much less if at all.

He draws the Bush long-term trend line from a low point around 43 percent in May, when the media were full of stories about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, to higher numbers around 45 percent in July and August, then up to the 49 percent level he has reached today. His long-term Kerry trend line runs through the 44 to 45 percent level in the spring to the 45 to 46 percent level in August, after the Democratic National Convention, to the same 45 to 46 percent level of today.

It seems curious that the percentages of the incumbent should rise while the percentages of the challenger have not risen much if at all. As a general proposition, you expect an incumbent's standing to change less, because voters already know much more about him than about his opponent. But that hasn't happened this time.

My tentative explanation is this. Bush's most effective opposition this year has come not from Kerry and the Democrats but from Old Media, the New York Times and the news pages of the Washington Post, along with the broadcast networks ABC, CBS, and NBC. Old Media gave very heavy coverage to stories that tended to hurt Bush?violence in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the false charges of Richard Clarke and Joseph Wilson, etc. And during the first eight months of the year Bush did a poor job of making his case.

Then, suddenly, that case was made with maximum effectiveness at the Republican National Convention in New York - by John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani, by Zell Miller and Arnold Schwarzenegger, by Laura Bush and Dick Cheney and George W. Bush himself. Bush was able to get his message out unmediated by Old Media. (Fox News Channel had more viewers during the Republican National Convention than any of the old-line broadcast networks.) The message was simple: We need this president to protect the nation. Bush muffed the chance to deliver that message effectively in the first debate. But he made up for it in the second and third debates.

I agree with the significance Mr. Barone assigns to the Republican post-Convention "bounce" and the skewed-but-saturated mainstream media coverage in this race. And I haven't seen anything from the conventional chartists that even begins to answer this kind of argument or the economic models.


* I know, I know ... it's a registered trademark.

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