What really matters in predicting presidential election outcomes

While most of us tend to predict the outcome of presidential elections based on perceptions of the viability of candidates and what happens to be the hot issues of the day, it is useful to bear in mind that the real professionals (like political scientists) look at different things in their crystal balls.

A political scientist colleague of mine who tracks these things closely says that what they look at are markers of the state of the economy. The best predictor of presidential elections is the change in real disposable income and the GDP. Since there is usually a six-month lag in these numbers filtering down to voters, the figures that come in starting around May will give us a good indication of which way the election will go in November, largely irrespective of the candidates and the issues. Figures like unemployment do not matter so much because most people are employed and so it does not affect them directly.

This seems counterintuitive. Surely the GRAGGS (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, sex) issues that occupy so much time and space and arouse so much passion must influence the way people vote? But apparently they are not very good as predictors. I am guessing here but suspect that it is because most people’s views on these are fixed and thus the debates have little chance of changing the way people vote and merely serve to stoke the intensity of their feelings. And for those who can be swayed, the effects are random and largely cancel each other out, in that for every undecided voter who decides to vote for the Democrat because he or she is disturbed by the contraception uproar, there is likely another who it drives to the Republican camp.


  1. alanuk says

    I would not attempt to predict the outcome of the US election. I am sure that the US will get the president that it deserves. This is very worrying.

  2. Vincenzo says

    … and on that front, things look almost hopeless for Obama.


    Although at the moment the Republican camp seems divided and their candidates equally unpalatable, there is no question that as soon as Romney a candidate is selected, the party will close ranks, promote their candidate, and produce a veritable barrage of advertisement to explain away his Wall Street ties questionable past.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the GRAGGS (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, sex) issues … apparently they are not very good as predictors.

    Such red flags often serve the Republicans well as a means of getting their voters out to the polls, which explains why (e.g.) anti-gay referenda pop up on November ballots so regularly.

    To a large degree, each party has to campaign more strongly against apathy than against the other party – a task made harder every election cycle by the they’re-all-sold-out policies enacted between times.

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