Meaningless election correlations

Living in Ohio, I am sick of hearing that we are a crucial swing state and that “no Republican has even won the presidency without winning Ohio”.

That has to be one of the most telling examples of political commentators taking some trivial post-facto correlation and investing it with great importance, treating it as if it were a meaningful causal relationship that could be used as a predictor. So people look breathlessly at Ohio polls because everything seems to hinge on it.

At least with this correlation, there is some direct connection to the final outcome, since Ohio’s result does play a role. But there are even more idiotic correlations that I heard in previous elections that do not have even that low-level of connectedness, such as that if the Dow Jones index is up (or down) at some time compared to some earlier time in a presidential election year, then that means the Democratic (or Republican) candidate will win. Or if the NFC (or AFC) team wins the Super Bowl in the year of the election, that predicts the outcome too. Sorry for being so vague as to what is supposed to predict what, but my mind shuts downs whenever anyone repeats those stupid correlations and I refuse to waste time tracking down the actual statements. I have not heard them this time around which may mean that the 2008 election ‘disproved’ both of them. Or not. I don’t really care.

The cartoon strip xkcd makes clear that one can always find such correlations and that they are true until they are no longer true.


  1. jamessweet says

    I can understand how the “no Republican candidate wins without Ohio” thing gets such traction. It is very difficult for a candidate of either party to win without Ohio, what with it being a major swing state, and since (IIRC; someone who doesn’t have a meeting in 7 minutes may want to factcheck me here) Ohio tends to break red more often than blue, if a Republican candidate fails to take Ohio, that’s not a good sign. So there’s probably a grain of truth there… Though I’ll take a thorough analytical model, like that used at Nate Silver’s blog, over such a crude metric any day!

    On the football prediction, you are probably thinking of this, which was broken in 2004. Although I think people have still continued to repeat it apace… 😀

  2. Mano Singham says

    Thanks for the football link but I’m pretty sure it was about the Super Bowl. But as I said, it is too trivial to pursue …

  3. Jared A says

    I’m reminded of four years ago when Barack Obama’s seat was replaced by Roland Burris. The Daily Show had a lot of mileage making fun of his giant ego. One thing was his ostentatious mausoleum that built for himself that includes an extremely specific list of his accomplishments under the header “trailblazer”. I can’t find a list to verify, but IIRC some of his “firsts” were extremely specific to the point of inanity.

  4. unbound says

    I read something that stated that Virginia is one of the keys this year. Regardless of accuracy, we have been absolutely hammered this year with the political and “survey” calls. I’m eager to get to the election just to get the phone calls to stop…

  5. slc1 says

    Unlike the Rethuglicans, the Democrats have won without carrying Ohio. As was pointed out, Ohio usually goes Rethuglican in presidential elections so, if the Rethuglican candidate fails to carry the state, he/she is in deep doo doo. In fact, is is highly doubtful that Romney can win without carrying Ohio this year.

  6. slc1 says

    By the way, the importance of Ohio is recognized by both candidates as evidenced by the time they are spending in the state and the amount of money for ads that is being spent in the state.

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