Any Republican Would Have Won in 2016? It Ain’t Necessarily So.

 

Don’t bet your house on the roulette pattern — or your country on the election pattern. Correlation is not causation and past performance does not necessarily predict future results. We all know this, yet it is great fun to prognosticate and to chew the fat over past sports and presidential election seasons. Moving beyond such speculation towards serious analysis requires us to turn to the theory and practice of political science.

In Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research, Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba laid out the case for research that is scientific even without large data sets — situations like the small set of presidential elections. Arguing against ad hoc explanations, they laid out the basics of research design: “the research question, the theory, the data, and the use of the data.” (p.13)

A social science theory is a reasoned and precise speculation about the answer to a research question, including a statement about why the proposed answer is correct.

[…] Any intelligent scholar can come up with a “plausible” theory for any set of data after the fact, yet to do so demonstrates nothing about the veracity of the theory. […] Human beings are very good at recognizing patterns but not very good at recognizing nonpatterns. (p.21)

Consider an annual event, which in presidential election years highly correlates with the election outcome.

Discovered by Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, the Redskins Rule that when the Washington Redskins win their last home game during an election year, the incumbent party will retain the White House. If they lose, the challenging party will take the election. (The connection was even cited in 2007 episode of Mad Men.)

Sure, it sounds a little goofy, but here’s the astonishing part about the Redskins Rule: since 1936, it held true for every election year until 2004, when George W. Bush retained the presidency after the Skins lost the last game of the season. The Rule got back on track in 2008, however, when Washington lost its final game and Barack Obama took the White House.

Is this a meaningful pattern? Would you really ask how sporting events significantly influence, let alone determine, the outcome of presidential elections in America? Note that the “theory” applies to precisely one game in one sport. No one who cares about our politics is going to urge political campaign and voting decisions based on the Redskins’ season final home game outcome.

Let’s turn to another possible pattern that is claimed to have predictive power for presidential elections. It has been claimed that “any Republican would have won in 2016.” The basis of this claim is given as follows:

The 22nd Amendment was adopted in 1951, which established a two-term limit on Presidents. The American people have gone one better. They have practically established a two-term limit on the two political parties, a pattern which has persisted in 15 of 17 elections since 1951!

In each election, the question is if the party in power is on their first or second term.

  • If the party is in its first term, the American people have historically given that party another four years, with the only exception being in 1980 after Jimmy Carter had been a disaster as President.
  • But if the party in power is in its second term, the American people in their wisdom have decided to “throw the bums out”! The only time that any party has gotten a third term was in 1988 when George H.W. Bush was essentially elected to the third term of the greatest president of the Twentieth Century, Ronald Reagan.

Notice that there is no falsifiable theory here. Indeed, the deviations from the perceived pattern are explained by ad hoc claims – “Carter had been a disaster” and “George H.W. Bush was essentially elected to the third term of the greatest president of the Twentieth Century, Ronald Reagan.” We are not invited to consider all presidential elections, just those since the adoption of the 22nd Amendment. There is no explanation for this presumably arbitrary limit.

The 22nd Amendment only formalizes the unwritten constitutional term limit established by President Washington, who would otherwise have been president for life.

Amendment XXII (emphasis added)

Section 1.

No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.

No candidate until Franklin Delano Roosevelt dared run for more than two full terms. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt, who ascended from vice president to the presidency on the death of McKinley, gave way to Taft after being elected president once. Four years later, TR was the first to stretch the unwritten rule by running for a full second term as a third party candidate. A visual inspection of all presidential elections suggests that election results by party are a nonpattern.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d8/Presidents_-_PartyVotes_%282016_election_update%29.png

But, maybe there is something to the party incumbency idea. There has been a small literature on presidential incumbency, especially by Alan I. Abramowitz, that shows a significant incumbency effect. He uses three variables, under what he calls the “Time for Change forecasting model.”

[The variables are] the incumbent president’s approval rating at midyear (late June or early July) in the Gallup Poll, the growth rate of real GDP in the second quarter of the election year, and whether the incumbent president’s party has held the White House for one term or more than one term. Using these three predictors, it is possible to forecast the incumbent party’s share of the major party vote with a high degree of accuracy in late July, more than three months before Election Day.

The most basic problem with the model is that even if it worked across all elections, it predicts the political equivalent of Super Bowl yards gained. The game is determined by points scored and the election is determined by Electoral College votes. With the extreme tilt of several Democrat states, models dependent on national level data may be going the way of surveys dependent on land lines.

Beyond not estimating the thing that actually determines presidential election victories, Abramowitz’s model is critically dependent on Gallup Poll data, limiting how many elections can be tested. This creates vulnerability to changing conditions not measured in this elegantly parsimonious model. Indeed, the model treats third party votes as a wash between the two major parties, when that has changed from election to election. He was so concerned about his model in 2012, that he added an extra explanatory variable, POLARIZATION, and then ran new estimates on elections back to 1996.

In October 2016, Abramowitz was trying to explain, in advance, anticipated national popular vote under-perfomance by Donald Trump. He even offered excuses about violated assumptions that do not appear in his earlier work. Yet, he did not include his POLARIZATION variable! He offered all the conventional wisdom and missed both candidates’ campaign decisions in swing states. He thought swing states were important to mention in 2012, but did not take that as a prompt to reconsider his model.

So, there is a theory that fits the data, if you limit cases to 1948 and following, and if you assume that major party popular vote percentages, based as just those votes cast for the two major party candidates, accurately predict Electoral College victory – which the theory’s author does not claim. What other research might help?

The American people do not choose presidents, the American voter does, through the state-by-state aggregating mechanism of the Electoral College. As it happens, academics have carefully studied voting behavior, using scientific polling data, since at least the 1960 publication of The American Voter. It is a very quantitative field supported for decades by the American National Election Studies (ANES). The ANES mission:

[To] inform explanations of election outcomes by providing data that support rich hypothesis testing, maximize methodological excellence, measure many variables, and promote comparisons across people, contexts, and time. The ANES serves this mission by providing researchers with a view of the political world through the eyes of ordinary citizens.

Here is the searchable PDF list of American Election Survey questions. Note that there are 24 questions about congressional incumbency, but only one that can be interpreted as presidential incumbency in the last election, not two elections back. Indeed, the only reference in 2016 to 2008 is in questions about how the economy has done over time. To understand why, see David R. Mayhew’s 2006 article “Incumbency Advantage in U.S. Presidential Elections: The Historical Record” (PDF), showing lack of statistical significance.

So, there is a theory that fits selected data for elections starting in 1948. A prominent scholar suggested over a decade ago that presidential incumbency should be included in voter behavior models and survey instruments. As of the last election, the ANES has not added questions that would get at incumbent presidential party effects. When the scholar with the strongest presidential incumbency model has made adjustments, and offering qualifications to his predictions, over the last two presidential cycles, perhaps you should not bet your country on an incumbency effect.

Published in Elections
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 41 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Jon1979 Inactive
    Jon1979
    @Jon1979

    Things stay the same, until things change. In 2012, Romney’s people thought they would regain Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio and defeat Obama that way, but  when only one of those states flipped Red (N.C.), Democrats assumed that through the use of historic first politicians who could galvanize their particular demographic voting bloc (Obama with African-Americans, Hillary with women), they could maintain those states in the Blue camp onward through the middle of the century.

    That they didn’t is because they incorrectly assumed that one of their long-time voting blocs, essentially the white working class private sector blue collar types of the Midwest, would continue to be part of their coalition in perpetuity, no matter how much benign neglect to open contempt they showed for that longtime faction of their coalition.

    Then the question is were the voters Trump got in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin getable by another Republican candidate, and could another GOP nominee have put together 270-plus electoral votes via a different combination of states (i.e. — not winning Michigan but possibly taking Virginia) ? That’s the unknown — those votes were there for the taking in 2012, because the Democrats already had displayed their lack of concern for those voters in the northern parts of flyover country during Obama’s first term in office (where their disdain for southern white voters in flyover country had been on display at the national level since at least the 1972 election).

    Romney couldn’t get them, though, while Trump did. But even there, it comes down to Trump having a far worse opponent to run against, who took the Democrats’ private sector union voter types so much for granted she couldn’t even bring herself to campaign in Wisconsin. The voters who fled to Trump may have been willing to flee to half a dozen other GOP possibilities, simply because they were not Hillary Clinton.

    • #31
  2. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    I understand the desire to pretend that 2016 didn’t happen for the professional political class.

    The entire world of prominent politicians, donors, campaign masterminds, political consultants, the entertainment industry, campaign gurus, political parties, journalists and pundits opposed the outlandish, offensive campaign of Donald Trump.

    They spent $2 billion in campaign funds.  

    And they were beaten by Trump, Corey Lewandowski, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.

    I think William Goldman has more to say than any of these models.

    • #32
  3. contrarian Inactive
    contrarian
    @Contrarian

    Clifford A. Brown:

    Let’s turn to another possible pattern that is claimed to have predictive power for presidential elections. It has been claimed that “any Republican would have won in 2016.” The basis of this claim is given as follows:

    The 22nd Amendment was adopted in 1951, which established a two-term limit on Presidents. The American people have gone one better. They have practically established a two-term limit on the two political parties, a pattern which has persisted in 15 of 17 elections since 1951!

    I’d argue that if you take this pattern at face value then it’s predicting something very simple: each party alternates holding the White House for two terms. The pattern has held in six instances and been broken twice. There’s a big difference between 15/17 and 6/8. I don’t think the latter is significant.

    • #33
  4. contrarian Inactive
    contrarian
    @Contrarian

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    Duane Oyen (View Comment):

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):

    jeannebodine (View Comment):

    It’s a fantastic piece, thorough and convincing.

    Gary Robbins This is very well written.

    Damning with faint praise?

    No, it was well written, and strongly researched. The issue is if there was a culture change after the 22nd Amendment was adopted. I say there was, but Clifford disagrees. Both are reasonable positions.

    Part of the joy of Ricochet is the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. And from time to time, I reverse my position on issues. (Cf. when I said that Trump was the most Authoritarian President in American History, and after reviewing the assertions of my fellow Ricochetti, I said that Trump was the most Authoritarian President in American History.

    I’d vote for Wilson, with Obama 2nd (the videographer, the IRS scandal), Trump 3rd, maybe Lincoln in there somewhere along with FDR. Wilson jailed Debs, which was pretty ugly.

    That verifies my revised premise that Trump was the most authoritarian Republican President in history. Several people argued that Clinton was up there also.

    I guess it depends on how ones define “authoritarian”. In terms of personality, Nixon has him beat. In terms of order running over people’s freedoms? Has to be Lincoln.

    I’m unclear. Is the claim about authoritarian personality types or authoritarianism in governing?

    • #34
  5. contrarian Inactive
    contrarian
    @Contrarian

    Some folks have said only Trump could have beaten Hillary and some folks are saying any Republican would have beaten Hillary.

    I don’t think either claim is particularly meaningful – except as an expression of approval of or distaste for Trump.

    • #35
  6. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

     

    contrarian (View Comment):

    Some folks have said only Trump could have beaten Hillary and some folks are saying any Republican would have beaten Hillary.

    I don’t think either claim is particularly meaningful – except as an expression of approval of or distaste for Trump.

    Surely some of that, and likely some of this:

    … it is great fun to prognosticate and to chew the fat over past sports and presidential election seasons.

    • #36
  7. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Quake Voter (View Comment):

    I understand the desire to pretend that 2016 didn’t happen for the professional political class.

    The entire world of prominent politicians, donors, campaign masterminds, political consultants, the entertainment industry, campaign gurus, political parties, journalists and pundits opposed the outlandish, offensive campaign of Donald Trump.

    They spent $2 billion in campaign funds.

    And they were beaten by Trump, Corey Lewandowski, Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon.

    I think William Goldman has more to say than any of these models.

    Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world – except for a nice MLT – mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomatoes are ripe

    [smacks his lips]

    They’re so perky, I love that.

    • #37
  8. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    This well researched OP was in response to a post of my mine that never escaped the Member Feed.  I am including it now with the note that I had to change my premise from “Any Republican was going to win in 2016” to “Almost any Republican was going to win in 2016.”

    Almost any Republican would have won in 2016

    It is time to demolish the canard that Trump was the only Republican who could have won in 2016.  The truth of the matter is that almost any Republican would have won in 2016, and that Trump barely won.

    The 22nd Amendment was adopted in 1951, which established a two-term limit on Presidents.  The American people have gone one better.  They have practically established a two-term limit on the two political parties, a pattern which has persisted in 15 of 17 elections since 1951!

    In each election, the question is if the party in power is on their first or second term. 

    • If the party is in its first term, the American people have historically given that party another four years, with the only exception being in 1980 after Jimmy Carter had been a disaster as President.
    • But if the party in power is in its second term, the American people in their wisdom have decided to “throw the bums out”! The only time that any party has gotten a third term was in 1988 when George H.W. Bush was essentially elected to the third term of the greatest president of the Twentieth Century, Ronald Reagan.

    Here are the results since the 22nd Amendment was adopted in 1951:

    1952  Republicans

    1956  Republicans

    1960  Democrats

    1964  Democrats

    1968  Republicans

    1972  Republicans

    1976  Democrats

    1980  Republicans  (Jimmy Carter was a disaster)

    1984  Republicans

    1988  Republicans  (George H.W. Bush was elected to Reagan’s third term.)

    1992  Democrats

    1996  Democrats

    2000  Republicans

    2004  Republicans

    2008  Democrats

    2012  Democrats

    2016  Republicans

    I have read people fault McCain for losing to Obama.  Nonsense.  After two terms of a Republican President, the American People were ready to give the Democrats a chance, which had been the history other than in 1988.

    Others fault Romney for losing to Obama.  Nonsense.  Unless Obama had been a Carter-like disaster, the Democrats were going to retain the Presidency, which had been the history other than in 1980. 

    Almost any Republican was going to win in 2016.  It was our year.  Unfortunately, instead of nominating a conservative, we decided to nominate a populist.  Hopefully we can remedy that mistake in the 2020 primaries and nominate a conservative like Nikki Haley.

     

    • #38
  9. J.D. Snapp Coolidge
    J.D. Snapp
    @JulieSnapp

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    Hopefully we can remedy that mistake in the 2020 primaries and nominate a conservative like Nikki Haley.

    To be fair, I would vote for Nikki Haley. 

    • #39
  10. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    Under the constitution, the President and Vice President must be from different states.  If not, I would love Tim Scott as Nikki Haley’s Vice President.

    • #40
  11. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Gary Robbins (View Comment):
    Almost any Republican was going to win in 2016. It was our year. Unfortunately, instead of nominating a conservative, we decided to nominate a populist. Hopefully we can remedy that mistake in the 2020 primaries and nominate a conservative like Nikki Haley.

    What you want is not going to happen, and it anti-republican. You want to tell 40% of the voters to go pound sand. 

     

    • #41
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.