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Do presidential campaigns matter? In short, no

This is an article I originally wrote on my site at on Oct. 14, 2008.

Political reporters and television pundits spend so much time talking about  the strategies of the two main presidential candidates that readers and viewers  might be misled into believing that what happens on the campaign trail actually  affects the results on Election Day.

Yet despite the news media’s obsession with daily tracking polls, debate  performances and candidate tactics, political scientists have known for decades  that presidential contests can be accurately forecast months before either  candidate shakes a hand or kisses a baby.

This year, the results of the presidential forecasting models have been in  for at least two months and predict that Democrat Barack  Obama will defeat Republican John  McCain in the popular vote and likely become the nation’s next  president.

According to eight of nine recently released studies that were conducted from  60 to 300 days before the Nov. 4 election, Obama will receive between 50.1 and  58.2 percent of the popular vote next month. In only one of the studies was  McCain forecast to win a majority at the ballot box.

The nine studies, which are reported in the most recent issue of Political  Science & Politics Quarterly, make their predictions by using a variety  of economic, social and political indicators that are available prior to the  start of the general election campaign.

These include the current state of the economy, the incumbent president’s  approval rating, the public’s desire for change and the partisan alignment of  the electorate. At least one of the studies also factored in the issue of race  given that this is the first presidential election in which an African American  is a major-party nominee.

“At first glance, the outcome of the 2008 presidential election would appear  to be very difficult to predict,” wrote Alan I. Abramowitz of Emory University,  the author of one of the studies. “Despite uncertainty among political observers  due to the unusual characteristics of the candidates and the tightness of the  polls, research on U.S. presidential elections indicates that how voters will  cast their ballots in November can be predicted accurately based on conditions  that are known long before Election Day.”

Abramowitz, who used what he calls a Time-for-Change Model, analyzed data  that was available last summer to predict that “Barack Obama will receive 54.3  percent of the major-party vote in November vs. 45.7 percent for John  McCain.”

Helmut Norpoth of Stony Brook University analyzed the results of each major  party’s primary election in New Hampshire last January to forecast the results  of “any match up in November between Democratic and Republican candidates.”

This Primary Model, which has accurately predicted the popular-vote winner in  all but one of the past 24 elections, forecasted that Obama would defeat McCain  by a popular major-party vote of 50.1 to 49.9 percent.

Likewise, Carl Klarner of Indiana State University used data available last  July to predict that Obama will take 53 percent of the popular vote and 346  electoral votes to become the next president.

The only study that predicted a McCain victory was one conducted by James E.  Campbell of the University of Buffalo. Using a model that analyzes the Labor Day  trial-heat poll of the Republican candidate and the second-quarter growth rate  of the economy, Campbell forecasted that McCain can expect to receive 52.7  percent of the major-party popular vote, adding that this statistical analysis  indicates an 83 percent possibility that McCain will win a plurality.

“A number of factors in the 2008 election may … offset the Democrats’  initial advantage,”Campbell wrote. “First, the way candidates win their  nominations often affects their chances in winning their election and this may  favor the Republicans this year… Second, as candidates, Obama would appear to  bring more liabilities to the campaign than McCain. Beside a number of  embarrassing associations, Obama’s voting record during his brief tenure in the  Senate was extremely liberal and McCain’s voting record over the same period was  moderately conservative… And then there is the great unknown: with Barack  Obama’s nomination as the first African American presidential candidate of a  major political party, there is the question of whether race will affect the  election and, if so, how?”

This argument was countered by Michael S. Lewis-Beck of the University of  Iowa and Charles Tien of Hunter College, who factored race into their  forecasting equation and predicted that the Republicans “will experience a  shattering defeat.”

The Lewis-Beck/Tien model, which made the prediction based in part on the  number of jobs created in the labor market, has only a 1 in 14 chance of being  wrong, the authors said.

In addition to the presidential vote, three of the studies also forecasted  the outcome of the House and Senate contests, with the general consensus being  that Democrats will likely increase their majorities in both chambers.

A study conducted by Brad Lockerbie of East Carolina University predicted the  Democrats would pick up 25 seats in the House; Klarner predicted that the  Democrats would win 11 additional seats in the House and three in the Senate;  and a third study said the Democrats would end up with 224 seats in the House if  Democrats win an average of 50 percent of the district-wide vote.

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