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February 16, 2011


Seem to me that the original question was 'can we quantifiably determine if this is a weak field for the GOP', and you've moved now to the question of whether individual candidates matter at all or if Presidential elections are driven almost entirely by other factors.
That was never the dispute- from Silver's original post "On the one hand, incumbent presidents aren’t easy to beat; on the other, the identity of the opposition candidate only matters within a fairly narrow interval (when the president’s approval rating is between roughly 40 percent and 50 percent). But unless a candidate like Mr. Clinton emerges, Republicans may well be at some risk of underachieving."

That agrees fairly well with your final paragraph. It seems to me that you've drifted away from the original question, which is odd since you grasped it perfectly well in your first response...

A couple points.

1. Last year, Ezra Klein linked to a Larry Bartels paper (in PDF form) to refute the idea that the 2000 election defied economically based predictions. The paper pointed out that there was a slowdown in income growth in 2000, which has historically been a very good predictor of presidential elections:


2. This is a bit tangential, but I'm wondering if you can find me some information I've been looking for. You wrote in your previous piece on the subject that Reagan had 38/39% favorable/unfavorable ratings in early 1979. My question is, what were Nixon's favorables in 1967? Were such polls even taken back then?

I ask because of discussions I've had with Palin supporters, in which I've pointed to her whopping 54.3% unfavorable rating and suggested that no one with unfavorables that high has ever gone on to reach the presidency. I don't think it's impossible that she could become president, just that it would be a real first. They then tell me that Reagan and Nixon overcame high unfavorables to become president. That didn't sound right to me, and I went searching in Google News archive and my library's databases for reports of the polls around the time. I can't seem to find anything--mostly it's just comparative candidate polls, and favorability polls are reserved for people who have already reached the White House. But you were able to find a Cambridge Reports survey from 1979, so you seem to have access to databases I do not. Can you find any info on Nixon's favorability in the years leading up the '68 election?

You moved away from the original argument as many Republicans are wont to do these days when they are unable to defend their position.
Comparing predicitions prior to the 2008 election of Mr. Silver? My money will be on his take and information gleaned from past facts that DO apply to the questions YOU raised.... prior to this tangent you appear to have gone off on today......

Kylopod, I can't find any general Nixon favorability polls from that period in the Roper database (the most comprehensive).

Carleton, the point of my first post was that the Republican chances in 2012 won't be affected by the composition of the current GOP field ("It's not clear, however, that the absence of such a figure will matter."). That's also the point of the second post.

It certainly didn't read that way to me. For example, you correctly observed that Bob Dole started the campaign with great fav/unfav, but ended up with middling numbers and lost. That supports the thesis 'early fav/unfav is not a good predictor of later fav/unfav', not 'challenger fav/unfav is irrelevant to predicting Presidential elections'.
You mention Clinton's early numbers, but not his later ones, so in retrospect it's unclear if you meant to demonstrate that Clinton became a strong candidate despite weak initial numbers or that his strength as a candidate didn't matter bc of the economy. Those would be cool #s btw if you've got them, to add to the discussion.

If you want to support the thesis that late-game challenger fav/unfav is not important in determining who wins Presidential elections, then I think you should stick to presenting data that support that point. Clinton's and Dole's early numbers are irrelevant to that argument I think, if late-game numbers are available.

But again- if your thesis is that Presidential elections are mostly determined by other factors, I think you're in agreement with Silver. His argument, as I read it, is
1)if early fav/unfav is a good predictor of later fav/unfav AND
2)if later fav/unfav is a good predictor of strength of a candidate THEN
3)The GOP doesn't have a very exciting field AND
4)if strength of candidate affects close races, this weak field could cost them if the bigger factors like the economy give us a close race

I don't agree with all of that- particularly from 1 to 2, I think that relatively unknown candidates (eg Clark 04 from his data) can grow their favorables more than their unfavorables and develop into high-favorability candidates. And there are a number of GOP candidates in that range now. So the future strength of the field is unknown (and probably always will be this early in the race). Nate's numbers omit that the field only needs one candidate to achieve this sort of growth, even if the average candidate's fav/unfav ratio doesn't change much.

But I think it's realistic to point out that this might not happen, and the GOP might end up with some compromise candidate like McCain in 08. And that this might shave a point or more off of their results, which could make all the difference in the world.

Of course, a bigger problem with this whole thing is teasing out how much fav/unfav changes are the result of the candidate and how much they come from extrinsic factors- particularly, the huge ones like the economy that we already know have great influence on election outcomes.

A minor question:

I'm a little surprised that both 1964 and 1980 (at the minimum and maximum extremes) fall pretty much exactly on the line. Is that a least squares fit?

Carleton, I omitted later-stage favorability numbers because they're highly correlated with the eventual outcome and seem to be a result of the structural factors that drive the vote. That's the point. For nominees, early-stage favorability plays a very small role; the vote is driven toward the outcome expected by the fundamentals.

Jinchi, there's a non-linear component to the model -- see http://douglas-hibbs.com/Election2008/2008Election-MainPage.htm and the associated papers.

"I omitted later-stage favorability numbers because they're highly correlated with the eventual outcome and seem to be a result of the structural factors that drive the vote. That's the point."

I didnt ask for October numbers; I asked for post-primary numbers.

Perhaps early fav/unfav numbers represent something about the candidate and later fav/unfav numbers merely reflect the structural factors that we're discussing. I suppose the best way to tease that out would be to see if those underlying factors correlate with the changes in fav/unfav- Id like to see that demonstrated rather than assumed though, esp since it would show us when and how this transition happens.
My guess is that, given the variability in the numbers Silver posted, that candidates fav/unfav aren't that strongly affected by national phenomena before a nominee is selected or becomes inevitable. It'd be hard to say that the extrinsic factors were simultaneously driving Edwards up in '08 but leaving Clinton and Obama at the same difference, or pushing Edwards and Clark up in '04 while sinking Dean and Kerry.
So I think the post-primary numbers would be interesting, and might show more about candidate quality than numbers from immediately before the election.

But while that's an interesting question, it doesn't get at the earlier one directly: how much can we tell about likely candidate quality today? Regardless of how much of an impact candidate quality has on the outcome, it certainly has some effect, and could tip a close election. If you think it's not interesting because the election is likely to be driven by other factors, then you're not much of a political junkie...

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