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Jewish World Review June 20, 2000 / 7 Sivan, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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Echoing Looney Tunes -- POLITICAL SCIENCE? Oxymoron! Oxymoron! And it gets worse: Among political scientists there is the subset of "election modelers." They claim that they can tell you who will win the presidential election in November. (Unanimously, they say, it's Gore, by plenty.)

Forget that the sample the modelers use for their forecasts usually includes only 12 modern elections, starting with 1952 (and avoiding the 1948 upset win of Harry Truman) -- not enough cases. What is the margin of error? Plus or minus a million?

Forget that (as Karl Eisenhower and Pete Nelson point out in Slate magazine) the modelers "retrocast," "re-specify" and "re-estimate" their formulas so that their forecasts are always shaped to fit what has already happened. That allows them to predict past elections. You can probably do that too.

Forget that they frequently exempt certain elections, like Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972 ("extremists") or elections when wars are in progress. And they are often wrong on close elections (1960 and 1968).

Forget that the modelers do not account for positions on issues, political ideology and personality. Oh, those. Why not? Because they can't be measured. Hmm... They also do not reckon with some of the earlier favorites of election predictors: height of the candidate, skirt length, which league wins the World Series, how well the Bordeaux travels.

The modelers essentially rely on only two variables: incumbent presidential popularity and economic conditions as related to incumbency. Each is flawed.

According to this theory, Gore gets major points because of President Clinton's popularity, as measured by his high "job approval" rating. Well, yes. But this incumbent is regarded as a reprobate, whose "personal approval" ratings are low. Which approval rating transfers to Gore, if either?

Is the economy the great variable? Do voters simply vote their pocketbooks? No doubt it's important. But who gets the credit? The incumbent president? Sure, some. But the incumbent vice president? Why not Alan Greenspan? Why not Paul Volcker? Why not the Republican Congress? After all, the economy and the stock market blasted off in 1995. Why not the end of the Cold War? Why not Ronald Reagan for jump-starting the "magic of the market?"

The current line about national elections is that they are keyed to "the economy, stupid." But it wasn't even true in 1992 when it appeared on James Carville's sign in the Clinton war room. In that year, more polls showed that voters thought "values" trumped the "economy" as the No. 1 issue.

Moreover, the 1992 economy was not in such bad shape. As calculated then, there was weak growth of 1.25 percent over the previous seven quarters, with 2.8 percent growth for the 1992 calendar year. But the economic figures have been recalculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It turns out that the economy grew by a solid 2 percent over the seven quarters preceding the election, and by a vibrant 3.6 percent in 1992. And so, President George Bush was re-elected.

(By the way, Clinton only got 43 percent of the vote in 1992, and 49 percent in 1996, with Ross Perot in the race each time, which proves -- what?)

American elections are much more complicated than simple economics or the incumbent's approval ratings. There have been elections in which slavery, wars, women's suffrage, scandal and prohibition were central issues. More recently, Dwight Eisenhower's slogan was "Communism, Corruption and Korea."

Richard Nixon relied heavily on "law 'n' order." Ronald Reagan pitched "Reagan Democrats" on "family," "work," "neighborhood," "peace" and "freedom."

The current presidential polls are most interesting. "Moral Values" are still right on top or near the top of a list of most-important issues. Bush and Gore are fairly close to each other in most issue categories, including education, economics, environment, guns, health care, abortion and so on. The one commanding category lead is held by Bush, on "moral values." And in the election pairing, Bush is ahead of Gore by about 5 percentage points.

Swing voters have several ways to look at a presidential election. They can endorse what they like -- the economy -- and then go on to determine which candidate or party can best advance that condition. Or they can assess what they are displeased with, and make a choice about which candidate or party might best help remedy that situation. These days, many Americans, rightly or wrongly, fear that we are in a moral swamp.

It is not news that some academics purvey nutsy theories. They have tenure. But journalists are less protected. Yet, most sign on whole-hog to the economics-is-everything hogwash.

Luckily, voters are less simplistic than academics, and less gullible than journalists. They have minds of their own and will judge things in due time. And in 2004, the modelers will tell you who won.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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