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wundayatta's avatar

"Throw the bums out!" "It's the economy, stupid!" Are these the most important guides for predicting election results?

Asked by wundayatta (58596points) September 15th, 2010

It seems that in the current election scene in the US, people are trying desperately to distance themselves from Washington—power cental. People who have spent decades living and working in DC are making like they are complete outsiders.

Pocketbook issues are supposed to be the most important issues to the American public. Anyone who can make them prosperous gets a free ride. But woe to those who don’t do that. Not even if they have only had two years to work on it.

I think the two points of view are related. A bad economy leads to throw the bums out to see if the next crew can do any better. Never mind that there is only so much Washington can do to push the economy and that turning the economy around is like turning a supertanker around. You turn the wheel at the helm long before the tanker starts turning, and the tanker keeps turning long after you’ve straightened the wheel.

What do you think? Are these the best guides to election forecasting? Are there others that are as important? Or near in importance? How do you think about making political predictions?

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18 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

The crowd is fickle. In mid-term elections, the President’s party usually does badly.

iamthemob's avatar

The Iowa Electronics Market is pretty much the best way to predict election results, hands down, proven time and again.

Once people throw “money” down on their guesses, the market becomes pretty predictive.

wundayatta's avatar

@iamthemob I have participated in that market. In fact, I think I still have a few bucks over there. I’m not sure, but it seems to me that very far out from elections, even the IEM isn’t very accurate. Anyway, the market is just a market. It doesn’t explain why people put their money where they do. That’s what I’m interested in.

iamthemob's avatar

IEM is the most accurate, as far as I’ve seen…is there something better? Let me know…I hate following substandard rating systems…

…well, the substandard generally….

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

Those sentiments are only good predictors of elections if a lot of people are saying them. It appears that a lot of people are saying that this year.

Edit: Sabato’s Crystal Ball had a 98% track record for accuracy in the last election.

wundayatta's avatar

Actually, I saw an analysis that compared polls and IEM and it turned out that the polls were more accurate—but only by a tiny bit. I think you have to take all the polls and average them in some way. There was one other wrinkle. I heard it a couple of years ago. Anyway, I remember the result.

Still, using IEM as a market is fine, but it doesn’t help me. I want to know why how to predict what people will do, which is different from merely watching a market of preferences. I want to know why people trend the way they do. What major, simple indicators are most closely related to their choices, in your opinion.

marinelife's avatar

It depends on the election to be sure although the two slogans you mentioned are evergreen.

iamthemob's avatar

@wundayatta – back to the research drawing board – thanks for the info!

Jaxk's avatar

The points you bring up are driving many voters this election. There does seem to be another point which is being missed in all this. During the 2008 elections many people were brought out that hadn’t voted before. A lot of younger voters and black voters, that rode the wave of popularity for Obama. But at least a large part of this was based on his platform of ‘Hope and Change’. There was a great many that were driven by the prospect of our first Black President. And of course there was the antiwar sentiment that drove many as well. The ideas were good but the specific issues were less important and many didn’t really understand them.

This time, the issues are prominent. More people are actually reading the constitution. More people are getting involved rather than just voting. The Tea Parties are bringing people out that never got involved before. Whether you consider that a good or bad thing, the real issues are being discussed in a way I haven’t heard before. The established way of campaigning and measuring voter preferences is being changed. It’s easy to say ‘the economy is bad so the incumbents will suffer’ but it’s more than that. People are worried that the country is changing and not for the better.

Social issues that have been the stock and trade for Democrats, are taking a back seat. Things like Abortion are hardly mentioned. I can’t recall an election where it didn’t get some play. Things like the debt are prominent and rated as top issues. I can’t remember an election where debt and deficit got such high ratings.

This time is different and I fear the old measuring sticks won’t apply. The ancient wisdom will be lacking. And with any luck, the people will be heard. Or maybe that’s only a pipe dream. We’ll know soon enough.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk Debt and deficit are related to the economy, no? Or at least, isn’t that what people who bring it up are concerned with?

In what ways do you see the established ways of campaigning and measuring voter preferences changing?

I’m sure the people will be heard. They always are. That’s what voting is all about. They’ll get what they vote for, too. Whether they’ll like it is another question.

Jaxk's avatar


Debt and deficit are definitely related to the economy. Historically however, these have not been seen as the driving issues. They gained prominence during the Clinton administration as he fought to reduce the deficit but even then they were only rated as 28% of the public thinking they were important. Today it is more like 80%. Most people didn’t even understand the effects of debt or deficit. The public is learning more and more about the details of problems. It is part and parcel with the electorate becoming more involved and more informed.

Historically when voters were dissatisfied with congress they still believed their own representatives were doing a good job. In fact the term political stagnation was coined to reflect that opinion. 90% of incumbents were historically reelected. Being the incumbent virtually assured your reelection. That is changing. While incumbents will still have the edge, it also brings a severe handicap with it. Predicting the results based on these old assumptions just doesn’t work anymore.

And the paragraph above demonstrates that people were not involved with the elections. Many voted based on TV ads or political party affiliations. While there’s no doubt that will continue, the electorate is becoming more knowledgeable. He who has the most money doesn’t necessarily win. He who has the biggest political machine, doesn’t necessarily win. The rules are changing and while these things will continue to play a dominant role, there is more complexity to it now. Frankly I welcome the changes. The more people know the better decisions they make. The more people know about the issues, the less they will make thier decision based on who slept with who. It’s a brave new world and I like the direction taking place by the electorate.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk I hope you are right about the electorate becoming more knowledgeable. Still, economics is one of the most difficult subjects to understand, even by highly educated people. There’s a lot of conflicting and confusing information about it. Some freak out about the size of the deficit, and others point out that borrowing is a good thing, and our borrowing is a much lower portion of our GDP than most other Western nations. A certain amount of debt is healthy, and some say we haven’t reached that point yet.

It’s interesting about the “we love our own guy, but the rest of them are crooks” mentality getting changed by the “throw the bums out” mentality. I don’t know where this is happening, but I would be surprised if it is happening anywhere but in swing districts. Maybe a few solid districts, but everything always depends on local conditions and who the candidates are and what the incumbent did. We’ll see, but I will be surprised if the incumbent reelection phenomenon changes much. I’m taking your 90% figure as an approximation that is fairly accurate because it jives with my sense of things, but I would feel better with some data to back it up.

I think your point about a more knowledgeable electorate is something I hadn’t really thought about before. I’m so used to thinking about them as unknowledgeable precisely because they can believe political ads and be swayed by them. I need to revisit that assumption, because you may well be right.

I have always believed that the electorate gets what they want. I’ve not understood why they wanted what they voted for since it seemed to me they were voting against their own interests. It is clear that they vote based on character more than based on issues. SO it goes.

Jaxk's avatar


A little back up for the 90% number.

Even in the ‘94 election where massive change occurred, the 90% held true.You have to go back to the late ‘70s before you see a significant difference. I suspect you will see a significant change again this year. There are already a number of incumbents that haven’t even made it through the primaries, normally a lock.

As for the economy, the basic concepts are not tough. The fine tuning becomes more of an art than a science. Debt is not a problem until you get so much that you can no longer pay the interest. Inflation is good until it gets high enough to destroy saving and income can’t keep up. Hell, unemployment is good. Most economists consider an unemployment rate of 5–6% full employment. Remember that congress is incented to make you believe the economy is to complicated to understand. That only those in congress can grasp the essentials. And that when they do something it is right even though you may not be able to understand why.

As for the electorate, I still believe they are not as dumb as many would have you believe. Historically, most got there information from the evening news on TV. Or maybe if you were really involved, you’d get the morning paper as well. Keeping up with events takes time and effort. If you working full time and raising a family, there is little time left to research candidates or issues. The world however, has moved on. 24 hour news, Internet, talk radio, all provide the ability to get news when you want or while you’re doing other things. All part of the information revolution and all good.

Character really is an issue. Our system bestows massive power on those we elect. Character provides some insight as to how they might use that power. Unfortunately we seem to think that lawyers have more character than used car salesmen. It would appear that’s not the case.

wundayatta's avatar

I knew a high percentage of incumbents were reelected, but wow! I didn’t realize it was that high. Thanks for the data.

I guess we all see different things as being important in a leader’s character. So many people think that a candidates sexual adventures make him unreliable and untrustworthy. I don’t see sexual cheating and lying to be something that carries over into other portions of a person’s life.

I see cronyism and favoritism and selfish interests as a serious character flaw for public officials. There have been many times when the general electorate saw things quite differently from me. Not much I can do except to keep on trying to show people why I think the way I do.

Jaxk's avatar


I would agree with you on the sexual escapades. When Clinton got caught, I can’t say I condone it, but the whole impeachment thing was ridiculous and embarrassing (for me as a Republican).

The problems you state (cronyism, favoritism,self interest) are not easily defined. The terms are very subjective and complicated. When a politician is doing something we don’t like, we have a tendency to assign these terms as reasons why. That may or may not be accurate and may change depending on the issue. The constant harping on motives, is one of the reasons we don’t understand each other.

If your motives are bad, your proposal is bad. If your motives are good, your proposal is good. So we argue the motives rather than the proposal. Hell half the time we don’t even understand what the proposal will do. We just know the person proposing it is either good or bad. It’s hard to stay above the fray.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk I think of myself as one who knows better because I have done a lot of policy work over the course of my life. I believe I can see the effects of a piece of legislation before it is enacted, and if it seems to benefit a wealthy minority, then I question the motives of those who supported it.

I have found myself, in this discussion, try to stay away from the “I know better than you” attitude. I am trying to remain open to the idea that if voters vote for the “wrong” person, in my opinion, that does not make them wrong. Two things could have happened. They could be duped and/or stupid, or I could be wrong.

Now you and I would probably disagree on just about any piece of legislation. It is also the case that I am farther from the time when I was strongly involved in these researches. I am more reliant on my knowledge of how things work to infer what has actually happened. So, I may be less accurate in my predictions about what is going on. There is a possibility that in areas where we disagree, you could have a better understanding of how things work.

Honestly, I’m not sure what’s happening now in terms of the electorate. People keep interpreting the Tea Party successes as an indictment of Washington. Except for the Tea Party, I’m not sure what people are indicting.

Right now I think that the changes Obama has made haven’t had a chance to work and that the electorate may be getting too impatient, mostly because they expected jobs to magically appear when Obama was elected.

The Tea Party seems to think that jobs will magically appear if they cut taxes, including the taxes on the rich. I don’t quite get this, because I’m not sure how many people in the Tea Party are rich. But I guess it is axiomatic for them that if they put more money into private hands, businesses will do better and there will be more jobs.

I assume that together with this, they support cutting government spending, which will hurt many social programs, thus increasing homelessness and raising the poverty rate even higher.

I believe that Republicans apparent lack of concern for the poor is a serious problem. Yet I often don’t see people making this link. Lots of poor people seem to vote for them. This is a big head scratcher for me.

I try to stay honest in my liberal opinions. I try not to do things in a knee-jerk way. But I do trust Democrats more, so if I don’t know anything, I vote Democratic.

Honest conversation about politics is difficult to come by, I think. I think we are dishonest with ourselves and our own motives as much as we impute this dishonesty to those who do not believe as we do.

Note, I could have said “those who are against us” instead of “those who do not believe as we do.” I would like to believe that all of us honestly want what’s best for our country. Thus, we are not against each other; we just don’t see our own best interests in the same way.

This view seems to be hardly ever taken any more. I think this is tactical. People believe they can support their view more effectively by trying to rip chucks out of the other side’s hide. Thus they forget we are together. This is a problem, I think.

Jaxk's avatar


I have no problem with honest disagreement. And I think to some degree we are saying the same thing about the motives. When we disagree however, there is a tendency to not really hear what what the other side is saying. A couple of points for example.

It may very well be that Obama’s programs have not had a chance to work. But if you recall, he promised an 8% ceiling with his stimulus rhetoric. That may be unreasonable but remember the ‘shovel ready’ arguments as well. All intended to be a rapid turnaround. None of which have worked and the promise of better results from another go around seem unlikely.

The Tea Parties don’t believe that jobs will magically appear with a tax cut. There is sound reasoning behind the concept. We may not agree that it will work but there’s nothing mystical in the idea. Obama himself has said “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Both camps believe that a money injection into the economy will spur economic growth. The debate centers on where the money will do the most good. Should government decide where to spend or should business and consumers decide.

Cutting government spending is essential. Whether Democrat or Republican both tell us the deficit will have to be brought back in line. The disagreement is when. Social programs are like heroine. They make you feel good but are incredibly addictive. That doesn’t mean we don’t need heroine, it has a very good use. It only means we use it sparingly. And once addicted, you must suffer some to kick the habit. The cure for poverty and homelessness is not more welfare but more opportunity, more innovation, and more jobs. It is the old ‘give a man a fish or teach him to fish’. Honestly if you give them fish long enough, they lose thier desire to learn.

I think the real key is to keep things in perspective. They are all a matter of degrees rather than black and white. If I argue against an unemployment extension, it is not that I don’t agree with unemployment but rather 2 years is too long.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk It’s not as if government spending doesn’t put money in the hands of consumers and businesses. Like you said, it’s puts it in the hands of specific businesses and consumers. Some of those businesses are “too large to fail” and others are small. The consumers… well, they’re probably on the lower end of the economic scale. Whatever. They all buy stuff, and that’s what pushes the economy forward.

Well, I’m just repeating what you said. I think there’s research showing that the bottom up approach works better than top down. Whichever approach you take, there has to be confidence in the future or people won’t spend. I don’t think there is any political leader in this country that could provide that confidence, nor is there any policy that will make it happen. I don’t think any economist knows how to create confidence.

I don’t know if anything would be different with Tea Party folk. If you take the money away from the education and housing and food programs, will people work any harder? Will they get better jobs? Will they make more money? Somehow, it’s hard for me to see a less-educated, homeless, hungry person as being able to make enough money to even keep themselves clothed, much less fed. Social support programs didn’t arise from nothing. It’s not like anyone wanted to give handouts. People have real needs, and these are the people who will suffer the most if the budget is cut dramatically enough to reduce the deficit quickly.

Will more homeless help people have more confidence in the economy? Did we learn nothing from FDR’s programs about how to get out of economic downturns? If anything, I think Obama hasn’t been spending enough. The government can put people to work, and it can make the difference we need.

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