In January of 2011, the Harris County GOP graciously invited me to speak at their meeting. Remember what the political scene was like then? Media pundits were talking about how the tea party would swallow up the Republicans, and become “the next big thing,” in American politics. Reporters were talking about Barack Obama’s presidency in the past tense. The loss of the Senate by the Democrats was a foregone conclusion.
So the audience probably was a bit shocked when I announced that Obama would likely win reelection by a 52 percent-48 percent margin, with a slightly wider lead in the Electoral College. Nobody on television was saying that, so why would I?
I’m not a genius, and I’ve made some bad picks in my time, but my job isn’t to back one side. It is to try and make the best forecast possible. If you want an accurate assessment of the Dallas Cowboys-Washington Redskins game before they plan, don’t go to the fan sites.
I thought Obama would win because he was unlikely to face a primary challenge, the number one incumbent-killer in data I’ve analyzed going back to 1900. I also knew not to look at static economic numbers, but the dynamic ones. While pundits were telling us hardly anyone gets reelected with certain economic numbers, I saw how Ronald Reagan was able to in 1984. You can’t just look at where unemployment is, but where it was and where it is going.
Political scientists aren’t a bunch of 1960s activists looking to organize young students into ideological cadres. They’re the small bunch of geeks who see an Occupy Wall Street protest, take out their pencils and start gathering data, conducting surveys, counting attendees, and comparing the results to tea party protests the year before. We’re not like Che Guevara. We’re more like the nerds in The Big Bang Theory, only we study politics instead of physics.
So you can hate on Nate Silver, Stu Rothenberg, or any other political scientist who thought Obama had a chance, if it makes you feel better. But we didn’t get Obama reelected. By looking at our data, perhaps you might find how to get a candidate elected (any candidate).
In fact, my own assessment shows that Democrats will be lucky to hold onto the Senate in 2014 (much less get back the House of Representatives). That’s because data shows that presidents have a harder time with their supporters in Congress after six years even more so than Reagan in 1986, Republicans in 1974, Johnson in 1966 (counting the Kennedy-Johnson years as combined) or even Ike in 1958.
Moreover, Republicans have the early edge leading into 2016. They have more established candidates to choose from (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Mitch Daniels) while Democrat candidates are either currently uninterested (Hillary Clinton), unelectable (Joe Biden) or struggling with Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath (Andrew Cuomo, the current favorite). Though pundits claim that the new demographics favor Democrats, it’s not about who you are but how you treat someone.
Romney would have done better among Hispanics (polls show they are more socially conservative than whites and blame the economy more on Obama than Bush) had he not needlessly antagonized them by making the architect of the “papers please” Arizona law his special immigration adviser. Are you listening, Democrats? It is your turn to listen closely. It’s your turn to do a lot of extra homework on how to win next time that the GOP should have been doing after 2010. Take it from a political scientist who knows.