The Learning Curve

New tricks for an old dog.

Reading the political tea leaves

This is not about the Tea Party faction. This is about predicting the outcome of political elections.  I use the phrase ‘reading the political tea leaves’ with an oracular or divination connotation, on the one hand, and a propaganda function on the other . The practice of political prognostication is not a regulated profession, so what you are buying is strictly a factor in what the particular soothsayer is selling. Caveat emptor applies here. No license is required to engage in overt acts of predicting future events, and there is no general penalty for being wrong. In fact, partisan political predictions are preordained, as propaganda-based morale boosters. Partisans are required to foretell the ultimate victory of their chosen candidate regardless of the circumstances, and with unwavering certitude no matter how bad the situation may be.

Fourteen months before the Presidential election of 2012 is too far in advance of the decision point for the shape of the probability wave to be measured, or even observed. Events during the year immediately preceding an election generally have more influence on the outcome of an election than do those of any prior year, just due to the electorate’s  shortness of memory. Presently, the most relevant time period is called ‘next year.” The immediate situation leading up to an election has more impact than does a  distant historical past. At this point in time, all trance induced vision of the future are marketed for entertainment purposes only. The main constant is that things change, especially now.

It is impossible to read about politics and current events without encountering a steady stream of political predictions regarding the question, “Who will be President of the United States in January, 2013?” The whole process is hopelessly impossible given that things change fairly rapidly these days.  Fourteen months is a long time in dog years, and it is impossible to predict. Yet, the essential human urge to speculate, to place bets and to make odds about future events is not repressed in the least by that fact. The careers of many are built upon it.

One of the simplest methods of predicting the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election is the unemployment rate. On May 25, 2008 the national unemployment rate was 5%. That day the Washington Post analyzed the unemployment rate on election day for every Presidential election since 1960, Unemployment and presidential elections, and confidently predicted, “If the rate continues to rise between now and November, Republican John McCain will likely have difficulty retaining the White House for his party.” Little did this Washington Post writer know of the major economic bumps that lay ahead in the summer and fall of 2008. The national economy was in such bad shape by November, 2008, the Onion announced Barack Obama’s victory with the headline, Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job.

This is a perfect example how radically circumstances can change in a few short months. For those with the memory capacity to do so, imagine the difference between May, 2008 and election day on November 4, 2008.  True enough the National employment rate slacked off a bit and the general prediction held.

Another useful measure of an incumbent’s chance for re-election is Ronald Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The suggestion was if you were worse off in 1980 compared to 1976, then blame it on President Carter and vote for Reagan. It was less a predictor than it was a rhetorical reminder that the Federal government plays a large role in the health of the economy. Most people can’t actually remember how well  off, or not,  they were four years ago.

The most popular method of enjoying the illusion of a political horse race between election years is the opinion poll. There are hypothetical head-to-head contests, approval ratings, job performance and likability indices.  The substantial amount of money in partisanship politics and advanced technology has made opinion polling a growth business. At any point in time it is cheap and easy for an average person to know what a statistically significant sampling of the Nation thinks on any given topic, and to track the changes over time. Still, the next best opinion poll sample is the one taken closest before he election itself. Fourteen months in advance popularity polling is fairly useless.

But, it provides employment and something to talk about.

Good short term predictors are the future event markets, like


The hard cash speculators saw Rick Perry coming several weeks before most others did.


Written by Tom Fox

09/04/2011 at 12:23 am

Posted in Politics, Uncategorized

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