We Shoulda Seen It Coming

Did the campaign affect the election's outcome?

Like the day-long debauch preceding the two-minute race in the Kentucky Derby, the Campaign of 2008 bloated out of all proportion to its supposed object. Gaffes. Analysis. How It Plays in the Red States. Arugulagate. Farfallegate. Two years of this, folks. How much of it mattered?

Maybe none. The Washington Post yesterday, ushering in a post-campaign age that has probably ended already, asked the question cable pundits dare not: “What if all the hubbub, the $2.4 billion spent, was a waste of time and money? Maybe the outcome was predictable in August - or even earlier.”

One guy who did so predict was Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political science professor who has picked the winner in every presidential general election since 1952 – except 2000. Abramowitz’s formula doesn’t factor in campaigns at all. Explains the Post’s Robert G. Kaiser:

Abramowitz’s formula for predicting elections combines three factors: how long the incumbent party has been in power, how highly the incumbent president is rated by the public, and how well the U.S. economy did in the second quarter of the election year. Its one novel element is Abramowitz’s conviction that the natural pendulum of politics produces a “time for a change” factor that becomes influential as soon as a party has had two terms in the White House.

Abramowitz argues that campaigns make a difference only “at the margins,” which is why he got tripped up in 2000, when the margins asserted themselves.

This points to another battle raging in the background of the campaign–the clash between journalism and empiricism:

The political scientists look for patterns over time, and journalists hunt and hope for news. The two groups have, says [Princeton political scientist Larry] Bartels, a “fundamental conflict of interest.” The professors’ incentive “is to assume and convince people that in some relevant way, this year will be the same as past years have been. So we want to downplay the idiosyncratic elements of this year. Journalists’ big professional incentive is to make people think that what happens today is really consequential, and ‘Hey, you have to get up in the morning and read The Washington Post to see what is important.’”

Or as an Economist staffer liveblogged it: “I’m not saying this race was predictable but… well, that is what I’m saying.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Kathy Gilsinan is the associate editor at World Politics Review