Rackham Centennial Lecture: What to Expect in the Upcoming Presidential Election


By Bai Linh Hoang
Oct 19, 2012

Beck Centennial Lectures 2012

Beck Centennial Lectures 2012


Although election day is only three weeks away, most citizens would like the answer to that million dollar question:  Who will win this presidential election - Obama or Romney?  Although this question was not definitively answered by an expert of election forecasting or by University of Michigan political science professors during a Rackham Centennial lecture held on October 18, 2012, audience members definitely heard about a number of trends that might impact the election outcome.  In “What to Expect in the Upcoming Presidential Election,” Michael Lewis-Beck, one of the world’s leading experts on election forecasting, addressed an engaged audience hailing from a variety of disciplines.  UM political science professors, in turn, provided their own insights and commentary about Professor Lewis-Beck’s presentation.  

While election forecasters might take a market or polling approach, Professor Beck’s preferred method of forecasting is statistical modeling.  One of the major differences between his approach and the more common or popular approaches to forecasting is the statistical modeling approach is driven by a strong theory.  Over the past several years, Professor Lewis-Beck has been developing and refining his statistical model, adding variables when necessary. 

Professor Beck presented his latest model, the Jobs Model Forecast, which incorporates a “jobs” variable (capturing the nation’s growth rate for jobs) along with other variables, such as incumbency party advantage and the president’s popularity.  Unfortunately, for Obama supporters, this statistical model predicts that with a job growth rate of only 1.4%, the lowest in decades, and a popularity of less than 50%, Obama will not emerge as the winner of the 2012 election.  

However, neither should Obama supporters yet feel dejected nor should Romney supporters be quick to rejoice as Professor’s Beck’s other forecasting approach predicts an entirely different result.   Unlike the Jobs Model, the Proxy Model is a non-theoretical and data-driven and predicts that Obama will be the victor in November.  The Proxy Model uses “nowcasting,” which predicts what would happen if the election were held “now.”  Professor Lewis-Beck has carried out nowcasting from November 2011 and will continue to issue updates until Election Day.  Nowcasting works by identifying a variable that proxies (or correlates highly with) the presidential vote share and by tracking that proxy.  For this election, Beck uses the National Business Index, which captures the percentage of people who respond that “business conditions are better” minus those who respond that “business conditions are worse.”  Although Professor Lewis-Beck’s forecasting methods have predicted two different outcomes, he asserts that whether Obama wins and loses the general election, Obama will most likely lose five percentage points off the popular vote due to the “racial cost of being black.”

Professor Lewis-Beck’s instructive analyses and forecasts about the upcoming election elicited not only praise but complementary commentaries and responses from UM political science professors.   Professor Donald Kinder’s comments focused on a dimension that Professor Lewis Beck did not include in his model: the fluctuation in voter turnout.  Although potential fluctuation in turnouts can be ignored when predicting some elections, Professor Kinder argued that fluctuations in voter turnout will matter in this election as it did in 2008.  According to Professor Kinder, the central inquiries about voter turnout revolve around race and religion.  Will Africans Americans again comprise 13% of the electorate (a record high) as they did in 2008?  Will evangelical Christians who usually identify with the Republican Party abstain from voting due to their discomfort with not only electing a Democratic president but a Mormon president as well?  These questions remain to be answered.

Professor Vincent Hutchings offered some of his insights as well.  Professor Hutchings’ response to Professor Lewis-Beck’s presentation centered on the influence of race and ethnicity on partisanship and presidential preferences.  According to the 2008 American National Election Study, major discrepancies exist between minorities and whites in their presidential preferences with an overwhelming majority of blacks (95%) supporting Obama, a significant majority of Latino (67%) and Asians (64%) supporting Obama and only a plurality of whites (43%) supporting Obama.  Hutching said that “in light of these different racial configurations, parties adopt different strategies to attract support.”  Republicans emphasize issues of race in subtle (and sometimes non-subtle) ways and attempt to associate these issues with the Democratic Party.  On the other hand, Democrats will try to downplay, if not avoid, issues of race as much as possible in order to “diminish the loss of white voters.”  According to Professor Hutchings, Democrats do this by offering symbolic overtures to minorities without making too many policy concessions that will benefit minorities.  While Democrats struggle with this balancing act, Republicans also face a considerable dilemma: the decline of white voters’ percentage share of the electorate (on which Republicans heavily rely) by a nontrivial amount.  Although Professor Hutchings made no forecast about who will win this presidential election, he did predict, among other things, that the share of minorities in the electorate will increase, and this will correspond with a decrease in the share of whites in the electorate.  However, regardless of who wins the election, few policy concessions will be given to minorities.  

While Professor Kinder and Hutchings touched on the subject of race in the election, Professor Traugott focused on another group with potentially enormous voting power: women.  Professor Traugott talked about the current gender gap and its role in the election, specifically stating that women are the largest group in the electorate and are significantly more likely than men to identify as Democrat and support Democratic candidates.  According to Professor Traugott, a number of polls have revealed this gender gap.  For example, network polls, such as ABC and NBC, have documented a standard gap of 8-12 percentage points for Obama.  The Gallop Poll separated respondents of swing states from those of non-swing states and found a 9% point advantage for Obama in non-swing states and a 1% point advantage in swing states.  According to the PEW poll, Obama has a 4% advantage over Romney in the support of women voters.  Professor Traugott added that both candidates “understand the critical role of women in the campaign and have focused on issues important to women.”  For example, the Democrats have devoted a lot of attention to health related and social issues as they relate to women.  

Taking a slightly different approach, Professor Mebane responded to Professor Lewis-Beck’s presentation by talking about the potential for “rule-breaking” actions by Presidents.  By “rule-breaking,” Professor Mebane is referring to situations where past presidents, and potentially future presidents, violate the Constitution or regard it as not applying to the president’s actions.   In his statements, Professor Mebane reminded the audience that one critique of our presidential system is that it can lead -- and in recent decades has led -- to an “imperial” presidency.  He stated that this tradition will continue unless Americans push for presidents to operate within the confines of the Constitution.

After Professor Mebane finished addressing the audience, a brief question and answer period took place.  Although audience members came away from the lecture not knowing precisely which presidential candidate will win the election, they definitely left with plenty of other equally important considerations to ponder.  

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“What to Expect in the Upcoming Presidential Election” is a Rackham Centennial Lecture sponsored by the University of Michigan Political Science Department.  Professor Charles Shipan served as the moderator for this lecture.  

Professor Michael Lewis-Beck is Professor Emeritus and F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor at the University of Iowa.  He is one of the world’s premier experts on election forecasting and author and co-author of more than 200 books and articles.  Professor Lewis-Beck has published a number of poems as well.

Professor Don Kinder is a James Orin Murfin and Philip E. Converse Collegiate Professor in the political science department at the University of Michigan.  His research interests include research methods, race and ethnicity politics, and political psychology.  

Professor Vincent Hutchings is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.  Professor Hutchings' general interests include public opinion, elections, voting behavior, and African American politics.  He is currently the principal investigator for the American National Election Studies.  

Professor Michael Traugott is a professor of political science and communications at the University of Michigan.  His research interests include use of the media by candidates in their campaigns and its impact on voters, as well as the ways that campaigns are covered and the impact of this coverage on candidates.

Walter R. Mebane, Jr. is a professor of political science and a professor of statistics at the University of Michigan.  He works on political methodology and American politics, especially elections.  He was also a member of the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Study and the Advisory Board of the National Annenberg Election Study.

Professor Charles Shipan is the Ira J. and Nicki Harris Professor and the current chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Michigan.  Professor Shipan’s interests include American government and institutions, public policy, and public law.

Bai Linh Hoang is a doctoral student in Americal Politics.  

Beck 2012

Beck 2012