Sun, Aug 05, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Scientists go beyond the polls
to forecast US election

Obama must hope numbers don’t lie, as most forecasters predict victory for him

By Jason Lange  /  Reuters, WASHINGTON

Illustration: June Hsu

For anyone wondering how much of the vote US President Barack Obama might lose in the Nov. 6 election because he is black, a professor in Iowa has crunched polling data and come up with an estimate: 3.3 percent.

Another US academic has penned a complex equation — using data on the economy and presidential approval ratings — that predicted who won the most votes in the last six presidential contests.

As the election draws closer, pundits and journalists are looking at all sorts of data, from persistently high jobless rates to the latest polls in the politically divided state of Ohio, for clues on Obama’s chances of defeating Republican Mitt Romney.

However, at a few US universities, academics have boiled the art of prediction down to a dispassionate science. Some claim their forecasts in presidential elections — typically issued months before election day — have been more accurate than opinion polls taken the day before ballots are cast.

Plugging decades of data into spreadsheets, they calculate everything from how much a bad economy is hurting an incumbent to how the results of New Hampshire’s presidential primaries, conducted 10 months before an election, can signal who the eventual winner will be in November.

“What this forecasting really amounts to is quantitative history,” said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.

So far this year, forecasters in line with many current opinion polls see Obama squeaking out a victory over Romney.

In a Reuters poll of nine leading forecasters, the median prediction was for Obama to win 50.5 percent of the vote. Although under the complicated US system, that would not necessarily mean victory because the winner is determined by the state Electoral College results.

In 2008, the median forecast of the same group, which estimated that Obama would receive 52 percent of the vote compared with Republican candidate John McCain’s 48 percent, was about as close to the election results as Gallup’s final poll from the last three days of the presidential campaign.

In the end, Obama received 52.9 percent of the vote to McCain’s 45.7 percent, with other candidates receiving the rest.

As scientists, forecasters use their predictions to test theories about what drives election results.

However, the endeavor also has a sporting side. Gamesmanship creeps into scholarly conferences and some academics make small wagers over their predictive powers.

Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University professor and an accurate forecaster of the last half-dozen US elections, won a bet with Campbell over the accuracy of their forecasts in the 2008 election. Campbell had to buy him a beer after Abramowitz’s prediction was closer to Obama’s margin of victory.

“I would say it’s a macho thing, but if you saw what we look like, it’s not a very macho-looking group,” said Abramowitz, whose current forecast has Obama taking 50.5 percent of the vote.

Like most of his peers, Abramowitz is still gathering bits of data before issuing a final prediction by the end of the summer. More bad reports on the economy, such as the data released on Friday last week that showed US economic growth slowed sharply between April and June, could shift forecasts to a Romney victory, he said.

A few models already suggest that the sour US economy will be enough to boot Obama from the White House.

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