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Election Forecasts in 1984: How Accurate Were They?

  • Michael S. Lewis-Beck (a1)

Extract

One autumn out of four, election forecasting surpasses baseball as America's national pastime. Then, everyone wants to know who will win, and everyone has a guess. Now, with the ballots carefully counted, forecasters await their awards. Below, I evaluate the quality of a wide range of 1984 presidential and congressional forecasts. The evaluation proceeds from nonscientific to scientific approaches, although this distinction is sometimes blurred. To lower the level of suspense, I should say that some forecasts turned out to be quite good. By way of conclusion, I offer a set of rules for selecting a high-quality forecasting instrument.

Lucky Guesses

Many popular election forecasting rules take advantage of chance, which has been working in their favor. Perhaps the most famous is the World Series forecast, which says, “If the American League wins the World Series, then the Republican presidential candidate will win.” This technique was accurate from 1952 to 1976, missed in 1980, but worked again in 1984 with the victory of the Detroit Tigers. A lesser known rule of this type, which is my personal favorite, is based on the Beaujolais wine harvest. Accordingly, “If the Beaujolais vintage looks bad, then the Republican will take the presidency.” This has held post-1960, and continues to do so with the poor 1984 crop (yielding a wine too light, with little color). There are other such rules that relate more directly to the candidates themselves and, in that sense, have more verisimilitude.

Copyright

References

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Bean, Louis, How to Predict Elections (New York: Knopf, 1948).
Brody, Richard and Sigelman, Lee, “Presidential Popularity and Presidential Elections: An Update and Extension,” Public Opinion Quarterly 47 (1983):325328.
Hibbs, Douglas A. Jr., “President Reagan's Mandate from the 1980 Elections: A Shift to the Right?”, American Politics Quarterly 10 (1982):387420.
Jacobson, Gary C., “Strategic Politicians and Congressional Elections, 1946–1980.” Paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, New York, Sept. 3–6, 1981.
Jacobson, Gary C. and Kernell, Samuel, “Strategy and Choice in the 1982 Congressional Elections,” PS: Political Science & Politics 15 (1982):423430.
Koestler, Arthur, The Case of the Midwife Toad (New York: Vintage, 1973).
Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom W., “Presidential Popularity and Presidential Vote,” Public Opinion Quarterly 47 (1982):534537.
Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom W., “Localism in Presidential Elections: The Home State Advantage,” American Journal of Political Science, August, 1983.
Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom W., “Forecasting Presidential Elections: A Comparison of Naive Models,” Political Behavior 6 (1984):3951.
Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom W., “Forecasting U.S. House Elections,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 9 (1984):475486.
Polsby, Nelson W. and Wildavsky, Aaron, Presidential Elections, sixth edition (New York: Scribner's, 1984).
Rosenstone, Steven J., Forecasting Presidential Elections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
Tufte, Edward R., Political Control of the Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

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