Why Hillary Clinton Isn’t the Favorite After All

Think Hillary Clinton is likely to win? Think again.

This image can only be used with the Alex Roarty piece that originally ran in the 2/14/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, speaks during the DreamForce Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Salesforce.com Inc. is entering a new business, data analytics and business intelligence, seeking to maintain growth and persuade customers to pour more of their information into its data centers.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Feb. 13, 2015, midnight

Ask around: Wash­ing­ton is pretty cer­tain Hil­lary Clin­ton is the fa­vor­ite to win the White House. Demo­crats have a nat­ur­al turnout ad­vant­age in pres­id­en­tial years, seasoned polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives reas­on. Five of the past six pop­u­lar-vote tal­lies have gone to the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate. And early polls that show Clin­ton sport­ing a big lead, es­pe­cially among wo­men, have strategists won­der­ing how the Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee could ever catch up.

But out­side of the cap­it­al, from Geor­gia to New York to Cali­for­nia, there’s an­oth­er set of polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als watch­ing this race: aca­dem­ics and mod­el-makers. And based on the data they track, Demo­crats have little reas­on to be so bullish about Clin­ton’s chances.

“View­ing her as a pro­hib­it­ive fa­vor­ite at this point is mis­placed, def­in­itely,” says Alan Ab­ramow­itz.

Ab­ramow­itz isn’t a Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster or a pro­fes­sion­al Clin­ton-hater. He’s a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at Emory Uni­versity in At­lanta. And he and his ilk—the wonky aca­dem­ics who re­search in an­onym­ity while pun­dits pre­dict races on TV—of­fer the most com­pel­ling case for re­con­sid­er­ing Clin­ton as the likely win­ner.

“I would feel com­fort­able say­ing that it’s a 50-50 race right now,” says Drew Lin­zer, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist who is an in­de­pend­ent ana­lyst in Berke­ley, Cali­for­nia. “But I don’t think any­one would be wise go­ing far past 60-40 in either dir­ec­tion.”

Vet­er­an polit­ic­al op­er­at­ives re­gard these pre­dic­tions as noth­ing more than mus­ings from the Ivory Tower. But polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists who spe­cial­ize in pres­id­en­tial-race fore­casts aren’t re­ly­ing on their guts. They’ve built stat­ist­ic­al mod­els that draw on the his­tory of mod­ern pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns (since Harry Tru­man’s reelec­tion in 1948) to de­term­ine with start­ling ac­cur­acy the out­come of the next White House con­test.

The best-known fore­cast­ing tool of the bunch—and one that plainly spells out Clin­ton’s loom­ing trouble—is Ab­ramow­itz’s “Time for Change” mod­el. He first built it be­fore George H.W. Bush’s 1988 elec­tion, and he has used it to pre­dict the win­ner of the pop­u­lar vote in the sev­en White House races since. (The mod­el pre­dicted that Al Gore would win the pres­id­ency in 2000, when he be­came the first per­son since Grover Clev­e­land to earn the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote na­tion­ally but lose the Elect­or­al Col­lege.)

The mod­el uses just three vari­ables to de­term­ine the win­ner: the in­cum­bent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing, eco­nom­ic growth in the second quarter of the elec­tion year, and the num­ber of terms the can­did­ate’s party has held the White House. Of­fi­cial fore­casts aren’t made un­til the sum­mer be­fore the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. But reas­on­able es­tim­ates rooted in cur­rent polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions demon­strate Clin­ton’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity.

Con­sider this scen­ario: Pres­id­ent Obama re­tains equal levels of ap­prov­al and dis­ap­prov­al, bet­ter than he has had most of his second term; and gross do­mest­ic product growth in the second quarter of 2016 holds at 2.4 per­cent, the same as last year’s rate of growth. Un­der this scen­ario, the “Time for Change” mod­el pro­jects that Clin­ton will se­cure just 48.7 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote.

In oth­er words, she loses.

Slight in­creases in Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing and eco­nom­ic growth aren’t enough to change the out­come for Clin­ton. Every 10-point im­prove­ment in the pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al—if, for ex­ample, 55 per­cent of voters ap­proved of Obama while 45 per­cent didn’t—earns Clin­ton only an ad­di­tion­al 1 per­cent­age point of the pop­u­lar vote. It takes an ex­tra 1 per­cent year-over-year GDP growth to give Clin­ton an ex­tra half per­cent­age point of the pop­u­lar vote.

For Clin­ton to reach 50 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, un­der this mod­el’s rules, the pres­id­ent would need to see a 5-point in­crease in his ap­prov­al rat­ing and GDP growth would have to hit 3.5 per­cent. It’s cer­tainly pos­sible, but it’s fair to call that a best-case scen­ario for Obama in his fi­nal year as pres­id­ent.

So while Demo­crats see the re­cent gains in both Obama’s ap­prov­al and eco­nom­ic growth as signs that Clin­ton enters the race as the fa­vor­ite, the aca­dem­ic mod­el­ing sug­gests that as­sess­ment is far too sunny. In fact, the re­cent up­tick is the only thing keep­ing her from be­ing a pro­hib­it­ive un­der­dog.

The reas­on Clin­ton struggles un­der seem­ingly de­cent con­di­tions is ob­vi­ous. After one party holds the pres­id­ency for two terms, voters want change. In the mod­el, this de­sire for a new dir­ec­tion mani­fests it­self as a 4-point re­duc­tion in the can­did­ate’s take of the pop­u­lar vote com­pared with what can­did­ates could ex­pect had their party held the White House for just one term.

“One of the reg­u­lar­it­ies you’ll find for all pres­id­en­tial elec­tions since World War II is, after a party has been in power eight years and is try­ing to hold on to the White House for a third con­sec­ut­ive term, it gets harder,” Ab­ramow­itz says. “An­oth­er way of look­ing at it: In the first elec­tion after a party takes over the White House, you have a sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vant­age. And the next time, after you’ve held an­oth­er term, you lose that ad­vant­age.”

Cam­paign op­er­at­ives love to hate this aca­dem­ic as­sess­ment of polit­ics, much like Wall Street be­littles the tech­nic­al ana­lysts who use past per­form­ance to pre­dict stock-mar­ket moves.

The ten­sion between the strategists and the sci­ent­ists speaks to the dis­tinct ap­proaches they em­ploy: Polit­ic­al pro­fes­sion­als (in­clud­ing journ­al­ists) study strategy, tac­tics, the day-to-day activ­it­ies of a cam­paign, while polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists see fun­da­ment­als shap­ing every elec­tion, al­most no mat­ter the strength of a can­did­ate.

In 2012, for ex­ample, most strategists think Obama won be­cause he ran one of the best pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns in Amer­ic­an his­tory while Mitt Rom­ney ran one of the worst. Ac­cord­ing to polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists, however, Obama’s vic­tory was a product of fa­vor­able con­di­tions, such as an im­prov­ing eco­nomy, de­cent ap­prov­al rat­ings, and his in­cum­bency. The un­em­ploy­ment rate was high, yes, but the state of the eco­nomy mat­ters little com­pared with the dir­ec­tion it’s headed.

In an era of hy­per-pro­fes­sion­al­ized, fin­an­cially flush cam­paigns, it is this set of fun­da­ment­als that will make the dif­fer­ence between win­ning and los­ing, the sci­ent­ists ar­gue.

“The no­tion the cam­paign doesn’t mat­ter, it’s not that simple,” says Mi­chael Lewis-Beck, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Iowa. “It doesn’t mat­ter so much be­cause every­one is cam­paign­ing so hard that they can­cel each oth­er out.”

Lewis-Beck show­cased his own pres­id­en­tial mod­el—one of many that now dot the polit­ic­al land­scape—on the polit­ic­al sci­ence blog Mon­key Cage. Aca­dem­ics began de­vel­op­ing stat­ist­ics-based pre­dic­tions as early as the 1970s, but they have be­come more pop­u­lar and main­stream since Nate Sil­ver cor­rectly fore­cast the 2008 and 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

In an era of hy­per-pro­fes­sion­al­ized, fin­an­cially flush cam­paigns, it is this set of fun­da­ment­als that will make the dif­fer­ence between win­ning and los­ing, the sci­ent­ists ar­gue.

Sil­ver is a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in the polit­ic­al sci­ence world, where he’s seen as a prac­ti­tion­er who went main­stream and came to define the en­tire fore­cast-mod­el genre. As Rom­ney sup­port­ers can at­test, Sil­ver’s fore­casts have been ac­cur­ate, but they also de­pend on polls—many of which are not yet avail­able or are of little use this far from Elec­tion Day. This means that Sil­ver’s fore­casts might not be ac­cur­ate un­tila couple of months be­fore an elec­tion, and to polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists who de­vel­op mod­els, the goal is not just to be ac­cur­ate but to be ac­cur­ate long enough be­fore an elec­tion to make a true fore­cast.

Oth­er meth­ods abound. Polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists have used job growth and state-based eco­nom­ic in­dic­at­ors in their mod­els, for ex­ample, while Ab­ramow­itz tried to up­date his own to ac­count for in­creased po­lar­iz­a­tion among voters. (He plans to scrap the up­date after it was less ac­cur­ate about the 2012 elec­tion than his old mod­el.) Lewis-Beck says the pub­lic’s ex­pect­a­tions for how a pres­id­en­tial race will turn out are pre­dict­ive, while a his­tor­i­an at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity has a check­list of con­di­tions that must be met for an in­cum­bent party to win reelec­tion.

One polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist, Helmut Nor­poth at Stony Brook Uni­versity in New York, bases his mod­el en­tirely on which party holds the White House, and for how long. It lets him make pre­dic­tions years in ad­vance: He has already fore­cast that Re­pub­lic­ans have a 65 per­cent chance at win­ning the pres­id­ency next year.

“There’s a cyc­lic­al pat­tern in the elec­tions,” Nor­poth said. “It swings back and forth. And you can see it in the time lines since 1828.”

Mod­els can be wrong, of course. Nor­poth says his 2008 pre­dic­tion missed in part be­cause he made it be­fore the on­set of a fin­an­cial crisis that tanked the eco­nomy. And even mod­els with a bet­ter track re­cord aren’t per­fectly cal­ib­rated.

The biggest as­sump­tion that all the mod­els make is that Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats will nom­in­ate someone from the main­stream of their party—and that might amount to a fatal flaw in pre­dict­ing 2016, when the GOP could pick a can­did­ate, such as Ted Cruz or Rand Paul, who’s not favored by the es­tab­lish­ment.

And oth­er po­ten­tial prob­lems lurk: Mod­els that sug­gest Clin­ton would earn 49 per­cent of the vote come with a mar­gin of er­ror that might make the dif­fer­ence; Ab­ramow­itz wor­ries that be­cause there have been only six mod­ern-day pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in which no in­cum­bent from either party is run­ning, his mod­el’s sample size might be too small; and in a race between Clin­ton and an equally tal­en­ted, out­sized per­son­al­ity, such as Jeb Bush, the qual­it­ies of the in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates might mat­ter more.

But con­ced­ing that the mod­els aren’t per­fect isn’t the same as say­ing they’re not ef­fect­ive. When I talked with Lin­zer, I ar­gued that Clin­ton has an ad­vant­age. It comes down to wo­men, I said, es­pe­cially edu­cated white wo­men who, early polling shows, have a spe­cial af­fin­ity for the former sen­at­or and first lady. How can the GOP hope to per­suade enough mem­bers of this group to break away to win swing states such as Col­or­ado and Pennsylvania?

“It’s just way more com­plic­ated than that,” Lin­zer said. “For every ar­gu­ment that you can pick out of the cross-tabs, I can pick a coun­ter­ar­gu­ment. Off the top of my head: She’s not go­ing to earn the same en­thu­si­asm that Obama did among non­white voters.”

As he put it, our brains trick us in­to be­liev­ing things that seem plaus­ible but don’t hold up to scru­tiny. It might seem plaus­ible that Clin­ton is a fa­vor­ite, but the his­tor­ic­al re­cord simply says oth­er­wise.

“I’m sorry,” Lin­zer said, “to rain on your thought parade.”

Be­cause, yes, to the sci­ent­ists, it’s not our thoughts about this elec­tion that count. It’s the data.

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