September 29th, 2011

In another edition of how misunderstanding statistics can lead to misleading political predictions, let’s talk about base rates, predictive power and presidential re-election. In psychiatry, there is a fun logical problem in which students are asked to generate an instrument that will accurately classify people with and without schizophrenia in a sample of the population. Students draw up elaborate series of questions and diagnostic procedures and sometimes do as well as being right 95% of the time. But those approaches are all inferior to a different diagnostic system, which classifies all people as non-schizophrenic without bothering to ask them anything. Because only 1% of people have schizophrenia, such a system is correct an impressive 99% of the time. When you are trying to predict something with a very low base rate, most of the time you make a positive prediction (e.g., this person has schizophrenia) you will be wrong, and most of the observations you make about the group for which you make a negative prediction (e.g., this person doesn’t have schizophrenia) will be true but have trivial predictive power because they are true of almost everyone.

Now consider a far more rare condition than schizophrenia: Being elected President of the United States. Only 43 of the hundreds of millions of people who have been U.S. citizens have been President, and an even more infinitesimal fraction of the U.S. population has been re-elected President. This incredibly low base rate opens the field for many predictions that seem on their face to show great historical understanding and political acumen but are in fact of dubious value.

For example, do you remember that George H.W. Bush was not going to get elected because no sitting Vice-President had been elected President since Martin Van Buren? At that point, 34 people in U.S. history had been elected President, of whom 3 were sitting Vice-Presidents. This success rate compares very favorably to the chance of the average American, or the average politician or even the average politician seeking the Presidency. It would have been more reasonable to say that as a sitting Vice-President George H.W. Bush was unusually well-positioned to be elected President.

The G.H.W. Bush prediction also illustrates another tactic of faux-sage prognosticators, namely shaping the frame of reference to make the statistic more extreme. The U.S. had elected and re-elected former Vice-President Richard Nixon in living memory, so the ominous G.H.W. Bush statistic was artfully limited to “sitting” vice-presidents. And the time frame was chopped off at Martin Van Buren to misrepresent the full picture of U.S. electoral behavior; two other sitting Vice-Presidents had been elected before MVB. It’s a bit like saying Rick Perry cannot win because for the first 223 years of our history no Governor of Texas ever became President.

Fast-forward to President Obama, whom you may have heard cannot win in 2012 because no President has been re-elected with high unemployment. After it was pointed out that FDR and Ronald Reagan were both re-elected with high unemployment, the shocking historico-statistical proof of Obama’s political demise was re-framed to “No President since World War II other than Ronald Reagan has been re-elected with high unemployment”. But so what? Only 5 people have been twice elected President since World War II, and an infinite number of things is true of all the people who haven’t.

No one who wasn’t from California, Texas or Arkansas has been re-elected President since World War II (Doom for Obama!). No one whose last name starts with an O has been re-elected President since World War II (Double doom!). No one who was African-American has been re-elected (Triple Doom! Hey wait a minute, how did he get elected the first time…he was African-American then wasn’t he?). At least President Obama can take comfort in the fact that every single left-handed President who ran for re-election since World War II has won, as long as you don’t count George H.W. Bush.

47 Responses to “Misleading Predictions About Why Obama “Can’t Win” in 2012”

  1. NCG says:

    I was going to tell you that you worry too much, but then I thought again. The track record of Americans in making good decisions when in a state of fear is not necessarily good. At least in recent years, I think it’s fair to say we overreact.

    And this election is going to be about the economy. So, there’s a problem for sure.

    I think the winner will be the one who makes people feel better about what’s coming. That was Reagan’s true genius, and *just* that.

  2. DonBoy says:

    Obama himself said something that’s in the same ballpark: “The odds of me being reelected are much higher than the odds of me being elected in the first place.”

  3. marcel says:

    How many sitting VPs have ever run for office?

    Year Sitting VP Result
    1796 John Adams Won
    1800 Jefferson Won
    1836 van Buren Won*
    1860 Breckenridge Lost
    1960 Nixon Lost
    1968 Humphrey Lost
    1988 G. Bush Won
    2000 Gore won lost

    So, over the whole history of the US, the frequency of a sitting VP running and winning the whole tamale a bit better than 50%, unless you have the Supreme Court against you.
    However, if you consider only the post-WW2 era, it is considerably worse than that, and before GHWB ran, sitting VPs were batting 0.000 in the post-war era. And Nixon is the only other person who was 1st VP and then elected to the Presidency before actually stepping into the role (unlike Johnson or Truman, e.g.).

    Also, wasn’t Eisenhower from Kansas, though resident of NY at the time of his election? I am not old enough to recall on my own, but I have read and been told that he was re-elected just a couple of months or so before my birth.

    *You write: “three other sitting Vice-Presidents had been elected before MVB.” I cannot figure out who the third was. Wikipedia lists VPs and only 2 before MVB became president, sitting or not.

  4. Ed Whitney says:

    “No one whose first name started with a vowel has been re-elected President since World War II.”
    So what? Barack Obama’s first name starts with a consonant!
    No president whose last name started with a vowel other than A has ever been defeated for re-election!
    It’s a slam dunk!

    • Keith Humphreys says:

      Thanks Ed, I had originally wrote last name, then realized Eisenhower was a vowel-er, and then made the wrong edit to fix that (The life of the harried amateur blogged). I appreciate the catch.

      • Ed Whitney says:

        Well, no vowel-er has been defeated for re-election since 1828, and the only candidates who ever beat a vowel-er had last names starting with J. So former NM Governor Gary Johnson is the only Republican who can win this thing.

        • Keith Humphreys says:

          Thanks, I am putting my double sawbuck down on Johnson…I figger I can get great odds from some chump or another

      • arthur says:

        When Mario Cuomo was a serious potential candidate, some pundit said he probably wouldn’t win becuase America has never elected a President whose name ended in a vowel. He meant was that American had never elected a president with a name as obviously “ethnic” as Cuomo, but the pundit had missed Kennedy, Coolidge, McKinley, Pierce, and the double-vowelled Monroe.

  5. Warren Terra says:

    I have no problem with the thrust of your post, but the following is flawed math:

    39 people in U.S. history had been elected President, of whom 4 were sitting Vice-Presidents. This greater than 1 in 10 success rate

    As Marcel notes, the denominator is incorrect (the only sitting Veeps to be elected President before George HW Bush were John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and MArtin Van Buren), but the denominator is wrong, too. It shouldn’t be the number of Presidents, it should the number of Vice Presidents who ran. In addition to the three Vice Presidents who won election, the following seven sought election, of whom only three were serious candidates: John Breckenridge, Adlai Stevenson I, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall, Alvin Barkley, Nixon, and Humphrey.
    Or maybe it should be the total number of sitting vice Presidents in office when the President wasn’t seeking re-election (I think this is less than 20 such people existing up to George HW Bush).
    In all, just going by the numbers, and counting George HW Bush and Al Gore, a sitting Vice President has almost a one-in-four chance of getting elected President, rising to better than one in two if they mount a serious campaign.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Er, my first “denominator” should have been “numerator”.

      And when did we get a “reply” button, anyway?

    • Keith Humphreys says:

      Hi Warren, Good catch, I was referring to the success rate after Bush “confounded history” and won, i.e., (39+1)/4 = 1 in 10. But I see that this was sloppily done and I have edited accordingly with thanks to you for your correction. And I counted MVB twice when I said 3, should have said “including MVB” — props to you again for the catch.

  6. xpostfactoid says:

    Sitting presidents do have a poor re-election track record when household income is not growing. FDR 1st ran for reelection in a year with double-digit GDP growth. And while unemployment is said to be a weaker indicator than household income, the same broad principle holds true. It’s not that it’s hard to be re-elected with high unemployment — it’s hard to be re-elected with rising unemployment (or barely falling, if it’s already at very high levels).
    If we have a double-dip recession, Obama may somehow break these precedents, but they do exist.

    • Benny Lava says:

      This exactly. Things got markedly better during the Roosevelt administration, and things had turned around by 1984, so reelection was easy for both men. For Obama the economic headwinds are blowing against him, which is more like George HW Bush’s 1992 campaign. I am pretty sure we are already in another recession so things look very grim for Obama.

  7. Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    The problem with Keith’s post is that it doesn’t distinguish correlations with no plausible causal mechanism from correlations with a plausible causal mechanism. The first should be ignored; the second should be studied.

    For example, no baseball manager would care if Joe Blow hits .576 against red-headed pitchers. It has no predictive value, because there is no plausible relationship between red-headed pitching and hitting. (I would say much the same for leukemia clusters near power lines.) But a manager would care tremendously if Joe Blow hits .576 against left-handed pitchers, or fastball pitchers, or maybe even tall pitchers. All of these contain a plausible causal mechanism, and might mean something. Or not. But they are worth thinking about.

    Unfortunately, employment rates are a plenty plausible causal mechanism with regard to Presidential re-election, Reagan’s 1984 victory notwithstanding. (And by the summer of 1984, unemployment was going down at a good clip.)

    • liberal says:

      Excellent comment!

    • Tony P. says:

      “Correlation does not imply causation, but they often go together.”

      That’s one of my favorite quips in a world that is too complicated for all causal relationships to be known a priori. That a batter’s average could be a function of the pitcher’s hair color is admittedly far-fetched, but not nearly as strange as some physical phenomena we can all think of.


      • Barry says:

        True, but less plausible. Given the fact that the managers and coaches can’t spend infinite time and energy investigated everything, the should go with the more plausible relationships first.

  8. Dilan Esper says:

    This is a great post. I have a passing interest in horse racing, and statistical analysis has a valid place in horse race handicapping. (For instance, if a trainer wins with 35 percent of his or her first time starters over a large sample size and several years’ time, that really is valid information regarding the trainer’s likelihood to win with first time starters and have his or her horses ready to race first time out.)

    But every year, at Kentucky Derby time, the “statistical” types turn out this sort of idiocy. There have only been less than 140 Kentucky Derbies, and about 70 or so since modern racetrack maintenance, starting gates, and the like came into existence. Plus, many of those Derbies were run with short fields, whereas nowadays, 20 horses start almost every year.

    Nonetheless, we are told things like “the Derby winner has to be in front with 1/8 of a mile to go” and “the Derby winner must have 4.00 or under on the Dosage Index breeding scale” and “no horse with no starts as a 2 year old can win the Derby”. It’s all bunk based on small samples and selective, after the fact reasoning.

    People can’t accept the idea that sometimes, you don’t have a large enough data set and as a result you really don’t know anything. If they can’t have real statistical information, they will settle for phony information because it’s better than admitting you don’t know.

  9. dave schutz says:

    Obama will win if he gets a majority of the votes in some collection of states and Congressional districts (in Me, Neb, and Penna) to get a majority of the Electoral College. It’s hard to imagine that conditions are similar enough to pre-Civil Rights and pre-Women’s Suffrage America that results from that period have predictive value. We’re in the midst of really wrenching economic change, so it’s hard to be confident that people will be thinking about the same sorts of things as they decide on their votes as they were in the fat times. Current polls are worth a lot more than history.

  10. NCG says:

    I may be metaphorically smoking dope, but I’m wondering what actions the president could take between now and the election to boost confidence. Speeches are nice, but a lot of people probably tune them out like me. Especially anything needing action from Congress. Snoresville.

    What if he revamped his economic team? Not in, here are some people who wander out the door of their own volition, like now. But if he sort of booted out Geithner (nice person though he seems to be) et al., and got in people who were only going to focus on creating good jobs here? As in, manufacturing. As in, we will comb through everything from the attic to the basement - the tax code, trade agreements, whatever — to stop our inventions from only being made elsewhere?

    I know he just hired someone who was supposed to be such - someone from GE I think? To be some sort of adviser? But it strikes me that it would make a bigger impression if he really cleaned house. I am not a Wall Street hater, but let’s face it — the people there don’t really look out for the rest of us. It’s not their job. Well, it IS the president’s job. He has to be seen *do*ing it. And I don’t really care that that’s not(?) the Treasury Sec’s job, either.

    Anyone else have ideas about what he could DO?

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      I frankly don’t think there’s anything he could do, that he would do, in the sense that the problem here isn’t his advisers, it’s him. He’s the sort of person who picks the kind of advisers he did. Even if he fired everybody right down to the lawn care service, and hired new people, he’d likely replicate the existing problem.

      And suppose he didn’t. Suppose he cleaned house, and replaced the lot of them with completely different people, not the same people with different names and faces. How’s he going to explain doing that? “I screwed up big time, and entrusted the nation’s future with incompetents, and backed them as they ran the country into the ground. But trust me, I picked the right people this time. And to demonstrate that, here’s how we’re going to repudiate everything we did up to now.”

      Like anybody is going to buy that, or there’s there’s time to turn the economy around before the election. And, of course, he likely doesn’t think he DID screw up, or pick the wrong people. Likely he’ll go to his grave convinced he did all the right things, and the nation failed him.

      But, even with low popularity ratings, and even black voters starting to get less than unanimous about him, he’s got some strong positives going for him.

      1. A media so in the tank that they simply won’t report on administration scandals. I mean, Gunwalker, Solyndra, politicized DOJ hiring, there have been enough scandals to destroy most administrations, and the media has run interference on every one. This isn’t going to change before the election. Teflon? He’s got an impenetrable force field.

      2. The big one: He doesn’t have to run against a generic Republican, he has to run against a real one. He might not be able to win it, but they sure could lose it.

      3. He’s President. That means he doesn’t have to react, he can act. Start a war with Pakistan a week before the election, maybe.

      No, his chances are actually pretty good, I’d have to say.

  11. NCG says:

    Also, and this is horribly superficial, I wonder if the president should bulk up a little. It’s a subliminal thing but I’ve always thought voters want someone who reminds them — just a little — of Santa Claus. Right now, he’s a little on the skinny side. I feel kind of bad saying it, but appearances do matter, don’t they? I’m trying to help.

    It could be a little bit of Christie’s appeal, this suggestion that he knows where the food is. I come from people who sometimes tend to be large, and I’ve never been one to laugh at fat “jokes.” Also, I think people like that he says what he thinks (Christie). A little like McCain. It makes him seem trustworthy, even though of course I hate all his actual ideas.

  12. J.A. Dweeb says:

    If Obama loses, the disaster will be laid at the feet of those whiners at Nation Magazine and the rest of the politically neutered Left. The center finally comes up with a ‘stab in the back’ theory. How nice.

  13. NCG says:

    Brett: sorry, can’t bring myself to use the Reply button.

    1. Those seem like small potatoes to me, scandal-wise. Much larger to me are his treatment of undocumented people, his non-prosecution of the Bushies who committed crimes and/or blanket refusal to even look at whether they did or not, the “Secure Communities” fiasco-in-progress, and … hmm that might be all for now. Those, to me, *are* scandals.

    The economic handling is more akin to errors. Not scandals. Still bad, yes, but not as blameworthy.

    2. We’ll have to see who it is.

    3. No, he really can’t. No way in he** are we having any more wars. Plus, I don’t think he would do a thing like that, even if we weren’t broke and tapped-out, cannon-fodder wise. (I don’t even think Bush did that, I think he was sincere in his mistakes.) And, they have nukes.

    As for your larger point, does he think he made mistakes? I have no idea. Presidents don’t control the economy. The question is, do voters know that? I think the fair way to judge him is, did he *do* everything he could.

    Which is why I ask, do people here think he could do more?

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      Well, as somebody said, the body count from Watergate was zero. So far Gunwalker has a body count of about 2-300. And recent revelations have the AFT feeding the guns straight to the cartel, not even a theoretical chance of using it to trace smuggling routes, the original pretext.

      And 137 liberal Democrats to zero even moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, hired for a by law non-partisan agency? Nothing to see, move along, move along.

      But I agree it’s not going to amount to anything, none of the scandals will. If the President blows a half billion dollars in subsidies on a company that’s hired Pelosi’s brother in law, even though all the analysts say it’s going to tank big time, does it raise a stink in the forest if the NYT won’t report on it?


      His biggest problem is that the MSM, even reporting very last revision of economic numbers downward as “unexpected”, can’t make the voting public not notice the economy sucks. He’d be unbeatable if the economy were halfway decent, but it isn’t. I don’t see how he can change that before the election.

      • liberal says:

        “…And 137 liberal Democrats to zero even moderate Democrats, let alone Republicans, hired for a by law non-partisan agency?…”

        LOL. Your link material says at the top, “Following the Justice Department’s long-delayed compliance with a Freedom of Information Act request, PJMedia recently published content from the resumes of each career attorney hired to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under Attorney General Eric Holder. The articles were written by two former Civil Rights Division attorneys — J. Christian Adams and Hans von Spakovsky — and PJMedia Editor Richard Pollock.”

        Hans von Spakovsky? Your writing parody here, right?

      • liberal says:

        “So far Gunwalker has a body count of about 2-300.”

        Hmm…what was the American (let alone Iraqi) body count from Iraq?

      • Barry says:

        Do Not Feed the Lying Troll!

        • Brett Bellmore says:

          Barry, you do realize, don’t you, that your desire to live in an echo chamber doesn’t render everyone who says something you don’t like a “troll”?

          Ok, seriously, what could Obama do? Here’s a suggestion: (Insert your own flat delivery with oddly timed pauses, to give that Obama flavor.)

          “My fellow… Americans! For decades American foreign policy has been held hostage by the need to appease truly odious nations we depend upon for our energy. The time has come to free that hostage.

          Effective today, I am ending the illegal moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf which my administration imposed last year, and has maintained in the face of numerous court defeats. Hopefully this will encourage the last couple of oil rigs to remain in the Gulf, rather than depart, as most have, to waters where they’re permitted to operate.

          I have directed the EPA to cease looking for excuses to outlaw “fracking”.

          I have canceled all subsidies to failing solar energy firms. Even those run by close relatives of highly placed Democratic Senators.

          I have directed the NRC that nuclear plants are allowed to emit as much radiation as coal plants of similar capacity routinely emit. This will permit nuclear energy to be produced much more cheaply.

          And I am returning the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to coal production. Sorry, Mr. Riady, but the interests of Americans come first, and besides, you were Bill’s contributor, not mine.

          Through this, and other actions, I hope to bring this nation to energy independence within a decade.

          Good night.”

    • liberal says:

      “The economic handling is more akin to errors. Not scandals.”

      Actually, the appointment of Geithner to head Treasury is a continuing scandal.

  14. NCG says:

    I’m not saying those issues aren’t regrettable. I just don’t think they’re unusual in size or severity. I think it’s terrible that our love of drugs gets so many Mexicans killed, but the flow of guns is so large that the ATF thing can’t be said to have made much difference.

    And the intention was good — they were trying to get information to prevent more of it happening. That’s why I don’t see it as out of the ordinary. People make mistakes, in and out of government.

    As for the Justice Department, no offense but you’ve got to be kidding me. A) IF there is a problem, it surely pales in comparison with what happened before 2009, and B) if the JD is so liberal, why are they SO inactive? I see little evidence of so much as a pulse! Seriously.

    Anyway, deafening silence from folks here about what can be done. Where is everyone?

    • Brett Bellmore says:

      I’m not going to embark on the hopeless task of persuading people HERE that Obama’s scandals are significant. Or explain the difference between a pretext and a reason. Not when my point in mentioning them was to note that one of his advantages in seeking reelection is that he doesn’t have to worry about scandals even if he has them, because the media won’t cover them. On the day they do start covering them you can stick a fork in him, he’s done, because it will mean that the media have gotten tired of protecting him, and no matter what he does, he can’t survive that. He has no experience dealing with a hostile media environment.

      Another big strength is that he’s black. A lot of people voted for him for historic reasons having squat to do with him personally. I think he’s mostly exhausted that, they got the “See, I’m not racist!” thing out of their system. So that’s probably not going to be working for him so much this time around.

      Of course, in 2008 it meant he got 98% of the black vote, which was historically huge. I doubt blacks are going to start voting Republican in any great numbers soon, but enthusiasm for him has vastly diminished since then, probably will be only a normal black turnout.

      A big weakness is that economy, which he can’t turn around before the election, and can’t plausibly blame on anybody else. (Honestly? To some extent, but not the extent it’s portrayed here. Just not plausibly.)

      I can think of one or two things he might do to generate enthusiasm for him among independents, (You’d absolutely hate them, but it’s not your votes he’s needing to change.) but he’s not going to do them. Why? Because he’s THIS guy, not some other guy.

      His biggest problem is he’s Obama, not somebody else. And Obama is a lousy President.

      • Barry says:

        Do Not Feed the Lying Troll

      • BevM says:

        And how many voted for him out of not being able to stomach the alternative, I wonder?

        • Brett Bellmore says:

          Not me, I voted for the Libertarian, out of not being able to stomach either alternative. Just because McCain would have made a terrible President didn’t mean that Obama would make a good one, as I think has been amply demonstrated.

    • Ebenezer Scrooge says:

      Maybe he can pray for a Perry-Bachmann ticket?
      I don’t think he can do anything meaningful on a policy front. The things that would move the economy are politically impossible.
      And I don’t think that NCG is interested in the details of the political black arts.

  15. Things that are useless says:

    You have a great deal more respect for President Obama than I do. I think that if he sees he is going to lose running as a Democrat, he will simply switch parties and run as a Republican. He has all of the Republican issues down pat, the evangelicals and propaganda “news” will love him as an apostate and the rich will fund him because he is their man in the White House. The disarray in the Democrats will leave them with no candidate to run against him and will be totally demoralized.

  16. Herschel says:

    “39 people in U.S. history had been elected President” [when George H.W. Bush ran in 1988] This is not correct. By my count, 34 people had been elected President at that point. Reagan’s presidency was called 40th, but Grover Cleveland is counted twice in that scheme, even though he was only one person. But none of the following Presidents was elected to that office: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford (who uniquely wasn’t elected Vice President either).

    • Keith Humphreys says:

      Herschel — you are right, 39 had been President, 34 elected. Boy, I did this particular post too quickly — three mistakes caught by sharp eyed readers (although in this case, it would have amplified my point, 3 of 34 is better odds than 3 of 39).

  17. NCG says:

    Ebenezer! I am *always* interested in what you have to say. I don’t mind the “black arts,” necessarily, though I strongly dislike lies. Framing and spinning and what-not are okay, sort of. (Actually, I’m not sure this administration is very good at the dark arts, come to think of it. Independents *ought* to completely love this president. He was mostly a centrist Zelig (except for HCR) until the clock ran down to the point that now, he can talk like a liberal and everyone knows it won’t matter. And he gets no credit for it, yet has p*ssed off the libs. Note: I still like the guy, I’m just sayin’.)

    I am sad that no one seems to be able to think of anything we can do, though.

  18. NYShooter says:

    Smash the ten largest banks, distribute their units and assets among local and regional banks.

    Arrest the ten CEO’s, and Tim Geithner, under the RICO statutes, and appoint a special prosecutor to root out as many “co-conspirators” that could be identified, and that were involved in the destruction of our economy, our Democracy, and our society.

    All to be financed by the fund flows in letting the Bush tax cuts expire.

    The beauty is, most everything could be done by Obama alone, with little, or no, Congressional approval needed.

    The rest? details….details…..details