What the election shows: That social science works

Before any of the debates. Before SuperStorm Sandy. Before the last-minute barrage of campaign advertising. He predicted the result perfectly over a month ago.

Over the past several months, political scientists have consistently forecasted an Obama victory–a relatively narrow one, but a victory nonetheless. And, in the end, that’s exactly what happened yesterday. Every state but Florida has finished counting its votes. Assuming that Florida goes Democratic, then the following forecasters will all have correctly predicted EVERY state’s presidential vote:

Since this is a Utah-based blog, let’s look at Jay DeSart’s model for a minute. Over a month ago, Jay DeSart and his collaborator Thomas Holbrook posted this forecast:

This map was produced over a month ago!

Compare that forecast to the actual election result map. I took this one from the New York Times this morning:

The actual election result of of 9:00am Wednesday

Look carefully. You will not find a single difference. Working from here in Utah, Jay DeSart nailed it. Before any of the debates. Before SuperStorm Sandy. Before the last-minute barrage of campaign advertising. He predicted the result perfectly over a month ago.

Forecasts made far in advance of the election mostly relied on economic indicators, also called “the fundamentals” (which predicted a narrow victory for Obama). Forecasts made closer to election day mostly relied on polling data (which produced similar results). Either way, social science works. Consider what John Sides wrote today on every quantitative political scientist’s favorite blog, The Monkey Cage (the links are all his):

Barack Obama’s victory tonight is also a victory for the Moneyball approach to politics. It shows us that we can use systematic data–economic data, polling data–to separate momentum from no-mentum, to dispense with the gaseous emanations of pundits’ “guts” and ultimately to forecast the winner. The means and methods of political science, social science, and statistics, including polls, are not perfect, and Nate Silver is not our “algorithmic overlord” (a point I don’t think he would disagree with).

But 2012 has showed how useful and necessary these tools are for understanding how politics and elections work. Let’s hope that these tools become even more prominent in political journalism and punditry.

Randall Munroe put it more succinctly:

From xkcd.com/1131/

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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