Guest Pollster | January 15, 2008
Topics: 2008 , New Hampshire , The 2008 Race
(Today's Guest Pollster contribution comes Professor Helmut Norpoth of Stony Brook University).
New Hampshire voters may mystify pollsters and pundits, but they have acquired an uncanny sense of picking candidates that go on to the White House. Whatever accounts for Hillary Clinton's surprising showing in her party's primary in New Hampshire, that victory makes her the best bet for Democrats to win the general election in November; likewise, John McCain's victory in the Republican primary in New Hampshire makes him the best hope for the GOP to retain the White House in November. These predictions are derived from a forecast model I developed that uses primary performance as the sole short-term predictor of the vote in the general election (the "Primary Model"). I have applied the model, with slight modifications, in the last three presidential elections, in which it correctly predicted the winners of the popular vote several months before Election Day. (See my 2004 paper in PS: Political Science & Politics). A race between the two New Hampshire winners, so the forecast, would be a nail-biter, with Clinton edging McCain by a margin of just a single percentage point of the two-party vote.
The use of primary elections to predict the outcome of the vote in the general election has some compelling advantages. One, it puts the estimation of a forecast model on a firm footing by letting us use elections all the way back to 1912, when presidential primaries were inaugurated. Two, it makes it possible to include both incumbent and opposition candidates in the model; granted, the incumbent candidate's performance may prove more powerful, but the effect of the out-party's primary showing is not negligible. And finally, the use of primaries as a predictor permits an unconditional forecast of the November vote at a very early moment. No ifs and buts. If one is willing to go with the outcome of the New Hampshire Primary, one can do it right now. The only uncertainty that remains is which of the match-ups will result from the nomination process. Chances are we may not have wait until the national conventions.
To measure primary performance in a standard format that allows for comparison across elections with varying numbers of candidates, I use an equivalent of the two-party vote in general elections. A candidate's primary showing is expressed as his or her vote relative to that of the winner (or in case of the winner in relation to the second strongest candidate). For incumbent-party candidates, the measure is adjusted, depending on whether they are sitting presidents or not. Moreover, the New Hampshire Primary is used only since 1952, when the state switched to a presidential-preference type of primary; prior to 1952, the model relies on the vote in all primaries.
Even though primary performance is the key, giving the model its name, the Primary Model also enlists a cyclical pattern of the presidential vote: the tenure of a party in the White House typically lasts between two to three terms. A compelling explanation for that dynamic is the term limit in presidential elections. Except for FDR, American presidents have eschewed running for more than two terms; and have been barred from doing so since then. The rule guarantees that incumbent presidents are missing from those contests in some periodic fashion, as is the case in 2008. In many such instances the absence of a sitting president with a high degree of popularity may improve the chances of the opposition party of capturing the White House. Given his high approval rating, Bill Clinton's ineligibility in 2000 probably hurt the Democratic prospects that year, although the absence of a much less popular George W. Bush in 2008 may be a blessing for the GOP. In any event, elections without a sitting president in the race tend to favor the opposition party more than elections with an incumbent running for another term. The Primary Model handles this dynamic by way of an autoregressive process (the presidential vote in the two previous general elections). In addition, given the use elections as far back as 1912, the model applies an adjustment for pre-1932 long-term partisanship.
From 1912 to 2004, the out-of-sample forecasts of the Primary Model pick the winner of the popular vote in 23 of the 23 elections, with 1960 being the only exception (and yes, that record includes Gore's popular vote win in 2004). The prediction equation for the presidential vote in 2008 (expressed as the Democratic share of the major-party vote) is:
.361 (RPRIM - 55.6) (-1) + .124 (DPRIM - 47.1) +.368 (VOTE04) -.383 (VOTE00) + 50.7 = .361 (RPRIM - 55.6) (-1) + .124 (DPRIM - 47.1) + 49.4
where RPRIM and DPRIM represent the primary support of the Republican (incumbent party) and Democratic (opposition party) nominees for President, capped within a 30-70 percent range, and Vote04 and Vote00 the Democratic vote shares in 2004 (48.8%) and 2000 (50.3%). The measure for the Republican candidate is inverted (-1) because the Democratic vote is used as the dependent variable. The formula produces the following forecasts of match-ups between the leading contenders in either parties (the vote for each match-up being the Democratic percentage of the two-party vote):
The PRIMARY MODEL predicts that in a race of New Hampshire Primary winners, Democrat Hillary Clinton would narrowly defeat Republican John McCain in the November general election (50.5 to 49.5 percent of the two-party vote). The predicted margin of victory, however, is so small that the confidence attached to this forecast is less than 60 percent, given the size of the forecast standard error (2.5). In match-ups between the Republican primary winner and Democratic primary losers, McCain would end up in a virtual tie with Barack Obama (49.9 to 50.1 percent) while defeating John Edwards (52.1 to 47.9 percent) by a margin close to one unit of the forecast standard error (2.6). At the same time, in match-ups between the Democratic primary winner and Republican primary losers, Clinton would dispatch Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudolph Giuliani by margins way beyond that error range. Finally, in match-ups between primary losers, both Obama and Edwards would beat any of the Republicans, and quite handily so in most cases.
That is no sign of partisan bias. Rather, it has to do with the Model assigning more weight to the primary performance of incumbent-party candidates than to the performance of out-party candidates. Nominating a primary loser, or even a candidate with a lackluster primary showing, costs the incumbent party more dearly than it does the out-party. Candidates not listed in the forecast table would do no better than the weakest one in their respective parties.