The Difference Between Presidential Elections and Baseball

The fallacy of "no sitting president has been reelected when..." statistics

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It's fitting that The New York Times' excellent statistics guru, Nate Silver, got his start crunching baseball numbers. Baseball fans are obsessed with statistics, producing factoids sometimes so narrow they seem meaningless -- like that "only 2 out of 128 teams have made the playoffs after an 0-4 start since 1995." But with 30 teams playing 162 games a year, at least baseball analysts have got some data to play around with. Those poor pundits analyzing presidential politics have a lot less material. There have been just 56 presidential elections, and only 44 presidents. But that doesn't stop these political science majors' statistical ambitions.

In Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine story about the rifts within the GOP, he mentions that Republicans   have been passing around a slideshow that was created by leading Republican pollster Bill McInturff. The presentation includes a statistic that has heartened the party faithful after the consumer-confidence index fell to 55.7 in August. As Bai writes, "No president, McInturff pointed out, has ever been reelected with an index score lower than 75." Also: when Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, the measure was at 64.5.

If presidential elections were baseball, you could say that this stat would doom Obama's hopes for a second term. But as Keith Humphreys explained last month for the Washington Monthly, there have been too few presidents -- selected from among hundreds of millions of Americans -- to prove such patterns. "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," Humphreys writes.
Such misleading data points are a bipartisan problem. And back in the 2004 election, Democrats who despised the sitting president at least as much as Republicans can't stand the current, passed around their own comforting baseball statistics. For example:
  • Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 16, 2002: "Dating back to John Quincy Adams, no president who ever lost the popular vote has been re-elected."
  • Robert Shapiro, former Clinton official, in Slate on April 15, 2003: "The White House knows that no president has been re-elected in the last half-century with less than 3 percent average annual growth in his first term."
  • Michael Kramer, New York Daily News, May 4, 2003: "More than 2 million jobs have vanished on Bush's watch - and no President since World War II has gone into a reelection campaign against the headwind of such job losses."
  • Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen, apparently a nervous conservative, to the San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 2003: "No president has been elected, and then re-elected, without at least once carrying California."
  • John Kerry pollster Mark Mellman, to National Journal, July 10, 2004: "No president has been re-elected who has not had a double-digit lead [over his challenger] by this time." 
  • Rick Westhead, The Toronto Star, October 28, 2004:  "Since 1973, no president has been re-elected after a major oil price increase during his term. In 1976, 1980 and 1992, candidates of the incumbent party were defeated after oil price spikes led to economic meltdowns. Oil prices have skyrocketed 50 per cent this year and with crude crossing the $55-a-barrel threshold this month, it's possible that the high prices may leave voters unsettled about Bush."
And Republicans had their own for Bill Clinton before he was reelected in 1996. This is our favorite:
  • Steven M. Pyre, The Boston Herald, August 25, 1996: "No president with a Yale degree has ever been re-elected. When it comes to foolproof political barometers, New Haven trumps New Hampshire. William Jefferson Clinton was a member of the Yale Law School Class of 1973. Whitewater may be a patch of thorns, but New Haven is a thicket of poison ivy for presidents seeking second terms."
When Bush was reelected in 2004, Businessweek's Richard S. Dunham noted a few more of the many "curses" Bush had broken. Here are a couple:
The right-direction/wrong-direction curse. Since the advent of modern polling, no President had won reelection when a majority of Americans thought the country was going in the wrong direction in the final public opinion polls before the election. Bush did. ...
The four-letter curse. No President with four letters in his last name had ever served a second term. (Ask Presidents Polk, Taft, and George H.W. Bush.) George W. becomes the first two-term, four-letter man. 
But Dunham noted a few curses that held. Among them:
The Missouri curse. Of course, no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. And the Ohio charm remains good. Bush did it. Here's the flip side: No Democrat has ever won the Presidency without carrying Missouri since it gained statehood...
The Senate curse. No sitting senator has been elected President since 1960. In all of American history, the only senators to move directly to the White House were John F. Kennedy and Warren G. Harding...
The Yankee Democrat curse. No Northern Democrat has been elected President since 1960...
Of course, in 2008, Barack Obama broke all of those rules. 
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