Grading the Election Theories

The long election cycle featured as many theories about how the election would turn out as there were presidential candidates in those first debates in 2007. Let's give some of the theories a post-final-exam assessment:

Emerging Democratic Majority: A-.
Let's start with an easy one. After the 2000 election, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published a book arguing that Democrats would build a majority based on nonwhite and Hispanic voters, shifts in the suburbs, and strength among professionals concentrated in "ideopolises" like the Research Triangle in North Carolina. They were quiet this year (although Ruy produced a superb series of demographic analyses of the country and various states), but their predictions were close to an exact map of the Obama demographic. So why not a solid A? There has to be a little penalty for being ahead of the curve.

Whistle Past Dixie: B.
TAP contributor Tom Schaller wrote a book in 2006 arguing Democrats could and should ignore the South for purposes of winning the presidency. And of course, he was literally right: Obama easily collected enough electoral votes to win without any Southern states. But that Senate seat in North Carolina sure is useful for the new president to have, and those Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida victories certainly reduce the sense of civil war. Tom's corollary was that Democrats should concentrate on the Mountain West instead of the South, but it turned out there was no tradeoff -- Obama won all the viable states in the Rockies, even giving McCain a brief scare in Arizona, while still taking three states of the Confederacy.

Wine-Track/Beautiful Losers: D.
Candidates like Obama -- brainy, detached, attractive to educated well-off liberals -- never win. Journalist Ron Brownstein and historians Sean Wilentz and David Greenberg all reeled off the list of "wine track" candidates, beginning with Adlai Stevenson and continuing with Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, and of course Barack Obama -- "beautiful losers," Wilentz called them. They make us feel smart, but they can never seal the deal with the "beer track" voters of the white working class. Why not a solid "F" for this theory? Well, for over a half-century, it has been right more often than it's been wrong. But it should have been obvious that Obama was playing at a different level than Paul Tsongas, and that as soon as Obama succeeded in adding African Americans to the Bordeaux-guzzling base, the equation was completely upended.

Economic Determinism: B.
Some political scientists and economists like to remind us that for all the Palin jokes and PUMAs and debate gaffes, elections are pretty simple -- a good economy benefits the party in power; a bad economy creates a change election. There are various models that, ignoring all polls, aggregate and weight economic data to predict the outcome. The best known model is that of Yale's Ray Fair, which predicted an Obama victory with 51.9 percent of the vote, off by just a percentage point. Other models were also accurate. So why just a "B"? Because it's no fun without the melodrama. Plus, that's what Fair gave me as a freshman in his introductory macroeconomics course, so I'm returning the favor.

Bradley Effect: F.
Polls will be wrong because white voters lie and say they'll vote for a black candidate when they won't. Or, polls underrepresent lower-income whites who won't vote for a black candidate. Whatever version of the theory, it wasn't true and never was. There wasn't even a Bradley Effect in the election it's named after, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley's 1982 campaign for California governor. He lost because of a gun-control initiative on the ballot that drew unexpected rural white turnout. The only interesting thing about the Bradley Effect is why so many in the press seemed deeply invested in believing it. Perhaps it was just shorthand for the doubt that Barack Obama would ever be elected president.

"Race Chasm": C-.
In another version of the white-racism theory, David Sirota popularized the idea that Obama would struggle in states where there were not enough African Americans to decide the outcome, but just enough to provoke white racism. He would do fine in lily-white states like Vermont and heavily black states like Mississippi but fall into the "race chasm" in between, in states like Connecticut, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Florida. "Race chasm" had limited predictive value in the primaries (Obama did fine in mixed states like Wisconsin and Indiana), and none at all in the general election.

The PUMAs: F.
The idea that supporters of Hillary Clinton in the primaries -- working-class whites, women, core Democrats -- would abandon their party's nominee to support a pro-lifer with the same economic royalist policies as the current president was always implausible. The fact that the most prominent of the McCain-convert PUMAs (which officially stood for "People United Mean Action," but there were more colorful versions of the acronym) was named Baroness de Rothschild should have been a clue that their roots didn't go too deep into the working class! Still, the press, and likely Sen. McCain as well, were drawn to this mythical bloc for months.

Appalachia/Scotch-Irish Ethnicity: B.
In the primaries, Obama seemed to have a tough time, not with white voters generally but with working-class whites in a particular stretch of the country, running from roughly the southwest corner of Pennsylvania through West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas. Michael Lind among others argued that not whiteness but the Scotch-Irish heritage of this Appalachian belt made them resistant to the "moralistic" political culture of New England and the upper Midwest. I can't judge all of Mike's ethnographic scholarship, but this is one of the few maps that carried over from the primaries to the general election -- most of the counties where Republicans improved their showing since 2004 fall in that very same strip, down through Appalachia and into Texas and Oklahoma.

Always trust Nate Silver: A+.
Not really a theory, per se, but Silver's fivethirtyeight.com had an impeccable record all year. In the primaries, he operated from a core theory, which was that demographics would be a better predictor than polls, but for the general election, he used aggregations of polls in addition to creative demographic data, such as the ratio of Starbucks to Wal-Marts in a state, to make projections. More important than being right, Nate taught all of us (and all political wonks went to fivethirtyeight.com) a vast amount about electoral politics and demographics -- enough to make all the theories above look kind of simplistic.

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