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Citizen Forecasting: Can Voters See into the Future?

  • Michael S. Lewis-Beck and Andrew Skalaban

Political science, unlike economics, does not have a long tradition of forecasting models. However, this is changing. Currently, there is considerable interest in election forecasting. The basis for the interest is a flurry of related publications on House, Senate and presidential elections. A common goal for these studies is the development of a model, inevitably based on aggregate time-series data, which predicts election returns. The resulting models, some of which are quite accurate, can differ a good deal in specification and estimation. Also, they vary in complexity, making them more or less accessible to the engaged voter.

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1 Abramowitz, Alan I. and Segal, Jeffery A., ‘Determinants of the Outcomes of US Senate Elections’, Journal of Politics, 48 (1986), 433–9; Campbell, James E.. ‘Forecasting the 1986 Midterm Elections to the House of Representatives’, PS, 19 (1986), 83–7; Campbell, James E., ‘Evaluating the 1986 Congressional Election Forecasts’, PS, 20 (1987), 3741; Hibbs, Douglas A. Jr., ‘President Reagan's Mandate from the 1980 Elections: A Shift to the Right?’, American Politics Quarterly, 10 (1982), 387420; Jacobson, Gary C. and Kernell, Samuel, Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983); Lewis-Beck, Michael S., ‘Election Forecasts in 1984: How Accurate Were They?’, PS, 18 (1985), 5362; Lewis-Beck, Michael S., ‘A Model Performance’, Public Opinion, 9 (0304 1987), 57–8; Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom, ‘Forecasting US House Elections’, Legislative Studies Quarterly, 9 (1984), 475–86; Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom, ‘Forecasting Presidential Elections: A Comparison of Naive Models’, Political behavior, 6 (1984), 921; Lewis-Beck, Michael S. and Rice, Tom, ‘Are Senate Election Outcomes Predictable?’, PS. 18 (1985), 745–54; Oppenheimer, Bruce I., Stimson, James A. and Waterman, Richard W., ‘Inter- 227–47; Rosenstone, S. J., Forecasting Presidential Elections (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983); Tufte, Edward R., Political Control of the Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); Witt, Evans, ‘A Model Election?’, Public Opinion, 5 (1201 1983), 46–9.

2 Campbell, , ‘Forecasting the 1985 Midterm Elections to the House of Representatives’, p. 85; Lewis-Beck, , ‘Election Forecasts in 1984: How Accurate Were They?’, pp. 60–2.

3 Another possible variable to predict forecast accuracy would be whether a voter had been following the polls. Unfortunately, this question was never asked in these NES data (with the exception of a 1980 panel). However, we do have plentiful data on media usage, which would be the vehicle for poll-watching. The media variable (see Table 1) is significant in only two of the eight contests. Thus, while information about polls is available almost exclusively through the media, the tendency to be a heavy media consumer makes little difference in our model. Furthermore, and perhaps more important, there is evidence that, although poll stories have become a much more common news event over time (e.g., the number of poll stories on American network television news broadcasts more than doubled between 1972 and 1980), the overall ability of the electorate to predict the winner of presidential elections follows no such time trend (see Figure 1).

4 Lewis-Beck, , ‘Election Forecasts in 1984: How Accurate Were They?’

5 The results given in Equation 1, although based on a rather small sample, are quite robust; that is, they are not dependent upon one or two influential observations. Deleting each observation in turn, then re-estimating, never lowers the goodness-of-fit statistic (R 2) more than a few percentage points.

6 Kramer, Gerald H., ‘The Ecological Fallacy Revisited: Aggregate- versus Individual-Level Findings on Economics and Elections and Sociotropic Voting’, American Political Science Review, 77 (1983), 92111.

* Department of Political Science, University of Iowa. We would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Arthur Miller and Peverill Squire.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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