2016 Presidential Election Is Months Away: Do We Know Anything Yet?

marco rubioThere are a lot of different ways to break down the presidential election, and there’s usually an analyst for every argument favoring almost every politician out there. Usually, there’s at least one quantitative factor in favor of almost anyone and everyone. With many things in the political realm, you can make an argument for nearly anything, and you can do it with all sorts of numbers and studies to back it up. There are good arguments, based on past cases, numbers, logic, and trends, and there are mediocre arguments, based on logic and past examples, and finally, there are, of course, terrible arguments. These are usually not based on any of the above. But the fact of the matter is that discussing probability and weighing the pros and cons of various candidates is an imperfect science, and often subjective to a degree.

If everyone can prove their point, then no one is proving their point definitively. There are a variety of tools used to prove an election prediction. Perhaps it’s polling numbers with a specific group, or name recognition, or being the perfect candidate not in comparison to his or her own party, but in terms of being the right opponent to take down the lead across the aisle. And these arguments are important for more reasons than based on whether they accurately predict elections. For one, they break down who the candidates are and make comparisons for voters and readers. They create the personas of candidates almost as much as candidates create their own personas. It’s why comedians have so much power. Look at Sarah Palin: People accidentally attribute things said by Tina Fey to Palin all the time.

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver is going for a more broad argument than a single poll or candidate characteristic, specifically in favor of Marco Rubio. He sites an idea called the Pareto efficiency. The basic idea is that it isn’t the candidates who lead in one area that should be considered, but rather the candidates who can compete across areas, even if they may not win based on one single method of measurement. Silver explains this using a food analogy. I’ll explain using a film analogy, in honor of the Oscars.

Let’s say you and your friend want to go see a film. You want to see something that’s filled with gore, but they want to see something with a lot of romance. So on the one side you have SAW III, and on the other hand you have Fifty Shades of Grey (which could probably go on either end, but we’ll ignore that for the sake of the argument). Both are on the Pareto Frontier at each extreme: one for gore, and one for romance. In the middle, lies a movie like, say, 28 Days Later — a violent zombie movie with a central love story and a happy ending. It also lies on the Pareto Frontier, while The Shining would be off the Frontier because it is both less romantic than 28 Days Later, and arguably less gory as a whole. The same sort of comparison is what Silver is arguing for candidates, with the two extremes being “electability” and “ideological fit.”

But the way these each are defined is tricky, particularly the criteria of “electability.” The interesting thing with this seemingly simple dual-measurement is that it ends up expanding to include pretty much everything everyone else has been picking apart and then re-simplifying to the Pareto idea once again. It complicates, and then simplifies, finally listing Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker as major contenders, but then teasing Rubio out as having the most broad advantages, being both more electable or more ideologically fitting than one or the other candidate. It also looks at Iowa polls and general Republican polls. But Silver admits it may not be accurate as time goes on. It just goes to show how different considerations can emphasize different sections of public opinion. Iowa is an incredibly important state, and both Scott Walker and Marco Rubio do quite well there, according to FiveThirtyEight, while Jeb Bush shows only 48% saying he’s just right. But, having said that, Iowa also shows Donald Trump as closer to just right than Chris Christie, and it’s clear to most that Trump’s chances are a million miles from Christie.

Neither is likely, but Christie is considerably more possible. And when you consider RealClearPolitics’ average of all national polls, Bush has twice the support of Rubio, and less than Christie — and while Iowa is an incredibly important election state, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the last say. In other words, taken individually, each argument within the Pareto consideration can be picked apart to an extent, which doesn’t discredit the flexible and really quite fairly measured analysis, but it does prove the difficulty with election analysis in general.

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