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Reads and Reactions

In this edition: debates over forecasting models, the Republican primary’s climax and the fallout over a Supreme Court hearing on the Affordable Care Act. Also, an all-jobs-report edition of Reads.


FiveThirtyEight looked at the track record of political scientists in predicting presidential elections. The verdict: forecasting models, particularly ones based solely on “fundamentals,” have had very little predictive value on average.

In the wake of that post, a lively debate broke out on the efficacy and value of such predictions. FiveThirtyEight contributor John Sides came to the defense of presidential forecasting models. So too did YouGov’s Lynn Vavreck. Jay Ulfelder also delved into the fray. As did Jonathan Bernstein at A Plain Blog About Politics.

Two general counterarguments emerged in the response to FiveThirtyEight’s criticism of election forecasts:

1. Yes, predictions of the margin of victory have been well off the mark on average. The point, however, is more determining which party will win the election rather than by how much, and in that regard the models have been better.

2. There is a wide variety in the quality of such models, and averaging them all together obscures the better models.

FiveThirtyEight also elicited some disagreement when we pointed to Mr. Romney’s victory in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28 as the moment that set him on a relatively secure path to the nomination. Jonathan Bernstein, this time writing for The Washington Post argued that it was actually South Carolina that determined how the Republican primary would unfold.

Whether South Carolina or Michigan was the climactic moment of the Republican race, it was not until after Illinois that analysts began calling the game. Ed Kilgore called it at The New Republic. Andrew Sullivan, at The Daily Beast, called it, too. At Outside the Belway, Doug Mataconis was a little more circumspect, writing, “The fat lady hasn’t started her aria yet, but she’s backstage warming up and this race is (finally) almost over.”

FiveThirtyEight also read the writing on the wall after Illinois.

The next major news story was the Supreme Court hearing arguments on President Obama’s health reform law. A counterintuitive theory began percolating among the chattering class that a ruling against the law would actually help Mr. Obama. FiveThirtyEight tested that hypotheses and found it wanting.

James Taranto, writing at The Wall Street Journal, agreed with most of the post, except the contention that Mr. Obama does not face a problem with his base. “The base is happy with Obama now. But how will they feel three months from now if the court has struck down the president’s signature ‘achievement’?” Mr. Taranto wrote, reasoning that progressive voters will get angry at Mr. Obama if the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics released an underwhelming jobs report for March, reporting that nonfarm payrolls expanded by a net of 120,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate ticked down to 8.2 percent.

Stephen Green, writing at VodkaPundit, argued the report is even worse than the top line results suggest.

Brad Plumer, at The Washington Post’s WonkBlog, is not quite as gloomy.

And MSNBC’s Chuck Todd took a “deep dive” into the jobs numbers, distinguishing between expansion in the private sector and contraction in the public sector.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.