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First published October 1996

Temporal Horizons and Presidential Election Forecasts

Abstract

In this article we present a simple forecasting model that has been successful at predicting past presidential elections. The two variables included in the model are cumulative per capita income growth and presidential approval. These "fundamental" variables predict the vote especially well when measured shortly in advance of the election, when the outcome is already becoming clear in the polls. Their predictive power drops quite quickly as one steps back from the election, however; readings of income growth and approval taken early in the election year only modestly predict readings of the same variables just prior to the election. Thus we turn to leading economic indicators that allow us to forecast presidential elections by giving advance indication of changes in the economy and approval during the election year. For 1996, our model offers a cautious prediction of a Clinton victory.

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1. We cumulate only through the quarter prior to the election. Although the measure of income growth cumulated through the last quarter of the election year performs best in our models, most of quarter 16 occurs after the election (and information about income growth dunng the quarter does not become available until the next year, which is of obvious relevance to forecasting the presidential vote).
2. Except for the last quarter of the election cycle, the measure of approval is the average percentage of the public that approves of the president during each particular quarter or the most recent quarter for which data are available, using Gallup polls. The quarter 16 measure is the percentage of the public that approves of the president in October or the most recent month for which data are available, also using Gallup polls.
3. The standard forecast error takes into account the standard errors of the coefficients and thus is larger than the standard error of the estimate. To compute the standard forecast error, we rely on Kmenta (1986, 426-8).
4. All these correlations are larger than the comparable correlations between current measures of cumulative income growth and approval (see Erikson and Wlezien 1996).
5. Separate analyses (not reported here) indicate that the quarter 13 measure of cumulative growth in leading indicators (LEIG) also outperforms change in other economic variables, including coincident indicators, gross national product, unemployment and inflation, and aspects of consumer sentiment.
6. As Table 2 implies, the predictability drops sharply using information for the year prior to the election. When using information about approval and cumulative LEIG for quarter 12, the R2 is 0.57; when using information for quarter 11, the R2 is 0.36.

References

Abramowitz, Alan L. 1988. An improved model for predicting presidential election outcomes PS: Political Science and Politics 21:843-7.
Brody, Richard, and Lee Sigelman. 1983 Presidential popularity and presidential elections An update and extension. Public Opinion Quarterly 47.325-8.
Campbell, James E., and Kenneth A. Wink . 1990. Trial-heat forecasts of the presidential vote. American Politics Quarterly 18:251-69.
Erikson, Robert S., and Christopher Wlezien . 1994 Forecasting the presidential vote, 1992. The Political Methodologist 5(2):10-1.
—. 1996. Of time and presidential election forecasts. PS: Political Science and Politics 29:37-9.
Hibbs, Douglas A., Jr. 1987. The American political economy. Macroeconomics and electoral politics in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kmenta, Jan. 1986. Elements of econometrics. New York : Macmillan.
Lewis-Beck, Michael, and Tom Rice. 1992. Forecasting elections Washington, DC Congressional Quarterly.
Rogers, R. Mark. 1994. Handbook of key economic indicators. New York: Richard Irwin.
Tufte, Edward R. 1978. Political control of the economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Article first published: October 1996
Issue published: October 1996

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Issue published: October 1996
Published online: November 23, 2016

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Christopher Wlezien
Robert S. Erikson

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This article was published in American Politics Research.

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