The Presidential Election

This site isn’t really for partisan cheerleading. I’m a US citizen with policy and party preferences, but I feel that those preferences are somehow irrelevant, especially since my work in political philosophy is mostly oriented towards expanding the definition of  the word ‘politics’ to include more than just voting and partisanship as sports team rivalry. Lately, though, conversations have wended their way toward the presidential race, so I thought I’d take a moment to assure my readers: Barack Obama is going to win.

Look, voting is the weakest form of political accountability I can imagine. If a politician does something wrong, and you want to replace her, in a first-past-the-post system you’ve got to vote for her opponent, who may well be completely unpalatable. That reduces every question, no matter how difficult, to a yes or no. It’s very imprecise, but it’s the best we can do. (The Churchill line applies here: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”) The fundamentals all point to Barack Obama: an unpopular incumbent, a troubled economy, an expensive war, a sense of dissatisfaction with the party in power, not to mention fund-raising totals and demographic trends in old battleground states. And because of that, the US political climate is going to swing its big, imprecise hammer as squarely as possible at the ‘no’ button on election day.

So why the hubbub? In part, it’s because the grand structuralist explanation is remarkably depressing and makes us feel impotent and irrelevant: none of what I’ve said touches on the candidates, their policy preferences, popularity, or appeal to voters as individuals; nor does it reflect the competing volunteer organizations, get-out-the-vote drives, and grass-roots campaigns. I suppose fundraising totals do, in part, reflect voter preferences for individual candidates, but the big money is predictive and party-oriented, it says, “I’m not giving you this money so that you can win, I’m giving it to you because you will win and I want you to owe me a favor.”

The other reason for hubbub is that the media are devoted to a conflict narrative, and they’re intensely afraid of losing the appearance of impartiality. Because presidential elections are big business, there are a lot of people with a financial incentive to muddy the waters: party operatives who get paid on a weekly basis out of that massive pool of fundraising, media outlets with ad-space to sell, and op-editorialists who need conflict to generate interest. This supplies a motivation to make the election look close, to emphasize national polling numbers and short-term trends and bumps rather than the electoral math, the long-term trends, and the well-established patterns of bumps and counter-bumps.

Now take a look at’s recent roundup of the state betting markets (scroll to the bottom) on intrade. Intrade shows the same thing as Obama winning in the electoral college by about 80 electoral votes. That’s not just people spitballing: betting markets reflect actual investments from greedy folks who are trying to make money by predicting outcomes. When the ordinary voter changes her mind about who she wants to vote for, that change of heart may or may not find its way into the polling data. But if an investor on intrade changes her mind about who’s going to win, she sells her shares, hopefully before everyone else realizes the same thing and the price drops precipitously.

Of course, markets aren’t crystal balls, nor are they perfectly rational, and political betting markets are subject to all sorts of potential manipulation. But at the end of the contract, somebody gets paid, so there’s a strong incentive for smart greedy folks to seek out and utilize the best information to undercut potential manipulation. Saying you support a candidate, even voting for that candidate, is free, and if you’re in the right business, it can actually pay quite well. Putting your money where your ballot is separates the foolhardy from the brave, the preferences from the predictions.

Here is how the bettors are expecting the swing states to break:

Obama gets: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Virginia
McCain gets: Florida, Missouri

Maybe this is good news to you, maybe it’s bad news. For my part, it suggests that we might right now be overinvested as a culture in national and presidential politics. The really interesting questions are a little closer to home, a lot less overdetermined, and a lot more likely to be impacted by the efforts of a few passionate individuals who can tear their attention away from the spectacle. So if these assurances mean you can start worrying about other things now, great! We can all still get together in November and watch the Super Bowl election returns.

Second Opinions