Who Won $150,000 Betting McCain Would Get the Nomination?

Some individuals felt that John McCain would make a good president. After all, he had served his country bravely as a naval officer in the Vietnam War, and then went on to become one of America’s most respected senators. The feeling was perhaps not widely shared, as evidenced by the fact that many people felt that Barack Obama would make a better president. But perhaps what we perceived as political betting actually has some scientific justification. According to a new paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, an objective analysis of the 2008 Election Data revealed that supporters of Senator McCain were more likely to make correct predictions about future elections than were those who backed Senator Obama.

The Most And Least Predictable Elections

Using a variety of economic models and methods, the researchers attempted to gauge the predictive power of various factors and compare it to that of a random number generator (RNG). Although the models’ outcomes were somewhat unpredictable, the general election results for Senator McCain were significantly more accurate than would be expected by chance alone – 60% versus 48%. By contrast, the models had much less success in predicting the presidential victory of Senator Obama.

But it wasn’t just the 2016 election that predicted voters preferred Senator McCain to President Obama. In fact, most of the elections between 2008 and 2016 were more accurate in predicting which candidate would win than would be expected by chance alone. Overall, elections within this period were 71% more accurate when cast in favor of Senator McCain than would be expected by chance. In terms of least predictable elections, the 2008 election was the closest in history to a perfect prediction, with Obama winning 49% of the vote and Senator McCain gaining 51%. The furthest elections were the 2012 and 2016 elections, where the margin of victory was more than 12 percentage points greater than would have been expected by chance alone. In total, there were 12 elections between 2008 and 2016 where the margin of victory was greater than 12 percentage points – the magic number selected by NBER for this purpose.

The Reason Behind The Vote

After analyzing this data, the researchers came up with a reason why so many people preferred Senator McCain. In a statement accompanying the paper, NBER researcher Robert Enrico explains that “because of unique historical events, such as the Great Recession, [the] predictive power of standard economic indicators became highly uncorrelated with election results.”

Specifically, the 2008 and 2012 Elections were highly influenced by the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. The economists John H. Makin, Justin Wolfers, and Kevin Warsh attribute both the 2008 and 2012 victories to the depth and duration of the slump – citing the 2008–2009 financial crisis as one of the factors behind Obama’s victory, and the 2012 presidential election as a case study in why economists have lost their influence on electoral outcomes.

In 2008, the U.S. housing market was in a state of collapse and banks were teetering on the brink of closure. The U.S. stock market had dropped by nearly a third, and the world’s financial system was in the process of being rebuilt. Many experts predicted that the global financial crisis of 2008 would lead to a long and slow economic recovery – something that clearly did not happen. Instead, the U.S. economy suffered through a deep recession that lasted for over a decade and cost millions of jobs.

Although this crisis was directly responsible for the 2016 election, it was not directly responsible for the 2012 or 2008 elections. But it did play a role in shaping the results of those previous elections, as evidenced by the fact that the average recession indicator became more predictive of the election results as the years passed.

Why Economists’ Opinions Did Not Predict Elections

While the Great Recession undoubtedly influenced the 2016 presidential election, it did not entirely dictate the result. Despite the fact that the economy was in a state of collapse, many people still felt that Senator Obama would be the better choice for president. This is presumably because a significant number of voters still felt that Senator McCain was too unpredictable. After all, despite his long tenure in public service, John McCain had a habit of making “elastic” policy commitments that surprised even his staunchest supporters.

According to a 2016 study by the economists Daron Acemoglu, Pia Orshansky, and Joshua Rehner, Senator McCain’s unpredictability made him a dangerous leader in times of crisis. The study’s authors write:

“A key lesson from the recent financial crisis is that leaders’ personalities matter a great deal. The fact that the global financial crisis took place in a bipartisan fashion shows that policy differences did not prevent policymakers from working together. What prevented policymakers from working together during a time of crisis is uncertainty…[I]n times of uncertainty, the public tends to look to leaders to provide them with the security and comfort they need.”

In light of this study, it is not altogether surprising that so many people felt that Senator McCain would make a good – or at least competent – president. But clearly, this was not the case. In the end, Senator Obama won with just under 51% of the vote and Senator McCain won with about 49% of the vote. This was a clear reflection of the mood of the times rather than the quality of their political philosophies.

Although the Great Recession did not provide the definite answer many people were looking for, it did provide some valuable insights into the predictability of election results. Specifically, economists can now say with some certainty that the 2008 and 2012 Elections were highly influenced by the economic crisis – meaning that their results cannot be attributed to a single factor. This should not come as a complete surprise, as the 2008 financial crisis was one of the defining events of our time. It was a global catastrophe that affected every country and region of the world, and it continues to have ramifications today, more than 10 years later.