Thursday, November 08, 2012

A Few Thoughts around the US Election

1.    Obama or Romney?
In the past, the Japanese political and business establishment would have been saddened by Romney’s defeat. The perception there is that Republican administrations tend to treat Japan more gently, both in style and substance. And the Noda administration and big business here must have welcomed comments from Glen Hubbard, a prominent economic advisor to Romney and a probable candidate for a key assignment in the event of his victory, in Nikkei Shimbun that a Romney administration would support Japan’s participation in the TPP negotiations. This time around, though, China has been the one that has been getting the short shrift from the Democrats with the Obama administration’s abandonment of a G2 perspective and adoption of an Asian “pivot,” broadly regarded and largely welcomed in the region as a counterbalance to an increasingly aggressive projection of Chinese power. So, although the Romney campaign had been pushing a very forceful line against China, “four more years” must not have seemed to be a bad consolation prize. At least that must be why there was little to no debate here over the relative merits of the two presidential candidates for Japan, or any display of the by now familiar anguish over the Japan “passing” in the foreign policy debate. On the latter point, maybe we’ve become so used to being sidelined that we don’t notice, but that’s too depressing an idea, and unnecessary at this point to ponder when there’s a more plausible explanation.

2.    Value of a Vote
The electoral college system came under criticism as the possibility that the popular and electoral votes might go their separate ways, which actually happened in 2000 then almost repeated in 2004, was extinguished for good for practical purposes only when the networks called Ohio for Obama with just three more states out of the 50 remaining to be called. Another, less serious charge is that the electoral college system forces presidential campaigns to focus on at most ten or so “swing” states while taking the rest of the US more or less for granted. This cannot be a healthy state of affairs, or so the story goes. What’s funny, though, is that similar complaints are not being made about the Senate, where each Wisconsin vote is currently worth about 66 Californian votes. That makes the most recent 2.30 (House of Representatives, 2009) and 5.00 (House of Councilors, 2010) that the Japanese Supreme Court has condemned look…absolutely “constitutional,” yet the people in California and New York appear to be too stoned to complain. Could it be that John Q. Public just doesn’t care, and that the only reason that the electoral college is part of the national debate is because it’s another fish to fry when the US media dishes out stories on election night? I mean, who wants that extra attention in the form of ever-more negative campaigning, robo-calls and the like.

3.    Mandate, Shmandate
And what’s all this talk about a “mandate”? Depending on whom you talklisten to, President Obama got a mandate because he won the popular vote and smashed Romney in the electoral college tally, in the process producing a near-sweep of the “swing” states; or, he didn’t get a mandate because he ran against a weak candidate and still failed to convince nearly half the US voters who actually voted. Well, Bush only became president because he won a 5-to-4 vote in the Supreme Court, but he still got his tax cut…because the Republicans owned both chambers and managed to get enough Democratic Senators to cross the aisle, sometimes with timely advice from their donors and lobbies, to cross the aisle to surmount considerable procedural obstacles (particularly in the Senate). Obama will have more difficulties in getting any legislation passed because the Republicans own the House of Representatives. (It’s more complicated than that, but let’s leave it there for now.) The “fiscal cliff” will be avoided though, not because Obama has received a mandate but because both the Democrats and the Republicans will be held responsible if the US government goes over the edge, which will not be a good thing for incumbents come 2014. Same thing with the Japanese “twisted” Diet and the Japanese “cliff”—which BTW MOF has been GPSing away every few months as if it were a hot-road mirage. “Mandate” is the language of pundits and is of little utility for explication purposes and even less for forecasting, and it’s a good thing that we don’t resort to anything similar in our public discourse.

4.    Nate Silver
Nate silver has been the undisputed forecasting star of the media coverage, making Roger Federer at his career peak look like an also-ran. I’d wondered how arithmetically possible it was to give even a small number of, say, 7 to 3 odds and wind up making a near-perfect call on the outcome at state level unless his model was terribly wrong. Stupid me, I hadn’t realized that Silver would be refreshing his numbers right up to the point that they closed the ballot box, so the calls would grow shorter and shorter (or is it longer and longer?) for a candidate who, like Obama in this election, enjoyed a clear last-minute polling trend in his favor. Two thoughts flow from this: First, pundit forecasts tend to become less relevant as the day of the election approaches, but that is also when they get the most air time. It is no surprise, then, that many of them are directing plenty of visceral anger and scorn towards him (while selectively citing polls where convenient), or simply ignoring him altogether. Thankfully, there aren’t nearly enough detailed, much less daily, and publicly available polls in Japan, which allows arithmetically challenged people like me to concoct stories around what little is around. Second, Silver’s model can only be validated if the calls that he—more accurately, his model—makes along the timeline are also accurate, and it should not be difficult for a capable statistician to figure out ways to gauge this. This is important because people will be making business-investment decisions along this timeline, decisions that will be affected by the outcome of the election. Again, the dearth of useful Japanese polls means that we won’t be seeing any Nate Silver-like figures here for a long time, if ever.

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