Politics 101
by Bridget O'Brian

Modern U.S. elections don't get much more interesting than this: Two uncommon candidates of different generations and campaign styles. Each claims to be an agent of change. And incidentally, a Columbia College graduate versus a recent Columbia College parent.

As the political conventions get under way and the campaign goes into its final, pivotal months, the election season promises to get more dramatic—and more complicated. To help wade through high-decibel chatter delivered by the 24-hour cable news spin-cycle, The Record asked prominent Columbia professors to give us their insights on this political season.

While many polls and political history point to a Democratic victory in the presidential race, this one may come down to the wire. "I think it is interesting it is a close race, given economic issues such as housing foreclosures, the energy crisis, high gas prices," says political science professor Fred Harris, who is also director of the Center on African American Politics and Society. "I didn't even mention the war. It seems to me like Barack Obama should be higher up in the polls." Indeed, given those factors, he adds, a Democratic nominee should be up 8 to 10 points over his rival.

Politics 101

Of course, polls can't always be believed, as David Epstein points out in our Campaign Special inside. While political science professor Robert Erikson cautiously predicts a Democratic victory, what's particularly significant about that conclusion is what it is not based upon. In a paper he will present at the American Political Science Association meeting at the end of August, he and co-author Christopher Wlezien of Temple University rely on the index of leading economic indicators as a strong predictor of the vote. That index, they say, provides an early warning of changes in the economy and presidential approval, as well as summarizing the economy in an election year. "Given the weak growth in leading economic indicators, the forecasts point to a cautious prediction of an Obama victory," they write in their paper. Although they point out that they are using numbers from late July, they still see a race in which 53.8 percent of the vote goes to Barack Obama and 46.6 percent for John McCain.

Similarly, Andrew Gelman sees that Democratic tilt extending further, enabling the party to extend its Congressional majority amid electoral shifts. Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science whose book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State is being published in September, points out that in Congress, Democrats now have the advantage. More Republican members of Congress are retiring, and the electoral advantage they had between 1996 and 2004 has disappeared. "The Democrats can expect to win more seats than votes for the first time since 1992," he says, making it likely that they will expand their majority in both houses.

Top   |    E-mail this story

© Columbia University