Chaos, vagueness, and presidential polls

November 02, 2000

College Park, MD--Only two months ago, seven out of seven political forecasters attending the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) meeting predicted Vice President Gore would emerge victorious in the impending presidential election. With only days to go, the polls seem to tell a different story.

"Almost all the [election] models incorporate some measure of economic conditions . . . as well as a measure of the current president's job performance," both factors that favored Gore in the long-range predictions, explains Alan Abramowitz of Emory University. "We may have missed out on the huge dichotomy in the public's opinion of President Clinton, in terms of job performance verses personal evaluation." Abramowitz, who was one of the seven forecasters at the APSA meeting, cites third party candidates as another factor complicating political models.

Regardless of the outcome, Abramowitz says that he and his political science peers view their work as an academic pursuit, and won't be terribly disappointed if they miss the mark by a few percentage points, even if they fail to predict the ultimate outcome. "I don't think it would undermine the validity of the enterprise [if the predictions were wrong] because we know there are factors that influence the election that are outside the models," such as President Clinton's unique impact. Instead, according to Abramowitz, a failure of their predictions could give researchers valuable fodder for developing and refining future models.

If the failure of political models in this year's election, swings in polls over the past several months, and even the candidates' perpetually redefined opinions seem a bit chaotic, there could be a very good reason for it. David Meyer, a mathematician at the University of California at San Diego, who studies voting and other real world behaviors using theoretical tools derived from physics, sees parallels between electoral results and the inherent unpredictability of chaotically evolving systems. "If there's a small change in the outcome of one election," says Meyer, "then several elections down the road, things maybe very different than they would have been had the [initial] change not occurred." While Meyer's hypotheses clearly suggests that predicting the results of elections in distant years is a futile exercise, it's possible that even the act of polling, which is in effect a mini election, could cause unpredictable changes in the few months leading up to an election.

Meyer also considers the campaign process from the other side, that is, he ponders the effect polls have on candidates' opinions. "The series of decisions a candidate makes in response to polling information can explain why their positions are sometimes hard to pin down," Meyer explains. "We do an analysis," says Meyer, "where we find the vagueness of [a] candidate's position to be described by a probability distribution over the issue space, if you like." Which, in translation, means that Meyer and his coauthor Thad Brown have found correlations between the behavior of shifty politicians and the mathematics of physics.

While Meyer's approach is not designed to predict election outcomes, it may eventually help us to understand why politicians are so hard to understand, and perhaps bring some measure of comfort to the beleaguered political scientists whose models seem to be at odds with the voting public.

Alan I. Abramowitz
Department of Political Science
Emory University

David Meyer
Project in Geometry and Physics
Department of Mathematics
University of California/San Diego

For more information:

James Riordon, American Institute of Physics, 301-209-3084,
Ben Stein, American Institute of Physics, 301-209-3091,

American Institute of Physics

Related Job Performance Articles from Brightsurf:

Job interest not a big predictor of job satisfaction
Interest in an occupation matters, but not as much as you might think when it comes to job satisfaction.

Building your professional brand in a prestigious job
Individuals trying to manage their professional brands while holding prestigious posts should strive to strike a balance between benefiting from the affiliation while at the same time maintaining their professional independence.

Researchers take a stand on algorithm design for job centers: Landing a job isn't always the right goal
Algorithms that assess the risk of citizens becoming unemployed are currently being tested in a number of Danish municipalities.

Study provides insights on bouncing back from job loss
Stress associated with job loss can have a host of negative effects on individuals that may hinder their ability to become re-employed.

Job insecurity negatively affects your personality: Study
Drawing on Cybernetic Big Five Theory, this study proposes that chronic job insecurity is associated with an increase in neuroticism and decreases in agreeableness and conscientiousness.

New robot does superior job sampling blood
In the future, robots could take blood samples, benefiting patients and healthcare workers alike.

Spin devices get a paint job
Physicists created a new way to fabricate special kinds of electronic components known as spintronic devices.

How ergonomic is your warehouse job? Soon, an app might be able to tell you
Researchers at the UW have used machine learning to develop a new system that can monitor factory and warehouse workers and tell them how ergonomic their jobs are in real time.

A concussion can cost your job -- especially if you are young and well educated
A seemingly harmless concussion can cause the loss of a job -- especially for patients who are in their thirties and for those with a higher education.

Study: Internet perpetuates job market inequality
Recent research finds the internet is giving employers and job seekers access to more information, but has not made the hiring process more meritocratic.

Read More: Job Performance News and Job Performance Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to