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Trende vs. the Pundits

7:25 AM, May 8, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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At RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende deconstructs the faux determinism of those political scientists and journalists who would be pundits, and who in this case claim to know that Mitt Romney's electoral path to victory is necessarily narrow. Here's the core of Trende's argument (but do read the whole thing):

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post wrote last week that Mitt Romney's path to the presidency is awfully narrow, and that he has a ceiling of around 290 electoral votes. Thus, “[w]hile Romney's team would absolutely take a 290-electoral-vote victory, that means he has only 20 electoral votes to play with -- a paper-thin margin for error." Dan Balz followed up with a similar piece in the same publication.

Cillizza and Balz echo Ron Brownstein, who has referred to a “blue wall” -- those states that have voted for Democrats in five straight elections. Taken together, they add up to 242 electoral votes, which would suggest a ceiling for Mitt Romney of 296 electoral votes.

Recall that political scientists published peer-reviewed articles in the late ‘80s and early 90s regarding the Republicans’ “lock” on the Electoral College based upon the Republicans’ electoral dominance in nine of ten elections from 1952 through 1988. Of course, they saw the pattern broken in the following election. Awarding the Democrats a “near-lock” on the Electoral College today based upon half as many observations is an even riskier venture.... While the facts recited here are correct, the conclusions are questionable. As Harry Enten demonstrated a few weeks ago, it is dangerous to rely on “rules” from previous elections, especially when there are so few observations; the conclusions being drawn are based upon five elections. ...

In short, if this is a year like 2000 or 2004 -- a mediocre playing field for Republicans -- then yes, Romney has few paths to victory (although Obama’s own paths to victory will be narrowed from 2008). If, however, this turns out to be a good year for Republicans, the paths will multiply. It will be a long time before we can more or less rule out anything between a good (but not great) year for Republicans or a good (but not great) year for Democrats."

In other words, as Trende explains, we don't know. But as Moses Mendelssohn observed: “The phrase ‘I do not know’ becomes inexpressibly bitter once one has proclaimed oneself to be a pundit, if not a polymath, especially when station, office, and dignity seem to demand that we should know.” 

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