Obama a shoo-in, forecasting models say

Forget about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or John McCain's war record. If you tell me how the economy is doing now, I'll tell you who will be president next January. Unfortunately for John McCain's chances, the economy is very weak, and almost everything else is going against him as well, which means Barack Obama will almost certainly be elected president.

That's the view of the overwhelming majority of social scientists who make it their business to peer into the future. With four months to go until Election Day, the outcome is set in stone, barring some sort of miracle, they say. The poor state of the economy, the casualties in Iraq, the unpopularity of George W. Bush, the current polling, and Obama's own political skills all point to the election of the Illinois Democrat in November, according to several political scientists, historians and economists who've had a pretty good track record in predicting past elections.

According to their models, it won't be close. Most of them are projecting a 52% to 48% victory for Obama, and that's with assumptions about the economy that are very kind to McCain. Political scientists noted long ago that presidential elections are fairly predictable because they usually turn on several big issues: How's the economy doing? Is there an unpopular war? Has one party outlived its welcome at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? Is one of the candidates a once-in-a-generation leader? Has the current administration done anything outstanding, or scandalous?

According to the analysis on the Pollyvote.com website updated on Wednesday, McCain is expected to get 47.4% of the two-party vote, the lowest his expected vote has been all year. The Pollyvote prediction includes the quantative models of Fair and Hibbs, along with the forecasts of an expert panel, the results of the Iowa Electronic Market, and an average of published opinion polls. The Iowa market has been shown to outperform the pollsters. In that market, anyone can buy contracts that pay off according to the percentage won by each candidate. As of Wednesday, the market is predicting McCain will get 44.1% of the votes, which is the lowest expected for the Republican candidate in the two-year history of that contract.

Marketing professor J. Scott Armstrong of the Wharton business school doesn't buy the notion that elections necessarily turn on serious issues such as war and peace. In a recent paper, Armstrong and his colleagues found that the perceptions of people who knew nothing about the candidates except their facial appearance did a better job of predicting the outcomes of both the Democratic and Republican primaries than polls published last fall did. But once again, the news for McCain isn't good: The study found that, based on their faces alone, people think Obama is more competent than McCain.

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