As debate rages about who really won the 2000 election, we have a sure loser: political science.
A few months ago, a number of political scientists issued forecasts for the 2000 campaign. Cranking economic and electoral data into various mathematical models, they predicted that Al Gore would win an easy victory with up to 60 percent of the two-party vote. Oops. Republicans and Democrats can certainly agree that there is nothing "easy" about this election.
Do not judge the political scientists too harshly, though, since they did not have much to work with. Through 1996, this country had seen only 53 presidential elections. And, since many of their mathematical models rely on statistics that became available only after World War II, they had access to data from just 13 elections. No matter how intelligent the expert, it is tough to theorize from so few cases.
Still, many have tried, and some have voiced a little too much confidence in their results. One told The Washington Post: "The outcome of a presidential election can be accurately predicted based on factors that are well known before the official campaign gets under way." After this season, no one will dare make such a statement anytime soon. What went wrong?
No doubt the scholars will tinker with the numbers, and somebody will devise an equation that accounts for the outcome. That exercise will miss the point. The problem lies not in the details of their data but in their entire approach to studying politics.
Political scientists have increasingly relied on the market metaphor, picturing the political world as a place where people dicker, barter, buy, and sell. They like this metaphor because it lets them borrow ideas and tools from economics, a discipline they envy for its precision. So if you browse journals in political science, you will see a lot of econometrics - which are highly complex and utterly unreadable by all but the most devoted wonks.
Granted, politics does involve economic transactions. "The White House is like a subway," said one Clinton fundraiser. "You have to put in coins to open the gates." A basic idea from economics - the rational pursuit of well-defined goals - can reveal much about many kinds of political decisions.
But it cannot explain everything. In the case of the 2000 election, the scholars assumed that people always vote their pocketbooks, rewarding …