The Road to 2016: Baseball and Momentum

It is hard not to view campaign politics through the lens of sports. There are winners. There are losers. There are TV pundits who have no clue what they are talking about. And there are 24 hour TV stations dedicated to both.

I would love to be the brilliant writer that came up with a new, perfect metaphor to talk about politics. But in practice I’m pretty lazy and uncreative. So without further ado, let’s jump into cheap sports analogy. All the 2016 campaigning we’ve seen up until now is like baseball’s regular season. With the primaries serving as the NL and AL playoffs, and the general election being like a longer World Series.

Where am I going with this? Well, in baseball writers often talk about a team’s momentum at the end of a season being an indicator of how they will perform in the postseason. That being said, there is no standard definition of what momentum is. And there is proof that momentum has little effect on actual playoff performance. As we approach the first round of the presidential playoffs we have to ponder how momentum may effect primary elections.

So who has the BIG MO’ at the moment?

One candidate is Ohio Governor John Kasich. A recent poll shows Kasich pulling 20 percent of New Hampshire voters, placing him a mere 7 points behind Trump and 10 points ahead of Marco Rubio polling in third. And even if that poll is an outlier, RealClearPolitics has the Ohio Governor 2nd in NH with a polling average of 12%. So as of now it looks like Kasich is best suited to come away from the Granite State with enough votes to claim a victory.

One of the weird quirks of primary campaigns is that you don’t actually need to win a state to claim a victory. Like in the 1968 Democratic Primary in New Hampshire sitting President Lyndon Baines Johnson won with 49% of the vote. But the vote was so close that Johnson considered it a loss, the runner up Senator Gene McCarthy considered it a win, and LBJ actually dropped out. So as you watch primary results roll in, realize that one way politics differs from sports and that sometimes you can win without actually winning.

Another candidate with a bunch of momentum is Senator Bernie Sanders. The last few weeks he’s been cutting into Hillary Clinton’s lead nationally, narrowing what was a 25 point gap on New Year’s Eve to 13 points. And a brand new poll shows Sanders has opened up a 27 point lead over the former secretary of state in New Hampshire. But poll-watching Hillary fans don’t need to fret just yet, FiveThirtyEight forecasts still think Clinton has an 83% chance to take Iowa and a 43% chance to win in New Hampshire as well.

These FiveThirtyEight projections are pretty cool. While most numbers we see in political coverage talk about public opinion poll results, the FiveThirtyEight number is them handicapping the chance a candidate will win a state. These odds take into account polling data, but also looks at how candidates with similar profiles (endorsements, experience) previously performed. For instance Donald Trump leads in virtually every NH poll. But these FiveThirtyEight projections only give Trump a 46% chance of winning the state. I find that incredible. My intuition says that someone with double digit leads in most polls would be a lock to win the state. But that isn’t the case apparently, and that makes the first primaries and caucuses that much more exciting.