The Columns

Analyzing Presidential Elections

— by on February 5th, 2016

Scott Thomas, who double majored in history and journalism from Washington and Lee University in 1977, has been analyzing numbers for a long time. As a projects editor for American City Business Journals, he writes a daily demographics blog, On Numbers, which uses data to provide a daily glimpse of American society — covering everything from communities with the richest populations, to median salaries for upstate New York teachers, to unemployment numbers.

He just published his ninth book, “Counting the Votes: A New Way to Analyze America’s Presidential Elections” (Praeger). It is “inspired by the vast disparity in statistical analysis between baseball, which enjoys such an abundance of data that it has spawned the field of sabermetrics, and presidential politics,” he explained.

As he writes in the book’s introduction: “Political books and websites don’t offer much to readers who are numerically inclined. Statistics are typically confined to state-by-state and county-by-county election returns. No specialized stats of any kind. No rankings of the best and worst performances of all time. No year-by-year records of presidential candidates. None of the originality and variety that sports fans take for granted.”

“Counting the Votes” is Thomas’ effort to fill that void. He calls it “a political version of sabermetrics that raises new questions and offers tentative answers, while forging a numerical link between the past, present and future.” He not only breaks down the data from each presidential election, but also teases out statistically interesting information. “I use each of the elections as a departure point for a fairly short essay focusing on something that is relevant to that year and points to broader issues in terms of presidential politics. It’s more interpretive and not a straight history,” he said.

Thomas was interested in politics from a very early age. Watching John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration on TV made a big impression, and W&L stimulated his interest in political statistics in a couple of ways. The first was a politics class taught by William “Buck” Buchanan in the fall of 1974. “Dr. Buchanan was the author of a standard textbook in the field, ‘Understanding Political Variables,’ and he focused the class on the congressional elections that fall,” said Thomas.

“Our major project — counting for a sizable part of the final grade — was to devise formulas to predict the state-by-state results of that election. It was all very high-tech. We entered our statistics on IBM punch cards and then took them to the computer building, where they were processed by the university’s mainframe. My final grade has mercifully slipped from my mind, but I do remember that I mispunched the card for Alaska, so that I predicted a turnout of several million voters in a state that had just a few hundred thousand residents.”

As news director for the university’s radio station, WLUR, Thomas anchored the election night coverage of 1976. “The famous standoff between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford wasn’t settled until the wee hours of the morning,” he said. “We were on the air continuously from 7 p.m. until 4 a.m., and I loved it.”

His fascination with politics and statistics continued, resulting in five books focused on the history of American presidential elections. Thomas describes “Counting the Votes” as “a new compendium of original statistics, fresh interpretations of old numbers and purely random observations. Some of the statistics in this book might prove useful, but more importantly, I hope they’re intriguing, provocative and fun.”

As an example, he points to the Bush-Gore presidential election of 2000. “We all remember what a tight election that was,” he said. “We focus always on Florida and the recounts. But if Al Gore had won one of any of 12 states where he was reasonably close, that would have been sufficient for him to have won the presidency. In his home state of Tennessee, it was his inability to get 18 more votes per precinct that prevented him from becoming president, much more so than the failures he had in Florida.”

If you’d like a closer look at the statistical breakdowns for all the presidential campaigns between 1789 and 2012, check out Thomas’ website, CountingtheVotes.com.