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Mysticism As Analysis

Brendan Nyhan has a good post on Peggy Noonan, who is sort of an extreme caricature of the media's tendency to create non-falsifiable narratives to explain political events that can easily be explained by data. Sean Trende objects:

Non-quantitative punditry has a huge place in our discourse for many reasons, including one that is directly applicable here... [T]he most applicable problem here is that there is always a large portion of the data that have to be explained qualitatively.
For example, take the Presidential Approval models. There are any number of them out there, but all of them have a significant portion of the variation in Presidential approval (or variance, in geekspeak) that the model just can't account for. Even for models that make political scientists giggle with glee at the high r-square they've produced, there will still be about 10 to 20% of the data that the model won't explain. Political scientists like to call this "error," but it isn't really "error." It's just "other stuff we can't readily turn into data"...
All we know is that there is always going to be a large portion of data -- whether it be presidential approval, congressional midterm elections, or presidential election results -- that can't be easily explained quantitatively. This is where qualitative analysts like Noonan will always be valuable.

Nyhan replies that he's never claimed that fundamentals such as the economy explain all of a president's approval rating, just most of it. I agree, and let me chip in another point. There's an agreement between Nyhan and Trende that the state of the economy explains most of a president's popularity, but that popularity can hover above or below the trend line, and that's where non-quantitative analysis comes in. But you need to know where the president stands relative to the trend line in order to figure out what the non-quantitative part is that you're explaining.

Right now, President Obama's approval rating is hovering just below 50%, about even with his disapproval rating. Given the state of the economy, that's not low. (I don't have any models handy.) In other words, writing a Noonan-esque column about why Americans are uncomfortable with Obama does not actually make much sense. If Obama were at 30%, then there would be a lot to explain. Alternatively, if the economy was booming and unemployment was plunging and Obama had the same approval rating, then it would make sense to ask what he's doing that Americans don't like. But right now, there's really nothing to explain.