‘Half Lion’ – The Convoluted Legacy of PV Narasimha Rao

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Pamulaparti Venkata Narasimha Rao, the ninth Prime Minister of India, was a man of immense contradictions. Although a lifelong socialist and a Nehruvian, he will perhaps be best remembered for dismantling the license raj system and leading the Indian economy to a new era of liberalization, privatization and globalization. Always an obeisant supporter of the Nehru-Gandhi family during the Indira-Rajiv era, after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, he worked discreetly, albeit unsuccessfully, to decouple the fortunes of the Congress Party from those of its first family. He was a man who could bring in far reaching reforms at lightning speed and at the same time, dither and sit over crucial decisions, often to the immense frustration of his supporters. As a chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, he could not last beyond two years because of his rash implementation of drastic land reforms; as a Prime Minister, he navigated patiently through treacherous party men, an economic crisis, lack of simple majority in the House, the demolition of Babri Masjid and multiple no confidence motions to run a minority Government for its entire term.

Vinay Sitapati’s ‘Half Lion: How PV Narasimha Rao Transformed India’ is an authoritative account of the often tumultuous and undoubtedly far reaching regime of PV Narasimha Rao. Written in lucid style, it is an exhaustively researched biography, aided no doubt by the author’s ability to get access to the opinions of some of the most powerful men and women of that period, as well as the private handwritten notes of Rao which he had assiduously maintained over his long public career. A journalist and a PhD scholar by profession, Sitapati spares no effort in examining in painstaking detail the many significant events that marked Rao’s tenure as the Prime Minister.

By most accounts, Narasimha Rao was an intriguing character. A linguist, author and scholar, he was fluent in ten languages, including in seven Indic languages and three foreign ones. Although a lawyer by profession, he had keen interest in foreign affairs, education, health and other public policies. A life-long learner, he became familiar with three Computer languages after turning sixty and regularly used a laptop at a day and age when most youngsters were not familiar with any computer system. He was also curiously close to a number of Hindu holy men, and just before the 1991 elections, considered giving up politics for a life in religion.

Rao was a man who spoke little, if at all, but when he did, he spoke with authority and often a sharp sense of humour. He read volumes of academic journals and prepared religiously before important meetings. His decisions, with a few exceptions, were often carefully studied and well thought out. But when he was convinced of the merits and politics of a decision, he could act with decisive speed.

Many of the contradictions of Rao’s life and character can be explained by the fact that he was not an idealist but a pragmatic, a believer in ends over means. Although he was elected as a public representative for four decades, he did so without cultivating any substantial base among any caste, community, region or religion. In fact, he was elected to the Lok Sabha from three different states – Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha; the fact that he could speak fluently the local languages of all the three states also helped. As a floating MP without any natural base to represent, he was also not beholden to the interests of that base. This gave him enormous political dexterity and allowed him to be ruthlessly pragmatic.

Unlike Nehru, Indira or Rajiv, all of whom were brought up inside cocoons of privilege and had to strain to understand the misery of their less fortunate countrymen, Rao was brought up in a remote village of pre-independent Nizam’s Hyderabad, spent his teens in a boarding school and was married off at the age of ten. He was well aware of the reality of an everyday Indian; it was a part of who he was. At the same time, he was also a brilliant student, among the best ones of his province in his time. He spent his student days devouring Marxist literature. He was often lonely and brooding. As a minister first in Hyderabad and then in Delhi, he maintained tenuous links to his wife and children. He forsook his personal family life and instead immersed himself in public life. As a result, he suffered from a major identity crisis – he was at the same time too earthy to be comfortable among the elites of Lutyen’s Delhi and too sophisticated to find peace in the idyllic life of his village. This explains why, in spite of being a minister in Delhi for more than two decades, he had few friends there and could never become the consummate insider. This also explains why he wore his political career lightly and was never too attached to the same, willing to give it up for a life of retirement and scholarly pursuits.

Rao is often compared to Chanakya, the legendary Indian master in statecraft, the Machiavelli of India. However, in many ways, he is very similar to Richard Nixon, the former Republican President and Vice President of USA. Both were brilliant and flawed characters, introverted and cunning, the rare politicians who valued results over ideology. Both were elected after making improbable comebacks from the threat of obscurity, to helm their nations in particularly fraught times in their respective histories.  Once in office, they were quick to seize the crisis to take crucial steps whose reverberations are still felt today – Rao by liberalizing the economy and Nixon by normalizing ties with China. Both ended their rules in ignominy, although there is no doubt that Nixon’s was much more scandalizing. Where they probably differed was that Nixon arguably had no moral compass at all; Rao’s moral compass, on the other hand, was occasionally malfunctioning, but most of the times, it pointed in the right direction.

Rao’s political achievements were significant, especially given the constraints he had to face. Given the lack of majority of his Government and his relative lack of appeal to any particular class of voters, the very fact that he could survive for five years was a masterful achievement. One may recall that in the period between 1989 and 1999, India had seen six other minority Governments, none of which could survive beyond two years.

The economic liberalization was largely orchestrated by him. Even though he allowed Manmohan Singh to take the credits, he used a number of tricks, including coaxing, cajoling, threatening, invoking Nehru, making gross exaggerations and massive understatements and clever sleight of hands to keep the reforms running. With hindsight, one may think that the reforms were a fait accompli, but at that point of time, they were anything but. Steeped in a culture of socialism and a deeply ingrained fear of multinational companies, the entire Congress party apparatus had to be convinced of the utility of the reforms, not to speak of the unrelenting opposition of the unions and communist parties. It was a mammoth and Herculean task, all the more remarkable since Rao before 1991 had shown no sign of faith in free market. The effect of these reforms on India proved to be deep and lasting.

It is instructive to note how Rao’s economic legacy has stood the test of time. Future Prime Ministers have attempted to largely preserve Rao’s economic reforms, while making small tweaks and changes at the margins. There has been no wholesale course correction along the way. Rao’s vision of India gradually becoming a social democracy, ala some of the Western European countries, through rapid economic growth and high expenditure on the poor and the downtrodden, was put to fruition by the United Progressive Alliance government.  The failures of his economic policies – mainly his inability to sell economic reforms as a vote getting measure – were also passed on to his successors, none of whom could package the reforms in a way that would be appealing to the general voting public.

Other major achievements of his Government include initiating a policy of closer foreign ties with USA, Israel, China and South-East Asian countries, resolving to a large extent the internal security situations in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam and making substantial progress in the development of nuclear weapons technology. In fact, after extensive research, Sitapati comes to the conclusion that India was ready to become a nuclear power in 1996; but the same was deferred to 1998 only because of the loss of Rao in the 1996 general election. In many of these cases, Rao’s socialistic, Nehruvian instincts were at odds with the post-Soviet world in a flux; but, he was quick to learn and make decisions on the basis of the changed realities. Another admirable trait of Rao was that he was comfortable in downplaying the revolutionary nature of some of his decisions, to reduce the resistance to their implementation. He realised that deep seated, entrenched interests are often not comfortable with dramatic changes and it is better to camouflage such actions under a veneer of incrementalism and continuity, even though this could result in downplaying his legacy at a later date.

Rao’s failures were also many. Any discussion of Rao’s legacy would include the Babri Masjid demolition and the ensuing riots that followed. But Sitapati here provides a justifiable defence of Rao’s action, or rather inaction, during those dark days. The Government of Uttar Pradesh in 1992 was headed by Kalyan Singh, a Mandir supporter. It was a BJP administration and the police and other paramilitary forces in that state had to report to the BJP Government. So, the only way the Central Government could have absolutely ensured that there would no demolition was by invoking Article 356 and dismissing the state Government. But the dismissal of a state Government in anticipation of a law and order situation would have been undesirable, as well as open to legal challenges. The Cabinet also refused to recommend the same unequivocally to the Prime Minister. In other words, it was a Catch-22 situation and there were no easy choices before the Government at the Center.

True to his nature, Rao tried to work out a back channel compromise with the leaders of BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal, extracting promise from their leaders that the mosque would not fall. But given the number of kar sevaks at the site (a few hundred thousands) and the communally charged atmosphere, even these leaders had scant control over the action of the kar sevaks, or were willing to blindside the Government into a false sense of complacency. Either way, the mosque came down, India’s secular credentials were damaged forever and massive communal riots followed.

While with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to blame Rao for this tragedy; perhaps given the constitutional challenges he faced and the information that was available to him at that time, he made the best effort he could. What was not defensible, however, was standing by silently as the Home Minister while thousands of Sikhs were butchered in open day light in the streets of Delhi, after the death of Indira Gandhi in 1984. Sitapati again makes the point that the Delhi Police during the Sikh riots was directly being controlled by the Prime Ministers’ Office, by-passing the office of the Home Ministry; this does not though excuse the fact as a Home Minister, Rao was a silent witness to one of the most gruesome episodes of state abetted communal rioting in modern Indian history.

Rao’s streak of pragmatism had its downsides as well. In order to secure his position as the head of a minority government, he resorted to bribing some of the regional party politicians. There is at least one instance where he probably bribed the MPs of Jharkhand Multi Morcha to secure their support for a no confidence motion. His Nixonian tendencies were also apparent in the way he used the state intelligence agencies to keep a close watch on other politicians, both from his own party and the opposition. Prior to 1996 elections, he also instructed CBI to proceed on the Hawala Scam, a dubious scandal where important politicians like Arjun Singh (an influential rebel Congress leader) and LK Advani (leader of BJP, the main opposition party) were implicated with scant proof. All of these were morally indefensible and politically odious steps, and served to significantly dilute the legacy of Rao. There was also the stench of multiple other accusations of corruption that Rao had to face, although he was subsequently acquitted in all of them. His experiments in welfare reforms also met with failures.

Another crucial dimension of Rao’s tenure was his often fraught relationship with Sonia Gandhi, the reclusive widow of Rajiv Gandhi and the Head of the family that had controlled the Congress Party since independence. While initially, he took pains to pay weekly visits to Sonia Gandhi, the frequency of their interactions gradually waned as Rao became more confident of the stability of the Government as well as his position in the Party. This allowed their relationship to wither and fracture, resulting in his legacy being completely erased from the collective memory of the party once he had relinquished office. In the sycophant culture of Congress, one cannot prosper without being suitably deferential to the first family. One may wonder if Manmohan Singh, the future Prime Minister of the country, had internalized this lesson; his almost complete submission to the first family would later be cited by the critics to allege his weakness as a leader and dilution of the constitutional post of Prime Minister.

At the end of Rao’s regime, India was on the path to long term economic growth, its ties with US and Israel were becoming stronger after years of neglect, its internal security was in a far better shape and it was on the verge of becoming a nuclear superpower. However, the fruits of the reforms initiated by Rao’s administration were to accrue over the years and decades to follow and none of them were palpable to the citizens of India at that moment. Instead, the negatives of Rao’s regime – the bickering between Congress leaders, the whiff of multiple scandals, the devastation wrecked by the communal riots and an anodyne Prime Minister who downplayed his economic achievements and failed to connect intimately with the public –were remembered by the voters in the 1996 election. As a result, the tally of Congress came down dramatically in the 1996 election, to around 140 seats and it was no more even the single largest party in the House. It also permanently lost any ability to compete in vast swathes of North India, including in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. After the defeat, the rest of the Congress Party was relieved to see the back of the Prime Minister and he was allowed to spend the last eight years of his life in obscurity, fighting the cases piled up against him, estranged from the Party leadership.

PV Narasimha Rao was a complex, fascinating character and his time as Prime Minister of India was equally complex and fascinating. While Sitapati analyzes in excruciating detail the numerous achievements and failings of his life, at times, he tends to give Rao the benefit of the doubt, even on occasions where Rao was clearly on a morally sticky wicket. While ‘Half Lion’ is by no means a hagiography, the author’s excellent work is marred to some extent by his attempts at explaining away the failings of Rao’s character and administration. Whether Rao was a great leader is a debatable question, but what is beyond doubt that he was an immensely consequential leader who steered our country through an extremely precarious stage in its history. He is a leader who needs and deserves to be studied thoroughly, and ‘Half Lion’ is a brilliant attempt at that.

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‘This Town’ – The Moral Decay of Washington DC

capitolatdawn

Looks Can be Deceptive: The Capitol at Dawn

“America is, and always will be, a shining city on a hill” – Ronald Reagan

The Gipper was said to be a man of great optimism. A passionate believer in the concept of American exceptionalism, his shiny disposition and hopeful speeches defined the eighties as America was able to leave behind the malaise of the 1970s, the humiliation of Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, the stagflation brought about by the oil price shocks and the general gloom that surrounded the end of the post war boom, to emerge the most powerful nation in the world. After a mild depression in the late 1980s, America was to enjoy uninterrupted economic growth for the next decade even as most of its cold war rivals withered away.

Sadly, the 21st Century has not been so kind to America. A number of wounds, both self inflicted and otherwise, have slowed down the progress of the country and threatened its hegemony at the top of the world. A deadly terrorist attack on its own soil, followed by two costly and ineffective wars, the economic crisis of 2008, the growing inequality in its society, the escalating deficit and external debt, a rising China and an ambitious Russia, waning influence in some of the major conflict zones, etc. have deprived the country of much of its vitality and optimism. In spite of the slow but steady economic recovery over the last eight years, most Americans feel their country is moving in the wrong direction. In late 2016, they responded by electing Donald Trump, a trigger-happy, political neophyte, a dangerous demagogue and populist, a man who believes America is a waning global power, as the next President.

In the midst of this gloom, there is one unlikely exception, though. That exception is Washington DC, the political and administrative capital of the country. It is in the middle of an unprecedented boom, the likes of which few has ever seen. It is the shining city perched atop smugly over a country often engulfed in darkness, despair and hopelessness.

Three kinds of people dominate the rich and murky world of DC – politicians (and by extension political operatives), lobbyists and political journalists. While by definition, they should keep a safe distance from each other, so as to avoid any appearance of conflict, in the last few years, distinction between these entities has become more and more hazy. They have become part of the same hungry pool of passengers, atop the same gravy train.

Even as the US economy has spluttered to a halt and then struggled to rev up again, various corporate entities have ramped up spending on lobbyists, making millionaires out of former Senators, Congressmen and even obscure officials previously working for the Government. These lobbyists generally operate out of the capital and an increasing number of them are former politicians who have served the country in the past and are not loathe using the expertise and know-hows obtained during these stints for the benefit of their current corporate paymasters.

The emergence of internet and then social media may have resulted in massive layoffs of reporters working for small town newspapers, but in Washington DC, it has led to the proliferation of talking heads and so-called ‘experts’ in the big media houses, people who charge massive amount of money to run their shows or write weekly op-eds, by virtue of their so-called expertise in certain topics. Then there are the ubiquitous brokers or agents, whose job is to arrange these business deals for former elected officials or public servants who want to cash out of their previously measly paid career by working as a lobbyist, in the corporate world or in the media as pundits.

Most people in this politician-lobbyist-media complex know each other and are a part of a big circle of influencers who have a hugely disproportionate say on the affairs of the country. And this circle keeps increasing every single day. While politicians of the yore used to toil for years in relative obscurity, now even the press secretaries of ambitious Congressmen attract enough interest to have their profiles written and splashed in the media. This is partly thanks to the presence of media outlets like Politico which has showered attention on this circle of politicians, lobbyists and political journalists, reporting and fawning on them like the Hollywood tabloids do on its celebrities. The neediness of the rich and the powerful is satiated by the sense of belonging that a mention in such columns provides. It is kind of ironic that apart from the most die-hard political junkies and habitual media consumers, these reports are read mostly by the inhabitants of DC itself, thus squaring this incestuous circle.

Then are the parties. There is a party in DC celebrating almost every occasion, from the launch of a book by a semi-famous political journalist to one celebrating the end of world as predicted by the Mayan calendar. To a group of people whose worth is measured by the number of other people in that same group they know, these parties act as vital lifelines of their professional lives. To top it all, there is the White House Correspondents Dinner, a glitzy annual ritual that spawns scores of before parties and after parties, stretching across days, ostensibly to celebrate the great job these privileged inhabitants of Washington are doing, attended by the same privileged inhabitants of Washington, invoking decadence of the scale that even ‘The Great Gatsby’ may find slightly repulsive.

Needless to say, life in Washington DC has become a heady cocktail of uninhibited human greed, scant regard for public interest and a tone-deaf attitude to the suffering of the ordinary countrymen.

The dichotomy between Washington and the rest of America is apparent from the economic statistics. The median annual household income in Washington DC stands at USD 72,000, the highest in the country. But the figure is dragged down by the high number of people living below poverty line in DC, predominantly African-Americans who are outside its politician-lobbyist-media-influencer circle and have much lower income. Many of the people working in Washington actually prefer to live in the surrounding affluent suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. As many as five of the six richest counties of USA are located in either Northern Virginia (Loudoun County, Fairfax County, Arlington County and Stafford County) or Maryland (Howard County), both surrounding DC and part of the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region.

‘This Town’ – a book by Mark Leibovich, the Washington correspondent of New York Times Magazine is an excellent chronicle of the farcical and dysfunctional life at the Capital. It is a powerful and biting satire on the lives of the powerful men and women who live a life of outsized proportions in the gilded capital of the country, working hard though out the day and partying and networking throughout the evening, getting fat pay packages for their work, their salaries insulated from the economic turmoil faced by ordinary people they claim to work for. It is a story packed with colorful characters, like oddball senators who are impervious to the machinations of Washington, hypocritical Congressmen who come to the capital to change the political culture and then become a part of it, the middleman who turns up at every party and knows everyone but whose exact job description is a secret, the hyper-ambitious Congressional staffer with fondness for the limelight and loose work-ethics, the journalist who chronicles the everyday life of this fortunate cabal with religious regularity and then sends this news letter every morning to the very same people he is writing about.

Ironies abound the storyline; like when “pro-poor” Democratic Party officials discuss the rising number of food stamps over several courses of very expensive food and drinks or when a Senator rails against the Washington culture of politicians turning into lobbyists and then promptly joins a lobbying firm after leaving his office. Differences in political ideologies are just part of their made up public persona; liberals and conservatives enter into aggressive fights on the talk shows, only to bury the hatchet later and open ‘bi-partisan’ lobbying firms together. It is all part of a circus where people put on their ideological masks, do whatever their public persona dictates them to do and then when the show light is turned off, show a giant middle finger to all these nagging principles and cash out with a big, fat corporate job.

When Barack Obama was elected the President in 2008, he was voted in by a massive wave of hope and expectation, that he would somehow change the toxic political culture of Washington. It was believed that the campaign of this first time senator from Illinois, run by Chicago based operatives who treated the Washington folks with disdain, would result in a White House vastly different from the incumbent one. Eight years later, the political culture of Washington has turned even more toxic. More and more veterans from the Obama campaign, the kind of people who openly mocked Government servants for joining corporate or lobbying firms, have left the Government to do exactly the same thing. The lines of ‘conflict of interest’ have become increasingly blurred as people who work in the senior management of various companies leave their jobs to work in the Government, become part of the bodies which frame regulations and then return to work for the same corporates to try and find loopholes in the regulations they helped write.

Every two years, fresh Senators and Congressmen descend onto the capital, crusading against the corrupt culture of ‘this town’ and vowing to cleanse it. Soon enough, if they are lucky to survive a few years, they become part of the political culture itself; if they survive longer, they become the consummate insiders. It does not take long for them to forget their campaign slogans, as they start becoming ‘institutionalized’, getting sucked into this vortex of mutual back-scratching. Many of them prefer to stay back even after they retire or are voted out, preferring to work as a Head of Strategy or Communications in a lobbying firm named after the partners, putting all the connections and insider knowledge gleaned over the years to good use.

This town, Washington, is thus a beautiful, seductive den of vice; people who cannot get in blame it for all their ills, while people who are inside cannot have enough of it.

It is no wonder that the residents of Washington have some of the most awful favourability ratings among all Americans. Only around 14% Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Media does only scarcely better, with an approval rating of 19%. On a Gallup Survey of honesty and ethics in professions, journalists rank well below doctors, engineers, dentists, police officers and even the much reviled bankers. But, Senators and Members of Congress rank much below journalists, towards the bottom of the list, competing hard with the likes of insurance salespeople and car sales people. Lobbyists through take the cake, with around 60% of respondents saying they have low or very low honesty or ethics. The corresponding figure for accountants is just 7%.

Like in 2008, the voters of America in 2016 have elected for President a candidate who managed to convince the ordinary folks that he will drain the sludge of corruption that has swamped the corridors of power in Washington. In the process, they decided to vote against a candidate who was far more accomplished and qualified, but who in the course of her career had become the ultimate Washington insider, a personification of its political culture, if you will. Like in 2008, this attempt too shall probably fail; Trump’s shady business empire, his refusal to declare his tax returns and his corrupt records in the past do not portend well for those want to actually drain the sludge from this town. Washington will probably continue to prosper, Trump or no Trump, attracting some of the best minds of the country, living in its own bubble, even as its fortune continue to diverge away from the country as a whole. Nevertheless, a few years down the line, when you wonder how frustrated and disenchanted the American voters had become with their everyday politicians to vote for a man like Trump, you can do worse than read Mark Leibovich’s ‘This Town’.

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How Rural Voters Delivered the White House to Donald Trump

The comfortable victories of Barack Obama in two successive presidential elections in 2008 and 2012 were forged by an alliance of white voters in the north and minority voters across the country. The contribution of white voters was critical to the performance of Obama. This was reflected in the way he won extremely white and rural Northern states like Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as Northern states with a mix of urban and rural population, like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

In 2016, the support of rural voters (who tend to be overwhelmingly white) for the Democratic Party collapsed as Hillary Clinton managed to lose even light blue states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan and was blanked out in Ohio and Iowa. She even close came to losing in New Hampshire and Minnesota. Vast number of white, rural counties in Middle America, which voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, turned their backs to the Democratic Party and instead voted en masse for Donald Trump. This was compensated, to some extent, by the gains she made in the heavily urban states and territories of Texas, California, Arizona, Massachusetts and District of Columbia. Unfortunately for Clinton, the gains did not prove meaningful at the electoral college level, as California, DC and Massachusetts were anyway going to vote for Clinton while the gains made in Texas and Arizona were not sufficient to deliver the states to her.

The relationship between the percentage of total votes obtained by Hillary Clinton in a particular state to the level of urbanization of the state has been shown in the following chart:

support-for-hillary-vs-level-of-urbanization

In USA, at the country level, the percentage of population who live in urban areas is 80%. As many as 33 states have level of urbanization below the national average. Clinton lost in 27 of them. In contrast, Obama had lost only 22 of them in 2012. Among the states and territories that are more urbanized than the country as a whole, Clinton ended up losing only Texas, Arizona and Florida.

However, it is not just that the vote share of Clinton was higher among more urbanized states. She also gained votes in more urban states and lost votes in more rural states. This is reflected in the following chart which plots the percentage gain in margin by Clinton in a particular state vs the level of urbanization of the state. (By percentage gain in margin, I mean how the margin changed in 2016 from the level of 2012; for example, if Obama won a state by 3% in 2012 and Clinton won the state by 5%, the percentage gain for Clinton would be 2%. Also note that Utah has been excluded from all the charts because of the strong performance of third party candidate McMullin on the ballot there).

gain-in-margin-vs-urbanization

All the states where Clinton was able to improve on the performance of Obama from four years back had at least 70% of the respective population living in urban areas.

This relationship also holds good if I just restrict the level of urbanization to the percentage of population which live in cities with a population of more than a hundred thousand.

gain-in-margin-vs-people-living-in-large-cities

Thus, the urban-rural divide which was already present in the American politics has become even starker in the 2016 election. If this trend holds, Iowa will become a red state while the margins of the Democrats may further shrink in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Most states of the Rust Belt and Mid West will continue to remain swing states while Democrats may gradually improve on their performance in Texas and Arizona.

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How Trump Won Despite Forecasting Models Saying Otherwise

Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 US Presidential election was a shocker – all the poll based statistical models had shown Hillary Clinton as the strong favourite for winning the election, with the probability of her winning varying from 70% to as high as 99%. The predictable outcome of the 2012 US election and the success of these models in that election cycle had bred a lot of complacency among some of the data journalists this time around. Further, the mainstream media had also started blindly believing in the outputs of the models without in many cases understanding the assumptions that went into the models, the limitations of the models or the implications of what the models say.

This herd mentality among the mainstream media, the pundits and the data journalists became so extreme in the last one week that Nate Silver was subjected to intense criticism because his model showed a comparatively lower 65%-70% probability of Clinton winning than the election, relative to some of the other models which were showing the prospect of a Clinton Presidency a near certainty. In my last post, I had explained why the model employed by Fivethirtyeight (the website run by Nate Silver) was more conservative in projecting a Clinton victory and why in my view, it was right in doing so.

A statistical model is an imperfect simulation of the real world. Since it is impossible to replicate a chaotic, massive and dynamic process like the US presidential election, to forecast the same, simple models are instead constructed, which take some input variables and through a pre-defined interaction between these variables, find out the most probable outcome. In the case of election forecasting models, they take in state and country level polls (and some demographic and economic factors in some cases) and try to predict the outcome of the US election on the basis of how these polls change.

However, a model, by its very nature, is a simplistic rendering of a complex process and hence, there are some uncertainties involved with the outcome. A well calibrated model is one where the uncertainties are well accounted for i.e. if the model is used to predict a high frequency event, over the long run, the probability of the event as predicted by the model and as is exhibited in the real world shall converge.

The US presidential election though is not a high frequency event. So it is not possible to run the election 10,000 times to find if Clinton is winning 7000 times as was predicted by Silver’s model. However, as Silver had mentioned repeatedly and as was mentioned in this post, there were a number of sources of uncertainties related to the outcome, which were apparent even during the days of the pre-election consensus among pundits that Clinton had more or less won the election.

Unfortunately for Clinton, and unfortunately for the models, almost all the sources of uncertainties in the model (i.e. the things that could have gone wrong for Clinton) went wrong on the Election Day. Here is a litany of factors that made us relatively bearish on Clinton’s chances on the Election Day and almost all of which came true:

  • The final average of national polls has historically differed from the result on the Election Day by around 2 percentage points. There have been some years when the polls have differed more markedly. For example, in 2012, the difference was around 3%, a trivia that is often missed out in the discussions on how the election was so stable and predictable that year. In fact, if the error had been in the other direction, Mitt Romney would have won the election. This time, the error favoured the Republicans. Clinton is expected to win the popular vote share this year, perhaps by 1-1.5 percentage point by the time all the votes are counted. In contrast, the Fivethirtyeight model had Clinton winning the national vote by 3.6 percentage points. Thus, the polling error, at least at the national level, was mostly in line with the historical errors.
  • There was a lot of volatility in the polling data in a number of swing states. For example, even as the national polls started recovering the week after news came out that FBI was re-opening the investigation into Clinton emails, a number of swing state polls started showing extremely tight races. In contrast, there were also a number of polls which showed Clinton ahead by multiple points in the states which were part of her firewall. The biggest example was New Hampshire which showed the variance of Cinton’s performance at around 15 percentage points. The volatile state polls were an indication of the uncertainty of the outcome which sadly went unheeded at that time.
  • The polls also swung wildly in the course of the election – from a narrow Trump victory to a decisive Clinton win. Unfortunately for Clinton, one of the most terrible stretches for the Clinton campaign just came in before the elections, when polls tightened considerably. Although the polls showed some rebound for Clinton in the dying days of the campaign, it was not enough to bring her out of the woods.
  • There were a number of undecided and third party voters in the election, much higher than the level of 2012. Exit polls showed that higher share of such late deciding voters decided to vote for Trump, thus contributing to the polls being skewed in favour of Clinton.
  • Even in the days before the election, there was an unusually number of swing states that were very closely contested. It was plausible for either candidate to win in almost 15 states. Such a high number of swing states made a number of Electoral College combinations possible, thus increasing the uncertainty of the race. As the results came in, many of these states indeed turned out to be too close to call. In fact, Clinton lost Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – all by extremely narrow margin. If she had won these states, she would have won the presidency.
  • There was additional uncertainty on account of the problems being faced by the polling industry in general – with increasing cost of carrying out surveys and reduced respondent participation rate. This had led to the pollsters badly misjudging the polls in multiple high profile events in the recent past, like the UK parliamentary election, Israel Knesset election and the referendum for Brexit. The poor performance of the polling industry continued in the Election Day in USA. Even though the error in national polls was in line with the historical average, in a number of states, it was glaring. For example, in Wisconsin, the RealClearPolitics average of polls had Clinton leading Trump by 6.5 percentage points. Clinton did not trail in a single poll in the entire election cycle in that state. Even then, she lost the vote by 1 percentage point. Similarly, the polls were very bullish on a Clinton victory in both Pennsylvania and Michigan, part of Clinton’s so-called firewall. To exacerbate the issue, many of these states, including Michigan and Minnesota were not polled very frequently in the days leading to the election, which perhaps lulled the Democrats into a false sense of complacency based on limited data.
  • The error in polling in the states, especially geographically and demographically similar states, is generally correlated with each other i.e. the errors move in the same direction. For example, if the polls are understating the level of Trump support in Michigan, it is likely to do so in neighbouring Pennsylvania and Minnesota as well. This is what happened on the election night, as the polls badly missed the mark in all the critical Rust Belt and Midwest states. If the error in polls instead had cancelled each other out, Clinton could have won comfortably in some of these states.
  • Clinton was always at a disadvantage in the Electoral College, relative to popular votes. As her base of Hispanic voters is more concentrated in some red and blue states, she over-performed Obama in a handful of such states. However, in almost all the swing states, her performance was much worse than that of Obama. As a result, Clinton was always an underdog if her lead over Trump fell to around 1 percentage point. This outcome came true on the Election Night, leading to the bizarre scenario of Clinton winning the popular vote share narrowly while losing the Electoral College decisively.

While all these factors, the values of which were not known while forecasting, went against Clinton, there were also some other such factors which were considered positive to Clinton and yet proved to be false dawns and red herrings for her. For example, the models did not consider the early voting data, which almost conclusively pointed to a Clinton victory in Nevada and more tentatively, to some advantages in Florida and North Carolina. On the Election Day, Clinton was able to hold on to her lead in Nevada, but it dissipated in the face of massive rural, white voting in favour of Trump in Florida and North Carolina. Further, Clinton’s extensive investment in the ground game and ‘get out the vote’ operations were expected to lead to her over-performing the polls, especially in swing states. But the results indicated that there was hardly any turnout advantage for Clinton in most swing states.

To conclude, Clinton was doomed by a mixture of uncertain factors, almost all of which ultimately broke against her. A large portion of Trump’s unexpected victory can be explained by a variety of known unknowns i.e. factors which were known and whose outcomes were uncertain, but which ultimately favoured Trump. Given that real world is vastly complex, models are designed to be simple and presidential elections are discreet, infrequent events, such errors cannot be ruled out. This is why it is always a good idea for modellers to recognize these uncertainties and calibrate their models accordingly. The Fivethirtyeight model had accounted for most of these factors, but many others had not, leading to preposterous level of confidence in a Clinton victory that never came.

 

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US Election 2016: Why Polls Have Fluctuated so Wildly

The 2012 US election was a staid and placid affair. There were two very decent, un-exciting and sedate (some would even say boring) men at the top of the tickets. Both were well vetted candidates, both were devout family men with doting wives and had hardly any personal scandal to speak of. The election was primarily fought on the issue of the economy. There were nerdy discussions on whose plans would contribute how much to the deficit and how that would be financed. Both the campaigns deployed an array of experts to defend their respective plans with an avalanche of projections and numbers. It was a dream election for the wonks and the policy nerds.

In keeping with the overall tenor of the campaigns, the polls were also pretty stable. President Obama eked out a narrow but stable lead over Mitt Romney after the Democratic Party convention and maintained the same till the election night, although there were some temporary hiccups after his lackadaisical performance at the First Presidential Debate. He went on to win the election comfortably.

The 2016 election, on the other hand, has been quite a picture of contrast. The election is being fought between two candidates who are the dreams of the opposition research teams. In the course of this ugly, brutal campaign, America has been reminded again of the 90s’ era Clinton scandals and the new scandals that have been uncovered during her stint at the Foggy Bottoms. But that has been nothing compared to the avalanche of controversial statements that have emerged from the mouth of Donald Trump. With a parade of ugly, bigoted, xenophobic, racist and sexist slurs going around, this election season has been reduced to smear campaigns, political mudslinging and repulsive rhetoric. Any discussion related to policies has very much been conspicuous by its absence.

The polling in this election season has also been far more volatile. The polls have generally oscillated between giving a clear lead to Hillary Clinton and returning a virtual tie between the candidates. A comparison of how the Real Clear Politics average support of Clinton and Trump (in the solid blue and red lines respectively) moved in 2016 with those of Obama and Clinton (in the dotted blue and red lines) four years back has been shown in the following chart:

2012-vs-2016

 

What has been the reason behind this large fluctuation in polls compared to the steady polls four years back?

Well, as mentioned above, the major differentiating factor between the elections of 2012 and 2016 has been the steady drip of salacious news that has emerged about the various scandals and controversial statements of the candidates. The relative interest being generated by the candidates in the news cycle can be gauged by the comparison of their Google Search Indices. The Google search index has been relatively dominated by Trump which points to his ability to hog headlines and drive news coverage, although Hillary Clinton has also been able to attract more search interest in between. The Google search interest for both the candidates in USA since the beginning of August is reflected in the following chart:

google-candidates-search

If we plot the difference in the Google Search index between Trump and Clinton against the margin by Clinton led Trump (with a lag of seven days) we obtain the following chart:

google-vs-rcp

The chart shows a negative relationship between the search interest of the candidate and his or her standing in the polls i.e. when a candidate starts attracting more news, he or she also drops in the polls.

There are two major reasons behind the same:

  • The candidates have mainly attracted negative news coverage since the party conventions. Positive news cycles have been hard to come by and exceedingly rare.
  • The candidates are already extremely unpopular with the American electorate. As a result, the more they manage to stay out of the headlines, the more their opponent starts occupying mind space of the electorate, the more the negative image of the opponent is reinforced and the more they gain in polls.

These have been proven a number of times during this year’s election cycle. Immediately, after the Democratic Party convention, Trump entered into a completely gratuitous feud with Khizr Khan and his wife, the parents of a dead US soldier, who had delivered a speech critical of Trump at the Democratic National Convention. This resulted in depressed polling numbers for Trump throughout August. But as the news gradually faded from public memory, his numbers began to again improve. He was further aided by more news about the Clinton email scandal, Clinton’s comments that half of Trump’s supporters belong to a “basket of deplorable” and finally, news emerging that the Clinton campaign failed to disclose their candidate suffering from pneumonia. The poll numbers of Trump recovered throughout early and mid September and by the time of their first debate, Trump was virtually tied with Clinton in most polls. This is the point where Trump again started receiving negative coverage because of his poor performance at the debate, revelations that he had body-shamed a former Miss Universe who used to work for him and that he had failed to pay any taxes for a major part of the last two decades. Then, the Washington Post published tapes revealing him talking in ‘extremely lewd’ terms about women, which further reinforced the negative news cycle. Just when though it seemed like Clinton would win the election in a canter, came the news of FBI re-opening investigation into her emails and her numbers fell again.

Looking at this pattern, it is very much apparent that for the two candidates in this year’s election, the best strategy would have been to create as limited news as possible and instead, keep the spotlight squarely on the opponent. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially when there are a number of media outlets competing with each other to publish any bit of sensational news they can lay their hands on. Trump, however, is an undisciplined candidate who finds it difficult to stay on message. This, along with his propensity to over-react to the slightest bit of provocation and not having a tightly-knit, well run campaign like Clinton, makes it more likely that he is the one making the news, rather than Hillary.

This movement in the polls also leads credence to the theory that this election could have been an extremely close one, only if Trump had run a better campaign. When the political conversation has not been hijacked by Trump, like in the last one week, he has tended to do better, to the point of breaking even with Clinton in various stages. But the moment the voters get reminded of the many failings of Trump, he starts receding in polls. The fact that Republican Senate candidates in competitive states are polling better than Trump is a further reminder of a winnable election for the GOP being sacrificed at the altar of Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut.

In fact, this strategy of Trump – to flood news coverage with one controversial comment after the other – served him well during the Republican primaries, allowing him to hog the headlines and deprive his rivals of media oxygen.

In a campaign that had around seventeen candidates, receiving disproportionate media coverage can be extremely helpful. Further, during the primaries, Trump was appealing to the  hard core Republican voters who were much more receptive to these comments deemed controversial by the mainstream media (like labelling Mexican immigrants as “rapists and murderers”, calling for a total ban on entry of Muslims into the country, etc.). But in a general election campaign where you have to fight off only one opponent, backed by a disciplined and well-oiled election apparatus, and where you are trying to appeal to the median, swing vote, this kind of “any publicity is good publicity” strategy is likely to fail. The last week shows that Trump has learnt this lesson well, but sadly for his campaign it may have come a little too late.

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What is the probability of Donald Trump Winning the US Election

Over the last few days, there has been a lot of debate on how much chance Donald Trump has of pulling off an improbable, come from behind victory in the US presidential elections. While it is almost universally acknowledged that Trump has indeed been able to close the huge gap in the polls that existed after the third debate, there is no consensus on what the exact implication of that would be on his chances of a victory. The wide disparity in the results thrown up by the various statistical forecasting tools highlights this issue. The probability of a Trump victory in such models ranges from 35% in the Fivethirtyeight one to a measly 2% given by the Huffington Post and 1% by the Princeton Election Consortium. The models of Upshot and Predictwise are somewhere in the middle, assigning probabilities of 16% and 14% respectively to Trump becoming the next President.

In fact, the probability estimate provided by the Fivethirtyeight model has been much more Trump leaning than the rest of the estimates through most of the election cycle. The reasons behind this are:

  • The Fivethirtyeight model assumes a higher degree of uncertainty in the outcome compared to the other models.
  • The Fivethirtyeight model is more sensitive to how it adjusts trends when new information comes out in the form of fresh polling data, especially this late in the election cycle.

There are a number of reasons to err on the side of caution and agree with the probability estimates of Fivethirtyeight than the other models, especially the ones showing Clinton has a probability of more than 98% of winning:

  • There are a high number of undecided and third party voters even this late in the campaign. As per the RCP average, the percentage of such voters is 12%, as against only 5% who did not vote for either Obama or Romney in 2012. The relatively higher percentage of such voters is mainly because of the high unfavorability ratings of both the major party candidates.
  • There is a lot of volatility in the polling data. For example, in the recent polls that came out in New Hampshire, one of the so-called firewall states for Clinton, Clinton has led by as much as 7 points in one and trailed by as much as 5 points in the other. To add to the uncertainty, some of the competitive states like Michigan and Minnesota have not been polled well recently.
  • The polls have also swung wildly in either directions – oscillating between a decisive lead for Clinton and a narrow lead for Trump.
  • There are a still an unusual number of swing states that remain in play in the election. The polls indicate that Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and New Hampshire are close to toss ups. And while Trump is leading in Arizona, Ohio and Iowa and Clinton is leading in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Virginia, Maine and Wisconsin, these leads are not safe there.
  • While Clinton is leading in national polls, the lead is currently at or around 3%. This means even if polls are off by a small percentage, the election may become too close to call. It may be noted that the average of national polls taken one week before the election have deviated from the actual election outcome by around 2% in the last 12 elections. In case you think polls have become better over time, they missed the final result by around 2.7% in the 2012 election. And if the recent performance of polls in the UK parliamentary election, the Israeli Knesset election and the referendum on Brexit were any indication, we should not be too confident in the polls. Polls of recent events have also recently shown increasing tendency of having herding bias (i.e. reverting to the mean instead of providing contrarian results) which has led to increased instances of a number of polls being wrong at the same time.
  • The errors in the state polls are very often correlated with each other. For example, if the polls have understated Clinton support in Florida by a few percentage points, they are likely to have understated her support in North Carolina as well. So, the polling errors are not likely to cancel each other out in various states.
  • This year has also seen the possibility of Clinton winning the presidential vote share and losing the popular vote. This is because Clinton is expected to perform better than Obama among Hispanics, Mormons and college educated white voters. These voters are not particularly concentrated in swing states. For example, Hispanics may swing the vote in Nevada, Colorado and Florida, but their impact outside these battleground states is minimal. It does not help Clinton if Latinos come out in larger number to vote for her in California (which is already expected to vote for Clinton) or in Texas (where the increased support from Hispanics may not be large enough to swing the state in her favour). On the other hand, the turnout of African-Americans may be less than in 2008 or 2012, because Obama is no longer on the ballot. Trump is also expected to perform much better than non-college educated white Americans than Romney did in 2012. Black voters are critical in North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Virginia and Nevada while blue collar white voters are also significant in number in Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania. As a result, Clinton may perform better than Obama in blue and red states, but may perform worse in critical swing states. As a result, even though Clinton is ahead in the national polls, her situation in the Electoral College is iffier. Even if she manages the same lead over her opponent that Obama did four years ago, she will probably lose Ohio and Iowa and may also lose Florida, Nevada and Maine First Congressional District among the states that Obama won.
  • One may argue that the recent swing in the polls in favour of Clinton has been on account of the spate of negative news (rising premium of Obamacare, Wikileaks revelations, more news on the email story) discouraging her supporters from participating in the polls. But one may similarly argue that the allegations of sexual harassment against Trump had in the same way dissuaded Republican voters from coming out in support of him, thus depressing his support level in the polls taken in that period. These voters are returning back to him, thus resetting the race to the default state. In fact, one does not know whether the default state of the election is an almost tied level of support, a wide victory for Clinton or anything in between. The economic fundamentals do, however, support the notion that the election should be a tightly contested one. This is also reflected in the extremely tight polling being seen in most of the swing state senate races.
  • News which have moved polls have emerged late in October and even two days back, when AP broke the news that Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump and an immigrant from Slovenia, worked in US before getting her work visa, thus violating the law. The presence of a volatile and problematic candidate like Trump as well as a distrusted and scandal-prone one like Clinton is that damaging revelations might keep coming till the Election Day, rendering the race more uncertain.
  • The Fivethirtyeight model is essentially similar to the one which predicted a preternaturally stable race that happened in 2012, indicating that the uncertainty is on account of the race and not the model. Further, the betting market odds and the movement of peso (considered a proxy for market sentiment on Trump victory) are in better agreement with the Fivethirtyeight model than other models.

This is reflected in the following comparison of how the odds of a Clinton victory has fluctuated in the various models vis-a-vis the odds assigned to her in the betting markets and the movement in peso over the last two months:

Betting Market Odds vs Forecasts:

forecasts-vs-betting-markets

Exchange Rate of Peso vs Forecasts:

forecasts-vs-exchange-rateAs is apparent from the first chart, the betting market odds have been closest to the odds given by the Fivethirtyeight model for most of the last two months, whereas the odds given by the Upshot and Predictwise have always been more favourable to Clinton. The movement of Mexican Peso has also been closely been correlated with the movement in the Fivethirtyeight forecast of a Clinton victory, especially in the last one month where they have moved very much in tandem.

The charts, however, show that both the betting market as well as the foreign exchange market has become more bullish on the probability of a Clinton victory in the last few days. This is largely because of the good turnout news that Clinton has obtained in a number of early states, particularly in Nevada and to a lesser extent in Florida and North Carolina.

Around two-third of the expected voters have already voted in early voting in Nevada. Since Nevada discloses the number of early voters according to party registrations, analysts have estimated that Clinton is already leading by a margin which will be difficult, if not impossible, for Trump to overturn on the Election Day. Similarly, the early voting data also shows that voters of the Latino heavy Clinton leaning districts of Florida are coming out to vote in larger numbers than expected. Even in North Carolina, voters who usually have low propensity to vote (and who are generally Democratic voters) have voted in more numbers this year so far.

None of these is a guarantee that Trump will lose in all the three states on Election Day. However, Trump will now have to ensure that the Republican ‘get out the vote’ operation works overtime and is able to turnout supporters at a better rate than what was previously expected. And remember this – Clinton has invested significantly in ground game, against next to nothing of Trump who is mainly relying on the Republican National Committee to turn out voters.

Polls, however, have shown that these states have been extremely tight and even leaning slightly in favour of Trump. Given Trump’s already narrow path to victory, he needs to win all of these states to remain competitive; at the very best, he can afford to probably lose Nevada. However, if he loses either Florida or North Carolina, it is very difficult to see him compensating elsewhere, unless he pulls off major upsets in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

The various forecasting tools, including Fivethirtyeight, do not take into consideration early voting data into their models (unless the same is already reflected in polls which are taken as inputs in the models). As a result, in a number of states where early vote has happened, significant differences have opened up between the percentage of Clinton victory estimated by the betting market and that projected by the statistical model.

statewise-data

The probabilities assigned by the betting market and the Fivethirtyeight model are in close agreement in almost all the swing states. The major outlier is Nevada where based on the data from early voters, the betting market is way more confident of a Clinton victory than the model which does not consider the early voting data. Similarly, the betting market is also more bullish on a Clinton victory in North Carolina and Florida where early voting data in recent days have given a slight edge to the Democrats there.

Now coming back to our original question – what is the probability of a Trump victory? As discussed above, among the various models, Fivethirtyeight probably does a better job of calculating the odds, given the polling information available. However, it has not taken into account the early voting data which has more favourable news for Clinton in some critical swing states.

It will thus be fair to look at the betting market which has closely tracked the Fivethirtyeight forecasts so far in the cycle, but has diverged in favour of Clinton as the early voting data has become available. The probability assigned by the betting markets currently stands at around 78%, higher than the Fivethirtyeight output of 65%. Thus, it would be fair to say that Clinton has something in the range of 75%-80% chance of winning the election. Correspondingly, the chance of Trump stands at anything between 20% and 25%.

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The US Presidents Ranked from the Most Memorable to the Least Memorable

harrison

Even your portrait does not look pleased when You are the Least Famous President

The historical evaluation of the presidents of the United States of America and their relative ranking in the pantheons of the nation’s leaders has always been a matter of great debate and controversy, attracting a lot of attention from historians as well as political aficionados. The spill over of this interest into popular culture is exemplified by the enduring popularity of the Mount Rushmore as a symbol of presidential greatness.

While a lot of historians, journalists, academicians and researchers have been liberal in providing their views on the relative greatness of each of the individual presidents, the memorability of the presidents is one area that has not evoked that much of interest. In 2014, a study was conducted by HL Roediger III and K.A. De Soto that asked sample participants to recall as many presidents as they could. The study which had also been conducted separately in the last three decades, allowed the researchers to find out how the collective memory behaved when it came to remembering past presidents.

Fortunately, with Google publishing the search interests related to various topics via Google Trends, it has become much easier to find out which US presidents people have been searching for since 2004, the year Google came into being. And it is also possible to compare the search interest in the various US presidents since that year. Given that internet has become ubiquitous in US, the search interest in Google may be considered a decent proxy for the memorability of the respective presidents.

Based on the relative search interest generated in Google since 2004, the following is the ranking of the Presidents:

presidents-memorability

The results show that John F Kennedy is still the President who drives the most traffic in search engines, even after more than 50 years of his assassination. He is followed by a mixture of recent high profile presidents (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon) and presidents who are universally acknowledged to be among the all time greats (Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt). At the other end of the spectrum are a bunch of forgotten presidents who served mostly for one terms in the middle and the late 19th Century.

Note that the names of George W Bush and Barack Obama have not been considered here as both of them were presidents during considerable portion of the period of which search results have been considered. Since they would have been making news on daily basis during their presidencies, thus spiking up search interests, it would not be fair to include them for the purpose of comparison.

The results thrown up by Google Trends are in close agreement with the results of the study conducted by Roediger III and De Soto. A comparison of the rankings as per the two different methods has been showed in the following chart:

google-vs-survey

A few observations from a first glance at the list:

  • The memorability of a president is definitely impacted by the perception of his greatness. Presidents who are considered among the greats are likely to be remembered by more number of people, long after they are gone, compared to presidents who have been mediocre or even presidents who have performed abysmally. This is reflected in the following chart which plots the ranking of the presidents as per the Google Search data with the ranking accorded by historians (the historians’ ranking has been taken from the composite list compiled by Nate Silver in 2012):

google-vs-historians

  • Even though there are cases when the recency effect is prominent, there is actually not much of a correlation between the memorability of a president and the number of years that have lapsed since he was the president. The following is a chart that plots the relative ranking of a president in the Google Trends as against a variable that shows the number of presidencies he is removed from the current president (For example, in case of Bill Clinton, the variable would be 2 since he is the president who preceded George W Bush who in turn was the president before Barack Obama).google-vs-recency

The plot essentially shows that there is no relationship between the two; meaning that if you are truly great, people may remember you regardless of the number of years that have lapsed (which the high ranking of Washington and Jefferson attest to); on the other hand, if you are just average, you may be forgotten in a span of a few decades (as is true for George HW Bush or Gerald Ford).

  • The period of 64 years between 1837 and 1901 was a graveyard of presidential ambitions, as apart from the glorious exception of Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865), the period was marked by a series of mostly one term presidents (and presidents who even failed to complete single terms) whose contribution to the progress of the country were either forgettable or better be forgotten. The last thirteen places in our ranking are occupied by presidents from that era. The highest ranked president from that period is Ulysses S Grant (at the nineteenth rank) who doubtless benefited from also having a stellar military record, being the only president in that period to serve two consecutive terms and also having his face on the fifty dollar bill.
  • One president who unfortunately got stuck in that jinxed period and has also been forgotten was James K Polk. Polk is generally one of the better regarded presidents with a ranking of 11th in terms of greatness. However, he is also the 31st most remembered president in our list. The unfortunate President Polk definitely has a legitimate claim to be the least known great president.
  • If you want the ages to remember you as a president, serving a single term definitely does not help. The highest ranked single term president in our list is Jimmy Carter at #11 (of course after JFK who has to be considered a special case scenario on account of the enduring interest in his unfulfilled promise and unfortunate assassination). In all, there are just five one term presidents in our top 20 list, four of whom have served after the Second World War. John Adams at #13 is the only one term president from the 19th century, who is still remembered by a significant number of people. Conversely, Calvin Coolidge at #27 is the lowest ranked president who has served two non-consecutive terms. The last 14 places are all occupied by single term presidents, except Grover Cleveland at #30, who was the only President to have been elected as part of two non-consecutive administrations.
  • Till date, there have been nine vice-presidents who were directly elected to the president’s office without election, because the preceding president either died in office or had to resign. There were four such instances in the 19th century (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur) and five such instances in the 20th century (Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Gerald Ford). It turns out the 20th century vice presidents were much luckier than their 19th century counterparts. While all four vice presidents of the 19th century had rather lacklustre tenures in the Oval Office and have now been consigned to the dustbins of history, at least three of their counterparts in the 20th century (Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson) are still fondly remembered and have genuine claim to greatness.
  • The five earliest presidents who were also among the founding fathers are still remembered more than the average president. Except for James Monroe who comes at #28 in the list.
  • Donald Trump has generated around 2.5 times the search interest generated by JFK, the highest president on the list.
  • The Harrison family was not particularly lucky when it came to presidents. William Henry Harrison who became president in 1941 remained so only for 31 days, before dying from pneumonia. He was the first president to die in office and his tenure was the shortest presidency ever. But at least he had that claim to fame. Benjamin Harrison, his grandson, is the least known president in history. There is absolutely nothing memorable about Benjamin Harrison. He had a generic name and a generic surname. He was just another Republican president in the long line of Republican presidents who followed Lincoln. He had a standard 19th century bearded president face. His presidency was also pretty bland, apart from a few debates on the increasing tariff. He was a single term president and his presidency did not coincide with any epoch making event in the nation’s history. The only thing unique about him was that he won and then lost an election against the same guy i.e. Grover Cleveland. Cleveland by the way is the only president to have been elected to non-consecutive terms. But such is the curse of the Harrison family that even Cleveland has been forgotten by most Americans and ranks pretty low in the search results.
  • Spare a thought for Chester Arthur as well. Yes, Chester Arthur, the President with the most fancy name and the most fancy facial facial hair in history. The President who went against his supporters to implement Civil Service reform. The President whose tenor was described by Mark Twain,albeit a little too prematurely, as “it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration.” That guy appears the second last on the list.
800px-chester_a-_arthur_by_ole_peter_hansen_balling

Even a beard like this could not make President Arthur memorable

  • The average Democratic President generates more searches than the average Republican President. But this is partly because the Democrats did not have too many presidents during the 19th century era of forgettable presidents (i.e. between 1837 and 1901). The Whigs, on the other hand, have all four of their presidents from that era, all four of whom rank among the 10 least remembered presidents.
  • Poor, old, bland Gerald Ford is already #20 on the list, the post war president with the lowest ranking on the list. Being the first president to have not been elected (either as a President or a Vice President) did nothing to boost his fame. Even the fact that Ford is the only president to have replaced another living president in the middle of the latter’s tenure could not make him famous. Both his predecessor and successor, by the way, are ranked among the top 11.
  • Harrison Ford is probably more famous than Benjamin Harrison and Gerald Ford put together.
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