October 7th, 2008

Three weeks ago I posted a reasoned estimate of the risk that the first term of a McCain presidency would be interrupted by death or disability, handing the Oval Office to Sarah Palin: one in four. I need to make a small correction.

This was the sum of a sui generis presidential risk of death by violence (7.3%) and the regular risk of failing health (16.7%). The first number was just drawn from the historical record of four assassinations in 55 presidential terms. It’s not a good quality estimate, but the only people who have a better one are the Secret Service, and they are naturally not telling. But it would be absurd, in the middle of a struggle with jihadi terrorists, to ignore the risk, and going by the historical record is better than nothing. I stick by this number until someone comes up with a better.

The second component was taken from a published estimate by a firm of actuaries in Atlanta of the “health expectancy” of a man with John McCain’s public medical data. Now the McCain campaign has refused to reveal his full records. They have only given chosen medical reporters a peek at 1,200 selected documents for three hours. This may be enough to confirm that McCain is not concealing some major medical issue we didn’t know about, but not enough to allow an independent professional assessment of his health status.

Why should the campaign take this line? If Bragg Associates are too pessimistic, surely the McCain campaign would have released the evidence. We can therefore safely infer that his health is either similar to the actuaries’ basis or worse.

So my corrected estimate is this: the risk of a forced succession by Sarah Palin to the Presidency during the hypothetical first term of John McCain is at least one in four.

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