“If you look at the fundamentals,” writes David Brooks, “the president should be getting crushed right now.”
The rest of the column is an attempt to explain why President Obama isn’t getting crushed right now. Brooks settles on Obama’s “version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.” But the premise of the column is wrong: If you look at the fundamentals right now, the president should not be getting crushed. In fact, he should be slightly ahead, which is pretty much where he is in most polls.
Brooks never actually defines what he means by “the fundamentals.” The evidence he provides in his column is mostly an assortment of recent poll results related to how voters feel about the economy, Obama’s plan for the economy, and Obama’s view of the role of government.
It’s not clear how Brooks is deciding which poll results are worth including and which are not. For instance, a new USA Today/Gallup poll finds that “though an overwhelming 71% rate economic conditions as poor, a 58% majority predict they will be good a year from now.” That poll — and others like it — don’t make it into the article.
Which is not to say they should. Picking and choosing poll results is generally a useless exercise. They’re hard to interpret, and often conflicting. Which is why it’s almost the opposite of what people usually mean when they talk about “the fundamentals.” Typically, “the fundamentals” mean you’re specifically not talking about polls. You’re talking about what’s actually going on in the economy, and in the political system.
In that view, the primary fundamentals are these: Obama is the incumbent. The economy is growing at a moderate pace. There’s no serious third-party challenge. We’re not losing massive numbers of soldiers in a foreign war. And when you look at those fundamentals, the reality is this: Incumbent presidents very, very rarely lose under those conditions.
I recently had to study this fairly closely in order to build the Wonkblog election model. The results seemed too optimistic for the president: At very modest levels of economic growth, the model would predict a win. But the model was picking up something real. Since 1948, only three incumbent presidents have lost reelection campaigns: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Carter and Bush both ran in very bad economies. Ford was a bit of an odd case, as he took office after Richard Nixon resigned over Watergate.
There are reasons to mistrust models like that one, or to believe that this year will be different in a way that the model can’t predict. I go into some of them here. But the fact remains: The fundamentals right now predict a close race and, most likely, an Obama win — though it’s easy to come up with a scenario in which Greece wrecks the euro zone, the resulting financial crisis wrecks our recovery, and the fundamentals shift to predict an Obama loss.
Now, there is some evidence that Obama is slightly more popular than an ad hoc model of presidential popularity — which is different from a model of who will win the election — would predict. Political scientist John Sides thinks he’s outperforming expectations by about 2.7 percentage points. And so if Brooks wants to argue that his particular version of “ESPN masculinity” is making up the difference, then fair enough. But in terms of the election’s fundamentals, there’s no mystery that needs to be explained here. Obama is very much in the range you would expect.
If I seem pedantic on this point, it’s because this is one of my pet peeves in political commentary: Pundits take political situations that can be explained through the fundamentals and then attribute them, without any evidence, to the telegenic characteristics of individual politicians or the messaging decisions made by their campaigns. Then, a few years later, the fundamentals turn around, and suddenly our great communicator has forgotten how to give a speech or run a campaign — or vice versa. Remember that in 1982, Ronald Reagan was under 40 percent in the polls. Then the economy rebounded, and he romped to victory in the election.
It happens to be the case that Brooks likes Obama’s “hypercompetitive, restrained, not given to self-doubt, rarely self-indulgent” temperament, which is fine. But here he’s presented readers with a mystery that isn’t a mystery, and then told them, without evidence, that “most of the cause is personal” and “the key is [Obama’s] post-boomer leadership style.” Not that Brooks thinks that, or sees a case for it, but that that’s how it is. But it isn’t! Or, at the least, we have no evidence for it.