2012 and history

August 3, 2012

With the new jobs numbers out today, it’s more clear than ever what the economy will probably look like to voters this November. It’s a very slow recovery, but it’s not a double-dip recession, either. There’s been, however, a fair amount of misunderstanding about what that signals for Barack Obama’s chances of a second term.

In particular, there’s a strain of punditry that theorizes that Obama will have to “defy history” to get reelected. This line holds that presidents don’t get re-elected when unemployment is over eight percent, or when “right track/wrong track” numbers are badly depressed, or when the president’s job approval on the economy is negative.

In fact, the election models political scientists and economists have developed suggest — when you plug in the fundamentals of this election cycle — that this will be a close race, and not one that Obama will have to defy history to win.

In particular, I’ve been looking at three models. The first one, the “bread and peace” model from Douglas Hibbs, uses only two variables: one indicator of economic growth, and one more for war. Hibbs earlier this week published his prediction, with the slow economy in fact dooming Obama. The Hibbs model shows the president receiving only 47.5% of the two-party vote.

However, the Hibbs’ model doesn’t take into account several factors that may make this election unique, and it’s not the only model with a good track record. Alan Abramowitz’s model combines economic growth with two other variables: presidential approval ratings, and a variable that accounts for whether the incumbent’s party has been in the White House for more than one term. Basically, if you believe (as the numbers show) that voters hesitate before throwing out a party that they just voted in, then Abramowitz is catching something that Hibbs misses. His prediction? A very close contest, with a slight edge for Barack Obama.

But that’s not all! Most research has found that the economy in the final year of the president’s term is what matters, and that what is most important is whether the economy is improving, not how strong it is overall. What’s more, Larry Bartels finds that the economy in a president’s first year in office also affects re-election — but with an inverse relationship, so that the worse the economy is at the beginning of the term, the better the re-election chances. Obviously, if that’s correct, it’s bad news for Mitt Romney. Bartels hasn’t published a final prediction as far as I’m aware, but his model almost certainly predicts an almost comfortable Obama victory.

Which one is correct? I don’t know. But what I can say with confidence is that anyone talking about what “history” says needs to be aware of what these models say, and in particular anyone claiming that Obama would have to overcome history to win re-election is basically misunderstanding the full history of presidential elections. We don’t know for sure that it’s going to be a close election. But so far, that appears to be what history — properly understood, as far as what the specialists have found — is actually telling us.

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