The most overrated stat of the 2012 election

September 14, 2012

You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: No president since (fill-in-the-blank year) has been reelected with an unemployment rate above (fill-in-the-blank) percent.

The years and the numbers have varied somewhat, but the argument is basically the same: President Obama is attempting to win reelection in unprecedented fashion, with an unemployment rate that has proven too much for his predecessors to overcome.

It's a handy statistic. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it's also highly overrated.

(Disclaimer: The Fix has, admittedly, been guilty of citing this statistic from time to time.)


Unemployed Americans at the National Career Fair. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

That fact is that the data set is just way too small to make this statement really mean much of anything. Here's why.

Since World War II, nine presidents have sought reelection. The seven presidents who had unemployment rates at or below 7.2 percent, where Ronald Reagan's rate was, all won. The two that ran for reelection with unemployment rates over 7.2 percent -- Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush -- both lost.

Pretty remarkable, right?

But a deeper dig shows this mantra isn't all it's cracked up to be.

First of all, while the line has held firm at 7.2 percent, the unemployment rates in November of the election year under Carter, Bush and Reagan were all very close to one another. In fact, if you look at the unemployment rate that was actually known on Election Day (from the October report), Reagan's 7.5 percent unemployment rate was higher than Bush's (7.3 percent).

But even if you believe that the unemployment rate was technically higher under Carter and Bush, that's still a very small number of cases from which to be drawing any broad conclusions.

It's true that no president since World War II has won with an unemployment rate above 7.2 percent, but only two have tried. That two men failed to win a second term is hardly proof that this is some kind of dividing line in the politics of presidential elections. After all, these races are about lots and lots of things, and isolating a single factor -- up to and including the unemployment rate -- is a dangerous game.

And if we stretch the data back even further, to 1900 say, that dividing line is obliterated.

According to annual unemployment figures (monthly data are not available before 1948), Franklin Roosevelt won reelection twice with unemployment rates in the teens, and Republicans held on to the White House in 1908 when unemployment was at 8 percent.

In total, of all the elections in the 20th Century in which the unemployment rate was above 7.2 percent, the incumbent's party won in three out of seven cases. (Even though all three came before World War II, the unemployment rate back then was generally very comparable to where it is today.)

Yes, a high unemployment rate is not ideal for a president seeking reelection, and there's a reason why presidents with higher unemployment rates lose more often and presidents with lower unemployment rates win more often. The rate is a good indicator of where the country is economically.

But that's about where it's usefulness ends. The fact is that 7.2 percent (or even 8 percent, the number the White House once threw out but has failed to fall below) isn't a magic number in all of this. There are plenty of other factors at work.

And the fact that President Obama leads in the polls right now is a testament to that fact.

Obama grows lead in top three swing states: The Obama bump is now showing up in swing-state polls.

A new series of Marist College/NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls in Florida, Ohio and Virginia show Obama leading by between five and seven points in each state.

For more, see The Fix's recap from Thursday night.

Obama says Egypt is not an ally: Obama has his own foreign policy headache on his hands after he said in a recent interview that Egypt is not an American ally or an enemy, but rather somewhere in-between.

That came as a surprise to many, especially considering the State Department still lists Egypt as an ally. And a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that fact Thursday.

But the White House isn't backing down, noting that there really is no alliance at present.

“We do not have an alliance treaty with Egypt," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "Ally is a legal term of art. As I said, we do not have a mutual defense treaty with Egypt, like we do, for example, with our NATO allies.”

Former president Jimmy Carter, notably, disagreed with Obama, saying later Thursday that Egypt is indeed an ally.

This, of course, is really inside baseball, and most Americans will have no idea whether Egypt is an ally or not. But expect the Romney campaign to use this in an attempt to fight back on its own foreign policy gaffe this week.

Fixbits:

Romney says Thursday's quantitative easing decision is further evidence that Obama has failed economically.

The Romney campaign christens its campaign plane "Hair Force One."

A new Keating Research poll shows Obama ahead by five points in Colorado.

A Marist College/NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll also shows Obama up five in Virginia.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who will play Paul Ryan in Vice President Biden's debate prep, is working on Ryan's mannerisms.

The House votes to reinstate the Stolen Valor Act, which makes it a crime to lie about your military service, after the Supreme Court struck it down.

Could former South Dakota governor Mike Rounds (R) run for Senate in 2014? Some people think so. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) will be up for another term.

Freshman Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) and former congressman Dan Maffei (D) are tied at 43 in a new Siena College poll.

Must-reads:

"What if There Is an Election Wave?" -- Reid Wilson, National Journal

"GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan makes low-key return to Capitol Hill" -- Felicia Sonmez and David A. Fahrenthold, Washington Post

"Romney’s attacks on Obama foreign policy show neocons’ dominance" -- Jason Horowitz, Washington Post

"Romney team sharpens attack on Obama’s foreign policy" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=politics, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Next Story
Aaron Blake | September 13, 2012