Why is Obama ahead?

August 13, 2012

Time for a moment of accountability. Earlier in the campaign, I wrote that my rule of thumb was simple: If the economy was adding about 150,000 jobs a month, Romney had the edge. If it was 200,000 jobs a month, Obama had the edge. If it was 250,000 jobs a month, Obama had it easy.

Over the last four months, the economy has added, on average, 93,000 jobs a month. If you'd told me that number four months ago, I would have told you Romney would be well ahead today. But I would have been wrong. Obama currently leads in Real Clear Politics's average of polls by 4.1 percentage points -- one of his largest leads thus far in the campaign. That is, in part, why the Romney campaign went with a risky veep pick like Paul Ryan rather than a safer, duller candidate who would keep the focus on Obama's record.


If you'd told me where the economy would be today, I would've thought Obama would be behind. (The Washington Post)

One possible explanation for Obama's lead is that the Obama campaign has done a terrific job. And perhaps that's true. In the battleground states, where the campaign is spending its money, there's evidence that negative perceptions of Romney are hardening. But these are national polls. And, nationally, most voters aren't seeing many ads, or hearing that much from the campaigns.

Perhaps it's media coverage. And yet, Obama hasn't had a very good few months. There was "you didn't build that." There was "the private sector is doing fine." There were a number of bad jobs reports. There was a spate of stories about how the White House couldn't seem to get their message together. And yet Obama held his lead, and it's actually been growing.

Back in April, I worked with three political scientists to build an election forecasting model. After we had run the numbers (and run them again, and again, and again), I released the model alongside a column outlining my skepticism. The results just looked wrong:

If GDP is flat — that is to say, if the economy doesn’t grow at all this year — and Obama’s approval rating is 45 percent, he wins 49 percent of the time. If you boost growth to a still-anemic 1.5 percentage points, he wins 74 percent of the time. That seems a little unlikely.

Lynn Vavreck, a UCLA political scientist who had worked on the tool, was quick to explain that the model was telling us something important and true: "Incumbent parties, in growing economies, almost always win in contemporary American history."

Still, the rest of my column discussed reasons this might not prove true in 2012. And, to be sure, it still might not prove true in 2012. But the fact of the matter is that the incumbent's lead in the polls has remained pretty resilient despite a weak economy. That fits a lot better with what my model said than with what I said.

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Ezra Klein · August 13, 2012