The economy (slightly) favors Obama, not Romney

September 11, 2012

"It is becoming clear that if President Obama is reelected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign," writes Charlie Cook. "If Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign."

"It’s a paradox," writes Niall Ferguson. "The economy is in the doldrums. Yet the incumbent is ahead in the polls. According to a huge body of research by political scientists, this is not supposed to happen."

This is, I think, a fair summation of the conventional wisdom on this election: The economy is bad enough that Obama should lose. If he doesn't lose, then we need some way of explaining why he didn't lose -- why this election didn't turn out, in Ferguson's formulation, as the political scientists expected. But this view is just wrong. Things are going exactly as the political scientists expected.

Charles Dharapak/AP

I learned this the hard way. Some months ago, I worked with political scientists Seth Hill, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck to build a model that used data from every presidential election since 1948 to forecast the outcome of this presidential election. But when the model was done, I thought it was broken: It was forecasting an Obama win even under scenarios of very weak economic growth. (You can play with the model here.)

After a lot of frantic e-mails, my political scientist friends finally convinced me that that's the point of a model: It forces you to check your expectations at the door. And my expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data, which suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction, as was true with unemployment in 1980 and 1992.

This year, the major economic indicators are headed in the right direction, albeit slowly. We've been adding jobs, though not enough. We've been growing, though not particularly fast. We've seen the unemployment rate drop, though partially because workers are leaving the labor force. All in all, it's not an impressive record. But it's weak growth, not a new recession. And the political valence of that weak growth is unusually hard to discern, as voters continue to place more blame for our current economic troubles on George W. Bush than on Barack Obama.

Recently, Dylan Matthews surveyed six other forecasting models. Five of those models include economic data. Most, though not all, are predicting an Obama win. And that, I think, is a pretty accurate summation of where the economic fundamentals of the election stand: A slight lean towards Obama, but nothing that guarantees him a victory.

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Brad Plumer · September 11, 2012