At the National Journal, veteran analyst Charlie Cook is the latest to pose what has become a recurring question in this election — why is it so close?
[T]his race shouldn’t be as tight as it is. Whether one looks at polling measurements of whether voters think the country is headed in the right direction, at consumer confidence, or at key economic measurements such as growth in gross domestic product, deviations in the unemployment rate, or the change in real personal disposable income, it is puzzling, to say the least, why polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney running neck and neck. Incumbents generally don’t get reelected with numbers like we are seeing today.
Cook notes that, by the time a president is running for a second term, he owns the economy, regardless of what conditions were when he entered office. If that’s the case, then Obama’s small but consistent lead over Mitt Romney is even more baffling. To square the circle, Cook looks to Romney’s weakness as a candidate, and the Obama campaign’s judicious use of its resources when it comes to advertising and organizing.
All of those things play a part, but I think Cook is falling into a common trap — overstating the extent to which economic conditions are terrible for the incumbent.
Yes, the economy is poor. But voters don’t decide on the basis of absolute conditions — if that were true, then Franklin Roosevelt would have been tossed out of office in 1936, when unemployment stood at 16.6 percent — and Ronald Reagan would have lost to Walter Mondale on account of 7.2 percent joblessness. Voters are smart enough to consider things in context — they’ll reward a president with reelection if he brings an economy out of recession with steady growth, even if conditions haven’t improved for the average person. By contrast, voters will punish a president if the economy takes a dive, even if conditions are decent at the time of the recession.
Obama is stuck in the middle of that dynamic. Growth is slow, but it’s also steady. Gross domestic product grew at an estimated 1.5 percent in the second quarter, and the economy has averaged about 150,000 per month for the year. Things are improving, but not for everyone and not at an even pace.
When factored in with other fundamentals — incumbency, even approval/disapproval, high favorability, a moderately strong stock market and low inflation — this suggests we should be in a close race, where the president maintains a small lead. Which is exactly where we are.
In other words, despite the conventional wisdom, it’s not true that Romney should be winning. Barring rapid economic deterioration — or a botched foreign policy crisis — it’s difficult to unseat a sitting president. All things considered, both Romney and Obama are doing about as well as you would expect.