On Obama’s Secret Weapon

Michael Tomasky’s piece deserves a few responses.  He begins with some unnecessary swipes at political science:

Politics is sometimes a science and other times an art. So here we sit, with the election exactly a year away, and the conventional wisdom in the political press is largely driven by the political-science theory of presidential elections and economic determinism: that is, that the results of presidential elections are pretty much strictly a function of economic conditions, and if those are bad (defined by various measures, chiefly the jobless and growth rates), the incumbent will lose.  By that theory, Barack Obama is pretty well doomed. And yet I don’t know a soul who thinks he doesn’t stand a decent chance of winning next year.

Let’s ignore the oxymoron “pretty much strictly” and assume Tomasky means “strictly.”  First point: this is not what political scientists think about presidential elections.  Since I’ve written a direct response to the very Economist article that Tomasky’s cites, I’ll link to that post again.  And I’ll repeat what I said there:

Because people continually overestimate the effect of campaigns, this blog holds up the other end of the dialectic by emphasizing the economy and defending those who do.  But plenty of research has identified the effects of campaigns too—research discussed on this blog, e.g., here, here, here—and so it’s time to abandon this whole it’s-either-the-economy-or-the-campaign dichotomy…

A second, and more important, point: Obama is not “pretty well doomed.”  I’ve now seen, publicly or privately, about 5 forecasts of the presidential election that rely mostly or in part on economic indicators, and those forecasts predict that Obama will get somewhere between 47 and 52% of the vote.  See Alan Abramowitz, Ray Fair, or Nate Silver, for example.  The variation arises because different models rely on different specific factors, economic and non-economic.  But an average of those models is usually more accurate; see Brendan Nyhan and Jacob Montgomery for more.  I haven’t done the sophisticated averaging that Nyhan and Montgomery describe, but I think back-of the-envelope math is sufficient at this early date.  And that math suggests that Obama is likely going to face a tight race, but he is not “doomed.”

The problem with getting the prediction wrong is that it encourages all kinds of unwarranted speculation about why the prediction is wrong.  In 2008, David Brooks was wondering why it wasn’t a landslide for Obama, even though the fundamentals didn’t predict a landslide.  In 2011, Tomasky is wondering why it’s not already a landslide for Republicans.  It’s not supposed to be.

But let’s get to the meat of Tomasky’s argument:

Obama’s secret weapons in this election are Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, and the way things are headed they’re going to have economic-determinist political scientists going back to the drawing board in 2013 and adding a corollary to their theory: if economic conditions are bad, the incumbent will lose, unless the people have decided to blame the bad economy on the opposition party in Congress.

So, third point. Tomasky is right that this would be an unusual outcome.  As I have noted before, previous research finds that presidents get blamed for bad economies, even under divided government.  So could 2012 be different?  As Tomasky notes, this outcome depends on the extent of GOP obstruction between now and then as well as Democratic strategies for exploiting voters’ concerns about the GOP:

And eventually, the GOP nominee will have to deal with this. Yes, that candidate will speak of the future and his plans, and I’m not saying that Floridians or Ohioans are going to be walking into the voting booth thinking of Eric Cantor. But the GOP’s reputation is so low, and its image (and reality) as obstructionist so steadily solidifying, that it’s going to hang like the stink of garlic around the nominee’s neck. This scenario depends on the Democrats handling all this the right way politically, which is not exactly the most dependable assumption, especially with this White House.

I’d add something equally or perhaps more important: it depends on how much the Republican nominee embraces the House GOP.  Imagine this:

Obama: “Our economy is weak and my jobs bill would help.  But the Republicans in Congress won’t pass it!  Why would we elect another Republican when the ones we’ve got won’t do anything?”

Romney: “Our economy is indeed very weak, thanks in part to the ineffective policies of my opponent.  That’s why I’ve proposed my 59-point plan.  If you elect me president, I’ll be able to work effectively with Congress to get it passed.”

Even if the GOP is obstructionist and won’t pass Obama’s jobs plan, the GOP nominee will still have a jobs plan.  In that case, why should voters blame, say, Mitt Romney for the fact that Mitch McConnell like to filibuster?  Someone like Romney could conceivably sidestep the Republicans in Congress: he hasn’t served there and isn’t allied with the conservative hard-liners most likely to oppose Obama’s agenda.  Indeed, what’s to keep Romney from occasionally taking veiled swipes at the GOP in Congress?  Like this: “I’m running for president to get stuff done.  It’s not enough to say “no” to what you don’t like.  You’ve got to act affirmatively to create jobs and get the economy back on track.”

Of course, it’s not that Obama wouldn’t try to make GOP obstructionism “hang like the stink of garlic around the nominee’s neck.”  But why couldn’t the GOP nominee neutralize this strategy?

8 Responses to On Obama’s Secret Weapon

  1. Andrew Gelman November 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm #


    1. Wow—I didn’t know anyone actually read the Daily Beast! How did you run across this article?

    2. In all seriousness, I’m thrilled that “the conventional wisdom in the political press is largely driven by the political-science theory of presidential elections and economic determinism: that is, that the results of presidential elections are pretty much strictly a function of economic conditions, and if those are bad (defined by various measures, chiefly the jobless and growth rates), the incumbent will lose.” When Gary and I were working on our project that resulted in our 1993 article, the conventional wisdom in the political press was that elections were driven by campaign events, debates, charisma, etc. The new conventional wisdom is much better!

    3. By “pretty much strictly,” I assume Tomasky is referring to the prediction error from a regression model. The prediction can be off by a few percentage points in either directly.

    4. We don’t know what economic conditions will be next year, hence the prediction model can be just fine and there is still uncertainty about the election.

    5. As Gary and I discussed in our paper, approximate economic determinism is consistent with the campaign mattering. The efforts of the two campaigns help to push voters toward the choices that would be expected based on the fundamentals.

  2. Tyson November 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    Good post, and I think you could run with Romney’s possible response a little more. He can say, “Sure the Republicans say no to everything, but it is because Obama doesn’t know how to reach across the table. The Republicans in Congress will support my plans (and by then presumably Rs in congress will have nice things to say about Ronmey), and I demonstrated in Mass that I know how to work with Dems too.”

    • Scott Monje November 10, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

      And he’ll assert that Obama’s plans would only have made things worse and had to be stopped.

      • matt w November 13, 2011 at 11:35 am #

        But then he’d be allying himself with the Congressional Republicans, and we’re back to the stink of garlic question. John’s original post asked why voters should blame Romney for McConnell’s filibusters; you’re basically suggesting that Romney should endorse the filibusters.

        (And I think this shows that the needle might be more difficult to thread than John suggests, if GOP obstructionism really is as unpopular as Tomasky suggests. Romney has to make the case that either the GOP isn’t really being that obstructive, or that the policies they’re obstructing are a good thing. “Vote for me because the jerks in my party won’t be as big jerks to me” doesn’t seem to me like a great pitch; the obvious solution is to throw out the jerks.)

  3. dr November 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm #

    I take your point about the need to counterbalance a tendency to overweight messaging and advertising, but I also wonder if there isn’t also a need to say more about which campaign tactics work.

    For example, I was reading the AP coverage of the defeat of SB-5 in Ohio, and it contained this: “We Are Ohio, the largely union-funded opponent coalition, painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, spending $24 million on a campaign that included millions of dollars on TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.”

    Here’s what I know about the union opposition. In addition to whatever money was spent on TV ads, a lot of effort was put into organizing, both through canvassing and through education efforts run through locals. And yet, the press coverage focuses on the ads that the labor coalition ran.

    It seems to me that maybe the problem is the overemphasis on messaging generally, not just that it is overemphasized relative to to fundamentals.

    I’m wondering how you react to this, and am particularly interested in your thoughts on the work of Green and Gerben on canvassing, and the more recent paper (I forget the author, but Suzy Khimm wrote about it today on WonkBook) about the effects of townhalls on voter participation in Benin.

    • Sebastian November 11, 2011 at 2:01 am #

      I agree that organizing – i.e. getting people to talk to people – is much more effective than campaign messaging – and I take John Side’s writing on Perry’s Texas eggheads (which, I believe included Gerber&Green ) to suggest that he agrees.

      In presidential elections, even in battleground states, the effect of this is still small and will only make a difference in very few cases. People are more likely to have made up their minds, the ones who are going to vote are mostly going anyway, etc.

      However, the less prominent an election, the more important campaigning becomes – I vaguely remember some literature on stronger campaign effects in midterms. I’d expect the effects to be much, much bigger on referendums – so the unions’ organizing very likely did play a major role.

      • Scott Monje November 11, 2011 at 9:25 am #

        But isn’t the assumption there that less prominent races don’t usually have $24 million ad campaigns?

        • Sebastian November 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

          For one, I’m talking in relative terms here – so yes, even with 24m spent, the issue is still a lot more obscure than a Presidential election. Less media coverage, less watercooler conversation, no “faces” clearly associated with either choice, etc.

          Second, as far as the amount matters, just as John noted in his 538 post on campaigns, the fact the the unions vastly outpspend their opponents likely mattered.