Campaigns and elections

Where the Presidential Race Stands Now

John Sides Aug 23 '12

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I was on MSNBC’s “The Cycle” yesterday, trying not to look as much like a zombie as I do above and also talking a bit about some of the data from the first chapter of The Gamble, which is called “The Hand You’re Dealt.”  You can download the chapter for free here.  The title of the chapter refers to how economic and political conditions provide a context for elections that is largely out of the candidates’ control.  As is common in political science, Lynn Vavreck and I refer to these conditions as “the fundamentals.”

I’ve not done a lot of meta-blogging about the presidential race because, to be honest, there hasn’t been much to say.  Not much has changed in the last two months.  In fact, explaining the lack of change — namely, the stability in the polls — is probably the most important task here on the eve of party conventions, which should finally produce at least some change.

Why so little change?  First, the economic news — although suggesting a slowdown in growth — isn’t dramatic enough to change the underlying fundamentals.  Moreover, as I said on “The Cycle,” without any dramatic trend the resulting balance of economic indicators is favorable for Obama, though not strongly so.  This is, in part, why the forecasting model that Lynn Vavreck, Seth Hill, and I helped develop for Wonkblog, suggested Obama would win.  Lynn and I reach the same conclusion with a elaborated forecasting exercise in “The Hand You’re Dealt.”  This is, in part, why forecasts that build in economic indicators — as at 538 and Votamatic — suggest the same.  And yet people still think Obama should be losing because of the economy.  That is simply not the case.  The state of the economy does not guarantee him victory but neither does it presage defeat.

Second, partisan loyalties are strong.  A lot of votes are just locked in.  This is true in every election — and therefore hardly a novel observation — but it seems to be especially true now.  Drew Linzer made this graph of the percent undecided in 2012 vs. 2008.

In “The Hand You’re Dealt,” Lynn and I talk about how party loyalty in presidential approval ratings may be helping to keep Obama’s numbers aloft:

bq. Although commentators have often been quick to compare Obama to Carter, one key difference between them is how much more Democrats supported Obama than they did Carter. When Carter’s approval was at its nadir in the fall of 1979, barely one-third of Democrats approved of the job he was doing (compared to about 20% of Republicans), according to Gallup polls. Even Bill Clinton, now seemingly beloved by Democrats, was less popular among Democrats—63% of whom approved of him in June 1993—than was Obama in his first term. In fact, averaging over each Democratic president’s first three years in office, Obama was more popular with Democratic voters than every one of them except John F. Kennedy—and even Kennedy’s average approval among Democrats was only 4 points higher than Obama’s. Obama was actually as popular among Democrats during these years as was Reagan among Republicans in 1981–83.

The chapter ends with the requisite note of caution: the fundamentals do not tilt strongly enough toward Obama to make the outcome a foregone conclusion.  But if we start with those fundamentals and, most importantly, get them right, we can go some distance in explaining why Obama’s lead persists and why it’s still his election to lose.

Again, you can find the first chapters of The Gamble here and here.