On Writing about the Economy and Elections

Jul 20 '10

David Paul Kuhn of Real Clear Politics has a piece today taking issue with Ezra Klein and Paul Krugman for over-hyping the role of the economy and elections. Klein, relying in part on a graph I supplied him, wrote:

bq. For decades now, political scientists have been building election models that attempt to predict who will win in November without making any reference to candidates or campaigns. They can get within 2 points of the final vote, and they don’t need to know anything about the ads and the gaffes and the ground games. All they really need to know about is the economy.

Krugman wrote:

bq. Midterm elections, where turnout is crucial, aren’t quite like presidential elections, where the economy is all.

Kuhn objects that the economy isn’t all. He quotes me approvingly from an email exchange, in which I said “Elections are strongly related to the economy.” He quotes two political scientists and election forecasters, James Campbell and Alan Abramowitz, who say that “the economy is a junior partner” and “one factor and not always the most important one,” respectively. Then he describes a series of individual elections that illustrate the lack of complete correspondence between election outcomes and economic performance, concluding with this:

bq. This is why politics is also a game of inches. Campaigns matter on the margins. But many a president has been made on those margins.

Kuhn is certainly right that we should talk about the economy and elections in probabilistic terms like “is associated with” or “is strongly related to.” And he is right that campaigns matter on the margins. But I’m not really sympathetic to the motivation behind his piece.

On one level, his literal reading of Klein and Krugman is unnecessarily uncharitable. These are smart guys. They understand correlation vs. causation. They’re just writing for a mass audience and so wrote cleanly and boldly without a bunch of quasi-academic qualifiers and caveats.

In fact, I think it’s extremely helpful for Klein and Krugman to make this case boldly — which is, no doubt, why Josh applauded Krugman yesterday. Here’s the position I find myself in as a political scientist. Economic performance explains some large fraction of the variation in presidential election outcomes, presidential approval, trust in government, and many other things. But most political journalism ignores this fact and prefers to talk about tactics and narrative.

Case in point: how many of the 15 “political experts” writing in the New York Times’s forum on “how Obama can rebound” emphasized the simple fact that the economy is weak and so Obama will not rebound significantly until it turns around? One. Mark Blumenthal. The rest wrote about policy hobbyhorses, strategery, and a bunch of other stuff that could matter “at the margins” but probably won’t, and certainly won’t matter as much as economic performance over the rest of his term.

It’s actually valuable to state the economic case as starkly as Klein and Krugman did. In my blogger persona, I sometimes do that too. There is strategic value in doing so. The view of many, if not most, political journalists is miles from where political science stands. If it takes a statement like Klein’s (or some of mine) to pull that view towards one that acknowledges that economic performance is the key driver, then that’s fine with me.