In the first e-chapter of The Gamble, “The Hand You’re Dealt,” Lynn Vavreck and I argued that an incumbent running amidst even modest economic growth was the favorite. Certain economic indicators were certainly not favorable to the president, but composites of multiple indicators suggested that Obama was favored — though this was difficult for some commentators to realize. Indeed, when we helped Wonkblog develop a simple forecasting model, its optimistic prediction for Obama, as Ezra Klein notes, seemed unwarranted. Now, not so much. Ultimately, the story of the 2012 election parallels the story of the 2008 election in this respect.
That the candidate favored by the fundamentals won the election does not mean that the campaign itself was irrelevant. Lynn and I hope to show how the campaign mattered in our book. But it does mean that we should be cautious claiming that Obama’s campaign was “flawless,” as I heard on MSNBC tonight. Again, the same thing was said in 2008, except then the Obama campaign was apparently only “near flawless.”
You can’t infer the quality of a campaign from the outcome. A victory does not mean that the winner’s campaign was perfect, nor that the loser’s campaign was an unmitigated disaster. In 2012, Obama’s victory may have derived partly from smart campaigning, but it also derived from the simple fact that, after a disastrous recession and financial crisis, even a slow and sometimes halting economic recovery can be enough.