On Obama’s Secret Weapon

Michael Tomasky’s piece at the Daily Beast about presidential elections 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 percent 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?

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.