Today we’re going to take a look at the upcoming presidential election from a different angle. We’re not going to talk about Paul Ryan, political agendas, fundraising or the campaigns. We’re not going to talk about personalities or character. We’re not even going to talk about the two candidates. Today, we’re just going to look at recent elections, supporting data and how understanding the past helps us to predict the future.
Reagan vs Carter
We’re going to start with something a little more anecdotal. In the summer of 1980, the polls had President Carter beating challenger Ronald Reagan. These same polls showed ex-President Ford beating Carter. The republican establishment was concerned. They wanted Reagan to pick Ford as his vice president. Basically a co-president. Reagan declined and picked the first George Bush. Reagan ran on a platform of conservative values and American greatness. He went on to beat Carter. In hindsight, did Carter have a chance? The economy was bad. Unemployment was rising. Interest rates were high. People were concerned about the future. This is not the type of atmosphere where voters reward a president with four more years.
A friend asked me about a year ago if Obama had a chance at winning. My initial response was that it all depends on the unemployment numbers. An oversimplification, but still a valid point. Presidents don’t get reelected with high unemployment. I commented that if unemployment was above 8.5%, that Obama would lose. And if unemployment fell below 8%, he could make the case that his policies were working. Unemployment sits at about 8.25%. But that’s just the official number. Real unemployment is much higher — closer to 10.6%. Millions have been fleeing the workforce. The economy is flat. It’s been the movement from people leaving the workforce that has moved the official unemployment rate down from 10.2%. I wrote about this here. And you can read more about this from James Pethokoukis here.
Here’s a portion of James’ article:
Only in a world of lowered, New Normal expectations was the July jobs report anything less than another disaster for U.S. workers.
– This continues to be the longest stretch of 8% or higher unemployment since the Great Depression, 42 straight months.
– If the labor force participation rate was the same as when Obama took office in January 2009, the unemployment rate would be 11.0%.
– Even if you take into account that the LFP should be declining as America ages, the unemployment rate would be 10.6%.
– If the labor force participation rate hadn’t declined since just last month, the unemployment rate would have risen to 8.4%.
– The broader U-6 unemployment rate, which includes “all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons,” ticked up to 15.0%.
Incumbents Lose the Undecided Vote
In presidential elections, the undecideds rarely vote for the incumbent. Why? Because if you haven’t made up your mind about the president after four years, you’re probably not going to vote for him. In elections where the incumbents have won (such as Reagan in 1984 or Clinton 1996) or when they’ve lost (such as Carter in 1976 or Bush in 1992), approximately 80% of the undecideds vote for the challenger. So if you see a poll that shows Romney and Obama each at 45%, what you really have is a Romney win of 53-47. Polls typically show 3-5% of people supporting “some other candidate”, but most will end up voting for one of the two primary candidates anyway. In the last two presidential elections, only about 1% of the vote has been cast for a third party candidate.
One of the keys to look for in the polls are if they’ve polled likely voters. Some poll adults. Some poll registered votes. When polling adults or registered voters, the results tend to favor the democrats. But polling likely voters tends to be the most accurate predictor of elections. Rasmussen Reports polls likely voters, and as of today, they have Romney leading 47-43. And if you follow the 80% rule from above, then you’ve got a Romney win of 55-45.
Mid-Term House Elections Predict Presidential Elections
This is an interesting chart comparing mid-term elections in the House of Representatives to the following presidential elections and House elections. Notice how the House votes in 1998, 2002 and 2006 almost perfectly predict the results in 2000, 2004 and 2008. If this trend holds true, then Romney will beat Obama by something close to the seven-point margin that republicans beat democrats in the House in 2010.
President’s don’t typically win reelection when their approval rating is below 50%. One exception was George W. Bush who had an approval rating of 48% with registered voters in 2004, but was above 50% with likely voters. As of today, Rasmussen has Obama’s approval/disapproval ratings at 45-53, and Gallup has them at 43-51.
Over Sampling of Democrats
This has been an interesting phenomenon this year. In 2008, Obama beat McCain by seven points, and democrats outvoted republicans by seven points. But as we’ve seen, the mid-term election is probably a better predictor of turnout than the past presidential election. And in 2010, republicans and democrats voted in fairly equal numbers. So you would think that pollsters would weight their polls according to expected participation. But they do not. Many of the national polls have been sampling democrats by anywhere from 6-19 points higher than republicans. And they’re not weighting the results. With democratic enthusiasm down, it’s unlikely that democrats will outvote republicans by a significant margin. If at all. These polls are not likely to be indicative of how people will actually vote.
This is also going on in the state polls. For instance, a recent CBS/NYT poll showed Obama with a six point lead over Romney in Florida. In 2008, democrats outvoted republicans by 3 points in Florida. In 2010, they were an even split. So what’s a realistic expectation for 2012? Probably a slight advantage for democrats — maybe a point or two. But the CBS/NYT’s poll oversampled democrats by nine points. And they still only have Obama up by six.
The Future’s Not Bright
In just about every poll, Americans are pessimistic about the future. Economic confidence is down. People are pessimistic about jobs. The majority feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Similar to what Carter faced in 1980, this is a difficult atmosphere for an incumbent president.
Pethokoulis And More Stats
If you really want to read some more, check out this article from James Pethokoukis. He explains five stats and how Obama stacks up. All five show Obama with a tough mountain to climb.
My prediction at this point is that the presidential election will feel similar to the recent Wisconsin recall election. Polls will be close till the end. Exit polling will show the election too close to call. Then in the end, it won’t be very close at all. I’m predicting a Romney win 52-47.