From Nate Silver’s excellent piece today in which he tries to identify the factors that might most reliably allow a serious person to look ahead at Pres. Obama’s chance of being reelected:
“In a survey conducted in late September 1983, Ronald Reagan actually trailed Walter Mondale by 2 points, and in October 1991, George H. W. Bush led Bill Clinton 55 to 20.”
Okay, we know how the elections of 1984 (Reagan by 49 states to one) and 1992 (Clinton by 370-168 in electoral votes) turned out. So we know that trial-heat matchup polls a year before the election don’t always predict the future (and frankly, I wish they weren’t even conducted).
Silver, the political number cruncher who now crunches for the NY Times, knows it too. And he isn’t attempting to predict the outcome (in the end he calls it a near toss-up from here, with a slightly greater likelihood of Obama losing than winning but with big huge caveats about a variety of factors — like how the economy is doing and whom the Repubs nominate, which could dramatically change that outlook).
As an exercise in working through the knowables and the unknowables, I thought the piece was brilliant and I commend it to you for a full read. But it’s quite long (who am I to talk) so for those who don’t click through I’ve selected a few excerpts that made me think or made me laugh.
Here, Silver describes the period when Obama stopped seeming like the favorite for reelection:
“Then came the debt-ceiling debates of July and August, which seemed to crystallize Obama’s vulnerabilities in a way that even the Democrats’ midterm disaster of 2010 did not. It’s probably because he handled the situation so poorly, simultaneously managing to annoy his base, frustrate swing voters, concede a major policy victory to Republicans and — through the fear imported into the market by the brinksmanship in Congress and the credit-rating downgrade that followed — further imperil the economic recovery. On Aug. 12, a week and a half after the debate ended in Congress, Obama’s stock on Intrade, a popular political betting market, dipped below 50 percent for the first time. It has hovered just below the 50 percent threshold, usually at about 48 percent, ever since.
Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog. Let’s not oversell this. A couple of months of solid jobs reports, or the selection of a poor Republican opponent, would suffice to make him the favorite again.”
A few generalizations about voter sentiments that add up to Obama-could-lose:
“… three fundamental misgivings shared by much of the American electorate.
• First, many of us understand that Barack Obama inherited a terrible predicament. We have a degree of sympathy for the man. But we have concerns, which have been growing over time, about whether he’s up to the job.
• Second, most of us are gravely concerned about the economy. We’re not certain what should be done about it, but we’re frustrated.
• Third, enough of us are prepared to vote against Obama that he could easily lose. It doesn’t mean we will, but we might if the Republican represents a credible alternative and fits within the broad political mainstream.”
Silver explains two leading theories about what determines the outcome of presidential elections: a “referendum” paradigm, in which the key question is how people feel about the incumbent’s performance and the identity of the opponent barely matters; and a “median voter” paradigm, in which the candidate whose views are closest to those of the voter at the exact middle of the spectrum should win. Silver assumes that of the of the plausible Repub nominees, Mitt Romney will give the Repubs the best chance under the “median voter” model, and that under the “referendum” model, the main indicator will be the performance of the economy.
Therefore, if the Repubs nominate Romney and the economy gets even worse (this is the bit that made me laugh) Silver assumes Obama is pretty near toast:
“[Obama’s] chances are slim enough in this case that if I woke up next November to discover that we would have four more years of Obama, I might ask whether there was some sort of October surprise: ‘Mitt in Torrid Affair With Filipina Housekeeper.’ Subhead: ‘Illegal Immigrant Got Free Romneycare.’ Then I might ask if Sarah Palin had run on the Tea Party ballot line and taken 6 percent of the vote.”
Silver’s final summation:
“With Perry having slumped in the polls, however, and Romney the more likely nominee, the odds tilt slightly toward Obama joining the list of one-termers. It is early, and almost no matter what, the election will be a losable one for Republicans. But Obama’s position is tenuous enough that it might not be a winnable one for him.”