Is Nate Silver right? Is Obama the strongest candidate Democrats can put forward in 2012? A student forwarded me this New York Times’ column by Silver in which he takes issue with my suggestion in this widely-circulated post that Hillary Clinton might in fact be a stronger candidate for Democrats. (Interestingly, Silver studiously refrains from actually mentioning Voldemort’s …. Er ….Hillary’s name until very late in the post, and then not in the context of her actually challenging Obama. Instead he speaks of unnamed Democrats! )
Silver pushes back on my premise, arguing instead that “The evidence, if anything points in the opposite direction: Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, and probably gives Democrats a better chance of maintaining the White House than another Democrat [Voldemort?] would.” As evidence, Silver cites three factors:
1.First, Obama’s personal favorability ratings, at about 50%, are high relative to his job approval ratings which have sunk to 40%. He suggests that because voters like Obama personally, they may be more inclined to vote for him.
2. Second, Obama’s low approval ratings are higher than they should be given voters’ generally pessimistic view regarding the state of the nation. Conclusion? See point one.
3. Third, there’s no reason to think any other Democrat would be able to “shed Mr. Obama’s liabilities on the economy.” Moreover, his policy views track very closely to the “typical” Democrat in Congress. So, even if another Democrat ran, “the message would be mostly the same – but delivered by a Democrat who was probably no more effective than Mr. Obama, and who would lack the aesthetic and tactical advantages of being an incumbent president”.
Silver adds a final thought: that if Obama voluntarily stepped down he would be viewed as a “quitter” and – citing the historical examples of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 – there’s no reason to expect that his replacement would do any better.
Silver makes an interesting argument, but in the end I am not yet persuaded that he is right. To begin, as I have discussed repeatedly at this site, political science forecast models based on the “fundamentals”: – war casualties, growth in disposal income, changes in GDP – leave little room for the impact of candidate “favorability” ratings on electoral outcomes. This actually is consistent with Silver’s third point, if not his first two – that any Democrat will be hobbled by the same conditions that, as of now, put Obama’s reelection in doubt. However, it is possible that in a very close race – and right now several of the forecast models suggest 2012 will be such a race – a candidate’s favorability ratings might matter at the margins. Rather than assume that Obama’s comparatively high favorability rating make him the de facto strongest candidate, however, we should see if any other Democrats are viewed even more favorably? Thinking, thinking….why yes! Hillary Clinton’s favorability ratings have been consistently in the mid-60% range, significantly higher than Obama’s, dating back to the end of 2009 (as have her approval ratings). Here’s a Gallup poll comparison from last March.
Note in particular her support among independents - a key voting bloc that Obama won in 2008, but which Democrats lost in the 2010 midterms, as well as with Republicans. Indeed, it is these groups that give her the advantage over Obama; they have roughly equal favorability ratings among Democrats.
To be sure, these high favorability numbers will likely drop if she announces her candidacy – but by how much? That’s an empirical question.
Keep in mind that although current polling typically has Hillary with a higher favorability rating than Obama, that was not the case in 2007-08, however; then her favorability ratings were consistently 5-10% below Obama’s.
However, even in the depths of the 2008 nomination fight, Clinton’s favorability ratings hovered near 50%, about even with her unfavorability ratings, in the Gallup poll. In the CNN polls of registered voters during the 2008 nomination battle she retained even more impressive favorability/unfavorability ratings.
So, assuming candidate favorability comes into play at the margins in a close 2012 election – a big assumption – the question we need to ask is whether Clinton’s current advantage in favorability (and approval ratings) over Obama will be sustained, or will it revert to its 2008 component, or will it adjust somewhere in between? Interestingly, in this earlier post Silver suggests a potential answer: looking at the last three presidential elections, he finds a statistically significant if not substantively huge correlation between candidates’ favorability ratings in the six months before the nomination process officially kicks off in Iowa and those candidates’ favorability ratings during the actual post-Iowa primary season. That is, early favorability ratings help predict later ones, up to a point. If Silver is right, Hillary’s current advantage over Obama in favorability ratings may continue through the primary season. Of course, there are all sorts of caveats to this analysis. In particular, should we use favorability ratings of someone who is not a declared candidate as a starting point? And given the not exactly robust correlation between early and late favorability ratings, is the current difference between Clinton and Obama even substantively meaningful?
I confess I don’t know the answer to those questions. But without those answers, I cannot, as yet, accept Silver’s argument that Obama is likely to be the strongest Democratic candidate; an equally valid case can be made that Clinton will run stronger. Interestingly, the biggest advantage Clinton is likely to have is precisely the one that Silver cites in Obama’s favor, namely, she would lack the aesthetic and tactical DISadvantages of being an incumbent president! In the end, Obama must run on his record. Clinton can run on the promise of hope and change. In a close election, that might be enough to win.
(NOTE: I’m writing a separate post on Silver’s second point that Obama’s approval ratings are outperforming the economy, so will postpone discussion of that.)