Monthly Archives: July 2012

The 2012 Election: Polarized Voters – Or Polarized Choices?

I want to pick up a discussion I began in this post at the Economist’s Democracy in America site regarding political science election forecast models. At this point in the presidential race, less than 100 days before the election, some of the fundamentals that political scientists incorporate into these econometric models are set, and we are going to see more of their predictions come out in the next several weeks.  As I noted in the earlier post, with the release of the 2nd quarter GDP figures last Friday, all the pieces are in place for Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz to issue his “Time for A Change” forecast.  It predicts that Obama will receive 50.5% of the major party vote in November, making him a very slight favorite to retain the presidency.  But as I discussed, Abramowitz has tweaked his forecast model, adding a “polarization” variable that he describes as follows: “For elections since 1996, the polarization variable takes on the value 1 when there is a first-term incumbent running or when the incumbent president has a net approval rating of greater than zero; it takes on the value -1 when there is not a first-term incumbent running and the incumbent president has a net approval rating of less than zero.”

Based on this description, the polarization variable will come into effect in 2012, since Obama is a first-term incumbent.  This matters, because the addition of the polarization variable reduces Obama’s projected vote share by more  than 2%.  That is, under the “traditional” pre-polarization Abramowitz model, if I’ve done my calculations correctly, his forecast would have Obama winning 52.7% of the major party vote – a more comfortable margin!  However, as Abramowitz explains, his traditional model had overstated the winning candidate’s margin of victory in the last four elections.  The reason, he argues, is an increasingly polarized electorate that is less likely to cross party lines to vote for the other party’s candidate even when the “fundamentals” suggest they should. The polarization variable brings his predictions more in line with the actual results of the last four elections.

But is the variable justified, or is it simply an ad hoc retrofit that has no substantive basis?  In previous posts I have argued that there is little evidence that the public has become more polarized in recent years, even as political elites have grown increasingly partisan.  Abramowitz, however, disagrees. As he and his  co-author Kyle Saunders write in this article “The argument that polarization in America is almost entirely an elite phenomenon appears to be contradicted by a large body of research by political scientists on recent trends in American public opinion.”  Moreover, they argue that this increase in polarization tends to make citizens more engaged in politics – not less. As evidence, they point to National Election Studies (NES) data that show a steady increase, from about 50% in 1952 to about 75% in 2004, in the number of Americans who perceive a strong difference between the two parties.  There was a similar increase, from just under 70% to well over 80% during this time span in the number of Americans who care who wins the presidential election.   This is evidence, Abramowitz argues, that voters are increasingly polarized, and he uses it to justify tweaking his traditional model.

The problem with the Abramowitz/Saunders’ claim  of a more polarized America, as Mo Fiorina has pointed out, is that it confuses a polarization in voter choices with polarization among voters themselves.   Thus, we should not be surprised that an increasing number of Americans perceive a difference between the parties.  There is a difference, but it reflects a process of party sorting  – not a growth in ideological extremism.  Simply put, party labels have become increasingly aligned with partisan ideology; there are fewer conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans today.  So quite naturally more people perceive a difference between the parties today than they did a half-century ago – but this does not mean the public is more polarized along partisan lines.

Similarly, if the choices for president are viewed as more ideologically extreme, it makes sense that more voters are going to express an interest in who wins.  Indeed, one reason voter turnout was so high in 2004 and again in 2008 is that that many voters viewed the candidates as espousing ideologically distinct views on the major issues.  In 2004, as Abramowitz’s own data shows, George W. Bush was a very polarizing figure.  It is therefore no great surprise that a record number of voters cared who won the presidential election that year, and that turnout was up.  A similar argument can be made about the 2008 presidential race.

So, if the American public is not increasingly polarized, contrary to Abramowitz’s claims, does that invalidate his inclusion of a polarization variable in his forecast model for the post-1992 presidential elections?  Is Obama more likely to get 52.7% of the popular vote rather than 50.5%? Not necessarily.  Abramowitz’ explanation may be faulty,  but the polarization variable may still work if more voters are viewing their choices in the presidential election in polarized terms.    Even if this is true, however, I’d like to see more evidence suggesting that the public’s perception of the ideological differences between the presidential candidates grew significantly higher in 1996, and has remained higher ever since, as Abramowitz’s new forecast model suggests.  Moreover, I’m not sure this is leading an increasing number of voters to cast ballots contrary to what the fundamentals would indicate – it may be instead that they see the two candidates’ issue stances regarding the fundamentals  as distinctly different.  Thus, in 2012, Romney and Obama are espousing two very distinct views for addressing the lingering effects of the Great Recession.  Many moderate voters may not buy entirely into either view but they don’t have the luxury of mixing and matching elements from both candidates’ programs.  Instead, they must choose – even if they don’t necessarily fully embrace either choice.

The GDP Numbers Are In – Do They Say Obama Will Win?

The much awaited second quarter GDP growth figure came out yesterday and, while it wasn’t a disaster, neither was it particularly good sign for the economy – or for President Obama’s reelection chances.  The government’s first estimate (they often revise the figure as new data comes in) is that GDP grew at an anemic 1.5% – a .5% drop from first quarter growth, and only half of the growth rate experienced during the last quarter of 2011.   This downward trend line is not what an incumbent president wants to see heading into an election.

As you know from reading my previous posts, GDP growth is one way of measuring one of the key “fundamentals” – the state of the economy – that I have been arguing is far more important to the election outcome than the Bain controversy or Obama’s verbal “gaffes”.  But it isn’t the only factor influencing the election, and so we shouldn’t overstate its significance either.  Peter Cahill has gathered data on second quarter GDP growth in every election year dating back to 1948, and correlated it with the actual share of the major-party vote won by the incumbent presidential party’s candidate.

Think of the trend line as the “real” linear relationship between GDP growth and vote share. If we plug 1.5% into the equation defining that line, it predicts that Obama will get about 50.3% of the two-party vote come November based on 2nd quarter GDP growth alone.  However, as you can see from the graph, while higher GDP growth generally correlates with a greater vote share, the relationship is not perfect; GDP growth only explains about 36% of the variation in vote share.  So a lot of other factors are going to come into play.  What are they?  As I discussed in yesterday’s post for the Economist’s DIA blog, Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz’ “Time for A Change” forecast model adds three additional variables to second quarter GDP growth: the incumbent’s net approval (approval minus disapproval) in the Gallup poll at the end of June, how long the incumbent’s party has held the presidency and – in a recent innovation – a “polarization” term that takes into account the increased polarization of the electorate since 1996.  With yesterday’s GDP release, all the figures are in place for Abramowitz to predict Obama’s share of the major party vote come November.

Drum roll please!

By plugging the relevant numbers into the Abramowitz forecast equation, it spits out Obama’s predicted share of the major party vote come November as 50.5% – not much different from our estimate based only on second-quarter GDP growth. Based on the confidence interval around this prediction, Abramowitz estimates that if history holds Obama has about a two-thirds probability of winning the election.

This is an estimate, mind you, based on data from a small number (16!) of previous presidential elections.  But I would argue that it is better than a guess – Abramowitz’s model has performed generally quite well in out-of-sample forecasts, coming within 1.5% of the actual vote about three-quarters of the time. On the other hand, I  wouldn’t bet my kid’s tuition, based on this one model, that Obama will be victorious.  In short, it is telling us what pretty much every other  indicator suggests: that this is going to be a very, very close election but that Obama can be considered a very slight  favorite.

So, does this mean the outcome is already in the bag, and that what happens from here on out doesn’t matter.  Not at all.  Campaigns do matter – see my previous posts here and here.  And in terms of consequences, in such a close election,  they arguably matter even more this time around.

Abramowitz’s model, of course, is only one of several constructed by political scientists and, as I discussed in my Economist post, his recent change to his model is not sitting well with everyone. (I’ll discuss this in a separate post.) By my count, there were more than a dozen econometric-based forecast models in 2008.  Although they were all, save one, able to predict Obama’s victory, they weren’t equally reliable in forecasting the actual popular vote (although they did pretty well in the aggregate). And, of course, as we get closer to the actual election,  none of them will be as reliable as simply aggregating the public opinion polls, which is what Sam Wang, Nate Silver and others will end up doing.  So why discuss them at all?  Because the best ones remind us that there is a context to this election which largely determines how it will turn out.  And right now that context is saying that this election may be too close to call.

Changing the Abramowitz Presidential Forecast Model: Is It Science?

Beginning today I’ll be posting on a weekly basis (or more frequently) over at the Economist‘s Democracy In America blog site.  My first post, addressing Alan Abramowitz’s recent changes to his presidential forecast model, is up there now (here).  Although I can’t cross-post anything I write for the Economist here, I will be sure to put up a link whenever I post there, and I encourage you to take peek.

As you might expect, given the Economist’s audience, I may have to be just a bit less irreverent and insouciant (you aren’t likely to see an entire “conversation”” with Sarah Palin written in palindromes, or political allegories involving Kim Kardashian for example), but otherwise I plan on addressing the same issues, from the same non-partisan perspective, as you’ve come to expect here at the Presidential Power site.  And I will continue posting here as well – we’ve built up a pretty good readership over four years and I enjoy the bipartisan and thoughtful nature of the comments and the intellectual exchange.  You don’t  get that at very many political blogs.

So, go take a peek at my inaugural post at the Economist, but remember to check back here for my regular postings.  As always, if you prefer to be put on the distribution list for postings here, drop me an email at  Your email address remains private.

Condi! Condi! Condi! (Condi?)

Sometime in mid-August Mitt Romney will announce his vice-presidential choice.  Because it is a decision that will garner more than a little publicity, it is one of few planned campaign events, along with his convention speech and perhaps the first debate, that provides the potential to swing a few of the undecideds into his camp.  The smart money right now is on Ohio Senator Rob Portman, followed by former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Florida Senator Marco Rubio rounding out the top tier. The fiscal conservatives in the Republican base, meanwhile, are pushing for Representative Paul Ryan.  New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte’s name has also surfaced recently, as has New Mexico’s Governor Susana Martinez, fueled in party by Ann Romney’s statement that a woman was in the running.

Look, I understand the logic for choosing any of these individuals. Portman makes the most sense, of course – executive experience, knows Washington, DC and particularly budget politics and, of course, represents Ohio, which is perhaps the most important swing state in the election. Pawlenty has strong support among evangelicals and has already been vetted by virtue of nearly being named McCain’s running mate in 2008.  Rubio has ethnic appeal in another important swing state.

But really – do these names excite you?  I mean Tim Pawlenty?  There’s a reason Michelle Bachman crushed him in the Ames Straw poll! If we assume that by virtue of the economic fundamentals that President Obama’s natural support tops out at about 48% of the popular vote right now, this election is up for the taking – assuming the Mittster can win over a good chunk of those who are willing to vote for change, but need to be convinced that he’s the guy who can bring it.  What better way than by rejecting conventional wisdom in choosing your running mate?

Mitt should think big – and choose Condi Rice. Wait – before you label me “Matt Drudge”, hear me out. Yes, I know her view on abortion doesn’t comport with Mitt’s most recent one.  But the bottom line is: which candidate is most likely to swing those undecideds into Mitt’s column?  I say it’s Condi.  As evidence, consider these recent PPP polls in Pennsylvania and Michigan.  (These are automated polls conducted by telephone.)  In both states, PPP has Obama leading by comfortable margins; in Michigan, he leads Romney by 14 points, 53-39 (margin of error +/-4.1%), and in Pennsylvania by 6 points, 49-43 (m.o.e. +/-3.6%).  These results are almost unchanged from those in PPP polling a month ago.

A sizeable gender gap is a big reason for Obama’s lead in both states; women support him over Romney 59%-33% in Michigan and 54%-37% in Pennsylvania. But what happens if you put Condi on the ticket?  According to PPP, which polled a number of different VP possibilities in both states, Rice would boost Romney by 6 points in Michigan and in Pennsylvania.  That would move Mitt into a tie in the Keystone state and at least make Michigan more competitive.

None of the other three VP candidates – Portman, Pawlenty or Jindal – that PPP polled in these states had nearly the same impact. Indeed, Romney loses 1-2% in Michigan with any of those three as his VP.  All three have higher negatives than positives there.  In contrast, Condi is viewed favorably by 56%, unfavorably by only 28%, and Romney runs about 5-6% stronger among women with her on the ticket than with any of the other three.  The same is true among independents; Romney gains 2% among this group with Condi as his VP, but loses support if he chooses from the others.  She even boosts Mitt’s support among African-Americans by 5% (from 3% to 8%) and by a whopping 26% among the 18-29 year-old voting group.  Condi is hip!

In Pennsylvania it is a similar story. Condi has huge favorability numbers (60%) and she’s the only VP candidate that boosts Mitt’s numbers against the President. Although the gender payoff among women with Rice on the ticket is only marginally better, she gains Mitt 15% among independents, giving him a 46-38% lead among this group.  She’s even viewed favorably by Democrats in Pennsylvania (47%-38%) and in Michigan (41%-40%).

These results come on the heels of a Fox News poll released a week ago that showed Condi as the clear frontrunner among respondents for the VP slot, with 30% preferring her on the ticket compared to only 12% supporting Rubio, who came in second. Among women, she was easily the top choice, backed by 33%.  In that poll, Obama led Romney overall by 45%-41%.  But with Rice on the ticket, Romney pulled even with the President, at 46% a piece. She boosts his support among independents by 6% and among women by 5%.

Can you say “game changer”?

But wait. Before you buy your “Rice is Nice” t-shirt and “I’m Randy for Condi” coffee mug, keep in mind that these are hypothetical matchups. Much of Rice’s polling advantage in the PPP polls is likely rooted in her much higher name recognition compared to the lesser-known trio of men.  And in the heat of a campaign, when opposition research will remind voters of her record in the Bush administration and those unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, those favorability numbers are sure to drop.   It is also true that many Republican conservatives aren’t enamored of her. As I noted, she’s mildly pro-choice.  She also supports affirmative action in some cases.

In assessing a Mitt-Condi ticket, however, the alternative is not some ideal vice president – it’s one of these other individuals, all of whom have their own liabilities.  And some of Condi’s weaknesses – particularly her somewhat moderate social views – will actually play well in the general electorate.  I’m not one who thinks Mitt needs to shore up his base – I think he needs to win over the undecided moderates.  In theory, Condi can do this.  It is true she’s never run for office so we can’t be sure how she will do on the stump.  Reportedly in small-group settings she routinely wows her audience – a good sign for the fundraising circuit.

In previous posts I’ve cautioned that the vice presidential choice rarely has an impact on the general election, and I stand by that generalization. But as I’ve noted before, in a close election, even a marginal impact can be the difference between winning and losing.

Yes, I know she has said she won’t run.  But would she really turn down a direct request to serve her country?  I don’t think so.

Condi. She’s got southern roots, Washington, DC experience, foreign policy expertise and she plays a mean piano too.  I can see her now, surrounded by foreign dignitaries in the White House, belting out the theme from “Evita”.

Quite the prodigy, wasn’t she?

Condi for Vice President. What’s not to like?

P.S.  The Miller Center has a nice piece discussing whether the VP choice will make a difference.



No, Wait! This Is Really A Game-Changer! I Mean It!

Yesterday’s campaign events and related media coverage perfectly illustrate the points I’ve been making in my last several posts regarding the relative importance of campaigns and the underlying fundamentals as influences on presidential election outcomes.  First, in this New Yorker article, Jill Lepore buys into the standard media narrative which sees campaigns in terms of the daily duel of messaging, advertising and related tactics.  Not surprisingly, Lepore believes the recent efforts by the Obama campaign to highlight Romney’s Bain years and income tax statements have boxed Mitt in:  “On this turn, though, Romney has been outmaneuvered. His opponents in the primaries made it impossible for him to run on his record as governor of Massachusetts, and Obama’s campaign has made it very difficult for him to run on his record at Bain. All the same, the game is only just out of the box. Romney’s looking at an empty map and holding a fistful of pins. It’s his move.”

Of course, with four years of a stagnant economy, the real game is not “just out of the box” – but to Lepore, it’s all about the daily tactics, not the fundamentals.  And, in this context, Romney’s move was to create his own campaign ad based on an excerpt from Obama’s remarks at a campaign stop in Virginia. In his speech, Obama noted: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  This, for Romney, was Obama’s Bain moment – the excerpted comments fed into the frame of Obama as an anti-business apologist for big government. Predictably, Romney’s tactic set off a war of words among campaign surrogates as both sides sought to explain what Obama really meant.  (Believe me, it is hilarious to be on twitter when one of these campaign food fights break out.  The distortions and silliness of the back-and-forth tweeting is something to behold.)

Perhaps sensing vulnerability on the issue (at least that’s what the pundits told me!), the Obama campaign finally came back with this rebuttal ad that is now running in so-called battleground states:

The fact that the Obama administration was forced to bring out the Big Gun himself – the President talking directly to the camera – set the pundits a-twitter once more about how he was on the defensive and whether the “you didn’t build that” comment was driving down his support in the polls.

I hope you see the point. In the span of less than a month we’ve seen at least two incidents that received heavy media focus and that were, in the eyes of some pundits, potentially “game changing” moments – Romney’s Bain experience/income tax and now Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. For the media obsessed with the daily give-and-take on the campaign trail, these were important stories. Viewed in isolation from a partisan slant, it is easy to see why either one might change the campaign narrative. But for one of the dwindling number of voters who perhaps has not made up her mind, what you see is not a single ad or event, but instead dueling narratives composed of different ads that present contrasting takes on the these matters. That’s why any single ad, or related issue, usually isn’t a game-changing moment. Not surprisingly, despite – because of? – weeks of breathless media coverage,  the two candidates remain virtually deadlocked in national polls.

This is partly because, as this Pew survey indicates, most voters already feel like they know enough about the candidates to make up their mind.   Even on the controversial issues like Romney’s experience at Bain, or his income taxes, only about a third of respondents want more information. That’s true of independents as well.

When it comes to the President, Pew finds that “90% say they already pretty much know what they need to know about him; just 8% say they need to learn more.”  Given these numbers, there’s not a lot of maneuvering room for the candidates to change voters’ impressions, although Romney probably has a bit more potential flexibility– for better or for worse.

If the dueling ad campaigns are having any impact, it may be to drive the two candidates’ negative ratings higher. According to this MSNBC survey, Obama has his worst ratings in this category since he took office, with 32% of respondents rating their feelings toward him as “very negative.”  Romney’s “very negative” rating has also reached its high point to date, at 24%. When Pew asked,  “Has what you have you seen, read, or heard in the past couple weeks about [Mitt Romney or Barack Obama] and his campaign for president given you a more favorable impression of [either Romney or Obama]  or a less favorable impression”,  43%  chose “less favorable” for Romney, and 44% did so for Obama.  Faced with clashing negative ads, it appears that some voters are reacting by saying “a pox on both your houses.”

This likely won’t be the last time I caution you not overreact to the latest partisan-driven claim that we are experiencing a “game changing” moment.  Indeed, I could probably write a version of this post every day for the next three-plus months.  (You’d like that, wouldn’t you?)  But maybe the point is more easily grasped by considering previous “gaffes” that at least some pundits thought might cost either one of the candidates the election. Remember Romney declaring he likes to “fire” people, and that he pals around with plenty of NASCAR “owners”, and that his wife drives a few Cadillacs, and that we have no need for “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers”?  More recently, there was his initial description of the insurance mandate trigger as a “penalty”, not a “tax”. The Wall St. Journal editors were sure that would be a game changer.

Of course, Obama has had his own share of rhetorical gaffes, including his declaration that “the private sector is doing fine.”  Chris Cilliza wrote an entire column on how that would impact the election. Obama took heat as well for his description of “Polish death camps” (oops, there goes the Polish vote!)  And now the “you didn’t build that” declaration.

Yes, these were mistakes that were almost immediately incorporated into opposition campaign ads.  But did they change the course of the election?  I don’t think so.  And neither should you – no matter what the pundits declare to the contrary.