No Bread, No Victory: Why Obama Might Lose in 2012

Another day, another political science forecast.  This one, Professor Doug Hibbs’ Bread and Peace model, is one of the more parsimonious forecast efforts around.  He essentially uses two variables – a weighted average of the per capita disposable personal income growth rate across the President’s term and U.S. military fatalities in unprovoked wars – to estimate the incumbent party’s share of the major party vote.   Of the two variables, the weighted average of quarterly income growth (his personal income coefficient includes the election term growth rates dating back through the first quarter of the president’s electoral term, with most recent income growth rate carrying almost 4 times the weight as the earliest) as the single best indicator of voters’ perception of the state of the economy.  But Hibbs argues as well that a party initiating an unprovoked war will also suffer electorally, with the size of the electoral penalty increasing in proportion to the cumulative number of U.S. military casualties per capita.

The underlying logic driving the Hibbs’ model is the idea that I have addressed in previous posts: that presidential elections are largely retrospective referendums on the performance of the party in power.  Note that typically this referendum centers on the incumbent party’s handling of the economy; as this chart shows, Hibbs’ disposable income variable does a good job predicting election outcomes since 1952 all by itself.

You can see, however, that the economic variable didn’t do very well in 1952 or 1968; in both cases the incumbent  party’s candidate did  much worse than economic conditions seemingly warranted.  The reason why, Hibbs’ argues, is because voters were blaming the incumbent party’s candidate for unpopular wars in Korea and Vietnam. Hence the addition of the fatalities variable in his model.  Note that this variable will come into play, according to Hibbs, in 2012, since Obama chose to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.  But, as we’ll see below, it won’t have nearly the impact on Obama’s vote share that the slow growth in disposable income will have.

Note that Hibbs shows particular disdain for forecast models that include what he views as ad hoc variables designed to better fit the prediction to actual election outcomes, but which add nothing theoretically.  Thus, in contrast to the Abramowitz model that I’ve discussed here and at the Economist DIA site, he has no use for presidential approval variables.  Although knowing how popular a president is may improve the forecast’s accuracy, it doesn’t tell us why the President has this approval rating. Presumably it has something to do with the state of the economy – but Hibbs already accounts for that.  (Indeed, he finds that his “bread” and “peace” variables account for almost half the variation in presidential approval ratings).  So in his view approval ratings aren’t very helpful in understanding what causes a particular election outcome.

For somewhat different reasons he dismisses the inclusion of time-related variables, including that used by Abramowitz,  that punish or reward a president depending on how long his party has held the presidency.  As Hibbs writes, “I regard the rationalizations of the time-coded variables …as fanciful and ad-hoc.”  He shows that when these time variables are removed from some of the more well-known forecast models, their predictive capacity drops substantially.

I’ve gone through Hibbs model in some detail to remind you of two points I made in my exchanges with Nate Silver regarding the difference between political science forecast models and what Silver does.  First, Hibbs’ entire forecast model is open to scrutiny by others, so that when it goes wrong, we can see why.  And that gets to the purpose of this forecasting enterprise:  political scientists want to do more than simply predict the outcome of an election.  Doing that is quite easy: just aggregate all the most recent state level polls on the day before the election. You will hit the final Electoral College vote tally almost squarely on the head.  But that doesn’t tell you why someone won the election – for that you need a theoretical explanation that you can put to the test.  Hibbs’ theory says voters in 2012 will vote largely on the basis of their evaluation of Obama’s handling of the economy and, to a lesser extent, the fatalities resulting from his decision to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

So this brings us to Hibbs’ prediction for 2012.  Looking only at disposable income alone, he argues the situation does not look good for Obama; the weighted average quarterly growth rate since Obama took office is only .1%, far below the post-World War II average of 1.8%.  His model suggests that the U.S. has to experience at least 1.2% growth for a president to win 50% of the two-party vote. Barring spectacular growth in the next two quarters, then, Obama is going to fall short of rate needed to win a 50% share of the vote. When you include the  Afghanistan-related casualties – actual and projected – and assuming a growth rate in disposable income of between 1 and 2% in the last two quarters of 2012, Hibbs’ projects that Obama will likely lose the election, garnering only about 47.5% of the two-party vote.

As he readily acknowledges, his forecast is something of an outlier compared to the predictions of several other political science models, including Abramowitz’s, that forecast a narrow Obama victory. Nonetheless, he is sticking by his model, albeit with the understanding that some unforeseen event or idiosyncratic factors related to this election could through his projection out of  whack.

What might those be? If  you look  at the graph above, you’ll see that his forecast model didn’t do a very good job in either 1996, where it underestimated Clinton’s vote share, or in 2000, when it overestimated Gore’s vote share. He thinks Clinton’s legendary “charm” and Gore’s rather wooden campaign style may have thrown his projections off. Of course, as I’ve noted in earlier posts, almost none of the forecast models did well in 2000, a fact that some analysts attribute to Gore’s poor campaign strategy.  Looking toward 2012, Hibbs acknowledges the possibility that idiosyncratic factors associated with election-year issues and candidate characteristics could come into play.  Among the former are controversies regarding gay marriage and immigration policy and the recent Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act.  Of the latter, Romney’s Mormon faith could turn some voters away.  Interestingly, Hibbs does not view Obama’s race as one of them, declaring that because of Obama’s 2008 victory:  “Race will never again figure significantly in presidential politics, and that will be Obama’s greatest positive legacy to Democracy in America.”

Note that the Hibbs model is not without its critics. As Harry Enten tweeted, one might take Hibbs to task for the rather ad hoc nature of his estimate of the impact of fatalities on vote share, which varies by wars.  Moreover, Hibbs gives presidents a “one-term grace” period for wars inherited from a previous administration of the opposing party.   Some might argue that this is no less ad hoc than the inclusion of a time variable that rewards the incumbent party for holding office for one term, but penalizes that party after three presidential terms.  The important point, of course, is that we can make these criticisms because Hibbs shows us his model, warts and all.

And this brings me to a more general point.  In 2008, as I noted in my Economist post, political  scientists seeking to predict the outcome of the  presidential race had it rather easy, since the contest was not that close.  Every forecast model, save one, predicted Obama’s victory. However, it may very well be the case that in 2012, the forecast models will be equally accurate in terms of projecting the likely vote share, but that a number of them won’t get the winner right. That’s because the forecasters usually construct a confidence interval along with their forecast – that is, they are really estimating the probability that a candidate’s share of the major party vote will fall within an upper and lower value. So, for example, if a forecast model projects Obama to win just over 50% of the vote, but with a 95% confidence interval ranging from 49.1 to 51.1, and Obama ends up losing the election with 49.3% of the vote,  that is still a pretty damn good projection by political science standards.  That is, the model worked as well as any forecast model can hope to work, even if it didn’t predict the winner. This point, of course, will be lost in the post-mortem of the “incorrect” forecast models by critics, but it’s worth stating now because by all measures to date this election remains one of the closest in recent memory – one that may be too close to call given the uncertainty associated with most forecast models.

And this is a reminder, once again, that for political scientists,  predicting the election winner is a means to an end – it’s not the end itself.

UPDATE: 12:50.  Since I’ve already gotten several emails about this – yes, I think there are potential flaws in Hibbs’ model.  To begin, he has decided that Obama will pay a penalty for the casualties resulting from the Afghanistan “surge” he initiated. To Hibbs,  this evidently counts as an unprovoked war.  But one might easily argue that he inherited the war from Bush, and that he established a deadline to withdraw troops after the surge – and was it really an unprovoked war in any case?  Add to that the credit he will receive for orchestrating Bin Laden’s death and maybe the negative impact of the war will actually be a positive?  On the other hand, Hibbs’ final estimate doesn’t put  much weight on the  war variable – it costs Obama maybe .25% of the popular vote share.  His estimate is almost entirely a function of the sluggish economy.  And Hibbs’ model does have a good track  record.

*Hat tip to Mo Fiorina for alerting me that the latest Hibbs’ forecast was up.

6 comments

  1. I find it interesting that the 1964 total exactly matched the prediction. I have long believed the Republicans would have lost in 1964 even if they nominated Rockefeller. The economy was good and the emotion favored the Democrats. A Democratic loss would have been seen as a repudiation of a martyred President. Given a good economy, that wasn’t going to happen.

  2. Just to ask whether/why Iraq was unprovoked in 2008, but not in 2004? And to agree with your later caveat about Afghanistan, which probably shouldn’t count here either.

  3. Yes, Hibbs argues that because Obama inherited the Iraq war, and implemented the withdrawal treaty Bush negotiated, it is proper to code it as unprovoked. Like you, I think that logic can be questioned, particularly in light of his decision to penalize Obama for escalating in Afghanistan, although I’m not sure recoding Iran as provoked under Obama’s watch, and adding in U.S. military casualties from January 2009 will have much of an impact on his forecast.

    And, Big Papi, you should be back in the dugout, rather than rehabbing your Achilles in Maine!

  4. Matt, am I the only one of your fans who thinks that Romney is going to have to do something about the release of his income taxes? Evidently you and Hibbs don’t even think it is worthy of classification as an important idiosyncratic factor. See the following cut and paste from your post: “Looking toward 2012, Hibbs acknowledges the possibility that idiosyncratic factors associated with election-year issues and candidate characteristics could come into play. Among the former are controversies regarding gay marriage and immigration policy and the recent Court ruling upholding the Affordable Care Act. Of the latter, Romney’s Mormon faith could turn some voters away. Interestingly, Hibbs does not view Obama’s race as one of them, declaring that because of Obama’s 2008 victory: “Race will never again figure significantly in presidential politics, and that will be Obama’s greatest positive legacy to Democracy in America.”

    It appears that Gov. Romney fears doing so and Pres. Obama and his pollsters recognize that. Can Romney not provide the information and get away with it? Or if there is something he would rather not be public, isn’t it better to get it out now rather closer to election day? I know that this is an issue you feel is relatively unimportant. But I don’t recall any previous candidate for the White House taking the same position as Romney’s current one. I’m sure you will tell me if I am wrong about that.

    I realize that the release of income tax history is a relatively new presidential election phenomenon. Have any of your neutral political scientist colleagues looked at data on this idiosyncratic issue?

    Thanks, Marty

  5. Marty,

    I’ve said before that I think the reason the Mittster isn’t releasing more returns is because they will show he paid at a relatively low tax rate, and that he made good use of the various exemptions, deductions, and other loopholes available to him. I stand by that. He just doesn’t see the upside – it will simply confirm what people expect. While I expect that Obama and his surrogates will continue to make this an issue, the polling doesn’t suggest that it will hurt Romney very much. As you might expect, Democrats strongly believe Mitt should release more returns, Republicans don’t think he should and independents, by a slim margin (53% in one poll) are in slight favor of him releasing more taxes, with about 47% saying either no more or having no opinion. Of course, these averages don’t measure the intensity that voters feel about this issue, and the numbers might change if the Democrats like Reid keep hammering away at it. But think about it – which do you think will have a greater impact with the general public – today’s jobs report, or Reid’s assertion that Mitt paid no taxes for ten years? Remember, every time Democrats scream “release the taxes” Mitt’s side says “Where are the jobs?” This is why I think in the long run the tax return issue will have minimal persuasive impact. But, of course, in a close election – as this looks like so far – one could argue that any issue might mkae the difference. So you may be right that holding firm against releasing more tax returns might hurt Mitt electorally. I don’t know of any political science studies that have addressed this issue directly, but we have lots of evidence that campaign ads don’t have much long-term persuasive impact.

  6. I wasn’t thinking that advertising or Senator Reid would lead on this issue. You can fall asleep in 30 seconds listening to Reid. If the Democrats think this issue has “legs,” I was thinking the first-string would, i.e., President Obama or, more likely, Vice President Biden.

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