A Turning Point In The Election?

The reaction – or lack thereof – among voters to the Bain controversy once again illustrates an important distinction between how partisan pundits (you know to whom I’m referring) and political scientists analyze what drives election results.  As the controversy over when and to what degree Romney severed his connection with Bain dominated the news, Romney’s partisan critics were convinced that the story would negatively impact Mitt’s electoral support.  The Daily Dish’s Andrew Sullivan, tweeting the link to his longer analysis, wondered: “The GOP’s current candidate is an obvious perjurer and thereby a felon. How long will it take before this sinks in?”  Jonathan Cohn, citing the Obama campaign’s “devastating ad” [based on the Bain controversy], concluded that “substantively speaking, this controversy is largely telling us something we already knew: That Romney helped develop and then employed business practices that generated large profits for investors, made companies more efficient, and frequently led to layoffs.”  TPM’s Josh Marshall confidently opined “We can spin these out forever. But beyond all the specific accusations, they’re painting a picture that makes Romney look ridiculous, like a joke. They’re making Romney look stupid and powerless on the front where he believes he’s one of the standouts of his generation. And that’s plain lethal for a presidential candidate. But how does it come into play? Simple. Mitt Romney has two claims on the presidency: successful governor of major state and captain of industry. He’s largely written off the first by disavowing a genuine and perhaps far-reaching accomplishment: health care reform. Which leaves him with Bain Capital.”

Regular readers of these partisan blogs could be excused for expecting that the fallout from Bain would have a significant effect on Romney’s standing in the polls. (I trust I need not give you a Kevin Drum quote?) And, in fact, polls indicate the Bain controversy had some negative impact on whether voters viewed Romney’s business record as a reason to vote for him. But while Romney’s critics were touting this finding, they were generally ignoring the bigger polling picture, which is that the Bain controversy did not seem to affect the candidates’ relative standing in the national polls at all, much as I suspected it wouldn’t. Indeed – and I wouldn’t make too much of  this given the rampant polling fluctuations to date – the Real Clear Politics aggregate poll suggests that Mitt may have gained ground during the time of the Bain/income tax debate.

The fact that potential voters could change their attitude toward the relative worth of Mitt’s business experience, but not whether they are likely to vote for him drives home a point I’ve made repeatedly, but one which partisan pundits overlook: this election will be largely a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy. For most undecided voters, the choice whether to vote for Romney will turn less on his Bain record, or how far back he goes in releasing tax forms, and more on Obama’s economic record.

In that vein, the topic of this Wall St. Journal story is likely to have a bigger impact on the November election than are any of Mitt’s tax documents.  Less than a week before the first estimate of second quarter GDP growth figures are released this Friday, a survey of economists indicates that they believe the numbers will show worse growth – close to 1.2% – than the 1.9% in the previous quarter, and the slowest rate of growth since the first quarter of 2011.

As I’ve discussed previously,  GDP growth is an important variable in many of the economy-driven econometric presidential forecast models (see here and here and here).  If these GDP numbers hold in the less-than-1.5% growth range, most of those models suggest Obama will get less than a 50% share of the two-party vote come November, although how much less varies by model – and by what the third quarter GDP number – and the final number before the election – shows. Of course these models are not foolproof, and there is always the chance that the election will turn on some idiosyncratic factor that may prove determinative.  Karl Rove has always insisted that the last minute release of court papers documenting George W. Bush’s DUI arrest on the eve of the 2000 presidential election cost Bush close to 2% of the popular vote through a combination of reduced turnout and the loss of some independents to Gore, as well four states in the Electoral College. Had the arrest not been publicized, he argues, Florida would not have mattered.  Whether Rove is correct or not, I have said repeatedly that in a close election there is room for an “October surprise” to make a difference.

But it is far more likely, I think, that the outcome will turn on perceptions regarding the state of the economy, as measured by GDP growth, among other factors.  Which makes Friday’s release of the first estimate of the second quarter GDP figure potentially far more important than Mitt’s tax returns. And if that number suggests growth is slowing, and the third quarter GDP number that will come out in October shows even slower growth, the President may have to pin his reelection hopes on an October surprise – and a very big one, at that.  This is not, of course, what partisan pundits will have you believe.  But it is what the historical record suggests to be true.

4:10 P.M.  Consistent with some of my earlier posts, Rasmussen finds that among undecided voters, only 13% are paying attention to the campaign – another reason why  Bain and the tax documents simply aren’t having the impact partisan pundits had predicted.


  1. You barely seem able to contain your glee over the prospect of Obama losing.

    We will have a real test of all the models including Nate’s and yours. 2008 was easier, no?

    Sounds like Nate is favoring Obama more than your model does. At this point in time at least.

  2. Adam – You seem barely able to contain the impact of your own emotions on your interpretation of my posts. First, I don’t have a forecast model – if you read my posts, you’ll see I link to specific models developed by other political scientists. I will present a prediction post-Labor Day, but it will be based on others’ forecast models, not my own. Second, by the time Election Day comes around, Nate does not use the model he is using now – instead he aggregates the state-level polling. So I pay no attention to his model now, and have no idea what it predicts. As Sam Wang showed in 2008, simply relying on state-level polling data is a very accurate method of predicting the vote, even if it is not very theoretically useful. Because of that I expect that Sam and Nate will be far more accurate than will the political science models issued early in September. But then, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, political scientists have a different purpose than Nate does. Third, my purpose in writing this blog is not to push a partisan viewpoint – it is to show when and why theory and data conflicts with what partisan pundits are saying. I have no objection if you have a rooting interest in the outcome of the election. Just don’t let your viewpoint color your interpretation of my posts.

  3. It was interesting to me that one of the key assumptions of the model you were propounding is that people sort of “fact check” political ads against reality. Given what I know about people, and what Ive been learning in reading about behavioral econ and political psychology, it seems like people are often pretty bad at fact checking and very good at cherry-picking, especially when it comes to things they already have a well-formed opinion on like “Democrats are better than Republicans” or vice versa. I remember with the swiftboat thing, regardless of whether it impacted anything, its impact was much different depending on whether you thought the guys doing it were reputable sources, which of course tended to vary depending upon whether you already liked Kerry or Bush. More recently, this whole Bain Capital thing seems similar. And even on issues that get reported on by more standard news agencies rather than appearing in political ads, people seem to tend to believe what they want to hear – I know I pretty much reject anything out of Fox out of hand, and Im sure my conservative counter part does so for the ny times or whatever. So im sort of surprised to hear you use a model that relies on “rational, well-informed” voters.

    The second, related point, is that it doesn’t seem like you actually need to assume rational, well-informed votes anyways. More psychologically complex voters would probably act the way you’re predicting as well, even down to the “positive ads work better than negative ads” point. If people tend to believe what they want to believe, Id imagine political ads are more effective as a mobilization tool than a persuasion tool, and if I recall correctly, one of the tendencies identified in psychology is that people tend to decide to act rather than not act based on positive assertions as compared to negative ones (You’ll be able to play with your kids if you dont smoke, rather than Don’t smoke because you won’t be able to play with your kids.) This approach also seems to fit with your description of how voters act when they read news stories about one candidate eviscerating another in attack ads, ie just rationalizing that its good for who they were going to vote for anyways.

    Also, on the collective rationality response: Id like to hear about more about the “collective rationality” thing. First, how do we determine whether or not individuals are acting rationally? That seems to imply some sort of baseline we can compare to. Second, Id like to hear more about how collective rationality works – it seems like, if were all individual irrational, a collective shouldnt be that much better, since each individual still has to parse through what is true and false. It seems like even if each person contributed one “true” fact to the collective, it might get treated as “chaff” rather than “wheat.” And since that just brings us back to how people interpret information, it seems like its not intuitively any better. So whats the deal!

  4. None of the National polls are particularly interesting to me.

    Much more relevant are the polls in the specific states that are part of the 3-2-1 strategy. Karl Rove developed this early (I believe it was Karl) and it makes the most sense when you think about it.

    THe Three – Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. These are traditionally Republican states that all went for Obama in 2008. Romney has to win these three.

    The Two: Florida and Ohio. THese are traditional swing states both went for Obama in 2008. No Republican has ever been elected President without Ohio. Romney must win these two states.

    The One: If Romney wins The Three and The Two, he then just needs to win ANY one of the following: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin.

    If you want to watch models, watch the models for these in the 3-2-1 group.

    Adam, of course elections can be lost…or won. That’s why we have them. Check out Thomas Dewey. Polls are helpful, but the only poll that really counts is on election day.

    I looked for some glee in Matt’s post; I saw none. He does a pretty good job of hiding his real politics. I don’t. I’m with Mitt all the way. I’m on record saying it will be a landlside. 1994 on steroids. If that happens, my glee will be readable here. Stay tuned…

  5. My opinion regretfully is that Obama has little chance. It’s not clear given that the depth of the recession didn’t hit until Obama took office very different than Herbert Hoover. Obama needed a much bigger stimulus up front and if he really wanted another term he needed to fight for it which is largely against his nature being mostly a mediator. Given he didn’t get what he needed the Republican obstructionism was obvious and a repeat performance of what happened during the Hoover Adminstration. Even if the conditions were there Obama was not an old hand like Roosevelt and not up to a 100 days like Roosevelt had.

    The sad thing is that Romney is ostensibly a conservative and unless he starts a major war the economy won’t improve much under him. This is provided he does what he says in the campaign. Presidents have a long history of not doing so. Hopefully under Romney we will get quickly the necessary stimulus without starting a needless war immediately, otherwise we will have to wait another 4 years and perhaps until we have a great Depression. While the stakes are very large its extremely hard to know who will improve the economy the most after the election if elected. The situation is much more ambiguous the Hoover Roosevelt election but with a bad economy Romney could win by a landslide.

  6. Michael:

    Like many Obama supporters, you skip past the first two years. Obama and the Democrats had the House and 60 in the Senate. They could have done ANYTHING and the Republicans could do nothing to “obstruct”.

    They could have had a stimulus of ANY size. Obama said it was enough; he promised to lower the jobless rate to 5.6%, said it would never be above 7%.

    Keynsian economics don’t work; never did. Obama just proved it once again.

    Time for the adults to run Washington.

    So, what did he spend all that capital on? Obamacare, the most unpopular law since Prohibition.

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