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.