The 2012 Presidential Election Is Most Like This Previous Election

One of the recurring exercises in any presidential election year is the effort by pundits to find the most appropriate historical analogue among previous presidential elections.  What is deemed “appropriate”, however, is usually determined by whether the historical antecedent favors your preferred candidate.  This election cycle has been no exception.  Democrats see strong parallels between the current race and the 2004 contest between John Kerry and George W. Bush.  Although Kerry actually led in some early polls, the election remained quite close until Bush, the first-term incumbent running for reelection, pulled it out with slightly more than 51% of the two-party popular vote. Not surprisingly, Romney supporters don’t believe 2004 has much to say about this election. Instead, they point to 1980, when Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter in the Gallup Poll for much of the post-Labor Day period only to surge ahead in the closing week, as the most fitting historical parallel.

In this vein, Greg Sargent, writing in yesterday’s Plum Line column for the Washington Post, took issue with the 1980 comparison for several reasons.  The first has to do with the difference in candidate qualities; Sargent writes:   “Reason one: Obama is a better and more likable politician than Jimmy Carter was, and Romney has not proven himself to be Ronald Reagan.”  As evidence, Sargent quotes long-time GOP strategist Ed Rollins who notes that Romney is no Reagan: “There’s no question that on his best day, he’s not a Ronald Reagan…. Traditionally incumbents don’t do as well in debates as challengers for the simple reason that challengers have to stand on the stage and look like an equal. Romney can do that, but Obama is good. He’s likeable. Carter was never likeable.”

If asked, I think many pundits would agree with Rollins’ characterization of Carter; he was the moralizing, preachy politician who – with a smugness bordering on arrogance – castigated Americans for their “crisis of confidence”.   It was small wonder that he was viewed as so much less likable when compared to Reagan – the eternal optimist who spouted homilies about America as the shining “city on a hill”.  Not surprisingly, Reagan pulled ahead after their one and only debate in late October, largely because voters had a stronger personal affinity with  Reagan.  The lesson?  Reagan’s sunny optimism trumped Carter’s dour moralizing.

Alas, Rollins has the story completely backward, as Mo Fiorina reminded us earlier in this this New York Times editorial which I’ve discussed before.    Rather than being disliked, on a personal level Carter was held in far higher regard than Reagan in the eyes of most voters – indeed, despite his low job approval, Carter had the highest-rated personal qualities of any Democratic candidate in the period from 1952-2000, and Reagan had the lowest of any Republican presidential candidate. As Fiorina summarizes: “The Ronald Reagan of October 1980 was not the Reagan of “morning again in America” in 1984, let alone the beloved focus of national mourning in 2004. Many Americans saw the 1980 Reagan as uninformed, reckless, and given to gaffes and wild claims. But despite their misgivings about Reagan, and their view that Carter was a peach of a guy personally, voters opted against four more years of Carter.”

As is often the case, the prevailing view of Carter as unlikeable likely reflects a post-hoc rationalization for why he lost the election, as well as eight years of a largely successful Reagan presidency.  But that’s not how the two candidates were viewed in the run-up to the 1980 election – something Rollins evidently forgets.

But perhaps there’s a second good reason why this year isn’t like 1980? Sargent, again citing Rollins, argues: “Reason two: The electorate is far more polarized now. Rollins notes that a last-minute shift was enabled by the larger role Dem swing voters played at the time. ‘There was a big swing element in the Democratic Party — blue collar Democrats,’ Rollins noted. ‘It’s smaller now.’

Again, I think this analysis is at least in part wrong; as I’ve argued in many previous posts (see here, for example) there’s not much evidence that the electorate is more polarized now than in previous elections.  What has changed is that the choices have become more polarizing.  This may make it less likely that voters of one party will consider voting for the opposing party’s candidate.  But it does not mean that there are not enough undecided voters left to preclude a small shift toward Romney in the closing weeks of this race – and in a tight race, a small shift will be enough.

Is that likely to happen?  I don’t know.  But if it does, it almost surely will have little to do with which candidate is more likeable and instead will turn on more deep-seated voter concerns regarding which candidate is better able to resurrect a moribund economy.  In this respect, 2012 has a lot in common with 1980 – and with 2004 – and with most of the presidential elections in the post-World War II era.

3:45 p.m. I’ve added a link to the Gallup data showing Carter leading Reagan during most of the post-Labor Day general election campaign until Reagan surges near the end.  Note that the race was quite tight for most of this period, according to Gallup.


  1. Is there consensus among political scientists regarding why pre-election polls move around in just the way they do, rather than some other way? For example, in ’80 Reagan trailed by 4-8 points in spring, took a lead over Carter during much of the summer, fell behind again after labor day, and then surged late winning by around 9 points. Why was this the trajectory rather than, say, a constant 9 point lead for Reagan from May onward?

    The reason I ask is because I assume that economic fundamentals won’t explain these fluctuations–it’s not like the 1980 economy was solid in spring, fell in summer, improved after labor day, and then tanked in late October. The sort of view you’re arguing against here would try to explain these fluctuations by appealing to the sorts of events you regard as unimportant (e.g., “the Republicans had a really good convention,” “Reagan won the debates,” etc.). What would be your preferred alternative explanation?

  2. Can you really say that voters’ views of the economy are more “deep-seated” than other views? Some of Bartels’ work seems to suggest otherwise.

  3. Justin,

    The short answer for why the polls fluctuate is that most voters aren’t really paying close attention to the election during the summer months, and so when asked how they are likely to vote, they often respond in terms of the latest media coverage regarding which candidate is perceived to be doing well, or some other default notion or – as you note – some short-term event,like a convention, that won’t have a lasting impact. This is why I continually caution readers to pay little attention to fluctuations in state-level polling right now – or to forecast models based on them. The polling fluctuations you see don’t reflect actual changes in voters’ likely voting choices – most of them don’t really realize how uncertain their vote intentions are at this stage. A pollster contacts them, and they have to answer one way or the other, so they do – but it’s not like they’ve put much thought into it. It’s not until the closing weeks of the campaign that these polls become reliable as more likely voters begin thinking seriously about their vote choice. Gary King and Andrew Gelman discuss this in their article here:

  4. Gerald – By “deep-seated” I mean more consequential for the election outcome. Almost every poll I’ve seen supports this claim: the election will turn primarily on voters’ perception of the economy, and the degree to which they believe Obama should blame/credit for it. To which Bartels’ argument are you referring?

  5. The Bartels’ paper that I’m talking about is the paper in which he talks about voters’ perceptions of the “budget deficit” during the Clinton years. Basically, as I recall, a voter’s partisan position determined whether they even acknowledged the existence of a budget surplus under Clinton.

    I almost wonder if there is some circularity in the argument made by political scientists. People will vote for Obama if they see the economy as improving, but their perceptions of the economy are based on their attitudes about Obama.

  6. Gerald,

    Bartels is quite right – voters are notoriously ill-informed when it comes to knowing the details of economic issues, such as whether taxes went up or down under Obama. But our forecast models – and theories of democratic accountability more generally – don’t depend on having an electorate that is deeply versed in policy details. All we ask is that in a two-person race, most voters can tell which of the candidates is closer to their general political views. Studies show that voters do this quite well – almost all of them know that Romney is more conservative than Obama, and they will vote accordingly.

    It is true that partisan predispositions color how individuals perceive the economy, and the president’s responsibility for it. This is the baseline vote that we work into the forecast. But there is some play in this baseline, both in turnout and in terms of the small number of persuadable voters who have weaker partisan predispositions, or who are willing to vote against their predispositions based on the current economic context. Remember, in a close election, the outcome will likely depend on a very small percentage of voters whose choice is driven largely by the fundamentals.

  7. I believe this election is most like the mid election of 2010. The drivers then are still in place. It really is “The Economy, Stupid.”

    We have a much bigger Independent vote than we ever had in the elections cited. I suggest it has a lot to do with the mountains of ready information provided by the Internet and all other electronic sources, thus, a more information filled electorate. (Not necessarily “informed”)

    The unemployment numbers are seemingly constant; the true numbers, including those who have given up and opted for disability retirement, are somewhat obscure, but suggest in excess of 15%. The outlook is dismal. Those swing voters who opted for Obama in 2008 are disillusioned to a degree. It doesn’t take too many to swing the election.

    History tells us that “undecided” voters always tend to vote for the challenger. Dick Morris says over 80% of the time they fall to the challenger. If that happens this election, it is bad news for Obama.

    Right now, Obama’s numbers in his historical base are not what they were in 2010. That base is not energized. The strategy is clear; demonize Romney and distract the electorate by any means possible from the economy.

    It is way too early to tell if it is working, but for an incumbent President to be tied with a challenger at this point, only 89 days before the election, is not good news for Obama.

    So, what are we seeing? The happy, “likeable” Obama is getting nasty. Watch his speeches. They are more and more attacking, even bordering on slanderous. When surrogates do it, there is a measure of deniability, but when the candidate is doing it, it costs him. His strongest asset (suggested by many) is “likeability”. I think it is diminishing as this round of attacks heightens.

    This is possibly the most important election of all of our lives. It certainly is one of the most interesting.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    Is the “very small percentage of voters” who decide elections more deeply versed in policy details than the other voters? (e.g. Are they going to have a more sophisticated understanding of per capita disposable personal income during the second quarter or the budget deficit?) Have there been studies assessing the political/economic knowledge of swing voters?

  9. In response to Sheldon I would also add that even when the true independents break for the challenger we are talking about small numbers of voters. Most independents are actually weak partisans or leaners who vote the same party in almost every election. I addressed this a little bit today in my most recent post at

    The economy is going to be the biggest issue and just how much blame or credit is assigned to the president will make a difference.

  10. Rob,

    Your point about the small number of undecideds is important. As you note, historically there are few true “independents”; most self-proclaimed independents consistently lean in one direction or the other, and we would expect them to do so in this election cycle. It may also be that because of the polarized choices facing them, there are even fewer “persuadable” voters left to reach in this election cycle than in previous campaigns. Both campaigns, then, are fighting over a historically small groups of persuadable voters.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    As a follow-up, do you regard it as a kind of weakness of the standard political science model that it has to posit two different “mechanisms” to explain how people respond in such polls? (This is perhaps a weakness that is trumped by various strengths.)

    Here’s what I mean. If you’re right, then during the summer months the people who respond to pollsters are responding to the latest gaffe, or media coverage, or whatever. But then, come early October or so, they stop being so frivolous and put their economic fundamentals hat on, and vote on the basis of 2nd quarter GDP (or whatever). Does that really seem independently plausible, that such a shift occurs?

    An apparent advantage of the sort of approach you’re arguing against in this post would seem to be that it can say that the same single mechanism is in play all throughout the polling process. In July, voters are responding to the latest gaffe or media coverage or whatever (just as you concede), and in October the very same thing is going on. The pundits’ view achieves a kind of theoretical parsimony that your view doesn’t. Or is that wrong?

  12. Justin,

    It’s not that they stop being frivolous. It’s that as Election Day looms larger, they begin paying attention to the race and thinking about who they really want to vote for. You have to remember that just because a potential voter gives a sincere answer to a pollster’s survey question in early August, if the respondent’s answer isn’t really based on an informed assessment of the race, it is not as likely to be as stable as an answer based on a careful consideration of the fundamentals. Now, this doesn’t apply to every voter – many are pretty well locked into their vote as early as August by virtue of long-standing and deep-seated partisan predispositions. I’m mostly focusing here on the minority of voters who simply are paying almost no attention to the race and who might have weak partisan attachments.
    So, political scientists aren’t really using two different voter models, in which voters first pay attention to media coverage and then later discount it. Instead, our forecasts are based on one model: that of a voter whose knowledge of the election fundamentals gradually increases through the course of the campaign and who votes primarily on the basis of those fundamentals, as interpreted through their preexisting partisan lens.

  13. Gerald,

    I’m drawing on perhaps faulty memory here, but my recollection of the research is that the late deciders are NOT more informed about policy issues, or the fundamentals more generally. Indeed, I think they are LESS informed, in general, although I need to check this. But again, our forecast models don’t presume deeply knowledgeable voters well versed in the policy platforms pushed by each candidates. All we ask is that they understand some very basic issues, such as which candidate is the incumbent, and who is more liberal/conservative, and whether the economy has improved under the incumbent’s watch or not. And almost all voters can discern these basic differences, and they vote accordingly.

  14. Matt:

    Of course, no rule in elections is inviolate. But there are patterns as you well know. The one I chose is the last election, because the voters are stile in the same frame of mind, even more so, in my humble opinion.

    I am on record as being way out there in deep right field, I know. I assure you, that is not my usual situation. I am usually much more cautious about predictions until a time much closer to the election itself.

    But I was active in 1994 and I see the same writing on the wall now that I saw then. I predicted the results of 2010, but I had inside information. The now Majority Whip is my pal, and I knew what he was doing to win the House.

    The swing states that have Senate races and hot Congressional races add another dimension. I see the ads, I get all the literature on both sides, and I am seeing an energized Republican base like I haven’t seen since 1994, except in 2010. Obama is pleading for more money and more support. The wind is not at his back as it was in 2008. Nor does he have to enormous monetary advantage he had in 2008.

    I may be all wet, but I think after the Republican Convention, Romney will pull away from him and never look back. He only needs to tell the people how he will fix the economy and get them to believe it. He is believable.

    Obama can’t match that.

  15. I am seeing an energized Republican base like I haven’t seen since 1994, except in 2010.

    How did all that energy end up working out for you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *