Why Isn’t Romney Running Away With This Election?

Charlie Cook, the venerable elections and polling guru whose Cook Report is a must read for political junkies, posted an interesting article today headlined “It Shouldn’t Be Close.”  In it, Cook argues that based on the economic “fundamentals” alone, Romney should be leading Obama in the polls.  He writes, “Whether one looks at polling measurements of whether voters think the country is headed in the right direction, at consumer confidence, or at key economic measurements such as growth in gross domestic product, deviations in the unemployment rate, or the change in real personal disposable income, it is puzzling, to say the least, why polls show President Obama and Mitt Romney running neck and neck. Incumbents generally don’t get reelected with numbers like we are seeing today.”

If the economic fundamentals are as lousy as Cook suggests, why do the national polls suggest that not only is Obama still in the race, he is probably slightly ahead? Cook believes it is because of the campaign missteps Romney has made, such as allowing Obama to frame the media narrative in terms of Romney’s tax returns and Bain experience, combined with Romney’s lackluster personality.  Cook’s explanation, focusing as it does on issues of campaign tactics and personalities, would likely meet with approval by most pundits.  As longtime readers won’t be surprised to hear, however, I think Cook is wrong to dismiss the economic fundamentals.  In fact, those fundamentals – at least some of them – do not necessarily suggest that this race “should not be close.” As I noted in an earlier post, based on second quarter GDP growth numbers alone, history suggests Obama will win a smidgen more than 50% of the two-party popular vote.  True, this doesn’t indicate a landslide victory for Obama, but neither does it suggest Romney should be winning this race, despite Cook’s assertion to the contrary.  Of course, 2nd quarter GDP growth alone doesn’t explain everything about an election outcome.  But if even you include other factors, such as Obama’s current approval rating and the fact that he’s an incumbent, history still gives Obama a slight advantage in the popular vote, as indicated by forecast models by Alan Abramowitz and John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.

Of course, as Sides reminds us, these forecasts are based on probability models that include a fair share of uncertainty, so while the economic fundamentals suggest Obama should win, it doesn’t mean he will.  (This gives me a chance to plug John and Lynn’s new book on the 2012 election, which I am certainly going to assign in my elections course.)  I want to go a step further than John, however, and suggest that we should not dismiss Cook’s analysis in its entirety.  For, in truth, not all forecast models based on economic fundamentals indicate that Obama should win this election.  For example, Jim Campbell points out that if we expand the timespan of forecasters’ analyses to include average GDP growth from a president’s second year through the second quarter of an election year, Obama’s reelection chances look a bit less promising.

Moreover, as I discussed in this post, Doug Hibbs’  “Bread and Peace” model, which has proved reliable in the past, predicts that Obama will receive just 47.5% of the two-party vote come November. Rather than GDP, Hibbs’ model includes measures for changes in disposal income and American military fatalities.  It is a reminder that there is more than one way to gauge economic fundamentals.

To further complicate matters, according to a recent press release, two Colorado University professors are poised to release their own study purportedly showing that based on state-level economics factors, Romney is going to win 52.9% of the two-party vote, compared to Obama’s 47.1%. I’ve not yet seen the  model on which this forecast is based so I’m not ready to evaluate their prediction, but it potentially provides further evidence that Cook is not entirely off base in arguing that Romney should be doing better in the polls.

My point is that even political scientists are not in full agreement regarding what aspects of the economy are most “fundamental” to presidential election outcomes.  Moreover, each of their forecasts comes with a degree of uncertainty built into their estimates.  This means that, in a close election, forecast models that differ in their prediction regarding the election winner in November could nonetheless all be considered accurate if the final popular vote falls within their specified level of uncertainty.  Of course, this is small consolation to the layperson who wants to know now who the likely winner will be come November 6th, which is what most of you care about!  But it is important to remember that political scientists speak in probabilities, based on past events, not certainties.

So, where does the election stand today?  I would make two points.  First, the median prediction of the econometric forecast models of which I am aware right now hovers just above the 50% mark, suggesting that Obama is a very – emphasis on very – slight favorite. Second, models that include measures of Obama’s approval ratings and/or current national or state-level polling are usually (but not always) slightly more bullish on Obama’s prospects than are models like Hibbs’ that are based solely on the fundamentals.  That suggests to me that that the key question looking ahead is whether opinion polling and Obama’s approval ratings begin to change in ways that indicate that voters,  as they pay more attention to the election, will adjust their views closer to what some forecasters like Hibbs believe the economic fundamentals dictate.  Keep in mind, however, that based on economic fundamentals alone, it is not necessarily the case that Romney should be winning this election.  That assessment depends,  in part, on what fundamentals one includes, and across what time span. And, as my stockbroker I. B. Guessing always reminds me, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

(Note that  many political science forecasters will be unveiling their latest predictions at the 2012 APSA conference which meets in New Orleans next week. When those papers are available, I’ll try to update this post.)

Update 3:24 p.m.  Nate Cohn has an initial and somewhat skeptical reaction to the Colorado forecast I allude to above but again, I haven’t actually seen the specifics yet of their model so I’ll withhold comment for now.  Note that I mistyped their prediction of the two-party vote in my initial post – that’s been corrected.


  1. Voters may not have tuned into the election yet, but they certainly have thought about the economy.

    What could Mitt Romney say to change a person’s perception of the economy now? I just don’t understand how these macro-models get translated down to the individual voter.

  2. Gerald,

    I’m not so sure it matters what Romney says so much as who is listening. Right now, polls suggest 30% or so of voters are only paying a little attention to the race, and another 10% or so are paying almost no attention. The question is whether the economic fundamentals will begin to drive polls as more people beginning tuning into the race. Keep in mind, however, that even then the race should likely stay very close, because the fundamentals – at least some of them! – while not great, aren’t necessarily a disaster either.

  3. I also have to think that the war variable isn’t as important as in the past because people have overwhelmingly tuned out of any war coverage and that the Republican ticket is dragged down by a lack of economic solutions or a clear message. A lot of people see a Republican party that has opposed extending unemployment insurance and other help for the out-of-work and are less likely to switch their vote. But more than anything, a bunch of polls out in the last few weeks suggest that this election is far more about voter turnout than about swaying independents.

  4. But, aren’t the voters who “tune in” now just paying attention to the campaigns? Why isn’t this a capaign effect? The 2nd quarter fundamentals haven’t changed and those numbers are the ones the models use.

  5. Gerald,

    Remember, the campaign effects you cite are based on the fundamentals – Romney is saying the economy hasn’t bounced back, and it’s Obama’s fault, and Obama is saying we are in this mess in part because of vulture capitalists like Romney. So, both sides have based their campaign spin in large part on the state of the economy. The forecast models basically say that as voters tune in, they will evaluate these campaigns frames largely in terms of their own read of the economic fundamentals. At least that’s the claim. These models aren’t infallible, and they come with a margin of uncertainty. But the point is that both campaigns have to start with the economic fundamentals, and go from there.

  6. Zach,

    You are right – if you look at Hibbs’ model, the war casualties is a very very small portion of his election prediction. Basically, his model this year is driven almost entirely by changes in disposable income. And I agree that turnout, rather than persuasion, is going to be a more important determinant in this election cycle. As I tried to show in my post today, the fundamentals don’t indicate a Romney win – they indicate a toss-up election.

  7. Timing. The essence of humor and winning elections.

    The timing of this post is superb; for Monday is the begining of the season.

    In four days of informercial, Mitt Romney will define himself (or, others, including Ann will do so). But, we know one thing about conventions; negatives just don’t work here.

    So, advantage Romney (and Ryan) who will have four days to show the voters (who are just awakening) who they are and what they plan to do to fix this mess.

    The President is at a disadvantage, since all he can do is throw stones because of his abysmal record. Unless of course, he choses to release his transcripts, grades, college records, etc. (fat chance). Or replace Uncle Joe with Hillary (another fat chance).

    I am predicting a slight Romney/Ryan lead of two or three points after both conventions and a settling period, basd upon mostly the above thinking. After all, just four or five undecided points, and maybe a swing of eight or ten either way on decided but persuadables.

    Gonna be a barn burner in the end.

  8. Sheldon –

    It makes me laugh that conservatives keep demanding Obama’s “transcripts, grades, college records, etc” to distract attention from whatever smoking guns (more likely smoking weapons of mass destruction of his campaign) lay in Romney’s returns.

    And if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s plain old all-American racism at the root of it all: a ‘colored person’ couldn’t possibly be smart enough to achieve Obama’s accomplishments – it has to be affirmative action opening doors for an unqualified person.

  9. Sheldon,

    What kind of positive things do you expect Romney and Ryan to unveil? A jobs program based on giving their friends all our money? Perhaps a paen to invading yet another Middle Eastern country? Or perhaps a prayer that after all the sluts have been punished with pregnancy, God will grant the faithful all the stuff they desire?

    I expect them to re-awaken all the language and ideas tossed about in the Republican primary debates. I expect them to play to their base. Todd Akin is really just the beginning.

  10. “Why Isn’t Romney Running Away With This Election?” The real question is, why isn’t Obama running away with this election? After all, the Democrat media, extremely wealthy Democrat miscreants that infest most of Hollywood, and Democrat radicals that make up academia have done everything, EVERYTHING, to make sure Obama doesn’t get the blame for the harm done by his policies, even if they have to lie about it (a frequent occurrence). Along with Obama, all of the above have stated repeatedly that Obama has been near-perfect, regardless of whether or not Obama’s polices have actually turned out to be more harmful or illegal. By that notion, this election should be in the bag for Obama.

    But it ain’t, is it?

    “As I tried to show in my post today, the fundamentals don’t indicate a Romney win – they indicate a toss-up election.”

    When the fundamentals actually kick in, not only will it indicate a Romney win, it will indicate a Romney-Ryan romp.


    “And if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s plain old all-American racism at the root of it all: a ‘colored person’ couldn’t possibly be smart enough to achieve Obama’s accomplishments – it has to be affirmative action opening doors for an unqualified person.”

    I don’t know about Sheldon, but I won’t excuse you. But if you want to go there, then maybe it’s plain old racism on the part of Obama’s continuing “fishing” expedition for more of Romney’s tax returns to smear the GOP candidate, falsely accusing “rich whitey” of not having legitimately earned his wealth. Of course, that fits in perfectly with Obama’s “you didn’t build that” to indicate the wealth earned by “rich whitey” Romney couldn’t have been done on his own (even though it was).

  11. Quite the comment section today. I do have a question… much has been made of the $120 million ad blitz that Obama has spent in the swing states this summer. It appears that the spending has done little to move Obama in the polls. With Romney now outraising Obama, and with I believe a lot more cash in hand now, how do you think the spending/ads factor will effect the race moving into the future. Do you expect there is an unaccounted for bump for Romney coming soon?

  12. Wow! Sure are different style comments than one ordinarily sees on Matt’s blog.

    And that brings me to a question that seems to be off Matt’s radar. Is it possible that this election will not be decided by economic issues but by social issues? I anticipate the answer will be “no” from our esteemed professor friend. Why, I would respond. And I think his response would be along the lines that political scientists (a term I don’t buy, but that’s irrelevant to this post) conclude it’s the economy that is the deciding factor; see past election results in the post on which we are presumably commenting.

    However, those polls don’t address the intensity of the social issues which are driving a huge wedge in American society, perhaps at a level not seen in decades, or even more than a century. The code words are gay marriage, rape, abortion, personal tax returns of candidates, birthers, etc. The joint failure of the Houses of Congress to work together successfully, the apparent politicization of the Supreme Court and Congressional reaction to proposed judicial appointees are other indicators of this serious malaise.

    I also think that poll respondents are not likely to tell pollsters what they really think about social issues–if social issue questions are even asked.

    Matt, please tell me why you think I’m wrong.

    Thanks, as always.


  13. Racism? No way. Many are just curious as to why no disclosure. Some speculate it is because he applied for an received foreign student scholarships. I have no idea. I think all the social and other issues, including “birthers” is just a distraction. Obama would rather talk about these, or anything else, than the economy and jobs.

    But, I agree with Matt; if it is ECONOMY and JOBS like it should be, sdvantage Romney/Ryan.

    Romney and Ryan have now just three days to show the American people who they are and what they will do to set the policies right. If they make the sale, then I expect a small bump coming out of the convention.

    The Democrats will try to slime both; it will tighten up, but as Obama and the Democrats increase the attack (because they can’t make the sale on economic arguments)Obama’s “likabilty”, his strongest aswset, will suffer. We’ve all seen flashes of his thin skinned reactions; I predict he will continue to become more shrill each day. As he senses he is losing, the veneer will come off.

    And, this is the first election of his life where he is facing a candidate with more money to spend than he has.

    It will be close for a while, then Romney/Ryan and the Republicans will have a landslide in November.

  14. Man, a lot of delusional Republicans here predicting landslides and romps. Pro tip: As with sports, it’s better to have more realistic expectations going into the big contest. That way you won’t be so disappointed when your team loses.

    I think the election will be fairly close, but my money is on Nate Silver’s projections and a win for Obama.

    Also, to the commentator who said social issues are driving a huge wedge into American society, I disagree. They’re driving a wedge into the GOP. There is a battle between the social and economic wings, and for now it’s stalemated so they still have an uneasy alliance. But as Americans become more socially liberal, and punish Republicans who are too socially conservative, the social conservatives will eventually lose much of their influence in the GOP.

  15. Giantslor,

    On which Nate Silver projection are you relying – the model-based one he is presenting now, or the poll-based prediction that he ultimately will rely on come November?

  16. Marty,

    Again, this really deserves a separate post. But let me start by saying you could be right! Maybe social issues will drive this election to a far greater degree than will economics. The reason why I don’t think this is the case is that when we ask voters what are the most important issues facing the country (as opposed to giving them an issue and asking them what they think about it), very few (usually less than 5%) cite the social issues you raise. On the other hand, large majorities repeatedly cite the economy, the budget deficit, and health care, with immigration often a distant fourth. Now, it could be that respondents are hiding their true preferences, and that their vote will actually turn on the social issues rather than the economy. But by now you know I’m a data-driven guy – I’m not keen on basing arguments on hidden preferences when there’s no way to see if those preferences actually exist.

    As for the tone of the comments – my post on the fundamentals got picked up by several more partisan sites, and I suspect many of their readers migrated here, at least for the moment. Of course, all are welcome!

  17. Tom,

    Bert Johnson and I have gone on record as saying we don’t think that Romney’s fundraising advantage is likely to be the determining factor in this race. But if it does come into play, I don’t think it will be through advertising. All the evidence I have seen is that in a high information race like a presidential election, in which literally hundreds of ads run in various media outlets, no single ad, or preponderance of ads, is likely to be decisive. it is more likely, in my view that money’s impact will be felt on the ground, in get-out-the-vote efforts and local outreach. Here Romney could conceivably have an advantage if the financial advantage is used in a way to reach out to marginal voters in key areas. Of course, as I’ve said many times, in a close election almost anything can be said to make the difference.

    If Romney does get a polling boost (and there’s some evidence that the race is tightening) it will be because voters are beginning to pay attention to the race and are keying into the fundamentals.

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