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Obama's Chances Could Turn on One Key Indicator

Obama's Chances Could Turn on One Key Indicator

By Alexis Simendinger - October 7, 2011


What if voters learned that almost everything President Obama does this year will make no difference at all to his re-election chances a year from now?

Not whether he disclosed his birth certificate or took a 10-day vacation in Martha's Vineyard; not his orders to kill terrorists or his policies on Middle East peace; not his critiques of GOP challengers, or the loot he raises for his re-election campaign; and definitely not his joint addresses to Congress or his hand-to-hand combat with lawmakers.

What if the incumbent president’s fate hinges on one basic economic question in 2012: Are the incomes of voters growing in the six months before Election Day? Barack Obama is likely to win a second term if real disposable incomes are stable or climbing in the two quarters leading into next year’s election, according to respected political science research.

Ridiculous, you say. The economy has been sagging for so long! Voters are so fed up! The eventual Republican nominee will surely have advantages!

Without a doubt, unemployment has been painfully high for three years and growth has been anemic as 2011 begins to wind down. And polls indicate that Americans are increasingly critical of the president. But there is also a body of scholarship examining presidential elections over time that has uncovered predictive statistical conclusions. And here’s what that research shows: If we could gaze into a crystal ball and know whether personal incomes are climbing, flat, or falling -- especially in key electoral states -- between June and November 2012, we could place informed bets on the incumbent president’s fate.

If past turns out to be prologue, “Obama will get some credit [with voters] for the fact that he inherited a bad economy in 2009; 2010 will be irrelevant; and 2011 will be about half as important as 2012,” said Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels, the author while at Princeton University of a 2008 book, “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age,” which has been publicly cited by both President Obama and former President Clinton.

In emails with RCP this week, Bartels explained that statistical estimates drawn from his and other research, when applied to the pace of real disposable income growth (that is, income growth adjusted for price changes), can produce predictive correlations that suggest outcomes a year from now.

The distillation of a rollicking presidential contest to a mathematical calculation that forecasts Obama’s electoral fortunes against an as-yet-unknown challenger -- as measured by the popular vote -- seems, in a word, provocative.

“Obama’s expected popular vote margin would be 5.17+3.49 x (2012 income growth),” wrote Bartels, the co-director of Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions who holds the school’s Shayne Chair in public policy and social science. “This implies that he is likely to be re-elected even if real incomes are stagnant in 2012, and even more likely to win if there is some real income growth in the next 12 months.”

Bartels, along with some of his co-authors and political science colleagues, points to a collection of findings from years of empirical research: First, voters choose presidents with the economy in mind, period. Second, the economic indicator that carries predictive relevancy, according to studies of past elections (even during the economically painful 1930s) is not growth or employment, but personal incomes. Third, voters do not choose presidents while contemplating the state of the world over a span of history or as they imagine it to be in the future. With short memories and shorter attention spans, they myopically make decisions about the incumbent political party based on their personal pocketbooks in the four to six months before they vote. Fourth, incumbent presidents possess limited powers to lift personal incomes -- the influential indicator -- during election years. And fifth, they frequently try.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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