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Gingrich and Romney Are "Unelectable"? So Is Obama.

Gingrich and Romney Are "Unelectable"? So Is Obama.

By Sean Trende - January 31, 2012


As the Republican primary slogs forward, supporters of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are arguing that the other candidate is "unelectable." The reasoning regarding Gingrich tends to revolve around his horrendous favorability ratings, and a propensity for self-destruction. The rationale regarding Romney is more varied, and is well enunciated by Quin Hillyer and John Hawkins. Last Wednesday, Erick Erickson at RedState -- no Romney fan -- threw up his hands and declared both leading candidates unelectable.

I personally think these claims are overblown. After all, Christine O’Donnell managed to lose the independent vote in Delaware by only three points, and whatever else you may say about Gingrich, he wouldn’t have to begin his general election campaign insisting that he’s not a witch.

But even taking these claims at face value, they tell at most half the story. It’s understandable that the focus would be on Republican candidates in the midst of a GOP primary. But we shouldn’t forget that the general election -- like all incumbent elections -- will largely be a referendum on Barack Obama. And, under current conditions, Obama is every bit as unelectable as the Republicans supposedly are. Consider:

1) Obama is still unpopular. Almost all models of presidential elections examine presidential approval ratings (very few use challenger favorability, incidentally), as presidents rarely win many votes of those who disapprove of their performance in office. In other words, Obama probably needs to be pretty close to 50 percent approval on Election Day to secure re-election. (In 2004, George W. Bush was at 49.7 percent in the RCP Average on Election Day.)

As of this writing, Obama’s job approval in the RCP Average is 46.8 percent. For the last month, his job approval in Gallup has bounced around between 42 percent and 46 percent, averaging 44.7 percent.

To put this in perspective, on Election Day 2010, his approval was 45.6 percent in the RCP Average and 44 percent in Gallup. In other words, his rating is roughly where it was when Democrats suffered their worst midterm drubbing since 1938.

Of even greater concern for the president: In the past 18 months, he has exceeded 48 percent in the RCP Average during only two time periods: in the aftermath of the Gabby Giffords shooting, and after the killing of Osama bin Laden. And even these broadly unifying events only moved him into the 51/52 percent range, just beyond what he would need to feel confident of re-election. This suggests that the opinions of about 48 percent of the country are pretty solidified against him.

The president’s had a pretty good few months: He ended the war in Iraq, watched the GOP be-clown itself over the payroll tax cut, received a spate of mildly positive economic news, and disappeared from the public eye while the GOP embarked upon a divisive primary campaign. And yet his approvals are still mired in the mid-40s.

2) The economy is still a millstone. As I noted above, there has been some good economic news lately. But the flip side of this is that we’ve heard it before: Late 2010 and early 2011 were filled with bullish reports on the economy, as was early 2010 (remember “Recovery Summer”?).

The bigger problem for the president is that things are improving too slowly for him to really reap the benefits. Take a look at the following chart, supplied by Jay Cost, which shows per capita real disposable income (a metric commonly used by political scientists in their models) from the start of each president’s term up to his re-election effort (LBJ/Kennedy are combined, as is Ford with Nixon’s second term).

Obama looks quite a bit more like Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush 41 than he does the presidents who have been re-elected.

Of course, this is just one metric. Late last year, Nate Silver examined a variety of economic variables and determined which ones had the best record in predicting presidential elections. Of the 43 variables Silver identified, I’ve pulled the 10 that he found to have the strongest correlation with re-election outcomes. None of the correlations are overwhelmingly strong, but they are decent for these 10.

The following chart shows where each of those variables stand based upon the most recent available data. The right-hand column shows where these variables stood at the end of the third quarter of 2010. Note that in almost every instance, the variable today is worse than it was then (which, again, most agree was a bad time to be a Democrat).

The next chart requires some explanation. What I’ve done is try to get a more holistic view of the present economy, compared to where it stood in previous presidential elections. I’ve done this by taking each of the 10 variables and calculating where they stood in the 13 elections since 1960 (Kennedy-Nixon being the first one where we had data for all 10), as well as where they currently stand.

For each variable, I ranked each election (plus the present data), from best (1) to worst (14). (The individual rankings can be seen here). So, for example, the best Q1-Q3 real disposable income growth in a presidential year was 3.3 percent in 1964, so it received a 1. The next best was 1984, with 2.8 percent growth; it received a 2. And so forth, down to the present reading (-.9 percent), which gets a 14.

The following chart is the average ranking that each year received across the 10 variables. So, 1984 averaged a ranking of 2 across the 10 variables -- the best “election economy” on record, while 1980 almost always came in last, with an average of 13.5. This gives us a spitball estimate of how the present economy rates compared to other economies in election years. I’ve also bolded years that resulted in a change in partisan control of the presidency.

This sorts out roughly as we’d expect, with blowout years at the top and the bottom. As you can see, the current economy isn’t quite in 1980/2008 disaster territory, but it is clearly toward the bottom of the heap, and in the middle of the elections where incumbent parties lost the presidency.

As a final metric, I compared today’s measure of the different quality of life/economic variables that Gallup tracks relative to where they stood on Election Day 2010. I also included the percentage of Americans who believe the country is on the “wrong track,” according to the RCP Average:

This is again at best a mixed bag, and suggests that the overall perception of the economy and the way things are going in the country haven’t improved much from what was, again, a horrible environment for the Democrats. This, of course, explains why the president’s job approval on the economy -- consistently voters’ number one issue in polling -- was 30 percent in Gallup’s last read. That’s not a number he’s likely to get re-elected with.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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