Data Indicate Election Will Be Referendum

Data Indicate Election Will Be Referendum

By Sean Trende - April 18, 2012

One of the more fashionable debates today is whether the 2012 election will be more of a choice between two candidates, or a referendum on the party in power. Over at The New Republic, Ed Kilgore provides one of the more cogent arguments for the former.

Kilgore's assertion flies in the face of the conventional wisdom: That in an incumbent election, the electorate engages in a two-step process. First, it decides whether it likes the incumbent. If it does, the incumbent is re-elected. If it doesn’t, it then asks whether the challenger is acceptable. If the challenger is acceptable, the unpopular incumbent is defeated; if not, the incumbent is re-elected.

In other words, analysts who accept this model implicitly assume that the election is largely a referendum on the incumbent; how strong a referendum it is depends on how high you believe the bar to be cleared in Step 2 is.

Now, the fact that Kilgore disputes the conventional wisdom (and most thinking among political scientists) is not evidence that he is incorrect. But what evidence we have does suggest that in this particular instance, the CW is solid.

One way we can test the referendum theory is to see how well incumbents’ vote shares have lined up with their approval ratings. If the correlation is weak -- if incumbents frequently receive the votes of those who disapprove of them, or frequently lose substantial numbers of votes of those who approve -- then we might assume that either voters are engaging in a more abstract “choice,” or that the bar in Step 2 is so high that it effectively creates a choice election.

If, however, they line up nicely, and incumbents tend to pull in a vote share roughly similar to their approval rating, then we have a sense that the referendum model has legs to it. Now it might still be the case, as Kilgore at times suggests, that bashing an opponent raises the incumbent's approval. But this is both hard to test and, in any event, fully consistent with the idea that, in the end, we're left with a referendum on the incumbent, regardless of exactly how the incumbent arrived at his approval rating on Election Day.

Let’s start with the two major examples that Kilgore advances in support of his claim: The 1980 and 2004 elections. Both of these examples actually suggest the exact opposite of what he claims. In 1980, a majority of the electorate believed that Jimmy Carter was doing a poor job, and he lost. In 2004, a majority of the electorate believed that George W. Bush was doing a good job, and he won.

Kilgore argues that the 1980 election didn’t have to turn out the way it did, and he observes, correctly, that late-breaking votes overwhelmingly chose the challenger over the incumbent president. This is widely attributed to Ronald Reagan’s outstanding debate performance in the closing weeks of the contest.

But Carter’s final job approval poll in 1980 -- unfortunately, taken in September -- shows him receiving a 37 percent approval rating, roughly similar to the 41 percent of the vote he ultimately received. Put differently, the undecided voters had to go somewhere, and one could argue that they were likely to break heavily toward Reagan, strong debate performance or not.

The other election that Kilgore discusses is similarly misunderstood. The election of 2004 is frequently held up as an example of an unpopular president winning re-election by making his opponent unacceptable to the electorate. And, indeed, Bush’s approval rating in Gallup’s final poll of the electorate was a tepid 48 percent, suggesting that he over-performed his approval rating by a decent margin.

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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 Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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