How Presidential Elections (Usually) Work

How Presidential Elections (Usually) Work
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With the presidential campaign underway, it is probably time to take a big-picture look at how the race could play out. If you read enough about elections, you’ll probably encounter two basic takes: what we might call the political science take, which emphasizes a few basic “macro” factors, and the journalistic take, which emphasizes a broad range of day-to-day developments, as well the macro factors.

The truth is, these viewpoints aren’t really distinct. The political science take simply indulges a few reasonable assumptions about the factors that journalists consider. But they are nevertheless assumptions, and it is worth remembering that.

To see what I’m getting at, consider the following math problem. To be absolutely clear, it isn’t important that you understand the actual math here. You just need to get the gist of what is going on in the explanation below. So, let’s say you wanted to take the derivative of some variable labeled “x” cubed. The derivative (assuming you don’t know the incredibly helpful shortcut rules) is stated as follows:

When we start out, we have a horribly complex formula. But as we proceed through it, things become progressively simpler. We have a couple of terms that only have “x” in them: One is positive and one is negative, so they cancel out. The “h” in the denominator divides into the remaining terms in the numerator, eliminating the fraction. Then, as we let “h” move to zero, we’re left with a very clean answer: Three times “x” squared. What started out looking very complex is, when you get to the heart of things, quite simple.

We can look at the difference between the political science take on elections and the journalistic take in much the same way. Let’s consider a good example of the journalistic summation of elections. This was written by historian James Ford Rhodes back in 1906, about the 1874 midterm elections (when Republicans lost a staggering 93 House seats):

“The political revolution from 1872 to 1874 was due to the failure of the Southern policy of the Republican party, to the Credit Mobilier and Sanborn contract scandals, to corrupt and inefficient administration in many departments and to the persistent advocacy of Grant by some close friends and hangers-on for a third presidential term. Some among the opposition were influenced by the President’s backsliding in the cause of civil service reform, and others by the financial question. The depression, following the financial panic of 1873, and the number of men consequently out of employment weighed in the scale against the party in power. In Ohio, the result was affected by the temperance crusade in the early part of the year. … Since Republicans were in the main the instigators of the movement, it alienated from their party a large portion of the German vote.”

This analysis is over 100 years old, but the factors he lists should be pretty familiar to a modern reader. Rhodes mentions the economy, scandals, policy failures, radicalism within the Republican Party, and the incumbency of the president. We might fit the reference to the “Southern policy” under the rubric of “war.” A modern writer would probably also look at polling on presidential job approval, gaffes made by the candidates, the amount raised and spent by the candidates, as well as endorsements by newspapers and other prominent people.

So, we’d have a very complex equation like this:

I don’t think political scientists really deny the factors in the first equation. They just view things as quickly simplifying along the lines of our derivative analysis above. To begin with, both candidates make gaffes (“you didn’t build this” vs. “47 percent”), but since you have to be a fairly seasoned candidate to win a nomination, they tend to be rare. Both candidates get endorsements, and both candidates raise money well past the point of diminishing returns. So it isn’t that these things don’t matter, it is that the highly competent campaigns that accompany presidential campaigns make sure that neither side gets a massive leg up on the other side in this regard.

After we take this into account, we’re left with a much simpler equation. But then we might note that wars, policy failure, and radicalism quickly go into the “job approval” figure. We’re then left with job approval, the economy, and incumbency. These just happen to be the factors in Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” model.

What does this approach say right now? Assuming that the president’s job approval is unchanged in 2016, and that growth in the second quarter is the same as this year’s (2.3 percent), we would expect Hillary Clinton to receive 48 percent of the vote. Incidentally, this is pretty much what she receives in the RCP average today against Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee. To be sure, she leads, but she has universal name recognition.  We should keep 2014 in mind, when incumbent Democrats led early, but Republicans picked up undecided voters and the polls gradually converged on the fundamentals.

Now, does this mean Clinton will lose? Not at all. First, these are the fundamentals for 2015. It is the fundamentals for 2016 that matter. Things may well improve by then (or they could get worse).

Second, and more importantly, we should remember that this is how things usually work. We do have examples where things don’t cancel out, and the elections don’t really follow the factors nicely. We see these imbalances routinely in congressional elections, which is part of why predictive models of Congress are less successful than presidential models.

But we also see it occasionally in presidential elections. The classic example is 2000. The models generally picked Al Gore to win, often by substantial margins. A few had the actual result outside of the “error margin.” Of course, this isn’t what happened.  Some might chalk this up to Ralph Nader’s candidacy, but political science also suggests that a substantial number of Nader’s voters simply would not have shown up in the absence of his candidacy.

There are many explanations for why Gore underperformed, but one plausible read is that the conventional wisdom about the campaigns at the time was correct: Gore ran a really lousy campaign, and George W. Bush ran a great campaign.  In this situation, things did not cancel out, and it mattered.  This could cut both ways in 2016: Clinton’s unfavorable ratings could persist, and she might underperform against a solid Republican candidate.  Or Republicans could nominate Donald Trump, his high unfavorables might persist, and she could overperform.

In any event, feel free to enjoy the spectacle in 2016. You should just keep in mind that, unless things get really out of hand for one side or the other, the economy and the country’s evaluation of the president’s performance in office are the main things you should pay attention to if you are looking to pick a winner in 2016.

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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