It’s still the economy, stupid: Obama remains on narrow victory track

Updated
President Barack Obama makes phone calls to volunteers at an Organizing for America field office with Alexa Kissinger, left, and, Suzanne Stern, right, ...
President Barack Obama makes phone calls to volunteers at an Organizing for America field office with Alexa Kissinger, left, and, Suzanne Stern, right, ...
Carolyn Kaster

Three weeks out from Election Day, experts are saying that the economic indicators point toward a narrow Obama victory. Though victory is far from assured, the president maintains a slim edge on his opponent, Mitt Romney.

“If you look at the sum total of economic indicators and the presidential approval rating, it suggests that Obama’s favored,” said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. “But it also suggests a close race.”

A more thorough analysis by New York Times number cruncher Nate Silver suggests the same. In the latest iteration of his poll-based FiveThirtyEight forecast, Silver—a frequent guest on msnbc—says that Obama has a 63.3 percent likelihood of victory, albeit by a slim margin. That number, taken from Sunday’s forecast update, is down from 86.1 percent just a week and a half earlier.

“Obama certainly has been hurt by the recession, but because this is a very unusual recession Obama doesn’t seem to have been hurt as badly as [other incumbents],” said Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. Though Obama’s current approval rating of 49 percent is not particularly strong, he said, and though unemployment still hovers at 7.8 percent, “with two candidates who aren’t very popular, it’s hard to know who will win.”

But the unemployment rate in isolation is not particularly important, said political scientist Jonathan Bernstein. “[E]veryone who has looked into it agrees that it’s the direction and pace of change that matters, and generally the direction and pace of change in the election year,” he wrote via email. “So the current unemployment level isn’t as important as that it’s coming down.” By that measure, Obama is doing decently well—the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that unemployment has declined to its lowest rate in nearly four years.

There is historical precedent for a president winning reelection during a time of high but declining unemployment, said Sides. Reagan’s reelection in 1984 was a “blowout” despite an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent. That’s because, Sides said, that 7.4 percent represented a significant drop from the 1981-82 high of over 10 percent.

Obama’s middling approval rating, added Sides, always precluded the possibility of a blowout—either for Obama or for Romney. For months, he said, “we knew the president’s approval rating was not high enough to guarantee victory, but not low enough to guarantee defeat.” Bernstein agreed: “Obama is solidly below the presidents [who were] easily re-elected in the frequent polling era (Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton); solidly ahead of the presidents who were solidly defeated (Carter, George HW Bush); and roughly similar to George W. Bush, who was narrowly re-elected.”

Though candidates’ fortunes often rise and fall precipitously in mainstream media narratives, Sides said the evidence had been pointing towards a narrow Obama edge for quite a while. “I think this has been true all along,” he said. “I don’t think this is something new this week or since the last jobs report.” In fact, another widely respected expert on presidential elections, American University historian Allan Lichtman, confidently predicted Obama’s reelection as early as July 2010. At the time, he said that his “13 Keys” model—which looks at factors like economic growth, “incumbent charisma” and “social unrest”—clearly assured victory.

“Even if I am being conservative, I don’t see how Obama can lose,” he told U.S. News and World Report in August 2011.

Others have been more cautious in their predictions, and Silver even wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Lichtman for the New York Times website. But while different models offer up different predictions, said Bernstein, “if you try to combine them to get a consensus then it’s basically for a close race with Obama having a slight edge.”

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It's still the economy, stupid: Obama remains on narrow victory track

Updated