It is now less than 11 months until American voters will pick our next (and hopefully new) President. While most of the stories you’ll read are, rightly, about the Republican nominating contests, the fundamentals of the general elections are taking shape around us every day and worth an examination.
So let’s take a look at a few key measures—some of which apply to any incumbent, and some of which are specific to the Presidency—that we find valuable in assessing the Presidential contest. Consider this the first in a series of assessments of the state of the race that we’ll roll out as the months tick by (I’m sure everyone will wait with baited breath for my next blog post on this matter, a sure cure for midday insomnia).
1) The 50% rule.
In all of our research into incumbent vulnerability and all of the different models and assessment that we have built, the simplest and clearest indicator of incumbent vulnerability is whether a well-known incumbent is above or below 50% on the ballot at the start of his/her re-election campaign.
This seems to happen both because challengers are less well-known (in general) and thus gain support as the campaign progresses and voters learn more about them and also because incumbents have had the opportunity to advocate for themselves with little push-back before the campaign begins—if they haven’t “sold” voters yet, it becomes harder during an active campaign.
In polling released yesterday, Obama trails Mitt Romney 47% to 48% according to CNN/Opinion Research Corporation and leads Romney 46% to 45% according to Fox News. Obviously Obama isn’t near or over 50% on either of those ballots.
Now, I’m less willing than some to anoint Romney as the nominee before at least South Carolina. But, as the candidate voters seem to believe will be the eventual Republican nominee, he makes a good proxy for this test.
2) The six percent rule.
Where the 50% rule is general to most incumbents (I say most because it doesn’t work well for things like City Council where most voters often don’t have any clue who the incumbent is), the six percent rule is specific to the Presidency.
Simply put, only one President in the post-World War II era has been re-elected with unemployment above six percent. And the one exception, Ronald Reagan, was running for re-election with an economy where unemployment had dropped more than four points from the beginning of the year to November.
While there are some signs that the economy is recovering a bit, unemployment is still 8.5% and has not improved remarkably so far. Now, some pundits are starting to spin that if Obama can get unemployment down to eight percent, he will probably win. They may be right. But there’s no evidence in the historical record to suggest that is true; I would suggest this is wishful thinking from a fawning media. Six percent seems to be the number, or four-point or greater drop—which in this case would get unemployment well below six percent.
3) Right Direction/Wrong Track
The third, and most classic, measure we use to gauge Presidential re-elect probabilities is the classic right direction/wrong track measure. This measure is less perfect than either the 50% or six percent rules, but it has a long history and provides another angle at which to examine the problem.
This question only dates back to the Nixon re-elect, so we have a limited set of observations through which to examine history. But generally the “right direction” measure has been near or above 50% at the start of the year for Presidents who won re-election fairly handily and Presidents mired in the low 20s or below have lost. More middling ratings have a mixed predictive history with, for example.
So how does Obama fair? His ratings are in the upper 20s right now, better than Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon but not as good as George H.W. Bush or Bill Clinton. We’ll call that one a push.
The bottom line
We may yet see four more years of Barack Obama (key word: may). But unless the economy really heats up, or his Republican opponent really stumbles, it appears highly unlikely by the key indicators I have tried to examine here.