Ignore the Polls and Focus on Economic Stimulus

Campaign signs line the entrance of a polling place in Manassas, Virginia. Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly-Getty Images

It’s begun. With merely four months until the elections, we’re starting to see the articles outlining the angry divisions between the president’s counselors. The fight apparently pits the political team, which wants the president to turn his attention to the political problem of deficits, against the economic team, which wants him to keep focusing on economic stimulus. Politics versus governance is, of course, an age-old choice. The job of governing is different from the job of getting reelected. Or is it?

For decades now, political scientists have been building election models that attempt to predict who will win in November without making any reference to candidates or campaigns. They can get within 2 points of the final vote, and they don’t need to know anything about the ads and the gaffes and the ground games. All they really need to know about is the economy.

“In presidential elections,” says Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels, “a 1 percent boost in election-year income growth has typically increased the incumbent party’s vote share by about 2 percent. So an incumbent party that won 51 percent of the vote in an average economic year like 2004 would be expected to win only 46 percent in a recession year like 2008.” Which is, as you may remember, pretty much exactly what happened.

Congressional elections are a bit more difficult because they’re more local, but they end up being predictable, too. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has a model that uses the numbers of seats the majority party holds, the approval rating of the president, and the change in real disposable income, and predicts about 70 percent of the swing between elections.

All this suggests political scientists have a pretty good handle on what wins elections, so I began asking them the question that some say is bedeviling the White House: do you focus on appeasing the polls now or doing everything you can to improve economic conditions before the elections?

“A policymaker reading polls who finds that people are concerned about the deficit and says, I should rein in spending and I’ll get credit for that—I don’t think there’s evidence that’ll move voters,” says the University of Denver’s Seth Masket. “You want to get as much money in voters’ hands in the months before the election as possible.”

John Sides, of George Washington University, helped me run the numbers more directly: we made one graph comparing the share of the vote the incumbent party got and the change in the deficit that it had presided over. It looked like we’d spilled out a bag of dots onto a piece of paper. The next graph we made plotted vote share against change in real disposable income. The line fit perfectly—more perfectly, in fact, than I’d anticipated.

We all agree that the economy is important, but there are elections in which the candidates mattered, right? There’s 1964, when Barry Goldwater’s extremism repulsed the electorate; and 1972, when George McGovern’s campaign of hapless hippies ran into Richard Nixon’s silent, and annoyed, majority; and, of course, 1984, when Ronald Reagan picked up 49 states against Walter Mondale’s promise to raise America’s taxes.

Those three campaigns showed up all the way at the top of my graph. They were the three presidential elections with the most income growth in the months before the vote. Mondale, McGovern, and Goldwater might have been bad candidates, but they were running against impossible fundamentals. We understand elections in terms of candidates, but it seems awfully convenient that the three worst candidates happened to end up in the three most impossible election years.

“The media and the popular mind really think that candidates and the campaigns make a huge difference,” says Michael Lewis-Beck, author of Forecasting Elections. “But it’s not as big a difference as the fundamentals operating behind the scenes every day.” In some ways that’s comforting: politicians are judged more on the condition of the country than on the elegance of their campaign.

But for the Obama administration, it’s likely chilling: the economy is still weak, and there aren’t 60 votes in the Senate for further stimulus. And even if those votes materialized tomorrow, it is too late for them to make a major difference in the economy before November. Democrats needed to pass a bigger stimulus back in 2009, not in late 2010.

If it’s any comfort to the economic team, however, the political team doesn’t have a chance, either: focusing on the deficit isn’t likely to make a difference. The White House may as well just govern.

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