It’s a paradox. The economy is in the doldrums. Yet the incumbent is ahead in the polls. According to a huge body of research by political scientists, this is not supposed to happen. On the other side of the Atlantic, it hardly ever does. But in America today, the law of political gravity has been suspended.
First, the economy. It’s growing at a lousy 2 percent. Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Manufacturing just contracted for the third straight month. Consumer confidence is sliding. Nearly 47 million Americans are on food stamps. And we’re heading for a fiscal cliff.
Now, the polls. According to The New York Times, President Obama is set to win 51 percent of the popular vote and 311 electoral college votes, including those of key swing states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. He has a 3 in 4 chance of being reelected.
If Mitt Romney were the kind of guy people felt sorry for, you’d feel sorry for him.
So what’s the explanation? I can think of four possibilities.
Explanation one: I am lying to you. The economy is doing great. No doubt the self-appointed “fact checkers” of the blogosphere are armed and ready to tell you this. (Did I forget to mention that the fiscal cliff is made of green cheese?)
Explanation two: People aren’t telling the truth to the pollsters. The deciding factor in this election will be whether or not a relatively small slice of the electorate—suburban, middle-class voters in a handful of states—deserts the president. Four years ago, as Michael Barone has pointed out, many such people voted for him. Now they are suffering from buyer’s remorse. But there is a certain stigma attached to voting against the man who came to personify not just political change but the end of centuries of racial prejudice. So when asked by pollsters, the swing voters simply don’t fess up.
A variant of this argument is that people currently telling pollsters they’d vote for the president tomorrow won’t actually turn out on Election Day. This seems to me a more likely scenario. Young people and African-Americans turned out in unusually high numbers four years ago. Precisely these groups have fared the worst in the sluggish economy of the past four years. Sure, they’ll never vote for Mitt Romney. But these disillusioned folks may just stay home “staring up at fading Obama posters,” in Paul Ryan’s memorable phrase.
Explanation three: People vote more prospectively than retrospectively. “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” was the question Ronald Reagan asked voters back in 1980. It’s the question Republicans started asking again last month, and for a moment the Democratic spin-doctors didn’t have a good answer. It took Roger Altman (one of the president’s dwindling band of supporters on Wall Street) to come up with one. Sure, things have been bad—but they are about to get better as housing bounces back and the United States fracks its way to energy independence. So the real question voters should ask themselves is: “Will I be better off in four years’ time than I am right now?”
Explanation four: The economy isn’t the No. 1 issue, despite what people say. The more I watch of this election, the more I incline toward this last explanation.
True, when asked to rank issues, voters mostly put the economy at the top of the list. And yet when asked to make a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, their choices don’t seem to be economically based.
Many people subscribe to the view that Romney just isn’t likable. They can more readily imagine having a beer or shooting hoops with Obama. Then there is the religious subtext: Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is just a bit weird, whereas Obama’s Evangelicalism Lite offends hardly anyone.
And let’s not forget abortion. For many women, the suspicion that banning abortion, if not contraception too, would be item No. 1 on the Romney-Ryan to-do list trumps all other considerations. The Obama campaign played this card with great success over the summer, with more than a little help from Rep. Todd Akin.
Or maybe, just maybe, this election is boiling down to a contest between white non-Hispanic men and everyone else. After all the high hopes of 2008, it will be depressing if that is the outcome of the Obama presidency: an electorate split along the dividing lines of race and sex.
One thing’s for sure. Though Bill Clinton waxed lyrical last week about his party’s job-creation record, this time it really isn’t the economy, stupid.