Misreading the midterm tea leaves
By Cliff Young and Julia Clark
Yes, this was a Republican Year. From lowly dogcatcher to the venerable Senate and House, the GOP made significant gains. But how should the results of this electoral cycle be interpreted? Are we seeing the emergence of a “new Republican mandate” which will sweep away the Obama project because of his policy oversteps? Or is this merely the short-term expression of voter angst, precipitated by a dismal economy?
Pundits and politicos alike would have us believe that the Obama era is over, with the general elections in 2012 being a mere formality to an imminent Republican resurgence. Obama went too far left, or so the argument goes, and the Republican gains this year are a leading indicator of a re-adjustment.
In our view, this perspective is fundamentally wrong: the results of the present mid-term elections have little to do with the probable outcome of the general election in 2012. Obama, contrary to the expert opinion, is still very much in the driver’s seat. Here’s why.
First, most elections are about voter optimism (or lack thereof). Low optimism is usually the result of the economy doing poorly, and so people want to “throw the bums out.” We pollsters call such elections “change elections,” which favor the party out of power. In contrast, when optimism is high, voters want “more of the same,” or continuity. Continuity elections favor the party in power. Our own studies of hundreds of elections around the world show that about 80 percent of all elections can be classified according to this simple “change versus continuity” dichotomy, with the other 20 percent depending on the effectiveness of campaigns and the power of personalities.
The 2010 electoral cycle, with the poorest performing economy in a generation, was a change election which favored the party out of power – the Republicans. This means that there was no fundamental shift in American values, or a “new Republican mandate,” but instead that the election was the result of the natural ebbs and flows of voter sentiment, driven by larger economic forces.
Indeed, our polling shows that policy specifics tend to take on only secondary or tertiary roles in voter calculus compared to simple pocketbook issues and associated relative degree of optimism. Of course it isn’t always about the economy – events like wars, scandals, and other unforeseen wildcards do play a role in defining voters’ desire for change or continuity. The economy, though, typically is the most consistent factor, with the 2010 midterm elections being no exception.
Second, by this very logic, Obama’s relative odds for retaining the White House will depend on voter desire for change or continuity. We believe that, even now at this nadir, Obama is the favorite for several reasons:
(a) Barring a major external economic shock or some other random act of God, all projections suggest that the economy will begin to pick up steam. Economic projections put the unemployment rate at about 6.7 percent on average for 2012-2014, a sharp drop from today’s rate of over 9 percent. Our polling shows that a declining unemployment rate is the number-one signal for voters that the economy is improving. 2012, in other words, should be a year of positive signals. We may not be talking about a booming economy but at the very least it should be a superior economic situation when compared to today.
(b) Even given this terrible economic environment, Obama would still be in a strong position to take the White House in 2012. Why? First, according to our models, the very fact that Obama is an incumbent means he is about three times more likely than all challengers—from either party—to win. And second, even with a tepid 45 percent approval rating, Obama has a 71 percent chance of taking the White House, and an 84 percent chance if his numbers go to 50 percent.
What are the implications of our analysis? From a political perspective, Obama should be less worried about his legislative laurels and more about the jobs numbers–though making some effort on deficit reduction would be an important bullet-point for his economic resume going into the 2012 election.
Republicans, in contrast, are running against the economic clock – a bad economic environment in 2010 may be a good one in 2012. As a starting point, re-framing the economic policy debate in their favor would help them get at least some credit for the improving numbers in 2012.
All in all, political analysts should be wary of committing the age-old logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, which assumes that an outcome is caused by an event simply because one follows the other. In our opinion, the 2010 Republican gains say very little about Obama’s prospects in 2012.
Cliff Young and Julia Clark are pollsters at Ipsos Public Affairs