Can Romney Beat Obama?
Guest post by James Hanley
Short answer; yes. After all, we don’t know what’s going to happen between now and election day.
Longer answer; not likely, with detailed explanation below. For the record, although I am a political scientist, this is not a professional explanation. There is no specialized information here that anyone else here couldn’t have just as easily accessed. (There is a body of literature on election prediction, but I’m not really familiar with it.) Also, this is not a brief for Obama. I did vote for him in 2008, because I found all the candidates equally dismal and decided that it was worth being able to look back decades from now and say I did indeed cast a vote for the first black president, but I will not vote for him again absent a substantial bribe.
So here we go…
- First we have to take account of Obama’s low approval ratings, which currently are running at below 50%. Clearly this is a problem for the president, but by itself it’s insufficient evidence that he will lose. Consider Gray Davis, the former governor of California, who won re-election despite having an approval rating in the low 40s and a disapproval rating nudging 50%. The Republicans had nominated someone even more unpalatable to the majority of the California electorate. And currently the American electorate seems to find Romney less palatable than Obama. Personally I’m rather more favorable to Romney—I like managerial, relatively non-ideological, presidents, and his flip-flopping doesn’t bother me because I know what’s necessary to win the GOP primary and frankly I don’t care if he lies his ass off to the rabid right. But most of the public doesn’t agree with me, and as the old saying goes, you can’t beat something with nothing.
- Obama may have difficulty rallying his base, given his (predictable, but mostly unpredicted) failures to be progressive, but Romney will have even more trouble with that task. He will need to rely on anti-Obama fervor to rally the conservative base, because it won’t be pro-Romney fervor, and I’m skeptical that the rally cry of “beat the worst of two evils” is anywhere near as effective as “he’s our savior!”
- The economy isn’t going to matter. It’s obviously not great, but since it grew at a 3% rate in the fourth quarter of last year, Obama can definitely show it’s improving, barring a turndown. If the economy slumps—which could happen—this analysis goes out the window. But timing is everything—a summer slump will be deadly, whereas a third quarter slump may be too late for people to take notice. At least a third quarter economic rally in 1992 wasn’t noticed in time to help George H.W. Bush against Clinton, but admittedly I don’t know if that works in the opposite direction; people may notice a slump more quickly than a recovery (at least the theory that most people are risk averse suggests they might).
- The “Obama is a radical” claims are not going to work. What are the bases for such a claim? Obamacare is the most moderate form of national health care legislation going (it’s essentials were originally proposed by Republicans); his bailout of the American auto manufacturers (ahem, not of the auto industry), will ensure he beats Romney in Romney’s birth state, and may help him win Ohio, plus it’s clearly not a socialist program because he’s trying to sell off the government’s ownership share. If Obama were truly so radically progressive, you’d expect to see more happiness from actual progressives—the wholesale absence of happiness from that crowd is an indicator that there really is no there there. Granted, given the nature of presidential campaigns we can’t say it’s impossible to persuade the mushy middle of his radicalism, but it does make that task considerably more difficult.
- Obama’s InTrade numbers have gone up considerably over the past 90 days. It’s not that InTrade is telling us something we don’t know, but that it’s telling us that the folks out there who are looking at the same information I’m talking about here are coming to the same conclusion I am—that is, they’re not finding any info that contradicts my analysis. Specifically, the suggestion that there is something about Obama’s record that isn’t currently being assessed but eventually will be just doesn’t seem to be supported, because that is exactly the kind of information that would be accounted for by InTrade participants.
Obviously it’s not all beer and skittles from now until November for Obama. Campaigns matter because even if running a good campaign doesn’t guarantee victory, running a bad one can pretty much guarantee a loss. (See: Dole, Bob; Coakley, Martha.) And what Obama can’t control are the big events, global and economic, that could decimate the public’s already low level of confidence in him.
Even worse, InTrade’s numbers on Republican control of both the House and Senate are pretty equivalent to the numbers for Obama winning, so he may have the joy of being a second-term president facing united congressional opposition. Fortunately he’s got Hilary Clinton on his staff to tell him what that’s like, and how hubby Bill handled it. And as long as he’s got John Boehner as the Speaker of the House he can be assured that the Republican majority will not have competent leadership. Small comforts, perhaps, but unpopular presidents have to take what small comforts they can find.
Of course I could be wrong. Wagering on future events is a good way to go broke, and I don’t fancy myself a particularly gifted prognosticator. But here I am, on the record. If you think my analysis is flawed, bookmark this page, and come November if you have reason to laugh at me, by all means do so with great enthusiasm.