It’s always amusing to see which new shiny object (“… and will it hurt the candidate? News at 11″) will be the subject of a few hours of political press speculation, and which prematurely dismissed story has staying power.
To be fair, some stories declared important really are important. Look no further than the economy on that one. And, in advance, in context, “less important” doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Gas prices, for example are hugely important to everyone, but they and unemployment numbers (a shrinking job force because of baby boom retirement is not the same as “discouraged about working”) don’t decide elections the way GDP and growth do. And even they don’t decide elections by themselves. Nate Silver reviewed some of the economic models and found them useful but wanting:
This seems like a healthy state of affairs. Simple economic variables can account for a little less than half of the variability in election results. The other half falls into the “everything else” category, including factors such as foreign policy successes and failures, major scandals, incumbency, candidate quality, controversial social legislation and structural factors like changes in partisanship. Technically speaking, some of the variability may also be explained by economic factors that weigh upon voters’ minds, but which are not easily quantified by measures like G.D.P. and inflation.
In order to capture the ”everything else” category, political scientists often use presidential approval, hence the value of that particular measure (who measures it and how is a story for another day).
This is from a recent illustrative model that appeared in the Washington Post:
Political scientists at George Washington, Yale and UCLA believe most elections can be predicted with just a few pieces of information. They created a formula that uses economic growth, presidential approval ratings in June and incumbency to forecast President Obama’s share of the two-party vote in the Nov. 6 election.
John Sides, one of the designers, comments at the Monkey Cage, on the key fundamental of party identification:
The Fundamentals. I completely agree with the thrust of [Jay] Cost’s post. He says that because of party identification, 90% of the electorate is “locked in.” I’ve been blogging about that for a while—e.g., here or here or here.
That’s a key fundamental, and while it won’t predict election results, it helps explain why polling numbers don’t move all that much, why the election will be close, and why people (politicans and the press) concentrate on the elusive mythical swing voter (who isn’t really all that interested in politics or they’d be part of the 90 percent and not the 10 percent).
Still, while party ID is key, it’s also a variable. Perhaps the key factor this year influencing that variable is how damaged the Republican brand has become. The less Republicans there are, the bigger the difference in the vote.
That’s why dismissing the Republican war on women (it’s real and at state level and in the Republican House), unpopular Republican governors seen as overreaching on union and social issues (Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Jon Kasich in Ohio, Rick Scott in Florida), or Romney’s recent flap over his gay foreign policy spokesperson, Richard Grenell, is a mistake. Together, these issues paint a picture of an intolerant and unwelcoming Republican Party. That matters when people vote. So, although imperfect, look at the (it’s a variable!) party ID from poll to poll, and also begin to look closer at voting enthusiasm as we get closer to November. Matched numbers mean a closer election. And if you can, look regionally and state by state (especially in barometer states like IA, NC, VA, PA, OH and FL. Overwhelming dislike of Obama in the Deep South and WV doesn’t matter for this purpose; he’s not carrying those states, but they will slant national numbers.)
The third of the important factors to add to presidential approval and the economy is incumbency. I still remember this piece from Democratic pollster Mark Mellman on the eve of the 2004 election:
First, we simply do not defeat an incumbent president in wartime. After wars surely, but never in their midst. Republicans have been spinning this fact for months, and they are correct.
Obama’s trip to Afghanistan on the anniversary of the death of bin Laden, while Romney pretended to deliver pizzas to a NYC firehouse, is a perfect example. Whether it’s dominating local news (the news people actually watch) with a visit, or national news with a speech or an event like OBL’s demise, incumbency is powerful.
Romney, by the way, got heckled by an onlooker while handing off those pizzas to an aide. (“Just don’t put ‘em on the roof of the car.”) And that (Mitt Romney Heckled Over Dog-On-Roof Story) brings up another point: the dog on the roof from 20 years ago? It matters. Gail Collins isn’t the only one who talks about it (see Mitt Romney’s dog-on-the-car-roof story still proves to be his critics’ best friend.)
Other things that matter (and when they say it doesn’t, they’re wrong):
- Etch A Sketch (it’s now part of the political lexicon, see top graphic)
- Romney’s unlikeability (it’s real and not going away)
- Romney’s Swiss bank account image (ditto)
- Obama’s killing Osama bin Laden (that’s real, too)
Things that don’t matter (and when they say it does, they’re wrong):
- Life of Julia website (for either candidate)
- Hilary Rosen’s gaffe about Ann Romney (only Republicans will remember this, and they already know who they are voting for)
- Obama’s girlfriend featured in a new book (who frickin’ cares?)
- China dissident drama, which, while compelling, will not impact the 2012 election
I am sure you have your own list of the above. If you are trying to sell papers, your first list is longer, but try not to get distracted from what really matters. (Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.)
All in all, I take the models, the fundamentals, the things that matter (including state-by-state polls and party loyalty) together and foresee a close race, but one that Obama wins. Of course if that’s true, the next question that matters is what happens next?