By Alan I. Abramowitz
Senior Columnist

According to a Gallup Poll analysis of recent polling data on the mood of the American public, President Obama appears to face a difficult road to winning a second term in November. The specific indicators of the national mood included in Gallup’s analysis were economic confidence, the percentage of Americans citing the economy as the country’s most important problem, satisfaction with the state of the nation and approval of the president’s job performance.

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While all of these indicators have shown some improvement in the past year, according to Gallup they all remain at levels that suggest trouble for the incumbent. For example, only 24% of Americans said that they were satisfied with the direction of the country and 66% cited the economy as the most important problem facing the nation.

There is little evidence about how indicators like satisfaction with the direction of the country or perceptions of the most important problem facing the nation affect the outcomes of presidential elections. However, there is strong evidence that an incumbent president’s approval rating, even several months before Election Day, has a strong relationship to the eventual outcome of the election.

After examining the approval ratings in May of the election year for all incumbents who have run for a second term since 1964, the Gallup article noted that President Obama’s 47% approval rating is lower than that of all of the incumbents in this group who were reelected, including Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, although it is only slightly lower than Bush’s 49% approval rating in May 2004. However, Gallup also noted that Obama’s May approval rating is higher than that of all of the incumbents in this group who were defeated: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

One problem with the Gallup analysis is that it leaves out two other postwar incumbents — Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s 69% approval rating in May 1956 was the highest of any postwar incumbent except Lyndon Johnson in 1964, so it is hardly surprising that he was easily reelected. However, Harry Truman’s 39% approval rating in May 1948 was the lowest of any president seeking a second term, including the three who were defeated. Yet Truman, much to the surprise of many pollsters and political observers at the time, was reelected. So what conclusion should we draw from Obama’s 47% approval rating?
Figure 1: Incumbent vote by May approval rating

Source: Gallup Poll and data compiled by author

Figure 1 displays a scatterplot of the relationship between the May approval ratings of the 10 incumbents seeking a second term since the end of World War II and the share of the major party vote that each of them received in November. The data displayed here show that there is a fairly strong relationship between May approval and election outcomes. May approval explains about two-thirds of the variation in the incumbent’s share of the vote in November.

Based on President Obama’s May approval rating of 47% and the prediction line shown in Figure 1, we would expect Mr. Obama to receive 51.6% of the major party vote in November. These results suggest that President Obama is currently a slight favorite to win a second term. However, our ability to predict the November vote based on the incumbent’s May approval rating is limited, as evidenced from the fact that several of the points for individual elections in Figure 1 are well above or below the prediction line.

Fortunately, my previous research shows that we can greatly improve the accuracy of our November forecast by including two additional predictors along with the incumbent’s approval rating: the growth rate of the economy during the first two quarters of the election year and the “time for change” factor, which indicates whether the incumbent’s party has held the White House for only one term or for two or more terms. Incumbents whose party has held the White House for two or more terms do significantly worse than those whose party has held the White House for only one term, even after taking into account the incumbent’s approval rating and the condition of the economy.
Figure 2: Incumbent vote by predicted incumbent vote based on Time for Change Model

Source: Gallup Poll and data compiled by author

The results displayed in Figure 2 show that a forecasting model including the change in real GDP during the first two quarters of the election year and the time for change factor along with the incumbent’s approval rating in May produces much more accurate predictions of the results of these 10 presidential elections. Despite the limited number of elections included in the analysis, the effects of all three predictors are statistically significant. We are now explaining over 90% of the variation in the incumbent’s share of the vote in November instead of only 67%, and all of the points representing individual elections in Figure 2 are very close to the prediction line.

So what does our improved forecasting model indicate about President Obama’s chances of winning a second term in the White House? That depends of course on the growth rate of the economy during the first two quarters of the year. The government’s initial estimate of real GDP growth during the first quarter of 2012 was about 2%, and growth during the second quarter is expected to be similar. If we assume that real GDP will grow by 2% during the first half of 2012, the full forecasting model predicts that Obama will end up with 51% of the major party vote in November, not much different from what the simple approval-based model predicted.

Whether we base our prediction on President Obama’s 47% approval rating in the Gallup Poll in early May or a more sophisticated forecasting model incorporating economic conditions and the “time for change” factor, it appears likely that we are headed for a very close election in November. Both models make Obama a slight favorite to win a second term. However, the final outcome will depend on the actual performance of the economy and the public’s evaluation of the president’s job performance in the months ahead. Those interested in assessing where the presidential race stands should focus on these two indicators rather than the day-to-day events of the campaign, which tend to dominate media coverage of the election.
Emory University professor and Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz takes an in-depth look at the seemingly irreconcilable divide between Republicans and Democrats in his new book, The Polarized Public? Why American Government is So Dysfunctional. Abramowitz argues that bipartisanship remains elusive, not because of politicians in Washington, but because of the American public and its fixation on party membership and loyalty. Now available on Amazon, click here to get your copy today.

By Joel K. Goldstein
Guest Columnist
Although his vice presidential selection is likely months away, we suspect that even now, Mitt Romney and his team are beginning to narrow down their list of possibilities. Joel K. Goldstein, the nation’s foremost authority on both the selection and service of modern vice presidents, explains how outside factors influenced previous candidates’ choices, and what Romney’s selection may tell us about him and his decision-making style. Goldstein, the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law, is the author of The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution (Princeton University Press, 1982) and numerous other works on the vice presidency, presidency and constitutional law. — The Editors

Mitt Romney faces a complicated vice presidential choice, and his predicament traces to two factors: His campaign has multiple needs and the pool of potential candidates offers imperfect options. Romney’s situation is not, however, novel. If history is a guide, his options will sort out over time and, like his predecessors, he will ultimately choose from imperfect alternatives.

Vice presidential selection is inherently contextual and relational. It is contextual because the choice invariably depends upon a range of factors over which the candidate has relatively little control, including the race’s apparent competitiveness, the issues most likely to be important and the candidates who are available. Facing an unfavorable political landscape in 1984, Walter F. Mondale saw a need to reshape the terrain and tried to do so by choosing the first woman running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. He might have made a different choice if polls had forecast a closer race. Tax and economic issues seemed a favorable place for Bob Dole to make his stand in 1996, which helped explain the choice of Jack Kemp.

The choice of a running mate is also relational because a presidential nominee must always choose a running mate based upon needs particular to the candidate doing the selecting. The familiar concept of “ticket-balancing,” implies just that — the presidential nominee selects a running mate in relation to his or her own strengths and weaknesses. George H.W. Bush was a good choice in 1980 for Ronald Reagan, who wanted a running mate from the more moderate wing of the party and one with some national security credentials, but Bush would have been a less compelling running mate in 1980 for Gerald Ford. Joe Biden made great sense for Barack Obama, but might have been less likely had Hillary Clinton been the nominee. Mondale was a perfect fit for Jimmy Carter, but an unlikely running mate for Frank Church, Morris Udall or Hubert H. Humphrey. A reinforcing choice, as Bill Clinton made in selecting Al Gore, shares this relational character. In choosing Gore, Clinton underscored attributes — that he was a southern centrist from the baby boomer generation — that were linked to his own biography.

Most polls forecast a competitive presidential race. If this expectation holds into the summer, Romney will be less likely to attempt to remake the political landscape with an unconventional selection and will be more likely to seek a running mate who appears to be a plausible president. Recent history suggests that most presidential nominees facing competitive races choose a running mate who would make a credible president. Determining whether someone satisfies that test involves subjective judgments, although some other criteria will help inform the decision. These include the amount of experience candidates have in traditional vice presidential feeder positions, their prior consideration for the presidency, their prior consideration for vice president and, most subjective, the way other officials and opinion-molders perceive them.

Since 1976, most first-time vice presidential candidates have been plausible presidential candidates based on these sorts of measures. Those chosen averaged 14.5 years in traditional feeder positions (governor, member of Congress, high executive official) for the vice presidency. All but Ferraro, John Edwards and Sarah Palin had at least 10 years experience in such positions, and Edwards had the compensating credentials of having been runner-up to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential primaries and a serious VP contender for Al Gore’s ticket four years earlier. Surely Dole, Mondale, Bush, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney and Biden were among the leading political figures of their generation when chosen. Dan Quayle had served 12 years in Congress and was building a record in the Senate.

Many of those around whom vice presidential speculation has centered this time do not measure up based on these criteria. Indeed, many of those most prominently mentioned this year have extremely limited experience, have not demonstrated their presidential qualities through a presidential race, or have not even previously been considered for the second spot on a ticket. Chris Christie (NJ) and Bob McDonnell (VA) have been governors for three years; Marco Rubio (FL), Kelly Ayotte (NH) and Rand Paul (KY) have been senators for only two years; and Nikki Haley (SC), Susana Martinez (NM) and Brian Sandoval (NV) have been governors for only two years (all figures rounded up). Based on prior service in traditional feeder positions, these levels place these candidates near the Sarah Palin-Spiro Agnew line (i.e. two years as governor), hardly an aspirational standard.

Of course, one or more of these people may be among those extraordinary figures who are ready to perform well on the national stage in 2012 even though their resumes are short and they have not yet demonstrated success in presidential politics. Many are now trying to make their case during this several-month vice presidential audition period. And perhaps anti-Washington sentiment makes this year an anomaly. Selecting a political neophyte presents risks, however. These figures have not been tested by campaigns comparable to a presidential contest, and such a choice would draw inevitable comparisons to John McCain’s designation of Palin. If the person selected did not perform well, Romney’s judgment would be questioned.

The risk for Romney would be even greater because his own career in public service is short, consisting of a single term as governor of Massachusetts, and he does not have experience in foreign policy or national government. These gaps in Romney’s resume further diminish the prospects of those mentioned above. Indeed, every governor nominated for president since 1976 has chosen a running mate with extensive experience in national government. Thus, Carter chose Mondale, Reagan chose Bush, Michael Dukakis picked Bentsen, Clinton selected Gore and George W. Bush selected Cheney. For Romney to choose a relative newcomer to high public office would represent a break from the path of these recent governor-presidential candidates.

Conversely, Romney might try to emphasize his theme that he is an economic turnaround expert by selecting a running mate who reinforces that message. That might lead Romney to choose a running mate with experience, but in creating jobs rather than in national public service.

To be sure, the Republican Party does include figures who fare better on some of the standard measures for qualifying running mates. Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN, 10 years), Sen. Rob Portman (OH, 16), Sen. John Thune (SD, 14), Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA, 8), Rep. Paul Ryan (WI, 14) and former Govs. Jeb Bush (FL, 8) and Tim Pawlenty (MN, 8) have all served at least eight years in traditional feeder positions and several were viewed as plausible presidential candidates earlier in this cycle. Jindal and Pawlenty were among those who made McCain’s vice presidential shortlist. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) might also qualify based on the relative success of their presidential runs this year and in 2008, respectively. Yet the acrimonious nature of this year’s campaign will surely disqualify Santorum. A runner-up occasionally has been chosen (Bush, 1980, Edwards, 2004), but they left the race once the ultimate result was evident and conducted less divisive campaigns than did Santorum. Those who run but finish further back in the pack rarely are designated, and Pawlenty’s poor showing certainly did not bolster his chance to become Romney’s choice. Biden is the one exception to this latter pattern, yet he ran against a stronger field in 2008 than this year’s Republican contest featured and, unlike Pawlenty, brought a long record of national public service to the ticket.

In addition to being presidential, potential running mates will need to prove to Romney’s vetting team of lawyers, accountants and other nitpicking specialists that their (and their families’) backgrounds contain no blemishes that would be too difficult to manage. Generally speaking, some past possibilities have been unable to survive a vetting screen because of reputed (or confirmed) philandering, questionable financial dealings, bizarre habits or a tendency to go rogue. These or other such stains may remove some of those who figure in speculation. And some will not get the nod because of their association with policy positions Romney may seek to avoid. Howard Baker’s role in securing ratification for the Panama Canal treaties damaged his chance of being Reagan’s running mate. Being pro-choice has, in the past, disqualified Sen. Alan Simpson (1988), Gov. Tom Ridge (2000, 2008) and Lieberman (2008). Sandoval will likely be this year’s casualty on these grounds, as will former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has described herself in the past as “mildly pro-choice” (as well as supportive of some affirmative action). Ryan might be an appealing choice, but he comes with his controversial budget plan. Romney has endorsed it, but will he really wish to be defined by that blueprint by choosing him?

Like any presidential nominee, Romney’s choice will respond to his needs as a presidential candidate. Romney enters the race with some obvious weaknesses. First, as mentioned above, Romney’s lack of national security credentials makes it less likely that he will choose someone whose exclusive experience has been as a state governor.

Moreover, the conservative base of the Republican Party has had misgivings about Romney, which contributed to his difficulty securing the nomination against this year’s weak field. Every recent Republican nominee from the more moderate wing of the party (Bush 1988 and 1992, Dole 1996, McCain, 2008) has felt compelled to select a running mate popular with the party’s conservative base. It seems likely that he will need to choose someone who at least will not offend, and perhaps will excite, the Republican base. Romney will want his choice to produce a happy and unified convention.

Yet Romney must balance his desire to pacify the conservative, evangelical base of the Republican Party against his need to appeal to independent and undecided voters in swing states. If he chooses a right-wing hero to prove he’s a true believer, he may offend independent voters. If he makes a choice to appeal to independents, he could provoke a conservative revolt or, perhaps more likely, an apathetic base.

Romney faces problems with other demographic groups, women and Hispanics among them. Some recent polls showed him far behind among Hispanics, an important voting bloc in some swing states, and lagging among women, especially unmarried women. Yet choices thought to appeal to Hispanic voters, like Rubio, Martinez, Sandoval or Jeb Bush, or women, like Ayotte, Haley, Martinez or Rice have other drawbacks, including those suggested elsewhere in this discussion.

Romney’s affluence, coupled with his occasional gaffes that emphasized his economic status (e.g., his $10,000 bet, his wife’s two Cadillacs, etc.) may cause him to look for someone who would not replicate his elite pedigree. Such considerations could work against Portman or Bush among others, and in favor of someone like Pawlenty.

Finally, Romney will be constrained by some filters that are independent of anything he has done. Although past Republican nominees have frequently chosen running mates with substantial experience in the executive branch (e.g., Bush in 1980, Kemp in 1996, Cheney in 2000), this qualification may have less appeal this time. Many of the possible candidates are associated with the George W. Bush administration either based on service (Daniels, Portman, Rice) or family (Jeb Bush). Does Romney wish to associate himself with that administration by choosing a running mate with such baggage? To do so would emphasize the extent to which America’s economic problems predated President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Republicans in Congress will also have one or two strikes against them. Sitting members of the House of Representatives are almost never selected as running mates, in part because they are perceived to have a stature deficit relative to senators, governors or members of the executive branch. Ferraro is the only sitting House member to be selected since 1976, and she was chosen at a time when there were no Democratic women in the Senate and only one recently elected woman Democratic governor. William Miller, in 1964, is the only other House member chosen going back more than 75 years. Barry Goldwater, who had limited options, chose Miller due to his proclivity at provoking Lyndon B. Johnson. Ford was selected under the 25th Amendment, but that was an extraordinary situation.

The bias against choosing a member of the House might count against Ryan, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) or Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA). Moreover, such a selection would associate Romney with the unpopular Congress and perhaps enhance Obama’s ability to tie Romney to it. That consideration might also affect the likelihood that Romney would select Thune, Portman or another Republican senator. Incidentally, although the Senate is an incubator for Democratic running mates, only 20% of Republican vice presidential candidates since 1952 (Nixon, Dole and Quayle) were sitting senators when chosen.

If history is a guide, Romney’s options will clarify in the coming months. The ultimate nominee is almost never apparent in late May of election year. Few would have predicted Mondale, Dole, Bush, Ferraro, Bentsen, Quayle, Gore, Kemp, Lieberman, Cheney, Biden or Palin at that time in the year each was chosen. As the convention approaches, Romney’s relative electoral strengths and weaknesses will become more apparent, and his options will narrow as various prospective choices rise or fall based on the outcomes of the vetting, their own conduct and strategic considerations. And he will probably achieve a better sense of his relative comfort level with the various alternatives as a political partner.

Ultimately, Romney will need to choose between imperfect options. Presidential candidates always do. Bush was a great choice for Reagan in 1980, yet he had labeled Reagan’s signature policies “voodoo economics,” had never been elected to anything outside of Texas’s Seventh Congressional District (although he had won seven primaries or caucuses and previously been considered for the vice presidency) and Reagan had reservations about him. Bentsen disagreed with Dukakis on various issues. Clinton’s selection of Gore violated conventional practices regarding ticket-balancing. Dole chose Kemp although the two had well-publicized differences, which Kemp had exacerbated when he endorsed Steve Forbes at a point when Dole’s nomination was inevitable. Cheney, Biden and Palin were from tiny, safe states.

In picking a running mate, Romney will tell us something about himself. In addition to being contextual and relational, a vice presidential choice is idiosyncratic. It matters who is making the choice and who has his or her ear. Within the constraints a nominee faces, the choice tells us something about the selector’s values and decision-making style and ability. McCain was perceived to undermine his promise to put “Country First” when he chose Palin. Reagan, Dukakis and Dole signaled they were open to a spectrum of views when they chose Bush, Bentsen and Kemp, respectively. The choice of Cheney in 2000 reassured voters that Bush would choose experienced and able advisers whereas Gore’s selection of Lieberman, an early critic of Clinton regarding the Lewinsky affair, signaled an emphasis on values, independence from Clinton, and boldness in selecting the first Jewish American to run on a national ticket.

Romney, like his predecessors, faces constraints in making his vice-presidential choice. How he decides from a menu of imperfect options will reveal something about him. That, after all, is part of what presidents do, and how they should be judged.
By Geoffrey Skelley
Political Analyst

At the end of January, the Crystal Ball examined the latest state-by-state unemployment numbers and what they could mean for the presidential election. The fact that the nation’s economic difficulties have hit certain places harder than others could have a real impact on what we anticipate will be a close election in November. Our analysis suggested that the Obama campaign could tailor its economic message to each state based on the specific jobless conditions there. While critics of the president would surely prefer to point to statistics like labor-force participation, the unemployment figures presented below, while mixed, could be packaged to tell a positive story for the incumbent in some swing states.
Chart 1: State-by-state unemployment rates, April 2012

Notes: P – preliminary figure; R – revised figure based on populations, model reestimation and new seasonal adjustment.

Source: National Bureau of Labor Statistics

Obviously, the safe Blue and Red states on the chart are going to stick with their preferred party, even if their unemployment is high, as in the case of Democratic states (like California), or low, as in the case of Republican states (like the Dakotas). At the same time, the president would have trouble making a compelling case about jobs in Nevada or North Carolina, for instance — two states that he won in 2008 after George W. Bush won them in 2000 and 2004, and where unemployment, despite a downward trend, remains high. But he has a better argument in states where unemployment is below the national average.

So far, the Obama campaign has run ads promoting the president’s handling of the economy, such as spots that tout the auto industry bailout and mention increased job growth. But are voters buying the pitch and giving Obama credit? That’s up for debate, especially with Republican governors in key swing states, such as Virginia and Ohio, competing with the president for the public’s applause.

In Virginia, in what can mainly be described as a campaign to improve his chances of being Romney’s running mate, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) Opportunity Virginia PAC has run an ad highlighting Virginia’s economic improvement during McDonnell’s tenure. The spot notes that Virginia has its lowest unemployment rate in three years and the lowest in the Southeast. As our chart shows, Virginia’s 5.6% figure is at least 1% better than any other Southern state. Federal spending, particularly defense expenditures, is a big reason why, of course — a point often left unmade in a state whose politicians regularly launch broadsides against “wasteful spending by Washington.”

Meanwhile, Ohio and much of the Rust Belt have seen stirrings of economic improvement. But the president has not necessarily received a significant bump from this news. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Ohioans who think the Buckeye State’s economy has improved give Gov. John Kasich (R) credit for the change by a 68% to 22% margin over President Obama. Voters who think the economy is worse also blame the sitting governor more than the president, 49% to 27%. Considering Ohio’s unemployment rate has gone from 8.8% in April 2011 to 7.4% last month, both incumbents can brag about the change. But it is far more important for Obama, who is on the ballot this November while Kasich isn’t up for reelection until 2014.

Strategically, the Obama campaign wants to convince voters that the economy is in fact improving. Tactically, this has meant running ads in key swing states that generally promote Obama’s economic stewardship. Yet the campaign might be losing an opportunity if it doesn’t take greater ownership of positive state-specific numbers. Obama’s generic television ads might do more than simply target all the swing states as a bloc. Instead, he could focus on each state separately. If a state’s unemployment rate has improved over the past year, then the president’s campaign could run general election ads that trumpet the success. Ohio and especially Virginia are ideal for such advertising.

In politics, a president gets the blame for anything bad that happens on his watch. Conversely, he gets the credit for anything good that unfolds during his term — that is, if he doesn’t let others take the credit from him. To this point, President Obama has failed to take advantage of the improved jobs numbers in some competitive states with unemployment lower than the national average. In this close election, Obama has little margin for error.
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