Advancing a Free Society

Who will win the White House?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Now that’s we’ve officially moved into the General election, I’m getting more calls from the press during which I’m asked some version of this question:

Who is going to win the presidential election?

Here’s my answer to that question as of today, June 4th, 2012, in about 500-words:

Analysts of U.S. elections use models that forecast the election outcome based primarily on the health of the economy. The idea behind these models is that U.S. voters view an election as a referendum on the economy's performance during the incumbent's time in office. These models do not correctly predict the winner of every post-World War II election, but they do a remarkably good job. The forecasts have been right about three-quarters of the time.

Currently, the election forecasting models give President Obama a slight advantage over Mitt Romney. Taking the most respected forecasting models together, my assessment is that they point to slightly better than even odds that President Obama is reelected. The not-academic but often dead-on prediction market Intrade has Obama’s chance of relection at 53.7%, as of today.

But there is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the U.S. economy between now and the beginning of November. If we continue to have weaker than expected job creation and GDP growth at 2% or less, President Obama's chances of reelection will probably decrease from this point.

I say probably because we're seeing something interesting in the polling. Voters are giving Mitt Romney the advantage as the candidate best able to handle the economy, but they see President Obama as more likely to help out the middle class. The difference is largest among Independent voters, who are the persuadable swing voters who decide elections. This split on the economy as a whole vs. watching out for the middle class leaves us wondering which candidate middle class voters will support in a faltering economy.

Emphasizing the importance of the economy is not to completely discount the influence of other issues and events. International events, especially a widespread crisis in the Middle East - perhaps the Syrian rebellion spilling over into Lebanon, or actions by Iran that further destabilize the region - could shift the focus of the election to foreign affairs.

If that happens, it is unclear which candidate will benefit. Although the crisis would happen on Obama's watch, Mitt Romney brings no foreign policy experience to the White House. Would voters want him to be Commander-in-Chief in a time of international crisis? This is a reason for Romney to select a vice presidential nominee with foreign policy experience. Yet, even putting someone with foreign policy experience on the ticket does not guarantee that voters will prefer a Romney presidency’s foreign policy leadership to Obama's. President Obama is, after all, the man who gave the order to kill Osama Bin Laden. The American people are likely to give him a lot of credit for that and might believe that qualifies him to handle other international crises.

All that said, the real answer to the question is this: There's an old saying that a week in politics is a long time. If that's true, 5 months is a very, very long time. And our best guess now could be upended at anytime between today and Election Day.