Political professionals are debating why Mitt Romney remains slightly behind President Obama in national and swing state polls despite the high rate of unemployment. Although they may offer different specifics of how exactly the Romney campaign has failed, they mostly agree that the numbers do reflect missed opportunities or mistakes from the Romney campaign. Congressional Republicans, according to The Hill, “say Romney must do a better job of communicating to voters what to expect of him, either by making a bold pledge akin to George H.W. Bush’s 1988 ‘no new taxes’ promise or fleshing policy proposals with more details.” Mainstream horse race reporters, who cover presidential campaigns primarily through the prism of personality and strategy, tend to subscribe to a variant of this view. For example, they say that Romney’s mishandling of the protests at U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East last week was a devastating sign of desperately flailing campaign. Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook expressed the conventional wisdom perfectly in National Journal last week when he wrote:
My view is that if Obama is reelected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign; if Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign. This economy is an enormous millstone around Obama’s neck, yet he and his campaign have managed to secure the upper hand.
Politico’s Sunday night bombshell report on dissolution and sniping over in the Romney campaign supports this line of thinking. According to Politico’s Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, the Romney campaign has many employees who question the wisdom of its top strategist, Stuart Stevens, and who blame Stevens for the two big failures of the Republican National Convention: Romney’s failure to honor military personnel and the bizarre appearance by Clint Eastwood.
There is no question that those were real political failures, as was Romney’s incorrect and premature assertion that President Obama was trying to appease the Libyan terrorists. But the polls do not seem to respond very much to these stories that consume everyone inside the Beltway. Obama has basically had a slight lead throughout the campaign, with minor ups and downs. Given how few swing voters there are, and how little most of them pay attention before October, one should not assume that every campaign misstep has an effect.
The belief that Romney’s polling deficit proves he is doing something wrong—or that if he were doing everything right then he would be winning—assumes that the fundamentals favor Romney. But do they?
We remember a few past elections, such as 1932, 1980, 1992 and 2008, as proving that a weak economy dooms an incumbent president or the candidate of his party. The truth is more complicated. Ronald Reagan won in 1984 despite high unemployment, for example. What actually matters more than the state of the economy is its direction. If the economy is shrinking, it is bad for the incumbent. If it is growing, even if that means it is rebounding from a downturn, as it was in 1984, then the president typically wins. Given that the economy has been growing, albeit slowly, along with a rising stock market and modest private sector job growth, for over two years, Obama should, in fact, be winning. Ezra Klein explains:
Some months ago, I worked with political scientists Seth Hill, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck to build a model that used data from every presidential election since 1948 to forecast the outcome of this presidential election. But when the model was done, I thought it was broken: It was forecasting an Obama win even under scenarios of very weak economic growth. (You can play with the model here.)
After a lot of frantic e-mails, my political scientist friends finally convinced me that that’s the point of a model: It forces you to check your expectations at the door. And my expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data, which suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction, as was true with unemployment in 1980 and 1992.