Campaigns don’t matter. Except when they do.

Political Scientist Alan Abramowitz has his latest prediction model out.  Based largely on the economy and presidential approval, he’s tweaked it to take into account the growing polarization of the electorate.  It’s quite accurate for past elections and it currently suggests a super-close (i.e., well within the margin of error) victory for Obama:

Table 1: Conditional forecast of Obama’s share of major party vote

Source: Time for Change Model with Polarization Correction

Table 1 displays conditional forecasts of President Obama’s share of the national popular vote depending on the growth rate of real GDP in the second quarter. The results show that not only is the election likely to be very close, but the winner of the popular vote may very well depend on the performance of the economy in the second quarter.

A growth rate of zero or less predicts a narrow popular vote win for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, while a growth rate of 1% or greater predicts a popular vote win for President Obama. The consensus prediction of economic forecasters for real GDP growth in the second quarter is currently about 2.0%. This growth rate would predict a narrow reelection win for President Obama with slightly less than 51% of the major party vote.  [emphasis mine]

Of course, if elections can be predicted so accurately with just a few non-campaign related factors, what does all this campaigning mean anyway?  The Post had a nice piece last week summarizing a lot of Political Science thinking on the matter:

Despite all the noise from the campaign trail — from the onslaught of TV ads to the daily rallies to the frenzied news coverage — factors beyond either candidate’s control largely determine the result, according to this school of thought. So much is already baked into a presidential contest that even the best managed and most effective campaign (or the most incompetent one) can’t move the needle too far.

This idea has been around since at least the 1940s and has been so thoroughly studied that it has its own wonky name, the Minimal Effects Model. Simply stated, the model says that presidential campaigns have a highly limited effect on how people vote. Because of partisan loyalties and other structural factors, millions of voters have made up their minds long before the most intense electioneering begins, leaving only a disengaged few for the candidates to persuade.

“When you’re in the middle of a campaign, there’s a tendency for people, especially the media, to overestimate the importance of certain events,” Abramowitz says. These include high-profile gaffes, vice presidential selections, controversial ads and other moments that capture so much attention.

Except, he adds, “those things have no measurable impact [on voters’ decisions]. The media are interested in getting people’s attention, but a lot of the stories you read or see are focusing on things that are trivial. The way campaigns play out is largely determined by fundamentals.”

And, here, I think, is one of the key insights:

Even more startling, this analysis essentially ignores the candidates themselves. “The assumption is that the major parties basically nominate reasonable candidates that are both well-funded and reasonably well organized,” Campbell says. “They have equally good pollsters, media advisers, strategists. Therefore, they tend to cancel each other out.”  [emphasis mine]

Now, if Romney or Obama decided they were going to put a ton of resources into winning Texas and New York rather than Ohio and Florida, that could obviously make a big difference.  Or if Romney decided he really needed to focus on winning more Black votes or Obama said, “yes, I really am from Kenya and hate America,” etc, things would be different.  But these things don’t happen.  Sure there’s the gaffe and mis-step here and there, but for the most part you are looking at two nearly optimally-strategized, highly resourced, highly comptenent campaigns.  That’s going to largely (not entirely) balance each other out– leaving things to the fundamentals.

What this means, of course, is that in a year super close like 2012 (or 2000, or maybe 2004) what happens with the campaigns surely matters.  These models can predict to within a few points– not a few tenths of points.  If you’ve got a pretty close to 50-50 election, then the campaign matters.  If you got the fundamentals of 1984 or 1996 or 2008, short of one of the candidates saying “higher taxes for everybody and Jesus was a fraud!” the campaign is simply not going to influence the outcome.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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