The Fundamentals Were Right!

This afternoon, Drew Linzer—whose election forecasting site, Votematic, rivaled Nate Silver’s for accuracy–tweeted two charts showing key election fundamentals: Second quarter GDP growth, and the president’s net approval rating in June. Those presidents with a growing economy and a positive approval rating almost always win, and those with a shrinking economy and a negative approval rating almost always lose. And while Republicans spent the year thinking this wouldn’t be true for President Obama, as Linzer shows, it was.

Here’s where 2012 fell on a graph showing 2nd quarter GDP growth and the incumbent party’s share of the two-party vote:

And here’s where it fell on a graph showing the incumbent’s vote share and his net approval rating in June:

In other words, with just those two data points from the middle of the summer, you could have predicted an Obama win with a small majority of the two-party vote, and that’s exactly what happened.

Does that mean the campaign was irrelevant? Not at all. The best way to think of fundamentals is an “all things equal” context. Assuming either no campaign, or both campaigns doing their best, the results will land close to the election fundamentals. But if Obama had run a poor campaign, or Romney an exceptionally good one, the final result may have differed significantly from what the fundamentals projected.

If journalists are looking for a way to improve their coverage, they could do worse than to take the this data more seriously—knowing something about the fundamentals can, at the least, help reporters better frame their stories.