Should Mitt Romney Be Winning?

While it’s overstating the case to say that presidential elections are predictable, it’s fair to describe them as strongly influenced by a consistent set of conditions. These “fundamentals” are straightforward: Is the economy moving in a positive direction? Is the president an incumbent, or is this an open election? For how long has the incumbent party controlled the White House? What do people think of the president and his party? Elections aren’t determined by the answers to these questions, but to a great extent, they shape the dynamics of the contest.

In this election, despite the close polls, it’s clear that the fundamentals are on the side of President Obama. Yes, the economy is bad, but it’s better than it was when he took office, and it’s moving in the right direction. Obama is an incumbent, and so public attitudes about him and his administration are just about set in stone; a majority of Americans like Obama, and his approval rating is just below 50 percent. This is the first time Democrats have controlled the White House in a decade, and so Americans aren’t yet tired of the party. Moreover, the public remembers the disastrous record of the previous administration—we’re living with it—and has given Obama the benefit of the doubt when it comes to repairing the damage.

Tally this up, and you have a result that matches reality—President Obama is a slight favorite for re-election. This is what you see in the “Time for Change” forecast; it’s what you see in Nate Silver’s projection (where he wins in more than 70 percent of simulations); and it’s what’s implied by dozens of public opinion polls. Indeed, in the large majority of national head-to-head surveys—and the overwhelming majority of swing state ones—Obama leads Republican nominee Mitt Romney, with margins that range from small (one percentage point) to overwhelming (ten points).

Despite this clear pattern of polls and forecasts, however, some observers continue to treat this race as if it’s Mitt Romney’s to lose. Yesterday, for example, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza—who runs the paper’s flagship political blog—asserted that given conditions, “Mitt Romney should win the presidential election this November.” Here’s his evidence:

  • Unemployment has been over 8 percent for more than three years, and no post-war president has won re-election with unemployment over 7.2 percent.
  • According to recent polls, more than 60 percent of Americans say the country and the economy are on the wrong track.
  • In multiple surveys, solid majorities of the public disprove of how Obama has handled the economy.
  • Obama has spent $400 million on the election—without a noticeable uptick in support—and between their super PACs and high-dollar donors, Republicans are almost certain to outspend the Democrats.

But there are big problems here. The relationship between unemployment and a party’s share of the vote is inexact at best—for any given election, at least over the last 100 years, there’s been no correlation between the unemployment rate on election day, and the overall vote. Low unemployment rates don’t suggest victory, and high unemployment rates don’t guarantee defeat. This makes sense: Voters aren’t choosing on the basis of absolute conditions; they are judging their relative progress. In absolute terms, Franklin Roosevelt presided over a decade of crushing poverty. But because this happened during the worst economic crisis in human history, and things improved during his term, voters were forgiving.

Likewise, today’s high unemployment rate would be much more significant for Obama if it represented a worsening of conditions over 2008 and early 2009. But it doesn’t. When Obama entered office, growth was negative and unemployment was climbing to doubled-digit levels. Today, growth is ongoing—albeit slow—and unemployment is on a slight downward slope. Neither is good, but both are better, and that’s how many voters approach the world.

More on point are the numbers on economic dissatisfaction. Even still, they don’t fit with Cillizza’s conclusion; voters are disappointed with Obama, but that doesn’t imply a willingness to support Romney, as evidenced by the former Massachusetts governor’s poor performance in polls of favorability.

As for the final observation. It sounds savvy to give an early advantage to Romney because of his money advantage. However, at the levels of spending you’ll see in this election—at least a billion dollars on both sides—a money advantage isn’t worth much; the marginal gain of an extra $100 million is small, and won’t determine the election.

Having set the expectation of a Romney win, Cillizza attempts to explain the reality of an Obama lead. And to that end, Cillizza credits Team Obama with running a good campaign, and leaves open the chance that tables will turn if Team Romney can win a few news cycles.

Does the campaign matter? Absolutely. Like any contest, effort matters, even when you have an advantage on the field.

But the truth is that there isn’t a discrepancy to explain. Cillizza notwithstanding, Obama’s performance is in line with the fundamentals of the race. This was confirmed by Cillizza’s colleague at the Post, Dan Balz, who looks for evidence that the race is a toss-up, and doesn’t find it. “[A]t this point,” he writes, “the available evidence suggests that the advantage, however small, is with Obama. If this were truly a dead even race, Romney should be ahead in these polls almost as often as he is behind.”

I don’t want to discount the possibility that things can change—they can, and they might. But the evidence is clear. For now, the idea that Romney should be winning is simply wrong.

For more polling information, go to the Prospect’s 2012 election map.