For this week’s New York Times Magazine, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver offers a forecast of the 2012 election. He considers three election fundamentals—economic growth, incumbent popularity, and the ideology of the opposing nominee—and gives four scenarios based on varying configurations. For President Obama, the picture isn’t great.
In the first scenario, Obama enters 2012 with an approval rating in the low 40s, the nominee is Mitt Romney, and the economy has stalled out at 0 percent GDP growth. Under those conditions, Silver predicts, Romney has an 83 percent chance of winning the popular vote, to Obama’s 17 percent chance. Absent a major event that turns the tide for Obama—Silver says that he "might ask whether there was some sort of October surprise: 'Mitt in Torrid Affair With Filipina Housekeeper'”—you would assume a Romney win under thse conditions.
In the second, everything is the same, but GDP growth for 2012 averages out at 4 percent (Silver is using ±4 margin of error in economic forecasts for this number). In this scenario, Obama stands a 60 percent chance of winning the popular vote—good but in some regards, still a toss-up.
The third and fourth case studies take these two scenarios and place Texas Governor Rick Perry (the most right-wing of the plausible candidates) at the top of the Republican ticket. If Obama enters 2012 with a 43 percent approval rating, and 4 percent GDP growth during the year, then he has an 83 percent chance of winning a majority of the popular vote against Perry. If the economy stagnates, however, his odds drop to 41 percent, while Perry’s grow to 59 percent. Obama would enter Election Day an underdog, but with a real shot at winning.
“Average these four scenarios together,” Silver writes, “and the probabilities come out to almost exactly 50–50.” The big takeaway for Silver is that the odds “tilt slightly” toward Obama being a one-term president.
For my part, Silver’s forecast shows us the extent to which it's still too early to know anything other than that this election will be a toss-up. Anything else depends on factors that we can’t actually predict. If Obama’s popularity improves at the end of the year (and early signs point to exactly that) and the economy grows at a modest pace (2 percent to 3 percent), then the situation looks much different from a world where Obama’s popularity improves (but the economy doesn’t) or both take a hit. In other words, to a large degree, we won’t know what happens until it happens.