Swing State Pres

Monday, June 4, 2012

2012 05 25 Presidential

This is my first in-depth look at the Presidential race, and I’ll start with my conclusion: in order for Mitt Romney to win, he will need a game-changer of some magnitude.  If the campaign toodles along as it is going now, and the state of the world remains more or less as is, Barack Obama will be re-elected.

Now that is a bit of a mouthful!  What is the “state of the world”?  I would reduce it to:  a tepidly growing U.S. economy and a relatively calm world scene (believe it or not).

What is a “game-changer”?  I think the 2008 election had two along the way:  the economic meltdown and the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s Vice President.  In retrospect, I believe John McCain might have won the election if not for these two events.  So a “game changer” is an event that is a catalyst for the election, something that bumps it off it’s humdrum course.

Now I know my (Blue) party color sometimes bleeds through these updates, but I want to assure you that I am trying to look at everything objectively, and I will not let that partisanship spoil my analysis!  Biased analysis is no fun for me, either!

Before moving on, I want to offer kudos to two deserving prognosticators.  Back on Election Night, 2010, I asked the original list, 19 of you, who you thought would be the Republican nominee.  I received many responses, but only two of you picked Mitt Romney….congrats to my brother Steve, and Ira Schulman!  Well done!

In this analysis, I will look at four pieces of the puzzle:

  1. The latest Obama-Romney head-to-head polling
  2. The delegate map
  3. What I am calling the “Charisma Factor” which I believe has played a major role in many 20th century Presidential elections
  4. The unveiling of my own “Obameter,” a way of tracking key statistics and events that may/should influence the outcome, including a look at possible game-changers.

Obama-Romney Polling

Look at all recent polling and you arrive at the same basic conclusion:  the election is close but leaning toward Obama.  Realclearpolitics.com neatly summarizes, on a running basis, all the major polling, and averages recent polls.  Over the period from May 9-20, the average of seven polls show Obama ahead 45.3 to 43.7, or +1.6 points, well within the margin of error.

The polls among “registered voters” are more pronounced for Obama, +3.2 points.  The polls among “likely voters” lean to Romney by the thinnest of margins, 45.0 to 44.3.

This tends to underline everything we know intuitively about both the country and Presidential elections.  We are sharply divided – a 45-45 country, if you will – and therefore, in this era a landslide is virtually impossible (Obama’s win by 7 points over McCain was exceptional and convincing, but a far cry from the LBJ, Nixon and Reagan landslide margins of 18-23 points).  Elections tend to be decided by apathetic independents, those ~10% who are undecided now and who won’t tune in until the final weekend before Election Day.  And elections are often driven by turnout, specifically, who can best get their “base” out on Election Day.  It is the tension between those two objectives – trying to appeal to unenthusiastic independents while simultaneously whipping up the most enthusiastic supporters – that defines the art of winning close elections.

The Delegate Map

If Obama supporters are not sufficiently enamored with the head-to-head polling, which is indeed way too close for comfort, the delegate map looks a bit more compelling.  Having looked at various maps out there (NY Times, CNN, Real Clear Politics, Cook), the latest polling and past elections, I break it down as follows (and I’ve attached another handy-dandy map as well as a spreadsheet!).  Remember, all it take to become POTUS is 270 electoral votes (and, as needed, a friendly Supreme Court in your corner!).
  • Obama has 18 states in the bag, worth 205 delegates.
  • He has three other states that are “strongly leaning Obama,” meaning he won all of them handily in 2008 (by 9-13 points) and is well ahead in the recent polling (by 8-10 pts):  Pennsylvania, Iowa and Nevada.  These three states are worth another 32 delegates, boosting him up to 237, 33 short of the magic number.
  • Romney has 21 states in the bag, worth 170 delegates, and I include Indiana in this set, even though Obama won Indiana in a squeaker in 2008.
  • Romney has one clear “strongly leaning Romney” state: Arizona.  There are people who think Arizona is “in play” because McCain only won it (his home state) by 9 points in 2008, and the shifting demographics (i.e., growing Hispanic population) make it vulnerable.  Obama’s team would love to make Romney spend some time and money defending Arizona, as opposed to true toss-up states, and they just may succeed.  But I don’t see this state turning blue in this election.  That’s 11 more for Romney, for a total of 181 solid red delegates.

That leaves, in my view, EIGHT states that are truly “in play” (or “toss-ups”), worth 120 delegates.  
  • Ohio (18) and Florida (29) are very similar:  they each went for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but were won by Obama in 2008 (by 4 and 3 points, respectively), and Obama is ahead in the polls in each, but within the margin of error (by 3 and 1 points, respectively).  If Obama manages to hold on to both, that’s all he needs.
  • Michigan (16) is perhaps the strongest bet for Obama, despite being Romney’s home state.  Obama won handily there in 2008 (+14) and it also went for Gore and Kerry.  Obama is up 5 points in the latest polls, and, of course, his successful bailout of GM and Chrysler plays well here.  Romney tried to pull out the Etch-A-Sketch (as Obama duly noted) in trying to claim credit for the bankruptcy/bailout idea, and I don’t think that was a good moment for him, either in Michigan or nationally.
  • Obama is up 7 points in recent Virginia (13) polling, and he won there in 2008, albeit by only 4 points. It went for Bush in 2000 and 2004.
  • Wisconsin (10) and Colorado (9) are dead heats in the polls today.  Obama took both in 2008.  Thus a slight advantage to Obama.
  • And that leaves only Missouri (10) and North Carolina (13) tilting to Romney at this point in the toss-up states.  These two states had the slimmest margins in 2008, less than a point, with Obama winning North Carolina but losing Missouri.  Polling has Romney ahead by 3 in Missouri and 8 in North Carolina.

So if you had to call it today, I’d have to put the first six in Obama’s camp, which would give him 332 delegates.  And, of course, various combinations of 2, 3 or 4 of the 8 states would be enough to for him to reach 270 and seal the deal.

This is why I think the status quo works against Romney.  Many pundits say the current state of the nation argues mightily against an Obama re-election, but that seems to miss the point that Romney is simply not ahead, and he has never been ahead or had the delegate math in his favor.  Thus, if things remain as they are, Romney will lose.  He needs that catalyst.

The Charisma Factor

I have a theory that, in reasonably close elections, personality matters, and that the “charismatic” candidate usually beats the “technocrat” when pitted head to head (think Reagan over Carter or JFK over Nixon).

So I did a very simple and subjective analysis of every presidential election since 1948.  I simply labeled each candidate as either a “charismatic” candidate, whether by force of personality, celebrity, youth or some combination thereof, or a “technocrat” candidate, one who may have run on a “competence” banner or was easily labeled as “boring.”

There have been 16 presidential elections since 1948, and four were landslides (‘56, ‘64, ‘72 and ‘84), won by 15+ points, where personality likely didn’t matter.  Three other elections pitted two “boring” candidates against one another (Nixon/Humphrey in ’68, Ford/Carter in ’76 and George H.W. Bush/Dukakis in ’88).  So I excluded those seven elections, leaving nine elections that were:  a) reasonably close, where personality might matter, and b) pitted a charismatic candidate versus a technocrat.

Lo and behold, in each of those nine elections, the charismatic candidate won:

48:  Truman beats Dewey by 4%
52:  Ike beats Stevenson by 11% (also in ’56 though that was a landslide)
60:  JFK beats Nixon by 0.2%
80:  Reagan beats Carter by 2%
92:  Clinton beats Bush by 5%
96:  Clinton beats Dole by 9%
00:  Bush beats Gore, though losing by 0.5%in the popular vote (!)
04:  Bush beats Kerry by 2%
08:  Obama beats McCain by 7%

You could probably even toss in FDR versus Hoover, Landon, Wilkie and Dewey in ’32-’44 as well and make it 13 out of 13.

To do this right, I would have to operationalize the “charisma factor” somehow, perhaps using the “favorability” ratings as of Election Day for each candidate.  Perhaps I’d even have to exclude incumbents who have a record to run on.

But I think the pattern is compelling.  When in doubt -- when party, policy, record and events matter little to those undecideds -- it may just boil down to who you would rather watch on TV for the next four years, or have a beer with, or just think is more of a regular person.

And no matter what you think of Obama and whether his celebrity star has dimmed, as it certainly has, Mitt Romney is the quintessential boring technocrat.  Central casting, as it were.  And that is a big problem for him.  He certainly feels like the lineal descendant of Carter, Dewey, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry…or even worse, a mixture of the worst elements of each….the blue-blooded, cold aristocracy of Dewey and Kerry matched with wonkishness of Carter, Gore and Dukakis.

This is reflected in his favorability ratings:  compared to a similar point in time (just after they had wrapped up the nomination), Romney’s favorability rating of 50% is far lower than McCain (67%), Kerry (60%), Gore (59%) or Dole (57%).  The good news for him is that the 50% is a high for him, and just below Obama’s current rating (52%).

The “Obameter”

So I wanted to come up with some measure that would take existing data on important measures  and use it to indicate whether, directionally, things were moving Obama’s way or Romney’s. Here are the six variables that I came up with as being important in this election:
  1. The unemployment rate
  2. The Consumer Confidence index
  3. The price of gasoline
  4. The Dow-Jones Industrial Average
  5. Mitt Romney’s favorability rating
  6. An “events” variables, which is triggered, and triggered quite subjectively by ME, when an event occurs that, in my view, is of sufficient magnitude to markedly change election dynamics one way or the other

Here’s how I turned these measures into the “Obameter”….

I establish a baseline for each variable, representing where they were as of January 1, 2012.  The Obama-Romney polling then was as close then as it is now….Obama basically a little ahead by of Romney, the most likely candidate even at that time.

Here are those baselines:
  • Unemployment rate:  8.5%
  • Consumer Confidence:  65%
  • Price of Gas:  $3.32
  • DJIA:  12,217
  • Romney Favorability:  38
  • Events:  0

From there I developed an index for every change that occurs monthly.  
  • Every 0.1 change in the unemployment rate is worth 10 points
  • Every 1 point change in Consumer Confidence is worth 1 point
  • Every 10 cent change in the price of gas is worth 1 point
  • Every 100 point change in the Dow is worth 1 point
  • Every 1 point change in Mitt’s favorability is worth 1 point
  • Every “event” is worth 50 points

A word on “Events”…as I said, in 2008 the economic meltdown (specifically the fall of the House of Lehman, which really was the defining “Event”) and the Palin candidacy were the two “game changers,” in my view.

We’ve had small “events” already….Biden went off the reservation on gay marriage, and successfully dragged Obama along.  Romney had his inner “privileged bully” revealed with respect to his time at Cranbrook, and handled the aftermath of that revelation poorly.  JP Morgan Chase lost a couple of billion on risky bets, causing a collective sharp intake of breadth.  Greece has no government to deal with its crises.  Syria is a mess.  But in the context of the campaign, thus far these are “events,” not “Events.”

What could be “Events” this year?  Of course, almost by definition, “events” are not foreseeable.  But here are a few things to comment on:
  • The economy, stupid:  Of course, the economy could worsen.  Contrary to popular belief, we are not in recession (I read that 76% of Americans mistakenly think we are.)  If we actually have a double-dip recession (that is, negative GDP in the 2nd or 3rd quarter), or some sovereign euro bonds collapse, or unemployment suddenly spikes, they could surely be a catalyst of some kind.
  • The Supreme Court and the Affordable Health Care Act:  The Supreme Court will decide the fate of the Health Care Law sometime in late June, most likely.  While conventional wisdom holds that overturning the law would be bad for Obama, I’m not completely sure.  It could provide badly needed catalyst for his base, by turning the Supreme Court itself  into a defining issue of the election.  After all, by the end of the next President’s term, three Justices will be in their 80’s and one more will be 78.

(As an aside, I may be the only person in America who thinks they will NOT overrule it.  My basic theory is that Chief Justice Roberts has no interest in achieving the same legacy as Chief Justice Hughes, who presided over a conservative court known best for thwarting the New Deal in battle with FDR.  I think he’ll find a way to convince Justice Kennedy to uphold the act and then, as is his wont, join the majority for a 6-3 ruling.  You heard it here first!)
  • The Debt Ceiling:  Sure it’s not supposed to be reached again until after the election, but John Boehner said last week he is going to start pushing again, and perhaps some negotiations will occur.  Not likely, though.
  • Afghanistan/Iraq:  there could be a major blowup, but I see no American appetite for re-entry to Iraq or escalation in Afghanistan.  So no matter how bad it gets, it may not touch Obama.  
  • Syria:  Syria is now off the headline pages, but you never know.  The whole Arab Spring seems to have been a plus for Obama, and Romney is clearly running on the state of the U.S. economy, not on foreign policy.
  • Israel/Iran:  Another issue that is off the front pages for now…

SO……with all that, HERE is the “Obameter”…..which now stands at 11, meaning directionally the data is in favor of Obama….if it goes negative, that means it is in favor of Romney.  For what it’s worth, it appears that every 3 point change in the Obameter seems to lead to a 1 point change in the margin of the polls (the ratio of the last two lines of this chart).

Unemployment Rate 
Consumer Confidence 
Price of Gas 
Romney Favorability 
Unemployment Rate
Consumer Confidence
Price of Gas
Romney Favorability
Obama versus Romney 

That’s it for now!  I’ve rattled on long enough, so I’ll stop….no song this time….and would LOVE to get opinions, critiques, commentary from any or all of you!

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