Yes you read that correctly. Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver put the probability of Mitt Romney of beating President Obama just one year ago at 83% based on three quantifiable criteria, approval ratings in the year before the election, G.D.P. growth during the election year itself and the ideology score of the opposition candidate. In Silver’s model, Romney scores 49 on a 100 point conservative ideology scale.
CASE STUDY NO. 1: ROMNEY AND STAGNANT ECONOMY
Obama approval rating in November 2011: 43%
G.D.P. growth in 2012: 0%
Probability of winning the popular vote: Romney: 83%, Obama: 17%
We begin with the worst of these situations for Obama: Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee, and economic growth, rather than continuing along sluggishly, comes to a halt (perhaps the debt dominoes have fallen in Europe). Under these assumptions, Obama would only have a 17 percent chance — about one in six — of winning a majority of the popular vote.
His chances are slim enough in this case that if I woke up next November to discover that we would have four more years of Obama, I might ask whether there was some sort of October surprise: “Mitt in Torrid Affair With Filipina Housekeeper.” Subhead: “Illegal Immigrant Got Free Romneycare.” Then I might ask if Sarah Palin had run on the Tea Party ballot line and taken 6 percent of the vote.
In a more normal election, an Obama victory would have resulted from some combination of three factors. The first two are arguments that we might expect to see as part of Obama’s campaign, and which are viable even under this worst-case scenario. The third is simply an observation.
First, Obama may have some untapped potential in highlighting his foreign-policy wins. The killing of Osama bin Laden did not produce a lasting bounce in the polls. But — sorry to be so gauche — killing the world’s most wanted terrorist will make for a nice sound bite. Meanwhile, the NATO intervention in Libya reached a successful if bloody outcome, and the troops are coming home from Iraq. The White House has not done a good job of turning the discussion to foreign policy, and it has to be careful that in doing so it does not appear to be ignoring the economy. But foreign policy matters to voters, and Obama will have a marketing budget of hundreds of millions of dollars to get the message right.
Second, the overall unpopularity of the Republican Party could rub off on Romney, who will have to endorse most of its platform. Only 35 or 40 percent of voters take a favorable view of the G.O.P., which has not improved at all from 2006 or 2008. The Republicans in Congress are less popular still and have an agenda with some prickly bits — like Paul Ryan’s plans to privatize Social Security — that Romney could have a hard time distancing himself from.
All of this, probably, would not be enough to save Obama. Romney is a skilled debater, a cautious candidate and a smart man — exactly what you want when the fundamentals otherwise favor you. Under these conditions, in fact, Obama would be as likely to lose by double digits as to win the popular vote.
Still, the White House would be able to make some credible arguments and Obama might have an outside chance at an upset. But how does it get around the problem of the economy?
The observation: even if the economy goes into recession again, voters might not care much about the difference between slow growth and no growth. Some 80 percent of voters already think we’re in a recession. They are not happy about it, but expectations are so low that a sort of fatigue may have set in about further bad news.
In practice, voters may think about the economy as falling into one of three basic categories — Good, Bad and Getting Better — rather than along a continuum. Obama would benefit if he could make a credible case for Getting Better, something he would not be able to do in this situation. But since he’s already unable to make that case now — remember “Recovery Summer”? — it’s plausible that a deterioration in the numbers would not hurt him as much as an acceleration of growth might help him. Beating Romney with 0 percent growth would not be easy, but it might not be that much more difficult than beating him with 2 percent growth (also no piece of cake, of course).
In the case that GDP was growing at a 4% annual rate Silver gives Obama a 60% to 40% edge, but GDP is not growing at anywhere near that rate. Right now it’s somewhere between 1% and 2% annual growth rate, and aligns more closely with the first scenario, as Silver admits at the end of the scenario.
Given that GDP isn’t growing at 0% one would suspect that Silver’s 83% probability would be a bit lower. It would probably be in the 70% probability range, which coincidentally is Silver’s current probability of an Obama victory.
Did we all miss something? Did the fundamental issues Silver discussed last year change?
Yeah, I didn’t think so…