Let’s begin with an interesting and enlightening factoid: Since 1996, the vote for the Democratic presidential candidate has never varied more than +/-2% from the vote for Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives in the previous midterm election. In 2010, Democratic candidates for the House received 45% of the popular vote. If the same pattern holds in 2012, then Obama will get no more than 47% of the vote in the general election. In 1996, Clinton outperformed the previous midterm Democratic House percentage by 5%. Even if Obama were to replicate this result, he would still get only 50% of the vote.
This is analysis is based upon an article written more than a year ago by Michael Barone. Here is the money quote:
[T]o what extent can we consider the popular vote for the House in off-year elections as a prediction of the presidential vote in the next election? The answer appears to be: pretty good. Here are the Republican and Democratic percentages for the House popular vote and for the presidential popular vote, starting with 1994.
In the three most recent cases, the off-year percentages for the House are almost exactly the same as the presidential year percentages for president … What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections. The off-year vote represents a settled opinion on how the president and his party have performed in nearly two years in office, and unless the president takes a significantly different course toward governing, as Bill Clinton arguably did in 1995-1996, then that settled verdict remains more or less in place. Or so the numbers suggest.
Thus, all things being equal, we should expect Romney to defeat Obama in the upcoming election. After we adjust the figures to remove the third-party vote in 2010, we can expect Romney to get about 54% of the vote and Obama to get 46% of the vote, if these assumptions hold true.
There is, of course, a huge fly in this ointment. However, before getting to that fly, let’s look at current opinion polls. The RCP average currently has Obama up by 49% to 45.4%, and since November has consistently had Obama in the 45% to 49% range, and Romney in the 43% to 47% range. However, typically these polls have oversampled Democrats by 5% to 10%. For example, the most recent Washington Post Poll shows Obama at 49% and Romney at 48%, but it oversampled the Democrats by 6%. These polls assume that voting patterns in 2012 will look like those of 2008. Note that even by that measure Obama is not doing nearly as well as he did in 2008. However, based on past voting records, we should assume that 2012 will look more like 2010, and not 2008. This means that pollsters should be including just as many–if not more–Republicans than Democrats in their surveys than they are now. Once this is done, a very different picture of voter sentiment emerges than the one painted by the press and pollsters at the moment.
Now, back to that darned fly. In 1996, Clinton outperformed the 1994 House race by a large margin. If Obama is to have any hope in this election, he must replicate this feat. There were four factors in the 1996 election that allowed Clinton to pull this off:
- Republican House wins in 1994 were based upon sky-high expectations that the GOP would govern on principle and change the way things were done in Washington. However, this did not occur. Consequently, Clinton was successfully able to fix the blame on the Republican House for much that was wrong in Washington DC, and was able to draw some voter sentiment away from the GOP between 1994 and 1996.
- Until 1994, Clinton had governed as a leftist. After the stinging Democratic defeat in the midterms, he pivoted to the center. Indeed, once one cuts through the rhetoric, on some issues he governed to the right of the current GOP candidate for president.
- In 1996, businessman/self-promoter Ross Perot persuaded many people to vote for him in the election. His run took many votes directly away from Bob Dole. As his appeal was populist/center right, he also became an effective surrogate for the Clinton campaign and helped influence public opinion against Bob Dole, indirectly hurting the GOP chances of getting the presidency.
- The GOP candidate for president, Bob Dole, was the ultimate Washington insider, unable to connect with regular people, unable to articulate why he was running for president, and unable to form even a simple sentence without using senatorese–the odd form of circumlocution used by longtime senators who have become too pleased with the hypnotically monotonous sound of their own voices. As soon as he lost the election, Dole went on TV and started advertising Viagra (seriously). This about sums it up.
How much does the ground in 2012 look like 1996? While the House Republicans are not popular, they are not taking the brunt of the blame for the mess in Washington. The vote for House Republicans will probably not be as high as it was in 2010, but they should still do well. (This is yet another indicator of Obama’s weak electoral chances.) As for Obama’s pivot to the center, it simply did not happen. Instead, he has doubled down on his leftist policies and rhetoric. Further, there is no substantial third-party threat in 2012.
Which brings us to the GOP candidate for president. If Romney had been a leader in the 2010 election, helping to get a GOP House majority and in the forefront of the fight against Obama’s agenda, then he would be in excellent shape right now, as he could channel the energy of 2010 into the 2012 election. However, until he began campaigning in earnest in 2011, Romney was AWOL. Then, during the primary campaign, Romney made it clear that he disdained the Tea Party and the grassroots of the GOP, and by and large only adopted conservative positions–such as for the repeal of Obamacare–when he was pushed and felt he had no choice. Now that the primaries are over, he and his surrogates have treated Obama with kid gloves, and refused to go after him with nearly the zeal and fire that they went after his GOP opponents. His strategy is to play it safe, and let Obama lose because of the bad economy.
We have never been a fan of this strategy, and we see Romney as a supremely mediocre candidate who should have never run for president. However, he is not nearly as bad as Bob Dole was in 1996. If Romney can do as well in the presidential debates as he did in the primary debates (and, as we said at the time, he won most of those), he should still be able to win this thing. Voter sentiment is just not on Obama’s side. It is thus really up to Romney whether November 6 is a nail-biting finale where he limps across the finish line, or a rout.