Friday, August 31, 2012


Now that I have final summer data from the Survey and Consumers I can generate a forecast from my National Conditions and Incumbency model.  The gist of my model is that the incumbent presidential party is held accountable for prevailing national conditions but that the level of accountability depends upon whether the incumbent president is running for reelection.  Granted, the idea that the president's party is punished or rewarded based on prevailing conditions is hardly revolutionary.  Where my model departs from most others, though, is that it incorporates incumbency as a conditioning variable, with the expectation that national conditions are stronger predictors of election outcomes when an incumbent president is running.  Note that I'm not saying conditions don't matter in open seat contests; just that they matter more in incumbent contests.   National conditions are measured here with an index that takes into account the level of presidential approval (Gallup) and aggregate levels of satisfaction with personal finances (Survey of Consumers), both averaged over the summer months of the election year.   You can access a copy of my paper here.

The key Figure is posted below:
Figure 1. National Conditions and US Presidential Elections, 1952-2008
As this figure illustrates, national conditions track much better with election outcomes in years when the incumbent president is running than in open-seat contests.

So what does all of this mean for the 2012 election?  Right now the national conditions index (explained in greater detail in the paper) stands at 63.3.   This is the fifth lowest reading from the fifteen elections presented above, and the third lowest of the nine elections involving an incumbent. Based on this value for national conditions, the forecast for the 2012 election is 47.9% for President Obama and 52.1% for Governor Romney.  

I'd like to be clear that the national conditions index for 2012 points a less-than-ideal situation for a sitting incumbent, but it does not suggest that conditions are so bad that the challenging party can coast to victory.   Consider the years in the sample for which the national conditions index had a lower value than the current year: 1952, 1980, 1992, and 2008.  These were all really tough years for the incumbent party, and it is easy to see why when considering the prevailing conditions in those years.  I see 2012 as somewhat different.  As I say in the paper, given the small sample of elections, and the size of the out-of sample prediction error, this points to a tight race but one where Governor Romney is the favorite.