The latest bad economic news has sent political pundits into a frenzy of prediction as they speculate about whether a certain level of unemployment or some other measure of activity will doom the incumbent next year. Conservatives are mostly sure that if unemployment is higher next fall than it was in the fall of 2008, Barack Obama can’t be reelected. The same applies to the dismal figures about housing, gross domestic product and inflation. Liberals seek to spin things in the other direction.
But though his tendency is see Obama’s chances in a more optimistic light, New York Times blogger and stat freak Nate Silver’s work on this subject is valuable reading. Silver has written a couple of interesting pieces in the last few days about the question whose goal has been to see if there is some metric that will tell us with some degree of certainty at what number or rate of decline or advance will tell us who wins in November 2012. His inquiries ought to sober up Republicans. Though some of us speak as if the economic numbers are an absolute predictor of voter behavior, history teaches us that there are no hard and fast rules about such things. All we can say with certainty is that, as Silver admits, “The higher the unemployment rate in November 2012, the less likely President Obama is to win a second term.” But that’s as far as numbers crunching can take us no matter how many we look at.
In spite of the fact that we routinely speak of politics as a “science”—with every institution of higher learning having a department of the same name—politics isn’t science. Though political scientists struggle to create models to explain every thing that happens in politics, as Silver’s exploration of the nexus between presidential elections and economic figures illustrates, each election is a unique separate event with a host of contributing factors.
In 2012, we will be voting on the reelection of the first African-American president. Barack Obama is a man who will always be treated more gently by the mainstream press than any other president or his challengers. It’s also true that no president since Franklin Roosevelt has been able to get away with more distortions of his predecessor—about whom virtually anything can be said and anything can be blamed—as Obama. Yet he will also be operating with the handicap of a depressed base and a disillusioned youth vote that is the product of the unreasonable expectations excited by his first campaign. Even more important to the outcome is the identity of his Republican opponent.
Bad economic numbers and a justified perception that Obama’s leadership is precipitating a decline of America’s fortunes may doom his chances of reelection. But they also may not. As much as we should be interested in the economic indicators that all appear to be heading south, it would be a mistake to think that any of them is a code that can be used to decipher a future election.