It is interesting that nearly all the pundits‘ models incorporate GDP growth in their forecast of this election’s outcome. In reality, at least since 1900, there has been no historical evidence that GDP growth rates impact reelection chances of a sitting president. It is also amusing that these models measure vote share, as if it matters. In fact, of course, in the US the presidential election is a binary contest.
To return to the point about a sitting president reelection prospects, I can show that GDP growth has been largely irrelevant (except during the Great Depression), and the only relevant factor is the presence of a strong challenger from the president’s own ideological side.
For evidence, consider the following contests:
1900: McKinley beats Bryan to win reelection while the country is in recession.
1912: Taft loses to Wilson despite strong post-recessionary growth because Taft is challenged by Teddy Roosevelt.
1916: Wilson beats Hughes in a close election in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
1932: Hoover loses to FDR in a landslide in the only counter-example to this argument: GNP drops 13.1% with unemployment running 23.6%.
1936: FDR beats Landon as GDP climbs by 14.1% while unemployment drops to 16.9%.
1940: FDR beats Wilkie as GNP continues to climb and unemployment to fall.
1944: FDR beats Dewey in the middle of a war.
1948: Truman beats Dewey while a recession takes hold as Dewey is challenged by Strom Thurmond.
1956: Eisenhower beats Stevenson in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
1964: Johnson beats Goldwater in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
1972: Nixon beats McGovern in a landslide in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
1976: Ford loses to Carter in a close election after a strong challenge by Reagan, even as GDP is growing at 5.4%.
1980: Carter loses to Reagan in a landslide after a strong challenge by John Anderson, even as the economy is recovering from a mild recession.
1984: Reagan defeats Mondale in a landslide in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
1992: Bush 41 loses to Clinton amidst a strong challenge from Ross Perot as the economy is growing at 3.4%.
1996: Clinton beats Dole in the absence of a challenge from his side or any recession.
2004: Bush 43 beats Kerry in a very close election in the absence of a challenge from his side and despite strong GDP growth of 3.5%.
Considering that the Democratic party has been running the most disciplined campaign in recent history and there is no hint of a challenge from the left, it would seem that Obama’s reelection is reasonably safe, despite the dead heat in the polls, anemic growth and general electoral apathy in this election cycle. Of course, there is still a chance that Obama will make electoral history again by losing, but probability is on his side.
As a final note, all the talk about persuadable voters appears to me to be missing the point. In all my years to following politics, I have yet to meet a voter whose mind had not been made up long before. Consequently, winning elections in this country is all about turnout — not persuasion. This is, of course, the real reason that negative advertising is so effective: it demoralizes the opposition and so discourages it from going to the polls.