Thursday, February 24, 2011

Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » THE BATTLE IN WISCONSIN: A TONE-SETTER FOR 2012?

Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » THE BATTLE IN WISCONSIN: A TONE-SETTER FOR 2012?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


First Term Incumbents Rarely Lose but a Close Election Likely
By Alan I. Abramowitz
Senior Columnist

The 2012 presidential election is still more than 20 months away. While the early maneuvering for the Republican presidential nomination is already underway, the identity of President Obama’s GOP challenger won’t be known for more than a year. Economic trends will have a major impact on the President’s reelection chances and unpredictable events, such as the recent political turmoil in Egypt, could also affect the public’s evaluation of the President’s performance.

But even without knowing what condition the economy will be in, whether a major international crisis will erupt, or who will win the Republican nomination, one crucial determinant of the outcome of the 2012 presidential election is already known. Barack Obama will be seeking reelection as a first term incumbent and first term incumbents rarely lose.

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In the past hundred years, there have been ten presidential elections in which an incumbent president was seeking a second term in the White House for his party with the most recent being 2004. The key distinction here is the number of terms the incumbent’s party has been in office, not the number of terms the individual incumbent has been in office. Incumbent party candidates have won nine of those ten first term elections. Jimmy Carter in 1980 was the only first term incumbent party candidate in the past century to lose and it took a devastating combination of recession, inflation, and public frustration over the seemingly endless Iran hostage crisis to bring him down.

In contrast to first term incumbents, second or later term incumbents have had a much harder time winning reelection. In the past century, eight incumbents have sought a third or later term in the White House. Four of them won while four lost, including the most recent second term incumbent—George H.W. Bush in 1992. And non-incumbents seeking a third or later term for their party have fared even worse. Of the seven non-incumbents seeking a third or later term in the White House for their party, only one was successful. Ironically, it was George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Even after controlling for two other factors that have been found to accurately predict the outcomes of presidential elections—the growth rate of the economy in the first half of the election year and the president’s approval rating at midyear—first term incumbents have done significantly better than second or later term incumbents and non-incumbents.

Table 1 displays the results of a regression analysis of the outcomes of the 16 U.S. presidential elections since the end of World War II. The dependent variable in this analysis is the incumbent party’s share of the major party vote. The independent variables are the incumbent president’s net approval rating (approval-disapproval) in the Gallup Poll at midyear, the annual growth rate of real GDP in the second quarter of the election year, and a dummy variable distinguishing between first term incumbents and all other types of incumbent party candidates.
Table 1. Results of Regression Analysis of Presidential Election Outcomes

Source: Data compiled by author.

This simple forecasting model does an excellent job of predicting the outcomes of presidential elections, explaining just over 90 percent of the variance in the incumbent party’s share of the popular vote. The model has correctly predicted the winner of every presidential election since 1988 more than two months before Election Day. In 2008, the model correctly predicted a comfortable victory for Barack Obama over John McCain at a time when McCain had taken the lead over Obama in a number of national polls following the Republican National Convention.

The results displayed in Table 1 indicate that the higher reelection rate of first term incumbents compared with other types of candidates is not a by-product of differences in economic conditions or presidential popularity. First term incumbents have an advantage of more than four percentage points compared with other candidates of the incumbent party after controlling for the effects of economic growth and presidential approval.
What to Expect in 2012

It is far too early to predict the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. Economic conditions and the President’s approval rating could change considerably between now and the middle of next year. However, the clear implication of the results in Table 1 is that regardless of who wins the Republican nomination, even modest economic growth and a mediocre approval rating in 2012 would probably be enough to give Barack Obama a second term in the White House. For example, an annual growth rate of three percent in the second quarter (slightly below the most recent estimate for the fourth quarter of 2010) and a net approval rating of zero at midyear (slightly worse than Obama’s average rating over the past month) would result in a forecast of 53 percent of the national popular vote for the President which would almost certainly produce a decisive victory in the Electoral College.

There is an important caveat that should be added to these conclusions, however. While the “time for change” forecasting model described above has correctly predicted the winner of the popular vote in the last five presidential elections, the last four winners—Bill Clinton in 1996, Al Gore in 2000, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008—all won by a smaller margin than expected. The predicted and actual popular vote margins in these elections are displayed in Table 2. On average, the winning candidate’s popular vote margin was 4.5 points smaller than the margin predicted by the model.
Table 2. Predicted and Actual Popular Vote Margins in Presidential Elections, 1996-2008

Note: Based on major party vote.

Source: Data compiled by author.

Four elections do not establish a clear trend, but the fact that all of these elections were closer than predicted and the fact that we haven’t had a true landslide election since 1984 suggest that there is something else going on that is not captured by the forecasting model. That something may be polarization.

Since the 1990s the American party system has been characterized by a sharp ideological divide between the two major parties, a close division within the electorate between supporters of the two parties, and high levels of party loyalty in voting. There is no reason to expect that pattern to change in 2012. If Barack Obama does win a second term in the White House, it will most likely be by a fairly narrow margin unless economic growth and the President’s approval rating both show dramatic improvement in the next 18 months.
Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and the author of The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. Professor Abramowitz—or a facsimile—has recently been quoted in The Onion as well. He can be contacted via email at

Tweets of the Week
By Larry J. Sabato
Director, U.Va. Center for Politics
The Crystal Ball's Tweets of the Week is a look back at the highlights of the past week in politics in snippets of 140 characters or less. To get this analysis as soon as news breaks, follow University of Virginia Center for Politics Director, and Crystal Ball founder, Larry Sabato on Twitter by clicking here.

3:20 PM Feb 3rd: No big surprises on VA Census data. As expected, NoVa & suburban/exurban areas gain, central cities & rural areas lose. Same old story.

6:24 AM PM Feb 4th: National Review: Jeb Bush might run in ‘16…Finally, on to 2016. ‘12 is such a stale topic.

12:38 PM PM Feb 6th: All Rs who run for POTUS fashion themselves as the next Reagan, all Ds who run for POTUS as the next JFK. All fail.

12:40 PM PM Feb 6th: Certain presidents become men for all seasons in their own party, ‘golden oldies’ with a sound often imitated but never duplicated.

12:42 PM PM Feb 6th: Thomas Jefferson is popular in both parties. But the pols who invoke him most often are the least like TJ in intellectual heft & curiosity.

12:49 PM PM Feb 6th: Shakespeare provided the best north star for pols: To thine own self be true. But revealingly, many prefer we think of them as someone else.

11:33 AM PM Feb 9th: To no one’s surprise, Sen. Jim Webb(D-VA) won’t seek a 2nd term. Just not very political, really. The most unusual senator, in that way.

11:35 AM PM Feb 9th: I’d rate him highly in the job, tho. You can agree/disagree w/his votes but he was serious & bold. Achieved far more than usual for frosh.

11:37 AM PM Feb 9th: Webb reminds me of a superb 1-term Senator, William B. Spong, Jr.(D-VA, 1967-73). Would have been Majority Leader had he not lost in ‘72.

11:40 AM PM Feb 9th: Politically, Webb leaves Dems in a lurch. Will Obama ask Kaine? If Kaine says no, who? Current or former House member? Plenty of them.

11:42 AM PM Feb 9th: If Ds have credible well-funded candidate, it will all come down to POTUS coattail. Probably won’t be a ticket-splitting election.

11:42 AM PM Feb 9th: If Obama wins VA again, a credible D will win Senate. If R POTUS nominee carries VA, G Allen will win (assuming he gets R nod, as is likely)

11:46 AM PM Feb 9th: VA is 1 of at least 6 shaky Senate seats for Ds as the cycle begins. Rs only have a couple. Prez coattail will play a large part everywhere.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » OBAMA AND REELECTION: ONE TERM OR TWO?

Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball » OBAMA AND REELECTION: ONE TERM OR TWO?


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