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Why Obama Won't Win But Romney Could Lose

Economic hard times bring political hard times for the party in power and that spells trouble for Barack Obama

By G. Terry Madonna & Michael L. Young

It’s known as Ockham’s razor.

Attributed to 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, it advocates seeking the simplest explanation necessary to make sense of things. The popular acronym KISS captures its spirit—“keep it simple stupid.”

Alas, Ockham’s adage finds few takers today among contemporary electoral analysts. Amid the pundit literati predicting presidential elections, the slogan might be, “seek complexity, lots of it.”

This criticism applies particularly to the various and sundry “models” used by the “punditocracy” to predict who will win the next election. These models usually include dozens of variables using arcane statistics to make electoral predictions. Complex and convoluted, they use bazookas to hunt flies when a good, serviceable fly swatter works just as well.

But the even more serious problem with some of the presidential predictions models is that they ignore much of the enormous changes in the history of presidential elections since the end of World War II.

Not well understood is that American electoral history divides sharply into two very different eras. The first era now largely irrelevant to modern elections ranged from 1800-1945. During this period, one or the other of America’s two major political parties tended to dominate presidential elections, sometimes for decades at a time.

From 1800-1856, the Democrats dominated, winning 13 of 15 elections while opposition Whigs won only two. Then from 1860-1928, the Republicans had their turn, winning 18 elections while holding Democrats to just two presidents, each winning two terms. Finally, rounding out the string, the New Deal Democratic coalition garnered Democratic victories in five straight elections from 1932-1948.

Two things are significant about this 150-year stretch when one party held power for long intervals of time. One is that this century and a half of presidential elections inspired many of today’s complex predictive models. The other important fact is that this pattern ended abruptly in 1945.

With the accession of Harry Truman to the presidency, those long electoral winning streaks came to a screeching stop. Instead, since 1952 the country has witnessed some six decades of fierce but balanced two party competitions between the major parties. In that time we have had 10 presidents, five Democrats and five Republicans.

This roughly 60-year period has recorded the most unsettled and volatile presidential cycle in American history, witnessing the two parties regularly trading the presidency every eight years. The normal pattern is uncomplicated: Party A wins two terms in a row unless encountering major economic reversals in the first term (high unemployment, low economic growth, etc.). If major economic reversals occur in the first term, Party A doesn’t win a second term. In either event Party A almost never wins a third consecutive term.

There has been a single exception to this two-terms-and-out pattern. That exception occurred in 1988 when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush after squandering a one-time lead of 17 points. Many explain that aberration to Dukakis’s poor performance as a campaigner and weak campaign organization.

Applying this modern two-terms-and-out pattern to the 2012 race is not likely to bring a grin to Barack Obama. At best, 2012 looks perilous for him and his party. While a robust economy would probably ensure four more years for the Democrats, that’s precisely what they don’t have. And the one theme that runs through virtually all the prediction models is critical role of economic conditions.

Economic hard times bring political hard times for the party in power. That was true for incumbents Martin Van Buren (1840), and Herrbert Hoover (1932), and in more recent times Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992). All lost their re-election contests. Obama now seems poised to follow these earlier presidents denied a second term because of a bad economy.

Can anything save Obama from the fate of his hard luck predecessors? Ironically the only person who might do it is his opponent Mitt Romney. And Romney could do it by running a weak campaign.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis has already showed him the way. In 1988 Governor Dukakis, against all odds, successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The star-crossed Dukakis in his race against H.W. Bush, learned a painful lesson: no matter how promising the race looks, it is possible to lose if you run a bad enough campaign. Hoping that a second Massachusetts governor might duplicate that feat in 2012 is probably now Obama’s best shot at a second term.

GREG L July 30, 2012 at 11:44 PM
>>Your "jury" on economics has found the reason for the mess we're in and there's nothing in it about the housing bubble, mortgage crisis, European sovereign debt crisis, etc... it's just the Bush (now Obama) tax cuts. Sure, right, OK, - whatever..<<< I wrote about the Bush tax cuts in response to your comment about whether a repeal of those cuts was an "elixir" for economic growth. I believe my point stands on the fact that the cuts failed to spur economic growth to begin with and that the only discernible result from the tax cut/supply side mantra emanating from the T-Party is their contribution to the deficits. Rather than respond to that, you've shifted ground and no doubt want to attribute the housing bubble, mortgage crisis and the sovereign debt crisis to "leftist" policies. But there's a wall of facts that has to be dealt with there as well. Everything can't be reduced down to slogans or Faux News talking points.
Wayne Schissler July 31, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Greg, I answered your assertion for the "primary reason for the fiscal mess we’re currently in" by mentioning the factors that everyone points to as the trigger for the 2008 recession. Call it a shifting ground, my questioning the premise of your assertions, if you must! The government's deficit effects the government's economy, Or it should effect it if we had responsible people in charge (R&Ds). The gov't bond ratings were devalued down from AAA last year, not 2008. 2008 --- just do some reading, the gov't deficit or borrowing (what you like to call supply side economics above) did not cause the recession. Lots of other things did. That does not mean I approve of any administration spending more than it takes in. Now, how will taking some more money from the rich, or whoever, in the form of taxes spur the economy? What magic will the gov't preform on this money that makes it better spent by them? For goodness sake, how does somebody becoming rich hurt the economy? Or you? Do they take the money out of your pocket? No! Only the gov't has that power!
Anonymous August 01, 2012 at 11:31 AM
It is way too late for a 3rd party person to rally. Our best bet is to try and influence the 2 parties that we have. Asside from all the retoric. Most (not all) people have miserable situations due to their own lack of self control. People are spending $ on things that are NOT necessary like eating out, cable, iphones etc. The list goes on and on. They are not saving, but living WAY above their means and then crying about prices. We cannot keep spending and spending not to mention what divorce does to a person's finance. Divorce and overspending are doing more damage than any president could ever do. Having both parents work full time is also doing damage to kids who have nobody paying attention to what they are doing (or not doing). Kids are left to play on the computer or text all day long and no adults are evening knowing that they are not studying at all, but rather obsessed with their technology. We are losing many things by having both parents working all the time. Can you imagine how many more jobs there would be if 1 parent in every family stayed at home to manage that small home "business" well, nurtured the children and yes...spent a lot less on worthless items that do nothing but cause debt. Yes, I care who is president and that we NOT have a debt to other countries, but the big problems effecting our children are being caused by US the parents.
sherry August 04, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Obama won't be getting my vote (but to be fair he did not last time either). Unfortunately, that leaves Romney. Not big on him either (for many reasons) but I will probably be voting for him. I hate the lack of a true conservative in this race...don't care what party label they have behind their names. And, NO, I will not be voting for anyone who wants to bring all our troops home and not protect us and our allies.
Andrew Wilt August 04, 2012 at 04:26 PM
sherry - Just out of curiosity, which "allies" do you feel need our protection?

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