Home > Applying Political Science, Political Campaigns, Political Science > On the limited impact of presidential nominees

On the limited impact of presidential nominees

The Republican nomination season is well under way, and the remaining major candidates recently gathered at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. The popular press (and I include the blogosphere here) has, is, and will spend a significant amount of time between now and the Iowa and New Hampshire contests weighing the pros and cons, merits and demerits, and “electability” of each of the candidates.

Is Mitt Romney palatable to southern evangelicals? To what extent will his past as Governor of Massachusetts help/hurt him? Can Michele Bachmann ride the Tea Party express to the White House or will she remain a fringe candidate? Will Rick Perry be perceived as the second coming of Bush? How much will his book help/hurt him with general election voters? Is John Huntsman be too moderate for Republican primary voters? Will Sarah Palin enter the race? Why/how is Newt Gingrich still hanging around?

While it is fun to watch the candidates (and watch the press cover them) pursue the nomination, an interesting question is whether it ultimately matters who wins. Does it make a difference if Republicans nominate Romney as opposed to Perry or any of the other people currently seeking the nomination? Or, could Bachmann, Paul, and Cain do just as well?

To begin with, the answer is obviously yes. Who the candidate is absolutely matters. Candidates have to spend long hours in front of large (and small) crowds all over the country repeating the same themes in the same speeches. They have to possess the energy, stamina, and drive to do it and do it well. (I’m thinking of you Fred.) Candidates have to devote considerable time and energy raising money in small amounts from a very large pool of potential donors. Not everyone is willing to do so. (I’m thinking of you Newt.) Candidates can’t have skeletons in the closet that will sidetrack for long periods or derail their campaigns. They have to be taken seriously by their party’s elites (Palin? Perry?), win their support in the year prior to the actual voting contests, and pass the media’s smell test. Not everyone will. (I’m thinking of you Donald.)

The thing is, though, by and large the people we saw on the stage last Wednesday night have all demonstrated they have these qualities. (Well, maybe not everyone.) So how much, if anything, of what’s left to distinguish the various candidates will matter come next November?

The answer is probably not that much. One political scientist estimates maybe two percentage points in the national vote.

To begin with, the choice of nominee is not going to matter that much to the vast majority of voters come November 6. Contrary to the media’s constant proclamations, very few people are politically independent. (If anything, the percentage of the population that is really independent is getting smaller, not larger.) Instead, almost everyone who votes (a) is aligned with one of the major parties (whether they are willing to admit it or not) and (b) will vote their party no matter who the nominee is.

What matters to most voters is not a candidate’s stand on any given issue or set of issues or even the candidate’s personality, it is whether a candidate has the right letter (R or D) behind his or her name on the ballot. What’s more, in an age or political polarization, the relationship between party identification and vote choice is only getting stronger. Republicans are largely not going to vote for President Obama and Democrats are largely not going to vote for whoever the Republican candidate is.

Moreover, it’s not clear that independent voters matter all that much anyway. Presidential candidates are better served activating people who already support them rather than trying to convince people who might. My favorite bit on this front comes from the Daily Show (WordPress won’t let us embed Flash video, so you’ll have to click the link)


So if most people are going to vote their party no matter who the nominee is, and it may not be worth the candidates’ time and effort to woo independents, what does matter? Things that are largely out of control of and have essentially noting to do with the candidates themselves—e.g., the state economy (i.e., GDP growth and changes in unemployment), whether there is a war going on, the president’s net approval rating, and how many consecutive years a party has controlled the White House.

Using a relatively limited set of variables like these, we can model and predict—with considerable accuracy—which party will win the presidency. My favorite model, among the many that are out there, comes from Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. Abramowitz’s model uses just three variables to predict the popular-vote winner (bearing in mind that 2000 demonstrated that winning the popular vote doesn’t always mean you win the presidency) in presidential elections:

  1. Real GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year,
  2. Net presidential approval (Gallup approval – disapproval), and
  3. Whether a party has controlled the White House for at least two terms.

Using just these factors, Abramowitz is able to predict the popular-vote winner in every election since 1952 (there was no Gallup data previously). Based on these factors, any Republican currently has a fighting chance against Obama next year. If the economy picks up at all, though, no Republican can win.

How much control does Romney, Perry, Bachman, Paul, or any of the other potential Republican nominees have over the rate of economic growth, presidential approval, or the fact that Democrats have only controlled the White House for three years? None. Zero. Zip. And yet these factors, more than anything else will likely determine who will win next November.

So maybe the nominee doesn’t really matter who the Republicans pick.

(Of course, that said, the nominee might matter even when all these things are in their favor.)

For other thoughts on this topic, see here.

  1. Hillary
    September 12, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    i doubt any of them could win anyway

    • Keith Smith
      September 13, 2011 at 7:59 am

      Oh, I think that if the economy continues to stall, and especially if it gets worse over the coming year, any of them could win. The underlying structure of elections, particularly the state of the economy, is just that important. Candidates make a difference only at the margin.

  2. Jocelyn
    September 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Which ever candidate that has a firm stand on improving the US’ economy, should be chosen.

    • Keith Smith
      September 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      The stands of the individual candidates are largely immaterial to the outcome of the election. While it might make a difference if Ron Paul in particular is the nominee as opposed any of the other candidates, it won’t matter if Romney, Perry, or anyone else is the candidate. Voters largely won’t decide who to vote for on the issues. Instead, they will punish Obama and the Democrats if the economy is not doing well–making a Republican victory possible–and reward him if it is doing well–making a Republican victory all but impossible.

  3. Mitchell
    September 13, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    No president has ever won re-election with unemployment at/over 9%, except FDR, but Obama is no FDR by any means. Here are what I think are going to be the big factors here, and why:

    1. Will the American Jobs Act get passed and if so, will it be soon enough to help at all?
    2. Will the youth come out and vote for Obama?
    3. Will the nominee by Romney or Perry?

    1. If Obama can show that he can still make the economy better, and if the American Jobs Act does show some impact even if its only a percent that he reduces unemployment, he can win. All he has to do is get a bit of marginal benefit and then make his case. If not, and unemployment stagnates, and his approval rating decreases, Obama’s only hope is making himself look like the lesser of two evils

    2. This is huge, and not many people are talking about it. The youth is a sizable portion of Obama’s base and we saw in 2010 what happens when they didnt come out to vote. If they do, largely because they don’t want to see a potential George W. Bush on steroids come to the White House, Obama may hold on.

    3. The nominee will most likely be Romney or Perry. Perry takes too much of Bachman’s base, and Paul just doesn’t have quite enough followers this time around. Romney comes off as much less extreme, like on Social Security, (even though he’s on record as wanting to privatize SS). Perry comes off as similar to George W. Bush in alot of ways, except much further to the right. Karl Rove, Bush’s adviser, doesn’t even like Perry. That should make it very clear that Perry is way further to the right than Romney, but because the people voting in the primaries will be much further to the right than the people voting in the general election, Perry has very strong chance of winning. This is Obama’s last hope. If he goes up against Romney and the economy doesn’t pick up and is approval goes down, its over. But if Perry wins, Obama has a chance. Perry’s position on Social Security will literally lose him the election. People love that program too much. Alot of the moderate Republicans I know and talk to do not like Perry at all, and if it comes between Perry and Obama, they will vote Obama. Generally re-election campaigns are run on the current President, but the Obama admin seems to be gearing up to demonize whichever Republican wins, and if it is Perry, it’ll be much easier, especially if they make him out as a more extreme version of Bush. Generally candidates don’t make a huge difference, like in 2008, but in this case, I think on whether its Romney or Perry will have an impact.

    • Keith Smith
      September 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      It’s an open question as to whether the level of unemployment or GDP growth is the better measure of economic performance (some models include both). What I would caution against is the kind of single-factor causality that you’ve posited (“No president has ever won re-election with unemployment at/over 9%). Even if it provides a lot of the structure for the election contest, the economy by itself doesn’t determine the final outcome of the election.

      It’s probably going to be a very close election so some of the things you point to will matter. Certainly the respective ability of the two parties to activate their voters (partisans, not independents) will go a long way to determining the outcome. Younger voters always turn out in greater numbers during presidential elections, so I don’t think there will be much change there.

      I am somewhat cautious about the impact of individual candidate messages, though. The parties and party elite are generally very flexible when it comes to following the lead of the nominee. If Perry wins, I fully expect the Republican party machinery (including people like Karl Rove) to begin parroting his positions (no matter what they might have said in the past). Moreover, Republican voters who might have disagreed in the past will suddenly find themselves in agreement and rooting for their candidate. If Romney wins, then they will follow his lead.

      • Mitchell
        September 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

        Well I think people will react more to unemployment than they will GDP, as they can more clearly see the effects of unemployment than GDP. That and presidential approval.

        If it was between Romeny and Pawlenty it wouldn’t really matter, but Perry seems to be almost too extreme to win a general election. And he refuses to run to the middle, or appear moderate. Considering how much the Bush 43 family dislikes Perry I cant see them getting behind him. Rove is already raising a ton of money, which I’m assuming he’ll put behind Mitt Romney. I dont disagree on whether Republicans will support whoever wins, but will moderate voters, vote for someone like Perry, who’s positions are unfavorable to the majority of Americans. I dont see how he’ll get past Social Security

  4. Daniel Kemether
    September 13, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    In my oppinion, the presidential candidates dont matter as much as they are hyped up to be. the two differences( Republican or Democrat) are basically what separates presidential candidates. Alot of what they achieve in office depends on Congress.
    I dont believe in the federal jobs act, i hope it doesnt pass. because as it says in the title it is creating Federal jobs. An expanding beurocracy is not what our nation needs, we need more private sector jobs. The more private sector jobs we can create, the more tax payers there will be, and that will generate more money for the U.S. to slowley start paying off our debt.
    The Youth is so easily swayed by any ideas they are presented, this is the only way Obama might be reelected just because the man is incredible at giving moving speaches.
    I would personally like to see Ron Paul take office, because I think a little Libertarianism would help regulate our government a little better, but unfortunetly I dont see him becoming the Republican nominee.

    • Keith Smith
      September 13, 2011 at 2:24 pm

      Oh, there will be a big difference depending on who wins. The two parties are quite far apart on a number of important issues. Sure, Congress and the opposition party’s willingness to enact the president’s preferred policies will be issues for whoever becomes president, but there will still be significant and important differences.

      I’ll have to go look and see if age is an important predictor of partisanship. I’m not sure that it is, esp. once you control for things like education. If people have a party identification, no matter what their age is, then they will likely (about 9 times out of 10), vote for their party’s presidential candidate. If people don’t, then things like the level of excitement surrounding a candidate will matter.

    • Mitchell
      September 13, 2011 at 8:15 pm

      Private sector jobs are growing, and public sector jobs are actually going down. The reason private sector job growth isn’t enough right now, is because businesses and corporations aren’t investing because there is currently no demand because nobody has money. So if consumers, which are 70% of our economy, aren’t spending and corporations, who aren’t hiring, then the economy stays stagnant. That’s why the government has to stimulate the economy. The current stimulus created 3 million jobs, and many economists said it wasn’t big enough. We need to invest in infrastructure, and although those jobs are temporary, it gets money in people’s pockets and then that causes demand, which corporations then end up hiring more people to increase supply. Neither Obama or the Republican candidate will do this for a variety of different reasons. Obama is trying to do this, on a much much lesser extent.

      As for the difference, there definitely is one, especially if you compare Obama and Bachman, Perry, Paul. Obama and Romney(at least when Romney was governor) is quite similar. Romney now is a bit different because he’s trying to get Tea Party votes, but there are definitely huge differences between the parties, although the result of the last 3 years has generally been center-right policies.

  5. Keith Smith
    September 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    As an empirical matter, the jury is still out as to which matters more. Most people use GDP growth, but there are some powerful models that use unemployment.

    Perry’s position on Social Security will be a sticking point–just look to last night’s Tea Party debate to see evidence of that–but I’m not so certain that it will be as big an issue come November. Rove et al. will fall in line and pump up whoever the nominee is, lest they end up with Obama again.

    As for “moderate” voters–did you watch the Daily Show video? It’s really not that far off.

  6. Irain J.
    September 14, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I agree that it does depend on the letter (R or D) next to the candidates name. Not only that but the economy really decides the triumphant winner of the elections. People are concerned for their own well being and gladly vote for whoever promises to better their financial being. Though if I might say change does not come as quickly as they wish, it takes time for the nation to recover from its set backs. It is not good to switch from one party to another just for “immediate change” because we very well know change will take its time that is how our system was created to function. I think we need to take in account various candidates are appealing to different types of people but people will most likely stick to the political party they are affiliated with. Even to the extent to blame President Obama and the Democrat party for the stance of our economy when inevitably it was inherited by the Bush Administration in other words the Republicans to begin with. Do we really want another Republican President with similar ideas as Bush ? Isn’t that why we are in this situation now? Republicans will promise a better economy giving them a good chance to win the election if the economy doesn’t better in the months leading to the election.

  7. Yesenia Gutierrez
    September 15, 2011 at 6:37 am

    I agree with the fact that people have become so stubborn in their beliefs that they are willing to just vote for their party without doing the research. In the world we live in today people have so many things that they need to do, those of them that have a job and don’t have the necessary time to be an informed voter. Although, I do concede that if people wanted to they could find information on candidates with the click of a button–the internet. Nominees do matter to the point that they are the public face that everyone sees on the television or on the internet and their character can be a determining factor in who is chosen to run in the primaries.

  8. Sarah B.
    September 15, 2011 at 10:37 am

    I won’t be surprised of a Republican candidate ends up winning the entire election. For all we know, Obama could be the best possible option, but since he is a Democrat and the economy is horrible right now, the Republicans will win. Silly what voting has come to. Simply a popularity contest between two individuals and the inexperienced voters who usually jump on the bandwagon.

    • Keith Smith
      September 15, 2011 at 11:13 am

      It’s not even a popularity contest really (although personality can be important, see the 2000 election). It’s a reaction to the state of the economy mediated by partisanship.

  9. Jennifer
    September 15, 2011 at 11:47 am

    i beleive that whomever is the next repulican candidate doesnt really matter.. in the past few elections the peoples vote has been swinging from party to party. i beleive that the republlicans will win mainly becasue the people want a quick fix, and if they are not getting it from one party they will go to the other and vis versa.

  10. bklunk
    September 15, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    So here’s a question for all of you who have suggested a hypothesis about how voters are likely to behave that is different from what Prof. Smith offered. How would you test your hypothesis to show that it offers a better explanation than the one Prof. Smith gave you?

  11. Emma Fonseca
    September 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Most of this posting is actually right, sad to say. People will vote by their party even if the candidate from another party is better. However, the fact that the economy is the main deciding factor could actually be a good thing. Although the rise or fall of the economy is not one mans (the Presidents) fault, if the economy comes to a poor or productive point, the President is a good person to look at. Either he has come up with budget saving ideas with Congress or has managed to spend a tremendous amount of money on things such as war efforts; the President is connected to the economy so it is a fair choice made by Americans to vote for a candidate who has helped the economy. On the other hand, if there was a shift in the economy within the year of election after three bad years, that would not be a valid factor in re-electing a President. If that leader had the power to shift the economy so well, it should have happened when they first earned their title as President, not right before the next election comes up.

  12. Ana Waskiewicz
    September 15, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I think that the Republicans will most likely win the next election no matter who the candidate is. President Obama has not made a very huge break through when it comes to the economy and all people really want at the moment is for the economy to start doing better.

  13. Hannah Perkins
    September 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    I agree with Ana in that no matter what the Republican candidate stands for or who that person is, the odds are still in their favor in the upcoming election. The fact is that most Americans don’t know their political facts of today and they see everything in a black or white: for example most people see the fall of the economy as Obama’s fault and because he is a Democrat they instantly associate Democrats with the economy failure.

  14. Nathan Reed
    September 15, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I believe that the candidates that get the most presidents are the worst candidates. I think it is sad that these candidates aren’t getting much publicity. I agree with virtually everything that Rick Santorum says. Herman Cain has a lot of great economic policies that I would love to see implemented. But the fact is that the mainstream media only focuses on the people with the most controversy. Romney had his Massachusetts health care, which brought him publicity. People think that Perry is another Bush (I don’t think he’s like Bush, but I still wouldn’t vote for him in the primaries). Bachman has said quite a bit of fringe things about social issues, but she has decent economic policies. Ron Paul has great policies on making the government smaller, but his foreign policy (reference his marks about Iran a few debates ago) will be the death of him. For some reason Sarah Palin is in the polls. I guess some people think that she’s actually running (I sure hope she doesn’t). The fact is that the media likes candidates that will bring them ratings, not the ones that have the strongest candidate. Santorum has no (to my knowledge) scandals. Cain has his remarks about Islam and Sharia Law, but almost everybody has forgotten about that.
    If the economy keeps going down, then it will not matter who the Republican candidate is. Recent polls say that most Americans want smaller government and less spending. The Democrats Want to spend more than what is in the budget and keep growing government. The Republicans want to decrease government and spend within the budget. It seems that the compromise is spending 1 trillion over budget, instead of 2 trillion. And slowly growing the government, instead of keeping it the same or slowly shrinking it. The point of this is that the American people are finally realizing that the way our government has been going simply isn’t feasible in the long run.

    • Keith Smith
      September 15, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      The fun part about the models is that they say it doesn’t matter what the issues are. People are not making their choices on the basis of issues like the appropriate role of government in the economy. Instead, they are holding the president’s party accountable for the state of the economy.

  15. Deirdre
    September 15, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    I find it interesting that the state of the economy is such a significant determinant for predicting the popular-vote winner. As reported statistics, change in the unemployment rate and real GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year may be the easiest things to use to represent the state of the economy. However, economic health is really a much more complicated thing to measure. It is also extremely difficult to say how much a president’s policies have impacted the state of the economy. so voters are basing their decisions off of information that is incomplete and possibly even completely misleading. I fully realize that this distinction does not matter for our model, but it would be interesting to see how voting patterns would theoretically change if voters had a more complete picture of the president’s effect on the economy. Furthermore, an improvement in this information would also have implications for presidential approval ratings. This could potentially lead to a significant change in our predictions.

  16. Samuel Park
    September 15, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    I agree with Ana. I think that regardless of who the candidate is, a republican would become the next President. The economy needs to recover quickly in order for citizens to reelect President Obama, and when the economy can not, the people are going to put their faith in someone else.

  17. Lauren Barrera
    September 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Personally, I have to agree that depending on how our economy fluctuates, so do our choices for President. Because our current Democratic President has not been able to “quick fix” our economy…voters are going to look in another direction while casting their votes. Unfortunately, like Yesenia mentioned, the majority of voters are too preoccupied to become knowledgable of every single issue a candidate stands for, so I have a feeling that most will simply vote on who will promise a brighter financial future.

  18. Dan
    September 15, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Abramowitz needs to make up his mind: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/02/11/history_says_obama_likely_to_win_in_2012_108859.html
    Good lesson to future political scientists: cover your bases by predicting both outcomes. Then you can claim that your model correctly predicts outcomes.

    • September 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm

      My first thought is that I wish I studied American Politics because this model is basically common sense to anyone who has ever worked on a campaign. Maybe it’s because back in my undergrad days I worked on a campaign that Carville managed, but it’s pretty much accepted wisdom that “It’s the economy, stupid!” And, an incumbency advantage? Hardly shocking. Finally, approval ratings predict votes? That’s a bit like saying that disposable income influences consumer savings. Also, quantitative methods is not my specialty, but the number of data points seems very small to be getting statistically significant results.
      While not impressed by Ambrowitz’s model, I completely agree with Dr. Smith that, in the end, who is nominated matters a lot less than the state of the economy.

      • Keith Smith
        September 15, 2011 at 5:19 pm

        Ah, but think about all the drivel that we have to listen to about “If only Obama would do X,” or “In order to win, Perry needs to do Y,” or “The candidate who can win the independents will win the election.” Models like these serve as a useful corrective to the mess of popular commentary on presidential elections.

      • September 15, 2011 at 7:39 pm

        To Keith’s response below: the model suggests that “if only Obama would do X does matter”: his policies affect his approval rating.

      • Keith Smith
        September 16, 2011 at 7:26 am

        Sure, his policies matter. But (a) generally only in the aggregate as we can find very little (alright, essentially no) empirical impact from any one thing a president does and (b) I was reference campaign strategies rather than governmental policies.

  19. Dan
    September 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Additional less to future political scientists: fully read articles prior to commenting on them. It’s not that Abramowitz uses a different model, it’s just in this post he emphasizes the incumbency advantage (one of the three variables in his model), which alone predicts an Obama victory.

  20. Dan
    September 15, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    ^Additional lesson…
    I desperately need an editing feature.

  21. September 15, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Again, having his cake and eating it to:
    Abramowitz on August 25, 2001: “And of course we don’t know who the president’s Republican challenger will be, which could make a big difference in the outcome.” http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/aia2011082502/

  22. Brishonn
    September 18, 2011 at 9:53 am

    May the best candidate win

  23. Chris
    November 2, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    May the best canidate win. I honestly believe that if the economy continues to fall downward that one of the Republican canidates possibly will get in office. I think that if the economy improves in the coming year no canidate has a shot at winning.

  24. Neil S.
    December 8, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Like some people here have said, may the best candidate win..I don’t know if Obama has the magic this time around to get re elected because of the state of the economy, but if it does get better, even if it is just a little improvement, he might have a shot.
    As for the Republican candidates, the only ones I can see that have a shot are Huntsman, Paul, and Romney, the others seem just too..extreme? ..if that is a good word to use there.

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