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:
- Real GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year,
- Net presidential approval (Gallup approval – disapproval), and
- 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.
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