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Morning Jay: Why Romney Is Likely to Win

6:00 AM, Nov 2, 2012 • By JAY COST
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When I started making election predictions eight years ago, I had a very different perspective than I do today. I knew relatively little about the history of presidential elections or the geography of American politics. I had a good background in political science and statistics. So, unsurprisingly in retrospect, I focused on drawing confidence intervals from poll averages.

Mitt Romney

Since then, I have learned substantially more history, soured somewhat on political science as an academic discipline, and have become much more skeptical of public opinion polls. Both political science and the political polls too often imply a scientific precision that I no longer think actually exists in American politics. I have slowly learned that politics is a lot more art than science than I once believed.

Accordingly, what follows is a prediction based on my interpretation of the lay of the land. I know others see it differently--and they could very well be right, and I could be wrong. 

I think Mitt Romney is likely to win next Tuesday.

For two reasons:

 (1) Romney leads among voters on trust to get the economy going again.

 (2) Romney leads among independents.

Let’s take each point in turn.

Romney’s advantage on the economy. This to me is pretty straightforward. Take the recent NPR poll, which was a bipartisan survey conducted by Resurgent Republic and Democracy Corps. It found Obama’s job approval rating on the economy to be underwater, 47-52. The poll also found Mitt Romney to be more trusted on the economy over Obama, 50 to 46 percent.

Poll after poll, I generally see the same thing. Romney has an edge on the economy. That includes most of the state polls.

Moreover, this election looks to hinge on the economy, and little else. The recent Fox News poll broke the top issues into four: economic issues (like jobs); social issues (like abortion); national security issues (like terrorism); and fiscal issues (like taxes). To my mind, economic and fiscal issues are one and the same, meaning: 75 percent of respondents willing to pick a top issue picked the economy or fiscal issues.

I do not know of an election where the electorate was so singularly focused on one set of issues, and the person trusted less on them nevertheless won.

This makes 2012 different than 2004, when the electorate was focused on four issues, in roughly equal proportion – terrorism, moral values, Iraq, and the economy. Bush dominated the first two, Kerry the second two. This cycle, Team Obama tried to transform the culture into a second front in this electoral war, but they have clearly failed. Per the Fox News poll, just 13 percent of voters list that as their top concern.

Romney’s lead among independents. This second point is related to the first, but gets down to my view of the long-term trajectory of American politics, which corresponds quite closely to Sean Trende’s book, The Lost Majority.

After the Great Depression, the Republican brand was in tatters and the Democrats seemed to have saved the nation with the New Deal. The result was a forty-year period of Democratic dominance in party identification. The two Republican presidents between FDR and Ronald Reagan were Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and their paths to office were peculiar. Eisenhower could have won the presidency running as anything, and Nixon required a crack in the Democratic coalition, winning just 43 percent of the vote in 1968.

During this period, it simply was not enough for a successful GOP candidate to win independents and self-identified Republicans. Barring a substantial third-party challenge from the Democratic side, a victorious Republican had to pull significant crossover support from the Democratic party. This is why Gerald Ford lost the presidency in 1976, despite winning independent voters by 11 points; Jimmy Carter carried enough Democrats to secure victory.

But the New Deal coalition by that point was fractured badly, and it finally broke into pieces in 1980. Democrats had, prior to that, enjoyed a 10-point or greater identification edge over the GOP, but that year it fell to just 4 points. Since 1980, it has averaged about 3 ½ points. And because Republican candidates typically hold their party together better than Democrats (or, put another way, there are almost always more Democratic defectors than Republican defectors), the effective edge has been even smaller.

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