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.
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.
This has led to the rising power of the independent vote. And its effects are all around us, if we only care to look.
From 1932 to 1980, the Democrats had unified control of the Congress for all but four years. That is an extraordinary level of dominance, unprecedented in American history, and speaks to the overwhelming advantage the Democrats had due to the Great Depression. But since then, the Democratic edge has collapsed, the Republicans have drawn to parity, and now we see control of Congress regularly swing back and forth. The reason is simple: Independent voters hold the keys to Capitol Hill.
The same goes for the presidency. Between 1932 and 1980 Democrats won eight of twelve presidential elections because the country was simply more Democratic. All four of the Republican victories came under unique circumstances, be it a war hero or a crack in the Democratic coalition. But since 1980, Republicans have won four presidential elections to the Democrats three, with one being a virtual tie. What’s more, the Perot phenomenon of 1992 remains a testament to the power of the independent vote.
So when I look at 2012, I see Mitt Romney with a lead among independents in almost every poll. But there is more than that. This is a president who lost the support of independent voters nearly three years ago when he and his allies in Congress passed a health care bill the independents did not want. I have watched and waited to see if independents would return to the president’s fold, but they have not. And the hour is very, very late.
Is it possible to win a presidential election while losing the independent vote? Sure. The independents basically split down the middle in 2000 and 2004, which left the outcome up to the relative strengths of the two party bases. But that is not what I see right now. Instead, I see a Romney margin among independents that ranges between 5 and 10 points. Prior to the 1980s, I could see the Democrats overcoming that, but not in 2012.
Plenty on the other side think 2008 is the exception to this trend, a sign of the emerging liberal majority, which the left has been waiting for ever since Adlai Stevenson's candidacy in 1952. But they misinterpret 2008: the Democratic share of the vote that year was right within its historical track of the high-30s. What differed was a drop in Republican identification from the mid-30s to the low-30s.
Does anybody really expect that to persist this year? Of course not.
This means we will probably be back to a slender divide between the two parties, narrowed even more by greater Republican loyalty. In all likelihood, white Democrats from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico will defect from their own party’s ticket in droves. These children and grand children of FDR’s core backers will support Mitt Romney overwhelmingly, so a nominal 3 to 4 point Democratic identification edge over the GOP will shrink to 1 or 2 points, meaning that independents will determine the outcome, just as they have basically for the last 32 years.
Again, this is a different approach than the poll mavens will offer. They are taking data at face value, running simulations off it, and generating probability estimates. That is not what this is, and it should not be interpreted as such. I am not willing to take polls at face value anymore. I am more interested in connecting the polls to history and the long-run structure of American politics, and when I do that I see a Romney victory.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.