Sunday, May 6, 2012

How Can Obama Be Doing So Well?

A lot of different pieces from a lot of different angles seem to be making similar arguments and asking a similar question.

The argument: Obama shouldn't be in good shape, yet he seems to be ahead.
The question: Why is Obama ahead?

I've been pointing out for some time that Obama seems to be in better shape than the national horserace polls suggest. For instance, almost two weeks ago, I pointed out that swing state polls seem to be better for Obama than his national polls. About a week ago, I highlighted a couple of electoral models, one put together by Nate Silver and one put together by Ezra Klein, John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Seth Hill that each suggested Obama was a favorite to win even with some mildly pessimistic assumptions about job approval and economic performance.

But there's more.

1) Two days ago, Nate Silver wrote a sophisticated piece looking at Obama's "magic number" on jobs. Three months earlier, Silver had written an article arguing that the President needed to average about 150,000 jobs created per month in order to win reelection. Now, Silver argues Obama's "magic number" seems slightly lower, closer to 125,000 jobs created per month. In effect, Obama seems to be doing better with less-than-robust jobs numbers than Silver had anticipated.

2) A couple of days before that, in a guest post by John Sides posted on Silver's blog, Sides asked "Is Obama More Popular Than He Should Be?" Sides finds that Obama is indeed more popular than he "should be" using a model of expected job approval based on a bunch of variables including economic performance, scandals, and other significant events that affect job approval. Sides speculates that Obama is "more popular" than he should be because of personal traits (he is likable) and because more voters continue to blame George W. Bush for the weak economy than Obama.

3) Yesterday, Mark Blumenthal posted an article pointing out that Obama seems to be running stronger in the key swing states of Ohio, Florida, and Virginia today than he was at a similar juncture in 2008 when he ... ya know, won those swing states. This is true despite the fact that he is running behind his 2008 numbers in the national horserace polls.

4) Finally, a number of observers have pointed out that the Electoral College math seems to favor the President. Chris Cillizza made this argument well about a week ago. Today, Michael Cooper of the New York Times wrote about nine swing states deemed "critical" to the presidential race. If you put all 9 of these states in the "tossup" category, Obama would have 217 electoral votes that are fairly solidly his. Romney would have about 170. But, as Cooper points out, all 9 of these states are states Obama won in 2012. More importantly, polls currently show Obama with leads (some significant) in a number of these states including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Virginia, and even Ohio. The inclusion of Pennsylvania strikes a particular nerve with me. Every four years, everyone talks about Pennsylvania being a "swing state." The problem with this argument is that it doesn't "swing." In 2008, Obama won Pennsylvania by 11 points while winning nationally by about 6.5 points.'s current polling aggregator shows Obama ahead there by 7.6 points. The last Republican to win Pennsylvania was George H. W. Bush ... 24 years ago and he only beat Mike Dukakis by 2.3 points. So, if we just take Pennsylvania off the list of "swing" states and give it to Obama, he's just 33 electoral votes away from victory with a lot of different paths through the remaining 8 "swing" states to get to 270. Then, add in a couple of other states that are very competitive that Cooper doesn't mention (Arizona, North Carolina) and you see that ...

... Obama seems to be doing surprisingly well for someone with job approval numbers under 50%. Why is this?

One big reason was hit upon by John Sides in pointing out that the President seems more empathetic, etc. than Mitt Romney. While the President's job approval numbers are borderline for an incumbent, people seem to "like" the President, at least more than they "like" Mitt Romney. The President's favorability rating is 47.8%. Romney's is 37.0%. Here's an interesting mental exercise to demonstrate the importance of these numbers. Run back through the last 10 presidential elections and the two major party nominees in each one. Which seemed like the more likable personality? My answers would be Obama, Bush, Bush, Clinton, Clinton, 1988???, Reagan, Reagan, Carter, 1972??? I put question marks for 1988 and 1972 since both candidates "seem" equally unlikable to me in those elections but the winner in every other case is the more likable personality. The one who you can imagine smiling more, the one who you can bear having on your television screen for the next four years, the one you can stand. That's who tends to win. Is that Obama or Romney? I think it is Obama.

Another reason Obama is doing well is that he has paid a lot of attention to key swing states like Ohio since he was elected in 2008. Last November, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Obama has visited swing states more than any of his predecessors did as president. Yesterday, the President kicked off his campaign officially with stops in two states - Ohio and Virginia. From this perspective, the 2008 campaign never ended for Obama in these states.

Whatever the reason, the President is currently ahead by a variety of measures. Political pundits and journalists appear baffled by this for two reasons: 1) They want it to be a close race and 2) It makes no sense to them that the President could be ahead given that the economy is as weak as it is and given that the 2010 election was as bad as it was for the President and his party.

The election will be close. At a minimum, it will be close in the national horserace numbers. But it is also the case that the President has some built-in advantages described above and I'd rather be holding his cards than Governor Romney's. My one plea to everyone is just this ... can we stop calling Pennsylvania a swing state? Please?

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