Why Obama Probably Can’t Win — But Romney Could Still Lose

It’s known as Ockham’s razor.

Attributed to 14th-century philosopher William of Ockham, it advocates seeking the simplest explanation necessary to make sense of things. The popular acronym KISS captures its spirit—“keep it simple stupid.”

Alas, Ockham’s adage finds few takers today among contemporary electoral analysts. Amid the pundit literati predicting presidential elections, the slogan might be, “seek complexity, lots of it.”

This criticism applies particularly to the various and sundry “models” used by the “punditocracy” to predict who will win the next election. These models usually include dozens of variables using arcane statistics to make electoral predictions. Complex and convoluted, they use bazookas to hunt flies when a good, serviceable fly swatter works just as well.

But the even more serious problem with some of the presidential predictions models is that they ignore much of the enormous changes in the history of presidential elections since the end of World War II.

Not well understood is that American electoral history divides sharply into two very different eras. The first era now largely irrelevant to modern elections ranged from 1800-1945. During this period, one or the other of America’s two major political parties tended to dominate presidential elections, sometimes for decades at a time.

From 1800-1856, the Democrats dominated, winning 13 of 15 elections while opposition Whigs won only two. Then from 1860-1928, the Republicans had their turn, winning 18 elections while holding Democrats to just two presidents, each winning two terms. Finally, rounding out the string, the New Deal Democratic coalition garnered Democratic victories in five straight elections from 1932-1948.

Two things are significant about this 150-year stretch when one party held power for long intervals of time. One is that this century and a half of presidential elections inspired many of today’s complex predictive models. The other important fact is that this pattern ended abruptly in 1945.

With the accession of Harry Truman to the presidency, those long electoral winning streaks came to a screeching stop. Instead, since 1952 the country has witnessed some six decades of fierce but balanced two party competitions between the major parties. In that time we have had 10 presidents, five Democrats and five Republicans.

This roughly 60-year period has recorded the most unsettled and volatile presidential cycle in American history, witnessing the two parties regularly trading the presidency every eight years. The normal pattern is uncomplicated: Party A wins two terms in a row unless encountering major economic reversals in the first term (high unemployment, low economic growth, etc.). If major economic reversals occur in the first term, Party A doesn’t win a second term. In either event Party A almost never wins a third consecutive term.

There has been a single exception to this two-terms-and-out pattern. That exception occurred in 1988 when Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush after squandering a one-time lead of 17 points. Many explain that aberration to Dukakis’s poor performance as a campaigner and weak campaign organization.

Applying this modern two-terms-and-out pattern to the 2012 race is not likely to bring a grin to Barack Obama. At best, 2012 looks perilous for him and his party. While a robust economy would probably ensure four more years for the Democrats, that’s precisely what they don’t have. And the one theme that runs through virtually all the prediction models is critical role of economic conditions.

Economic hard times bring political hard times for the party in power. That was true for incumbents Martin Van Buren (1840), and Herrbert Hoover (1932), and in more recent times Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992). All lost their re-election contests. Obama now seems poised to follow these earlier presidents denied a second term because of a bad economy.

Can anything save Obama from the fate of his hard luck predecessors? Ironically the only person who might do it is his opponent Mitt Romney. And Romney could do it by running a weak campaign.

Former Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis has already showed him the way. In 1988 Governor Dukakis, against all odds, successfully snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The star-crossed Dukakis in his race against H.W. Bush, learned a painful lesson: no matter how promising the race looks, it is possible to lose if you run a bad enough campaign. Hoping that a second Massachusetts governor might duplicate that feat in 2012 is probably now Obama’s best shot at a second term.

8 Responses

  1. Obama has no African American roots in the USA. He has no history. His background is a pathetic example of what we will settle for in the name of change. There are so many more African American candidates that America could’ve been proud of. Obama also had a free ride through college so how can he relate to anyone struggling to get through college? This guy is a total fraud. And don’t forget his classy wife once said she was now finally proud of her country pending her husband ‘s win of presidency. What a class act for a first lady. Not to forget she and Obama sat in an anti white church for years and listened to a mentally ill preacher who hates America. ROck on all you Obama supporters it must be nice to live in a fantasy world.

  2. Maddona’s analysis is so superficial it has no value at all. The key to this race is in two places-the suburbs of Philadelphia (Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware) as well as formerly Democratic counties in the SW part of the state. Few people remember, that in 2008, while Obama was winning the state by 600,000, Corbett, (now Governor) was then running for Attorney General and won by over 200,000 votes. The key to his success was doing well in the Philadelphia suburbs and running ahead of the ticket in the rest of the state. I see no reason why Romney could not do almost as well as Corbett did in 2008. Obama will not be popular in the suburbs this time due to his economic policies and class warfare rhetoric. Additonally, Jewish voters will not vote in the same overwhelming numbers for Obama this time. Instead of getting almost 80% of the Jewish vote, Gallup has Obama right now at about 65% of Jewish voters. The margin Obama gets in Philadelphia is irrevelant in this case. If the suburbs split roughly even this time and the rest of the state swings Republican, Romney has a shot at victory. Keep you eye on Bucks County. It has voted the statewide % for President in the last 2 presidential elections. If Romney carries Bucks, it’s game over.

  3. Morton, I’m not sure of your point. I’m assuming you realize that the vast majority of citizens are not paying attention to politics. Many can’t tell you the name of the vice president, but they can tell you the cast of Jersey Shore. What most people see is that things are not getting better now. Somewhat better, but not back to “normal.” Then they hear this is the new normal. Then they hear their friends who watch Fox complain about what a rotten socialist Obama is, and that he’s trying to deliberately destroy the country so that George Soros can start a new world order. Oh, and he’s going to take your guns away, too. And poor people caused this economic crisis, now Obama wants to give them more money. So, when I read an article that says Obama could very well lose this election and that the only thing that might save him is Mitt Romney, I’d say that’s pretty close to the truth.

  4. “Can anything save Obama from the fate of his hard luck predecessors? Ironically the only person who might do it is his opponent Mitt Romney. And Romney could do it by running a weak campaign.”

    This is supposed to pass for high-level political analysis from the top expert on the subject in the state, according to the PA media? After reading this “analysis,” including the incredibly inane statement above, let me ask a very politically incorrect question here: Why on earth is Terry Madonna still the go-to pundit on national Politics in Pennsylvania? Who on earth gave this guy a PhD for that matter?? (The answer is U of Delaware and he’s currently a professor at Franklin & Marshall, for anyone considering where, apparently, not to go for Political studies.) But still every media outlet in the state has him on speed dial.

    There are many critical points left out of this grossly oversimplified analysis. Add them up and it is clear that 2012 is not 1980 or 1992 revisited, and the polls of the presidential race to date bear that out. Maybe 1948, but that would be fine with me. Here are a few examples:

    1. The financial meltdown that threw the economy into deep recession occurred on the watch of President Bush, with President Obama left to clean up the mess. Most honest people acknowledge this, though some inevitably prefer to bury their heads in the sand.
    2. The recession that began under Bush and was inherited by Obama was worse than any since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and the largest cause of this is well established to have been corporate malfeasance.
    3. Congress, due to bi-partisan dysfunction coupled with a large helping of Tea Party/Republican intransigence, depending on one’s viewpoint either a) failed to play its role in resolving the economic crisis and creating jobs, or b) deliberately allowed the economy to flounder to undermine the President.
    4. The economy has shown substantial and steady improvement during President Obama’s term despite all of the obstacles cited above. The national unemployment rate hovers just above that “magic” (so say the media) level of 8%. But in many critical swing states, the unemployment rates are substantially lower. In our own Pennsylvania, unemployment is 7.5% – not great, but not bad given what we’ve been through. Did you know Virginia unemployment is 5.7%, New Hampshire is at 5.1%, and Minnesota is at 5.6%? All are approaching what is considered by economists to be healthy unemployment during robust economic times. Other swing states that look pretty optimistic given that we are only 3 1/2 years removed from the financial system nearly grinding to a dead stop: New Mexico at 6.5%, Wisconsin, 7.0%, Missouri, 7.1%, Ohio, 7.2%. Add most, let alone all, of those economic bright spots up and you have more than enough electoral votes in swing-states to win President Obama a second term.

    Bottom line:

  5. I am just going with my gut making PA too close to call after it is all said and done. All the polling data is close to the margin of error. I have worked in all parts of PA. Western PA Dems are different from SEPA Dems so what the West on election night. The Voter ID may upset the equation if it is upheld.
    If Obama loses PA the party is over.

  6. Since these same “experts” predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and that Arlen Specter would handily defeat Joe Sestak in the PA Senate Primary, I am not going to lose much sleep over this article.

  7. For Carter, you meant 1980, when he lost to Ronald Reagan. In 1976 Carter unseated Ford, who had to run in the wake of Watergate.

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