Rock the Vote? Hardly

Incumbency, partisanship and the economy. What do these words mean to you?

Probably nothing, if we’re being honest with each other.

In the 2012 presidential election, President Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney was predetermined before the campaign even began.

Now I’ve sparked your attention.

Let me explain myself. The presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama was not the tug-of-war the media portrayed.

They are called the fundamentals. It’s those three words mentioned before that seemed so insignificant when you perused over them initially, but now are crucial to understanding this post. In high-stake elections, the fundamentals are the guiding forces that lead one candidate to prevail over another.

To reiterate, the fundamentals are incumbency, partisanship, and the economy.

Let’s start off with incumbency. John Sides in his book Campaigns and Elections, defines incumbency advantage as “the vote share earned by an incumbent compared to what a non-incumbent would have earned if he or she had run (268).” According to a study by the Comparative Legislative Research Center, the average incumbent fares “8 to 10 percentage points higher than the opponent.” 8 to 10 percent may not sound like a huge amount, but most candidates win an election on a slim margin.

The incumbency advantage has been recorded in United States elections since the introduction of the television in the 1950s. Advertising on television creates a familiarity of candidates in potential voters and allows them to “recognize and recall” their names and the initiatives they support. Within the past eight decades only four incumbent lost in the reelection; those being Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.

In 2016, with no incumbent but rather two equally viable actors running for the president’s seat, this fundamental will not be in play.

A fundamental that will be a factor in the 2016 presidential election is partisanship. Americans identify with one of the two major political parties and even those who identify as “independents,” typically favor one side or the other. Being included in a group is an integral part of human life and human beings operate on an “us” versus “them” mentality. This translates to most citizens voting within the party lines and a very small amount actually swayed by the campaign.

Let’s look at the current stats of each political party’s base. According to a Gallup poll taken in May of 2015, 26 percent of Americans identify as Republican, 30 percent as Democrat, and 40 percent as independent. However, most independents actually lean towards one side or the other in most elections. Taking this into consideration, the Gallup poll asked the respondents who initially chose “independent” which side they typically leaned towards. The result was that within the 40 percent of Americans who identified as independent, 42 percent of voters more often side with the republican candidate, 45 percent for the democratic, and 13 percent said neither party. Most scholars report that this percentage of truly “swing” voters is actually around 5 percent. While now you may be thinking that all 1.7 billion dollars spent by Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election was in fact spent to sway less than 10% of the voting base…and this is true….Kind of.

Another factor to consider is that not every democrat or republican shows up at the polls to vote at every presidential election. Thus, campaigning, doing polls and serving voters with facts is another way candidates exhibit how well they did in the past in order to persuade people to vote for them in the future. Voters are more likely to come out when they feel strongly about a candidate and truly believe in the promises and initiatives the candidate stands behind.

Now let’s talk to the most important fundamental. It affects which of the parties is able to appeal to the voter base enough to make them come out to the polls and sways that 5 percent from one candidate to the other. The economy: In the 2012 presidential race, many scholars believed Mitt Romney would win the election due to this fundamental. According to the National Review, amongst other news sources, the fundamentals were “very bad news” for Obama, namely the “very sluggish economic recovery.” While this may have been true for the majority of the race, by September of 2012, just two months before the election, Obama had a slight majority due to a marginal increase in growth of the economy. Patrick Egan, a political scientist from NYU, ran a regression plotting the party’s share of the two-party presidential votes against the average growth rate in the nation’s GDP over the three-quarters before the election. The results indicated that the economic growth rate between January and September of 2012 averaged about 1.8 percent. While this is nothing to brag about, it still indicated that there was a slight increase in the economy. Thus, the graph predicted that due to the economy recovering ever so slightly, Obama would win by a margin of slightly over 50 percent of the vote. He ended up winning with 51.2 percent of the popular vote.

So, what does this mean for the 2016 election? Since incumbency isn’t a factor, the election is pretty much up for grabs. This 2016 election will be a true portrayal of a Democratic system. Partisanship will be an important factor and candidates will attempt at swaying people to show up at the polls come November. This is where the bulk of those billions will be spent; in television ads, newspaper headlines and statistics pulled to serve to potential voters. The economy has been tanked for quite a while during the Obama administration but has seen some gradual growth in certain pockets. It’s a slippery slope blaming the new presidential candidate on the Democratic side for a previous one’s mistakes, however at the same time it will be beneficial for the Republican candidate to capitalize on this and articulate that America shouldn’t be in the same hands it was previously. It’s difficult to tell what the economy will look like closer to the election in 2016, which will be the true testament of how Obama’s legacy will be remembered, as well as how badly the Democratic Party will be hurt by this legacy.

Incumbency, partisanship and the economy: three words that predetermine most high-stake elections, and three words with explanations that will make you sound a lot smarter to your co-workers at happy hour next Friday.

Image 2330348917 by redjar CC BY-NC 2.0