It's Always the Economy, Stupid

By Klein, Ezra | Newsweek, July 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

It's Always the Economy, Stupid


Klein, Ezra, Newsweek


Byline: Ezra Klein

To win in November, focus on paychecks, not polls.

It's begun. With merely four months until the elections, we're starting to see the articles outlining the angry divisions between the president's counselors. The fight apparently pits the political team, which wants the president to turn his attention to the political problem of deficits, against the economic team, which wants him to keep focusing on economic stimulus. Politics versus governance is, of course, an age-old choice. The job of governing is different from the job of getting reelected. Or is it?

For decades now, political scientists have been building election models that attempt to predict who will win in November without making any reference to candidates or campaigns. They can get within 2 points of the final vote, and they don't need to know anything about the ads and the gaffes and the ground games. All they really need to know about is the economy.

"In presidential elections," says Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels, "a 1 percent boost in election-year income growth has typically increased the incumbent party's vote share by about 2 percent. So an incumbent party that won 51 percent of the vote in an average economic year like 2004 would be expected to win only 46 percent in a recession year like 2008." Which is, as you may remember, pretty much exactly what happened.

Congressional elections are a bit more difficult because they're more local, but they end up being predictable, too. Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has a model that uses the numbers of seats the majority party holds, the approval rating of the president, and the change in real disposable income, and predicts about 70 percent of the swing between elections.

All this suggests political scientists have a pretty good handle on what wins elections, so I began asking them the question that some say is bedeviling the White House: do you focus on appeasing the polls now or doing everything you can to improve economic conditions before the elections?

"A policymaker reading polls who finds that people are concerned about the deficit and says, I should rein in spending and I'll get credit for that--I don't think there's evidence that'll move voters," says the University of Denver's Seth Masket. "You want to get as much money in voters' hands in the months before the election as possible.

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