The Obama Paradox

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Obama Paradox


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

If the economy is so bad, why is Barack winning?

It's a paradox. The economy is in the doldrums. Yet the incumbent is ahead in the polls. According to a huge body of research by political scientists, this is not supposed to happen. On the other side of the Atlantic, it hardly ever does. But in America today, the law of political gravity has been suspended.

First, the economy. It's growing at a lousy 2 percent. Unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Manufacturing just contracted for the third straight month. Consumer confidence is sliding. Nearly 47 million Americans are on food stamps. And we're heading for a fiscal cliff.

Now, the polls. According to The New York Times, President Obama is set to win 51 percent of the popular vote and 311 electoral college votes, including those of key swing states like Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. He has a 3 in 4 chance of being reelected.

If Mitt Romney were the kind of guy people felt sorry for, you'd feel sorry for him.

So what's the explanation? I can think of four possibilities.

Explanation one: I am lying to you. The economy is doing great. No doubt the self-appointed "fact checkers" of the blogosphere are armed and ready to tell you this. (Did I forget to mention that the fiscal cliff is made of green cheese?)

Explanation two: People aren't telling the truth to the pollsters. The deciding factor in this election will be whether or not a relatively small slice of the electorate--suburban, middle-class voters in a handful of states--deserts the president. Four years ago, as Michael Barone has pointed out, many such people voted for him. Now they are suffering from buyer's remorse. But there is a certain stigma attached to voting against the man who came to personify not just political change but the end of centuries of racial prejudice. So when asked by pollsters, the swing voters simply don't fess up.

A variant of this argument is that people currently telling pollsters they'd vote for the president tomorrow won't actually turn out on Election Day. This seems to me a more likely scenario. Young people and African-Americans turned out in unusually high numbers four years ago. Precisely these groups have fared the worst in the sluggish economy of the past four years.

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