How is Obama ahead in 8 of 9 swing states with the economy so weak?
Polls show that President Obama has a lead – though in some cases very small – in most of the crucial swing states. One economist has set up a model that suggests why.
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One key reason Obama exhibits what may seem like surprising strength: Despite all the negatives about the US economy, some important trends have been getting better, not worse, during the past year. Jobs are up. Unemployment is down. Home prices have stopped falling and begun to rise. US stock indexes have been rising back toward pre-recession peaks.Skip to next paragraph
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And the swing states, representing a fairly broad cross-section of the nation, aren't noticeably worse off than other locales.
After adjusting for the electoral clout of each swing state (so that Florida has more influence than Iowa) the nine current "toss-up" states have an average unemployment rate of 8 percent, essentially the same as the national average.
In Fair's model, based on historical outcomes of elections since 1916, incumbents enter any race with a built-in advantage. A weak national economy will lower the incumbent's chances. But what matters most, according to his research, is the performance of the economy roughly one or two years leading up to the vote.
In other words, it's more "what have you done for me lately?" than "are you better off now than you were four years ago?" In this election in particular, voters appear ready to cut Obama some slack given that he took office at a time of crisis, with the nation' s job count was declining rapidly.
The Yale professor isn't the only one who has tried to model the economics of elections. Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein recently worked with some political scientists on the challenge, and came to a similar conclusion.
"My expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data," Mr. Klein wrote last week. Rather, the numbers "suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction, as was true with unemployment in 1980 and 1992."
A Christian Science Monitor analysis early this year also pointed to the importance of unemployment's direction, not just its level.
During the past year, the nation's official unemployment rate has fallen by a full percentage point. And gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has been rising steadily.
The swing states fall into a few distinct camps:
Still in trouble. This group of states includes Nevada (6 electoral votes), North Carolina (15), Florida (29), and Colorado (9). Those are listed in order from the highest unemployment (Nevada at 12 percent) to the lowest (Colorado at 8.3 percent, just above the national average). Nevada and Florida are also housing-bust epicenters, where many mortgage-borrowers have seen the value of their homes plunge below their loan balances. Colorado's jobless rate isn't ultra high, but it hasn't budged in the past year.
Recovering. Wisconsin (10 electoral votes) and Ohio (18) each have unemployment just a bit above 7 percent. And in both states, residents have seen solid improvement in the past year.
Doing pretty well. Virginia (13 electoral votes), Iowa (6), and New Hampshire (4) all have unemployment rates below 6 percent. Each of these states has a sizable share of politically conservative voters, though. That, coupled with voters' general anxiety about the national economy, could keep these states in play even though they're among the nation's best job-market performers.
If the other 40 states break the way pollsters are expecting, Romney needs 79 or more of 110 swing-state electoral votes to win. There's still a ways to go before voting day, but with the economy "improving" as well as "weak," Romney so far hasn't gotten the polling advantage that some forecasters predicted.