THE Monitor's Richard L. Strout used to say that the state of the economy was the most decisive element in a presidential election. He might have trouble applying this wisdom to the current campaign, since it's difficult to tell where the economy is going.
Some feel the recession is losing its grip. Richard Morin, director of polling for the Washington Post, says "the early word" from some election-focused economists is that President Bush will be reelected: "Maybe in a squeaker. Maybe in a landslide."
"But George Bush," he adds, "is the likely winner over the Democrat - any Democrat - to be named later."
These predictions examine the past relationship between voting outcomes and variables such as the economic growth rate, inflation, and presidential approval just prior to the election.
Mr. Morin contends that forecasts using this approach have in a number of past presidential elections been "eerily accurate." The reader (along with me) may find it "eerily complex." I prefer Mr. Strout's observation that the economic forecast is so very important in predicting presidential elections.
Let's not get carried away with economic theory. Economists have gotten it wrong so many times before. I just lose track.
Certainly, the economy provided Franklin Roosevelt his overwhelming victory over Herbert Hoover. Rightly or wrongly the voters blamed Mr. Hoover for the Great Depression and his inability to stem the tide of business failures and unemployment.
Also it is arguable that the dip in the economy in the last few months preceding the 1960 election was responsible for John Kennedy's slim win over Richard Nixon. But there were so many other factors in that outcome (including Mr. Kennedy's debating performance) that it would be wrong to single out the economy as being "decisive." Actually, the overall economy was pretty good back in 1960.
Was it the economy, notably high inflation, that licked Jimmy Carter in 1980? Or was it the Iran hostages problem? Or was it a personable challenger, Ronald Reagan, who charmed the voters?
Morin calls Ray C. Fair of Yale "perhaps the dean of presidential election forecasters," and says that Mr. Fair contends "a sweetening economy all but assures" a Bush victory in the fall. He says that Fair has applied his economic approach to the last 19 presidential elections, extending to 1916, and has picked the right winner all but three times.
This is compelling stuff. But - again - I am not ready to be a believer, not a full believer, anyway.
Take the Watergate scandal that bounced Mr. Nixon out of office. I don't care how good the economy might have become, Nixon (had he been allowed to stay around and not restricted to two terms) would then have been rejected by the voters.
In fact, it is arguable that Watergate damaged the Republicans so badly that this was the main factor that brought a Democrat, Mr. Carter, into the White House in 1976.
Indeed, I think that some sociologists might well come up with a scientific "model" that, when applied to presidential elections over the years, could show that the character issue was important in all presidential outcomes and decisive in some - or many.
Thus, I think the reporting about Bill Clinton's personal problems (the medley of vague charges that he dodged the draft and the allegations about land-deal improprieties and extramarital relations) may harm him more this fall than the economy does.
Incidentally, by and large I find no fault with the strong spotlight the press has put on Mr. Clinton's personal life. There have been excesses. But the public is entitled to look at a candidate's private actions that relate to what kind of President he might be. The voters have a right to know whether he has been a man of integrity. They have a right to know who he is.
Finally, let's not overlook what might be called the "H. Ross Perot factor." If Mr. Perot gets into the race as a third candidate, he, himself, could become the main decider of the outcome. By taking away votes from Bush, he might, indeed, elect Clinton. Despite an improving economy.