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.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS
President Obama speaks at a campaign rally at Eden Park in Cincinnati Monday.

It sounds surprising: President Obama is polling well in the nation's key battleground states, despite a national economy that Americans know to be less than terrific, to use just a bit of understatement.

Mr. Obama currently leads against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in eight out of nine states where the two are in tight contests, according to an average of state-level polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics.

These swing states, which are poised to decide the election outcome, include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Among those, North Carolina is the one where Mr. Romney currently has an edge.

The president appears to be faring well despite obvious economic problems that persist on his watch:

  • The US unemployment rate is 8.1 percent. The last time a president won reelection with an unemployment rate above 8 percent was Franklin Roosevelt – further back than the Labor Department can go with its monthly histories of the unemployment rate.
  • Although job growth has been positive during the past two years, the nation has fewer jobs now than when Obama took office.
  • The Census Bureau announced last week that household incomes, after adjusting for inflation, have gone down each year since the recession began in 2007 – including a 1.5 percent decline last year.

What gives?

Many pundits are busy analyzing alleged shortcomings in Romney's messaging, and some campaign-trail missteps. Others have taken note of the pro-Obama pep talk given by former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, and a prodigious amount of advertising dollars spent recently by the Obama campaign.

But part of the answer is more mundane: Obama's position in the polls may not be that surprising after all. By some measures, it matches up pretty well with the economic signals that swing-state voters are receiving in their paychecks, in the help-wanted ads, and in local real estate markets.

Ray Fair, a Yale University economist who has created a model designed to predict election outcomes based on economic performance, says current conditions suggest a close election, not one tilted obviously against the incumbent. And although Obama may be up in swing-state polls for now, his edge remains vulnerable.

"The election is too close to call," Mr. Fair says, citing the numbers in his model and noting that they are fairly consistent with what opinion surveys show. His model currently suggests that Obama will get 49.5 percent of all two-party (Romney or Obama) voters, with a margin of error of about 2 percentage points.

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.

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.

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