Throughout the presidential campaign so far, prognosticators have generally split between two possible outcomes for the fall: that this election will be extremely close and could go either way, or that President Obama will win big.
There's plenty of data right now to support both hypotheses. Those going with the "squeaker" prediction see the election as largely a referendum on the president's economic stewardship, and point to multiple polls showing Mitt Romney beating Mr. Obama on the issue of who is best able to handle economic matters. Bolstering this argument further is the fact that Obama and Mr. Romney are in a dead heat in the latest national polls – with Romney actually leading in the inaugural Gallup tracking poll by two percentage points. Given that Romney has just emerged from a bruising primary fight, it's reasonable to assume he could boost his ratings further in weeks to come.
"Obama landslide" predictors, on the other hand, see the election as less likely to be a pure referendum on the economy than a contest between two candidates – one of whom is dramatically more personally popular than the other (Obama bested Romney on likability by nearly 40 points in a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll). They point to the fact that Romney's favorability ratings are at historic lows for a presumptive nominee. And Obama is beating Romney handily among women and among Hispanics, and easily wins on a wide range of categories such as leadership, honesty, and which candidate best understands the concerns of average Americans.
So which side is right? Well, for what it's worth, the current betting on Intrade has Obama's odds of being reelected at 61 percent. But we'd add a few more points to the mix. First, there's always an inherent bias among the press and political classes toward predicting close elections. Reporters want to cover an exciting race, and campaigns want their supporters energized to turn out. And of course, no one actually knows what will happen, so saying it will be close is always a safer bet.
Second, among those who are predicting a blowout victory, virtually no one – with the recent exception of conservative commentator Dick Morris – is anticipating that victor to be Romney. (As we've written before, even many Republicans are not particularly bullish on Romney's chances.) By contrast, back in 2004 – a campaign that strikes many as similar to this year's, only with the parties playing reverse roles – there were a number of prominent "Kerry landslide" predictions.
One argument often cited by the "landslide" camp, then as now, is that history shows incumbents tend to win or lose reelection by large, not small, margins. In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan 49 to 489 in the Electoral College; in 1984, Reagan beat Walter Mondale 525 to 13; in 1992, George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton 168 to 370; and in 1996, Clinton beat Bob Dole 379 to 159.
In all of those instances, the election could be interpreted as a referendum on the president's economic performance – which might actually suggest a Romney landslide. But you could just as easily make the case that each time, the public went with the candidate it considered more personally appealing –which would push the needle decisively toward Obama.
Of course, in 2004, George W. Bush broke with history and won by a relatively narrow margin (286 to 252) – though he did improve on his 2000 performance (where he won 271 to 266 and lost the popular vote), leading political scientist Joshua Spivak to recharacterize the historical pattern: Incumbents, he wrote a few months back, either win by a bigger margin than in their first election, or they lose.
History may be made again this year, since it seems highly unlikely that Obama will improve on his 2008 results (in which he beat John McCain 365 to 173). But that doesn't mean it's going to be a squeaker. In fact, if the election were held now, using the most recent polling data available in individual states to determine which way they'd go, the results – as Daily Kos recently pointed out – would not be close. Obama would wind up with 341 to Romney's 197, in an election that would have to be characterized as pretty decisive.