The Fundamentals. Shorthand for the big underlying factors that determine elections, such as the overall state of the economy and people’s historic voting tendencies.
A debate has long simmered over the importance of the fundamentals versus the features of the “horse race” that the media obsesses over, such as a candidate’s personal appeal or their campaign’s ability to get supporters to the polls.
In academic circles, “the fundamentals” often win out. Matthew Dickinson, a political scientist at Middlebury College, wrote a blog post just before the November midterm elections called “The Election Forecast: It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” He said that midterms revolve around a president’s performance, whether voters regard the country as being on the right or wrong track, and the economy. “No turnout machine, no matter how sophisticated, can make much of a dent when the fundamentals mean you are moving electorally against a strong partisan headwind,” he wrote in successfully predicting big GOP gains.
But other political observers say a fundamentals-focused approach to assessing elections can be misguided. In 2012, polling expert Nate Silver looked at presidential forecasting models over the previous two decades. “The models that claim to be able to predict elections based solely on the fundamentals – that is, without looking to horse-race factors like polls or approval ratings – have done especially badly,” Silver found. “Many of these models claim to explain as much as 90 percent of the variance in election outcomes without looking at a single poll. In practice, they have had almost literally no predictive power, whether looked at individually or averaged together.”
Just before that year’s election, The Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone used the f-word in erroneously predicting a massive Mitt Romney win. “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections,” Barone wrote. “That’s bad news for Barack Obama.”
These days, “the fundamentals” are at the heart of the discussion about Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016. In an epic New York magazine piece, Jason Zengerle cites what even her staunch supporters admit are middling – at best – campaign skills. “And yet, there’s an increasingly popular school of thought, especially among political scientists but also among some political consultants, that being a good candidate is overrated,” Zengerle wrote. “Some even argue that it’s irrelevant – not just to what sort of president a candidate would be, but also to whether he or she can get to the White House in the first place.”
The Washington Post’s Dan Balz also addressed the issue after attending the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He noted that Republicans are offering a set of candidates with varying ideologies, philosophies, and styles. “All of that is important because candidates and campaigns matter,” Balz wrote. “But fundamentals also matter, and few are more important than the changing face of America.” He cited new demographic studies showing how the ever-increasing number of minorities – who generally tend to back Democrats – could shape future election outcomes.
Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.