13 Ghosts

The blogosphere is aflutter about a recent article outlining a supposed method for picking the winner of Presidential elections. The author has 13 points he evaluates the election on and if a candidate has eight of them in his favor, he will supposedly win election. Supposedly, this method correctly reproduces the winner of almost every past election — that is, if you credit it with picking the winner of the popular vote instead of the electoral college. And he’s claiming Obama will win in 2012.

The criteria are:

1. Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections.
2. Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.
3. Incumbency: The incumbent party’s candidate is the sitting president.
4. Third Party: There is no significant third party challenge.
5. Short-term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.
6. Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.
7. Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.
8. Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.
9. Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.
10. Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.
11. Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.
12. Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party’s candidate is charismatic or a national hero.
13. Challenger charisma: The challenging party’s candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

I scarcely need get into how silly and subjective this is. Nate Silver has thoroughly and systematically torn apart this “method”, pointing out that the author frequently changes a candidate’s “charisma” rating and bizarrely counts Obama’s most unpopular policies in his favor.

It seems to me you don’t need to go to 13 points to have a good feel for an election. You really only need two:

1) Is he of the incumbent party?
2) How’s the economy doing?

That explains the elections of 2008, 2004, 2000 (if you count that as a Gore win), 1996, 1992, 1988, 1984, 1980, 1976, 1972, etc. Really, the only 20th century President I can think of who won re-election in a crummy economy was FDR. To be fair, one of those wins was because the GOP ignored the plain language of the Constitution, which says, “On no account can the President of the United States be named Wendell Willkie. Seriously, guys.”

That having been said, I do think Obama will probably win in 2012 for the same reason FDR kept winning: the economy is not as bad as it was when he took office and the opposition is comprised of gerbils and circus clowns. Obama will be able to point to healthcare reform, Osama bin Laden and the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s weak on the economy and the deficit, but even marginal improvements will negate that.

Obama is polling 40% right now, but that’s ahead of previous re-elected incumbents. And he hasn’t really started campaigning. While Obama might poll badly 14 months in advance, he has a tendency to exceed expectations in actual elections. His tendency is to let his opponents rant and rave and foam at the mouth right up to the point when he beats them. He beat Clinton and McCain this way and it is quite likely that he will beat beat Perry or Romney. The GOP continues to miss this about Obama: he has ice water in his veins. He doesn’t panic; he doesn’t freak out; he just slowly and calmly wins.

It’s simply a fact that American hate to throw out incumbent Presidents. They really need something to vote for and the GOP isn’t there yet. Half the country is mad that they almost hit the debt ceiling while the other half is mad they go so little for almost hitting it. They’re doing some decent things — especially at the state level. But the national party still seems confused at best and the polls keep jumping to whatever the lates flavor of the month is: Trump, Bachmann, Perry, [insert next GOP hopeful here]. “I’m not Bush” didn’t propel Kerry into the White House in 2004. I just don’t see “I’m not Obama” working out in 2012.

I mean, what does it say that some of the biggest GOP guns are clearly angling for 2016?

Of course, things can change in the next year, which makes Mr. 13 Points even more irrelevant than normal. At this point in 1991, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch where Democrats debated over not being the nominee against Bush the Elder. If the economy implodes, Obama can have all the points he wants; he’s still going to lose.

But I doubt the economy is going to get worse. I doubt a huge scandal is going to erupt. I doubt that a third party challenge will come from the Left. And that, most likely, leaves us with four more years of Obama.

I can probably deal with that if the GOP holds onto the House and picks up some Senate seats. That division of power would force Obama’s hand on the deficit and spending if he wants any legacy at all. The GOP may or may not believe in small government, but they definitely believe in opposing the Democrats. It’s no accident that the best part of Obama’s presidency has been the last eight months.