Beginning today, pundits are going to offer a wide range of explanations for Obama’s victory. But I think the simplest and most obvious is that he won because the economy had improved just enough since 2008 to give him the edge. As I pointed out back in September, standard models of presidential election outcomes based primarily on economic variables predicted, on average, that Obama would get 50.2% of the popular vote. Although late West Coast results will increase this total slightly, it looks like he actually got about 50.4%. That’s a very close match.
The econometric models generally assume a two party race. In reality, two third party candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson (1 percent) and Jill Stein of the Green Party (0.3%) got statistically meaningful shares of the vote. If we plausibly assign most of Johnson’s vote to Romney and most of Stein’s to Obama, we end up with a roughly 51-49 split in a hypothetical “pure” two party race. We get a similar result if we throw out the third party votes and just look at Obama’s share of the 98.5% of the electorate who voted Democratic or Republican. Obama slightly outperformed economic expectations, but not by much. Republicans who thought that the state of the economy gave Romney a huge advantage forgot that voters care about the directional trend as well as the absolute situation.
In my view, much of the electorate gave insufficient weight to the possibility that Obama’s policies made the recovery weaker than it otherwise would have been, and they also likely gave him too much credit for at least some recovery that would have happened regardless of who was in the White House. Economist Casey Mulligan recently published an important book defending the former theory. If you believe that the TARP bailout was the key to recovery (which I do not), it’s worth recalling that George W. Bush and John McCain both supported it. It would surely have proceeded apace had McCain somehow managed to win the 2008 election. But politically ignorant voters often give incumbents too much credit for positive economic trends that happen during their terms, and too much blame for negative ones. In some past elections, such as in 2010, Republicans were the lucky beneficiaries. This year, it was Obama and the Democrats.
This year’s outcome was not set in stone. Obama’s advantage derived from the economy was small enough that an unusually strong challenger or an unusually weak incumbent might have negated it. The same goes for some dramatic noneconomic issue that cut in favor of the challenger. But Romney was not an unusually appealing candidate, nor Obama an unusually poor one. And Romney wasn’t able to take advantage of any major extraneous issues, and indeed was probably slightly damaged by some of them (the death of Bin Laden, Hurricane Sandy, etc.).
Obama did do better in electorate vote count, where he will end up with a 332-206 margin, than in the popular vote. He did it by winning nearly all the close swing states. I leave it to others to determine to what extent that happened because the electoral vote map now slightly favors Democrats relative to the popular vote (a change from 2000 and 2004, when it slightly favored the GOP), and to what extent it was a superior Democratic “ground game.” I suspect both factors were at work.
The above should not be interpreted to imply that ideology and noneconomic issues don’t matter at all. A party wildly out of synch with the public on one or the other may well lose even if economic conditions are somewhat favorable. But, despite frequent claims to the contrary, I don’t think either the Democrats or the Republicans deviated from public opinion to such a huge extent, though both are at odds with the median voter on some issues. If swing voters paid close attention to the issues and were well-informed about politics, they might punish even small deviations from their preferences. In reality, however, they tend to be disproportionately ignorant, and generally base their votes on broad economic trends rather than detailed consideration of issue positions.
UPDATE: I should emphasize that attributing Obama’s victory in large part to the underlying economic situation does not imply that the GOP made no mistakes in crafting its message or that the party doesn’t need to reach out to a wider range of voters. An unusually strong candidate or message could have overcome Obama’s relatively narrow advantage. And a party with a broader base can more easily overcome adverse economic conditions. At this point, it would be silly to suggest that the Republicans don’t have any significant political weaknesses. But analyses of their flaws should not begin with the false assumption that Romney and the party flubbed an opportunity despite having the odds strongly in his favor. In reality, they were slightly against him.