The State of The Race

Jay Cost has some good points to make about the state of the horse race. He has a much longer post but here are his main bullet points:

(1) The macro conditions favor the Democrats in a way we have not seen in at least 28 years.

(2) In response, the Democrats nominated a candidate with relatively little governing experience and a background quite different from white voters, who swing presidential elections.

(3) The Republicans nominated a candidate who built a national reputation by disagreeing with George W. Bush in particular and the Republican Party in general, in the hopes that this man is immune from the public disaffection with the GOP.

(4) The public now gets to choose a man with little experience and a different background, or a semi-Republican. They’re not sure which one they want. And because there are two wars on, a credit crisis, a weak economy, and high gas prices – they’re taking their sweet time in deciding.

(5) Anybody who tells you what is going to happen is probably trying to sell you something.

I pretty much agree with this. To number one and number two I would add that while this was the outcome, neither party did this in an entirely intentional manner. The Democrats nominated a candidate with little experience partially because the experienced front runner was someone who many felt was both unacceptable as a president and who probably could not withstand the scrutiny of a general election campaign. Besides, since when do Democrats nominate the front runner if they are not a sitting president or vice-president?

To some degree Obama’s nomination was despite his personal characteristics as this was largely a Clinton vs. strongest non-Clinton candidate. But that is not the whole story. There was also a strong desire among many for someone totally new. While there were not quite enough Democrats who felt this way to win the nomination, Obama managed to bring in enough new voters among independents to put himself over the top.

John McCain was certainly the best choice from an electoral standpoint for the Republicans, and I suspect that some primary voters did vote on this basis. He also was up against an extremely weak field where each of the candidates had serious flaws in a year where the Republicans did not have an obvious leader. While McCain has had some disagreements with Bush and other Republicans, his differences are actually minimal compared to the differences between the two parties.

Either candidate can go on to win this election, with Obama having the edge due to the macro conditions favoring the Democrats. If Obama can be seen more as the exciting new guy who represents a change from the rotten politics of the past as opposed to the different and inexperienced guy, then he should win.

For McCain it comes down partially to whether he succeeds in painting Obama as the unusual non-American candidate as he has been attempting. It is also largely a matter of whether he can continue to con enough people into thinking that he is significantly different from the Republicans who are responsible for the mess we are in, or whether enough voters realize that he really offers more of the same.

Cost also showed how little help history is this year:

History is of relatively little value in determining where this race is headed.

We can build a model that predicts presidential vote outcomes based on macro conditions. We can profitably take that back to 1948 or thereabouts. That gives us fifteen previous elections to work with.

But this is an open presidential election, one where the big dog is not running for reelection. Those are very different, and there have only been five of them since 1948.

In those elections, you’ll usually see the vice-president running on behalf of the incumbent party. There’s been just one exception.

That year was 1952. Structurally speaking, this year has a lot in common with 1952.

But the candidates have nothing in common with 1952. Instead, they are much more like the candidates from 1976. Barack Obama reminds me of Jimmy Carter – he’s relatively inexperienced and his background is such that a segment of this country is probably going to balk at voting for him. John McCain reminds me of Gerald Ford, though I suspect he would have let Nixon go to jail.

Unfortunately, we’ve never had a previous presidential election where the structure is 1952 and the candidates are 1976.

Bottom line: we’re in unchartered water here. History is still useful, and it establishes that the Democrats are favored. But the limitation of history is that we don’t know how heavily they are favored.

Interesting that both candidates remind him of one-term presidents. More significantly, it is notable that there have been only five open elections like this since 1948 and a number have been very close: 1960, 1968, and 2000. For whatever it is worth, a Democrat one one, a Republican won the second, and the third technically went Republican but would have gone Democratic if either there was a full recount in Florida or if there were no butterfly ballots. The three close elections certainly do not show a trend favoring either party.

There could be a close election again this year, as the polls currently suggest, making the outcome difficult to predict. I’ve also thought all along that either Obama’s strategy will work well as he brings in new voters and he will win big (especially as voters react to the failures of the Republicans) or he will turn out to be too different and will do poorly.

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