Obama’s Superior Organization Probably Didn’t Win the Election for Him

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


I’m not a fundamentals absolutist. That is to say, I don’t believe that presidential elections are won and lost based on the state of the economy and not much else. Still, fundamentals play a huge role, and Larry Bartels reminds us today that despite all the hue and cry about how Obama won despite a lousy economy, he actually did about as well as you’d expect a one-term incumbent to do with the economy he had:

We have lots of distinct but broadly consistent statistical analyses of presidential election outcomes. My own favorite is based on just two factors: the income growth rate in the second and third quarters of the election year and the incumbent party’s tenure in office.

…. The 2012 election outcome []  fits the historical pattern of post-war presidential election results splendidly; Obama’s popular vote margin was 3.8%, while his expected margin (based on the preliminary tabulations of real disposable income currently available from the Bureau of Economic Analysis) was 4.6%.

….Anyone who wants to believe that Obama’s “formidable campaign” (or whatever) won him more votes than an ordinary campaign would have won should feel free to do so, but should be required to propose some equally plausible source(s) of vote losses to balance the ledger.

Bartels’ regression line is based on a simple formula that takes into account two things: number of years in office and the growth of real disposable income per capita between Q1 and Q3 of the election year. Income growth this year between Q1 and Q3 was about 0.3 percent, and when you plug that into his formula you get a prediction that Obama would win the election by 4.6 percentage points. Read his whole post for all the usual caveats and warnings.

In comments, Bartels notes that one implication of this formula is that “events before the start of the election year have no effect, for better or worse.” This isn’t quite true, of course. The real implication is that presidents should do anything they can to make sure the economy is on an upward trajectory in the fourth year of their term. Income growth doesn’t come out of the blue, after all. Conversely, the out party should do everything it can to sabotage the economy. If Republican obstructionism had managed to shave another point or so off the growth rate, Mitt Romney might have won.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest