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January 19, 2014 11:29 AM One Model Does Not Analysis Make

By Martin Longman

Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, John Sides, attempts to rebut Dan Balz’s fine analysis yesterday that the Republican Party has an uphill battle to win the presidency in 2016. I find his argument unconvincing.

He begins by providing his credentials.

In April 2012, two other political scientists — Seth Hill and Lynn Vavreck — and I did a presidential election forecasting model for The Washington Post. The model had only three factors: The change in gross domestic product in the first two quarters of the election year, the president’s approval rating as of June of that year and whether the incumbent was running. That model forecast that Obama would win in 2012, and — although there is nothing magic about this model — it was ultimately accurate within a percentage point.

He then notes that his model would predict a Republican victory if the election were held today. He follows this with a suspect assertion:

What I’d tell strategists looking at state demographics and Electoral College math is this: In 2016, states will swing — almost in uniform fashion — depending on the underlying political and economic fundamentals. Battleground state demographic trends don’t insulate the Democratic Party from (potentially) a relatively unpopular president and (potentially) an economy that is growing but not very fast. Even analysts who believe these demographic trends portend a long-lasting Democratic majority would agree with that, I think.

It’s true that states behave less idiosyncratically than they used to, but that doesn’t solve the Republicans’ Electoral College math problem. As I highlighted yesterday, no amount of swing over the last six elections has prevented the Democrats from winning at least 251 electoral votes, which is just 19 votes shy of victory. Things may swing one way or another, but when you start out one large state short of victory, you have a large structural advantage. Remember, the argument isn’t that the Republican Party cannot conceivably pull off the narrowest of victories, but that that is the very best they can hope for, and that it would be exceedingly difficult. This is before we even talk about factors unique to the cycle, like the candidates (including their races, genders, and regional bases), state of election law, relative revenues, campaign team quality, the economy, the incumbent president’s popularity, or the relative popularity of the two parties in Congress.

And, since were prognosticating here, there are at least three differences between Barack Obama and the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, which have the power to change the shape of the electorate that are probably more important than the metrics (the gross domestic product in the first two quarters of the election year, the president’s approval rating as of June of that year and whether the incumbent was running) used by Prof. Sides.

Obama and Clinton are different races, different genders, and appeal to a different regional/socioeconomic profile. We saw how they divided up support in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and that same split should allow Clinton to retain nearly all of Obama’s base (if not their enthusiasm) while adding race-skeptical whites and (relatedly) more votes from places where Bill Clinton did well (Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia) and Barack Obama did not.

Additionally, Prof. Sides does not dispute that demographic change is making each election cycle incrementally harder for the Republicans than the last. If he sees any sign that the Republicans are addressing their poor showing with the growing Asian and Latino populations, he doesn’t discuss it. Nor does he make an effort to explain which states the Republicans might flip. Instead, he makes one last argument:

Since the passage of the 22nd amendment limiting the president to two terms, only one time (1980-88) has the incumbent party held the White House for more than two consecutive terms. The regularity with which control of the White House changes hands also suggests that the playing field may tip in the GOP’s favor in 2016.

Obviously, here we are dealing with a small sample size. But the Korean War killed Truman and Stevenson’s chances. Without a war hero and in a bad economy, the GOP couldn’t shake the New Deal ascendancy of the country in 1960. The Vietnam War killed LBJ and Humphrey’s chances. Gore technically won, but was hobbled by the Lewinsky scandal. And Bush was a complete disaster. None of those circumstances are likely to be replicated in 2016, so these previous examples of party fatigue are not very helpful.

The fact remains, no rational player would take the GOP’s hand over the Democrats’.

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