An analysis on CBS News suggests that President Obama is in a tie with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, according to national polls, because of the public’s unhappiness with the state of the economy.
This is an argument that we are going to hear weekly for the next five months because it’s long been the conventional wisdom in American politics. As Bill Clinton strategist James Carville famously said before Clinton defeated the first George Bush in 1992, It’s the economy, stupid.
The CBS report details the economic numbers for each winning and losing presidential incumbent over the past 30 years and concludes that the figures point to an Obama loss.
But there’s another piece of conventional wisdom that’s also been employed for decades in American politics: Voters choose the candidate they like more. On this one, Obama far outpaces Romney. So did voters choose Reagan over Carter because the economy was bad or because they liked Reagan more? Did they choose Clinton over the first Bush because of the economy or because Bush was perceived as an aloof aristocrat while Clinton was a back-slapping good old boy?
So here we are in 2012 and the question is, What’s going to give? Is one of these pieces of conventional wisdom going to be wrong this year—is Obama going to stomp the economy theory to irrelevancy, or Romney going to overcome his huge likeability gap? Or maybe something else will change—the economy will improve enough for voters to feel good about it, and thus Obama, or perhaps Romney will take his millions somewhere and purchase a likeable personality.
And here’s one more factor to consider: Although national polls are juicy catnip for political reporters and network news reports, they are somewhat irrelevant to the actual outcome in November, particularly when those polls have the candidates as extremely close. This presidential election, as they all do, comes down to the Electoral College. In other words, which candidate is going to win the big, electoral-vote-heavy states that matter, like New York (29 electoral votes) and California (55 electoral votes) and Texas (38) and Florida (29)? This is the game of chess that’s being played behind the scenes, beyond the tiny attention spans of the network news. In most electoral-vote analyses, Obama is still comfortably ahead of Romney.
One more thing: Most of these electoral-vote-heavy states tend to be where the majority of the nation’s blacks and Hispanics reside. So even when you see polls from these states, they are only accurate if they can predict precisely how many blacks and Hispanics are going to the polls in November. Pollsters customarily expect fewer blacks and Hispanics to vote than their population numbers would suggest, and they factor that expectation into their poll results. So in the end, the predictive value of any poll could easily be rendered hugely inaccurate if there is a groundswell of blacks and Hispanics casting votes on November 6.