Monday, March 11, 2013

Political science consensus judgment of the day

The U.S. District Court of political commentary, xpostfactoid division, affirms in part and vacates in part Peter Beinart's remediation order* for the GOP [n.b. note update at bottom for second appeal ruling] : seriously challenge for the presidency, a Republican will have to pointedly distance himself from Jeb’s older brother... It won’t be enough for a candidate merely to keep his or her distance from W. John McCain and Mitt Romney tried that, and they failed because the Obama campaign hung Bush around their neck every chance it got. To seriously compete, the next Republican candidate for president will have to preempt that Democratic line of attack by repudiating key aspects of Bush’s legacy. Jeb Bush would find that excruciatingly hard even if he wanted to. And as his interviews Sunday make clear, he doesn’t event want to try.

Upheld:  it would be a good idea for the next GOP presidential candidate, and probably all GOP candidates for the foreseeable future, to distance themselves from W.  David Frum saw the writing on the wall back in February 2008:

In 2002, equal numbers of Americans identified as Republicans and Democrats. In the six years since, Republican identification has collapsed back to the level recorded before Ronald Reagan. The decline has been steepest among young voters. If they eat right, exercise and wear seatbelts, today’s 20-somethings will be voting against George W. Bush deep into the 2060s.
 Beinart echoes and updates this basic political reality:
It’s no exaggeration to say George W. Bush is more responsible than any other single individual for the Republican Party’s current dismal standing. When Bush took office, about as many Americans identified as Republicans as identified as Democrats. By the time he left, Democrats enjoyed a roughly 10-point lead. When Bush took office, Americans ages 18 to 29 were split evenly between the two major parties. By the time he left, Democrats enjoyed an advantage of 19 points. To grasp how excited Democrats would be to run a Clinton against a Bush in 2016, you need only remember that Bill Clinton gave the strongest speech at the 2012 Democratic convention, while at the 2012 Republican convention, George W. Bush didn’t speak at all.

Vacated, and remanded back to Beinart for reassessment in light of the free e-chapters of John Sides and Lynn Vavreck's  forthcoming The Gamble: The Hand You're Dealt: The finding that John McCain and Mitt Romney failed because they did not repudiate Bush.

McCain failed because he immediately followed Bush -- he could have hanged Bush in effigy and would still have lost in that wave election.  Romney failed because the economy improved just enough for just long enough to reelect an incumbent [at least, per update below, this incumbent].

I would like to believe that both lost because they ran stupid and immoral campaigns.  I believe they did, but that's not why they lost. George Washington reincarnated couldn't have won on the GOP ticket in 2008 or 2012.

The 2012 election played out in particularly close alignment with the economic fundamentals as the vast majority of political scientists engaged in such matters understood them. It was pretty clear early in the year that, barring a sharp economic downturn, Obama would squeak through.  It was all but certain, Romney's Oct. 3 debate triumph notwithstanding, when the unemployment rate plunged with the September jobs report.  Obama's surprising margin of victory became less surprising in retrospect, when revisions this February pushed overall job growth numbers for 2012 past the two million mark. Nate Silver's economic forecast model, Sides and Vavreck' model constructed for Wonkblog, and a lopsided majority of other political science models all forecast Obama victory.

In a truly razor-thin election such as 2000 or 2004, candidates' messaging decisions might be decisive (though Kerry slightly outperformed the fundamentals in 2004). But, leaving aside the actual impact of incumbents' policies, the candidates in 2008 and 2012 could have been sock puppets and the results would have been the same.

* Hat tip to the Dish for the Beinart post.

UPDATE: some courts, via appellate divisions, can overturn themselves, and I may have to go some steps in that direction here. Since writing the post, I've been reading Sides and Vavreck's first chapter. The fundamentals they emphasize in their analysis of the last presidential election include Obama's personal popularity going into 2012, which was higher than it ought to have been given economic conditions; that high personal popularity lowered the threshold of good-enough-to-win ecnomic growth. Sides and Vavreck suggest that this personal popularity was due mainly to two factors: political polarization, which made Democratic approval of Obama relatively inelastic, and enduring rejection of Bush, whom voters persistently blamed more than Obama for the cockeyed economy.  Hence, perhaps Beinart is right that a real repudiation and reckoning with Bush's failed policies would have helped Romney.  But given that the electorate's assessment of the incumbent is a core "fundamental" and hard to affect by campaign tactics -- and that the very polarization that helped buoy Obama set the terms under which a Republican candidate could be nominated -- it remains highly unlikely that any candidate could have overcome Obama's structural advantage. 

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