A full fifteen months out from the 2012 election, we are starting to see a bit of hand-wringing among Democrats and signs of optimism among Republicans, largely on the basis of President Obama’s tepid approval numbers and the downward stickiness of the unemployment rate. In the spirit of “Don’t Get your Pants in a Twist” (Democrats) and “Don’t Count Your Chickens” (Republicans), I’d like to say a bit about what current conditions might tell us about the the 2012 presidential election.
I suppose it is understandable to focus on Obama’s approval rating, though I think it is silly to put too much stock in it this far before the election. Also, given its prevalence in the media, I suppose it is not surprising that some have focused on the unemployment rate, both nationwide and in key states. To say this is not surprising, however, is not the same thing as saying it is a good idea. In fact, academic election forecasters pay relatively little attention to the unemployment rate when predicting election outcomes, generally focusing on broader indicators, such as change in GDP or change in per capita income. But, more importantly, it is just not a good idea to read too much into any current conditions (whether unemployment, presidential approval, or anything else) this far ahead of the election. As Seth Masket points out, Obama is much more likely to be held accountable for economic conditions a few months prior to the election than for those we are currently experiencing.
Just how well can you predict election outcomes this far (fifteen months) ahead of time? Let’s look at some data. First, consider the relationship between presidential election outcomes from 1948 to 2008 and the unemployment rate in July of the year before the election. I think the bottom line from this figure should be loud and clear: DON’T EVEN TRY TO PREDICT THE 2012 ELECTION WITH CURRENT (July, 2011) UNEMPLOYMENT DATA! (Sorry for shouting). There is hardly any relationship (r-squared=.07), and slight pattern that does exist is nonsensical, indicating that Obama’s best strategy would be to increase unemployment as much as possible.