Economic Model Looks at History, Sees Victory Ahead for Romney

Colorado political scientists say their economic model cuts through campaigning to the bottom line.

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Never mind the media's current focus on campaign trail gaffes, tax returns, abortion, Medicare budget cuts, Obamacare, and the Republican Party's disdain for science in the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney will win because of underlying economic conditions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, two University of Colorado political scientists predict.

Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry have developed an economic and political forecasting model to analyze economic data from the 50 states and D.C. going back to 1980 in order to predict the presidential campaign winner. And, they say, their model predicts that Romney will win.

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Had it existed, their model--the details of which will be published this month in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Political Science Association--would have correctly predicted the winners in the past eight presidential elections, including two (1980 and 1992) when strong independent candidates ran.

The key to the model's strength and success, they say, is its ability to analyze more than one state-level measure of economic conditions. And, based on that analysis, they predict that the economy will help carry Romney in every single battleground state, a prediction at sharp odds with current flash polls in most of those swing states.

But the two political scientists stand by their model, and their prediction. "Based on our forecasting model, it becomes clear that the president is in electoral trouble," says Bickers.

There are many presidential election prediction models. In fact, a dozen of them will be featured in the same APSA journal (PS: Political Science and Politics) this month. But the Bickers-Berry model is just one of two that focus on the Electoral College (instead of the popular vote), and it's the only one that goes deep into underlying economic conditions and data on a state-by-state basis.

"For the last eight presidential elections, this model has correctly predicted the winner," says Berry. "The economy has seen some improvement since President Barack Obama took office. What remains to be seen is whether voters will consider the economy in relative or absolute terms. If it's the former, the president may receive credit for the economy's trajectory and win a second term. In the latter case, Romney should pick up a number of states Obama won in 2008."

The model breaks down both state and national employment figures as well as changes in real per-capita income (which measures how much disposable income people really have). Voters tend to hold Democrats responsible for unemployment rates, while Republicans are held more responsible for dips in disposable income levels.

Depending on which party is in control of the White House during a presidential election, each factor can either hurt or help the two major parties disproportionately, they say.

"The apparent advantage of being a Democratic candidate and holding the White House disappears when the national unemployment rate hits 5.6 percent," Berry says. (It currently sits above 8 percent.)

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And their model indicates that "the incumbency advantage enjoyed by President Obama, though statistically significant, is not great enough to offset high rates of unemployment currently experienced in many of the states," Bickers says.

What's more, the model found that other factors like the political affiliation of a state's governor, the location of a party's national convention or the home state of the vice presidential nominee weren't statistically significant. Only the underlying economic conditions and data seemed to matter.

"What is striking about our state-level economic indicator forecast is the expectation that Obama will lose almost all of the states currently considered as swing states, including North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida," Bickers says.

There are caveats, of course. While election prediction models suggest that really big things like the stewardship of the national economy are what matters most--and not gaffes or day-to-day campaign tactics--the perception of who can best manage the economy may matter just as much as the actual data in many of these states.

In addition, the economy could change between now and November, and baseline comparisons from the start of Obama's first term--when the country was in the grip of a serious recession--and now could help sharpen his claim to economic stewardship.

Which explains why, even though the two GOP standard-bearers seem unable to escape discussions about their own tax returns, abortion, Medicare, and anti-science conspiracy theories, the three GOP Super PACs aligned with Romney are spending unprecedented amounts of money now in swing states on ads that relentlessly attack President Obama's handling of the national economy.

What's more, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, Obama is now likely to be the first incumbent president in history to be seriously outspent by his opponent--thanks to the fact that 33 billionaires have seemingly committed to spending whatever it takes (shy of turning themselves into part of the 99 percent, one would think) to defeat Obama in the fall, according to a recent, well-researched piece by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker magazine.

That is really bad news for Obama. For if the Bickers-Berry economic and political forecasting model is correct, money talks. End of discussion.