It’s The Fundamentals, Stupid: Elections Aren’t Determined By Short-Term ‘Game Changes’

Co-authors John Heilemann, left, and Mark Halperin attend the premiere of HBO Films' "Game Change" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
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Among political scientists and journalists there is a ongoing debate about the extent to which elections–especially presidential elections–are determined by “fundamentals” like incumbency and the performance of the economy or by the exciting events reported in daily campaign coverage.

As it happens, there are two new books just out that represent the extremes in this debate: The Gamble, by political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, which argues the 2012 presidential outcome can be explained almost entirely by fundamentals, and Double Down, by the political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whose view of what matters most is best expressed by the title of their earlier book on the 2008 campaign, Game Change. I’ll give you one guess which book is already on the New York Times bestseller list and has been optioned to HBO.

The preference of political news consumers (and many news producers) for what a reviewer of Double Down called a “fun, fast, gossipy read” extends beyond elections, and can be seen in the overwhelming conventional wisdom that the two major political parties have exchanged places in the few weeks since the government shutdown ended and the troubled initial implementation of the Affordable Care Act took center stage. A month ago, there was endless chatter about a self-destructing Republican Party facing a season of fractious primaries next year before quite possibly losing control of the House of Representatives. Now it’s the Democratic Party that’s splitting wide open with its president sinking to the ignominious position of George W. Bush after Hurricane Katrina, and Republicans are poised to retake the Senate next year and steam toward 2016 in fine fettle. Did the game really change so thoroughly and rapidly?

There’s but slim empirical evidence of that so far. Yes, Democrats have lost a brief but impressive advantage in the congressional generic ballot, and yes, there’s some scattered evidence of red-state Democratic senators losing a few points in early 2016 polls. But other than that, both the Democratic October and the Republican November have been grossly premature illusions built more on hope and hype than anything durable.

The president’s job approval ratings are a case in point. In Gallup’s weekly averages, Obama has plunged from 43/51 during the triumphal week of the GOP’s surrender over the government shutdown all the way down to 41/52 last week. You’d never know that from listening to the chattering classes.

In reality, the president’s job approval ratings gradually slid along with those of virtually every other politician from either party during the shutdown, and haven’t recovered or collapsed. And his personal favorability ratings, once regularly if not strikingly better than his job approval numbers, have been mostly below 50 percent since last spring. So has Obama’s “lie” that people with individual health insurance policies could keep them really killed off his personal credibility and sent him and his party diving towards a mirror image of 2006? Only if you think spin and “narrative” is an adequate substitute for data.

The competition to spot big “game changes” before they are actually evident can affect even daily news coverage. Just last week shocked observers noted that 39 House Democrats voted for the soon-to-be-forgotten Upton legislation freeing the individual insurance market from Obamacare. But as Greg Sargent of the Washington Post alertly remembered, 35 House Democrats voted to delay the ACA’s employer mandate — another free vote for veto bait — for a year in July.

Here are a few underlying realities: Democrats were never likely to retake the House in 2014, but Republican over-exposure means they are almost certain to lose some seats. Senate races are extremely individual in nature, and a Senate GOP takeover remains an uphill proposition. And if you want to look at the bigger picture, as you should, the Senate landscape in 2016 (24 Republicans up for re-election as compared to 10 Democrats) is very favorable to Democrats in 2016, as does the composition of the electorate in presidential cycles, which will, by the way, again give whoever succeeds Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee a distinct advantage, especially if Republicans again decide it’s 1980 and they can run whoever they want on a loud-and-proud conservative platform.

So a lot of the breathless and widely gyrating prognosticating we’ve been hearing lately really revolves around whether a lame-duck president is dealing with a Republican Senate or with a Democratic Senate in which Republicans hold an effective veto power via the filibuster (barring a full “nuking” of minority obstruction by Democrats, which remains highly unlikely). And as for the 2016 presidential contest, you’d be better advised to watch those boring “fundamentals” for clues to the outcome than any short-term changes in a game that has barely even begun. You know: fundamentals like the economy, and what the Affordable Care Act looks like this time two years from now.

Ed Kilgore is a veteran Democratic wonk and political analyst who worked for three governors, one senator and two D.C. think tanks. He blogs at the Washington Monthly.

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