This article is making the rounds this morning, suggesting that Obama's got a lock on 2012. According to a model designed by American University professor Allan Lichtman, which has successfully predicted every election since Reagan, Obama has enough of its thirteen "keys" to ensure that he will retain the White House in 2012. I thought it would be interesting to see how Hoover stacked up on the same model.
- Party mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than it did after the previous midterm elections. Says Lichtman, "Even back in January 2010 when I first released my predictions, I was already counting on a significant loss." Obama loses this key. So does Hoover.
- Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. Says Lichtman on Obama's unchallenged status, "I never thought there would be any serious contest against Barack Obama in the Democratic primary." Obama wins this key. So does Hoover.
- Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president. Easy win here for Obama. So does Hoover.
- Third Party: There is no significant third party challenge. Obama wins this point. So does Hoover.
- Short term economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. Here Lichtman declares an "undecided." Hoover loses this one.
- Long-term economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. Says Lichtman, "I discounted long term economy against Obama. Clearly we are in a recession." Obama loses this key. So does Hoover.
- Policy change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. "There have been major policy changes in this administration. We've seen the biggest stimulus in history and an complete overhaul of the healthcare system so I gave him policy change," says the scholar. Another win for Obama. Well, Hoover also delivered what was then the biggest stimulus in history, the largest tax increase in history, and some sizeable innovations in the banking system, so I guess we call this one for Hoover as well.
- Social unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term. Says Lichtman, "There wasn't any social unrest when I made my predictions for 2012 and there still isn't." Obama wins a fifth key here. Hoover loses.
- Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. "This administration has been squeaky clean. There's nothing on scandal," says Lichtman. Another Obama win. Also Hoover.
- Foreign/military failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. Says Lichtman, "We haven't seen any major failure that resembles something like the Bay of Pigs and don't foresee anything." Obama wins again. Hoover too!
- Foreign/military success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. "Since Osama bin Laden was found and killed, I think Obama has achieved military success." Obama wins his eighth key. Tempting to call Hoover's negotiations on German war debt and his mediation of Latin American border disputes a substantial success, but I'll say he loses this one.
- Incumbent charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. Explains Lichtman, "I did not give President Obama the incumbent charisma key. I counted it against him. He's really led from behind. He didn't really take the lead in the healthcare debate, he didn't use his speaking ability to move the American people during the recession. He's lost his ability to connect since the 2008 election." Obama loses this key. So does Hoover.
- Challenger charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. Says Lichtman, "We haven't seen any candidate in the GOP who meets this criteria and probably won't." Obama wins, bringing his total to nine keys, three more than needed to win reelection. I'd say FDR was pretty charismatic, so Hoover loses this one, bringing his total to six keys, apparently just enough to secure his re-election.
Yet Hoover didn't just barely lose--he was beaten like a rented mule. The problem is obvious, I think: unlike the economic models that rely on external metrics, perception is doing a lot of the work here. Do we count Obama's stimulus but not Hoover's? And if so, why? I understand you might say that Obama's was larger, more effective, etc but this is a political model--it's about perception, not the economic effect, which is captured in other variables. Hoover's deficit spending was perceived as a big deal, and became an issue in the 1932 election.
Do we think that Obama is going to be running on either the stimulus, or the health care bill, in 2012?
Obama's been mostly speaking to friendly crowds for the past few years--and I still haven't seen him mentioning it much. Moreover, the experience of passage, and the immediate aftermath, seem to indicate that talking about it didn't make it more popular . . . less, if anything. If I were him, I'd make some token references to pre-existing conditions, and leave it at that.
And I'd be shocked if he mentions the stimulus, which is, as James Joyner notes, still "wildly unpopular". Can it really be electoral gold to have two major legislative achievements that everyone except members of your party pretty much hate? A different observer might be tempted to score them as blunders, not major policy victories. If he's not going to make them the centerpiece of his re-election campaign, then how key can it be?
Moreover, as Joyner notes, this model weights everything equally. I submit that even if Hoover had had a few more keys--a minor military victory similar to capturing Osama Bin Laden, a wildly charismatic personality--his electoral results would not have been noticeably different. The economy just dwarfed everything else.
Don't get me wrong--I think that Obama's opponent will face a tough battle. But I also think that Obama's got some hard rowing ahead. As Jim Manzi once told me, "The problem with models is, they often work really well until they don't."
Update: A commenter says that the authors of the article screwed up in saying that Obama's nine keys were three more than he needed for re-election; in fact, it's one more than he needs. Which I think points up even more how much work the subjectivity is doing here; depending on how you score domestic and foreign policy successes, and charisma, Obama/Hoover are both either a shoo-in or a dead loss.
More importantly, if you change even one variable, it comes down to . . . whether we're in recession next year. Which is what the other models usually look at, anyway.
Me, I think that this election may actually be an interesting test of that proposition. If we're not technically in recession, but unemployment is still close to 9%, can Obama win? I tend to assume not . . . but that's not what the models say. However, the models don't really include many instances of multi-year stagnation like what we're now undergoing; the only other well-documented instance is the Great Depression. I think that in extreme cases, unemployment probably matters more than the models show. Unless we get a very happy (or unhappy) surprise in the next nine months, we'll probably get to find out in November 2012 whether I'm right.