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Can McCain Overcome the Triple Whammy?

A Commentary By Alan I. Abramowitz

Thursday, May 29, 2008

With the long and contentious Democratic nomination race finally winding down, the attention of the media and the public is beginning to shift to the general election. In November, voters will face a choice between two rather atypical presidential candidates. For the first time in over fifty years, the party that controls the White House will not be represented by either the incumbent president or the incumbent vice-president.

Instead, the Republican Party, which has seen its popularity and electoral fortunes plummet since 2004, will pin its hopes on John McCain - an individual who has frequently clashed with his own party's leadership. And McCain's Democratic opponent will be Barack Obama, the first African-American ever to receive a major party presidential nomination.

The unusual characteristics of the two major party candidates have led to considerable uncertainty among political observers about the outlook for the November election. While President Bush's low approval ratings and overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the economy suggest a very difficult political climate for Republicans, John McCain's reputation as a maverick and Barack Obama's problems uniting Democratic voters behind his candidacy have led some analysts to suggest that a Democratic victory in November is far from certain.

Polling data seem to support the conclusion that despite the unpopularity of his party, John McCain has a realistic chance of keeping the White House in Republican hands. McCain has been running neck-and-neck with Obama in most recent national polls. In the May 21st Gallup tracking poll, for example, Obama held a narrow 47 to 44 percent lead over McCain.

The problem with such early horserace polls, however, is that they are not very accurate predictors of the actual election results. Polls in the spring of 1988 showed Michael Dukakis with a comfortable lead over George H.W. Bush and polls in June of 1992 showed Bill Clinton running third behind both Bush and H. Ross Perot. So recent polls showing a close race between McCain and Obama may not tell us much about what to expect in November.

Instead of using early horserace polls, political scientists generally rely on measures of the national political climate to make their forecasts. That is because the national political climate can be measured long before the election and it has been found to exert a powerful influence on the eventual results.

Three indicators of the national political climate have accurately predicted the outcomes of presidential elections since the end of World War II: the incumbent president's approval rating at mid-year, the growth rate of the economy during the second quarter of the election year, and the length of time the president's party has held the White House.

The higher the president's approval rating and the stronger the growth rate of the economy, the more likely it is that the president's party will be victorious. However, if the president's party has controlled the White House for two terms or longer it is less likely to be successful. Time-for-change sentiment seems to increase after eight years regardless of the president's popularity or the state of the economy.

These three factors can be combined to produce an Electoral Barometer score that measures the overall national political climate. The formula for computing this score is simply the president's net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) in the Gallup Poll plus five times the annual growth rate of real GDP minus 25 if the president's party has held the White House for two terms or longer. Mathematically, this formula can be written as: EB = NAR + (5*GDP) - 25.

In theory, the Electoral Barometer can range from -100 or lower to +100 or higher with a reading of zero indicating a neutral political climate. In practice, Electoral Barometer readings for the fifteen presidential elections since the end of World War II have ranged from -66 in 1980 to +82 in 1964. A positive Electoral Barometer reading generally predicts victory for the incumbent party while a negative reading generally predicts defeat.

Table 1. Electoral Barometer Readings and Election Results since World War II

     

82.5

 

1964

 

Won

 

22.6%

73.0

 

1972

 

Won

 

23.2%

71.0

 

1956

 

Won

 

15.4%

51.5

 

1984

 

Won

 

18.2%

43.5

 

1996

 

Won

 

8.5%

22.0

 

2000

 

Won*

 

0.5%

13.0

 

2004

 

Won

 

2.5%

9.0

 

1988

 

Won

 

7.7%

4.5

 

1948

 

Won

 

4.5%

2.0

 

1968

 

Lost

 

-0.7%

-5.0

 

1960

 

Lost

 

-0.2%

-5.0

 

1976

 

Lost

 

-2.1%

-22.5

 

1992

 

Lost

 

-5.6%

-49.5

 

1952

 

Lost

 

-10.9%

-66.0

 

1980

 

Lost

 

-9.7%

 
 

Source: Data compiled by author.

The Electoral Barometer has predicted the winner of the popular vote in 14 of the 15 presidential elections since World War II. There were five elections in which the Electoral Barometer was negative and the president's party lost the popular vote in all five of these elections: 1952, 1960, 1976, 1980, and 1992. There were ten elections in which the Electoral Barometer was positive, and the president's party won the popular vote in nine of these elections: 1948, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2004.

The only election in which the Electoral Barometer did not accurately predict the winner of the popular vote was 1968. In that year the Electoral Barometer was barely positive at +2 and the candidate of the incumbent party, Hubert Humphrey, lost the popular vote by less than one percentage point.

The information required to calculate the final Electoral Barometer score for 2008 will not be available until August when the federal government releases its estimate of real GDP growth during the second quarter of 2008. However, it appears very likely that the Republican Party is dealing with the dreaded "triple whammy" in 2008: an unpopular president, a weak economy, and a second term election. Based on President Bush's net approval rating in the most recent Gallup Poll (-39), the annual growth rate of the economy during the first quarter of 2008 (+0.6 percent), and the fact that the Republican Party has controlled the White House for the past eight years, the current Electoral Barometer reading is a dismal -63.

An Electoral Barometer reading of -63 would predict a decisive defeat for the Republican presidential candidate. The only election since World War II with a score in this range was 1980. In that election Jimmy Carter suffered the worst defeat for an incumbent president since Herbert Hoover in 1932. The second lowest score, -50, occurred in 1952. That was the last election in which neither the incumbent president, Democrat Harry Truman, nor the incumbent vice-president appeared on the ballot. Nevertheless, the candidate trying to succeed Truman, Democrat Adlai Stevenson, lost in a landslide.

The current national political climate is one of the worst for the party in power since the end of World War II. No candidate running in such an unfavorable political environment – Republican or Democrat - has ever been successful. If John McCain manages to overcome the triple whammy of an unpopular president, a weak economy, and a second term election, it will be an upset of unprecedented magnitude.

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