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Can Obama win?

This week its Obama’s turn in the spotlight, as the Democrats assemble for their national convention. What are his chances of re-election for a second term?

The political scientist Douglas Hibbs has a ‘Bread and Peace’ model for analysing US presidential elections that I’ve blogged about before. He uses two key variables: weighted average per capita income growth over the previous presidential term, which captures economic performance, and fatalities of US troops deployed in foreign wars.

As the graph below shows, the model exhibits a very good fit to post-war voting behaviour. The key determinant is real income growth, which tracks election results very closely, even in highly polarised contests. Incumbents are punished for weak or negative income growth and rewarded handsomely when living standards have risen strongly. Large losses of US lives in overseas wars explain the variance in 1952 and 1968.

Interestingly, the model doesn’t explain 1996 or 2000 very well, which Hibbs speculates (without claiming anything more) could have been down to character contrasts: charismatic Clinton vs dour Dole, and wooden Gore vs folksy Bush.

Bread and Peace voting in US presidential elections, 1952–2008

Bread and Peace voting in US presidential elections, 1952–2008

So what then of Obama’s re-election chances? Although the US economy has been growing, the relatively weak labour market and the stagnation in real wages means that the model is not optimistic:

Obama’s re-election prospect under Bread and Peace voting
2012 prediction based on projections of Q3–Q4 2012 conditions

Obama's re-election prospect under Bread and Peace voting

This would be consistent with Larry Bartels’ argument that recent elections in advanced democracies have seen incumbents, whether left or right, punished for weak economic performance. It doesn’t bode well for David Cameron and George Osborne – the UK economy may return to very modest growth in the coming year, but the squeeze on living standards will not abate. And that means an electoral mountain to climb.

As for Obama, he must hope that his wooden opponent will prove as compelling as Bob Dole did in 1996.

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