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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Economic Indicator Can Help Shape Political Strategy

In the comments section following J.P. Green’s Friday post, “Limitations of the ‘Do Nothing Congress Meme” a commenter with the handle ‘massappeal’ flagged “Obama’s Chances Could Turn on One Key Indicator” by Alexis Simendinger at RealClear Politics. Here’s the crux argument from Simendinger’s post:

What if the incumbent president’s fate hinges on one basic economic question in 2012: Are the incomes of voters growing in the six months before Election Day? Barack Obama is likely to win a second term if real disposable incomes are stable or climbing in the two quarters leading into next year’s election, according to respected political science research…There is also a body of scholarship examining presidential elections over time that has uncovered predictive statistical conclusions. And here’s what that research shows: If we could gaze into a crystal ball and know whether personal incomes are climbing, flat, or falling — especially in key electoral states — between June and November 2012, we could place informed bets on the incumbent president’s fate….Real disposable income growth (that is, income growth adjusted for price changes), can produce predictive correlations that suggest outcomes a year from now.

Simendinger explains that the argument comes from Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels, author of “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age.” (Bartels and Princeton political scientist Christopher H. Achen crunch and analyze some key numbers in their 2004 paper “Musical Chairs: Pocketbook Voting and the Limits of Democratic Accountability.”)
Simendinger quotes Bartels: “Obama’s expected popular vote margin would be 5.17+3.49 x (2012 income growth). This implies that he is likely to be re-elected even if real incomes are stagnant in 2012, and even more likely to win if there is some real income growth in the next 12 months.” Further,

What is particularly intriguing about Bartels’ research is that Obama may be re-elected, based on the calculations, even if personal incomes are stagnant in 2012 — as they have been in the last year. But a late-breaking surge in income growth in the summer and autumn next year would clinch the election for the president, the research suggests…If Bartels and other political scientists are right about the benefits to incumbents of election-year economic upswings — and the voters’ decisive and “myopic considerations” about their own well-being — even a slight improvement in personal incomes in 2012 could be enough to deliver a victory to the president.
…If there are notable green shoots during the months prior to November 2012, Obama may be both lucky and victorious. The theoretical expectation is that voters next year will mentally drag their income evaluations into the voting booth and support the incumbent if they feel even marginally cheered about their perch in prosperity.

DCorps lead analyst Erica Seifert’s observation, made the October 6 TDS interview with her, that “pervasive underemployment” is more destructive for Democratic hopes than even unemployment may also reflect the importance of changes in real disposable income.
Yet, it’s hard to accept that this one statistic would trump all others, particularly in a worst case scenario. What will happen, for example, if unemployment, poverty, debt and gas prices are all rising, and somehow, owing to a statistical anomaly of some kind, real disposable income is improving?
Whether or not disposable real income growth is the ‘holy grail’ statistic for predicting presidential election outcomes is debatable. In terms of formulating political strategy, and messaging in particular, however, it does appear that real disposable income growth is a trend worth monitoring.

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