Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with our democratic system knows the potential electoral complications that are certain to arise this 2004 election. Most of the world cannot wrap their mind around how many voting machines, ballots and counting procedures preside over a single federal election. At any rate, there is no need to vigilantly observe the circus today, tonight, tomorrow, this week, or for the indefinite time that will be spent in deliberation. For over half a century, the American electorate has behaved predictably in voting for either the incumbent president or his challenger in accordance with economic variables, polling statistics, and comparative “bellwether states.”
Ronald Reagan’s notorious question, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” has served in past elections as a general litmus test of a president’s record. Critical to this record is the state of the nation’s economy and its broadest measure of activity, gauged by gross domestic product growth.
It has been proven by a number of political theorists, namely Randall J. Jones of the University of Oklahoma, that a GDP growth rate can determine the outcome of an election. If the GDP growth rate is 2.5 percent or higher in the second quarter of the election year, the incumbent president remains in office. If the growth rate is 1.5 percent or lower, the incumbent becomes a sitting duck. This indicator has consistently decided every election since 1952, with the exception of Hubert Humphrey’s defeat in 1968. According to this model, the 2.8 percent growth rate announced in June by the Department of Commerce solidifies a victory for President Bush.
Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist from Emory University, has identified another leading indicator of the presidential outcome: approval rating. A Gallup poll sponsored by CNN has asked the public for sixty years “Do you approve or disapprove of the way [the president] is handling his job as president?” Abramowitz drew the correlation that in every election since 1952, with the exception of 1960, the approval rating in mid-June of election year has determined the winner.
If the approval rating is 51 percent or higher, the incumbent wins, but if it is 45 percent or lower, the incumbent loses. Bush received an average approval rating of 45 percent during this period, which historically puts him in line for a removal from his job.
James Campbell, another election forecaster at the University of Buffalo has emphasized the importance of campaign polling as a predicting variable. Again since 1952, the random samples taken by Gallup pollsters in the third week of September have correctly named the president. CNN’s posting of results from Sept. 24-26 show Bush with 52.59 percent, Kerry with 42.44 percent and Nader with 3.3 percent. Unlike past polling statistics, however, Bush’s advantage has steadily decreased in October. This holistic trend could prove to undermine the theoretical model, or September’s results could make the contests over percentage points in the month of October insignificant. Only time will tell.
Aside from economic factors and polling statistics, Svend Peterson’s book,”A Statistical History of the American Presidential Elections,” suggests some states have a history of indicating national direction. From 1952 to 2000, the state of Delaware has given its popular vote to the winner. Even more impressive, New Mexico has sided with the winner since 1916, with the exception of the 1976 race between Carter and Ford. According to www.realclearpolitics.com, Delaware is in Kerry’s lap and New Mexico has an average of 3.6 percent more votes in favor of Bush. It seems the “bellwether states” technique might be in jeopardy. In fact, it seems all of the nation’s previous indicators are in jeopardy.
Luckily, the United States also includes a heritage of more superstitious fortune telling. For instance, many individuals believe that if the American League wins in the World Series, the incumbent emerges, and if the National League wins, vice-versa. If the Washington Redskins win the week of the election and the Lakers win the championship, supposedly it’s good news for President Bush. Campaign paraphernalia sales reveal a winner too. Americanhistory.about.com actually claims that “whoever’s Halloween mask sells more, Kerry’s or Bush’s, will be the next president.” That is a truly scary proposition.
So if today’s election concludes in a protracted arbitration, refer to these basic indicators of presidential outcome. I am beginning to feel that they are more practical than our current electoral procedures anyway.
Erin Cusack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.