What Can Politicians Learn From 2012?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As analysts begin to debate how Congress' inability to reach an agreement to raise the nation's borrowing limit will effect mid-term elections, two political scientists remind us that voters may have short-term memories, especially when it comes to the economy.

A new book about the 2012 election, called "The Gamble," argues that Mitt Romney's decision to run on the platform of sluggish economic growth as reason to unseat President Obama may have been a fruitless approach.

The 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession left newly elected Obama with the critical task to steer the U.S. economy into growth and stamp down rampant unemployment, but John Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University, and Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA, found that by April 2012 polling suggested Obama was in good position to win the election despite a historically slow recovery.

"I think you had people, in some sense, failing to appreciate that an incumbent president running in even a slowly growing economy is more likely to win than lose," Sides said by telephone from Washington.

By the end of the first quarter of the election year, gross domestic product was growing at a 3.7% clip and the unemployment rate had inched down to 8.2%. GDP would slow to almost flat growth by the fourth quarter and unemployment would edge down to just 7.8%, but the trend showed the country was rebounding.

"It's hard to beat the incumbent in a growing economy if you're talking about how bad the economy is; it doesn't square with people's reality," Vavreck said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Sides and Vavreck write in their book that the year leading up to the election is most present on the minds of voters, and regardless of how bad economic realities may have been before then, a sudden turnaround greatly helps the incumbent candidate.

As an example to prove their theory, Sides and Vavreck noted the success of former two-term presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Reagan inherited a weak economy that contracted by as much as 7.9% in the middle of 1980 and receded during the second and fourth quarters of 1981, while Bush received an economy that slipped by 1.1% in early 2001 and again in the third quarter of that year, which included the tragic events of Sept. 11.

In both cases, Sides and Varveck wrote, Americans blamed the previous presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, respectively -- for the fragile economic conditions.

Where the divergence in opinion was most obvious for Reagan and Bush was among independent voters.

"Among them, Reagan had the advantage: 45% blamed Carter, but only 38% blamed Reagan," the authors wrote. "[S]ixty-nine percent believed Clinton deserved 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount' of blame, but only 48% believed this of Bush."

"The Gamble's" forecast of 16 different presidential elections from 1948-2008 found that first-term presidents who governed during an improving economy, even in modest growth, have been likely to win.

This didn't, however, mean that the president was a lock to defeat Romney.

"What made the 2012 election more dramatic was uncertainty about whether and how the economy would change, which in turn made Obama's reelection uncertain," the authors wrote.

The economic trends held steady through 2012, and Barack Obama defeated Romney handily, 51.1% to 47.2% in the popular vote and 332 to 206 in the electoral college.

-- Written by Joe Deaux in New York.

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