Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is Romney or Obama More Likely to Win? Part II

In Part I of our post on who is more likely to win the 2012 race, we discussed the reasons why the conventional wisdom, especially in the early days of the campaign, overestimated Barack Obama's reelection chances. In today's post, we will examine how Elephant Watcher analyzed the current state of the race, and why Mitt Romney begins the race with an edge.

The Obama team should certainly be worried about the national presidential election polls, which show a tight race between Romney and Obama. Since Obama enjoys the advantage of incumbency, and since Romney only just recently emerged from a bruising primary battle, Obama should expect to be doing better in the polls.

However, for the time being, the polls won't tell us too much, other than the fact that Obama is vulnerable. Most voters are unfamiliar with Romney, and he has yet to make a (good or bad) VP choice. As with the Republican primary, the polls aren't as useful when they are taken before voters begin paying close attention to the race. We can expect voters to begin paying attention no sooner than August, which is when Romney will announce the selection of his vice presidential nominee (unless the Romney camp decides to announce much earlier than normal). In September, after both parties have held their conventions, the poll data will be even more useful. Finally, polls will become a good predictor of the final result in October, after all of the debates have been finished.

But that's a long way off: The final presidential debate will be held in mid-October, only a few weeks before the election. Instead of relying on polls, Elephant Watcher has analyzed the general election race in the same manner as the Republican primary--starting in reverse, by constructing "victory scenarios" for each candidate. The most plausible paths to victory for each candidate are found on the Candidate Rankings page. Once these have been developed, we have a comparison point; the closer reality resembles the victory scenario, the more likely the candidate is to win.

Unlike Romney, and unlike each candidate in the Republican primary, Obama has more than one plausible victory scenario. Possibly this is because of the advantage of being an incumbent president. But Obama's first scenario, in which he is reelected due to the optimism stemming from economic recovery, does not seem at all likely today. If Obama attempted to run with that message, it would probably irritate more voters than it would convince.

In the second Obama scenario, he becomes the "safe choice" due to his foreign policy successes and Romney's undue hawkishness. While this scenario is still possible and could be made more likely by trouble with Iran over the next few months, there is little concrete support for it. Romney did occasionally make hawkish overtures during the Republican primary. But for the most part, he was focused almost to a fault on his economic message. It's obvious Romney wants the election to be about the economy, not foreign policy. Unless turmoil erupts shortly before the election, Romney will be able to avoid driving into this scenario.

In the third and final Obama scenario, he successfully paints Romney as an unacceptable alternative by tying Romney to the economic policies of George W. Bush. We wrote about this "Bush's Third Term" scenario at length in an earlier post.

Obama's third scenario may be set in contrast with Romney's victory scenario. To win, Romney must sell himself as an intelligent, competent executive who will take steps to improve the economy. Romney has a lot of advantages. Though voters don't know much about him, they already perceive him as knowledgeable. Perhaps more importantly, Americans want to be optimistic about their future. They want to be persuaded Romney can make things work.

By contrast, voters can't really be convinced that Obama will improve things. The economy has remained stagnant, and it's too late for Obama to transform his image. For example, would voters be convinced that Obama can fix the economy in his second term by raising taxes on the wealthy? Not likely, especially since Obama was the one who signed the extension of the Bush tax cuts in the first place. Thus, Obama can only win by persuading voters that Romney would be worse.

Elephant Watcher calculates that Romney's odds of being elected president are currently 65%. But Romney's lead should not obscure the obvious: Obama still has about one chance in three of winning. That means he has a significant opportunity to turn things in his favor.

Obama's campaign has apparently not yet determined its proper course, which is to characterize Romney as a retread of George W. Bush. It's still early, and if the Obama campaign has difficulty with other strategies--as they did with their failed attacks on Bain Capital--they will eventually find something that works. Though Romney is superficially different from Bush in many ways, Romney has not yet done anything to truly distance himself from Bush. It will be some time before we see how skilled Romney is at casting his presidency as a new direction for the economy.