In their examination of the fundamentals and the polls to this point in the 2008 election, my esteemed colleagues Alan Abramowitz, Tom Mann, and Larry Sabato indicate that they believe that the presidential election is essentially a done deal. As they see the 2008 story developing, Barack Obama will win a comfortable victory, if not in an outright landslide, over John McCain.
There are certainly plenty of grounds for optimism in the Democrats’ ranks and even die-hard Republicans must wince when contemplating some of the circumstances surrounding this year’s election. President Bush’s approval ratings are woefully low. Even if media reports are hyperbolic in pronouncing a recession, the economy is slumping. Despite the success of the “surge” in Iraq, most Americans are weary of the war and have settled into very negative views about it. Gas prices have sky-rocketed and seem unlikely to drop back to earth soon. Americans are not happy about the status quo and may be poised to vote for change, whether it is change that they believe in or not. In political science terms, if voters were guided strictly by their retrospective evaluations, they would be ready to throw out the Republicans and hand the keys to the White House over to the Democrats.
The most ominous cloud over Republicans this year is President Bush’s anemic approval ratings. According to Gallup’s mid-July approval reading, only 31 percent of Americans approve of President Bush’s job performance. The median July approval rating for presidents in election years since 1948 is 48 percent. Of the nine in-party candidates whose presidents had ratings over 45 percent, eight won the popular vote. Nixon in 1960 was the only losing in-party candidate with a 45-plus approved president. Of the six in-party candidates whose presidents had ratings at or below 45 percent, five lost the popular vote. Only Harry Truman in 1948 survived this degree of public disapproval. Little wonder then that some Democrats seem to be looking past the election to an Obama administration and that Abramowitz, Mann, and Sabato find the suggestion that 2008 will be a toss-up to be one that “distorts the evidence and does a disservice to readers and viewers who rely on such punditry.”
Aside from pointing out that anyone who relies on punditry of any sort deserves what they get, I must disagree with their view that this election will not be a close one. Their story about the election is incomplete. There are another three chapters to the 2008 story that strongly point to the election being a toss-up. First, though Democrats have many advantages in this election, these may look more formidable than they actually are. Second, Republicans have a significant advantage of their own. And third, there are some conditions that just plain favor another closely decided election.
First, President Bush’s low approval ratings may not indicate very much about this election. 2008 is an open-seat election and open-seat elections are more about the future than about the past. Voters hold the parties accountable, but accountability is also personal. Dissatisfaction with President Bush does not necessarily translate into antipathy to Senator McCain. In particular, the near parity of partisanship in recent years (Democrats have had and continue to have an edge in total party identifiers, but this evens out among actual voters) and the extent of political polarization in the electorate make Bush’s low approval ratings even less meaningful.
Many voters who disapprove of the President at this point are not likely to be Obama voters. When President Bush was reelected in 2004 (with a majority of the popular vote, I might add), his approval rating stood at 48 percent. Among Republicans it was 93 percent. Among Independents it was 42 percent. Among Democrats it was a paltry 11 percent. The 17 point decline in President Bush’s approval rating since his reelection has been mostly among Republicans (a 26 point drop to 67 percent approval), somewhat among Independents (a 14 point drop to 28 percent approval), and hardly at all among Democrats (a four point drop to seven percent approval-essentially Joe Lieberman, Zell Miller, and a few confused Floridian Democrats). It is not difficult to imagine many of these disgruntled Republicans coming back into the fold to vote for Senator McCain, especially when the alternative is Senator Obama. And the maverick Senator McCain has always done well among Independents. The McCain campaign would certainly prefer it if President Bush’s approval ratings stood where they were in 2004, but their drop from that point does not put the election out of reach for the Republicans.
Second, Republicans have one clear advantage in this election. Despite the party’s best efforts, Republicans will nominate the most electable candidate in their field and a candidate who looks to be more electable than his Democratic opponent. Setting aside the lack of enthusiasm for McCain in the GOP base and lingering resentments that Clinton’s supporters have toward Obama, McCain should be a good deal more acceptable to moderate swing voters than Obama. At least that is what the record indicates.
Because both Obama and McCain have served in the Senate at the same time, voted on a number of the same bills, and had their voting records rated by the same ideological groups, we have recent and hard evidence that Senator McCain votes as a moderate conservative and Senator Obama votes as an extreme or consistent liberal. Using the Senate ratings in 2006 and 2007 of both the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and the American Conservative Union (ACU), the preeminent liberal and conservative rating groups, I calculated a conservatism index based on the percentage of votes that the two candidates voted for the conservative position, taking absences into account (for a more in-depth analysis click here). The scores could range from zero (never voting for the conservative position) to 100 (always voting for the conservative position). Senator McCain voted for the conservative position 76 percent of the time, almost exactly midway between a perfectly moderate position (50) and a consistently conservative position (100). Senator Obama, on the other hand, voted for the conservative position only 5 percent of the time and for the liberal position 95 percent of the time. This is about as far to the left as possible.
If Americans are really looking for a moderate who can work in a bipartisan way to solve the nation’s problems–from energy prices to international crises–McCain has the record they are looking for and Obama does not. Republicans might be tempted to note that Obama has visited the political center of American politics about as often as he has been to Iraq. While Obama certainly gives a rousing speech, McCain has the more centrist record on which to run and this should be a considerable advantage for him in the campaign.
Finally, as a non-incumbent or open seat election in a period of partisan polarization and parity, 2008 is likely to be closely decided. Again, there is an historical record. Since the Civil War, we have had 13 elections in which the incumbent was not running. Nearly half (6 of the 13) of these were decided with the winning candidate receiving less than 51 percent of the two-party popular vote. Among modern elections, these include Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon in 1960, Nixon’s defeat of Humphrey in 1968, and Bush’s electoral vote victory over Gore in 2000. Comfortable victories are rare in open seat races and landslides have been limited to periods when one party clearly dominated (Harding over Cox in 1920, Hoover over Smith in 1928). Open seat elections may be especially close because of the lack of one candidate enjoying the usual advantages of incumbency, but also because there is also greater voter uncertainty about the merits of the candidates without an incumbent to galvanize opinions. Some voters in open seat races fall back on long-term dispositions, dispositions that are now fair equally divided, and those who try to vote for the best candidate often split their votes fairly evenly.
One final point. In making the case for Obama coasting to a comfortable victory, Abramowitz, Mann, and Sabato based part of their case on both the national and state polls. The evidence, however, is that polls this early in the campaign do not tell us much. The July polls have a history of differing from the actual vote by an average of about 6 points and in a few cases by double digits (double these if you think in terms of the spread between candidates).
While this could be to Obama’s favor, the general historical pattern is for the actual vote margin to be closer than what the polls indicate. Add to this the fact that the polls of registered voters normally under-report Republican votes (since the socio-demographics of registered Republicans leads them to turn out at higher rates than registered Democrats) and have at times over-reported support for African American candidates (Wilder in Virginia, Bradley in California). For whatever the polls are worth at this point, the fact that the July polls indicate only a narrow lead for Obama over McCain would seem to mesh well with the historical patterns noted above. In short, there are good reasons to anticipate another “hotly contested election that is essentially up for grabs.”
Jim Campbell is a professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He has published four books, nearly fifty articles in scholarly journals, and numerous book chapters. His most recent book is The American Campaign, Second Edition: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote (Texas A&M University Press, 2008).