Conclusion: Given the tightness of national polls it is likely that the 2012 Presidential race occurs in a wider list of battleground states, similar to the 2004 election between Bush and Kerry. Based on the economic performance of those states, the Republicans currently have a battleground advantage.
As the Presidential election accelerates in 2012, we are going to start closely monitoring the battleground states from an economic perspective to provide insights into the battle for the Presidency. Battleground, or swing states, are those states in which no candidate, or party, has overwhelming support and thus the states are realistically up for grabs.
In the electoral-college system, all but two states, Nebraska and Maine, are winner-take-all states. In Maine and Nebraska, two electoral votes go to the candidate that wins a plurality in the state and then a candidate is allotted one additional electoral vote for each Congressional District in which they receive a plurality. Maine is considered a Democratic state and has 4 electoral votes and Nebraska is considered a Republican state with 5 electoral votes.
Typically, candidates will limit allocating resources in the states in which they have a limited chance of winning or a very likely chance of winning. Incremental spending in those states will not help the candidate’s chances of becoming President simply because of the winter-take-all system. Beyond a simple majority, incremental votes do not help a Presidential candidate.
Professor Joel Bloom, a political scientist from the University of Oregon, has identified three key factors in identifying swing states: the results of previous elections, political party registration numbers, and statewide opinion polls. For purposes of this analysis, we are going to focus exclusively on the results of previous elections as a gauge for the battleground states in 2012. As well, given our expectation that the race for Presidency will be close, which is supported by InTrade (Obama is at 51.7%) and most national polls (the generic Republican candidate currently beats Obama), we will use 2004 as the best proxy for battleground states. In 2004, the Republican candidate won 50.7% of the popular vote versus 48.4% of the popular vote for the Democrat and the states that were decided by margins of 5% are outlined in the table below:
In the table below, we’ve looked at the change in unemployment in these battleground states and also added in Florida, which wasn’t a battleground state in 2004 or 2008, but is likely to emerge as one again in 2012.
As outlined above, based on these key battleground states, unemployment has worsened in seven of them, improved in four of them, and stayed flat in one. Traditionally, the incumbent gets blamed for the current state of the economy, a point we will touch on in bit more detail, so in this scenario the Republicans have an advantage in seven battleground states. From an electoral vote perspective, the Democrats have the advantage in states with 54 electoral votes versus 84 for the Republicans. In a tight national race, 30 electoral votes can obviously be critical when a candidate needs 270 to win.
Professor Bruno Jerome from the University of Paris presented a paper at the American Political Science Association annual meeting in September of 2011 in which he analyzed the impact of state unemployment on state level voting. Based on his math, which looks at every Presidential election going back to 1952, he concluded the following:
“On average, a 1 point rise in the unemployment rate generates an electoral cost to the incumbent of 0.56% of the votes in a given state.”
Given the tightness of both national and local polls, even a 0.56% shift in the vote based on state level economic factors can be critical in determining the outcome of the election. In our analysis, this suggests that Wisconsin could go Republican and Pennsylvania narrows to within a percent, so is solidly in play.
Clearly, the economic situation in the battleground states is only one factor in analyzing eventual outcomes for the election, but history suggests a very important factor. Currently, it is advantage Republicans on this score.
Daryl G. Jones
Director of Research