Unemployment and Presidential Elections
Unemployment was high when Barack Obama took office and it’s gotten substantially higher. Does that mean he won’t get re-elected? Nate Silver looks at the data and says no.
An article in today’s Times notes, for example, that “no American president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has won a second term in office when the unemployment rate on Election Day topped 7.2 percent.” The 7.2 percent figure refers to Ronald Reagan, who resoundingly won a second term when the unemployment rate was at that number in November 1984.
This type of data may be of limited utility for predictive purposes, however. Reagan won re-election by 18 points in 1984, suggesting that he had quite a bit of slack. An unemployment rate of 7.5 percent would presumably have been good enough to win him another term, as might have one of 8.0 percent, 8.5 percent or even higher.
It’s also not obvious that Roosevelt should be excluded from the calculus, particularly given that the economic crisis the country is working its way out of is the most severe since his administration. He won re-election in 1936 with an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent, and again in 1940 with a rate of 14.6 percent.
Obama started with 7.8 percent unemployment. It was 9.0 percent in April, the last month for which we have numbers. [May’s unemployment rate was just announced at 9.1 percent.] But Silver can’t find any real evidence that this is decisive.
Unemployment increased by 1.9 percentage points over the course of Richard Nixon’s first term, but he won re-election overwhelmingly. It also increased during George W. Bush’s and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first terms, and their re-election bids were also successful. The unemployment rate fell to 3.9 percent from 5.3 percent, meanwhile, during Bill Clinton’s second term — but his Vice President, Al Gore, could not beat Mr. Bush in the Electoral College.
There are also cases in which the data behaved more intuitively: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all faced high unemployment rates when they lost their re-election bids, and that was surely a factor in their defeats. But historically, the correlation between the unemployment rate and a president’s performance at the next election has been essentially zero.
He’s produced this handy dandy chart:
He also has numerous plot graphs looking at different aspects of the relationship. None are particularly insightful. Presidential elections are relatively rare events, giving us few data points. And, quite obviously, they’re decided by human beings who weigh multiple factors.
So, unemployment doesn’t matter, at all? Silver won’t go that far.
[I]t is entirely permissible to default to common sense, which is that the unemployment rate should have some effect on a president’s re-election chances.
The problem is that whatever signal there is gets filtered through an awful lot of noise. Consider:
The unemployment rate itself is subject to fairly significant measurement error. Voters will interpret the unemployment rate in different ways, and assign the president varying amounts of credit or blame for it. The unemployment rate is but one of a number of salient economic indicators. Economic performance is but one of the ways that voters evaluate a president. Voters’ evaluation of a president is important, but they also consider the the strength of a president’s opponents, including third-party alternatives in some elections.
If you could hold each of these other factors constant, you could come to a more confident conclusion about how much each tick in the unemployment rate affects Mr. Obama’s re-election odds. But the real world is not set up with these sorts of experiments in mind, and since presidential elections are infrequent, the likelihood that truly comparable cases will exist the historical data is relatively low.
It’s fair to say that the worse the public perception of the economy–which is certainly influenced by the unemployment rate–is, the more vulnerable the incumbent is at election time. If unemployment is down to, say, 6 percent on Election Day, Obama is a virtual shoe-in because the public is otherwise disposed to like him. If it’s above 10 percent, voters will be more inclined to want someone new. But they have to have an alternative that’s likable and trustworthy.
Even then there will be other factors, since as third party candidates. Al Gore would easily have won in 2000 had Ralph Nader not siphoned off a lot of votes in close states, particularly Florida. If there’s a significant Tea Party candidate on the ballot in addition to the Republican nominee–which seems much more likely than a significant Progressive candidate– there’s almost no way Obama loses.