Election 2012: It’s All About The Economy

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Two Middlebury College political science professors say the results of the 2012 presidential campaign show that the election was largely determined by voters’ views on the economy and not on the day to day events that received a lot of attention from political pundits.

The two professors, Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson say the availability of new statistical information allows them to more accurately track the issues that influence the outcome of a presidential election.

Dickinson says the ability to aggregate information from dozens of state and national polls has given political scientists a tangible way to test out their theories.

"So in that sense it demonstrates that so far we think we understand why presidential elections turn out the way they do," said Dickinson. "And we can with a relative degree of confidence predict those outcomes, sometimes months in advance at least when we’re looking at the popular vote."

Dickinson says political pundits would like you to believe that the daily events in the campaign can cause sizeable swings in support for a candidate. But he says this rarely happens.  He says months before the election, a combination of different polls showed that the economy was the number one issue and the campaigns had to frame their message to meet this reality.

"So the question for the campaign that both sides had to sort of grapple with is how do we frame this big fact out there this big 800 gorilla which is the economy," said Dickinson. "And for the Obama people it was we inherited a mess…but more importantly the reason we’re in this mess is because of the policies advocated by my opponent. If you’re Mitt Romney you say we gave this guy four years and things have not turned around. He’s making excuses, it’s time for a change." 

Professor Johnson says that many people have the perception that a lot more money was spent this year on the presidential and Congressional campaigns. He says this is true if you look at just the raw numbers, but he says it all needs to be put into context.

"In fact, that’s exactly the same percentage of Gross Domestic Product as was spent in 2008 and that’s not a fluke," said Johnson. "In fact if we go back 100 years the amount of money spent on federal elections has been basically consistent as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product. So we’re spending about as much on campaigns in that sense as we ever have."

And while many people think the lavish spending by several huge Republican SuperPACs hurt President Obama, Johnson thinks there’s another way to look at this situation.

"Newt Gingrich and  Rick Santorum were supported by SuperPACs, they were able to stay in the race longer than they otherwise would have," said Johnson. "And that may have had the effect of  forcing Mitt Romney to appeal to the conservatives who were voting in those primary elections."

Johnson says the popularity of early voting in many states has also forced the campaigns to rethink the timing of their advertising budgets.

Professor Pundits: Victory… for political scientists

It’s all about the data. Wrapping up their year-long series of commentaries about the presidential election, Middlebury’s Professor Pundits Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson note that scientific forecasting models really do work to predict election results. Hear what the pundits have to say in their final commentary on the 2012 election.


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