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Why McCain Might Win

- July 22, 2008

Noah Kaplan, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston puts forth this interesting argument:

Traditionally, election forecasters focus on two key “structural” factors: the popularity of the current president and the state of the national economy (these factors are considered structural to the extent that they are not a function of the candidates or the campaign). Based on quantitative analyses of post-WWII presidential election results, the percent of the popular vote received by the challenger increases the worse the state of the economy and the less popular the sitting president. Given the relatively poor state of the economy (and the public’s dismal perceptions of the economy) and President Bush’s record low job approval ratings, it would be reasonable to expect that the Republican Presidential candidate would be running significantly behind in the polls. However, many recent national polls place McCain within 3% of Obama. Does McCain really have a shot at winning the election?

A Time Magazine poll conducted between June 19th-June 25th asked two questions that shed light on this question:

1. Which candidate – Barack Obama or John McCain – would best be described by each of the following statements [note: order of candidates and statements randomized]:

e. Best able to handle the economy

2. On another topic, if Republican John McCain is elected, do you expect that he would mainly continue the policies of President Bush, or is he mainly independent of Bush?

1. Mainly continue Bush policies
2. Mainly independent of Bush
3. (VOL) Both/neither/No answer/Don’t know

Of the 805 likely voters polled, 525 respondents articulated a candidate preference and said that there was “No Chance” that the respondent might change his/her mind about voting for his/her preferred candidate. In other words, the remaining 280 likely voters (35%) can be categorized as swing voters.

Surprisingly, despite the relatively poor state of the current economy under the Bush administration, voters see little difference between McCain and Obama relative abilities to handle the economy:

All Voters Swing Voters
Obama 42.1% 31.1%
NA/DK 19.9% 36.1%
McCain 38.8% 32.8%

The second question helps us understand why almost as many likely voters think McCain is more capable of managing the economy than Obama as vice-versa despite the current economic downturn. A plurality of likely voters think McCain is “mainly independent of Bush.” Even better for McCain, a smaller fraction of swing voters than all likely voters tie him to Bush.

All Voters Swing Voters
Indpendent 46.5% 50.0%
NA/DK 09.4% 13.2%
Continue 44.1% 36.8%

As you might expect, the correlation between the two questions for all likely voters is moderately strong at 0.51 (though its only 0.26 among swing voters): respondents who see McCain as independent of Bush are more likely to say that McCain would do a better than Obama of handling the economy than are respondents who expect that McCain would mainly continue the policies of President Bush.

The above breakdown suggests that McCain is less burdened by Bush’s economic record than might be anticipated; Obama is going to have a difficult time “tarring” McCain with the economic failures of the Bush administration. To the extent that the election is about the economy, Obama needs to be seen as the superior manager. But the public will not assume this based upon the current administration’s failures alone. Obama needs to be proactive and emphasize an economic program that is seen as a credible alternative to that offered by McCain and the Republicans. Otherwise, McCain has a real chance of winning the swing voters.