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My Election Prediction

In November 1980, I was 17 years old, a couple of months shy of my 18th birthday, and so couldn't yet vote. But I very much wanted Ronald Reagan to win.

(I can't remember exactly why I supported Reagan -- I just know that I didn't want another four years of President Carter. In retrospect, I've come to see Carter as the most honest man to become President in decades, while at the same time hopelessly ineffectual, and often think that in this day and age, perhaps it's impossible for a truly honest person to be an effective president.)

I was sad while the polls were open on election day that year, because I was convinced Reagan was going to lose. "Carter has done a good job of scaring voters," I thought to myself. "They're going to get in the booth and forget what they said to the pollsters and they're going to vote for Carter because they're scared of what Reagan will do."

Of course I got it completely wrong. The defining moment of the campaign was Reagan asking voters, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" When they got in the voting booths, they thought about that and voted economics. It was a rout, Reagan winning the popular vote 50.7 to 41 percent, and winning the Electoral College 489-49.

With all the theories floating around about bounces and breaks, surges and surprises, I try to keep this simple rule in mind: in presidential elections, all other things being equal, Americans vote with their pocketbooks. In 1980, they didn't feel better off, so the incumbent lost. 1984? Better off, so incumbent won. 1988? Better off, so incumbent's vice-president won. 1992? Not better off, so incumbent lost. 1996? Better off, so incumbent won. 2000 was the exception to the rule: people most definitely felt better off, but the incumbent's vice-president ran away from his boss, presumably to establish distance from the moral taint associated with him (oh, for the days when our issue with the President was whether he lied about have sex with an intern). Even still, the incumbent's vice-president won the popular vote -- just not the electoral vote.

Now it's 2004. It would be easy to argue that all other things are not, in fact, equal. In fact, it's obvious that they're not. Foreign policy in general -- and Iraq and the War on Terror specifically -- are on the minds of us all. But outside of economics, many factors that could tilt things one way or the other seem to have balancing opposites. People are generally happy that we went into Afghanistan, but disappointed that we haven't captured Osama bin Laden. Half the country thinks the President made the right decision to go into Iraq, but the other half thinks it was a grave mistake. And so on.

My hunch is that all of that washes out, and that in the end, when they get to the voting booths, when it comes to that moment of truth, undecided voters will once again vote with their pocketbooks, just as they always do. And the last four years have been fairly awful economically -- there's just no other way to look at it. If Kerry had repeated Reagan's line in the debates (and I wish he had) and asked people, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" the answer would have as resounding a "no" as it was in 1980.

Were I a Bush supporter, I would argue that he inherited a recession and has done his best to fight it. I would argue that he had to spend money to fight the War on Terror. I would argue that he had to spend money to disarm Saddam Hussein. I would argue that the economy has been jittery since the 9/11 attacks, which caught us all by surprise and certainly weren't Bush's fault. I would argue that the current state of the economy isn't his fault. (I don't agree with these points, but I could make the arguments.) But none of this matters. Voters don't vote based on fairness. They don't vote for good intentions. They don't give As for effort. They vote on results. And from an economic standpoint, there's simply no way to argue that Bush has delivered.

With all this in mind, this is how I see things breaking down.

  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 49 percent
    • Kerry: 51 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 232
    • Kerry: 306
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, New Mexico
    • For Kerry: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin

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