Confessions of a Political Animal

November 7, 2008

Long to reign over US?

obama2The Animal is slowly emerging from 48 hours or so of suffering from mild sleep deprivation (“I’ll go to bed when they call Pensylvania…oh, alright, I’ll wait for Ohio…wooh! He won Ohio! I wonder if he’ll get Florida?…better just wait on California, can’t be too complacent…Well, I might as well stay up for Glenrothes, really…). Firstly, a few observations on the really key issues of this election:

  • Why doesn’t the defeated VP nominee have to make a concession speech? That would have been fun, doggone it. Would she even have accepted that they’d lost? (In fact, the New York Times says that she wanted to make a speech, but McCain’s aides refused to let her do so)
  • Not often I agree with the Evening Standard, but when your all-night election show host sounds like they should have been in bed with cocoa by nine, it probably really is time to draw the curtain on a glittering career of election night presenting before it turns really embarrassing. Oh, and note to Mr Dimbleby, the ‘N’ in ‘N Hampshire’ is for ‘New’, not ‘North’, however many times you say it.
  • I think anyone who watched the BBC’s coverage must have shared my thought of “whatever made John Bolton choose diplomacy as a career path?” I’ve always thought it was generally accepted that tact, humility and an ability to accept others’ cultural norms as being key parts of a successful diplomat’s baggage. Mr Bolton appeared to have forgotten to pack them.

Anyway, a fun night and a great result all round – and to think I could make common cause with Boris Johnson in celebrating the end, if not in the justification for the end. And I hereby promise not to profess myself completely disillusioned with President-designate Obama until at least January 21st.

I’m sure it is more than a little premature to be thinking about 2012 before the new president is even inaugurated, but I did wonder to myself whether there was any way to calculate the chances of Obama being a two-term president, or whether the outcome in four years time is genuinely down to ‘events, dear boy, events’. The answer, sadly perhaps, is the latter, but I show my working below.

The table is an attempt to work out whether there are any identifiable correlations between electoral outcomes for post-war first-term presidents and their ability to achieve re-election or a boost in their electoral college vote share.

Year President Party Electoral votes College margin Vote share Vote share margin Pres. Party’s Senate majority Pres. Party’s House majority Won second term? Change in electoral votes at second election
 1944  Roosevelt/
 Dem  432  333  53.4%  7.5%  18  49  Yes  -129
 1952  Eisenhower  Rep  442  353  55.2%  10.9%  0  7  Yes  +15
 1960  Kennedy/
 Dem  303  84  49.7%  0.1%  28  89  Yes  +183
 1968  Nixon  Rep  301  110  43.4%  0.7%  -14  -51  Yes  +219
 1976  Carter  Dem  297  57  50.1%  2.1%  22  149  No  -248
 1980  Reagan  Rep  489  440  50.7%  9.7%  6  -49  Yes  +36
 1988  Bush Snr  Rep  426  315  53.4%  7.8%  -10  -85  No  -147
 1992  Clinton  Dem  370  202  43%  5.3%  12  99  Yes  +9
 2000  Bush Jnr  Rep  271  5  47.9%  -0.5%  0  7  Yes  +15
 2008  Obama  Dem  364*  190  53%  7%  14*  79*

*: results for the undeclared state and seats are extrapolated from the votes counted to date.

I’m happy to accept that the inclusion of the 1944 election is questionable, given that this saw the re-election of a fourth-term President, but I decided to include it on the basis that Truman served out almost the entirety of FDR’s term following his death. Technically, Truman could have sought a third term in 1952, but chose not to. The first thing that should strike us about the table is that one term presidents are very unusual. With the obvious exception of Kennedy (and the unelected Ford), there have been only two one term presidents since World War II, one from each party. With these two exceptions, the only president to decrease their electoral college share in the second election where they were on the ticket was Truman – again, a not entirely fair comparison as in 1944 he was VP nominee for the vastly more popular Roosevelt. This all suggests, so far, that Obama should certainly be considered odds-on to win a second term, with an increased college majority.

Is this contention assisted by the size of Obama’s college vote? Interestingly, Obama’s likely college vote total (I’m assuming that McCain gets Missouri) is almost bang on the average for post-war first term presidents (369.5 against Obama’s 364). Both his college share and majority are very similar to Clinton’s first result in 1992, following which he achieved a very similar college result in 1996. Whilst there is a real mismatch between the 1992 and 2008 victor’s vote shares, this is down to there being a major third party candidate, in the form of Ross Perot, in the earlier election. Obama’s vote share is within the upper quartile of that achieved by first term Presidents, although this would appear to mean little as it still falls slightly below that achieved by one-termer Bush Snr. The elder Bush also achieved a significantly higher electoral college tally and margin in 1988 than Obama – although it could be argued that his failure to hold on in 1992 was largely due to Perot’s intervention, which swung a number of marginal states to Clinton.

What must be of concern for Obama, however, is that a not insignificant part of his electoral college vote is based on ultra-marginal states that tipped quite narrowly in his favour (although of course many of those states would never have been in play for a Democrat in a ‘normal’ electoral cycle). As an example, if very slightly over 100,000 Obama voters had gone for McCain in both Florida and Virginia, combined with 13,000 shifting across in Indiana and 7,000 in North Carolina, Obama’s margin of victory in the electoral college would have been a much less impressive 298-228. Having been reduced to their heartlands in the presidential race and missing out narrowly in many marginals, the Republicans have very few states of any college significance that could easily flip blue: Missouri and Georgia are the only states with more than 3 college votes that look like targets (although without a native senator on the ticket, Arizona could conceivably be in play next time round). This does suggest that whilst, barring remarkable events, Obama would find it very hard to lose his electoral college majority in four years, he will be hard pressed to increase it in any significant way and could be looking at a cut – again, a very similar scenario to that of Clinton, who experienced a very small electoral college increase (in part, incidentally, by gaining Arizona).

OK, so there’s not much there to suggest a correlation between the electoral outcome for first-termers and their fate in the second election, other than the inevitable fact that those who win big college majorities first time round tend to experience smaller gains in the second election (with Bush Jnr being the exception here), suggesting that Obama’s middling majority could lead to a similarly middling college vote increase (say 50-60) in 2012.

Given that it is likely that the electorate will prefer presidents who ‘get stuff done’ and a key precursor to really achieving this is having a majority in both the Senate and the House, I thought it might be interesting to see if this had any effect on the outcome of the second election.

The answer is, of course, no. Two post-war presidents have started their first terms without a majority in either house. One, Nixon, went on to massively increase his college vote in the second term. The other, Bush Snr, lost his re-election bid. Reagan began his first term with his party in a minority in the House and with a slim majority in the Senate. Whilst his college vote increase in 1984 was relatively modest, this probably had more to do with his having hoovered up more than 90% of the college in his first election than any lack of achievement due to legislative blockages. The only rather spooky coincidence is that both Eisenhower and Bush Jnr began their first terms with a tied Senate and a majority of 7 in the House – and both went on to increase their college scores by 15 votes in the second election. And I’m not going to read anything in to that at all. On this, I will therefore simply confine my observations to saying that Obama’s healthy majorities in both Houses will be extremely useful in tackling the massive economic and foreign policy challenges ahead.

And so, like a good quantitative social scientist, I have disproved my own hypothesis. There is no way to predict the outcome of the next US general election based on the results of this one. Therefore, I shall now proceed to do exactly that. Barring major events (which will be so defined entirely at my discretion), the 2012 presidential election result will be Obama-Biden 390, Palin-Lieberman [not part of the prediction] 148, based on the Democrats picking up Missouri and Georgia. And I’m hoping no-one will drag this post up in four years time.


1 Comment »

  1. If Palin runs for President in 2012, at least she has name recognition going for her… but, at this point, that may not work in her favor

    Comment by patrick — November 9, 2008 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

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