Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Why Obama doesn’t hold big lead

Despite my attempt to bat it down several weeks ago, the question persists: “Given the Democrats’ substantial advantages on the fundamentals, why isn’t Barack Obama doing better against John McCain?”

My previous tilt at this nettlesome windmill argued that by statistical, historical and electoral-vote standards, a three- or four-point Obama win would be “big.”

That all remains true, but here I offer a more heretical approach: Perhaps things aren’t as bad as they feel. Public perceptions may be out of sync with objective realities, and reality may be more important than perception — at least perception as expressed in responses to poll questions, and at least in the particular instance of presidential elections.

Of course, the incumbent White House party almost never gets slaughtered. Most of the great landslides in modern times were achieved by first-term incumbent parties seeking a second party term.

1956, 1964, 1972 and 1984 all fit that description.

Only twice have incumbent parties been ousted from the White House by massive margins. In 1952, a relatively strong economy should have benefited Adlai Stevenson. However, two other fundamentals I identified in previous columns intervened. If there was ever a point of incumbent fatigue in American politics, it was 1952. Democrats had controlled the White House for 20 consecutive years — a feat unrivaled since the earliest years of our republic. Second, the Korean War had taken the lives of 29,260 Americans, giving Ike an advantage while hurting Stevenson.

The second landslide defeat of an incumbent party occurred in 1980, when Jimmy Carter fell to Ronald Reagan. Carter’s fundamental woes were economic, as his term was the only one in modern times during which Americans’ real disposable incomes declined (at least on the weighted basis derived by Professor Douglas Hibbs). Soviet tanks rumbling through Afghanistan and Iranians holding American hostages only added to Carter’s troubles.

In short, incumbent parties rarely succumb to landslides, and when they do it is because circumstances are objectively awful.

Leaving aside public perception, just how bad are the objective circumstances that constitute the fundamentals about which I have written?

We cannot yet know how the economy will perform this quarter, but Hibbs supplies a reasonable guess and projects that real disposable income is likely to rise by a weighted .75 percent over George Bush’s second term. Dismal, to be sure, but very close to that in Eisenhower’s second term, which presaged a razor-thin, three-tenths-of-a-point victory for John F. Kennedy, and better than the reality that produced losses for Carter and George H.W. Bush. So although responses to poll questions would indicate this economy is on par with that in 1980, the objective data suggest it is at least a bit better.

Similarly, while Iraq has surpassed Korea and Vietnam as the most unpopular war we have fought (while troops were still engaged overseas), our current war has produced many fewer losses than Vietnam or Korea. While every individual death is a unique tragedy, by Election Days 1952 and 1968, approximately 29,000 Americans had been killed in Korea and Vietnam, compared to about 4,100 U.S. dead in Iraq.

2008 may provide an important test of whether subjective or objective fundamentals are more influential. While the subjective opinions expressed in responses to poll questions might foretell an Obama landslide, three academic models that rely only on objective fundamentals predict an Obama margin ranging from two to 3.6 points, tantalizingly close to the current poll results and providing an important answer to the question that continues to bedevil.

If Obama is not doing as well as the givens suggest, it may be because things are not quite as bad as voters say they are.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.