Forget the swing states, look to the debates

According to conventional wisdom, only a few “swing” or “battleground” states matter in presidential elections. Candidates take this idea of swing-state determinism seriously — this year, Mitt Romney and President Obama are devoting the bulk of their advertising and organizing to about eight to 10 battleground states. According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group report, as of late September, spending in each of the eight leading battleground states is already up by 140 percent or more as compared to 2008.

In fact, results in a few battleground states do not decide presidential elections. Rather, the national popular vote determines the outcomes in the swing states. Since the turn of the 20th century, the national popular vote has coincided with the Electoral College vote in 27 of 28 elections (96 percent). The only exception occurred in 2000, when George W. Bush carried the Electoral College by winning the state of Florida with an unpredictable and controversial 537-vote margin. Moreover, the popular vote was nearly tied in 2000, with Democrat Al Gore gaining an edge of just half a percentage point over Bush.

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Focused spending and organizing in battleground states also yields minimal results, according to a study by political scientist Alan Abramowitz. He found that in 2008, Obama’s huge organizational and spending advantage in 15 battleground states netted him an average increase of just 0.8 percent of the vote above projections based on 2004 election patterns and Obama’s surge in the national popular vote. Obama would have prevailed in 12 of 14 battleground states that he won regardless of his spending and organizational advantage, which neither candidate comes close to matching this year.

Although the swing states don’t matter, the debates do. The debates will not decide the election, but they will shape the future of American politics. According to the Keys to the White House, a prediction system that has correctly forecast the popular vote outcomes of the last seven presidential elections, these contests turn on the performance of the party holding the White House, not on campaigns. Since January 2010, the Keys have clearly forecast an Obama victory this November.

Still, the debates are important for both candidates. If the Keys are correct, Obama’s task is to secure a policy mandate for governing in a second term. He needs to present to the country a bold, substantive message that foreshadows his second-term priorities. With a likely divided Congress, Obama will need the strongest mandate possible to govern effectively during the next four years.

The lessons for Romney are equally clear. Thus far, Romney has run a conventional, consultant-driven, riskless campaign. He has falsely presumed that the weak economy alone will carry him to the White House. The Keys model, however, demonstrates that presidential elections turn on a much wider assessment of incumbent party performance. Despite his mixed record on the economy, Obama has most other keys in his favor, including the absence of a major scandal, devastating social unrest or a foreign policy disaster. He has instituted major changes in national policy and achieved a significant foreign policy success in eliminating Osama bin Laden. He is the incumbent president. He was uncontested for this party’s nomination, and faces no serious third-party challenger.

A competing model by University of Colorado Professors Kenneth Bickers and Michael Berry is perhaps validating Romney’s do-little strategy. Primarily based on the economy, this model predicts that Romney will win both the popular and Electoral College vote. Berry has claimed in a University press release that, “For the last eight presidential elections, [since 1980] this model has correctly predicted the winner.” In fact, the model was developed after the 2008 election — it has not generated a single correct prediction of any election, and 2012 is its first trial run.

If Romney believes the untested Colorado model and follows his current approach in the upcoming debates, he will neither stave off defeat in November nor make any contribution to American politics. Romney should spurn the consultants, take risks and try to make a new breakthrough in his campaign. He needs to present a detailed and principled opposition to current policies. He needs to flesh out the full details of his proposals for tax policy, deregulation, immigration reform, healthcare and education. This new approach will not reverse the negative verdict of history, but it will make Romney’s campaign relevant. As John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008 both learned, the only thing worse than losing is losing irrelevantly.

Lichtman is a professor of History at American University.