Green Room

No, swing state economies don’t matter more

posted at 9:11 am on June 12, 2012 by

After a hiatus of a few months, the establishment media is again promoting the notion that improving swing state economies boost Pres. Obama’s reelection odds. Here’s Matt Negrin at ABC News:

Because the United States still holds elections under the arcane rules of the electoral college, only a handful of states will determine who the next president is. And in those states, the state of the economy is much more important, politically of course, than in the old party standard bearers.

The good news for Obama is that five key swing states have unemployment rates that are below the national average, which is 8.2 percent as of last week. New Hampshire is at 5 percent; Iowa is at 5.1 percent; Virginia is at 5.6; Ohio is 7.4; and Colorado, 7.9.

Three swing states, however, have unemployment rates higher than the national average: Florida, with 8.7 percent; North Carolina, with 9.4 percent; and Nevada, with 11.7 percent, the highest in the country.

But in the states at the high end of unemployment, a downward trend could work in Obama’s favor.

Politico’s Ben White recently sounded a similar theme:

President Barack Obama has watched a stubborn national economy dim his reelection chances.

But the real economic battle for election 2012 will take place in the states.

Some key battlegrounds are doing better than the nation as a whole. And even if the president’s policies didn’t cause the improvement, it could help his case that the economic outlook has brightened under his stewardship.

Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning is also riding this narrative:

From extra shifts at auto and steel plants in Ohio to office buildings rising in Northern Virginia, the geography of the U.S. economic rebound is providing an edge to President Barack Obama’s re-election.

The unemployment rates in a majority of the 2012 battleground states are lower than the national average as those economies improve. Coupled with the growth of adult minority populations in those states, the trends create a higher bar for presumed Republican Party presidential nominee Mitt Romney in his quest to unseat Obama.

Both White and Dorning rely on Xu Cheng, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, which has a forecasting model based solely on state-by-state economic data and past voting behavior. However, the model’s decent prediction of the 2008 outcome is less impressive when you consider that 2008 was not a difficult election to forecast. Furthermore, most of the media discussion focuses on state unemployment rates, when the rate itself is not predictive of election outcomes; the rate of change of unemployment is a better indicator (I doubt Cheng makes this mistake). More broadly, political scientists tend to find little evidence state economies matter, above and beyond the effect of the national economy (and voter perceptions thereof). Indeed, Andrew Gelman has found that partisan swings have become more uniform across states in recent elections.

The cheap shot here would to be to claim media bias, as establishment outlets look for good news for Obama amid a limping economy. But it’s just as easily explained by a superficially plausible hypothesis: “It’s the economy” + “the Electoral College matters in a close election” = “swing state economies matter.” And once Xu Cheng gets mentioned once, it’s just a matter of reporters sticking his phone number in their contact lists. When deadlines loom, the pressure to move with the herd is likely as important as media bias.

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It’s also a case of “Trip to the Beach/Trip to the Dentist” type of journalism. Those who saw the original report (writers/editors or even people in the executive offices) and saw it was favorable for Obama got excited and wanted to also write about the story, at a time when any good news about Obama’s re-election chances is cause for celebration.

So writing, or re-writing the story is like a trip to the beach. Writing other negative economic stories are like trips to the dentist — in the end, they’re necessary, but you don’t like to do it, and many people will drag it out as long as possible before getting the disagreeable task over with. If Xu Cheng’s results skewered towards no correlation between state jobless rates and election patterns, the call-backs would have taken a longer time to arrive…

..or he may have gotten only a few follow-up calls at all, because you do have the extreme cases of people who metaphorically never go to the dentist, by refusing to cover any story that hurts The Cause. In the would of dental hygienics, that ends up resulting in lost teeth or painful root canals to fix the problem — which is pretty much the country’s current economic situation, because too many in the big media spiked their trips to the dentist in 2008 and refused to write anything negative about Obama.

jon1979 on June 12, 2012 at 9:37 AM

A lot of people in Ohio know the real score, though. John Kasich, after working to balance the federal budget, came in here and balanced the state budget, without raising taxes, and has been working pretty diligently to attract businesses back into the state.

You know, the kind of thing Walker did in Wisconsin and got recalled for his efforts.

The “conservatives hate cops and teachers” line was more successful here, though, and the state senate measure to pare down public union benefits was killed in a referendum vote. Still, this is a state where The Krug is supposed to be saying “auuuusteeeeeeerityyyyyyy” in a spooky voice because austerity kills economies, or something.

The Schaef on June 12, 2012 at 12:28 PM