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How Much Does Ideology Matter in Elections?

• February 19, 2013 • 11:52 AM

The outcome of the Obama-Romney race was pretty close to what the data had predicted.

Just how much does ideology matter in an election? In a recent article in Commentary, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner argue that it matters a lot, to the point where it cost Mitt Romney the presidency:

By all rights, Barack Obama should have lost the 2012 election. The economy during his first term in office was weak from beginning to end. Growth was anemic when not utterly static, unemployment was persistently high, and, as recently as last year, an overwhelming majority of Americans still believed we were in a recession. The signature legislative achievements of the president’s first term—the Affordable Care Act and the stimulus package—were so unpopular that on last year’s campaign trail he rarely mentioned them.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which in 2010 had gained an epic midterm electoral victory, was regarded as highly energized and poised to win. Michael Barone, one of the most knowledgeable political observers in America, predicted Mitt Romney would comfortably defeat the president. “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections,” Barone wrote four days before the election. “That’s bad news for Barack Obama.”

The article goes on to claim that the reason Obama so outperformed the fundamentals is the various ideological positions of the Republican Party on such issues as race, foreign policy, and the role of the government in the economy. They go on to offer several recommendations for making the party more ideologically palatable to the electorate.

Regardless of the value of these recommendations, it should be noted that the analysis in the opening paragraphs above is largely wrong. The “fundamentals,” as measured by economic growth, unemployment, troop deaths overseas, etc., all indicated a very tight race, with Obama slightly favored. Just as an example, one of the most reliable predictors of presidential election outcomes is the growth in per capita real disposable income in the election year. Here’s a scatterplot of that indicator predicting presidential election outcomes since 1948. The 2012 election is highlighted in blue:

econvote 2012

To be sure, some elections run well above or below the trendline, but 2012 wasn’t one of them. In other words, there is no mystery in explaining what happened in 2012. The Republican candidate did almost exactly as well as we could expect.

The authors unfortunately go on to overstate the importance of ideological positioning, such as in this recounting of Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah” moment in June 1992:

[A] powerful political signal was sent in the late spring of 1992 when the rap artist Sister Souljah, who had made racially charged remarks about killing white people, spoke at a convention of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, then still a strong force within the Democratic Party. A day later, Clinton took both Sister Souljah and her host to task…. Almost immediately, the polls registered an improvement in the public’s attitude toward Clinton as a potential leader.

Yes, Clinton was trying to demonstrate his ideological distance from Jesse Jackson and others on the left, and the authors use this example to point out the electoral benefits of distancing oneself from ideological fringe elements within one’s party. But did it really have such a substantial impact on voters? Here’s the Gallup poll results during that race. Clinton’s Sister Souljah speech occurred on June 13th:

gallup 1992

Copyright Gallup.com

I’m hard pressed to find any major shift in support for Clinton until well into July, right around the time Ross Perot dropped out of the race. Yes, Clinton’s comments may have generated some positive Beltway press for him and for the Democratic Party, but it would be quite shocking to find that one late-spring speech referring to a little-known rapper actually changed the dynamics of a presidential race. And indeed, it didn’t.

Now, none of this is to say that ideology is irrelevant to elections. As can be seen in the first figure above, Richard Nixon strongly outperformed the economy in 1972, possibly due to his relative moderation compared to George McGovern’s extremism (a point that Gerson and Wehner note). And Lyndon Johnson may have had an advantage in 1964 running against a deeply conservative Barry Goldwater. Some political science studies have noted that members of Congress who vote too ideologically or too often with their party tend to pay an electoral price for it. And, to be sure, while polarization is occurring today among both parties, the Republicans appear to be running to their extreme more quickly than the Democrats are running to theirs. What we don’t see, however, is evidence that this extremism is hurting Republicans electorally, at least not yet. If the economy had been experiencing a recession last year instead of modest growth, Mitt Romney would be president today.

Parties that have been out of power for a while tend to moderate their stances. This will likely happen within the Republican Party, and Gerson and Wehner’s article is part of the dialogue that makes this happen. But at least today, the evidence suggests that the Republican Party is as competitive as it ever was.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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