Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: LABELMAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

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.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.