Candidates matter, but economy will decide election

Models differ on who will win in November.

Instead, a number of economists say the winner of the race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump likely will be decided by whether the economy is growing, gasoline prices are stable, and if after eight years of Democratic rule voters want to hand control of the White House to the Republicans.

The economists producing these forecasting models suggest voters are less influenced by the missteps made by candidates during an election campaign: Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore sighing during a debate in 2000, Republican President Gerald Ford stating “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in 1976, or Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis flubbing the answer to a death penalty question in 1988.

Just last week, Moody’s Analytics in Philadelphia projected that under its current model, Clinton will win the November election with 326 electoral votes compared to 212 for Trump. The same model concludes Clinton will win Ohio with 51.6 percent of the popular vote.

Since 1980, the Moody’s model has correctly forecast the result of every presidential election. In 2012, Moody’s predicted President Barack Obama would finish with 332 electoral votes, which was exactly what Obama won during his re-election against Republican Mitt Romney.

“What our model is saying is all else things being equal, the incumbent party should have an advantage right now given what is going on with the economy,” said Dan White, an analyst with Moody’s.

Not all models predict a Clinton victory. Ray Fair, a professor of economics at Yale University, projects Clinton winning just 45 percent of the vote in November. In particular, Fair’s model concludes voters may be weary of Democrats controlling the White House since 2009 and are discouraged by modest economic growth per capita during the past four years.

Sour voter mood

Political strategists have often known that the state of the economy or people tired of one party controlling the White House can determine the outcome of an election. But they insist that if a candidate runs a poor campaign, he or she can lose when the models suggested they should win.

“Analytics can only take you so far,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “At some point you need a fully functioning campaign with an effective ground game to win.” Analytics “help to try and figure out what is going to happen, but in the end you need a campaign to actually get it done,” he said.

The economy has smartly rebounded from the depths of the 2008 financial collapse. Sales of new homes in May reached levels not seen since 2008, gasoline prices are a relatively low $2.10 a gallon, the Dow Jones industrial average has increased from less than 7,000 points in 2008 to 18,500 today, and the unemployment rate has tumbled from 10 percent in 2009 to 4.9 percent last month.

But polls indicate a disconnect between those numbers and the feelings of voters. An ABC News/Washington poll this month shows 71 percent of registered voters believe the country is on the wrong track while just 26 percent believe it is on the right track — dreary numbers for the candidate of the incumbent party.

The reasons include the anemic growth in wages, particularly since the end of the 2008 recession. While monthly wage growth reached 5.4 percent in November of 2000, it has scraped along between 2 and 3 percent for much of Obama’s second term.

“I think you also have to look at the right track, wrong track numbers,” said David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a state representative from Columbus. “Moody’s and others are saying the country is in pretty good shape, but people don’t think that it is for a lot of reasons.”

Democratic fatigue

One factor working against Clinton is that voters rarely reward the incumbent presidential party with a third term. Vice Presidents Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Gore in 2000 all failed to win the presidency after their party controlled the White House for two consecutive terms.

“The duration effect is working against the Democrats because they have been in power for two terms,” Fair said. “The economy is not going as well because of” of a relatively sluggish increase of gross domestic product. “So you put the two together and it’s pretty pessimistic for the Democrats.”

While Moody’s considers the third-term impact, it also takes into account how a state has voted in recent presidential elections and a handful of economic factors that directly impact consumers – gasoline prices, real personal income and home prices.

White said low gasoline prices are “probably the biggest variable pushing the Democrats,” adding “if you are paying more at the pump, you are more likely to be (disenchanted) with the status quo and more like to vote against the incumbent party.”

White acknowledged there could be a “wild card when you introduce specific candidates,” such as Trump, who has capitalized on anger among conservative voters to win the Republican nomination. But while Trump’s campaign message may be resonating with a large segment of voters, as an inexperienced candidate he is more prone to commit errors than Clinton.

“The imponderables that change the models are basically going to be things which hurt Trump,” said Peter Fenn, a Democratic consultant in Washington. “He doesn’t have an organization together, he doesn’t have a ground game, he makes crazy statements that as you get closer to the election make people say, ‘Enough already.’ ’’

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