In ancient cultures, priests would sacrifice animals, and then inspect their organs in an attempt to predict the future. Today, thousands of years later, we use scientific polling methods to help predict future events — and cynics would argue these polls are no more accurate than studying animal entrails. Witness the exit polls taken on Election Day in 2000 and 2004 that predicted victories for Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively. Now that Mitt Romney has all but locked up the Republican presidential nomination, pollsters are looking ahead to Nov. 6, 2012, Election Day. Given the track record of polls, are there more reliable methods to predict the winner? In short, no, but looking back at history, several trends stand out in helping separate the winner from the loser in presidential elections.
5. Unemployment Above 7 Percent Means Trouble For An Incumbent President
Barring an almost unprecedented economic miracle, the U.S. unemployment rate through October 2012 will be above 7 percent. Since World War II, only four incumbent presidents have faced reelection with the unemployment rate above 7 percent. Three of those presidents lost: Gerald Ford in 1976; Jimmy Carter in 1980; and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Ronald Reagan won reelection in 1984 while the unemployment rate stood at 7.2 percent, but he touted the fact he’d reduced the rate from 10.8 percent earlier in his presidency. President Barack Obama is touting slow but steady economic progress during his tenure.
4. Republican Must Win Ohio to Capture the Presidency
Ohio became the epicenter of controversy in the 2004 presidential election, with Democratic supporters claiming voting irregularities in the state on Election Day. President George W. Bush won the state’s 20 electoral votes, swinging the election his way (had John Kerry won the state, he would have become president). Expect another dogfight in Ohio in 2012, and here’s an historical trend to keep in mind: Beginning with the election of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln in 1860, no Republican has won the presidency without winning the state of Ohio. The good news for Obama in 2012: the state features a heavy union presence — although that didn’t help Al Gore or Kerry in recent elections — and Obama had a slight edge versus Romney in polls taken in Ohio in early 2012. The bad news for Obama? Even last-minute polls are unreliable. Several polls, including a Gallup Poll, taken in Ohio in the days before the 2004 election showed Kerry with anywhere from a 3 to 6 point lead on Bush. Sometimes, pollsters do get it right — in 2000, several polls taken in Ohio in the weeks before the election showed Bush with a lead of 3 to 4 percentage points on Al Gore. Bush won the state by a margin of 50 to 46.5 percent.
3. The Candidate Who Raises More Money Generally Wins the Election
In 2008, Barack Obama raised some $779 million for his campaign, dwarfing the $384 million collected by Republican challenger John McCain. In George W. Bush’s two successful campaigns, he raised more funds than his opponent. The candidate who raises the most money doesn’t always win — Bob Dole’s campaign had a slight funding edge on Bill Clinton in 1996 — but money is obviously important. Of course, the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that struck down limits on political financing from corporations and unions is expected to play a key role in this and future presidential elections.
2. Approval Ratings Below 50 Percent Spell Trouble For An Incumbent President
You’ll see this “fact” repeatedly touted by political pundits heading into the election, and there is some truth to it. Since Gallup began polling on presidential job performance in the mid-1940s, five presidents have had approval ratings below 50 percent in the last poll before the election. Three of those presidents lost: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. George W. Bush presents a special case; Gallup conducted six polls in October 2004, and Bush had a 50 or 51 percent approval rating in three, and a 47 or 48 percent approval rating in the other three. Of course, the worst-case scenario President Obama’s supporters can point to is Harry S. Truman, who won reelection in 1948, despite an approval rating in the high 30s. The bottom line: Despite what the pundits might say, an approval rating below 50 percent just before Election Day doesn’t necessarily foretell a loss for President Obama.
1. Check the Iowa Electronic Market
It’s only fitting that a story that began with talk about using animals to predict the future should end in Iowa, the buckle of America’s farm belt. The University of Iowa College of Business offers an Internet-based electronic futures market where investors can purchase contracts to bet on world events, including the presidential election. On election eve in 2008, contract prices for Barack Obama were 90 cents, versus 10 cents for shares in John McCain. In other words, Obama bettors earned $1 for their 90-cent investment; had McCain won, those gamblers would have pocketed $1 for their 10-cent investment. As of mid-January 2012, the market stood at 50 cents a share for an “unnamed” Democratic candidate, and 49.8 cents for an unnamed Republican candidate (the official candidates are specified after the conventions). Sound too bizarre to be accurate? According to the college, the futures market has picked the winner in every presidential election since 1980. Don’t expect to get rich gambling on your chosen candidate, however — investors may risk no more than $500. Visit the Iowa Electronic Market website for more information.
One More: 7-Eleven Coffee Cups
In a predictor that has proven much more accurate than exit surveys or other polling in recent presidential elections, keep an eye on sales of coffee at 7-Eleven convenience stores nationwide in the weeks before Election Day. Really. In October, the chain will offer coffee in either red cups (for Republicans) or blue cups (for Democrats. This inexact survey method has been right in the three elections since 2000.