Michael Barone‘s latest piece for the American Enterprise Institute’s American emphasizes his political number-crunching skills. Barone uses off-year election results to offer some insight about the upcoming 2012 presidential race.
In the three most recent cases, the off-year percentages for the House are almost exactly the same as the presidential year percentages for president. However, Republicans signally failed to replicate their 1994 House percentage in the 1996 presidential contest. They would have been closer if 6% of the 8% cast for independent candidate Ross Perot is counted for Republican nominee Bob Dole—who polls suggested was the second choice of the overwhelming percentage of Perot voters—but that would still have left Clinton ahead 51%-47%.
Obviously, the three most recent examples portend an unhappy 2012 for President Obama and the Democrats, while the 1994-1996 example is a precedent for an incumbent Democratic president overcoming a “thumping” (George W. Bush’s term) in the off-year and winning reelection by a nontrivial margin. What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party’s nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party’s House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections. The off-year vote represents a settled opinion on how the president and his party have performed in nearly two years in office, and unless the president takes a significantly different course toward governing, as Bill Clinton arguably did in 1995-1996, then that settled verdict remains more or less in place. Or so the numbers suggest.