10/16/2008 10:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Obama Underachieving?

"With a restive electorate, with an economy that's sort of chugging around, with a war in the background, at the end of eight years of Republican rule in the White House, Obama should be way ahead."
Karl Rove, Face the Nation, August 10th

The conventional wisdom put forth by political pundits is that Obama should be winning this election by huge margins. The argument is that with a weak economy and an unpopular president, the Democratic nominee should be "crushing" the Republican nominee and the fact that Obama hasn't had double-digit leads throughout means that there must be something wrong. But how well should the Democrat really be doing in this race? Is Obama really underachieving as much as most people assume?

To get a sense of whether Obama is underachieving, we first need to know how the Democrat should be doing in this election. This can be difficult to quantify, but one way of doing so is to borrow from political science models that are used to project presidential election outcomes. Each presidential election year, a handful of political scientists publish their predictions in PS: Political Science & Politics. Most of these models include at least some of the following: various measures of the status of the economy, an accounting for which party holds the White House (and how long they have been there), and the president's approval rating. This year, all but one model predicted a Democratic victory in the presidential race.

These models can provide us with some guidance on how well Obama should be performing in this race. After all, they are based on the same economic and political factors that pundits have used as evidence for their claims that Obama is underachieving. In the chart below, I show the percentage of the two-party vote that each model predicted the Democrat would win in this election. (I excluded 3 predictions that use polling data from earlier in the campaign as one of their predictors. Since a measure of Obama's support earlier in the race is included in the model, their predictions wouldn't provide good estimates of how the Democrat should be performing). The chart also includes the variables being used in each model to generate the predictions. The horizontal line indicates the share of the two-party support that Obama is currently winning in the national trend.


The predictions indicate that the Democratic nominee should win anywhere between 50.1% and 58.2% of the two-party vote. Currently, Obama is receiving 54% of the two-party support in the trend estimate. That places him right in the middle of the range of predictions. By the way, if you are keeping score, Alan Abramowitz's model is presently closest to the two-party breakdown in the national polling. His model generated this prediction based on the president's low approval rating, the second quarter GDP growth, and the fact that Republicans have controlled the White House for 8 years.

Despite the fact that pundits have claimed that Obama is not performing as well as he should be given the economic and political conditions, the models used by political scientists to predict election outcomes--models based on these very conditions--tell a different story. Obama is currently out-pacing the predictions made by some models and lagging only a few percentage points behind others. But his support does not stray more than 4.2% away from any of these predictions. Thus, there isn't much support here for the notion that Obama is greatly underachieving in this election. At least not at this point in the race.

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