09/21/2012 10:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's the Candidate, Stupid!: Historical Forecasts Look Wobbly in 2012

You hear it all the time: "Campaigns aren't won by candidates; they're won by conditions and circumstances."

Every four years, economists plug median income numbers, GDP growth, employment rates, 401K trajectories, inflation statistics and American Idol ratings into giant models to predict presidential election outcomes -- a tradition going back to ancient times when economists were using their powers for something useful. And, almost every time, the forecasts turn out to be extraordinarily accurate.

The implicit proposition, of course, is that presidential candidates rarely determine their own fate. They are but actors walking the stage, reading lines that history has written for them.

Except Obama and Romney are flipping the script in 2012.

This is a year when everything -- everything -- indicates that a sitting president should not be getting re-elected. Remember the nerdy economists I mentioned ten seconds ago? Their models all project a Romney victory; many, a Romney landslide.

That's simply what the totality of the economic data suggests, and political analysts have spent the las couple years buying into it. When asked to predict the upcoming presidential election, any responsible round-table guest has inevitably given David Gregory or Chris Wallace a sober, thoughtful look, and noted that everything would turn on the state of the U.S. economy, as it always has.

It generally goes something like this:

Host with Perfectly Coiffed Hair: "Tell me, Janet, how does this incident with Mitt Romney dragooning homeless people to fan him with hundred dollar bills like he's a pharaoh affect swing voters?"

Analyst Smiling Smugly: "David, you slay me. I think we both know that if unemployment stays above 8%, those homeless people will be fanning him at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue soon enough."

So, let's compare the metrics and the political reality: job growth has been mostly anemic over the past couple years; gas prices are elevated; household income is considerably lower than it was at the end of the recession the President inherited; our import-export balance is out of whack; the debt remains unaddressed; soldiers are still dying abroad; and most people say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

I know. It really does sound like a musical.

Supporters of the President will argue that he inherited a historic disaster, and has an excellent record to run on -- but let's be honest, here: anybody who would have predicted, a few years ago, that this would be the rosy environment in which President Obama would be cruising towards October with a widening lead, would have been sent to the loony bin -- or, at the very least, sent to MSNBC studios.

Yet that is exactly what the President is doing -- widening a margin over his Republican challenger that becomes more substantial if you analyze swing state polls. It's far from certain that Obama will win the electoral college, but, at this point, it looks like he probably will.

So... what the hell's going on?

It seems pretty clear: candidates do matter, and Obama is a much better one than Willard Mittens. Likability, character, and identity politics are trumping the economic metrics, and one man is simply beating the other man at the game -- Oliver Twist-like times be damned.

Consider the effect of candidate over circumstance in the past week. It should have been a parade of grim victories for Team Romney: First, the Fed came out with a third round of quantitative easing, effectively keeping the federal funds rate near zero until 2015 -- a stark acknowledgment that we're more likely to see Honey Boo Boo run on as an Independent in November than a robust recovery any time soon.

It would be an entertaining convention.

Next, the Arab World started setting U.S. embassies on fire.

But the fault, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, and Romney's performance was like a scene from The Gong Show (well, perhaps not this bad). Instead of following the Campaign Handbook for Dummies and crafting a tasteful, un-politicized statement on the Benghazi and Cairo attacks being a time for healing and coming together, etc., Romney's handlers sent the candidate out to bash the President -- this, mere hours away from the murder of a United States ambassador. Romney's statement, which accused Obama of apologizing for the lethal protesters, was crass, inaccurate, and politically disastrous. Even conservatives were disgusted.

Then, more face-plants: A video of Romney at a high-dollar fundraiser writing off half the country as parasitic dependents leaked, adding to his already impressive faux pas list.

"You, know, 47% of Americans won't care whether I stick my foot in my mouth or I don't, so, what the hell -- somebody help me with these shoes."

Honestly, Obama could have spent the week eating Doritos on his couch, watching SportsCenter, and still gained serious ground. Although no blooper from Romney's 2012 campaign can rival the time in 2008 when he told a group of African-Americans taking a picture with him, "Who let the dogs out?" and began barking at them like the Baha Men, his 2012 highlight reel now includes the following:

"Corporations are people, my friend;" "Ten thousand bucks? $10,000 dollar bet?;" "I like being able to fire people;" "I'm not concerned about the very poor;" "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs;" "There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip;" "Occasionally, I think about what it would be like to film myself with a goat."

Yup, I made the last one up; but you get the point. Mitt Romney, who, by all accounts, is a good, decent, and talented man, has thus far been doing everything in his power to torpedo his chances in 2012, an election that history tells us should have been handed to the opposition party on a silver platter (one that the Romneys may or may not already own). Alas, it appears to be slipping away from him.

In 1992, Clinton strategist and alleged homo sapien James Carville famously exclaimed -- probably to an intern innocently bringing him coffee who didn't know he was about to burst into tears -- "it's the economy, stupid!"

Not this year. This year, it's the candidate.

And, who knows? If Obama beats the metrics, and the electoral models fall apart, maybe the forecasting economists will decide to do something else with their skills and time. I can think of one worthy task, in particular.