I can hardly believe that it was four years ago this Memorial Day that Dartmouth welcomed then-Senator Barack Obama for a visit to campus that drew upwards of 5,000 students, faculty, staff, and community members to the courtyard outside the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. We may never see a presidential election campaign as wide open as 2008 again in our lifetimes. It was the first time in many decades that neither party had an incumbent president or vice president in the running. The 2012 campaign will be more typical, with almost all of the activity expected to be in one of the major political parties, as Republicans use the primary season to nominate a challenger to President Obama.
As is always the case, the economy will play an important role. Economist Ray Fair of Yale has been studying the link between economic conditions and electoral outcomes for decades. His latest
, based on economic data and forecasts through November 2010, is:
If the recovery is robust, which my economic model predicts will begin to happen in the middle of 2011, Obama wins easily. If the recovery is only modest, the election will be close, with an edge for the Republicans. If there is a double dip recession, Obama loses by a fairly large amount.
Fair’s statistical model tells us what kind of headwinds the Republican challenger will be facing, but it does not presume to tell the whole story. Another part of the story is to consider the backgrounds of potential challengers. In the lifetimes of most Dartmouth students, there have been three presidential elections in which an incumbent was running for re-election. In 2004, the Democrats nominated John Kerry, a well respected but uncharismatic senator to face President Bush. He lost. In 1996, the Republicans nominated Bob Dole, a well respected but uncharismatic senator to face President Clinton. He lost. In 1992, the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, a governor from Arkansas with little national prominence but a whole lot of charisma. He won. The pattern is clear (and continues if we consider Senator Mondale in 1984 and Governor Reagan in 1980).
At this point in the Republican contest, we can at least point to the fact that none of the potential candidates being discussed in the media are well respected but uncharismatic senators. In fact, they are almost all governors or former governors. There are three who were factors in the 2008 campaign or election – Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Sarah Palin of Alaska, and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas. There are some new possibilities as well – Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Haley Barbour of Mississippi. And there are others, like former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Congressman Ron Paul, who may take a road less traveled to the nomination.
Apart from the economic headwinds and favoring governors over senators, I think the biggest factor in this year’s Republican primary will be the extent to which the Tea Party movement, now two years old with a midterm election under its belt, can flex its muscles. As usual, the Dartmouth community will have a unique vantage point, as New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary draws candidates to Hanover. The Rockefeller Center will work with other offices on campus to coordinate candidate visits and connect the political season to the academic content of the Dartmouth experience. We look forward to sharing what we observe with the larger Dartmouth community. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or at our blog and website.
Andrew A. Samwick is the Director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences, the Sandra L. and Arthur L. Irving '72a, P'10 Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In 2003 and 2004, he served as chief economist on the staff of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Since joining the Dartmouth faculty in 1994, his scholarly work has covered a range of topics, including pensions, saving, taxation, portfolio choice, and executive compensation. Professor Samwick has been published in American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Journal of Finance, Journal of Public Economics, and a number of specialized journals and conference volumes. He graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics from Harvard College and received his Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He blogs about economics and current events at Capital Gains and Games.