Over the past few election cycles Americans have come to love political poll watching. Like a slowly run horse race, we religiously tune into the latest results to see how the candidates are jockeying for position and who will be in the lead for the home stretch. We have even elevated statisticians and political scientists from nerds to pop culture figures. As a result, we now live in a world where Nate Silver is cool and his FiveThirtyEight forecasting model is housed at ESPN, not the back pages of a backwater newspaper.
But if you’re looking for a new favorite nerd and the latest in vogue election model, then look no further than Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for a Change” model. The algorithm, which has correctly predicted every presidential election since 1992, is deceptively simple. It looks at how many terms the party has been in the White House, the incumbent president’s approval rating, and the rate of real GDP growth. Clean, yet elegant.
The underlying assumption of the model is that it has historically been very difficult for a political party to hold the White House for more than two terms. That’s why there has only been one instance since the establishment of the two-term limit in 1951 in which a candidate won an election to succeed a president from the same party. That person was President George Bush, who succeeded Ronald Reagan, a president that was respected by Democrats, beloved by Republicans, and even looked-up-to by young adults.
But Bush is the exception, not the rule, and it’s easy to see why. In short, fatigue and cynicism set in. After two terms spanning eight years a president, and his political party by association, has had ample time to affect the change they promised. The glow of a fresh face and the excitement of new ideas has worn away, and in their place stand an increasingly gray-haired president who is often left fighting for relevance more than progress.
It’s a storyline that dovetails almost perfectly with the Obama White House. Arguably no president came in with the cult of personality that Obama had cultivated. He was more than a junior senator from Illinois, he was a cultural phenomena who looked ready to inexorably change the way politics was conducted. Fast forward seven years and that same man’s approval ratings have been underwater for years, his party has been thrashed in recent elections, and his ideas are worn out. A Pew Research Center/USA Today poll found recently that 65 percent of Americans would “like to see a president who offers different policies and programs.” Only 30 percent said they wanted ones “similar to those of the Obama administration.”
That bodes ill for presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, who has a close, but delicate tie to President Obama. As Amy Chozik and Maggie Haberman report for the New York Times, as of now her stated strategy has been to embrace Obama and his legacy:
“Mrs. Clinton and her team have decided that, on balance, the risk of lining up near Mr. Obama’s record is worth taking.
Rather than run from Mr. Obama, she intends to turn to him as one of her campaign’s most important allies and advocates – second only, perhaps, to her husband, the other president whose record will hover over her bid.”
But many liberal pundits are leery of that strategy, fretful that a lame duck president with very little to lose and no more elections to win could harm Democrats across the board. Brent Budowsky writes for The Hill:
The word out of the White House is that the president believes he is “liberated” because he does not have to run again. This is superficially true but fundamentally false. Obama may not be running again, but in 2016, a Democratic nominee for president, Democratic candidates for the House and Senate, and Democratic candidates for statewide office will indeed be running. . .
Given this legacy of damage that Obama has inflicted against his party and his presidency, by depressing liberal Democratic voters and motivating conservative Republican voters in two midterm elections that were disastrous for Democrats, it was breathtaking that throughout the recent trade debate Obama demonstrated he still has not learned that the leader of a great party must not insult its core voters if it has any hopes of prevailing in future presidential and congressional elections.
So what is Clinton to do? She worked for the Obama White House so she can’t put two much distance between her and Mr. Obama. She also desperately needs many of the voting groups who continue to support the president. But she also is fighting political history and a voting populace that doesn’t want a presidency that for all intents and purposes will look a lot like a third term Obama.
Voters have made clear that it’s time for a change. And although Alan Abramowitz may be the next Nate Silver-ish political rockstar, I didn’t need a model to tell me that.