Does the offyear result forecast the next presidential election? 

I have a piece out today in, the website of the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a resident fellow. It’s headlined “How to Understand Obama’s Chances in 2012.” I note that since 1994 there has been a convergence in voting for president and for the House of Representatives, and so the popular vote for the House is a pretty good proxy for the vote for president. And I note that in the last three presidential elections—2000, 2004 and 2008—the two parties’ nominees’ percentages of the popular vote were within 1% of their parties’ percentages of the popular vote for the House in the offyear elections two years before. That was not the case in 1996, however, when Bill Clinton ran significantly ahead of where his party had run in the 1994 House races.

The lesson seems to be that the voters’ verdict on the president after four years is very similar to their verdict on the president’s party after two years—except when the president changes course on policy (as Clinton arguably did) or except when circumstances change substantially (as they didn’t in my view in any of these cases). Of course I’m generalizing from a very limited sample of four election cycles.

The implications for Barack Obama are obviously negative, unless you think he is changing or will be perceived to have changed course on policy, or unless you believe circumstances will change substantially. So far the macroeconomic circumstances seem less helpful to him than they were in November 2010.

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Michael Barone

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