The general election and the economy

If a down economy spells doom for the incumbent party, why is McCain doing so well in national polls? Paul Krugman has a possible explanation.


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Andrew Leonard
May 8, 2008 3:26AM (UTC)

In one blog post published on Wednesday, Paul Krugman observed that Hillary Clinton's advocacy of a gas tax holiday, irrespective of the merits of the idea, appears now to have been a clear "mistake." In a following post, aligning himself with the almost universal consensus of the punditocracy, he acknowledged that Barack Obama is likely to be the Democratic nominee for president.

Take that as a proxy, if you will, for how Democrats will shed themselves of the intense intramural partisanship of the primary campaign and come together as they focus on the much simpler dynamics of a general election. But what about that general election? Conventional wisdom says that incumbent parties don't do well when there's a down economy in an election year. By that standard, says Krugman, Democrats should be a shoo-in this year.

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This year's economy will almost certainly be at least as bad as 1992, and stands a chance, in terms of stagnant real personal income per capita, of being as bad as 1980.

But current national polling shows a neck-and-neck race between McCain and either Obama or Clinton. Despite widespread gloom about the country's economic prospects, so far, the near-recessionary climate doesn't appear to be chilling McCain's prospects.

One obvious explanation is that McCain's been getting a free ride while Clinton and Obama repeatedly swing their sledgehammers at each other's head.

But another could be that it's just too early to be paying attention to national polls. Here's the key quote from Krugman, distilling the wisdom of his political science pals:

Most current polling nonetheless shows a close race. The poli-sci guys say never mind: polls are all over the place when the GE [general election] is 5 or 6 months out, but converge to fundamentals as election day draws near.

So let's keep watching those fundamentals. Exit polling from North Carolina and Indiana revealed that the No. 1 concern of voters was the economy -- if that's still true in November, McCain will be in trouble.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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