Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Hurricane Sandy's Other Legacy: Did Late-Deciders Throw The 2012 Election To Obama?

President-elect George H.W. Bush greets the man he defeated by 8 points 1 month prior at his home in Dec. 1988. According to exit polls, Dukakis was just coming alive in the final days of the campaign. He defeated Bush among the 15% of voters that made up their mind in the final week by an impressive 55-43% margin. Photo courtesy of The Atlantic.

Yesterday morning,  Chris Christie took to MSNBC's 'Morning Joe'  to praise the President for his handling of storm aide since Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on October 29th. In response to a question from host Joe Scarborough, Christie replied:

 "Listen, the President's kept every promise that he made. And the fact is that...that's what I was saying at the time. What I was saying at the time is I was asked about how was the President doing and I said 'he's doing a good job. He's kept his word.' And so, everybody knows that I have about 95% level of disagreement with Barack Obama on issues of principle and philosophy. But, the fact is, we have a job to do. And what people expect from people they elect is to do their job. And that's why they hate Washington so much..."

Nevermind the context of the comment. The bolded section is what received the blaring Drudge Report headline. And if anything gets remembered from this MSNBC segment during primary season 3 years from now, it won't be Christie's eloquent defense of his actions in the days following Hurricane Sandy. It will be the continued praise of a President loathed by Christie's base.

But putting aside how Republicans feel about whether or not Chris Christie actually cost Mitt Romney the Presidency in 2012, a much more basic question needs answering: did Hurricane Sandy flip the election to Barack Obama? Because if it didn't, Republicans can blame Christie for providing comfort to the enemy at most, but NOT for costing them the presidency.

The simple answer to to the above question is no; Hurricane Sandy did NOT flip the election to President Obama, at least not if you believe the exit polling. And as a result, no, Chris Christie did not cost the GOP the election in 2012. Consider the chart below:

2004-present info compiled from CNN and Roper Center. 1976-2000 info compiled from Best & Krueger's Exit Polls. 1984 exit polls did not include a question regarding the timing of respondents vote decision.

Obama apparently won among voters that decided BEFORE the final few days of the campaign by a margin of 51-47%. But among the 9% of Americans who said they made up their mind in the final few days of the campaign, Obama's margin over Romney was even greater (50-44%).

Who is to say Hurricane Sandy is responsible for Obama's success with late-deciders? Timing and electoral history strongly suggests that was the case.

Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on October 29, eight days before the Presidential election. Presumably, those voters who decided in the "last few days" of the campaign were all making their decision in a post-Sandy political environment.

Even more persuasive than the timing of the event is the fact that until 2012, an incumbent President had never won voters who made up their mind in the last few days of the campaign, at least not since the start of modern exit polling practices in 1976. Similarly, no incumbent President had performed BETTER with late-deciders than non-late deciders, with the sole exception of George H.W. Bush in 1992 (who lost anyway).

Consider George W. Bush in 2004. He was the overall winner that year by a 51-48% margin. Late-deciders, however, broke decisively for his Democratic opponent, John Kerry (52-46%). Bush's saving grace was that he won voters who made up their mind PRIOR to the final week of the campaign by 5 points, 52-47%, and those non-late-deciders made up 89% of the electorate.

The same thing happened to the previous incumbent President in 1996. That year, Bob Dole did exceptionally well with late deciders, carrying them 42-35% (Perot was particularly strong w/ late-deciders as well, winning 24%). But President Clinton defeated Dole & Perot by an even larger 52-40-8% among voters that decided PRIOR to the final week of the campaign. That enabled him to pull out a 49-41-8% victory overall.

So in the end, it appears that President Obama's re-election featured a couple of "firsts." It was the first time since Franklin Roosevelt that an incumbent President was reelected with an unemployment rating in the upper 7% range. It was also the first time an incumbent President actually won among voters who made up their minds in the last few days of the campaign. It was only the second time that an incumbent President performed better with late-deciders than with non-late-deciders.

Yet despite the historical nature of the 2012 election, Hurricane Sandy was not enough to cost Romney the election. Exit polls indicate Obama won voters who decided before the final few days of the campaign by a 51-47% margin. In order for Romney to have overcome Obama's 4 point lead with 89% of the electorate, Romney would have had to win late-deciders by nearly 3 to 1, something that has never happened in exit polling. In fact, the largest margin by which anyone has ever won late-deciders was eventual-loser Michael Dukakis in 1988, who carried those voters that made up their minds in the final week of the campaign 55-43%.

President Obama bucked historical trends with his strong performance among late-deciding voters in last year's Presidential election. That, coupled with the timing of Hurricane Sandy make it likely that the rare Northeastern Superstorm caused Obama to perform more strongly with this small group of voters than he may have otherwise done. But his already formidable four point lead with those voters who made up their minds before the final few days of the campaign make it highly unlikely that there is anything Romney could have done to pull out a win, and even less likely that there was anything Chris Christie could have done to effect the outcome one way or the other.

Yes, Sandy mattered, but not enough to have produced a different President in 2012.

Note: Had the winners among late-deciders gone on to win past presidential elections, we would have had a President John Kerry, President Al Gore, President Bob Dole, President Michael Dukakis, and would have come awfully close to having a President John McCain.

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