Nate Silver's 2012 odds: 'Is Obama toast'?

The Week's Editorial Staff

The New York Times' statistics guru crunches the numbers and finds that President Obama has gone from favorite to underdog

"Americans are usually forgiving when they vote a man into the White House and he wants a second term," says Nate Silver in The New York Times Magazine. Of the last eight presidents, only Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush have gotten the boot after one term. So the conventional wisdom has long been that President Obama would rebound from his mid-term slump to win re-election in 2012. But then the "Summer of Recovery" failed to pan out, and Obama handled the debt-ceiling debate "so poorly" that even some fans are wondering if he's in over his head. Suddenly, "Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog." So, "is Obama toast?" The president's fate, says the Times' stats guru, will be steered mostly by three factors: His approval ratings, the state of the economy, and the candidate Republicans pick to oppose him. Tweak these variables, and you get "vastly different" odds. Here, Silver's take on four plausible scenarios:

1. If Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee and the economy tanks, Obama loses
Incumbent presidents do best in a strong economy against an extremist opponent. So running against a relative moderate like Romney in the midst of a double-dip recession is pretty much the worst case scenario for Obama. Under those conditions, Silver says, Obama would have just a 17 percent chance of winning. To succeed in such a race, Silver says, Obama would probably need "some sort of October surprise: 'Mitt in Torrid Affair With Filipina Housekeeper.' Subhead: 'Illegal Immigrant Got Free RomneyCare.'" Look, says Eric Black at MinnPost, in this scenario, Obama really is "pretty near toast."

2. If Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee and the economy improves, Obama (probably) wins
"Obama would be far better off if he could make the Getting Better case," Silver says. But even if America's GDP is growing at a 4 percent clip come Election Day, Obama is only a 60-40 favorite to beat Romney. Add up all the possible economic conditions we could face a year from now, and Romney's the favorite against Obama. Sure, plenty can still change, says Zeke Miller at Business Insider, "but rest assured, given Silver's past success, this model is giving the Obama team pause." 

3. If Rick Perry is the GOP nominee and the economy improves, Obama wins
The president "has considerably more margin for error" against a Republican like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is much farther to the right than Romney. So if the economy is rebounding, and Obama faces Perry, the incumbent is close to a sure thing, with an 83 percent probability of winning under Silver's statistical model. "But Obama could still go down if he appeared out of touch," Silver says. That might mean declaring "Mission Accomplished" on the economy too quickly, for example. "The bottom line," says Rick Moran at The American Thinker, "is that Obama is vulnerable but predictions regarding his demise may be a little exaggerated."

4. If Rick Perry is the GOP nominee and the economy stalls, Obama (probably) loses
The "most interesting case," Silver says, pits Perry against Obama with the economy getting worse. This makes Obama the underdog, but just barely. He'd have a real shot — 41 percent — at winning, Silver says, which could make a contest under these conditions "the clearest case in American history of a party blowing an election that by all rights it should have won."

Read Silver's entire article at The New York Times.

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